Equal Citizenship in Ireland: The Right to Vote in 2018

Mark Bassett  is a barrister in independent practice at the Northern Ireland Bar and argues for us to take a look at presidential voting rights in an Irish Presidential Election

In 2013 the Constitutional Convention recommended an extended franchise for the next Presidential election to include all Irish citizens. Despite that clear endorsement the current Irish government has been reluctant to take any steps to implement the Convention’s report.

Those of us who believe in this amendment have the task of convincing first the Oireachtas to propose it and then the electorate in the south of its merits. Both of those audiences hold the Irish Constitution in high regard. Since both the legal status of Irish citizenship and the office of President ultimately arise from this document arguments that highlight its virtues will assist in carrying the day.

It is also important to reassure those who are opposed to the idea that they will lose nothing if it is implemented. It is our task to make the case that an extended franchise is entirely in keeping with the values of the Constitution and the Good Friday Agreement.

A former president of the Supreme Court of Israel, Professor Barak, provides an excellent description of constitutions. He said the following:
“It shapes the character of society and its aspirations throughout history. It establishes a nation’s basic political points of view. It lays the foundation for social values, setting goals, obligations, and trends…
It reflects the events of the past, lays a foundation for the present, and shapes the future. It is at once philosophy, politics, sociology, and law.”
And so it is with Bunreacht na hEireann. Parts of the document speak exclusively of the Irish State. Some parts speak of the Irish Nation, the Irish People and other parts speak to the outside world.

Like other democratic constitutions it contains many complexities, contradictions and clichés. To that is added the subtleties and ambiguities that have come to be the mark of any document that touches upon Irish-British relations.

Ireland was to have a constitution which was republican in form but could not use that label. The document uses three distinct phrases – “The People”, “The Nation” and “The State”. At the risk of oversimplification, it can best be explained in the following way:

The State is the political entity created by the Constitution. It is the 26 counties. The Republic of Ireland is a description of the State rather than its name. The Nation is best understood as referring to the territory of the entire island of Ireland – the 32 counties, its islands and territorial seas.

As the new article 2 states:

It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland … to be part of the Irish Nation.

The Irish Nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural affinity.

In purely constitutional terms I would imagine there are a large number of readers who belong to “The Irish Nation” but do not live in “The State”.

We are part of a large number of Irish citizens to whom the Constitution speaks to directly; on occasion claims to speak on our behalf; calls for our loyalty but in its present form allows for little response. The report of the Constitutional Convention was an attempt to update the text of the Constitution to match its values.

A citizenship regime is the clearest expression of the political philosophy of a State. The campaign to extend the franchise is aimed at more definitely aligning “The Nation” with “The People”. The State will remain unchanged.

It is in the case of the President of Ireland that the need for this alignment is most acute. It is an institution which speaks on behalf of the entire citizenry in a way neither the Irish government nor the membership of the Oireachtas can.

At its heart the Presidency is a symbolic office. It represents, and has been largely accepted to represent, the citizenry as a whole rather than just the State or the population of the State.

He or she is largely insulated from controversial political choices. The election itself is an aggregate vote rather than one which is compartmentalised into constituencies. It is not an office which requires substantial public funds. It is the institution which best represents nationality and citizenship.

The vote for the President should be detached from the vote for the legislature. They are very different institutions and call for different models of participation. It is a symbol of the Nation which should be chosen by the Citizens. The method of choosing the office holder should match the intended result. The electorate, therefore, should be based on nationality rather than nationality and residence.

There is nothing in the current Constitution or the proposed amendment that should be a cause of anxiety for those who have no wish to take up their entitlement to Irish citizenship or to vote in a Presidential election.

On the important issues of sovereignty and identity there is broad agreement. The Good Friday Agreement is a constitutional bridge between Britain and Ireland. The two constitutions no longer shout at each other. The references to Irish unity in the Irish constitution are mirrored in the constitution of the UK. Section 1(2) of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) makes provision for reunification in terms similar to article 2 of Bunreacht na hEireann.

Another fundamental part of the Agreement was the recognition by the parties and by the two governments that the population here could be British, Irish, Northern Irish or any combination thereof.

The right to be Irish in the Agreement goes beyond identity however. The core of that right is the entitlement to the legal status of Irish citizenship. There is nothing in British citizenship law which seeks to undermine that in any way.

