Thursday, 17 January 2019
Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Restoration of Birthright Citizenship) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue and make a contribution. A country's citizenship laws are not only important but critical to the integrity of the state and the rights of its people. It is important, therefore, we have an opportunity to debate these issues, as we are doing this evening. It is also very important that when we discuss these matters we are guided by facts, not speculation or hearsay. The Bill before the House is most far-reaching. If enacted, it would create a situation in Ireland that would make us unique across the entire European Union of 28 states. We would be the only state to grant automatic and unconditional citizenship to any child born on the island of Ireland. Whether by accident or design, the proponents of the Bill do not seem to acknowledge that its enactment would have real and serious consequences for our relationships with other states, including our nearest neighbour, the UK.
From a European Union point of view, we would be granting not just Irish citizenship but also EU citizenship, and not just to children but, inevitably, to a much wider cohort of people. I will elaborate on this point in a moment. The State currently retains discretion to grant citizenship in circumstances in which a child is born on the island of Ireland to parents who were not born here. This discretion is an important check on any potential abuse. I remind the House, as Deputy Paul Murphy has done, that the 2004 referendum which placed this rule in the Constitution arose following a direct call from the three masters of the maternity hospitals in Dublin for a change in the law. They made that call because of their concern about the rapidly increasing number of mothers who were presenting for the first time at advanced stages of pregnancy, with consequent risks to the health of the mother and the child and implications for the capacity of the maternity hospitals to function. The view at that time was that in many cases women were being exploited, forced either to travel here in late stages of pregnancy or to give birth here as a means of guaranteeing citizenship and residency for a wider cohort of family members. Of course, these were the cases witnessed by the maternity hospitals and the immigration services; they were not the cases in the public domain. It seems most convenient for some to forget about them now. Turning to the figures, the number of asylum seekers applying for leave to remain increased by 400% between 1999 and 2002, going from 1,227 applications in 1999 to 6,549 applications in 2002.
As well as potentially encouraging the exploitation of vulnerable women, the Government is advised that the Bill would allow no room for consideration of the particulars of each case, including the parents' immigration status, their method of entry into the State and the length of time unlawfully present in the State. While the Bill is silent on the position of the parents and other siblings, I am sure its authors are well aware that the granting of citizenship to a child born on the island of Ireland has the almost inevitable consequence, having regard to the broader rights to family life enshrined in domestic, international and EU law, of granting an immigration permission to the parents and other family members, so this is not really a Bill about children alone at all.
It is essential to state for the record that Ireland is an open, democratic State that already provides many legal pathways for non-European citizens to migrate here. Ireland benefits greatly from this migration economically, socially and culturally. In this regard, Ireland's citizenship laws are some of the least onerous in the European Union, providing few obstacles to citizenship for persons lawfully resident in the State who meet the qualifying criteria. Since 2010, just over 27,000 children, the vast majority of whom were born to non-EEA nationals, have become citizens of Ireland through naturalisation, which demonstrates in real terms the results of effective compliance with our present legal pathways to citizenship. The existing arrangements are fair and work for all who respect our laws and comply with them. Moreover, there are statutory mechanisms in place to allow the parties in every case to make representations to me in support of their claims and those of their children. As I have already pointed out, as Minister, I have discretion to deal with each case made to me on its merits. I frequently exercise this discretion in favour of a child and his or her family where claims to remain in the country are substantiated on humanitarian grounds. This provides a flexible mechanism to deal with cases on their merits, and my officials are charged with ensuring that this discretion is exercised in the best interests of the child and the State on a case-by-case basis.
The Bill before us, if enacted, would also change the rules significantly for Irish citizenship entitlement in Northern Ireland. Currently, one parent must be an Irish citizen or be entitled to claim the same for the child to qualify for Irish citizenship, or one parent must have been lawfully resident on the island of Ireland for three out of the previous four years. Were the Bill before us to be enacted, there would arguably be a clear incentive for persons resident in Britain, whether legally or illegally, to travel to Northern Ireland to have a child and then return after acquiring Irish citizenship and, consequently, EU citizenship and all associated rights without ever having entered the jurisdiction of the Republic of Ireland. In the context of an unpredictable Brexit scenario, this is a serious concern, with the additional potential to give rise to serious consequences for state services in Northern Ireland.
Given the sensitivities that exist in the UK regarding immigration, which are well known to everyone in this House, this outcome could result in the UK introducing or considering the introduction of measures in response, which could potentially have further east-west or North-South impacts. Any wider political ramifications for Ireland's relationship with the UK, including the operation of the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement, and in the context of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, would need to be very carefully considered. I regret that the Bill demonstrates no consideration of these issues in the wider context. Deputy Paul Murphy is well aware of this. He had absolutely no intention of even considering the matter, judging by his earlier contribution. It is self-evident-----