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.
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-----
-----that if the proposed amendment were passed by this House and had the direct consequence of attracting more people to the State to achieve residency status through the birth of a child here, the consequential strain on our State services, including existing immigration provision, housing, education, medical services and welfare, would need to be most carefully assessed. In light of this, I wish to give notice that the Government will refuse to grant a money message in respect of this legislation. At present, our immigration laws, which a comparative analysis will show are far more liberal than those of many EU member states, give us the latitude to offer solidarity to other member states dealing with emergency humanitarian crises as well as countries hosting large refugee populations. We have this latitude because we have a rules-based immigration system.
In summary, the proposed Bill, which is undoubtedly well-intentioned, would have consequences that reach far beyond what might be immediately obvious. There are serious implications across a wide number of areas, including Northern Ireland-UK, EU and national immigration laws and services. In effect, it undoes the current link between reckonable parental residency and the grant of citizenship to the child of non-national parents. The situation the Bill would create is one in which the child would be automatically and unconditionally granted citizenship. This is without any reference to the immigration status or legal presence in the State of the parents. If the Bill were enacted, Ireland would be out of step with the entirety of the European Union.
This would create a major incentive for non-EEA nationals in other EU member states, particularly those there illegally and without lawful authority and those with non-reckonable residency, to come here to have their child. Such persons could in turn return to the original EU member state as soon as the child is born having secured Irish citizenship, thereby circumventing the immigration laws of any EU member state. The Bill fails to have any regard to our fellow member states. The European Union has a common purpose in protecting citizenship rights and free movement of people and our present arrangements reflect and share that value. There are similar potential impacts on Northern Ireland and the common travel area, including North-South and east-west impacts that would need to be carefully considered. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, recommended in the Seanad, when dealing with a similar Bill, that before proceeding with any change of such wide-ranging implications for ourselves, Northern Ireland, the common travel area and our fellow EU member states, a minimum requirement would be to instigate a detailed analysis of the implications of such a unilateral action, including a detailed consultation with all impacted parties and the non-governmental organisation, NGO, community.
Considering that this matter was debated nationally in 2004 and voted upon by the people, any changes at a minimum should involve a further national conversation on any alteration to the current fair procedures. In the absence of any such action and for the reasons I have outlined, the Government is not supporting this Bill. I stand over the current pathways that are fair and accessible for those who wish to comply with our immigration provision. This Government is a champion of integration and children's rights. I assure the House that I will continue to exercise my ministerial discretion in cases where humanitarian needs are presented to me and substantiated, especially those made in the best interests of the child. However, it is essential that our pathways are fair and not completely out of step with EU norms, as the proposal here not only conveys rights on those illegally in this State but those who may be living illegally in Northern Ireland as well and it provides for a pathway to EU citizenship that is not provided for in any other member state. I do not believe that the Bill is consistent with valuing responsible citizenship and therefore I urge the House to join the Government in opposing it.
That was an interesting speech from the Minister. I suggest his memory is selective because I remember the campaign waged to get the 2004 referendum passed. I also remember the comments of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Progressive Democrat politicians. The Minister mentioned women at an advanced stage of pregnancy arriving, risks to the health of the mother and the child, women being exploited and his concern for vulnerable women and children, people who were being exploited. I remember how the race card was played and used by establishment politicians from the Minister's party and the other major parties. Talk about having a desire to protect the vulnerable and others from being exploited stands in sharp contrast to the reality of the direct provision system.
We cannot separate the 2004 referendum from the direct provision system. The change in the citizenship laws in 2004 was aimed at those seeking asylum, who are among the most vulnerable people in this country. Asylum seekers were picked out as being to blame for the crisis in the health service in the run-up to the local and European elections. The myth of so-called birth tourism is blown apart when we look at the actual conditions that those seeking asylum are put in here. They were put into those conditions before and during 2004 and they are still living in them today. Direct provision has been in place in this State since 2000, just four years prior to the change in law. Those seeking asylum were unable to work, and now they have an extremely restricted right to work. The weekly allowance for those who live in direct provision is €21.60, which is a pittance.
