We cannot opt out of the future”
- Sean Lemass speaking at the 1965 Fianna Fail ard fheis
This year voters have an important decision to make about the future direction of this great republic. A republic that many have dreamed of, designed and built over the decades. People of this nation can rightly be proud of the fine men and women whom have been elected to serve in the highest office in the land.
In their own way each occupant of that office has helped develop the presidency into something that goes beyond a mere figure head. The president speaks for the entire Irish nation and holds a truly special position in the hearts and minds of all our people.
You’ll notice that I write about this in the first person, because even though now I cannot vote for my president, I still view him as my head of state. I was born and raised in Northern Ireland, where I still live and work. Like many from my political viewpoint we want to make a valuable contribution to this country.
History has shown us that when we work together on this island and bring our people together in common effort, we can overcome any challenge that faces us. We can turn the bleakest situations and make them hopeful and inspirational. When we pull together as an island, we build some amazing things together.
I get that for some people the two states seem like a place apart. Two jurisdictions with irreconcilable political beliefs and desires. There is a notion that Northern Ireland is a politically less diverse and mature place than the system that exists in the Irish Republic. This fear is provoking some of the opposition towards extending voting rights to Irish citizens living in the North.
However, I would just like to ask those opposed to that to pause for a moment to ask themselves are these fears really justified. On many issues of consequence from membership of the European Union to support for the Good Friday Agreement there are a lot of synergies between the two jurisdictions. Parties representing most of the elected MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly backed the Irish governments position on the Withdrawal Agreement and the need for the backstop. There is similarly agreement across the border on the need for key civil and human rights issues to be dealt with in Northern Ireland. The winds of change that have swept across this island have not recognised a border. Nor will that border hold back the change that is needed.
Then we have the other argument placed before voters, that a yes vote in this referendum is a vote for Gerry Adams becoming President of Ireland. Leaving aside the fact that there won’t be another election for over 6 years and that Adams hasn’t indicated any interest in running, it doesn’t chime with the evidence that exists about how people vote outside of the jurisdiction. Emigrants who leave Ireland tend to keep the same voting habits they had when they left. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland we have an array of political parties from the SDLP, Greens and Alliance whom other people choose to support. The notion that all people who are interested in this project back one party in Sinn Fein is a nonsense. Northern Ireland is becoming more politically diverse than it has ever been. Our councils have seen new forces making an impact and the emergence of a more volatile electoral who are willing to shift their votes when the right candidate is put in front of them. Look at the recent success of Naomi Long if you want any evidence for that.
As I write this essay, there are those who at this very moment outside of this island who are preparing to divide us. The hard Brexiters who play a politics of anything goes to get the result. A politics that believes that Ireland is just a price worth paying to exit the European Union. As some of those people try to erect barriers, why don’t we as an island demonstrate that we are interested in bridges and deeper links between us.
We can reject the politics of insular focus that simply sees Ireland as just 26 counties. We can reject a narrative that says only some people are desirable to choose the President but not others.
We can say yes to a future that includes all of us on this island and further afield. We can renew that cooperative spirit that has seen us deliver awesome achievements like lasting peace and durable prosperity across our island.
A yes vote in this referendum is another building block laid down towards enhancing our already great republic. This decision is not about accepting the politics of Sinn Fein, it’s about rejecting the Me Fein attitude of those who want to opt out of the future. That want to limit horizons and the promise of this great institution. People across Ireland helped build this institution and all people like me want to do is play their part in helping shape its future.
David McCann is the Deputy Editor of Slugger O’Toole.