Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Priority Questions

Citizenship Applications.

2:30 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Question 11: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his plans to review citizenship laws here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31687/09]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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A review of the current framework for the acquisition of Irish citizenship is under way in my Department. Statutory provisions for the acquisition of Irish citizenship are contained in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended. While the provisions of that Act have been amended on a number of occasions, in 1986, 1994, 2001 and 2004, to take account of significant policy developments in the State, it is now timely to look again at those provisions having regard to our recent immigration experience.

The review will consider a wide range of issues relating to the current statutory framework as well as other administrative arrangements in the granting of citizenship. Among the issues to be considered are eligibility periods for naturalisation, appropriate language and integration tests, proposals for a citizenship ceremony, as well as methods by which the current application procedures can be improved. Many countries have adopted integration, culture and language tests along with a number of other concepts such as earned citizenship in conjunction with longer residency requirements.

The Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008, which is currently before the House, contains significant proposals that will overhaul our immigration legislation. It will therefore be necessary to ensure that any new proposals on citizenship link with the policies outlined in the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill.

The review is currently under way in my Department and will be progressed in consultation with the office of the Minister with responsibility for integration. I expect to publish the review in 2010 and the review will be subject to public consultation before final proposals are published. In conducting a review of our citizenship requirements it must be remembered that the granting of an Irish citizenship application by the State is a privilege for its recipient, not an entitlement. It cannot be regarded as being automatically awarded to applicants who have simply been lawfully resident in the State for a specified length of time. On the contrary, naturalisation should be seen as a major and mutual commitment by the prospective citizen and the State. It is entirely appropriate in those circumstances that the State should require that the applicant demonstrates a real commitment to the nation. It is with this overarching principle in mind that the review is being conducted.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister's comments and I am glad that some progress is being made. Everyone accepts that the 1956 legislation is completely outdated. There is nothing to prohibit someone who does not have a word of English and no understanding of Irish culture, society or the voting system being granted citizenship in this country. The changes taking place in respect of residency are creating anomalies. The changes to the residency fees made this summer mean that the only difference between long-term residency and citizenship in this country is €450 and a one month waiting period. This means that citizenship is a meaningless system in this country. In light of the changes proposed in the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill it will be more difficult to get long-term residency than citizenship. What is the timeline for delivering these reforms? What should be the timeline for the processing of citizenship and residency applications?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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The timeline for the publication of the review is 2010 and it will be subject to consultation thereafter. The Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act dates from 1956 but it was amended in 1986, 1994, 2001 and 2004. We are considering the possibility of amending it further based on recent trends. I accept that anyone who wants to become an Irish citizen must have a period of residency. The conditions under the legislation are comprehensive and that is as it should be.

We examined the issue of fees and the equivalent fee for citizenship in the UK is £820 and while there was no fee for long-term residency here in the UK it was approximately £800. I felt that given the significant level of paperwork on behalf of the State for these applications and that a long-term residency application is the final step on the way to becoming an Irish citizen, it was only right and proper that the taxpayer should get some recompense for it and some payment be made.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Long-term residency is not related to the citizenship law as it stands at present and that is part of the anomaly. I accept the point made by the Minister on the cost of processing these applications but if people are paying €500 for long-term residency applications and €900 for citizenship applications surely they should have an indication of the timeline for the completion of the application process? Does the Minister believe it is acceptable that people must wait 24 months for the processing of those applications?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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One of the benefits of the decentralisation of the citizenship application process to Tipperary is that there has been a reduction in the overall time by approximately six months-----

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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It is still two years.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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It is the case that there is a long timelag but in many cases the reason for delay is that the file is intense. Information must be obtained from abroad and checks must be awaited on social welfare, Garda clearance and other issues.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Can they not write to the people and state that is the position?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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All of this takes some time. This year and probably next year there will be a considerable spike in the number of applications for citizenship because people will qualify under the residency conditions. We will deal with that and we have a new computerised system in Tipperary which turns around cases much quicker than heretofore. However, there will be a delay. This is not something that one can just buy; it is a privilege and these decisions are not taken lightly. For the information of the House, in the nine months to the end of August 8,162 cases were dealt with and of those 5,250 were approved, 671 were refused and 2,241 were ineligible. That is an increase on previous years.