Last Friday Ireland went to the Polls to elect local councilors, members of the European Parliament and to decide on an amendment to the constitution which would strip some Irish born children of their right to Irish Citizenship. The referendum is the culmination of the state’s efforts to limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees who have arrived on the Island in increasing numbers during the economic boom there over the last 10 years. The referendum was passed by a landslide with 80% of voters approving the new restrictions in a big victory for hard right nativism.
Initially the referendum was proposed by the Minister For Justice, Michael McDowell, as a way of defending Irish maternity hospitals which were, he argued, overwhelmed by foreigners arriving to give birth within the EU. Under the old rules where parents could claim residency rights in the country by virtue of their children’s citizenship, Ireland was out of step with the rest of the EU, or so the argument went until the facts got in the way. While the current right wing coalition government has been plotting some sort of referendum on this matter for years, Friday’s vote was only announced in March. McDowell initially argued that the Masters of the Maternity hospitals had plead for ‘something’ to be done about the hordes of pregnant refugees packing the hospitals. The doctors in question quickly distanced themselves from such claims, realizing perhaps they were being played in a pretty transparent electoral stunt and statistical fraud.
Pro amendment arguments referred to an exploding birth rate and 10% of births being to non nationals. The common inference was that this figure was the number of frauds flying into Dublin heavily pregnant solely to claim an Irish passport. But as the numbers were crunched it emerged that fewer than 1% of last years newborns actually fell into this category. McDowell’s imperative then morphed into the more abstract notion of protecting the “integrity of Irish citizenship”. “I’m not pinning my hat on the issue of statistics from maternity hospitals. Citizenship is important. It is not something which is just given out as a little token, or a useful thing to people with no connection with our State. It imposes on people who are Irish citizens duties of loyalty and fidelity to the nation-state.” Considering that a South African (or anyone else) with an Irish Grandmother is entitled to an Irish passport without ever setting foot in the country, this is surely a bizarre argument with which to go amending the constitution. It has essentially introduced a biological qualifier into the notion of Irishness, something that probably does put Ireland closer in line with some of its European neighbours, at least those with blood requirements for being part of the volk.
Most of the non nationals who will now see their future children lose their right to citizenship are in fact working residents of the country filling important roles in all sectors of the economy and society. For free market ideologues like McDowell this abundant source of cheap labour is central to Irelands continued economic success. Yet, the amendment will help obstruct their full integration into Irish society.
During McDowell’s tenure the states posture regarding asylum seekers has become increasingly intransparent and difficult for applicants to navigate. In the summer of 2003 letters were issued from his department to the non national parents of Irish children who were at the time in the process of applying for residency. The letters informed the applicants that they had 15 days to make representations, subject to ‘existing legislation’, explaining why they should not be deported. Furthermore it was discovered that recipients of the letters would have no legal aid in formulating their ‘representation’. In other words those without the resources to hire a lawyer would represent themselves during a deportation hearing. The process also failed to offer their citizen children any representation during the states effort to deport their parents.
Earlier the humourously titled department of ‘Justice, Equality and Law Reform’ had added a raft of amendments to Irelands refugee law. According to the Irish Refugee Council these included “amongst other things, the introduction of ‘safe country of origin’ concepts, ‘superfast’ processes, burden of proof requirements, tighter time limits for lodging appeals, and extension on the length of time that asylum seekers may be detained.” The council has pointed out also that these new conditions brought Ireland into conflict with its obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention. They characterized the changes as an attempt to reframe the states responsibility as one concerned with weeding out applicants rather than identifying those in need of support. It is unfair to give minister McDowell all credit though, his predecessor, Martin O Donoghue, promised that “at least 90% of applicants will be rejected”.
None of this is to suggest that there is not a real crisis of maternity care in Ireland. There were up to 70 000 births recorded annually during the 1980’s yet this figure has dropped to the mid 50’s in recent years. Current problems stem from the closure of some maternity units without any significant increase in capital investment or current funding for those units that remain, or for the three main Maternity hospitals based in Dublin. So a 20% drop in demand has been met by an even greater collapse in supply. Why? The immigrants of course.
That the referendum was sprung on the same day as the local elections might tell us more about the governments calculations than a study of the annual reports of the maternity hospitals though. For several years now immigrants and asylum seekers have been the subtle but resident whipping boys of successive governments. Columnists across the country have been denouncing anyone who suggested that there is even a hint of racism to any of this. The r word has been verboten from polite consideration of the amendment. But the reality is that what little debate there has been around the question of stripping some Irish children of their rights as Irish children has been framed by the state sponsored fantasy of Nigerians overrunning maternity wards. Indeed several stories referred to the added crisis of foreigners suffering from syphilis, TB and malaria invading the hospitals. But the state of the health system has been a burning issue in the country for years, independent candidates have been elected to the Dail (Irish Parliament) on the single issue of being opposed to the closure of local hospitals.
What then explains the overwhelming support of the electorate for a measure that is unnecessary, divisive and potentially racist in the extreme? The turnout in the election was unusually high at 60%. The government parties were punished across the board, Fianna Fail, the largest one doing worse than they have since the 1920s according to some early predictions. Seen in the context of European politics the government tactic of presenting an anti immigrant bill to the electorate can only be seen as mainstream right wingers assuming fascist platforms to stave off a threat from the far right -a la the hijab ban in France. But no far right group in Ireland has significant support on an anti immigrant agenda. The entire impetus for the referendum has come from the governing coalition of Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats, McDowells christian democrats. The center left parties all opposed the amendment. They included the Labour Party and Sinn Fein who both performed very well in the local elections, SF winning seats in several constituencies for the first time at the expense of Fianna Fail. The greens also campaigned against the amendment though their vote collapsed across the country. The socialists and tiny communist party also campaigned against. Beyond the parties various activist and NGO formations agitated against the change. But the amendment was not a big issue in the election itself and candidates and party platforms concentrated on other, primarily local issues that concerned voters. Meanwhile younger activists who have been busy on anti war and EU issues have been concentrating on mobilizing against the visit of George Bush later in the month. Without a vigorous campaign to counter the government propaganda stigmatizing immigrants and asylum seekers voters have swallowed the government explanation for the health crisis hook, line, sinker, rod and angler by a margin of 4 to 1.
But we aren’t talking about a rump reactionary vote that can be explained away circumstantially. This is the people of Ireland talking loud and clear. And while there may have been no great campaign to humanise the kids who will no longer be Irish its also a fairly simple matter of deciding that not everyone makes the cut any longer. At the end of the day McDowell’s claims that Ireland was in some kind of anachronistic position before the vote, allowing just about anyone who is born in Ireland to be, well, Irish, is nonsense. Voters had been reminded that that is the situation in Canada, the US, New Zealand, India and in countries in Africa and South America. Like the blood-based citizenship laws that until a few years ago made it difficult for anyone but ethnic Germans to become citizens, the new Irish constitutional arrangement will create two tiers in Irish society by barricading citizenship from some of its sons and daughters. Even worse this can be discretionary on the part of the state, which in turn is owed “loyalty and fidelity”.
Fortress Europe is not Canada, it is more like Germany with its ethnic imperatives that polite company no longer talks about. An Ireland where christian democrats and cynical opportunists can appeal to the most base meanness and greed of 80% of Irish voters with a fraud like this is shocking and depressing, but it fits the mood and posture of the EU. To be Irish has changed utterly.
JIM DAVIS is a documentary filmmaker. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org