I support the Government's proposals on citizenship. There are really only a few simple questions which we need to answer in order to convince ourselves that the Government is following the correct course.
Is the current law on citizenship satisfactory? The answer is clear: the current law on citizenship is unsatisfactory. It is noticeable that no party leader of national standing has attempted to argue that the current law on citizenship is one with which we can be fully satisfied. The reasons I find the current law on citizenship unsatisfactory are straightforward.
First, I am concerned that citizenship is being given to those with little or no connection to Ireland and to its people. Such individuals will then in turn be able to give Irish citizenship to their children and grandchildren. It is wrong that Irish nationality can be simply given out in this manner.
Second, when we consider the Chen case, it is clear that Irish citizenship law is being used to circumvent UK immigration control through the exercise of European Union free movement. People can argue that, with an Irish citizen child, they have the right to reside in the UK or any other EU country. We in Ireland should not allow a hole in our back fence to create problems for our neighbours in Britain or those throughout the rest of Europe. We should fix the hole to which I refer not only for our own good, but also for that of our neighbours.
Third, a difficult situation in Irish maternity hospitals has been made significantly worse as a result of our citizenship law. The master of the Rotunda Hospital has, according to theIrish Independent, warned that it was surprising that there had not been a major catastrophe within the maternity services yet. Do we have to wait for a catastrophe before we are prompted to act, as the Opposition seems to suggest by its proposed amendment?
Fourth, Tommie Gorman of RTE reported on Sunday that health professionals in Northern Ireland had noticed an increase in the number of non-nationals using temporary accommodation addresses giving birth there. There may be others in RTE who do not like that message or who seek to contradict it, but I believe what Tommie Gorman said.
Can we change the current unsatisfactory situation without changing the constitution? The answer to this question is that we cannot. The legal advice the Government received from the Attorney General is that we cannot restrict citizenship for people born in Ireland without changing the Constitution. Article 2 of the Constitution makes that clear. It states: "It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation." What does entitlement to be a member of the Irish nation mean unless it entitles somebody to Irish citizenship? There was a report by a lawyer inThe Irish Times yesterday which disagreed with that point. I will say two things about that: first, the paper merely identified the writer as “a practising barrister” but it failed to state that he is a leading member of and former electoral candidate for Fine Gael; and, second, that I would rather rely on the advice of the Attorney General in this matter. If we want to change the current automatic entitlement to Irish citizenship for those born in Ireland, we must change the Constitution.
Should Irish citizenship be automatically conferred simply as a result of a person being born here or should the Oireachtas have the power to determine the entitlement to Irish citizenship of children, neither of whose parents is an Irish citizen or is entitled to Irish citizenship? This is the key question on which the people will be asked to vote on 11 June next. That is all we have to decide. Children born in Ireland with one parent who is an Irish citizen or who is entitled to Irish citizenship will be automatically entitled to such citizenship.
The law on other cases will be decided by the Oireachtas. This is the proposal of the Government. This was the position recommended by the Constitutional Review Group headed up by Dr. T.K. Whitaker when it reported in 1996 that because of its complexity, citizenship "is more appropriately dealt with in legislation" than in the Constitution. That is my position. It is easy to see why the Whitaker group made that recommendation. When one has to go into the nitty gritty of specific cases of citizenship law — as we do in our capacity as Deputies helping our constituents — then one appreciates that our citizenship law cannot be reduced to a few lines in a document, such as the Constitution, which it is itself very difficult to change or amend.
If the people vote to change the Constitution, will the Government then establish an unfair situation? No, it will not. If the referendum passes and the Government's proposed legislation is passed, Ireland would still be "one of the more liberal states in the European Union from the point of view of citizenship" according to Ms Carol Coulter ofThe Irish Times. Ms Coulter, a person with no reason to favour particularly the Government point of view, states that, if the Government’s proposals were accepted, we would have a pretty liberal citizenship law. This is the answer to those who raise the charge of racism or to those who charge that the current referendum is racist. This issue is really very simple. Is the current law on citizenship satisfactory? I contend that it is not. Can we change the current unsatisfactory law on citizenship without changing the Constitution? No, we cannot. If the people vote to change the Constitution, will the Government then produce an unfair situation? No, it will not. The nub of the issue is whether children born in Ireland should get automatic citizenship even if neither parent has any real connection with Ireland or with the Irish people. Should Irish citizenship be automatically conferred simply as a result of a person being born here or should the Oireachtas have the power to determine the entitlement to Irish citizenship of children, neither of whose parents is an Irish citizen or is entitled to Irish citizenship?
