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Disagreeing with the President: No, you can’t be Irish “by choice”

Today, as some of you will have noticed, is St. Patrick’s Day. Around the world, Irish communities are celebrating, and in many places, being celebrated. The world’s most powerful Irishman, by his own description, is to host Leo Varadkar at the White House. To mark the occasion, our beloved and wise President said something yesterday that I thought interesting, and, well, wrong:

How can you be “Irish by choice”? I asked that question on twitter yesterday and got various responses, but the most popular seemed to be along the lines of “if you have Irish citizenship you are Irish”, which is legally perfectly correct.

And yet, if the definition of Irishness is purely legal, then the claims of most of the Irish diaspora overseas to be Irish are flat out fraud. Joe Biden is not an Irish citizen, but often describes himself as an Irishman. Indeed, there are millions of Americans who claim Irishness based on heritage, and who will be marching in St. Patrick’s Day Parades today, often under the watchful eye of some Irish cabinet minister who has been despatched overseas for the occasion.

All of this suggests that Irishness is not merely a legal designation.

Indeed, there’s a massive contradiction on St. Patrick’s Day: On the one hand, our Government has spread to the four corners of the globe to recognise that Irish people and their descendants overseas are still very much Irish. At the same time, our President at home is eager to effectively claim that people from elsewhere who have adopted Irish residency or citizenship are Irish as well: So Irish people keep their nationality, but other people lose theirs.

Furthermore, it seems to me to demean the concept of Irishness to suggest that a Chinese person who bought Irish citizenship under a recently abandoned Government scheme that traded citizenship for investment is as Irish as a person born and raised in Ireland who attended Irish schools and speaks at least some of the Irish language. If Irishness is a mere legal designation, then it can be bought and sold – including from our own Government.

All of that is technicalities, though: We would all recognise, I think, the absurdity of claiming that an Irish person who lived for five years in Japan was now Japanese. Countries and nationalities are much more than simply legal documents: There is an ethnic and racial component, a cultural component, and least importantly of all, a legal component. Indeed, those who on the one hand argue that Irishness is just about having a passport would be some of the first to deny that Basque people are Spanish, even though legally, that is exactly what they are.

A proper civic nationalism will, of course, allow people to integrate and become Irish over time: But time is the important factor. You can’t just hop off a plane and declare yourself Irish by choice, any more than an Irish person could do the same in Uruguay or Argentina. Over time, and immersion in the culture, and intermarriage, and having children, and paying taxes, and forming an attachment to one’s new country, an immigrant may certainly become almost as native as the natives. But the idea that it is a simple choice that does not require years of integration is ridiculous.

In their hearts, I think, the Irish establishment knows this: The problem is that it conflates with their ideas of themselves – especially in the context of the present immigration debate (if shouting “far right” loudly can be called a debate, that is).

One issue is that the Irish establishment have allowed the idea seep into their bones that nobody’s identity can ever be challenged: A male who says he is female is, legally, a female, and gets a certificate to make him so, legally. A foreigner who says he is Irish is therefore just as Irish as a fellow born in Cavan who likes a small drop of tea with his mug of milk. I am what I say I am.

The problem with this is that just as the gender ideology implies that there is nothing inherent to womanhood which is worth conserving in law, so too does the President’s understanding of Irishness imply that there is nothing inherent to being Irish other than a piece of paper. Your culture doesn’t matter any more – it has no specific nationality. Irishness can be expressed in the playing of an aboriginal digeridoo as much as in the playing of the harp. American football can be as Irish as Gaelic football: If there’s no cultural barrier to being Irish, then there is no truly Irish culture at all.

None of this means we do not welcome others who live here, but we should not be afraid of difference, or recognising it: A Japanese person who is citizen of Ireland is just that. They remain a Japanese person racially, culturally, probably linguistically, and probably in their hearts, as well. They are not suddenly Irish because they possess a piece of paper – any more than an Irish person who has lived in Missouri for twenty years is suddenly no longer Irish because their kids play baseball.

This should, I think, be common sense. But it seems the President, and most of the chattering classes, beg to differ.

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