Direct provision centres are run on a for-profit basis by their operators. They are generally put in isolated locations and it is not easy for people to integrate with the local community. There are major impacts on people's mental health given the prison-like conditions they are forced to live in. There are restrictive rules, and a lack of privacy and inadequate provision for family groups such as living space and kitchens. These are the conditions that these children are born into. Children were deprived of citizenship rights simply because of their parents seeking asylum here. In 20 or 30 years' time, when the history books are written, people will look back at the direct provision centres the Minister presides over as being no better than the Magdalen laundries and industrial schools of the past. They are the modern day versions of those places. Direct provision centres and the citizenship referendum go hand in hand. It is a racist policy and it has nothing to do with caring for vulnerable women and children, stopping exploitation and so on, so let us cut the hypocrisy about the issues.
There has been a global debate around birthright citizenship, with the ending of it being largely connected with a scapegoating of migrants and minority communities. Across Europe, countries have restricted birthright citizenship and shifted citizenship onto what is known as a by blood model. This can result in situations where minority communities include many who have no citizenship despite many generations being born in a country. In the United States, birthright citizenship was introduced following the civil war as part of the ending of slavery and the winning of legal rights by former slaves. In recent years, President Trump has brought this into question and threatened to issue one of his infamous executive orders to interpret the constitution so as to exclude children born to undocumented immigrants. There is no shortage of Irish politicians who, rightly, call for the regularisation of the undocumented Irish community in the US. This is of course something that any socialist would support. Irish politicians also come out against Trump when he speaks about reinterpreting the United States constitution's provisions for birthright citizenship due to the impact it would have on the Irish community there. There is hypocrisy at work here. President Trump would dearly like to implement the law that we have here and that was supported by Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats in 2004.
Ireland has removed equal citizenship rights for children and has no pathway to regularisation in place for the undocumented. It was estimated before Christmas that there are between 2,000 and 5,000 undocumented children and young people in this State. Many are in a similar position as the dreamers in the US, people who came to that country as children and do not have status. As my colleague outlined, Solidarity will bring forward an amendment to this Bill on Committee Stage that would grant citizenship to those who have had their childhoods here, not just those born here. Ireland now has its dreamers and this will increasingly be an issue in society as many of these young people reach adulthood in the next few years and wish to build their lives in their country but without having any status here.
The issue is already bubbling. Last year there was the high profile case of Eric, which Deputy Paul Murphy outlined. There was also the case of Nonso, a constituent of the Minister, who was to be deported but following an excellent campaign by his classmates, teachers and the local community in County Offaly, the Minister reversed his decision to deport his constituent. Unfortunately, we are likely to see more cases where young people have to campaign for their classmates who face serious issues like deportations, the absence of rights to access third level education or employment rights as they leave school. The Government does not give any real pathway to regularisation for young people. At present the only mechanism is to apply for humanitarian leave to remain. The serious issue of how this is linked to deportation orders being issued needs to be on the agenda. If the Minister does not grant humanitarian leave, a deportation order issues. The Minister must outline a pathway to regularisation for such young people.
In 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child outlined clearly and graphically the lack of a regularisation scheme in the State and described it as a failure by the Irish State. It is a failure and the Government has to report what it intends to do about it by 2020. The Government should do the right thing. The Migrant Rights Centre has done excellent work in this area and has worked closely with undocumented young people. They have reported on the real impact of growing up undocumented. Imagine the mental stress on young people and the fear and stigma. Despite being in second level education, they are unable to progress to third level education. There are concerns about any interactions with the State. The simple process of applying for a PPS number could trigger a process of deportation.
I will return to what I said at the start. The referendum in 2004, which was the birth of these changes, did not occur in an atmosphere of humanitarian concern about protecting the vulnerable and stopping exploitation. I was there. I remember it. I remember the conversations in the pubs and on the street and the debate in society that was being fostered by and fanned from above by politicians who wanted votes in the European and local elections. It was a racist agenda. It was nothing to do with the concerns of ordinary people. That type of policy needs to be put in the past. It needs to be challenged and reversed, not defended in any sense.
