The Mary McAleese Question: Presidential Voting Rights for the North

UPDATE: The Constitutional Convention delegates have overwhelmingly supported the motion to extend franchise to Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland (73% in favour, 20% against, 1% 7% Undecided/ No Opinion.) The question regarding all citizens resident outside the State was also passed by a margin of 78%, 21%, 1%.)

Whilst Richard Haass is busy meeting politicians and interested parties to explore issues kicked to touch during the Good Friday Agreement discussions 15 years ago, the Constitutional Convention in Dublin will today explore another issue regrettably left unresolved at that time but for which whose time appears to be coming: the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens in the North in future Irish Presidential elections.

Steven McCaffrey at The Detail has a good piece on this, noting how an element of northern civic society has been leading on this, as opposed to simply Sinn Fein.

 

Ryan Feeney, a senior official with the GAA in Ulster and an independent member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, will give expert evidence to the Convention when it meets on Saturday. He was part of the lobby group `One Voice, One Vote’, where public figures outside the political parties called for the extension of voting rights in presidential elections. He says the campaign has nothing to do with Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. “I think it complements the agreement,” he said. “The Agreement makes it very clear that by law and by statute, that I have the right to call myself an Irish citizen. I am a tax-paying, law abiding citizen of the northern State, there is no doubt about that and I accept that, that is the compromise.

“As part of that I have a responsibility to defend and protect the people of this State who are British. So, park the constitutional question. This is about national identity. The Good Friday agreement allows British people to express their national identity in the political realm, or in terms of the fact that there is a monarchy. As an Irish citizen and a member of the Irish nation, I have no role in participating in electing the head of the Irish nation, which is fundamentally wrong and against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which talks about dual nationality or separate identities in terms of Irish or British.

“This is not about offending anybody. It is not about taking away anyone else’s rights. The constitutional question – we have a compromise in place – this is not about the border. We have accepted that until a majority of people in this State want a united Ireland or don’t, that issue has been parked. This is simply about me as an Irish citizen who lives in the northern State getting the right to vote for the head of the Irish nation.”

Cue the kneejerk sabre rattling opposition from former leading unionist authority, Michael McGimpsey. According to Michael, allowing northern nationalists to participate as Irish citizens permanently residing in this part of Ireland in the election of the symbolic leader of the Irish Nation would be “very, very damaging” and involve “tearing up the [Good Friday] Agreement.”

His views echoed those of Ulster Unionist Party leader, Tom Elliott. “The Irish President does not represent the people of Northern Ireland. “We have our own monarchy and Queen. That’s life. And we have to go on and accept those issues as they are,” he said.

There are two things needed said about McGimpsey and Elliott’s views.

 

Firstly, they perfectly illustrate what is wrong within unionism today that has led to otherwise sensible, articulate political leaders camping out at a sectarian interface in north Belfast with loyalist paramilitaries in a sham fight to ensure loyalist paramilitary aligned flute bands and Orangemen get more opportunities to march past catholic homes. An unwillingness to embrace the vision of a society of equals, affording respect to ‘The Other,’ recognising that time has marched on and a new dawn has broken.

 

There is no possible threat to unionism from extending the franchise to Irish citizens in the north.  It would only involve those seeking the franchise (presumably by holding status as Irish citizens) and could very easily be ignored by those not affected. Indeed, an enlightened unionist would seize the opportunity to champion the cause as a means of gaining traction within the nationalist community for the view that such a scenario can be comfortably realized within a Northern Ireland under British sovereignty.

 

Secondly, this is a matter firmly beyond the control of unionist political leaders. It is the Irish government alone who has the power and authority to propose such a change to how the Irish President is elected. Given the electoral rise of southern Sinn Fein, it is inevitable that this objective will be realized, either now or at a time in the future where Sinn Fein in coalition government can alone claim to have secured the right for northerners, further bolstering their status as the legitimate voice of northern nationalism. Consequently, it is in the interests of other parties, nationalist, non-aligned or liberal unionist, to publicly articulate support for this to enhance their own arguments regarding the shape of our evolving, shared society.