Wednesday 24 April 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Suddenly everyone wants to be Irish - but it's vital they know what citizenship means'

Citizens in waiting: Candidates attend their citizenship ceremony at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last year.
Photo: Steve Humphreys
Citizens in waiting: Candidates attend their citizenship ceremony at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last year. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

The day after the Brexit vote, the Irish embassy in London ran out of citizenship application forms. Ever since, people have been scrambling around, shaking family trees, trying to find an Irish granny to ensure they will still be able to freely travel and work in the EU. But should we be a soft touch for so-called 'passport tourists' in search of a nationality post-Brexit?

The stampede to claim Irish heritage shows no sign of slowing down, with almost a quarter of a million applications for Irish passports submitted in less than three months by anxious Britons. Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney says the figures represent a 30pc increase on the same period last year.

It's not just the Brits either. The number of passport applications from Americans rose by 36pc after Donald Trump's election victory in 2016. 2018 was a record year, with the highest number (860,000) of Irish passports ever issued.

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During St Patrick's weekend in 2018, more than 2,500 people applied for an Irish passport online. Officials are expecting that number to double after this weekend's global Paddywhackery. Traditionally, St Patrick's Day is the one day in the year when everyone is aware of the Irish .

Why do it? Well, being Irish is seen as being likeable, cute and eternally up for the craic. More practically you are entitled to travel freely and work in any of the European Union countries. You don't need to apply for a work permit for this - it comes with the passport. Once you've worked in an EU country for a certain period of time, you're automatically entitled to unemployment and pension benefits as well as health care.

It's fairly easy to get an Irish passport - we currently have one of the broadest sets of criteria for obtaining one. Irish citizenship law is based on the so-called 'ius soli' - if you are born in Ireland, including in the North, you are entitled to be Irish. These long-standing principles were confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement.

Anybody born on the island of Ireland before 2005 is entitled, as is everyone from Northern Ireland. If you were born in Ireland after January 1, 2005, and at least one parent was an Irish citizen at the time, you qualify for a passport. Relatives from other European countries count too, so around 10pc of the British population, excluding Northern Ireland, qualifies for Irish papers. Even if neither of your parents were born in Ireland, you may claim citizenship through an Irish grandparent.

For years, the State has been happy to hand out passports for all sorts of different reasons. Sometimes, we just sold them to wealthy people. And, presumably because the Government is happy with this arrangement, we still do that.

In the '90s, the Irish passport was for sale and all the usual requirements under the Citizenship Act 1986 could be waived by a government minister.

Passports could be bought by anybody willing to make a large investment in the country, live here for a while and be our best friend forever. This 'economic citizenship' scheme operated by the Irish government allowed anybody to make a one-off investment in return for instant citizenship within 90 days.

One of the most notorious passport recipients - Sultan Khalid Bin Mahfouz - was a Saudi Arabian banker who was being investigated in America over fraud in 1990, when he and his family bought Irish passports. Apparently, they were handed personally to him by Charlie Haughey. This particular scheme was eventually scrapped, mostly because the public was uncomfortable about the opportunity it gave politicians to sell Irish passports.

Mossad reportedly used eight "Irish" passports in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010. It was later reported they were fake. But in 2012, the passports-for-sale scheme was reintroduced by a cash-strapped Irish government and in 2013, to encourage higher uptake, the cost of the cheapest 'investment' scheme available to obtain residency and then citizenship was halved to €500,000.

Many of the holders of new Irish passports will know something about Ireland already. They might have heard something about our obsessions with land and language, religion and rebellion. They might have an Irish mammy or have read some of Yeats's poetry. Some of them won't, and I'm not sure we should celebrate a casual attitude to holding Irish citizenship.

Gaining Irish citizenship should be about something bigger than the right to still go on your summer holiday to Italy. After all, new passport holders now have a say in our country and they should have some care about it too.

We should value our citizenship more. We should award it its full value. Unless we have a sense of what our citizenship means and have a conversation about that, we can't really criticise anyone who abandons their Irish citizenship to pay less tax.

And people wearing their leprechaun hats and binge drinking on Paddy's Day should remember that we are not just Irish on March 17, we are Irish for 365 days a year, every year.

So, go off and apply for your Irish passport if you want but, please, when you get it and look at the score for Amhrán na bhFiann on its pages, understand what the words mean and think about the little country that gave you the right to citizenship.

Irish Independent

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