A chance to show generosity
A chance to show generosity

By John Waters

Sometime in the 1990s, when Ireland was at the peak of its football mania, a friend described to me the changed nature of social behaviour some distance away from the pitch.

You might be standing outside a pub on a summer’s evening, he said, drinking elbow-to-elbow with friends and strangers, when someone behind would jostle your business arm, spilling drink over your suit. The automatic response, he observed, was to let the perpetrator have a mouthful, but then, “you would remember that you were An Ambassador For Ireland, so you would turn around with a brotherly grin and say: ‘Sorry! No harm done!’”

The moral has to do with leadership: it is possible to inspire people to be better. That was when Irish soccer fans were “the best-behaved in the world”, taking pride in showing the world how much they could drink and stay nice. We need only reflect on recent episodes involving drink in a different context to understand that the phenomenon was neither natural nor spontaneous. A great leader had made clear what he expected from us, and the prospect of Big Jack standing in the centre-circle, roaring his disapproval at the stands, was enough to keep even the most primal of instincts in check. Great leaders tell their peoples who they are and how they should be in the world, and in doing so make possible previously undreamt-of transformations.

The referendum on citizenship provides such an opportunity to say who we are, offering diametrically opposing possibilities. We can be mean or generous, fearful or great of spirit. For the moment we are being led as though there was nothing great about us at all.

This is an important moment in the making of the Ireland we will bequeath our children. For decades, the politicians who sponsor this amendment have been bleating about change and how we must embrace it, how we must be pluralist and forward-looking and open and modern. Until recently, this was mostly hot air, because in truth Ireland was changing only in relatively superficial ways, to do with development or infrastructure or social behaviour. Now, moment to moment, Ireland is truly changing. Our streets are alive with people who have come here in hope because, perhaps, they have heard about the hundred thousand welcomes.

The influx of people from eastern Europe alone is the most potentially transformational happening of my lifetime. That people of such appetites, energy and charm will remake this nation, there can be no doubt. Although I opposed our membership of the European club - for quite separate reasons - I welcome this as offering a new set of possibilities for Ireland, but even more fundamentally because it is something we have wished upon ourselves and cannot now turn our backs on.

I don’t doubt that the citizenship referendum, although ostensibly unconnected to the recent expansion of the EU, is related, both in its inspiration and in the response it is engendering among the electorate, to negative sentiment about the kind of society we have chosen to become. Such fears are natural, but it is for our leaders to take us beyond our natures.

We could exaggerate the practical significance of this amendment. Since the Supreme Court clarified the matter, the numbers of non-national women coming to give birth here have been tailing off, so there is no danger of our being “swamped” as a result of the loophole we are required to undo. Compared to the impact of EU-expansion, this is a non-phenomenon.

But this also means that no substantive deprivation would result from a Yes vote, as the numbers of children likely to be affected would probably diminish to nil once the full implication of the Supreme Court decision had been absorbed by the zeitgeist.

Perhaps the only significance of this amendment, then, is what it says about us. Are we big or small? Do we mean a word of what we say about progress and modernity, or are we just mean? Do we place any store in our reputation for altruism in the world? Are we happy to be ruled by fears?

Bunreacht na hEireann is a remarkably constructive document, concerned with building a coherent nation and society. Its objective, as emerges from every page, is to embrace life, not deny it. This amendment, if passed, will change that in a manner so unequivocal as perhaps to haunt our national karma forever.

Has anyone, for example, considered what it might feel like, in 50 or 70 years, to belong to a nation in which some future Mandela or Havel had been excluded from citizenship by the measure we will vote on next week, reducing Ireland, among the nations of the earth, to the cameo of the innkeeper who turned away the Redeemer?

That such a spiritual burden is being invited for no practical advantage is beyond comprehension. But I still think that, notwithstanding the leadership deficit, we will defeat this amendment, because we are better than it seeks to paint us.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News