Belonging to something

When we are born into a family which we don’t choose, but which we feel some sort of emotional connection to, we must assume that either blood is thicker than water, or that shared experience, since birth, is feeding that connection. For me, family is about shared history, and blood is only thicker than water to that extent. Lifelong friends are like brothers or sisters, except we’ve chosen them.  If you have a long-lost twin you have rediscovered, or in my father’s case, a long lost half-brother with whom you share a father, perhaps you feel the same friendship.

We grow up in a culture which helps to define our values and behaviour in our formative years, which is a combination of influences for good and bad.  We don’t choose to enter that culture, and we might like to leave it behind, but it is still part of us. That’s how I feel about Britain, or England, or London, or perhaps middle-class white South London.  It’s also how I feel about having lived through the 1960s and 1970s in that place.  It is ingrained in my every pore, and smeared across my every expression and even underlines my every judgement (or maybe I mean undermines). And when we choose to leave, we are not just rejecting the place and the politics, the society and statutes. We are rejecting something deep-seated in the people who want to belong to it. I think that’s most evident in their public utterances, slogans, jokes and outbursts, but it’s very pervasive and everyone feels part of it. When you walk away, you leave a lot behind. You’re telling your friends and relatives that they are in some way wrong or less fortunate because they belong to it. When I leave Britain, I accept that the baby has gone down the plug hole with the water, and I feel slightly bereft, slightly unjust.

We choose where we live, if we can, and that makes the chosen geography and its local culture a positive thing. We might not continue to feel that, as the undercurrents and overtones wash us, but we can always move on, perhaps. We engage in our local culture at a specific life stage, and that plays a big part in how we come to let it change us or how we come to compromise by accepting it. For me, being moulded by my local community and culture is part of choosing to belong, rather than being caught up or caught unawares. It’s local though, not national.  I don’t belong to a nation by choosing to live in a country.

We also belong to clubs that would have us as members. Groucho Marx didn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member, and it is true that the characteristics of the club – the pack mentality, the cliques and clichés, the bigotry, the brashness of group identity – are odours we must carry around. I have chosen many clubs over the years, to suit my lifestyle and life stage. I’ve ‘bought in’ to their values and objectives. I’ve worked hard for them and accepted aspects of them that I have disliked in order to belong. These clubs have elements in common and yet each has had clearly defined boundaries. I’ve felt that I am in the overlap section of a Venn diagram, sharing the space with members of several clubs and combining their traits, rather than choosing to be in one club’s distinct and exclusive aspects. At best these clubs help to define their members in the community, and at worst, they take power and control from each member, in return for giving them an identity. Not belonging or being ejected from a club is like becoming the black sheep in a family.  The need for a public identity, a persona which is recognised in the local community, is stronger when you’re younger, but it’s hard to drop, once you take it on.

So what does it mean to be part of something with which you don’t identify? You are born into a culture which changes.  You wake up and realise that you no longer belong, because the values espoused by that culture are not close enough to your own anymore? But let’s be fair. Few cultures are so homogeneous as to be rightly rejected outright. I often wonder how it would be to find myself living back in Britain, and whether I’d choose to revert to my old clubs in white middle-class South London.

Which brings everything round to choosing to become a citizen of another country, to adopting another culture as my own.  It was a romance at first. Put on your best clothes, go for dates, tell your best stories, listen hard and try to fit in with tastes and customs. It was an informal marriage then, like living in sin perhaps, which went on and on.  Ireland has the attraction to me of a long lost half-brother, and the familiarity of family.  I have felt more akin to it than Britain since I first came to visit. It is a club with defined boundaries, but not one which refuses new members, or rejects their ingrained cultural backgrounds. In fact, it is inquisitive and gregarious with outsiders. It is a relatively homogeneous culture with relatively clear boundaries and a set of publicly stated rules of engagement. It is also a place, and one which I’ve chosen, rather than having been thrown into.  It is emotionally engaging, like a romantic partner. It is unreasonable like one too. Becoming Irish, through a marriage that is late in the day, is in some ways no more than legitimising a bond which has been there for years. But it is also a statement to myself and to those I love in Ireland that we, Ireland and I, do belong to one another, for better or worse, from this day forward, till death do us part.

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Small steps

Apropos my application for Irish citizenship, I was delighted to get a letter today saying that I’m being put into the second stage of processing.  If it were a sausage factory, I’d be getting ready for the pig’s gut jacket about now.  My case is to be submitted to the minister, once all enquiries are complete and all required documentation is received, after which, if I’m not a reject chipolata, it will take up to 6 months to complete… but:

initial-acceptance

It begs the question “What is ‘good character’ in this case?”  If I were the minister, whose back must be against the wall over the limited number of Syrian refugee children Ireland is taking in, and potentially how few of those twenty-somethings who emigrated in the last 5 years are in a position to return to gainful employment, I’d have some pre-defined criteria.  I’d also have a suitable algorithm to apply to the candidate’s Facebook history to vet their social behaviour, but that’s another story.  The criteria he/she might use could include:

