Elections to the European parliament are a matter of extraordinary indifference to most voters in Europe, and the addition of 10 new countries this time around doesn’t seem to have changed matters.
The elections aren’t actually “European” in any real sense. Nearly all of the issues, in nearly every country, are local and national. They thus have the qualities of a series of midterm elections, with low turnouts (44 per cent this time, including sub-30 per cent in some new states) and incumbent parties generally punished by the electorate.
The EU attempted a ‘unifying’ gimmick this time around by trying to get results announced across the continent on Sunday evening, more or less all at once, even when some countries had voted days earlier. Regardless, media coverage in each country gave a vague nod in the direction of the European dimension, then settled down to talk about the domestic implications of their vote, which anyway trickled in slowly. Anyway, the transnational parliamentary ‘groups’ are largely obscure, especially once you get past the Christian democrats, social democrats and Greens.
This weekend’s European polls followed the traditional pattern, with governments seeing their party representations in the mostly impotent parliament slashed across the continent. The only exceptions were the new governments in Spain and Greece, still on post-national-election highs. Pro-war governments in Britain and Italy got a satisfying hammering, the left made some advances, but it would be highly optimistic to see this as a massive triumph for peaceniks. (The ‘anti-war’ German government also got a swift kick.)
Ireland offers a perhaps typical example of how little there is to celebrate. The government here has facilitated US imperialism with a pitstop at Shannon Airport, against popular sentiment. (Mary Kelly’s re-trial on charges of damaging a US Navy plane in a Shannon hangar starts this week. See http://www.counterpunch.org/) Anti-war parties did exceptionally well, with Dublin in particular now an indisputably left-wing city. Sinn Fein performed exceptionally well right across the country. But the war was not an issue.
And on a crucial issue of human rights and internationalism, the Irish electorate voted by nearly four to one for a reactionary, anti-immigrant change in the state’s Constitution–despite the opposition of all those otherwise successful left-wing parties. The significance of the government’s ‘citizenship referendum’ may be more symbolic than substantive for most people; it is, nonetheless, a fundamental and ugly answer to the oft-asked question about where precisely Ireland stands in the world, given its history of poverty and colonialism. Up to 10 years ago, it was still possible to suggest that the country lay somewhere between the first and third worlds. Today, the Irish people, who once went forth to build the continent’s buildings and roads, have put another brick in the wall of Fortress Europe, having already climbed safely inside.
Citizenship in Ireland has traditionally been determined by birth, as in the US and Canada, as well as by descent, which is the main basis, along with naturalization, of most European citizenships. On both bases the Irish passport has traditionally been among the easier ones to attain: until a few years ago you could get one if you could trace an Irish ancestor four generations back. (These days it’s restricted to two generations.) And the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland put the pre-existing birth-on-the-island-of-Ireland rule into the Constitution, to protect the Irish identity of Northern nationalists despite the abandonment of any direct claim on the British-controlled Northern counties.
This weekend’s vote took that rule right back out of the Constitution, and overturned the practice of the entire history of the Republic since independence from Britain. Last week, every child born on the island of Ireland was born an Irish citizen. This week, one of a child’s parents will have to show his or her own citizenship, or that they have lived in the state–with a legal status not including asylum-seeker–for at least three of the last four years in order for the child to be eligible for a passport.
The rebel 1916 proclamation pledged that the Republic would “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. The referendum, railroaded through in the midst of local as well as European elections with little debate, means that some children are more equal than others.
The arguments in favour of the change suggested Ireland needed to get in line with the rest of Europe on this issue. But citizenship laws vary across the continent, and no one has been calling for standardisation–despite the purple Euro-passport we all get these days. The more crucial line of argument was that the government–and ‘citizenship tourists’–had discovered a loophole that was causing untold numbers of women to arrive in the country, heavily pregnant, in order to have an Irish child and therefore stay in the country–or indeed elsewhere in the EU, putting strain on maternity services and the welfare system.
The government tries not to say it, but these women are presumed Nigerian, or otherwise African. Why else would the minister for justice comment that “anyone with eyes to see knows we have a problem”? The only way this “problem” could be visible is if you’re looking out for black women with big tummies or new babies.
It’s reasonable to assume there was such a thing as citizenship tourism. But we have no idea of the numbers–they are certainly fewer than the millions of ‘grandfather rule’ Americans who can get an Irish passport–and after a Irish Supreme Court decision last year the parents of Irish-citizen children have had no automatic right to remain in the state. In fact, many have been deported. In other words, if there was a problem it was costing very little, unless you feel your own citizenship is devalued if other people can get it too easily. (This is a variant on the anti-divorce argument–“my marriage is devalued if other people can end theirs”–that that finally lost out among Irish voters in the 1990s.)