Deputy Paul Murphy's Bill is timely and relevant. I first ran in the local elections in 2004. I distinctly remember being aghast when Michael McDowell first floated the idea of a referendum on citizenship. It was bogus then and it is bogus now. The effects of the referendum are felt across the country. It is absolutely absurd that a child who has gone to school here and been cared for here can be deported. I am almost embarrassed to be a citizen of a country that would try to deport a child in such a way. Somebody who is born here has a right to stay here and live here and be a citizen here. I am proud to be a citizen of the country when communities stand up and show solidarity for children or others who will be deported from the country. It makes me very proud to be from this country. The communities of people like Eric and Nonso stood shoulder to shoulder with them, which was a brilliant show of solidarity.
I will concentrate on something that has probably not been said here tonight. There is a stark contrast apparent in the issue of citizenship. It concerns the ability to buy citizenship. There are millionaires who have bought citizenship and passports. They have never lived in the country, not even for a day, yet they can buy a passport and citizenship. I find it ludicrous and absurd that as a result of wealth and to avoid tax such people can get citizenship. That scheme is continued by the Government. That situation is in stark contrast to sending a person to a country he or she has never been to. There is significant contrast between them and us, the rich and poor.
I will refer to the rise of racism across the world, how we tackle it and what we should do to prevent it. There are some elements in the country and some among elected representatives who try to whip up racism and bigotry for their own needs. It should be combatted in every sphere of life, whether in here or in the community. We stand shoulder to shoulder with anybody who will be deported as a result of the ludicrous legislation introduced in 2004. We want it repealed immediately so people will not face deportation or exile in future.
Leanfaidh mé ar aghaidh agus feicfimid cá bhfuilimid ina dhiadh sin. I will probably not use all the ten minutes. I will probably use about five minutes. If that is enough for Deputy Brady, he can carry on.
Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí as ucht an Bhille seo a thógaint chun cinn. Beimid ag tacú leis. Is dóigh liom go bhfuil sé tábhachtach. Aithníonn sé fadhb shuntasach atá ann. Ba chóir go mbeadh na daoine seo ina saoránaigh, i ndáiríre, ach níl aon chosaint dhleathach acu.
I thank Deputies Paul Murphy, Coppinger and Barry and all the Members from that group who have brought forward this Bill and for bringing this debate to the House. It is a discussion that began in the public sphere quite some time ago and is only now beginning to enter into this sphere. The Bill would be a welcome change to the situation that exists. There have been many high profile cases recently where the law has been used in a way that is extremely unjust. The injustices have been seen in cases in the Minister's constituency and elsewhere. Regardless of whether or not the Bill is allowed to progress this evening - we await the comments of Fianna Fáil Deputies - it is an issue the Minister must look into. He must rectify many of the issues that exist in the law.
In October 2018 there was widespread criticism after it emerged that Eric Xue, a nine year old boy living in Bray, was facing the threat of deportation to China, despite having been born in Ireland and having no one in China. There was a significant outcry locally and nationally. The case jarred with the public because it was seen as oppressive and heavy handed to attempt to deport a child and take him from his home. As with any nine year old who has lived all his life in this country, the life Eric knows is one in Ireland and this is his home. It was also the case for Nonso Muojeke from Offaly, who had a deportation order made against him but was given leave to remain by the Minister. This is clearly an issue we will continue to see and it has been flagged in contributions. We need to address it. It will not go away. Cases like this, whether they attract public attention or not, will be cases that involve a serious injustice. Many of them will become political issues for the Minister, his party and the Government if it is not addressed. The situation is not remotely satisfactory or humane. These children are as Irish as the Minister or I. It is in many respects a form of State oppression that a legal technicality makes this person prone to a deportation. We do not need to look any further than direct provision to confirm the pattern and systemic nature of those policies.
The 2004 referendum was a deeply unsettling episode in Irish politics. The debate gave vent to much xenophobic commentary, explicitly and implicitly, with dog-whistling in respect of racism a common feature. The 27th amendment to the Constitution provided that children who were born in Ireland to non-national parents would no longer have an automatic right to citizenship of the State. Fianna Fáil was the proposer of the campaign, just three years after setting up direct provision.
Deputy Murphy's Bill seeks to insert in the consolidated Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts of 1956 and 2004 a new subsection providing that every person born on the island of Ireland would be entitled to be an Irish citizen. Citizenship for those born in the state, such as existed in this State before 2004, is not unusual, and is the case in countless jurisdictions, including the United States. Sinn Féin also supported the Labour Party Bill which sought to regularise the position of those living here longer than three years. This is a matter of regularisation of the real situation facing Irish children and families. We need to do this, or several more cases like those of Eric and Nonso will arise.
