Thursday, 17 January 2019
Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Restoration of Birthright Citizenship) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
A number of people who are affected by this issue are on their way to the Gallery. I will start by giving an example. As the law currently stands, two children could be born tomorrow side by side in a hospital. They could go to the same crèche, the same school, have the same group of friends and the same interests socially, culturally etc. They could both consider themselves to be absolutely Irish. However, and this is not a worst-case scenario – I will deal with some of the worst-case scenarios later – when they reach 18, one could have significantly fewer rights than the other. One of these two babies born side by side, growing up together for 18 years, could be entitled to the free fees scheme for third level education, to an automatic right to work and to the right to vote. However, the other could be denied the right to access to free third level education, to the automatic right to work and to the right to vote. Why? It is because if the second child did not have Irish parents, they could be denied the right to citizenship at birth. This is discrimination, pure and simple. It is discrimination not on the basis of anything to do with the child or anything the child has ever done but on the basis of where their parents are from. It is an unjust discrimination which this Bill aims to end and to which I hope this House will agree.
Before I move on to the substance of the Bill, I want to ask a question about the way the Minister is answering parliamentary questions on this issue. Yesterday, Deputy Coppinger received a reply to a parliamentary question from the Minister for Justice and Equality stating that "Data in relation to those under 18 who were born in Ireland is not captured in a systematic manner as it is not directly applicable to consideration of the grant of naturalisation." He then outlined that just under 1,400 children in 2017 and just under 1,300 in 2018 were granted citizenship. While the Minister said yesterday that he does not keep records of the numbers of Irish-born children being naturalised, in a reply on 17 January 2017, two years ago precisely, the then Tánaiste did outline the numbers born here between 2010 and 2016. That figure is almost 6,500.
While the Government does not seem to keep records of this, and I question the reason for that, we are looking at thousands of children who are affected. The statistics on naturalisation would likely refer to those with parents from outside the EU or EEA. It is likely that there are many more who do not go through naturalisation as they have citizenship of an EU or EEA country through their parents.
I will outline the provisions of the Bill simply and briefly. I welcome those activists and those involved in the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, including Tina, whose son is directly affected. Tina is a woman who lives in direct provision, whose son was born here, who is not entitled to the rights of those who were born to Irish parents because of the discrimination in the existing legislation. The Bill are extremely simple. It would remove the changes made to birthright citizenship in the 2004 Act. It would re-establish the entitlement of all people born on the island of Ireland to citizenship, and make consequential changes to other aspects of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts.
The 2004 legislation, which this Bill proposes to effectively repeal or amend, was introduced in the aftermath of the citizenship referendum in 2004, which people will remember. That referendum removed the constitutional right to citizenship for children whose parents were not Irish unless provided for by law. When we look across the water to the US and the fact that Donald Trump currently has birthright citizenship as a target, we look back and think about the Trumpesque divisive, racist rhetoric that was used at the time of that 2004 referendum. It was used in an incredibly cynical way by the then Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, which was facing heavy losses in the local and European elections that took place on the same day as the citizenship referendum. That was due to the anger that existed about the delivery of public services and, in particular, with respect to the health service.
People will remember that the then Tánaiste, Mary Harney, was especially unpopular because of her role as Minister for Health. The now Senator McDowell, then leader of the Progressive Democrats, was the architect of the referendum. Unfortunately, Fine Gael called for a "Yes" vote at the time. Thanks to Irish election literature, we still have copies of the type of leaflet produced at the time. Fianna Fáil had a leaflet with a very reasonable sounding slogan on the front page of "Yes To Common Sense Citizenship" but the argument in favour of the referendum is nothing short of outrageous. Under the heading "Why change the current situation?", it states:
- People with no real connection to Ireland are arranging for their child to be born in Ireland so that they can acquire Irish citizenship at birth.
- Having an Irish-born child increases the chance of parents, who may not have other grounds, to be allowed to remain in Ireland.
- Women with no medical history in this state are putting themselves, and their unborn children, at risk by travelling to Ireland during the late stages of pregnancy, or even in labour.
Fianna Fáil did not use the words "anchor baby" but that is precisely what it was talking about. The argument had no basis in fact, with no evidence whatsoever to back it up. It was a divisive argument used to distract attention from the crisis in public services, trying to blame migrants for the crisis Fianna Fáil was responsible for.