  1. What has your economic contribution been to the Irish State in the last 16 years?
    • Income tax paid (as opposed to tax due on un-declared earnings)
    • Vat paid on purchases (as opposed to cash in hand payments to builders)
    • Capital gains on property sold
    • Stamp duties on property purchased
  2. Indirect economic benefits you have brought to the State eg:
    • Business initiatives helping other businesses to generate more wealth
    • Tourism initiatives bringing inward expenditure, which could be offset against overseas holiday-taking which undermines Ireland’s tourism industry.
    • Community initiatives encouraging spending in the community by others, with its concomitant Vat generation
    • Voluntary work which saved the government money (eg running school bazaars so that the State didn’t need to pay for running repairs on the school)
  3. What, if anything, have you done in the last 16 years which might cast doubt on your standing in the community?  This might include a list of sub-categories eg –
    • Acts of gross indecency in a public place (eg peeing against a pub wall)
    • Traffic offences (eg parking really badly in the centre of a village or town)
    • Acts of violence (drunken brawling, wife beating)
    • Gossip-mongering (after mass, before mass, during mass)
    • Racist comments against Irish people (presumably they wouldn’t worry about your views any other racial group)
    • Being the object of ridicule as a foreigner, excluded from full involvement in the community (eg becoming a County Councillor) and therefor belittled to a point of ineffective contribution.
  4. What positive influence have you had on the quality of Irish society in the last 16 years? This is a more qualitative assessment which might be achieved by scoring the individual out of 10 on each aspect and looking for them to exceed a threshold score:
    • Being a moral extemporiser and evangelist, preferably in favour of Catholicism rather than C of I, but maybe double points for Catholicism
    • Being a good Finnian – not to say Fenian or Plastic Paddy. This might include actively supporting Irish teams in rugby and soccer. It might also include GAA, but that’s probably a step too far.
    • Being a creative leader and inspiration through art, music, ballet (?)
    • Having a great recitation or song you can pull out at Christmas – must have Irish origins
    • Making people laugh away their daily woes (preferably so they laugh with you rather than at you)
    • Making an effort to learn Irish words and phrases, but not using them in a Plastic Paddy kind of way to show off to (other) foreigners just how Oirish you’ve become.
    • Turning a blind eye to corruption and anti-social behaviour by prominent members of the Irish community (Irish ones that is) with the comment “sure,  isn’t he/she a bit of a cute whore.”
    • Reporting corruption and anti-social behaviour by (other) foreigners.

I think I can feel a book coming on!  Please submit your contributions.

How do they decide?

OK, so in the early 2000s, I thought I would take up Irish citizenship on political grounds because Tony Blair took Britain into Iraq and I felt ashamed to be British.  I got hold of the forms from the post office and only stumbled when I found that the Government required copies of my 1984 divorce papers, which I didn’t have.  I could probably have applied again for them but I didn’t. So then about 14 years later, Britain did something equally shaming, in voting Brexit, and I decided to try again for Irish citizenship.  In the intervening years, the forms had become pdf’s and the requirement for the old divorce papers had been dropped.  The fee for applying (with or without success) had gone up to €175 and the fee for success had become €950.  Since there are 250,000 UK passport holders living in Ireland apparently, this could potentially underwrite half the costs of the latest public sector pay rises.

So, besides the 17 page application form, I supplied: Copies of my own and Val’s long form birth certs and marriage certificate, certified by a solicitor, Three separate proofs of my address for each of the last 5 years (bills etc), two passport photos, certified by the solicitor, my own passport original, Val’s original passport, three months’ bank statements from all my bank accounts, An affidavit that I now hold one of the new Public Services Cards (a form of chipped ID introduced into Ireland recently), and a bankers draft for €175 (no other form of payment accepted).

All that done, I have since been asked to dig out three years of bank statements, showing my name and address on them.  This might sound straight forward, but since internet banking came in, one can only download 15 months of statements (and these don’t have my name and address on). The branch apparently keeps these on file, but I am informed that I will need to have them stamped and a letter provided by the bank that I live at this address.

So I have to ask on what basis all this is needed.  I have lived in Ireland for sixteen years and been married to an Irish citizen for 28 years.  I’m eligible for citizenship on both counts.  I have proved both to be true.  I have paid taxes in Ireland for 16 years, spent my hard-earned and taxed income in the state and generated employment for others.  I estimate my financial contribution to the state to be in excess of €500,000 in that time, excluding stamp duties and fees on the purchase and sale of two properties.

But Irish citizenship is a privilege not a right, it says on the website.  I wonder if the vast number of Brits now looking to apply have made it unattractive for the Government to rubber stamp applications…

Since I started the process, I have become addended to the idea on an emotional level, though it began as a practical one, to do with access in Europe.  I am disgusted by the Brexiteers, the racist rhetoric, the myopic decision based on ignorance and miss-information which led to such widespread suffering and economic doom, and potentially to the disintegration of the EU, something I hold dear.  If I should fail because of some bureaucratice anomaly, such as the lack of an address, it will hurt I think.