I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I want to express my satisfaction on bringing forward this measure which deals with several issues and knowing that its passage has been commenced in this House. It joins on the Order Paper another important Bill, the Domicile and Recognition of Foreign Divorces Bill, 1985. While both of these Bills may not be important in the context of their application to a great number of people, they are important in establishing once and for all the principle of equality between men and women before the law. As long as our laws reflect different treatment for citizens, that difference being based on their sex, Irish women cannot feel equal in many areas. Legal equality is an absolute prerequisite to any other action or programme for women's liberation.
Some people may claim that in this Bill some women, for example, foreign spouses who marry Irish men, are treated less favourably than heretofore, that they will lose a privilege based on sex. Women do not want privileges or patronge. They are seeking and are entitled to equal treatment, equality before the law, which reflects their full citizenship and equality with others. When the sex treatment differential was written into the 1956 Act, in debates in this House and in the Seanad there is no evidence that any speaker contested such an approach. I know that in 1955 or 1956, well before the emergence of the contemporary women's movement or, indeed, the UN decade for women, such issues illustrated the importance of women's voices in society in general and of their involvement in the political structure.
The purpose of this Bill is to make a number of changes in the law concerning the acquisition of Irish citizenship by aliens.
The most important of the changes proposed is the elimination of the unequal treatment between men and women in conditions to be compiled with for the acquisition of citizenship by aliens married to Irish citizens. The other changes proposed relate to the present requirement of giving one year's notice of intention to apply for citizenship, the operative date for persons of Irish descent who acquire citizenship by registration, and a provision to enable favourable conditions to be applied to refugees and stateless persons who apply for Irish citizenship.
As I have already said, the most important change proposed is that relating to the acquisition of citizenship by foreign spouses of Irish nationals. In order to explain the reason for the proposed change I intend, first of all, to outline the present position as regards the acquisition of citizenship by foreign spouses. I will then deal with the thinking behind the existing legislation and refer also to the position in other EEC countries. Then I will explain the reason for the specific changes now proposed in the Bill.
The law on Irish citizenship is contained in the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. The Act lays down, inter alia, the conditions under which aliens generally may acquire citizenship by the process of naturalisation. Section 15 of the Act provides for the conditions under which a certificate of naturalisation may be granted by the Minister for Justice. The conditions include residence in the country amounting to five years in the nine year period immediately preceding the application. This includes a period of one year's continuous residence in the State immediately before the date of application. Other requirements relate to age, character, notice of intention to apply, intention to reside in the State after naturalisation, and the making of a declaration of fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State before a justice of the District Court.
The conditions I have mentioned relate to aliens generally. The position in relation to foreign spouses of Irish nationals is different, however. Section 8 of the Act deals with the position of foreign wives of Irish citizens, otherwise than by naturalisation. That provides that the alien wife of an Irish citizen, otherwise than by naturalisation, shall not become an Irish citizen merely by virtue of her marriage but may do so by lodging a declaration in the prescribed manner with the Minister, or any Irish diplomatic mission or consular office, either before or at any time after the marriage accepting Irish citizenship as her post-nuptial citizenship.
The position of the foreign husbands of Irish women is dealt with under section 16 of the Act. That section provides that the Minister may dispense with the conditions of naturalisation in certain cases, including where the applicant is married to a woman who is an Irish citizen, otherwise than by naturalisation. Down through the years the administrative practice in relation to foreign husbands of Irish citizens has been to reduce the normal five years residence requirement to two years residence.
It is important to note that foreign wives of Irish citizens, otherwise than by naturalisation, have an absolute right to citizenship under the Act. Foreign husbands of Irish citizens do not have such a right. As with all applicants for naturalisation, the granting or withholding of naturalisation to them is at the absolute discretion of the Minister. Accordingly, a foreign husband of an Irish woman has no right to naturalisation. The Minister may grant him naturalisation but it is at his discretion. It is this in-built discrimination on the basis of sex that is being removed.
The provisions of the 1956 Act were drafted having regard to thinking on nationality that obtained 30 years ago. This did not consider the issue of sexual equality or equal treatment. That thinking may have reflected social mores internationally in the mid-fifties. Indeed, legislation of other countries governing acquisition of citizenship by foreign spouses has had similar in-built discrimination against women.
