Irish Republican News · April 19, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
SDLP blasts referendum on citizenship

The nationalist SDLP has attacked the Dublin government for its plans for a June referendum which threatens the Irish citizenship rights of northerners and the Good Friday Agreement.

In an angry letter to Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the leader of the nationalist SDLP Mark Durkan, said his community viewed the move by the Minister for Justice Mr McDowell with “profound concern”.

Mr Durkan told the Taoiseach the Good Friday Agreement had given “clear promises” in respect of the citizenship rights of all people in the Six Counties.

He criticised the failure of the Government to consult parties in the North about the referendum.

Hardline unionist Ian Paisley has also claimed the referendum put paid to the argument that the Agreement could not be changed unilaterally.

Under the 1998 Agreement anyone born on the island of Ireland, on either side of the border, is entitled to Irish citizenship.

However, the Dublin government has pointed to concerns that some non-nationals are having babies in the country to bypass asylum regulations.

Last night the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Dempsey, rejected calls to abandon the poll.

“We don’t see this as a change to the Good Friday agreement and I don’t think it is helpful that the SDLP (does),” Mr Dempsey told RTE’s Week in Politics.

He added: “The decision has been made in relation to the referendum. It will take place on the 11th of June.”

The Taoiseach said the current immigration system “is being abused. Citizenship is not something that can be just used by people, to come into a country for the benefit of getting citizenship.

“That cannot be something that can be tolerated or allowed to continue. And it’s not going to be, unless the people decide that they don’t care about it.”

However, the SDLP leader, Mr Durkan, remained critical: “We now have a situation where we appear to be on an approach that borders on drive-by change to the Constitution and the Good Friday agreement.”

All the opposition parties in the 26 County Dail have accused the government of using the referendum to maximise gain for itself in the local and European elections, all to be held on June 11.

Fianna Fail is particularly keen to maximise the turnout of its conservative voters as it faces an increasing challenge from Sinn Fein and the Green Party, both set to campaign against the referendum.

The Dail prepares this week to debate the legislation necessary to hold the referendum. Opposition parties are to table a motion asking for the referendum to be deferred.

Meanwhile, the British government is understood to have legal advice assuring it that the referendum does not contravene the agreement. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs is understood to want London to agree to a joint declaration on the matter.

The British and Irish Governments have said they will be “indicating their position” over the next 24 hours.

The following is the text of Mark Durkan’s letter to the Taoiseach, dated 12 April, 2004.

Dear Taoiseach,

I write with profound concern about the proposal to amend Article 9 of the Constitution in a form which would diminish the import of Article 2 and the Good Friday Agreement.

That the proposed new Article would have implications for the Agreement and Article 2 is clear. What those implications are is not fully clear.

This not only makes the amendment’s content questionable but renders unreasonable the hasty referendum date proposed to coincide with the European election.

I understand that your government has had some discussion with the British government in pursuit of a joint declaration on the amendment’s standing in the context of the British-Irish Agreement of 10 April 1998.

That Agreement is a part - and an instrument - of the Good Friday Agreement. It gives expression to the constitutional premises of the Good Friday Agreement and provides clear promises in respect of citizenship entitlements and choices to all born in the north.

Therefore it should not be treated as the property of the two governments to arbitrarily re-interpret or adjust.

It is perturbing that the Irish government did not choose to raise its plans with northern parties, not even in the context of the Review of the Agreement’s workings. Even in the absence of a coherent working review structure, the government has had the opportunity of the scheduled Tuesdays to brief and sound parties on a bilateral basis. It seems that the choice was made not to engage the northern parties on this matter, but to instead dispose of our interests by way of a joint declaration, with the British government, helping to qualify provisions of the Agreement.

Such an approach raises serious concerns and damages confidence on a number of levels - and not just for people and parties in the north.

Legitimate concerns about the effects of the proposed amendment will not be credibly assuaged by a dubious “warranty” in the form of a joint declaration of unclear standing.

The worrying irony has not been lost on us that while the DUP is properly told that the constitutional fundamentals of the Agreement cannot be re-negotiated, the Irish government moves to revisit a key facet of its balanced constitutional essence. The precedent this would establish will hardly be lost on others.

Nor will it be lost on people in the north that one effect of the proposed amendment would be to allow citizenship to be redefined and qualified by statute in future. The perceived lack of regard for the rights and insights of Irish citizens in the north, in the context of the proposed referendum preparations by the government, well serve to corroborate and compound fears that their citizenship status might be further compromised in the future with the readier convenience of statute alone.

Under the Agreement, people are meant to be free from harbouring any such fears about their identity and interests.

In the aftermath of previous referenda, you have reflected on the damaging effects of fear and confusion. You accordingly took steps to ensure fuller consideration and engender more comfort in respect of key European issues using the Forum model. Given the implications of the proposed amendment for citizens north and south, for the Agreement - and, therefore, for parties north and south - and not ignoring other ramifications, more collective consideration and respectful consultation is warranted.

The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation is a ready-made and relevant model. I urge you to convene the Forum not only to allow parties air and share their views but to commission evidence and advice on key issues of concern.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Durkan,
SDLP leader

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