Seanad debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

7:00 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister of State is very welcome back to the House. This matter concerns a citizenship application, which is currently a troubled area, with 17,000 people in the queue awaiting citizenship. On average, every application takes about 30 months. That is a broad picture.

Within this picture there are certain particular anomalies. We are told today that a function of politicians is to address anomalies and eradicate them. This was done extremely speedily in the case of Deputy Michael Woods, a former Minister. We were very quick to address that anomaly and I hope we will be just as quick to address this. I will put it theoretically before the House and then outline the particular case.

In order to apply for Irish citizenship, an applicant requires at least 60 months of what is termed "reckonable residence" in Ireland over the past five years. The period when a foreign national is resident in Ireland on a student visa is not regarded as reckonable residence. When the Bill covering this was going this House, I remember the reason given for that provision was fair enough. The authorities were concerned that people — I believe it was Chinese people in particular although not only Chinese but other nationalities — would come here, attend fly by night language schools and use such time spent as a justification for building up the time required to qualify for citizenship. This was seen as a back door approach and not strictly honourable. The authorities wanted to clamp down on that.

The exclusion of time on a student visa from reckonable residence calculation creates an unfair situation in certain cases. I will outline the case in question. For example, if a foreign national comes to Ireland as a minor with his or her foreign parents or guardians, he or she is resident here as a dependant and has no choice in the matter. This period as a dependant counts as reckonable residence. However, once a person turns 18 and goes on to third level education, he or she is resident here on a student visa and such time is excluded from reckonable residence.

The results of the exclusion of student visa time from the reckonable residence calculations are, first, that the person would need to stay up to eight or nine years before he or she could apply for citizenship. Then he or she would experience about a three-year delay before possibly getting citizenship. That means that a person would have to wait 11 to 13 years in total for citizenship. Second, after completing third level education, he or she would only be able to remain in Ireland on a work permit. There is no certainty that the person would get such a permit. Thus, a person who comes to Ireland, puts down roots here and becomes integrated into Irish society may not be able to continue to live here after being here for up to seven or eight years. That is manifestly unfair.

The policy of excluding student visa time from the residence calculation is to stop people who come here as students deliberately remaining until they have reached the six-month period required, but this is not the case in the anomaly to which I referred. I ask that there should be a change of policy not only in this case but generally to provide that time spent here on a student visa should count as reckonable residence if the applicant comes to Ireland as a dependant minor of a non-national parent or guardian and legitimately remains here during his or her dependent and student periods.

The particular case I wish to raise concerns a South African man who was head-hunted by the Government. Its officials actively recruited him in 2001 in South Africa and brought him over here to work for An Bord Pleanála as a planning inspector. He arrived here in August 2001 and was seconded to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as a planning inspector. His legal status is that he is here with a work authorisation visa. He came to Ireland with his wife and youngest daughter.

His daughter went straight into transition year in a secondary school near where they live. She finished her leaving certificate in 2004, completed a year at post leaving certificate level in Inchicore College and then started a three-year veterinary nursing diploma course at UCD. Recently she got her results and passed all her second year subjects. It is a requirement of the course that students work for at least a certain number of hours each week in a veterinary practice. For the past two years she has held a part-time veterinary nursing position in a local surgery.

Having all been here together with the same status for five years, they applied together in November 2006 for Irish citizenship. They got a response from the Irish Nationalisation and Immigration Service regarding their applications. In the case of the man who was head-hunted, there is no difficulty. He is sailing through, if one could call it that, and is on the right track even though the procedure is extraordinarily slow. While his application is being processed, it will take the usual 30 months to process and the officials are only examining the applications lodged in 2005. If all goes well, it will have taken three years for his application to be processed, which is what tends to happen in such cases. As the man said, it is hardly greased lightning but they can live with it.

In his wife's case, the authorities have discounted the nine months from the time the family arrived until the time in 2002 when her passport was stolen. They seem to be incapable of having the machinery to investigate the fact that her passport was stolen. It was perfectly well known that she was here with her husband as his wife and living in the family home, he having been recruited by the authorities in this land. This means that she does not have the length of time here to qualify to make an application.