Irish citizenship is not imposed on anybody in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. Nobody will be forced to vote for an Irish president. The effect of Irish citizens voting for their President does not diminish the British citizenship or Northern Irish identity of anybody else.

Citizenship requires more than the right to think of yourself as Irish or to be regarded by others as Irish. This right was not intended to be a placebo or a token acknowledgement. It cannot be limited to an entry into a census form or the receipt of a passport in the post.

Citizenship is a community of equals with its most basic element being participation. At the present time the experience, understanding and general outlook of Irish citizens outside the State forms no meaningful part in the election of the President.

Most democracies have found some method of including citizens outside the borders of the State and allowing them to contribute to the political life of the country. The restrictive provisions of Irish law are out of step with other EU member states as well as Canada, the USA and Australia.

The rhetoric in the Irish constitution goes far beyond that of our contemporaries. It is a paradox that this document, which speaks of Irish citizens beyond the State’s borders in the most generous and warm terms, does so little in practice to include them.

The campaign to extend the franchise is an attempt to hold the State to the values its constitution proclaims. It is the President which is the institution which is most suited to reconciling the concepts of Nation, People and State.

The holders of the Presidency are a good illustration of the breadth of Irish citizenry. They have come from Ulster, Connaught, Munster, Leinster, London and most famously from New York. Two of our former Presidents joined the Diaspora on ending their term. An electorate which better matches that breadth of experience should be a source of pride not of division.

The 2018 election provides an opportunity to reinforce the connection between all citizens though this time on the basis of equal standing. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that Irish citizens, wherever their home, have a President that represents them.

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  • OldDog

    A fair point, though the Irish “Nation” is a slightly more nebulous and complicated beast that the Irish State. The Irish Nation also includes those who do not expressly identify with the State, or specifically the Republic or rather this Republic (to include all those socialist republicans, RSF’ers and 32 CSM’ers out there who want to overthrow the democratic state- you know who you are 😉 ).
    It could even be argues that the Irish Nation includes Monarchists and Unionists!

    For what it is worth, I think Irish Citizens in Northern Ireland (and the rest of the UK) should be enfranschised with respect to voting for the President of Ireland. As Irish citizens, the President certainly represents them defacto, is seen by the vast majority of those citizens as their president and is seen by the outside world as their president.
    I would not be so keen to include the wider diaspora, for whom the representation or connection might more somewhat more tenious or stretched.

    Another suggestion, to take this line of reasoning a step further (and to include the Northern Ireland dimension), why not just have the President formally recognised as “head of the Irish Nation” and the Queen of the UK as “Queen of Britons in Ireland”, as new seperate titles and offices, ones not so dependant on borders, titles or offices that would survive even any future Unification of the two states on this island to any partial or complete degree (or even just a continuation of the current constitutional settlement)?
    I know, mad musings of a nobody on these boards, but there is precedent- Andorra is a Diarchy, we too are effectively a Diarchy with our First and Deputy First Ministers (some might uncharitably say Farce and Deputy Farce Ministers- not me though).

  • gendjinn

    Speaking as an Irish born citizen leaving abroad, as someone who would gain a vote from this amendment – NO!

    The proposal to extend voting (even if only in the Presidential election) to all Irish citizens living outside the state is a rotten idea. Given the 50 million Irish citizens in the diaspora the President would never be a representative of the Irish state.

    Name another state where the population living in the country is dwarfed by the numbers of citizens living outside it?

    Extend the Presidential vote to all Irish citizens living in the 32 counties. Give all elected MPs in the 6 counties full voting & speaking rights in the Dáil. That would be useful, that would be meaningful, that would begin healing the rift in our Nation.

    Extend the Presidential vote to the diaspora? You missed the silly season by two days.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks for inviting us to think, OldDog.

  • Mister_Joe

    I’m in the same boat as you and I totally agree. How could voters’ nationality be determined, for example. A bad idea except for the 32 county bit.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Italy and France have seats in their lower houses for diaspora, diaspora are effectively cultural ambassadors for a nation, but I’m not sure if they provide votes for the presidency. It’s not unprecedented.

