I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter. A country’s citizenship laws are critical to the integrity of the State and the rights of the people and it is therefore very appropriate that we debate these issues in this House. It is also very important that when we discuss these matters, we are guided by facts.
The Bill before the House this evening is very far reaching. Indeed, if enacted it would create a situation in Ireland that would make us unique in the European Union – as the only State that granted an automatic and unconditional citizenship for any child born on the island of Ireland. And, whether by accident or design, the proponents of this Bill don’t seem to acknowledge that its enactment would have consequences for our relationships with other States including our nearest neighbour. From an EU point of view, we would be granting not just Irish citizenship but EU citizenship. And not just to children but inevitably to a much wider circle of people. And I’ll elaborate on that point in a moment.
At the moment, the State retains discretion to grant citizenship in circumstances where a child is born on the island of Ireland to parents who were not born here. That discretion is an important check on any potential abuse. I would remind the House that the 2004 referendum which placed this rule in the Constitution arose following a call from the three Masters of the Maternity Hospitals in Dublin for a change in the law. They made their call because of their concern with the rapidly increasing number of mothers who were presenting for the first time at an advanced stage of pregnancy with consequent risks for the health of the mother and child and implications for the capacity of the maternity hospitals to function. The view at the time that in many cases, women were being exploited - forced either to travel here in the late stages of pregnancy or to give birth here, as a means of guaranteeing citizenship and residency for a wider cohort of family members. Of course these were the cases witnessed by the maternity hospitals and the immigration services – they were not the cases in the public domain and it is convenient for some to forget about them now. Just looking at the figures – the number of asylum seekers applying for leave to remain increased by 400% between 1999 and 2002, going from 1,227 applications in 1999 to 6,549 applications in 2002.
As well as potentially encouraging the exploitation of vulnerable women, the Government is advised that this Bill would allow no room for consideration of the particulars of each case including the parents’ immigration status, their method of entry into the State and the length of time unlawfully present.
While the Bill is silent on the position of the parents and other siblings, I am sure its authors are well aware that the granting of citizenship to a child born on the Island of Ireland has the almost inevitable consequence, given the broader rights to family life enshrined in domestic, International and EU law, of granting an immigration permission to the parents and other family members and so this is not really a bill about children alone at all.
It is essential to state for the record that Ireland is an open democratic State that already provides many legal pathways for non-European citizens to migrate here and Ireland benefits greatly from this migration: economically, socially and culturally. In this regard, Ireland’s citizenship laws are some of the least onerous in the EU providing few obstacles to citizenship for persons lawfully resident in the State who meet the qualifying criteria.
Indeed, since 2010, just over 27,000 children, the vast majority of whom were born to non-EEA nationals, have become citizens of Ireland through naturalisation; demonstrating in real terms the results of effective compliance with our present legal pathways to citizenship. The existing arrangements are fair and they work for all who respect our laws and comply with them.
Moreover, Ceann Comhairle, there are statutory mechanisms in place to allow the parties in every case to make representations to me in support of their claim and that of their children. As I have already pointed out, as Minister, I have discretion to deal with each case made to me on its merits and frequently exercise it in favour of a child and his or her family where claims are substantiated on humanitarian grounds to remain in the country. This provides a flexible mechanism to deal with cases on their merits and my officials are charged with ensuring that this discretion is exercised in the best interests of the child and the State on a case-by-case basis.
The Bill, if enacted, would also change the rules significantly for Irish citizenship entitlement in Northern Ireland. Currently one parent must be an Irish citizen or be entitled to claim the same for the child to qualify for Irish citizenship, or one parent must have been lawfully resident on the Island of Ireland for three out of the last four years. Were this Bill to be enacted, there would arguably be a clear incentive for persons resident in Britain, whether legally or illegally, to travel to Northern Ireland to have a child and then return after acquiring Irish citizenship and, consequently, EU citizenship and associated rights without ever having entered the Republic of Ireland. This in the context of an unpredictable Brexit scenario and is a serious concern with the additional potential to give rise to serious consequences on State services in Northern Ireland. Given the sensitivities that exist in the UK on the issue of immigration, this outcome could result in the UK introducing or considering the introduction of measures in response, which could potentially have further East/West or North/South impacts. Any wider political ramifications for Ireland’s relationship with the UK including on the operation of the Common Travel Area, the Good Friday Agreement, and in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would need to be very carefully considered. I regret that this Bill demonstrates no consideration for these key issues in the wider context.
It is self-evident that if the proposed amendment was passed by this House, and had the direct consequence of attracting more people to the State to achieve residency status through the birth of a child here, the consequential strain on our own State services, including existing immigration provision, housing, education, medical services and welfare and these would need to be carefully assessed. In light of this, I wish to flag that the Government will refuse to grant a money message in respect of this legislation.
At the moment, our immigration laws, which a comparative analysis shows, are far more liberal than many EU Member States, give us the latitude to offer solidarity to other Member States dealing with emergency humanitarian crises as well as countries hosting large refugee populations. We have this latitude because we have a rules-based immigration system.
In summary, a Cheann Comhairle, the proposed Bill, which undoubtedly well intentioned, would have consequences that reach far beyond what may be immediately obvious. In particular, there are serious implications across a wide number of areas including Northern Ireland/UK, EU and national immigration laws and services. It, in effect, undoes the current link between reckonable parental residency and the grant of citizenship to the child of non-national parents. The situation this Bill would create is one where the child is automatically and unconditionally granted citizenship. This is without any reference to the immigration status or legal presence in the State of the parents.
If the Bill were enacted, Ireland would be out of step with the entirety of the EU. This would create a major incentive for non-EEA nationals in other EU Member States, particularly those there illegally or with non-reckonable residency, to come here to have their child. Such persons could in turn return to the original EU Member State as soon as the child is born having secured Irish citizenship and, thereby, circumventing the immigration laws of these EU Member States. The Bill fails to have any regard to our fellow Member States. The European Union has a common purpose in protecting citizenship rights and free movement of people and our present arrangements reflect and share that value.
There are similar potential impacts in relation to Northern Ireland and the Common Travel Area including North/South and East/ West impacts that would need to be carefully considered. Minister Stanton recommended in the Seanad, when dealing with a similar Bill, that before proceeding with any change of such wide ranging implications for ourselves, Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area and our fellow EU Member States, a minimum requirement would be to instigate a detailed analysis of the implications of such a unilateral action, including a detailed consultation with all impacted parties and the NGO community. Considering that this matter was debated nationally in 2004 and voted upon by the people, any changes at a minimum should involve a further national conversation on any alteration to the current fair procedures.
In the absence of any such action and for the reasons I have clearly outlined, the Government cannot support this Bill. I stand over the current pathways that are fair and accessible for those who wish to comply with our immigration provision.
This Government is a champion of integration and children’s rights. I assure the House that I will continue to exercise my Ministerial discretion in cases where humanitarian needs are presented to me and substantiated, especially those made in the best interests of the child.
However it is essential that our pathways are fair and not completely out of step with EU norms, as the proposal here not only conveys rights on those illegally in this State but those who may be living illegally in Northern Ireland as well and it provides for a pathway to EU citizenship that is not provided for in any other Member State. I do not believe that this is consistent with valuing responsible citizenship and therefore I urge the House to join the Government in opposing this Bill.