The central question is whether children born in Ireland should get automatic citizenship even if neither parent has any real connection with Ireland or with the Irish people. Should Irish citizenship be automatically conferred simply as a result of a person being born here or should the Oireachtas have the power to determine the entitlement to Irish citizenship of children, neither of whose parents is an Irish citizen or is entitled to Irish citizenship?
I am sorry to say that I am not sure whether we can expect a balanced debate on this referendum. A balanced debate on this referendum would require the Opposition parties to indicate how they would deal with the problems of our citizenship law if they were in Government. There is a danger that instead of thoughtful proposals one would experience scare-mongering emotionalism peppered by unsubstantiated charges of racism. I hope we can avoid that. The Government's position is strong in logic and in facts. The Opposition is unsure how to react. So it resorts to procedural nit-picking. It is no wonder that the Opposition parties have preferred to focus on the process that has led us to this proposal than to look at the merits of the proposal itself.
There have been a number of concerns raised regarding the Government's proposal. The SDLP has raised the concern that this amendment could damage the Good Friday Agreement. There are a number of answers to that concern. First, the point must be made that when the Good Friday Agreement was concluded in 1998, we did not sign up to a final settlement. We signed up to a peace process. It is ironic to hear the SDLP echo one of the core criticisms made by the DUP against the Good Friday Agreement, namely that the Agreement represents a peace process rather than a peace settlement. There have been numerous changes since the Good Friday Agreement, which have had the effect of expanding the terms of that Agreement. What was Weston Park about if not to go beyond the terms of the originally concluded Agreement? My first response to the SDLP query is that I do not accept the premise on which it is based. I do not accept that the Agreement is something fixed in stone, never to be changed or touched. The very detailed political negotiations which have taken place since the Agreement show that there are many others who share this view.
Second, the Irish State operates in accordance with law. It would be unlawful for the Irish State to breach a binding international agreement such as the Good Friday Agreement. It is unthinkable that the Attorney General or his predecessor, the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Michael McDowell, would propose legislation to this House which would involve us breaching the Good Friday Agreement.
Third, the Government's proposed legislation follows exactly the detailed definition of entitlement to citizenship set out in Annexe 2 to the Good Friday Agreement. Far from breaking or threatening the Agreement, we are following its detailed provisions.
Fourth, the British government has confirmed the opinion of the Irish Government that the changes we are now discussing do not conflict with the Good Friday Agreement. I put the argument to the SDLP that this referendum and the Government's proposed legislation is fully consistent with the detailed provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.
A second concern that has been raised is the issue of the time required for the people to decide the question. I do not believe that the Irish people need a great deal of time to decide the question whether somebody with no prior links to Ireland should be automatically entitled to Irish citizenship just because they were born here. I do not believe that our people need a great deal of time to decide whether the Oireachtas should have the power to determine the entitlement to Irish citizenship of children, neither of whose parents is an Irish citizen or is entitled to Irish citizenship. Nor do I believe we need Green Papers or White Papers to deal with the problem.
The fundamental question of automatic entitlement to citizenship is not complicated. The constitutional step we need to take to solve the problem is not complicated. It is only those who seek to avoid the question who are aiming to defer the decision. The Opposition's proposal is to kick this problem into the long grass in the hope that it will go away or fix itself. Either that, or the Opposition is unable to answer the fundamental question at the heart of this debate in an expeditious and efficient manner. I suspect that the problem for the Opposition is that there are deeply divergent opinions within the Opposition on the substantive question at issue here. The Opposition can unite in opposing the Government. The Opposition can unite in raising procedural objections or detailed questions. However, the Opposition cannot unite around its own proposal on this important matter. It can unite to disagree, to defer, to dither on the issue but it cannot unite around a single, coherent proposal. This must have been clear to the Opposition when it tabled its amendment, which portrays clearly the fundamental problem of the Opposition. While it can agree that it is against the Government, it cannot agree on what it as an alternative Government would do. While it can agree on what it is against, it cannot agree on what it is for. The Opposition can create procedural wrangles. It cannot give proposals that will work. It can raise points of order. It cannot suggest alternative proposals.