In light of growing anxiety over the referendum on Britain’s exit from the EU, the demand for Irish passports from British-born people has shot up.
The figures are quite substantial: between 2014 and 2015, applications from adults born in England, Scotland and Wales with one Irish grandparent have risen by more than 33%, while applications from those with one or more Irish parent have risen by 11%, and in Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain but nevertheless entitles anyone born there to choose Irish citizenship, first-time applications for Irish passports have risen by 14%. The fear of losing their EU citizenship, it seems, is leading many people to consider trading the British Lion and Unicorn for the rather fetching Irish harp. And why the hell not?
It’s not that Britain’s exit from the EU would be likely to radically affect the rights of British citizens in Europe. But for many people opting to claim Irish Citizenship, it’s more a matter of principle, a desire to maintain their “European-ness”. For example, Glen O’Hara, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University whose grandfather was born in Northern Ireland, told the Guardian: “I am a European Union citizen as things stand, I regard myself as a European and I don’t see why anyone else has the right to drag me out of that.”
In my opinion, that’s a very compelling case. Wanting to retain your status as a European citizen by claiming an Irish citizenship to which you are already legally entitled is perfectly justified, regardless of other factors such as where you live or what your upbringing was like. Moreover, this presents an interesting new angle on a question I’ve been grappling with for a while now, especially since I’m currently in the process of renewing my own Irish passport: what exactly does it mean to be an Irish citizen, and who has the right to call themselves Irish?
I was born in Northern Ireland, and lived there for 18 years until I moved to Glasgow. My father was also born in Northern Ireland, to a Protestant family. He went to school in England but moved back as a young adult. My mother was born in Scotland to English parents, and moved to Northern Ireland over 35 years ago. Growing up, I always felt more Irish than British. My parents opted to give me an Irish Passport, until I was old enough to make an informed decision and to opt for it myself. I personally view Northern Ireland as part of Ireland (although I equally respect those who view it as part of Britain), and my choice of passport simply reflects that.
However, I’ve recently been getting into debates over my right to call myself Irish. According to one Northern Irish friend, who comes from a Protestant background and whose upbringing was more segregated than mine (they only ever attended Protestant schools, whereas I attended Integrated schools), it’s misguided of people like me to call ourselves Irish, because we haven’t faced the marginalisation and oppression of Irish Catholics, and we have no claim to their culture.
I thought about this. In school, I learned the Irish language, went to ceilidhs, and sang Irish Traditional songs in choir. I even went to summer school in the Donegal Gaeltacht – a quintessential Irish tradition, the purpose of which is to completely immerse young people in the language and culture. My school placed a great deal of emphasis on the message that these aspects of Irish culture were for everyone, regardless of religion, and should be embraced or at least accepted by everyone if Northern Ireland is to have a peaceful future. Yet some would argue that this exposure to Irish traditions is not enough to make one Irish, and that claiming that it is amounts to cultural appropriation: just another oppressive act by historically privileged Protestants.
I can see where they’re coming from. But recently I’ve decided that I don’t agree. This is because there’s more than one way to be Irish, and it means a lot of different things for different people. If anything, the recent trend of British-born people claiming Irish or dual citizenship for the sake of remaining European adds weight to that. Irishness is not synonymous with Catholicism, or with cultural practices that have traditionally been the domain of Irish Catholics. According to the law, it’s not even synonymous with having lived in Ireland. In fact, one of the few things it is synonymous with is the European Union. And that’s something that really is an important part of my identity.
That’s not to say that you should deny the troubled relationship between Irish identity and Ulster Protestantism. In fact, it’s important not to. I may not identify as a Protestant (I’m not religious and have no affinity with Protestant or Ulster-Scots culture), but I accept that my ancestors benefitted from privilege because of it, and that some of them fought for Ireland to remain a part of Britain (although there were also plenty of Irish Protestants who fought for its independence). But that doesn’t mean I endorse their actions, or that I have to be bound by their political views.
Moreover, a longstanding history of mixed-marriages combined with the ongoing process of integration in Northern Ireland means that Northern Irish identity is never going to be a black-and-white issue. Having the freedom to choose Irish, British or dual citizenship is the logical and right step to take if we’re going to shake ourselves free from the conflict of the past. The fact that more and more people whose only link to Ireland is via a grandparent or even a great-grandparent are claiming Irish citizenship for the sake of staying part of the EU surely calls for a re-defining of national identity, one that’s outward looking rather than bogged down in historical grievances.
I like having an Irish passport. It’s a simple as that. And now, with the threat of Brexit looming round the corner, I like it even more. I like the fact that more people are now considering getting one, and I don’t believe anyone has to justify that choice. Even if you make the decision solely based on the Irish passport being prettier than the British one (because it definitely is), the conversation opened up by the rush for Irish passports is one that we can all benefit from.
[Cat Acheson – @cat_acheson]