The Great Passport Controversy

 One of the most interesting things about living in Norn Iron is that we can “choose” to be Irish citizens, British citizens (previously subjects) or curiously……both.

Frankly I did not choose to be Irish….. I am Irish. I did not choose to have blue eyes……..I have blue eyes. And I readily accept that a lot of people who live in Norn Iron see things in a completely different way. Fair play to them. I dont want to make decisions for them.

Yet the concept of “dual nationality” leads to interesting compromses..for some. In the bad old days, having an Irish passport was regarded as a bit “iffy”. Not the ideal means of identification to hand over at the Police desk at Leeds/Bradford airport in September 1972. Not the ideal means of identification to hand over to a RUC patrol on a dark night in County Tyrone in 1979.

Things change. Irish AND British passport application forms are held in Norn Iron post offices. And for any retired person with too much time on his hands, there is a lot of pleasure in going into post offices and asking for an “Irish passport application form”. The response is usually and quite properly neutral. But sometimes “Caoimhe” or “Trevor” on the other side can be a bit too helpful or pretend not to know much about it all.

When I flew off to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics, I was standing in line behind a RUC officer (a competitor on the Irish team) whose passport was as green as mine. It has always been the case that people do things for convenience rather than making great political points. My Auntie Sheila …..republican to the core…..travelled to Lourdes on a British passport. It was cheaper than an Irish one.

Back in the early 1970s, it was often the case that doctored British passports seized from illegal immigrants (from the Indian sub continent) to Britain were often found to have been issued in the Belfast office. Students from Queens University supplemented vacation money by travelling to France on an Irish passport and selling a British passport.

The fact is that having two passports invites ..contradiction. Take the curious circumstance reported on BBC News Norn Iron today. Scotland has a devolved government and runs its own Education policy and has decided that it will not charge tuition fees……..as much as £9,000 a year……..to university students who are Scottish. The Education authorities in England, Wales and Norn Iron charge tuition fees. Scotland has decided that students from England, Wales and Norn Iron will have to pay fees but (following European law) cannot charge fees to students from “Europe”.

For several years students, especially from Norn Irons unionist tradition have taken the “brain drain” route to Scotland. But oddly this does not mean fees will be levied on ALL students from Norn Iron. This actually means that unionist students holding a British passport will be treated differently to nationalist students, holding Irish passports. So BBC Norn Iron reports that young unionist A level students are applying for an Irish passport. They will save themselves £27,000 (three years tuition fees) and is certainly a legitimate choice. It does not seem to be a situation which the Scottish authorities have thought thru. There is seemingly no “residence qualification”. And some Scottish universities seem to be treating applications differently…”ruling” for example that Irish citizens in Norn Iron are “UK nationals”. Nor do the Norn Iron unionist applicants fully appreciate that if they apply as “EU?irish” citizens, they are actually limiting their chances of getting into their chosen Scottish college. The “EU” citizen quota being fewer than the “rest of UK” quota. Nor does Gregory Campbell DUP MP for East Derry appear to have thought his response thru (not that he is noted for thinking things thru)…..his answer is that Norn Iron students, nationalists and unionists should be exempt from Scottish university fees. This seems to carry the notion of Ulster-Scots slightly too far…..but in Gregory’s mind 18 year old unionists are uncomfortable with the applying for an Irish passport.

Of course an Irish solution will be found to this Irish problem. Probably based round “residence”. But there is a bigger problem here. For two decades now, unionists/Protestants have been sending their children off to university in England, Wales and particuarly Scotland. Of course nationalists/Catholics also attend “British” universities. But the situation has arisen where nationalists who make up 43% of Norn Irons population are actually in a majority in Norn Iron’s universities. It is a common complaint that Queens University for example is a “cold house for unionists”. Having studied in England, Wales or Scotland….many elect to stay there…..and this means that the Catholic/nationalist professional secor in Norn Iron……teachers, doctors, solicitors, nurses, social workers…is actually expanding at a much greater rate than the Protestant/unionist sector.

Of course there are probably tens of thousands of 18 year olds in England and Wales, who qualify as Irish citizens, thru their parents or grandparents.

It is easy to make too much of this little sideshow. There are times when it is more convenient to be “Irish” than “British” and occasionally vice versa. I have never had to make a compromise. My “company pension” is a consequence of working with an employer. My future “state pension” will be because of contributions deducted while I was working.

Unionists have often dismissed nationalists as being “disloyal to the Crown but loyal to the Half-Crown” (older readers will remember that this is a reference to a pre-decimal coin) and references the fact that nationalists want the benefits of being British without giving fealty to British institutions. Which is a bit like those 18 year old unionist students choosing Irishness to escape student debt.

Fair play to them. And I take it that this middle class initiative will silence unionist critics of young nationalists who enforce their right to play football for the Republic of Ireland. Ah…thats different. Theres always different rules for the middle-class and working-class. The parents of unionist students saving money is more important.

It was always thus. Unionists (and Nationalists) rallied to the British cause when the First World War broke out in 1914. Unionists still go on……..and on …… about the Battle of the Somme. But not a mistake unionists were likely to make in 1939. Norn Iron being the only part of the “United” Kingdom which did not have conscription.

Obviously conscription would not have pleased nationalists in Norn Iron. And luckily(!) unionists were busy with the “enemy within” rather than Hitler and sitting on Belfast roof tops waiting for Luftwaffe bombs which only happened…..to devastating effect in April and May of 1941….the firestorms put out with the help of fire engines sent north by de Valeras “neutral” Irish Government.

Of course unionists have a different narrative. “Éire” was after all neutral and unsupportive but the Germas never bombed Belfast again. The British would have like that…..because it would have brought “Éire” into the War…….and opened up Irish sea ports to help deal with the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic.

There is also some anecdotal evidence that people who hold an Irish passport or a British passport are treated differently when they go abroad. Certainly Ireland is a neutral country….but whether (in the days of all our passports being “European”)  that actually makes a difference if you are kidnapped by Islamist militants in Pakistan is doubtful. Certainly Ive encountered French and German people who say (in perfect English after having claimed not to understand a word) “I am sorry….I thought you were English” and an Irish passport in USA is certainly a bonus.

As far as I know, the Irish Government places no restrictions on where I can go. If I am so minded, I can go to Cuba, North Korea wherever. Most other nations and people seem to tolerate us…because we are unlikely to do them any harm.

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2 Responses to The Great Passport Controversy

  1. smcv33 says:

    “It has always been the case that people do things for convenience rather than making great political points.” In most cases I completely agree. It’s tough to be the one that puts value before pennies, especially in recession.

    • Politics is all about Idealism and Self-Interest.
      Those on the “left” are motivated by idealism. Those on the “right” motivated by self-interest (often disguised as idealism).
      The conflict comes when the two clash.
      For example Id happily pay £1 extra in tax if world poverty was eliminated. Maybe even £100. But probably not £1000.
      We all compromise but conservatives compromise too quickly.

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