JEN­NIFER O’CONNELL

What about all the Erics we don’t hear about?

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

The woman sit­ting on a bench at the Luas stop out­side Heuston Sta­tion was in a bad mood. It was a skin- strip­pingly cold morn­ing, the kind that hits you like a phys­i­cal as­sault when you step on to the train plat­form. There was a malev­o­lent wind com­ing up off the river, and she was shiv­er­ing, in just a thin sports top and jeans.

As bod­ies surged to­wards the train in an ir­ri­ta­ble, early- morn­ing mass, and numb fin­gers jabbed at the ticket ma­chine be­side her, she sat there, grum­bling un­der her breath. She was look­ing for a bit of spare change. “I’m home­less,” she said plain­tively, loud enough now to turn a few sleepy heads.

“It’s all the bleed­ing African- Amer­i­cans com­ing over here to take our houses.”

You couldn’t get any more Ir­ish, I thought at the time. She may be racist, and wrong, but at least she’s try­ing to be po­lite about it.

I was wrong too, though. Racism and Ir­ish­ness aren’t in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, what­ever the un­for­tu­nate woman at Heuston was say­ing; what­ever the pan­icked news­pa­per head­lines in the af­ter­math of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion might have spec­u­lated.

“Ire­land, which seems in­tent on buck­ing the il­lib­eral tide in the West, is at it again,” went a re­cent ar­ti­cle in the New York Times, on pro­pos­als by the Labour Party to ex­tend cit­i­zen­ship to chil­dren who are born here and spend three years in the coun­try. “As other coun­tries move to tighten re­stric­tions on im­mi­gra­tion, the Ir­ish pub­lic is over­whelm­ingly in favour of a pro­posal to re­in­state birthright cit­i­zen­ship.”

The ar­ti­cle was about a Labour Party Bill on birthright cit­i­zen­ship, which was shot down by the Gov­ern­ment. But Minister for Jus­tice Char­lie Flana­gan said he would be “in­sti­tut­ing a process of con­sul­ta­tion on some of the is­sues raised”, af­ter a poll by the Sun­day Times found that 71 per cent of re­spon­dents would sup­port birthright cit­i­zen­ship – just slightly less than the 79 per cent who voted in favour of re­mov­ing it from the Con­sti­tu­tion in 2004.

We’ve got a taste for re­peal­ing, and now it seems we don’t want to stop.

As usual in small, damp, big- hearted Ire­land, it is the power of the per­sonal story that looks like it might have swayed pub­lic opin­ion – sto­ries such as that of a nine- year- old boy, Eric Zhi Ying Xue, who was born in Ire­land and was threat­ened with de­por­ta­tion along with his Chi­nese mother un­til a pe­ti­tion raised 50,000 sig­na­tures and the de­por­ta­tion was halted.

Any talk of birthright cit­i­zen­ship will spark con­cerns about peo­ple gam­ing the sys­tem. There will be talk of preg­nant women com­ing over to have their ba­bies in Ire­land and avail of our gen­er­ous asy­lum sys­tem, while they count down the months un­til they hit the three- year mark – at which point they’ll be free to go any­where in Ire­land, Bri­tain or Europe.

But any­one who thinks it’s that easy, or that our asy­lum sys­tem makes it that at­trac­tive, clearly hasn’t had much ex­pe­ri­ence of it.

I re­cently met a lit­tle boy of 11 who had spent his first six years liv­ing in a di­rect pro­vi­sion cen­tre, while his mother waited for her asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion to be pro­cessed. He re­mem­bers the cam­eras ev­ery­where, and the fact that you could only get your meals at cer­tain times. “There were the mean peo­ple, and the good peo­ple,” he said. “The mean peo­ple were like bul­lies. The good peo­ple were the peo­ple you could rely on. Some of the mean kids, their par­ents knew they were do­ing bad things and wouldn’t stop them.”

Di­rect pro­vi­sion cen­tres are no place to bring up chil­dren. They’re cer­tainly no place to leave fam­i­lies lan­guish­ing for five or six years.

A blan­ket rein­tro­duc­tion of birthright cit­i­zen­ship might not be an ideal so­lu­tion. But nei­ther is con­sign­ing fam­i­lies to in­def­i­nite limbo. Nei­ther is mak­ing chil­dren who are Ir­ish in ev­ery­thing but name state­less. Nei­ther is leav­ing fi­nal de­ci­sions to the dis­cre­tion of which­ever minister is in charge. Nei­ther is mak­ing the right to re­main a na­tional pop­u­lar­ity con­test, with names on a pe­ti­tion count­ing as votes. Nei­ther is re­ly­ing on Ir­ish solutions to tricky Ir­ish problems, just like we did for years with abor­tion.

Re­cently, the news of a US visa deal for Ir­ish cit­i­zens was widely cel­e­brated, al­though there were con­cerns about whether the un­doc­u­mented Ir­ish would be able to ap­ply. But what about the un­doc­u­mented in Ire­land? What about all the Erics we don’t hear about, be­cause their par­ents are stay­ing quiet and cling­ing to a thread of hope?

There are Ir­ish- born chil­dren who go to school here, play hurl­ing, call their lunch­box a “bosca lóin” – and have no idea that Ire­land isn’t their coun­try af­ter all, or that a let­ter might ar­rive at any mo­ment and rip their lives apart. Their par­ents say noth­ing about the de­por­ta­tion or­der that could come any day. In­stead, they kiss their chil­dren on the head, and send them into school with the packet of Tayto and the empty ce­real boxes for Ais­tear. They hope that some­thing will change and that they never have to say the words: it is the only home you’ve ever known, but Ire­land isn’t your coun­try af­ter all.

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