Govt urged to allay SDLP citizenship fears

The Government has yet to allay SDLP concerns in Northern Ireland about Friday’s referendum on Irish citizenship, it was claimed today.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan said he was still waiting for the Government to honour a promise that it would respond to his party’s concerns about the proposal to change the entitlement of children born in Northern Ireland to become Irish citizens.

Voters on Friday are being asked by the government to deny Irish citizenship to children born in Northern Ireland to non-nationals.

The Irish government claimed the current rule which grants citizenship is being exploited to enable people to live in other EU countries.

Nationalists in Northern Ireland, however, have insisted that the right to Irish citizenship for people born in Northern Ireland is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, and they have accused the Government of sending out a message to unionists that the 1998 accord can be renegotiated.

Mr Durkan said today: “The Taoiseach responded to a letter I sent to him in April. I wrote another letter expressing some outstanding concerns that I had.

“I was assured at meetings I had with the Taoiseach and with junior minister Brian Lenihan, and through a meeting my colleagues had with the Justice Minister Michael McDowell, that my concerns would be answered.

“I was told that they could be answered satisfactorily and that there was Attorney General’s advice to cover the points that I had raised.

“I still await my reply.”

Mr Durkan revealed that advisers to Minister McDowell had also indicated they would respond to his concerns about the referendum proposal satisfactorily in return for his endorsement for a Yes vote on Friday.

However the SDLP leader refused to take a position until he received that reply.

“I want to see the reply first before I decide what my response is going to be,” the Foyle Assembly member insisted.

“I am not getting into ultimatums or anything else.

“I wrote to the Taoiseach. He wrote back to me and in the reply he addressed, in fairness, some of the concerns I raised.

"He failed to address some other concerns and also answered at length some concerns that I did not raise at all.

“I sent a reply to the Taoiseach setting out what the remaining concerns were and I discussed those one day in Parliament Buildings (at Stormont) with Brian Lenihan.

“The reply from me has gone to the Taoiseach but I am still awaiting a reply.

“I want to ensure that if this proposal is passed and it means citizenship will be something that is a matter for legislation in the Dáil, that is something that will always have to be referred back to the people in a referendum and I want to ensure that the Oireachtas will not legislate differently for citizenship in terms of people who are born in the north of Ireland as opposed to those born in the south.”

Mr Durkan said the issue of citizenship was of fundamental importance to the Good Friday Agreement and also to the Irish Constitution.

He said it was the one section of the constitution that was about everybody living on the island.

The SDLP, he said, wanted a more reasoned approach to the debate.

“It isn’t something that should be changed on a drive-by basis,” the former Stormont Deputy First Minister said.

Mr Durkan also criticised the Government’s handling of the issue, claiming the referendum had inflicted damage on the idea that the Good Friday Agreement was sacrosanct because it was the will of all the people of Ireland.

“Regardless of the vote on Friday, that political damage has been done,” he said.

“The DUP have the precedent that they are happy to cite and re-cite about unilateral changes and modifications to the agreement.”

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