Give Me Your Your Huddled Votes

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12/3/2017 Taoiseach's Visit To United States of America. Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny speaking about an announcement that the Government had taken a decision to move forward with plans to hold a referendum to give the right to vote in presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad, including those in Northern Ireland during his visit to Philadelphia as part of his Saint Patrick's day tour of the USA. Photo Tom Keenan/Merrion Street

derek

From top: Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Philadelphia, USA yesterday; Derek Mooney

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border pol.

Derek Mooney writes:

Enda Kenny’s fascination with his predecessor John A. Costello continues.  Not only is Enda determined to beat Costello’s record for time served as Taoiseach, he now seems to want to eclipse Costello’s penchant from making major constitutional announcements outside the country.

Costello announced his intention for Ireland to abandon the External Relations Act (and effectively quit the British Commonwealth and declare itself Republic) during a visit to Canada in 1948, while Kenny announces in Philadelphia that he intends to hold a referendum to give the Irish diaspora votes in future Irish presidential elections – but only in elections after the next one.

There are many legends about Costello’s Ottawa announcement, including one version that claims he made it when was “tired and emotional” and another that asserts he did it after being offended by the placing of a replica of the Roaring Meg canon used in the Siege of Derry in front of him on the dining table at a formal dinner at the Governor General’s residence. But they are only legends.

Moves to repeal to External Relations Act, which gave the British Crown limited recognition around foreign relations, i.e. Irish diplomats were formally accredited by the King, were already afoot before Costello even came to office. In late 1947 Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government started preparing a repeal bill, but work on this was halted by the February 1948 election.

At least Costello was able to announce something which he could immediately legislate for and see carried into action within a reasonable space of time. Within eight months Ireland was out of the Commonwealth), in Enda’s case he has just announced plans which may not come to fruition for another 8 years (never mind 8 months) – and only then if they are passed in a Referendum, which is no absolute certainty.

We must wait a few weeks more to see the detail of the Governments proposals on extending voting rights in Presidential Elections from 2025 onwards to Irish citizens living outside of the Republic.

From what the Minister of State for the Diaspora said on Radio this morning it appears that the Government intends to publish a range of options rather than a specific plan, which suggests that this whole adventure may not even be as planned and prepared as Costello’s 1948 one.

According to Minister of State McHugh there are an estimated 1.8 million citizens outside the State and a potential electorate of 1.87 million in Northern Ireland. To put this in context the total electorate eligible to vote at the October 2011 Presidential Election was just 3.2 million (On the day just 1.8m (56%) of them chose to vote).

While it is likely, if not certain, that Enda Kenny will neither be Taoiseach nor leader of Fine Gael by the time the referendum comes around, his shadow will hang over this and let’s not forget that Enda has had a penchant for starting referendums that he cannot win.

Will this be another one? I personally hope not, but I must admit that I am far from thrilled or enthused by what I have heard from the Taoiseach and his Ministers over the past few hours.

Surely such a major constitutional change should be accompanied by detailed research and argument, not followed along by broad range of options for consideration to be published a month or so later.

While I can see some merit in Leo Varadkar’s description of the proposal allowing for the transformation of the Presidency into one for the whole Irish nation, highlighting the fact that Ireland has become a global nation via its diaspora, won’t we also be effectively limiting the Presidency to just a symbolic, ceremonial role?

Though they are not often exercised, the Irish President does have important constitutional functions, are we perhaps diluting those for what it effectively just a gesture?

I also worry about how the referendum campaign make shape up. As we have seen in past campaigns, indeed as Leo Varadkar has observed: referendums are “by and large” never what they are supposed to be about and they can often turn into a votes on “extraneous issues… or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

The government’s proposed referendum, if not managed and led effectively, could perversely be turned into a reverse border poll – with the focus falling not on the wider diaspora or on the positives of giving Irish citizens in the North a formal recognition in our political process – but on worse aspect of the North and the prospect of allowing a load of hard-line DUP voters (and others) have any kind of say in the South.

Public attitudes to the North down here as not always as positive and welcoming as we would have ourselves believe. A recent poll for RTE by Dr Kevin Cunningham’s Ireland Thinks found a very mixed appetite for a United Ireland among voters in the Republic, particularly when it comes to the costs of re-unification. It roughly found that that voters in the Republic split three ways with one third being in favour, one third against and one third undecided.