I may be wrong, but it appears as though this Bill may be defeated. If it is, I will be disappointed as will be its proposers. However, even if that is the case, the Government needs to take on board the message that is coming from Deputies and from the public as a whole. It needs to start figuring out how it will address this matter, affirm the rights these children should have and offer them protection from deportation.
As we are speaking of legislation governing immigration, I will take the opportunity to express my concern at the utterly unworkable practice directions given by the President of the High Court relating to judicial reviews for immigration and asylum cases. That they only apply to such cases speaks to something in and of itself. There are several difficulties with the directions, including expecting lawyers for asylum seekers to seek documentation from the jurisdiction from which they are seeking asylum. I hardly need to state the problems with this. Even on a cursory look, the directions hardly seem to be in compliance with the GDPR. They assume that a lawyer acts for an entire family, which may not be the case. They require that solicitors state the religion of the applicant sworn with the appropriate religious book in the presence of the solicitor. That is not fair, nor is it any business of the court. We need to consider whether it is possible to provide in legislation a neutral affirmation that can be used by anyone irrespective of their religion or lack thereof. That is one area in which the Legislature can intervene by addressing what are very unfair directions. I ask the Minister to address the issues I have identified as best he can at this juncture.
Sinn Féin will support this important Bill which addresses a major issue of fundamental human rights in respect of allowing these Irish children to remain in Ireland.
The debate this evening is welcome and long overdue. It comes on foot of the threat of deportation in respect of Eric Zhi Ying Xue. Eric is nine years old. He is in fourth class in St. Cronan’s national school in Bray in my constituency. He was born in Ireland, although he is not an Irish citizen and has never been outside the country. If he is forced to go to China, where his mother was born, he will have no access to China's health or education systems because he is not a Chinese citizen. I have worked with Eric and his mam over the last 18 months or so to stop this crazy, inhumane deportation. He was born here, goes to school here and has never lived anywhere else. This is his home. This is his country. I really hope common sense can prevail. They are not my words but those of the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris. I agree with him. These comments are an admission that the stance that Fine Gael took in the citizenship referendum in 2004 was wrong. This debate is not about one vulnerable Irish boy facing deportation. It is about the many Irish-born children who have been deported since 2004, the children who are facing deportation at the moment and those who will face it in the future if this crazy legislation is not changed.
I refer to another headline: "Bray boy should be saved from deportation and granted citizenship". That was from a statement by Deputy Stephen Donnelly of Fianna Fáil in reference to the case of Eric last October. Deputy Donnelly represents the same constituency as me. It remains to be seen what Fianna Fáil will do in respect of this Bill and whether Deputy Donnelly and his party will follow through on the concerns he voiced before Christmas and save Eric from deportation, and the many other children who are facing deportation.
I dread to think of the number of children who have been forced out of their home and back to a country alien to them since 2004. I am proud that when the citizenship referendum was before the people, my party campaigned vigorously for a "No" vote. Sinn Féin was one of few political parties that stuck their heads above the parapet and fought this crazy legislation. For us, every person born on the island of Ireland is entitled to be an Irish citizen. That was Sinn Féin's position in 2004 and it remains our position today.
The spotlight was thrown on the issue of citizenship last year when the community in Bray and across the State mobilised and mounted a massive campaign to stop the deportation of Eric. An online petition demanding that the Minister intervene, stop the deportation and revoke the order gathered more than 58,000 signatures in a very short period. Subsequently, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, who had voiced his concerns already, announced what he called good news that Eric faced no imminent threat of deportation. While this was a cause of relief for the Xue family, it was not exactly good news given the meaning of the word "imminent". They still face potential deportation but it is not imminent. In other words, their child will not deported today or tomorrow but may be at some stage in the future. How is that good news for any parent or family or for the child?