Meanwhile, everyone still has an illegal cousin in the US, and still celebrates the birth of each US-citizen child to that cousin. And the incredible growth of the Irish economy in the last decade would have been impossible without immigration. As one anti-referendum campaigner put it: “the Irish people have ignored our past and rejected our future.”
The realities of migration and nationality remain much more complex than Irish voters might hope. Even as the election results trickled in on Sunday evening, the nation turned on their televisions to watch an important soccer match between France and England. This being Ireland, we cheered the comeback of a mostly black French team against an England side whose forwards are called Rooney and Owen.
As Dublin’s tourist industry goes into overdrive to mark the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s fictional Bloomsday this Wednesday, Irish radio presenter Tom McGurk pointedly quoted Ulysses. In one famous sequence, a bigoted nationalist, known as the Citizen, confronts Joyce’s nebbishy Jewish hero, Leopold Bloom, demanding to know “what is your nation”. “Ireland,” Bloom replies. “I was born here.” Under Ireland’s newly amended Constitution, his answer would no longer be sufficient.
Below is an opinion article I published in the Irish Evening Herald prior to the referendum:
ALTHOUGH I was born in Italy and grew up in New York and New Jersey, I am an Irish citizen. Why? Because I can prove my descent from an alcoholic RIC man who was born in the “Queen’s County” about 120 years ago.
I’m still not sure why my grandfather legged it from what’s now called Laois, and out of Ireland, about 90 years ago.
The “grandfather rule” for citizenship is a way of recognising that Irish people were forced to flee colonial poverty and oppression, but this particular grandfather probably faced more of those horrors in Manhattan than he did on the Auld Sod.
Still, soon after he passed through Ellis Island he met and married a good Wexford woman, and they filled their Hell’s Kitchen tenement with little US-citizen babies, including my Dad.
Plenty of Americans hated immigrants–plenty still do–but the government there had the sense to realise that these babies didn’t belong to some other state.
Whatever the colour of their skin, whatever religious or political beliefs were discussed in whatever language was spoken in their homes, even if their mothers waddled off the boat eight months pregnant, it made sense to recognise US-born children as US citizens. What else?
That’s still the rule in the US, and in other immigrant societies like Canada and New Zealand. It should stay the rule in Ireland, despite the efforts of Michael McDowell to change it with this blatantly discriminatory referendum.
Sure, elsewhere in Europe citizenship is often governed by the racist logic of the bloodline. But by European standards Ireland is young, a republic without royal dynasties or other “old Europe” throwbacks, and with a relatively enlightened citizenship-by-birth policy throughout the history of the State.
Rather than dragging ourselves down to their level, shouldn’t we be taking the lead in Europe? If we can show the way with plastic bags and cigarettes, can’t we be an example by giving proper respect to all the innocent babies born on our soil?
Citizenship is one crucial way we do that. In a better world, people’s rights and freedoms won’t be governed by the colour of their passports — themselves a relatively recent invention in human history, a way for governments to control us.
But in the real world of today, an Irish passport confers real, dramatic advantages. Ask yourself: by what moral authority can you claim those advantages for your child but not for the one beside her in the maternity hospital?
Of course, that child and his parents should also have the choice to claim and retain citizenship from their country of origin, for whatever good it does them.
After all, despite the bloodline nonsense, nationality is not really an either-or thing. When I was a kid, my Irish-American Dad and Italian-American Mom did an exercise to occupy three children on a long car journey: taking what we knew about the places our ancestors came from (Laois, Wexford, Naples, Sicily) and all the family names, we listed the nations and cultures that might be “in our blood”.
My folks were good historians, and Mom covered both sides of an envelope in tiny writing with names of places and peoples–some we’d never even heard of.
Since before humans came out of Africa, moving and mingling has been a huge part of the story of our species. All of us are the mixed-up descendents of migrants.
Happily, settling down and growing attached to a particular place is also part of our story. Most people, given a half-decent chance at a half-decent life, will try to stay where they’re known and loved.
No floodgates have opened into Ireland, no tide of humanity is pouring in. A few thousand people have fled desperate lives, landed on our shores and had babies.
And if this wandering grandson of a drunken cop can be an Irish citizen, why on earth shouldn’t they?
HARRY BROWNE is a journalist and lecturer in the school of media at the Dublin Institute of Technology: email@example.com