    The UK and Irish postal vote system is less liberal than this, it is also tied to specific constituencies rather than the nation as a whole. Usually diplomats and defence forces sent out on the order of the nation are one of the best examples of why a non-denizen would have a right to vote.

    There is a political advantage to networking, the diaspora are a corridor to an ever globalised world, there probably is a good political use for them in state and presidential politics but we need to find the best political road for us to get there.

  • gendjinn

    A compromise that makes sense and is workable.

  • gendjinn

    Well it wouldn’t require determining nationality, being a citizen would be sufficient.

    My concern is purely practical: the diaspora outnumbers those still living in Ireland by an order of magnitude, giving them the vote would mean those living in the state would never be able to chose their president.

  • Julius

    Those commenting that Southern Irish citizens living in NI should vote but not those living as the diaspora elsewhere betray the irredentist motive of this proposal.

  • aquifer

    Extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to Irish citizens in and beyond Northern Ireland is a profoundly subversive notion, substituting the extension of states by means of invitation and cultural influence rather than by subjugation or coercion. This strikes at the local cultural traditions of armed blackmail with blood sacrifice, defined borders between people of different faiths and ethnicities, and at the obligation of the Catholic Church to establish a zone of privilege and financial support for itself in these islands. All right thinking faithful male militant Irish separatists should oppose this, so long as this does not involve organising a political campaign, legal fundraising, or parliamentary opposition.

  • Zig70

    The main problem I see is that the whole idea of a Queen being a person lording over the rest of us by birthright is pretty abhorrent. I just don’t get why any modern nation would tolerate it. Now if the Queen was going to be elected, then that’s a different matter. Maybe, not throw out all tradition and behead a few on the way out.

  • Zig70

    I’m a big fan of this. You don’t want to rush too quick, trial the system in the North first, see how it goes. Ireland has to be concerned about emmigration and try to tie it’s people back to home. It would also be a benefit to see some of the skills learned abroad coming home and also tourism and any money we can get.

  • USA

    IMHO voting rights should only be extended to those members of the diaspora who are part of the Irish Nation. According to Bunreacht Na hEireann that means only those citizens born on the island, not the 50 million diaspora worldwide. Bunteacht Na hEireann clearly (and realistically) states we merely “cherish” our relationship with those others of Irish heritage.

  • gendjinn

    Doesn’t the 50 million diaspora refer to those eligible for Irish citizenship through a grandparent?

    I am loathe to create a two-tier citizenship almost wholly because the diaspora was create by force, first literally, second by economic desperation. The children of those forced to leave and never able to return should not be second class citizens.

    Extend the franchise to Irish citizens in the six counties, it’s the right thing to do. And as a bonus it will royally piss off unionism, which is reason enough.

  • gendjinn

    Yer going to have find a new way to call Nationalists Nazis, irredentist is old enough for free travel and the kids these days don’t cotton onto your sly witticisms.

    Hopefully your good self will make it into the next decade and witness the govt push this through in the 33rd Dáil. Or the 32nd if FF/FG are battling a rising SF tide.

  • Mister_Joe

    If they did extend the franchise, I think it should only be to first generation emigrees. Along with the right to vote would imply the right to run for President. Can you imagine someone like Donald Trump claiming some connection and running?

  • gendjinn

    Maybe we could get Obama in next, sure isn’t he Irish like every other president the US get’s these days?

  • OldDog

    Privilege by birthright is more palpable that beheading based on birthright,… I’ll say that. At any rate, constitutional monarchy is just another of the many different institutions which have evolved in humanity’s many different cultures. In keeping this on topic, its as much a cultural innstitution as a state office. Ergo, in considering who is enfranchised when it comes to electing the president, it sends out a strong message of cultural inclusion, not just political.
    With respect to the queen, well my musing would be on how to reciprocate.
    I still feel that enfranchisement of Irish citizens in UK would be the logical first step before even considering wider extension.

  • Ernekid

    As a proud Irish citizen and passport holder I’d quite like to be able to vote for my president. Irishness doesnt stop at the border.
    Surely it wouldn’t be that difficult to allow all Irish passport holders eligible to vote in presidential and referendums. They already have the information on a database

  • Ernekid

    There aren’t 50 million Irish ‘citizens’ in the diaspora. There’s a difference between being of Irish descent and citizen eligibility. They wouldn’t be eligible for Irish citizenship or hold a passport.

