The One Man One Vote slogan is dated now, but it was famously used in the civil rights
movements either side of the Atlantic during the middle of the last century.
African Americans, cheated by gerrymandering and unfair obstructions to their right to vote,
focused on the denial of their right to vote as a root cause of much other discrimination. So did
many Catholics in Northern Ireland.
The identification by the two civil rights movements with each other over voting and other rights
was a natural one that had been happening for at least a century before, from the bonds between
Fredrick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, and between Marcus Garvey and Terence MacSwiney.
In both contexts, the denial of proper political representation led to the denial of a range of other
rights, including those on education, housing and employment. Access to the vote meant access to
many other things.
While huge progress has been made on voting rights in the US and in Northern Ireland, there are
still outstanding issues. In the US, voter suppression in African American communities is still a
major problem, while Irish citizens in Northern Ireland still can’t vote for their president (although,
absurdly, they are allowed to stand in the presidential election and become the Irish president).
Irish citizens who live anywhere outside the Republic are also denied the ability to vote for who
should be their president.
The Irish government recognises it has a strong, useful relationship with its diaspora. Its new
Diaspora Strategy is commendably direct, clear and concise, and includes the commitment “to hold a referendum to extend the right to vote in Presidential elections to Irish citizens, wherever they live.”
It’s about time. The Irish state owes an historical debt to its diaspora. Many of those who were
prominent in establishing the modern Irish state were drawn from the diaspora - two of the seven
signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic were born outside Ireland. The proclamation
itself acknowledges support from Ireland’s “exiled children in America”.
Many who struggled for independence, including Eamon De Valera, Margaret Skinnider and
Countess Markievicz, were from the diaspora. And as the national anthem celebrates, some who
fought for Ireland in the early part of the Twentieth century came “from the land beyond the wave”.
More recently, athletes from the diaspora regularly represent Ireland internationally. This
identification is at the heart of what it is to be Irish. You can wear the green, represent Ireland at
the Olympics or the World Cup, be a strong ambassador for Irish sporting, artistic or cultural
heritage, but not be allowed to vote for for who should be your president.
Some of us have only ever had Irish passports, only ever identified ourselves as Irish, legally,
emotionally and spiritually. Some of us played GAA in London or New York or Chicago, learned to
speak Irish, regard President Higgins as Our President, but have no say in who should be his
Not that such grading of Irishness should matter. Having Irish citizenship, wherever you live,
means you have already passed the “Irish Test”. You shouldn’t have to show you can perform
Riverdance or recite Seamus Heaney or like Taytos. Having Irish citizenship shows you are already
properly Irish, and you should have a say in who is your president.
The civil rights movement in the north of Ireland in the 1960s didn’t have absentee ballots for the
Irish president at the top of its list. It had other pressing problems to deal with. But part of that
struggle was to have access to meaningful political representation, and not to be treated as second- class citizens by having their voting rights denied.
President Higgins rightly recognises “all Irish people, in Ireland and abroad…[and] our collective
journey over those past hundred years,” and our “powerful emancipatory impulse”. But this
emancipatory impulse hasn’t yet realised voting rights for Ireland’s diaspora.
In a 2019 address to the United Nations, President Higgins also cited Ireland’s “deep sense, from
our own experiences, of the centrality of national identity and a sense of belonging, and how this
persists through decades and centuries. Such a reality cannot be ignored nor suppressed nor
He’s right, but if the Irish State wants to retain and nurture this sense of belonging and
identification among the diaspora it needs to include us more deliberately and more officially in
As the ancient political rights slogan Nihil de nobis, sine nobis says, Nothing About Us Without Us.
If we in the diaspora are to be included and recognised as fully Irish, we should have a say in who
officially represents us.
One Person, One Vote is a more modern take on the old sexist slogan, a more accurate
expression of the current demand. Irish people, women and men, in possession of Irish citizenship,
no matter where we live, should have the right to vote for who becomes our president, on who
represents our Irishness.
Brian Dooley is author of Black and Green: The Fights For Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and
Black America, and of Choosing the Green: Second Generation Ireland and the Cause of Ireland.