Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Ó Snodaigh challenges McDowell's claim that referendum proposal is not racist

22 April, 2004


Speaking on the Dáil debate on the citizenship referendum, Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Human Rights Aengus Ó Snodaigh challenged Minister McDowell's claim that the referendum proposal was not racist in intent saying he had "conspicuously avoided an argument that the proposal will not be racist in effect".

Deputy Ó Snodaigh went on to say that Mr. McDowell had himself violated his responsibility as a signatory to the Anti-Racist Protocol for Political Parties and that as Minister for Justice and Equality he had "a special responsibility to challenge racist misconceptions, not reinforce them as he has cynically done to justify his own ideological agenda." He said that Mr. McDowell's "resource-scarcity theory" used "common myths about immigrants to cover up the lack of healthcare and housing resulting from his government's consistent underfunding of public services." He said that the Minister and his Government "are hoping to appeal to fear, prejudice and a narrow conception of self-interest. "

Full text of speech follows:

This proposal is another front in the Minister's war on a rights-based society, his war on immigration, and his war on the Good Friday Agreement. Michael McDowell has earned himself the title of Minister for injustice and inequality.

I challenge the Minister's claim that this proposal is not racist and will not encourage racism, and I note that the Minister has taken great care to point out that the measure is not racist in intent, and that he has conspicuously avoided an argument that the proposal will not be racist in effect. This is because he knows full well what the negative effect on Irish society will be, and has concluded that nothing will deter him from his cutthroat pursuit of political gains no matter how high the price ? whether it be wrecking the peace process or raising racial tensions.

The proposal to grant some people the right of citizenship by birth but to remove the right of citizenship by birth from other babies with a different ethnic background is nothing less than an introduction of citizenship based on race, and such a proposal is more appropriate to a cross-burning than a constitutional amendment.

The arguments presented in support of this proposal are profoundly flawed, based on partial evidence, and framed to aggravate pre-existing prejudices. This is an unacceptable risk, as racism in this state has already prompted a rising level of hate crime, which has resulted in assaults and deaths.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that the Supreme Court decision of 2003 reaffirmed the right of Irish children born to non-national parents to citizenship. There is nothing in that decision that justifies the Government's proposal to strip children in this social category of their citizenship rights.

I submit that Deputy McDowell's conduct in publicising the proposal has violated his responsibility both as Minister and as a signatory to the Anti-Racist Protocol for Political Parties that he reaffirmed little more than a month ago. He has done this in three ways.

Firstly, he has propagated the pejorative term and concept of so-called "citizenship tourism" or "baby tourism", and he has deliberately misused aggregate statistics in order to do so. In effect, the Minister is encouraging Irish people to look at all pregnant women of non-Irish ethnic origin with suspicion. He is inviting Irish people to presume that all women of non-Irish ethnic origin pushing their Irish children in prams got pregnant and had these babies for one reason only, to scam the Irish taxpayer, to steal our hard-earned money, to hoover up the healthcare and housing that is "rightfully" ours. And most hurtfully of all, he is encouraging Irish people to look at these children and to see them as not fully Irish because their ethnic background is not Irish. Underlying his arguments is the fundamentally flawed racist premise that the motivations of Irish migrants are somehow different, inherently more trustworthy, and more legitimate than the motivations of non-Irish migrants. If these ideas are not racist, then I don't know what they are. As Minister for Justice and Equality Michael McDowell has a special responsibility to challenge these misconceptions, not reinforce them as he has cynically done to justify his own ideological agenda.

Thirdly, the Minister has also promoted public misunderstanding of the impact of immigration on the economy. The Minister is actively promoting the myth that non-nationals drain scarce economic resources. International evidence shows that this is simply not true. The Minister conveniently ignores the accepted fact that immigration is an engine of the economy, and that statistically immigrants are net economic contributors. Not only does immigration bring in workers who pay taxes into the Exchequer, but it is also the only factor slowing the ageing of the population. Why does this matter? An ageing population imposes costs and income constraints on a society. The taxes that young immigrants pay and the children they produce help to buoy an economy that would otherwise be saddled with ever increasing pension costs and a dwindling pool of young workers to pay into pension funds. So economically speaking, not only do we need immigrants, but we need their children too. What is most disgusting about the Minister's resource-scarcity theory is that it uses common myths about immigrants to cover up the lack of healthcare and housing resulting from his government's consistent underfunding of public services, including their cutback of maternity beds in the 1980s that has never been reversed, and their refusal to raise social spending in this state to meet the EU average.