While Eric's case is heartbreaking, and I will continue to work with his family to ensure he can remain at home and attending school in his community of Bray, we have to remember that this is not an isolated case. There are many others out there. Not every case will be brought to the attention of the national media and not every case will brought to the Minister's attention by a local Deputy or Minister. The only way to ensure that this cruel practice is ended is to support this legislation. The measly words of concern voiced by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, are not enough and nor are the concerns expressed by Deputy Donnelly of Fianna Fáil. If they were true to their words, they would support this legislation and end the cruel, inhumane practice that has been in existence since 2004.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue of migration. I do not think we talk about it enough in this House. It is an enormous issue around the world. This will be known as the age of migration. The extent of forced migration and labour migration that is taking place around the world is significant. I read recently that since 2015, over 3 million people have been forced out of Venezuela.
We have seen the terrible tragedies where people have been forced out of northern Africa because of conflict there. They come to Europe or, in the case of those from South America, they go to the United States because they want to get a better life for themselves and their children. There is an enormous global issue with migration. It is important that we debate it in this country and in this House.
There is also the more specific issue of how migration affects certain young people who without any doubt are Irish people. Deputy Brady referred to Eric in County Wicklow. This area needs statutory reform. It is not really fair for minors aged 14 or 15 to become the centre of a public campaign to the Minister for Justice and Equality seeking to have them stay in the country when everyone knows they are as Irish as the next kid in the classroom. In fairness to the Minister, it is unfair that a Minister is repeatedly put in a position like that. We need statutory reform of the law on citizenship so that children, who have been here for a period of time, such as three years or more, will be given an avenue to seek citizenship. I go further than that. They should be given an entitlement to seek citizenship.
Migration in Ireland has had a very positive impact on the Irish population. Anyone who goes to underage soccer, rugby or Gaelic games will know the extent to which new Irish people give an impetus to the traditional Irish communities is fantastic. It has been a great success in this country. In this country we do not praise ourselves for many things. However, I believe we have handled well the migration that has taken place and was initiated at the beginning of the 1990s. It marked a change in the country's fortune and indicated how the country had progressed in terms of wealth and attractiveness for people from outside that instead of emigration we were now seen as a place for immigration. I welcome all the people who have come into this country. They have done a great job in adding to the cultural wealth of the country, and indeed just by adding to the gene pool of the country they have broadened and strengthened the whole theme of Irishness.
That brings me to this legislation, which seeks to give birthright citizenship to every person born in Ireland. We need to deal with the issue of birthright citizenship. It is not that common around the world for birthright citizenship to be granted. Only 30 out of about 190 countries in the world have birthright citizenship. None in Europe has it. Deputy Barry said that in recent years there has been a shift in European countries away from birthright citizenship. I await correction from him, but my assessment and knowledge of it is that birthright citizenship did not really apply in a European context. It originated in the United States, as Deputy Barry said. It was a response to the appalling decision of the American Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, which found that black people in the United States of America were not citizens. That case led to the introduction of the 14th amendment to the American Constitution which provided that everyone born in the United States had an entitlement to American citizenship. It was done to deal with that specific issue.
In the 2004 referendum, 80% of the people voted in favour of putting the following into the Constitution: "a person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, who does not have, at the time of the birth of that person, at least one parent who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality, unless provided for by law". I say to Deputy Paul Murphy and his colleagues that their Bill is carefully drafted. It is not unconstitutional because the provision in the Constitution expressly states at the end that it can be provided by law otherwise. However, let us be clear that the people knew what they were voting on in 2004. They were voting to take away the birthright citizenship that operated here. People can criticise them for that; I do not. I do not believe that the 80% of the Irish people who voted in favour of that were racist, but they had a reason to vote for it. Earlier the Minister mentioned that the masters of three of the maternity hospitals informed the Government that there was an issue in respect of the maternity hospitals. It would be undemocratic if this House were now to overturn that decision of the people by simply stating that the provision at the end gives us a way out and we can introduce legislation to make it different from that.
I am very sympathetic to the position in which individuals, particularly children, find themselves in Ireland. However, this legislation is not the way to resolve it. We need legislation on citizenship, but that needs to be led by the Department of Justice and Equality. The Minister should come up with proposals on how we can grant citizenship to children who have been here for a period of time so that they do not need to go through the process and the turmoil that people like Eric went through in recent times. We will consistently have more of them. It is very unfair to catapult a young person into the public eye like that whereby he or she becomes a public figure and is told to run a campaign to stay in the country he or she knows.