  • kensei

    Those must be good herbs, man.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Where’d you get the 50 million citizens stat from? There may be 50 million or more potential citizens i.e. grandparent born in Ireland. But actual passport holders – less than 5 million in total.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Yep. Holding an Irish passport should entitle you to vote for President & perhaps for the Seanad as well. The latter, seeing as the people voted to keep it needs a major shake up.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Don’t forget there are tens of thousands of us who live and work in Ireland of Irish descent / parentage who weren’t born here.

  • Alan N/Ards

    I find it hard to believe that the Irish Government still refuses nationalists in NI the right to vote in Presidential elections. As a unionist, I would support the right of nationalists to be included in any such election. I personally don’t want that right ( I also don’t have an Irish passport) and it’s unlikely that too many unionists would want the right to vote. But because unionists don’t want the right to vote, doesn’t mean that nationalists shouldn’t have it.

  • Caita

    I’m from a unionist background. The idea of people in Northern Ireland being allowed to vote in Irish presidential elections doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I feel my fellow citizens whether CNR or PUL have every right to vote in it. Although anecdotal, I know the vast majority of my PUL friends & family would share this opinion. I think when you say “royally piss off unionism”, it would be more accurate to say “royally piss off bigots”.

  • gendjinn

    Good point Ernekid & Tochais Siorai. There are upto 50 million possible Irish citizens but most of them haven’t gotten a passport.

    Even 5 million possible votes would distort the electoral landscape in much the same way and I suspect we’d get more people claiming their citizenship so they could vote.

  • gendjinn

    Thanks for the correction.

  • gendjinn

    Caita,

    I feel like I’m in that M&M commercials where Santa meets the M&Ms and they both exclaim “You do exist!”.

    You are entirely correct to say that it would annoy bigots and not all Unionists. That Unionists like you and your family exist give me a bit more hope for a decent future for the peoples on our Island.

  • Tochais Siorai

    That less than 5 million includes those in Ireland so the diaspora would have an influence but not as much as you suggest. And of course, a lot of them wouldn’t bother to vote.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Cough up the €80 for the passport, Caita and you’re in.

  • Gingray

    Good article – as Anglo=Irish points out the figure would be around 3 million for passport holders and electing the President, and it would be more than reasonable to offer the franchise to those Irish nationals who live outside the 26 counties.

    If the senate was to continue in its current form, or a modified version there off, I would be in favour of elected reps for Northern Ireland, Irish passport holders living abroad, and the diaspora. Does not need to be great in number either.

    Ireland has been a country that has sent its children, north and south, abroad for generations, and in return many of these people have sent back money and support. Recognising them and giving them a role in shaping the country, no matter how small, is surely just for how it has helped Ireland stand on its own two feet.

  • gendjinn

    Looks like about 3 million or so could claim citizenship through parent, grandparent. At least 1 million are Irish born. Given those numbers it becomes more feasible, the first step would be extending the franchise to the north. Then see what we could do to enfranchise others who have been forced to emigrate for work.

  • gendjinn

    Stall the ball head!

  • USA

    If you are an Irish citizen living and working in Ireland then of course you are permitted to vote. Other folks may have a different status in the country. For example, here in the US foreign nationals can be legally resident and working (Green Card Holders) but this does not give them the right to vote, only US citizens can vote. If the Green Card holder becomes a naturalized US citizen then citizenship conveys upon them the right to vote. I’m sure similar rules exist in Ireland. Living and working in a country does not necessarily convey voting rights.

  • USA

    We already have “two-tier citizenship”. As soon as the kids leave the island they loose voting rights, so some Irish citizens can vote and others cannot. Northerners are another example of Irish citizens who are not permitted to vote. I met a gentleman in the US, he was born in England of Irish parents and had attended Trinity University. He was able to vote in the Irish Presidential election simply because he had gone to Trinity, yet the Irish born “20 somethings” were denied their right to vote. There are many such examples of an already existing “two-tier system”, it needs to be brought into the 21st century.

  • USA

    Yes Anglo-Irish you are correct. Citizenship rights only go back to grandparents, this is another reason why the numbers thrown around are not accurate. There is no way 50 million or more people have Irish grandparents, I would argue the numbers we are delaing with are MUCH smaller. Additionally, many of those with Irish grandparents never take the time or spend the money to get an Irish passport.