In recent years there has been a considerable amount of change in legislation relating to citizenship in our EEC neighbouring countries. As regards citizenship for foreign spouses, where changes have been made the general trend has been to provide for similar requirements in relation to both foreign wives and foreign husbands of nationals. In most cases unequal treatment as between men and women in this area has been eliminated. This trend is, of course, a reflection of the changed circumstances since the fifties and the assertion of woman for equal rights in all areas of law. It is not uncommon for the husband to go to the country of his wife's nationality.
I would like to quote from one international document which reflects the changed thinking internationally on the question of citizenship of foreign spouses of nationals. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution (77) 12 on the Nationality of Spouses of Different Nationalities on 27 May 1977. In the resolution the Committee of Ministers recommends to governments of member states:
(1) To move towards eliminating distinctions in the conditions under which their nationality may be acquired by the foreign husbands of their nationals, as compared to the foreign wives;
(2) To proceed, from now on, to the arrangements necessary at the internal level to accord to the foreign husband of their nationals, for the acquisition of nationality, a treatment as close as possible to that granted to the foreign wives of their nationals;
(3) Not to require, for the acquisition of their nationality by the foreign spouse of a national, more than five years residence in their territory including not more than three years of residence after the marriage;
(4) To provide, in any event, that foreign spouses of their nationals may acquire their nationality on more favourable conditions than those generally required of other aliens.
Further evidence of changed thinking can be seen from an examination of legislation on this matter, among our EEC colleagues. The general trend there has been to eliminate inequality.
There were many ways in which the unequal treatment in our 1956 Act could be eliminated. One could provide that foreign husbands of Irish nationals would be entitled to obtain citizenship by declaration in the same manner as foreign wives may do so at present. On the other hand, one could provide that acquisition of citizenship by foreign wives in future would be by way of naturalisation and that the two years residence and other normal conditions would apply to foreign wives in the same way that they apply to foreign husbands of Irish nationals at present. Various options were considered and the Government decided that the Bill should provide that both foreign wives and foreign husbands of Irish nationals should have a right to citizenship after three years of marriage. In deciding on this solution the Government had regard to the trend in changes in international legislation on this topic, and also, of course, to the needs of families of mixed nationality where one of the parents is Irish.
I know that many Irish women married to foreigners feel that the current position is unfair to their families. I have, since I entered politics in 1980, had representations from Irish women living abroad seeking help to resolve difficulties in the way of their return to this country. The husbands in these cases could not obtain citizenship unless they had two years residence in the State.
I am personally very pleased that unequal treatment which has obtained in this area will be eliminated by the Bill. I think it will be of vital importance to many families where the wife is Irish but the husband is foreign, and remove a serious barrier, and often an insurmountable barrier, to the family settling in Ireland. But above all it is one more legislative move to ensuring that none of our laws maintain obvious inequality to Irish women.
Perhaps I should refer at this stage to Ireland's accession in December last to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. One of the reservations entered by Ireland on acceding to the convention reads as follows:
Pending the proposed amendment to the law relating to citizenship, which is at an advanced stage, Ireland reserves the right to retain the provisions in its existing law concerning the acquisition of citizenship on marriage.
That particular reservation was framed in the manner I have just read because of the intention to introduce the Bill we are now considering, which will change the present law which differentiates between men and women as regards acquisition of citizenship by foreign spouses. When this Bill becomes law, this reservation can be deleted.
The House may be interested in some statistics in relation to the acquisition of citizenship last year. In 1985, 513 women acquired Irish citizenship on the lodgment of a declaration in relation to marriage to an Irish citizen under section 8 of the Act. The number of foreign husbands of Irish citizens who were granted certificates of naturalisation, on the other hand, was only 81. It is not possible to say at this stage what the effect of the Bill will be on statistics in this area. However, it may be that more foreign husbands of Irish women resident abroad will seek to acquire citizenship subsequent to the passing of this legislation. It had not been possible for them to do so heretofore because of the residence requirement in the 1956 Act. We may also see a fall initially in the number of foreign women married to Irishmen obtaining Irish citizenship. Presumably people who wish to take Irish citizenship in such instances do so mainly at the time of the marriage. Under the new legislation they will have to wait for three years.