Although I am very sympathetic to the issue, I will not support the legislation. We need to recognise that if birthright citizenship were given to everyone born on the island of Ireland in the context of Brexit, everyone born in the North will automatically get European citizenship. That would mean everyone in the United Kingdom would be entitled to travel to Northern Ireland and have a child there. That would have a serious impact on the services in the North and would undermine the citizenship rules that operate throughout Europe.
There is no doubt that there is a problem here. My colleagues are to be commended on highlighting the problem and initiating a debate on the problem. It is unfair to categorise people who oppose this legislation or who voted in favour of the amendment in the 2004 referendum as being in some way racist. We need to be able to talk about migration and citizenship without the accusation of being racist always being brought up.
The country needs to have a policy. The Minister is the person responsible for formulating and developing a policy. In the time remaining he needs to get his Department to develop a policy to deal with the repeated problems we have seen in respect of children so that children such as Eric will know that if they are in this country for three years, for example, they have an entitlement to seek Irish citizenship.
As Deputy O'Callaghan has outlined, Fianna Fáil supports reform of citizenship rights, in particular for minors and children born in Ireland who are not Irish citizens. It is wrong that children are facing the possibility of being made stateless by the only country they have known in their entire lives. There have been a number of high-profile cases in recent times where children who have never lived in any other country, who only speak Irish and English, and who know no other home have faced deportation. That includes Eric in Bray who has been mentioned, Nonso in Offaly, and Shepherd the DCU student. Many people rightly came out in support of them.
At the moment the future of these children is dealt with in a very arbitrary way whereby it is a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality of the day to use his or her discretion to give permission on humanitarian grounds. Fianna Fáil believes it should be possible to regularise the position of children falling into this relatively narrowly defined category. That is why our party supported the Labour Party Bill in November which sought to provide an entitlement to apply for Irish citizenship to children who were born in Ireland and who had been resident here for more than three years. We felt that was a very fair way to deal with the issue. I am not sure if the Minister was referring to that Bill when he talked about a similar Bill. There is a vast difference between the Bill before the House and the Labour Party Bill on the basis that that Bill recognised the situation of children who had lived here for more than three years.
We do not believe, however, that the wholesale restoration of birthright citizenship is the correct approach. In saying that, I am trying to be as compassionate and understanding as possible to those who find themselves in that way as that could possibly be a return to many of the conditions that led to the original referendum in 2004.
We must put it on record that the proposal received the strongest ever level of support in any referendum, with 1,427,520 votes in favour. The latter represents 79% of the valid votes cast. This is very significant and must be borne in mind in the context of this debate. It is for this reason that Fianna Fail will not be supporting the Bill.
The policy of granting citizenship as an automatic birthright is very rare in the world. Indeed, no EU member state grants automatic and unconditional citizenship to children born to foreign nationals in its territory. A minimum parental residence period is applied by some member states, including Ireland, in respect of parents who have a child in a member state and Ireland has one of the shortest qualifying periods. A total of 18 EU member states have no such provision in their laws.
Combining national citizenship with EU citizenship means that member states must consider the impact on each other when changing their citizenship laws and in the context of Brexit, that is more important than ever. It is particularly important to consider how a change of this nature might impact on the Good Friday Agreement and the draft withdrawal agreement. All of this must be carefully considered.
As stated, Fianna Fáil supported a Labour Party Bill dealing with entitlement without reference to the immigration status of parents. Unfortunately, that Bill was not supported by the Government but it has progressed to Committee Stage. I hope that Bill will progress and that the Minister will address some of the many anomalies in the system in order to give certainty to children who have been here for more than three years. That would help to resolve some of the issues we face.