That said, Brexit has pushed Irish re-unification way up the political agenda for all parties North or South: not as an absolute inevitability, but as an increasingly likely consequence of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Re-unification needs to be seriously considered now, not as some rhetorical wrap the green flag around me slogan, but as a real and viable political option. This is something that needs to be thought through seriously, which is why Micheál Martin’s announcement today that Fianna Fáil will soon publish its 12-point plan to prepare the way for unification of the island is so welcome.

We need to start talking and preparing for unification by strengthening the economic, political and educational links between the Republic and Northern Ireland. While these could help re-unification, even if that were not to come about, they would still be mutually beneficial.

Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop for the debate on giving votes for citizens North of the border.

For the record, when it comes to votes for Irish citizens outside the jurisdiction my own preference would be to look to Leinster House rather than Áras an Uachtaráin and follow the French model by having a constituency in parliament (either in the Dáil or Seanad) voted for exclusively by Irish citizens living outside the Republic,

in fact I would suggest two such constituencies: one for Irish citizens living in the North and one for Irish Citizens living elsewhere.

As it stands today, while I am inclined to vote what Enda Kenny announced in Philadelphia, I am not so enthused as to go out campaigning for it – on that score, I remain to be convinced.

Over to you Leo or Simon.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here usually every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

15 thoughts on “Give Me Your Your Huddled Votes

  1. nellyb

    “We need to start talking and preparing for unification ” – how about island wide referendum on that first?

    1. edalicious

      You don’t really want to go the way of Brexit and only start preparing for it after the referendum, though, do you?

      1. nellyb

        – not sure i understand Brexit reference, it’s not about dividing Republic or breaking up with eu. It’s either as is or plus.
        – if you’re talking of distrust towards lay voters and unreserved trust towards Derek and his economic mothership – I do not share this type of thinking.

        1. edalicious

          My point was that they put absolutely no thought into planning Brexit before the referendum which was generally considered a terrible idea. Talking about it and planning for it before the referendum allows people to make an informed choice.

  2. Panty Christ

    Can we not just join Scotland and let nicola run the show? She seems decisive and competent.

    1. martco

      ah isn’t she just the business! why tf can’t we have leadership like that!!?
      she makes Kenny look like Mickey Mouse.
      no wait. he’s already Pinocchio so that doesn’t work atall..

  3. Pat Harding

    Ah, Fianna Fail’s roadmap to unification (The Road To God Knows Where?)

    (a) It would not surprise me that if there was a vote for unification, the south would actually vote against it. It may even turn out that the north marginally votes ‘yes’ but the south votes ‘no’.

    (2) If Reunification were to happen, the Stormont Assembly would have to continue in place. In which case, Ireland would have to move towards becoming a small state federation (like Switzerland and Austria)

    (3) There would have to be devolved assemblies in other parts of Ireland, bearing in mind the population of Northern Ireland at 1.8 million is the same as the population of the Greater Dublin Region (Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare and Meath) How can you say that the rest of Ireland should be subject to a centralised government (which has been a spectacular failure) and Northern Ireland remains the exception?

    (4) In addition to allowing the Diaspora to vote in Presidential Elections (window dressing) citizens of the European Union who have been living in Ireland for at least five years should be entitled to vote in General Elections. That they cannot, is nonsense. We all know Irish citizens who live in other European countries like Germany who can vote in national elections. Also Irish citizens who live in other European Union countries with the exception of Northern Ireland, should be entitled to vote in a General Election up to five years after leaving the Jurisdiction.

    (5) Ireland needs a new constitution for the 21st Century, one that actually works properly.

  4. Formerly Known As @ireland.com

    I think that the north may vote for unification, for economic reasons. I think the 26 counties may vote against unification, for economic reasons.

    I think the English will have to make it clear to the unionists that the jig is up, when the border poll happens.

    The English and EU will have to make it clear that unification will be supported by them, financially.

    Once Scotland leaves the Unwanted Kingdom, northern unionists will have a major identity crisis.

    There should be a stepped process, so that unification is not a Big Bang. The unionists need to get used to being part of a successful country.

  5. Turgenev

    Years of pleading for a referendum so the citizens and residents of the country can make their intentions clear about abortion. Ditto water. Nah, have this instead. Madness.

    We certainly wouldn’t have gay marriage if all those Sister Conceptas of expatriate Irish-Americans could vote for our laws (without having to live under them).

  6. Mé Féin

    Hopefully Fianna Fáil’s proposals, due in the coming months, will help provide a sound and considered backdrop …
    You’re funny, Mr. Mooney. The Fianna Failures have been around since they became a slightly constitutional party in the 30s. Shouldn’t you people have had a plan by now?

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