I referred earlier to the fact that citizenship for foreign spouses will be obtainable for both husbands and wives under Part 2 of the Act in future. There are differences between citizenship acquired under Part 2 and that acquired under Part 3 of the Act. One difference is that citizenship under Part 2 cannot be revoked whereas citizenship obtained under Part 3 can. The circumstances under which the Minister for Justice may revoke naturalisation are set out in section 19 of the 1956 Act. A second difference is that the spouse of a person Irish by naturalisation cannot get citizenship by making a declaration accepting Irish citizenship.
Deputies will note that section 8 (1) as inserted by section 3 of the Bill stipulates that a declaration may not be lodged earlier than three years from the date of the marriage and that the marriage must be subsisting at the date of the lodgment of the declaration. On the question of the marriage being subsisting, I should mention for the information of the House that it is intended to provide by statutory instrument that an affidavit will be required by the Irish spouse to the effect that the marriage has subsisted for at least three years. The other documentary proofs which already apply in the case of a foreign wife making a declaration at present, will, of course, also apply in the future, that is, a marriage certificate and the Irish spouse's birth certificate will be required.
As will be clear from what I have said, the provisions now proposed could mean a longer waiting period for Irish citizenship for some people compared with the current arrangements. I have mentioned already that a foreign woman marrying an Irishman can get Irish citizenship immediately at present by lodging a declaration. In the future she may not do so until three years after the marriage. Because this change in requirements could result in delay in some individual cases, section 6 of the Bill provides for a transitional period during which a foreign spouse of an Irish national will continue to be entitled to obtain or apply for Irish citizenship under the terms of the 1956 Act.
The provision in the Bill relating to the elimination of discrimination between men and women in the acquisition of citizenship that I have been talking about is, of course, the most important provision in the Bill. I did mention, however, that there are other provisions and I intend to deal with them fairly quickly now.
Section 2 of the Bill proposes to amend section 7 (2) of the Act. Section 7 (2) provides for descendants of Irish persons obtaining Irish citizenship by registration. The effect of registration is that the person is regarded as Irish from birth. The change proposed is that Irish citizenship will apply only from the date of registration. It is understood that this was the intention of the section when it was originally drafted in 1956. The practical effect will be that children of people registering will be entitled to obtain Irish citizenship by registration only if they were born after the date of registration by the parent from whom they derive a right to citizenship.
Section 4 of the Bill proposes to reenact section 15 of the 1956 Act with the omission of the requirement that a person give one year's notice of intention of applying for naturalisation. In practice this provision has been found not to serve any useful purpose and, on the contrary, to have proved to be a cause of delay in certain cases where there was no other need for delay. Accordingly the provision is being omitted from the proposed new section 15.
Section 16 of the 1956 Act is also being revised. This is being done by section 5 of the Bill. The main change here is that power is being given to the Minister for Justice to dispense with the conditions for naturalisation in the case of refugees and stateless persons. Under the 1956 Act there was no special provision for refugees and stateless persons as regards naturalisation. Accordingly the conditions that applied to adult aliens generally applied to them. They have to have been here for five years and comply in full with all of the other conditions provided for in section 15 of the Act.
This country is a party to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. Article 34 of the convention relates to naturalisation and reads as follows:
The contracting states shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.
Under the power now proposed in relation to refugees and stateless persons the Minister will be able to dispense with the statutory conditions for naturalisation in their case. It is the intention to apply a three-year residence requirement to refugees and stateless persons instead of the five years residence requirement of general application.
Article 34 of the 1951 Geneva Convention also refers to reducing as far as possible the charges and costs of naturalisation proceedings. It is intended to amend the statutory instruments relating to naturalisation to provide for nominal fees for naturalisation for refugees and stateless persons and also to reduce the formalities attaching to naturalisation in their case.
To sum up, I would like to say that I see this Bill as being an important change in our legislation on citizenship, particularly as it relates to the elimination of discrimination against women. The 1956 Act has resulted in hardship for some families and, in my view, has led to justifiable grievance in the case of couples where the wife was Irish and the husband not, when they compared their position with that of couples where the husband was the Irish citizen. The Bill provides an important change for women but also for a number of other changes which, even though they are likely to affect only a small number of cases, nevertheless will be important to the individuals affected by them.
I am satisfied that the provisions in the Bill represent a balanced approach to a number of problems that have arisen under the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956.
I commend the Bill to the House.