I thank the Deputies for their observations and contributions. In response to Deputy O'Loughlin, I am very happy to continue to engage with her and her party colleagues as well as with other Deputies on these issues. I want to respond in the first instance to comments made by Deputy Barry, who is no longer in the Chamber. He described direct provision as a "racist policy". I say to him and to the House, that is just plain wrong. It is offensive-----
-----and is based on ideology rather than reason. Under EU and international law, Ireland, like other countries, is obliged to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection or asylum under clearly defined grounds. If we believe in the integrity and the concept of asylum, then we should wish to have claims tested and to preserve the right of genuine applicants to receive international protection. Asylum is not a back door for economic migration. It is a system of international law established to protect those fleeing their home countries for well-defined reasons. All of us in this House should respect that fact. While a claim for international protection is being examined, Ireland is obliged to offer accommodation and related services. We offer all meals and food, medical care and utilities and a weekly personal allowance is paid to each person. Exceptional needs are covered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There is a misconception, fuelled by those who should and do know better, that those provided with accommodation are in some way incarcerated or detained against their will. This is wholly inaccurate. In the first instance, there is no obligation to accept the offer of accommodation and some applicants do not take up the offer at all. There is no restriction on the freedom of movement of applicants throughout this State. Indeed, direct provision was introduced to deal with a situation whereby asylum seekers were effectively homeless and had no shelter or protection. Those calling for it to end have offered nothing by way of realistic or viable alternative.
There has been a great deal of criticism of the system of accommodation over the years, some of it warranted. In response, a programme of reforms has been instigated through the excellent work of Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon and his working group, in order to deliver real improvements in living conditions and standards for residents. This work will continue, including through the roll out of the independent living model and the implementation of new standards across centres. Residents also have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children.
In terms of new centres, demand for accommodation services remains consistently high. There has been an increase in the number of applicants. In 2018, some 3,670 people applied for international protection, an increase of 25% compared to the previous year. In addition, over 700 people who have been granted protection status or permission to remain in the State have chosen to remain in accommodation centres. The RIA is assisting these people with the transition to mainstream housing services but this is a challenge in the context of the current housing environment. To respond to demand, the RIA has tendered for new centres and a number have opened in recent times. The RIA has not chosen specific locations but has simply identified premises offered through the tender process. I understand that the opening of new centres may cause some anxiety but I assure communities that the experience in areas where centres are long established has been positive. Friends-of-centre groups which were set up everywhere have been effective in promoting integration. Individual Departments are responsible for ensuring that arrangements are made for school places, health care and so on. I understand why communities say that they wish to be consulted in advance but we cannot consult in advance when trying to negotiate commercial contracts. That said, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I will continue to look at ways to better support communities where centres open.
I wish to make brief reference to a point made by Deputy Gino Kenny. I want to make it quite clear that there is no scheme by which citizenship of this State can be bought or purchased for money. I ask Deputy Gino Kenny to reflect on his comments in the context of the overall debate.
The enactment of this Bill would represent a reversion to an older system which was unfit for purpose. This was the opinion of the masters of our maternity hospitals, as referred to by Deputy O'Callaghan. It was also the opinion of the Irish people when put to them in a referendum. Comparatively speaking we have a relatively open immigration and citizenship regime. Since 2010, 130,000 individuals have been granted citizenship. These new citizens are living actively in our communities. 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 current legal pathways to citizenship. The existing arrangements are fair and work for all who respect and comply with our laws.
I regret that the Government cannot support this Bill but welcome the opportunity to discuss it. I acknowledge what Deputy O'Loughlin stated. I also thank the sponsoring Deputies for providing an opportunity to debate these issues. Such debate must be based on facts and not on conjecture, speculation or ideology.
I agree with the Minister's final comment, if nothing else. Unfortunately, the debate in 2004 was not based on fact, reason or logic; it was based on ideology. I am not saying that those who voted for a change in our citizenship laws in 2004 were racist. Certainly, the vast majority of those who voted thus were not racist. However, I contend that the arguments used by the establishment political parties -with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in the vanguard and Fine Gael trailing slightly behind - were racist.
It was a deliberately divisive use of the race card to distract from the real crises in public services caused by that Government's policies and the capitalist system.
I was somewhat surprised by the tone and content of the Minister's response. While I had expected him to oppose the Bill, I thought he would do so in the Fianna Fáil manner of saying he sees the problem and will seek to address it. I felt as though I had gone through a time machine to 2004 because the Minister played precisely the same card. The essence of what he said is self-evident. He said he opposes the Bill because if it was passed by the House, it would have the direct consequence of attracting more people to the State, that the consequential strain on our State services, including existing immigration provision, housing, education, medical services and welfare, would need to be carefully assessed and on that basis, he stated the Government would not provide a money message. Throughout the his contributions, the same arguments with no factual basis, namely, of anchor babies and birth tourism, were present.