The worst aspect is the daughter's position. The Nationalisation and Immigration Service has discounted all the time for reckonable residence since she left secondary school, in other words the period she studied in Inchicore College and in UCD. This means that in practice she cannot get the required 60 months reckonable residence in the near or even medium term future. It appears it is Government policy not to include time spent studying at tertiary level when totting up the time legitimately spent in Ireland, even when the young person had no choice. She was brought here as part of a family unit and did most of her schooling here. At the end of this system she has been told she does not have the required period to qualify. She will have to wait for 11 to 13 years. If this position is not rectified, this girl will have to leave this jurisdiction in a few months' time.

This is a complete nonsense and a farce. It is, as the former Minister, Deputy Woods, might term it, an anomaly. It needs to be rectified. Deputy Woods indicated that we as politicians are here to rectify anomalies. We head-hunted this man and brought him to this country with his family. We had difficulties with his wife's application and could not understand how in holy Catholic Ireland a passport could be stolen and the implications of that. His daughter is here but the authorities do not calculate any of the time she has spent here as reckonable residence because she was a student. The provision in the legislation is perhaps understandable in the case of people who are not bona fide students, but in the case of this person, something should be done.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Senator has made the case well.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I could list all the distinguished posts this man has held, the work he has done and the way in which we were proud to have him representing us at international level, but from a party and Government that is everlastingly caterwauling about family values, the family and all the rest of it, it is a bit thick that they should have no concept of the family as it affects this person.

Photo of Jimmy DevinsJimmy Devins (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Sligo-North Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank Senator Norris for raising this matter. I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who is otherwise occupied.

The Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended, provides that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform may, in his absolute discretion, grant an application for a certificate of naturalisation provided certain statutory conditions are fulfilled. These conditions are that the applicant must be of full age or by way of exception be a minor born in the State; be of good character; have had a period of one year's continuous residency in the State immediately before the date of the application and, during the eight years immediately preceding that period, have had a total residence in the State amounting to four years; intend in good faith to continue to reside in the State after naturalisation; and have made, either before a judge of the District Court in open court or in such a manner as the Minister, for special reasons, allows, a declaration in the prescribed manner of fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State.

In the context of naturalisation, certain periods of residence in the State are excluded. These include periods of residence in respect of which an applicant does not have permission to remain in the State, periods granted for the purpose of study and periods granted for the purpose of seeking recognition as a refugee within the meaning of the Refugee Act 1996.

The granting of Irish citizenship through naturalisation is an honour and applications must be processed in a way that preserves the necessary checks and balances to ensure it is not undervalued and is given only to persons who are suitably qualified. Upon receipt, each application is examined to determine if the statutory application is fully completed. It should be noted that approximately one third of all applications for naturalisation received are not completed correctly, necessitating the return of the forms and accompanying documentation to the applicants with an explanation of the problems involved. Valid applications are examined to determine if the applicant meets the statutory residency criteria set out in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, as amended. Passports and other documentation are examined in detail and inquiries with the Garda National Immigration Bureau may also be necessary.

Since this procedure was introduced on 1 April 2005, more than 1,500 applicants have been found to have had insufficient residency in the State for the purposes of naturalisation. All such applicants are informed of any shortfall in their residency and will be able to re-apply when they are in a position to satisfy the residency requirements of the aforementioned Act.

Applications for certificates of naturalisation from the three persons referred to by Senator Norris were received in the citizenship section of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on 20 December 2006 and acknowledgements of said applications were issued to the applicants on 2 January 2007. The first named applicant, whom I will refer to as the "husband" entered the State on 5 September 2001 and registered with the immigration authorities in Wicklow where he was given the permission of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to remain in the State for two years. He renewed this permission in November 2003, allowing him to remain until August 2005. He further renewed the permission in September 2005 giving him permission to remain until August 2007. These various permissions were identified from stamps in his national passport. At the time of lodging his application for a certificate of naturalisation in December 2006, he had accumulated a period of 62 months reckonable residency and his application was therefore deemed eligible. The individual concerned was informed in May 2007 that his application was being placed in chronological order and it was likely that it would be processed in approximately 30 months.

