In June 2004 the Irish people voted to amend the Constitution to change the laws on citizenship and eliminate the automatic right to citizenship for anyone born in Ireland. I would have completely forgotten about that vote if I hadn't been seeing so much comment on the so-called "anchor babies" in the American media, including from Niall O'Dowd of these parts.
The campaign wasn't all that contentious (or it would have been more memorable). The two biggest parties were in favor of the change, but some of the smaller parties were opposed and there was some debate in the media and we had the usual election poster slogans to try to energize the voters.
In the early years of this decade there were many stories in the media about "non-national" women coming to Ireland to have their babies here in order that their babies have Irish (and, thus, EU) citizenship. We didn't have the phrase "anchor baby" – "maternity tourism" was tossed around a bit – but the basic premise was the same: women were coming to Ireland to have babies so that they could stay in Ireland or any other EU state.
During the campaign leading up to the vote the Minister for Health referenced these well-known anecdotes when he implied that "maternity tourism" (and not government mismanagement) was the reason our national health system's maternity facilities were so stretched. Those leading the 'No' campaign asserted that there was no facts or figures to back up any of the "maternity tourism" claims, but the general impression stuck.
The 'No' side claimed that racism was at the core of the 'Yes' campaign. This caused Brian Cowen, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs, to reply that some of those in the 'No' campaign were "congenitally incapable of dealing with this issue without losing their head."
In addition to those direct arguments, there were hints and opaque references to possible tensions with Britain thanks to our liberal citizenship laws. We heard that refugees and illegal immigrants resident in Britain were flying to have their babies in Belfast, which automatically entitled the baby to Irish (& EU) citizenship, something not available to them in Britain.
Given all the talk in America about this "anchor baby" issue, that might be the most interesting aspect of the Irish experience. Prior to the 2004 referendum, Ireland was out of line not only with the United Kingdom, but with every other member of the European Union.
However, thanks to that June 2004 referendum Ireland's citizenship laws are now consistent with those in all EU member states. That is, no EU country automatically grants citizenship to those born within its boundaries. There are no longer any EU "anchor babies."
Pictures of election posters from the Irish Election Literature Blog.