We should think back to that and it will strike a chord when we look at the behaviour of Trump in the US. We will not find a leaflet from Fine Gael from that referendum campaign. It had a relatively low key campaign. The reason for that was given by Gay Mitchell in an interview with "The Last Word" where he openly admitted that supposedly anti-immigrant attitudes in the population had motivated Fine Gael's decision not to campaign against the referendum but to give it passive support, which it did in media interviews and so on. He bizarrely claimed that the making of public arguments against the referendum was more likely to fan the flames of racism than the quiet passage of this amendment. It was not a good moment for political discourse in Ireland.
I remember the 2004 local and European elections and that referendum well. The idea was that pregnant women would come into Ireland to go into the horrendous direct provision system that existed and still exists so that they could give birth there. The Socialist Party campaigned for a "No" vote in that referendum. We argued that people of all backgrounds had a common interest in a united fight, the improvement in public services, pay, the availability of housing, the centrality of the need for the unity of working-class people, and everybody having equal rights. We also argued that having a section of people without equal rights undermined all working-class people. There will undoubtedly be some who will say that we had a referendum and its outcome should be respected. The wording of the referendum was clear in that it removed the constitutional right to citizenship unless provided for by law. It was clearly up to the Oireachtas to provide for that right in law, which is what we propose to do here.
Some 15 years have passed since that referendum and we still have no evidence for the racist anchor baby trope, but we have evidence of the injustice that results from the current discrimination. That injustice has resulted in a substantial change in public opinion. It is true that the 2004 referendum passed with a substantial majority, but current opinion polls suggest that 71% of the population agrees with the idea that this discrimination should be ended and that all children should be treated equally and entitled to citizenship. A big factor in that change in opinion has been seeing these injustices play out in reality. People will remember the case of Eric Zhi Ying Xue, a nine year old boy from Bray who has lived in Bray for his entire life and whose parents are Chinese. He was never in China in his life and people will remember that he got a deportation order to go back to China, a country he had never been in. The consequence was impressive community mobilisation. Some 50,000 people signed a petition for him to stay. His local Deputy, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, came out in support of him, against his deportation, and the deportation order was thankfully dropped.
This is not only about stopping those individual cases of injustice but making sure that none of those injustices can happen at any time in the future. It is not good enough for Ministers simply to take up individual cases in their own constituencies. They should be seeking to avoid this injustice altogether. Another case in the course of 2018 was the upholding of a deportation order against an Irish-born child, aged 9, who unsuccessfully went to the Supreme Court seeking to have his deportation order quashed. That child had sickle cell disease and being deported to the country his parents were from would evidently reduce his health prospects. Tragically, that nine year old child died last year and there is no doubt that the stress that his family was put under would not have been of assistance in his health battle. They are the obvious cases of deep injustice that result.
Returning to the comparison of the situation of the two different children born side by side, we warn and highlight for the Government that there is a ticking time bomb of a problem, which is that as those children who were born from 2005 onwards approach the age of 18, the impact of that discrimination and injustice will become clear to them all with regard to the right to free third level education, the automatic right to work and the right to vote. Our Bill relates to restoring birthright citizenship and the aim of the Bill, as I have outlined, is to end the current situation of discrimination based on the parents of the children. If we are successful in passing Second Stage, and we hope that parties in the Dáil will support our Bill, then on Committee Stage we will bring forward an amendment that will outline a route to citizenship rights for children who were not born here but come here as children.
The Migrant Rights Centre has done a lot of work on this and it estimates that there are between 2,000 and 5,000 undocumented children in this State. These are young people who know Ireland as home but, because of their parents' status, do not have status themselves. They can attend primary and secondary school but have an uncertain future with regard to employment and legislation. Ireland is unusual in the EU for not having a real pathway for regularisation, a so-called dreamers scheme as in the US, which is under attack by Donald Trump. There are only humanitarian grounds here and, if unsuccessful, a deportation order will result. We will table an amendment on Committee Stage, if we are successful on Second Stage, to give a legislative basis to citizenship rights for all children living here.
I call on Deputies of all parties in this House to avoid hypocrisy. We sometimes hear people saying thankfully that it is good that we do not have racist politics in Ireland. Unfortunately, I do not think that is the case even today. If one looks back at the kind of rhetoric and arguments used by the mainstream, established parties in 2004, it was disgusting and for narrow, short-term political gain. I call for an end to any hypocrisy from politicians who will speak about the interests and needs of the undocumented Irish in the US but do not speak about the needs of the undocumented in this country. Politicians will oppose attacks on birthright citizenship in the US but perhaps turn a blind eye to the situation in this country. This is about ending discrimination from the point of birth.
It is part of a wider struggle against racism and discrimination; for an end to the horror of direct provision; for an end to racist immigration controls; and for a united struggle of all working-class people, regardless of background or ethnicity, for decent public services, investment in housing, decent jobs and a decent future.