All of these actions not only exploit but reinforce and encourage racial prejudice and stereotyping, and as such they amount to a violation of the responsibilities of signatories to the Anti-Racist Protocol for Political Parties, who have agreed not to incite hatred or prejudice on the grounds of nationality, or ethnic or national origin. The Minister knows that his proposal will fan the flames of racism in this country, but he is prepared to do this in the hopes of electoral gain. It is the height of Ministerial irresponsibility and once again calls into question the fitness of Michael McDowell for this post.

To return to the issue of racism in effect. The outcome of the Government's proposal will be the unequal treatment of Irish children on the basis of theirethnic origin. Children born in Ireland who are ethnically Irish will get preferential treatment, with their rights unchanged and recognised in law.

Children born in Ireland who have a different ethnic origin will get second-class treatment, with their constitutional rights removed. This is nothing less than an ethnic cleansing of the constitution. It is repulsive and it is wrong.

The Government are constructing this as an election issue in order to deflect attention away from their abysmal record on health, housing, education, and indeed, the Minister's refusal to confront the problem of high crime rates and failures of policing in working class communities. The Government is particularly trying to scapegoat non-nationals for the crisis in the hospitals system to deflect from their mismanagement over almost ten years. This is totally unacceptable. The Irish people can see through this pre-election ploy and won't fall for it.

The Minister and his Government are hoping to appeal to fear, prejudice and a narrow conception of self-interest. But I believe they underestimate the Irish people, the vast majority of whom want to see Ireland mature into an equitable and multicultural society, and who also want to challenge racism. I believe Minister that the Irish people will reject your attempts to divide and conquer, and demonstrate that they want a future United Ireland that is inclusive andstrong in its diversity. I believe that if this referendum is forced on the people, they will confirm once more that they share Sinn Féin's vision of an Ireland of Equals.

Finally, I confirm that my party considers the children in question to be Irish, not non-national. Sinn Féin claims these children as part of the Irish nation, and wants to ensure they are cherished equally. The Minister is wrong when he says that the inclusion of such people in the citizenry was an unforeseen result of the Good Friday Agreement. It is in fact an extension of the inclusive republican logic first outlined in the 1916 Proclamation.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has pointed out that the Government's proposal in fact does not close any alleged loophole creation by the Good Friday Agreement. Anyone born here since 1921 has been entitled to Irish citizenship by virtue of birth. This has been law in Ireland for 83 years. If we choose to reverse the basis of citizenship from jus solis (or the right by birth) to jus sanguinis we will not only be contradicting the constitutional principle of equality, we will also be abandoning a commonality with over 40 countries with whom we share a republican common law legal heritage. Large western democracies such as the United States and Canada, as well as India and New Zealand and almost the whole of South and Central America and the Caribbean provide directly for citizenship by birth in their constitutions. Frankly, I don't accept that there is any legitimate imperative for us to change our citizenship law to bring them in line with EU standards. In the five referenda in this state on EU membership, constitutional provision for Irish citizenship was never raised as an issue. I can therefore only conclude that either there is no connection between EU membership and Irish citizenship, or that the Government has come under pressure by the British Government or other EU member states to change our constitution. If this is the case, then the proposal will be even less acceptable to the Irish people.

In conclusion, a constitution and the rights it confers are not something to be reversed at breakneck speed or for electoral or any other expedience. What is happening today would not be acceptable in other constitutional democracies.

I also cannot accept the idea of vesting the Government of the day with all the ultimate power to define citizenship ? that the citizen would have no such protections in the constitution, and that there would no longer be the requirement of a popular mandate by referendum. This effectively holds the nation hostage to the whims of a particular administration.

This is precisely why we should not be discussing any such proposal without the benefit of the informed opinion of the Human Rights Commission. Sinn Féin will be opposing this proposal because it is irresponsible. Instead we want comprehensive immigration law reform to establish a positive, compassionate, human rights-compliant and anti-racist immigration law that will pave the way for Ireland's transition to a truly multicultural, equitable society.

I urge the Irish Government to distance itself from the McDowell Agenda. If they do they will earn the respect of the Irish people and open the possibility of creating a proper social consensus on immigration law reform."ENDS

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