I am an Irish citizen. I am not permitted to vote for the President of my own country.
The arguments can be rehearsed and recited, evidence drawn upon, and comparative examples provided. I have spent much of the last decade doing precisely that, working hard with others to make the case for change. But to give voice to this simple fact of democratic exclusion is to reveal the core of the problem: many people on this island, and beyond, would like to vote for their own President. And having a near blanket prohibition on non-resident voting is disproportionate, disrespectful, departs from comparative best practice, and impedes one of the fundamental strategic objectives of the Irish state. I could go on. But it is clear: things must change.
One reason is connected to the ‘Irish experience’ itself, and a desire for a more honest and inclusive understanding of what that means, within the state and outside of it. I was born in Derry and now live in Belfast. I have worked in England and Wales and taught in the US. I have undertaken a variety of roles across these islands throughout my life. Like Irish citizens around the world, this wandering is part of our shared experience of displacement, mobility, migration, and movement. And for many there was no choice involved, a life had to be constructed elsewhere. This is an element of what it means to be ‘Irish’. Being resident outside of the state does not make us any less ‘Irish’, but that is how we are treated and made to feel. Bad enough in normal times, but this year is a poignant one for those of us who live in the North. The reflections on partition will be difficult, and often traumatic, for a community that regards the last one hundred years as a national tragedy. That will not, of course, be the universal view, and many will see it in different terms. But this year will highlight again the divisions on our island, and the yearning for belonging and renewed membership. When you add the enhanced separation that Brexit brings, it is not hard to understand why this basic act of inclusion would mean so much.
How is any of this relevant to the questions under consideration, and why raise it? When I addressed the Convention on the Constitution on this matter in 2013, I opted to underline just how personal this is for people in the North like me. Although I was speaking at the Convention in my academic capacity it was and remains hard to view this in abstract constitutional terms. There is the everyday practical and symbolic impact of separation on the island, with consequences for those here who are compelled to internalise the realities of this ‘lesser citizenship status’. When we speak about, and take a position on, the constitutional future of our own country we are frequently subject to a level of personalised abuse and targeting that would draw international attention anywhere else. The N. Ireland we inhabit is still a long way from the promises of the Good Friday Agreement. Some opt for the quiet life, keep their heads down and carry on, as the dominant culture here misses few opportunities to promote its sense of ongoing entitlement. The extension of voting rights in Presidential elections would be a small step, and modest recognition of Irish citizens outside of the state, and it would have a significant symbolic meaning. It would be an exercise in the promotion of ‘equal citizenship’ that would begin to give the language of the Agreement a firmer hold on this island for those Irish citizens who feel let down and abandoned once more.
Fortunately, there appears to be a growing political consensus in support of change. It is well documented that Ireland is an international outlier and has placed itself on the wrong side of a developing global trend. More and more states around the world accept and facilitate ‘external voting’. It is encouraging to see the commitment in the Programme for Government to taking this work forward and much detailed thought has already been given to what it will involve in practical terms. It is now, hopefully, a matter of simply planning for the time when the referendum is possible and then winning it.
While there is considerable support for the proposal, there will be scepticism and opposition as well. Although the reasoning can vary, the concerns tend to circle around feasibility and practical impact. Many of the objections echo through history, and they tend to arise when there has been any attempt to extend the franchise. Grave consequences are often heralded, which are then largely forgotten over time as the merits of inclusion become clear. The contributory model can have troubling implications, and sometimes sounds too much like old arguments about confining democratic rights to the ‘property-owning classes’.
The feasibility objections must face an international reality where other states, with significant numbers of citizens resident elsewhere, manage to do this. Is the argument then that the Irish state is incapable of replicating existing comparative practice? Is the Irish context so unusual that this cannot be accommodated? My sense is that the Irish state does have the capacity to do this if people decide that is what they want.
The most troubling objection relates to perceptions about how people will use their vote. If the franchise is extended, can Irish citizens outside of the state really be trusted to vote for the correct candidate? This argument is frequently loaded with offensive caricatures and stereotypes about Irish citizens. But it ultimately springs from the paternalistic and condescending view that fellow Irish citizens cannot be trusted with the vote. It is an unhelpful projection of intense political rivalries onto a debate about voting rights that reveals a profound lack of confidence in the ability of people to make democratic choices.
This discussion is focused on voting rights in Presidential elections, but this will rightly open up wider conversations in the longer term about democratic inclusion. Once this referendum campaign is over there should be a broader debate about voting rights in Ireland. Some of this is already being prompted by work on the potential for referendums on constitutional change on the island, and in debates around the impact of Brexit. The referendum on Presidential voting rights must not be about closing down the conversation, it can be a stepping stone towards further reflection about democracy and voting rights in Ireland.