Young Eric deserves better than Ireland’s ‘race card’ politics
2018-11-01 14:25:14 -


By Aodhán Ó Ríordáin


The 2004 Citizenship Referendum was one of the worst experiences in my political life. Ironically enough, it happened at the same time as one of my best experiences, as I was elected in that year’s local election for the first time.

The Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats coalition was facing heavy losses in that year’s local and European elections, and needed to find an issue to stop the rot. So they scraped the bottom of the barrel and tried to play the race card. They didn’t just play the card, they dealt the entire deck.

Then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell claimed that the masters of the maternity hospitals were beating down his door because heavily pregnant women were arriving from abroad in order to gain citizenship. He couldn’t come up with any facts or figures, but he rammed through the Oireachtas a citizenship referendum bill and debased Irish politics at the same time. And Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were perfectly happy to support it.

The proposal was to strip automatic entitlement to Irish citizenship from a child born in Ireland of non-citizen parents. For a country with a history of immigration like we have, it was a nasty political trick to play for some cheap votes.

As the election continued and the referendum debate intensified, the level of nastiness rose. Outrageous things were claimed at doorsteps about the entitlements of immigrants in Ireland. And on the election date itself there were reports of African-Irish families being booed in a polling station in Dublin. Labour was one of the only political entities to oppose that referendum at the time and certainly the only one to erect posters to state our position clearly.

Even after the glow of a local election victory, I swore that I would never forgive those who proposed the referendum. We warned that someday this would come back to haunt us. And sure enough, a case has gathered momentum in Bray in recent weeks centred around a nine-year-old boy named Eric Zhi Ying Xue, who is being threatened with deportation to a country that he doesn’t know from a country that is his home.

What is also concerning is the fact that this case is only coming to national prominence because of the support of a local cabinet minister, who is backing the campaign to keep Eric at home in Ireland. Simon Harris is acting in a similar vein to Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Justice who successfully intervened in the case of a young man in his constituency who was also faced with deportation a few weeks ago. The fact that our system only seems to react when a local TD happens to be a cabinet minister proves that the system is flawed.

The Labour Party wants to use this window of opportunity to propose legislation to ensure children born in Ireland can become Irish citizens after a period of time, and can remain here. It is hypocrisy of the highest order that the Taoiseach has an envoy in the United States seeking rights for undocumented Irish while in our own country children born here are threatened with deportation.

I am proud that the Labour Party opposed this referendum in 2004, but we are now seeing the direct result of it. It’s all very well for these ministers to put themselves on the side of the angels in a specific case in their own constituency, but this barbaric deportation of Irish children is the logical consequence of their previous populist posturing.

We are better than this. Eric deserves better. So do we all.


Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour Party Senator.

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