Can Europe Make It?

Rethinking citizenship: revisiting the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum a decade later

In June 2004, the Irish electorate voted to remove automatic entitlement to birthright citizenship (jus soli), which had been in place since the foundation of the Irish state. The government argued that the children of migrant parents did not have ‘sufficient connections’ to Ireland to take up citizenship in this way.

Aoileann Ní Mhurchú
7 August 2014

Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

In June 2004 the Irish electorate voted to remove automatic entitlement to birthright citizenship (jus soli), which had been in place since the foundation of the Irish state, in response to accusations by the Irish Government that migrant parents were abusing this provision by appealing to their child’s right, as an Irish citizen born in Ireland, to live in Ireland with their family. The Irish Government argued that the children of migrant parents did not have ‘sufficient connections’ to Ireland to do so.

This referendum followed similar changes elsewhere in the world – for example, India (1987), South Africa (1995), New Zealand (2006), UK (1981). The main reading of this referendum, which reflects broader citizenship analysis, is that it resulted in a lamentable turn towards a regulatory model of citizenship by descent and away from a nondiscriminatory inclusive regulatory model of birthright citizenship.

However I suggest that a different reading which shifts attention away from valorizing the unconditional birthright citizenship model is possible by focusing on the slogan which adorned the main banner at the 10 year anniversary rally for this referendum and read ‘Who lives here belongs here’. This slogan draws attention away from questions about citizenship regulation and challenges in important ways sedimented thinking about citizenship more generally. It results in uncomfortable questions about what we presume ‘progressive’ (inclusive) citizenship should look like.

Regulating citizenship through birthright

Birthright citizenship (jus soli) – where citizenship is acquired by virtue of being born somewhere (regardless of the status of one’s parents) is almost universally associated with a more inclusive way of regulating citizenship than that of citizenship by descent (jus sanguine) – where citizenship is acquired by virtue of the existing status of a parent. The former is seen as necessary to integrate immigrant populations into the societies in which they live and to ensure that illegality is not passed down through generations of migrants. Although there is recognition of different forms of birthright citizenship – some weaker forms with, for example, parental residence requirements – discussions about the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum and its implications, as well discussions more generally about citizenship, have focused their attention on valorising birthright citizenship as non-discriminatory and inclusive in contrast to the alternative model of citizenship by descent.[i]

The idea that birthright citizenship enables a greater legal right for a migrant family to stay in Ireland and be permitted to work based on the citizenship of a child is clearly the ‘better’ option given the current alternative of citizenship by descent. Valorising birthright citizenship nonetheless downplays, however, the problems which exist with even strong forms of birthright citizenship and which were evident in the exclusionary basis of the automatic model of birthright citizenship which had been in place in the Republic of Ireland prior to the 2004 amendment.

For example, Irish citizenship despite being based since the foundation of the state in birthright was nonetheless linked to the exclusion of women, Travellers, Jews and black Irish from the Irish statist project prior to 2004 given a particular construction of the very substance of what it meant to be Irish as white, male and settled. The 2004 Citizenship Referendum has been interpreted as an extension of this process of othering, rather than a break from it.

The existing emphasis on the importance of birthright citizenship therefore can be read as an ever elusive search for some idealised form of birthright citizenship which has never existed in Ireland; and attempts to locate it elsewhere have similarly been highly problematic - for example, in North America which maintains automatic birthright citizenship, Latin American and African American communities are constructed as Other and the children of migrant parents face indirect deportation on a regular basis given restrictions governing family reunification.

What has tended to happen in existing analysis of the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum and in broader discussions about citizenship, is a separation between the question of how citizenship is regulated from that what Mancini and Finlay refer to as  “the question of citizenship per se”.  As they indicate, the fear is that by focusing on the latter we stray into the territory of advocating “the abolition of national citizenship” which leaves us with nothing.

Mancini and Finlay, as do many others, advocate instead linking birthright citizenship to strong legislation governing the rights of naturalised citizens. Linking birthright citizenship to strong legislation governing the rights of naturalised citizens ignores however the problems with how ‘citizenship’ has come to be understood in a particular way in the first place – as a bounded project which reproduces the human-made distinctions between nations, countries and peoples.

The point, as eloquently discussed by Aylet Shachar in The Birthright Lottery is that the question of citizenship per se has already been defined via the idea that people are clearly from somewhere and rooted in some place. Even allowing for people to be rooted in more than one place under the existing birthright citizenship system (for example, through dual citizenship) is highly problematic in a world of ever increasing global migration where people experience multiple, fragmented and often contradictory forms of belonging.

Rethinking Citizenship per se

The simple slogan ‘Who Lives Here Belongs Here’ which adorned the banner held by those attending a rally in front of Leinster House (the Irish Parliament) on the 10th Anniversary of the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum in June this year can and should, I argue, be read as a call to rethink the question of citizenship per se. The slogan ‘Who Lives Here Belongs Here’ is not immediately a call for strengthening existing models of citizenship: for example, reinstating birthright citizenship, or stronger laws regarding naturalisation which ensure that naturalised and non-naturalised citizens are treated equally.