  • gendjinn

    The two-tier I was referring to was allowing Irish citizens born in Ireland the vote, but not Irish citizens not born in Ireland. Not that we lose our franchise when we emigrate.

    The man you met is wrong about Trinity graduates being able to vote in presidential elections. Trinity graduates have a vote in the Seanad elections, not the presidential.

    The problem with extending the franchise to Irish citizens not resident in the state is the relative size of the two populations – something no other state has to contend with. How do you suggest we deal with that problem?

  • eireanne

    The Italian system involves votes purely for specific local candidates who are usually of Italian origin and prominent members of the italian community in that country. Only the diaspora can nominate and vote for them. I think there are about 5 or 6 altogether representing Oceania, North and South America and so on. Once in the Chamber, they are treated exactly like any other deputy (salary, privileges etc) and can vote on everything.

  • eireanne

    are you thinking along the lines of a joint authority/sovreignty for NI? It may well prove to be the only viable means of governance https://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/joint-authoritysovreignty-in-ni-faq/

  • USA

    “Given the 50 million Irish citizens in the diaspora”
    Don’t confuse diaspora with Irish citizens. No one is suggesting every member of the diaspora get a vote. The overwhelming majority of the diaspora would have no right to vote. Diaspora and citizenship are two completely different things.

  • USA

    There is no where near “50 million or more potential citizens”. That would mean a lot of very busy grannies 🙂

  • USA

    Most of the “50 million” are not entitled to a passport even if they wanted one. 50 million is a ridicoulous number.

  • USA

    Totally agree Gingray. The representation could be in blocks, ie 10 seats for Irish citizens abroad (2 each for US, Britain, Australia, Europe, rest of the world.) Another 10 for Northerners. Some representation for all Irish citizens is better than none. Twenty seats would offer representation without dramatic change. Without the right to vote you have nothing.

  • USA

    Donald Trump is not entitled to Irish citizenship, hopefully.

  • USA

    Gendjinn, I take your point about Senead elections. However I am not clear about your second point regarding the “relative size of the two populations”. For clarity, are you referring to the mythical 50 million figure mentioned above? This has been addressed above by a few contributors.
    I also offered several examples of the current “two-tier” rights arrangement.

  • USA

    Please forget the 50 million, it’s a straw man.
    Many countries have a “right to vote”. In the US for example the government cannot give or take away a citizens right to vote. It is a “right’, indeed it is a valued birth right. It is not within the remit of the government to give it or take it away, it belongs to the people.

  • gendjinn

    Yes, couple of other people pointed it out on the thread. The real numbers we are looking at is about 5 million eligible for citizenship and 1.2 million Irish born citizens living abroad.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Tell us your figure then, USA.

  • USA

    Tochais – Difficult to say without access to govt data, but I would guesstimate around 3 million Irish passport holders maximum worldwide, that includes children and grand children of Irish born people. Of that 3 million I would say only approx 700,000 were born on the island ie. Irish born but living overseas, that includes people born in the North. If you exclude the North (which I would be against) then the number of “Irish born” would drop to around 500,000 Irish born citizens living overseas. I would give them all access to mail in votes, proxy votes or whatever. However I would expect many of them would not vote. So the number of actual overseas votes cast could be as low as 200,000 given the additional logistical difficulties required to cast a vote.

  • Tochais Siorai

    You changed the goalposts from my question. I asked your figure for POTENTIAL Irish citizens ie those entitled to apply for Irish citizenship, essentially those people with an grandparent or closer. We know the number of actual passport holders (around 4.5m acc to Eamon Gilmore, Dail, 2012).

  • James7e

    And you shall go to the ball, Cinderella.. all you need to do is to go and live in Ireland and you can vote to your heart’s content.

  • Ernekid

    I do live in Ireland. That’s the problem some eejits seem to think that they don’t.

  • James7e

    Legally, politically and socially, you don’t (if by your name you are an Enniskillener). One day that may change, but until it does, if it ever does, the beautiful town of Enniskillen and the spectacular lakelands around are part of the UK. If you don’t like it, vote to change it. Or move. But it is sad and petty to refuse to accept the reality of the last 100 years.