The second named applicant, whom I shall refer to as the "daughter", similarly entered the State in September 2001. As she was 16 years of age at the time of entry, she was obliged to register with the Garda immigration authorities which she duly did. She was given the permission of the Minister to remain unconditionally in the State until June 2004. However, in August 2004 she was given a stamp 2, which is issued to non-nationals who are pursuing a course of study, which extended to June 2006.

As stated previously, periods of permission granted for the purposes of study are not recognised in the calculation of periods of residence in an application for naturalisation. In addition, the individual concerned did not have a period of one year's continuous residence in the State immediately before the date of her application as is required by legislation. In accordance with these statutory provisions the application was deemed ineligible and this decision was communicated to her on 30 May 2007. The individual was, however, invited to submit a new application when she is in a position to meet the statutory requirements of the Act.

The third named applicant, whom I shall refer to as the "wife", submitted her application at the same time as her husband and daughter. The documentation which she submitted with her application as evidence of her immigration history in the State indicated that her total reckonable residence in her application for a certificate of naturalisation amounted to 49 months, thereby rendering her 11 months short of the total requirement of 60 months.

This fact was communicated to her by the official who examined her case in May 2007. The lady in question wrote to the Department on 23 September 2007, providing further corroborative evidence from An Garda Síochána confirming that while for a period when she had no residency stamps on her passport as the passport had been stolen, she was in fact registered with the immigration authorities as being legally resident in the State for the period concerned. There was also a further deficit of two months legal residence but this shortfall was explained in that the individual moved from one county to another. There was subsequent confusion as to which Garda district should be responsible for her immigration registration. On foot of further corroborative evidence received on 23 September, officials in the citizenship section reviewed her application. They deemed that she did satisfy the statutory requirements pertaining to reckonable residency and have now re-instated her application alongside that of her husband. A letter will issue to her presently confirming this position.

Officials in the citizenship section of the Department are currently processing applications received at the beginning of 2005 and have approximately 11,200 cases to be processed before those of the individuals concerned. It is likely therefore that further processing of these applications will commence in the second half of 2009.

I hope I addressed the Senator's concerns about these individuals and have clearly demonstrated that correct procedures were applied at every stage of the process by departmental officials.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister of State has most certainly not.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Senator must have a question.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Yes, you are right a Leas-Chathaoirligh, it is very questionable and I completely agree with you.

Photo of Jimmy DevinsJimmy Devins (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Sligo-North Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Is the Senator allowed ask a second question?

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Senator is not allowed ask a second question.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

A long-standing practice of the House is to allow a supplementary question.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

He is in charge here, not you, Minister.

The Minister of State hopes he has addressed my concerns. He most certainly has not. I am not blaming him personally. I am asking him to take this response back to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, a rather decent man, and inform him I am not satisfied with it. Apparently, the daughter is disposable. The officials who recruited this man were aware at all times of the family situation. They were recruited as a family but now the daughter is disposable. The Minister has accepted they were wrong about the wife. The Minister claims he has demonstrated that correct procedures were applied. Really? I remind the Minister correct procedures were applied in the case of Deputy Michael Woods and the Government rushed in an amendment to legislation to look after him.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Does the Senator have a question?

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

This man came from South Africa where they have this crude one-size-fits-all attitude to everything.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Does Senator Norris have a question?

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is inhuman what has happened to this family. I am ashamed that this can go on. I ask the Minister of State to take back this response and re-examine it. Can he not understand this is a family? The daughter has been educated and earned her degree, has a job and relationships in Ireland. They are prepared to accept the husband and let him have a wife but will not let him have a daughter. It is a disgrace.

Photo of Jimmy DevinsJimmy Devins (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Sligo-North Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I will relay Senator Norris's question to the Minister in question.

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Hear, hear.