It is unfortunate that the Minister chose to engage in those same arguments, ignore what has happened over the past 14 years and ignore the cases of injustice, such as that of Nonso in the Minister's constituency, which he had spoken out about, that of Eric, which has been referred to, and the other cases. The only reference the Minister made to them was when he stated he has:
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.
That is a deeply unsatisfactory situation. I salute all those who have been involved in campaigns, because it is excellent work. It is because of them that the situation has been pushed on, as has been seen in opinion polls and so on, and that the deportation of those children was prevented. That it is part of the system that one must petition the Minister and hope that a Fine Gael Minister who represents one's constituency might feel some pressure on the issue, and further hope that the Minister for Justice and Equality will see the wisdom of one's particular case, is barbaric. It is reminiscent of a feudal system when one needed to petition one's king for one's situation. We need a just system which puts an end to these cases of injustices. The only way to achieve that is to eradicate the discrimination, which starts on the day of one's birth.
Fianna Fáil indicated that it understood the particular cases and so on, but that is a typical recipe of the party to take a position in favour of individual children whenever it is under pressure in certain constituencies while avoiding supporting legislation like that which is before us. If Fianna Fáil admits there is a problem, what will it do about it? There are no members of the party in the Chamber to answer, but what would they say to the children in the Gallery? How would they deal with the injustices, which result from their change of policies?
On the referendum and the point that the Bill is somehow undemocratic, the Bill refers to the wording of the referendum. Deputy O'Callaghan was clear that it allows for provision to be made by law. Furthermore, 14 years have passed and people are entitled to change their mind. The indication from opinion polls is that people have done so because they have seen what the law means, namely, that there are injustices. In three or four years' time, when the children begin to turn 18, the reality will be even more clear because there will be a divergence of the rights of two children who are on the same path in life except for the fact of where their parents came from, which is incredibly unfair.
One argument made against the Bill related to Brexit. We will never be able to raise any issue of any rights for any section of people without Brexit being used as the reason we cannot do it. The latest example during the week was the case of nurses. The Government cannot pay nurses because of Brexit, and nor can it end discrimination against a group of children because of Brexit. If one considers that argument, however, it does not hold any water. That women who are close to nine months pregnant will hop on planes and travel to Belfast to have a baby in order that the baby can be granted EU citizenship will not happen because of the difficulties involved. In any case, what extra rights does the Minister expect to accrue to the parents in that situation? Does he think they will have the right to remain in Ireland? Ireland and Britain are in a common travel area, however, and the parents will have the right to travel to Ireland in any event post Brexit. They would not have the right to remain in another European country. It does not hold water and it is just an attempt not to engage with the issue.
Another argument was that Ireland has a super-liberal approach to migration and that if we change the law, flocks of birth tourists will come here. It is true that we would be the only European Union country to have the right to birth citizenship, as was the case before 1 January 2005, but many countries - the US, Canada, New Zealand and many others - have such a law. In many other respects, Ireland lags behind other European Union countries. Deputy Barry made the point that the Government must answer to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for the absence of a process for regularisation, various processes for which exist in other European countries.
A point was also made about direct provision. I reiterate to the Minister that we should debate the question of direct provision again. He took offence at Deputy Barry's description of direct provision as racist, but one will not find an Irish person at a direct provision centre. Direct provision, and keeping people in horrific conditions of poverty and so on, from which some people disgustingly make significant profit, does not apply to Irish people. It applies only to people who have come here from outside the country. The Minister can come up with his own definition of racism to try to avoid that. Direct provision is not some sort of attractive situation to be in. While people have a choice not to be there, they have a right to work only under limited circumstances. The Minister asked what our alternative was, but that is simple: people should be given rights to work and access services, and they should be treated as human beings entitled to all the rights and decency of other human beings in the country, regardless of where they came from or how they came.
On a broader point, citizenship has been used as an exclusionary concept, which is unfortunately what the 2004 referendum was about. That was the context in which the race card was played and divisive rhetoric was used, but we should be entirely against it. There is no need for that exclusionary concept of citizenship and it is a thoroughly reactionary idea. It is simple that people who were born here or grow up here should be entitled to the right of citizenship. We should not discriminate on this basis. Rather, we should reject the divide-and-rule rhetoric which lies behind it, and should build joint struggles of all ordinary people for the kind of society and lives to which people are entitled.