One of the things that marks a decided turn in the road for the fortunes of Ireland north and south is the presence of new citizens from overseas. In every settled country in Europe such a scale of in migration has raised serious questions of what citizenship and national identity actually means. Britain is possibly further ahead in its understanding of the complexities it throws up. Liam Byrne reckons that it in Britain, and in England in particular, it means developing a common cultural ground that respects diversity…
Britain is a diverse place, yet my citizenship links me not just to England but to my country. When I talk to new British citizens fresh from swearing their oath, I am always struck by how deeply moved even the cynical become. I’ve seen old men weep buckets of tears from beginning to end.
And what often moves new citizens most is how, before our flag, lots of different people, from all walks of life, from all parts of the world, who have fled wars, or moved for love or work, have all chosen to swear one allegiance to one country, its values and its sovereign. It is that expression of unity and common purpose between people who are so very different that is so very inspiring.
Surely our task in Britain today is not to plan a separation, but to combine better a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Britain into one United Kingdom.
Part of how we do this must be to find new ways of ensuring that citizenship gives better expression to what we have in common, across our diversity rather than what sets us apart. The citizenship ‘deal’, of course, has to be right. Citizenship is not about just what you get. It’s about what you give. So we should look afresh at whether newcomers should ‘earn’ their citizenship other than by simply being here, working and paying tax.
We should ask whether we have the right balance of privileges between settlement — the right to be here permanently — and citizenship. Are the incentives to become a ‘citizen’, as opposed to a ‘settler’, sufficient? But what would it say about England if we chose to separate from a country with which we have so much in common?