This slogan does not link the notion of ‘belonging’ to birth in or on the island of Ireland, nor to the idea of communities becoming rooted in Ireland (as opposed to rooted elsewhere). Rather, the notion of ‘belonging’ is linked in this slogan to the very fluid concept of ‘living’. By emphasizing the word ‘here’ rather than that of ‘Ireland’ it leaves open how an affiliation with Ireland might be experienced and expressed across local, national, regional or international levels. As such it neither simply strengthens nor undermines national citizenship because the idea of national affiliation(s) continue to exist; citizenship however is not defined exclusively through these.

By linking belonging to ‘living’ and thus the everyday, rather than to a particular status, this slogan in an unusual move emphasises the idea of tying citizenship to the social fact of membership which cuts across functional and practical ties as well as formal ties. That is, it links citizenship to functional ties such as friendships, solidarities, family relationships (broadly understood) and informal labour participation, rather than only to formal ties such as institutionally recognised labour participation, business ownership and legal residency. Belonging is not immediately associated with ‘inclusion’ here by being linked to a particular type of legal status such as citizenship by birth or naturalised citizenship; rather belonging is linked to participation with is often messy and results in both inclusive as well as exclusive experiences, through the concept of ‘living’.

What is particularly significant about this slogan and the context of citizenship in which it is being used is that it is arguably not a call to implement an idealised model of birthright or naturalised citizenship – with stronger legal controls linked to equality legislation – in the future. Rather, it can be read as a call to recognise an existing form of political membership within Ireland. However this is a form of political membership which requires recognition of the ways in which migrants in Irish society participate as political subjects often in an unconventional sense to how ‘political participation’ is traditionally linked to formal institutional participation.

As groups such as the Immigrant Council of Ireland have pointed out, forms of non-conventional political participation in Irish society by migrants have in the past included demonstrations, sit-ins, hunger strikes, boycotts, trade union politics, pressure groups, the direct mobilisation of ethnic communities, humanitarian movements, environmentalist movements, neighbourhood committees, and consumer associations. This political subjectivity cuts across their roles as students, as volunteers, as part-time or domestic workers, as husbands, as wives, as friends, as partners, and/or as neighbours, rather than being distinct from these informal social membership functions.

This is not to deny the importance of understanding how those involved in the rally on the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum were bringing attention to the way in which families of children born in Ireland are being split up and/or forced to linger in abject conditions living their lives in limbo for many years, and as such pointing to the failures of strong legal provisions in Ireland for migrant families.

The process of the rally itself – a form of political engagement – can also be read, however, I suggest as drawing attention to the ongoing role of migrants and their families in Irish political community: and a new type of citizenship which they present. This engagement can be understood as a form of participation which is defined through a struggle about what it means to be recognised as a ‘citizen’, rather than a search for recognition and status within a pre-existing strengthened birthright model or naturalisation model of citizenship.

What makes this idea of citizenship disorienting and confusing is that it does not seek to quantify and reassert fixed ‘connections’ to Ireland to counteract the challenge by the Irish Government in 2004 that these were lacking among migrant families. Instead it points to the simple fact of ‘living’; in doing so it points to day-to-day interactions among people as relevant in themselves and for themselves rather than as relevant only because they point to something deeper which indicates sedimented roots and ties to somewhere. Nor does this idea of citizenship participate in the notion that migrant issues can simply be integrated into national concerns; rather than highlighting a new consensus it allows for fluid, overlapping and contradictory forms of belonging to come together through encounter and contestation(s).

This is disorienting and confusing for those of us in the Western world who see citizenship as an aspiring accumulation of social, political and economic rights, aligned with ideas of ‘democracy’, ‘nation’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘republic’ and/or ‘the state’ which need to be simply strengthened. The slogan ‘Who Belongs Here Lives Here’ neither appeals to these nor simply undermines them but opens up discussion about citizenship linked to these concepts by grounding them in the fluidity of the everyday.

The underlying aspect of citizenship, as Engin Isin points out in these pages, is a history of how claims to rights have been established, expanded and limited on an ongoing basis. What the 10th Anniversary of the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum demonstrates is that if we are to understand better how “people across the world are inventing new ways of defining and claiming democratic rights as citizens” which challenge Eurocentric models of citizenship and their universal pretensions, we need to be prepared to step away from tried and tested models such as birthright citizenship and embrace more “ambiguous” forms of citizenship which are being attested to from the margins.  


[i] Bhabha, J., ‘The “Mere Fortuity of Birth”? Children, Mothers, Borders, and the Meaning of Citizenship’ in S. Benhabib and J. Resnik (eds), Migrations and Mobilities: Citizenship, Borders, and Gender (New York: New York University Press, 2009), pp. 187–227; Howard, M., The Politics of Citizenship in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Mancini, J. M. and Finlay, G., ‘“Citizenship Matters” ’: Lessons from the Irish Citizenship Referendum’, American Quarterly 60(3), 2008, pp. 575–99

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