I first met John Lewis almost 40 years ago when I worked for a small federal volunteer program called ACTION that included the Peace Corps and VISTA. John was the Deputy Director of VISTA, which sent volunteers all across America to fight poverty. John has been appointed by President Jimmy Carter and John’s few years in Washington, D.C. were for him a rare safe harbor. He was married and had just started a family and he needed a steady paycheck after years being on the front lines of the civil right struggles.
So I would go up to John’s office and just sit with him and talk about Selma and his experience. He was as humble and committed then as he was a few weeks ago just before he passed away. John was a true disciple of MLK’s “Beloved Community.” His passion, clarity, tenacity and commitment to keep that vision alive was astonishing and in that way he was very like John Hume. John was always at the Edmund Pettus Bridge; always willing to put his life on the line just so people could vote.
Over the years John and I kept in touch. There were protests and marches and I would bring future young leaders from Northern Ireland and South Africa to meet him in his Congressional office. He was always willing to pass on the torch. In 2014 John came to Ireland and visited Dublin and Derry to honor the relationship between Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass and to meet John Hume. He was kind enough to attend the 25th Anniversary of the Washington Ireland Program in Belfast.
So I thought of John Lewis a few years back when I became an Irish citizen. My mother was born in Six Mile Cross in Tyrone and the Sullivan side of the family comes from Passage West in Cork. I obtained my Irish passport largely as a nod to my Irish heritage and to pass on my Irish roots to my three daughters who have more cousins in Ireland than in the United States. Then one day I got curious; could I vote for the Irish President. The statement on the DFA website was absolutely clear: “If you are an Irish citizen living abroad you cannot be entered on the register of electors. This means that you cannot vote in an election or referendum here in Ireland.”
At that point that I remembered my old friend John Lewis who put his life on the line so people could vote. John’s mantra has always been make “good trouble, necessary trouble” and that was good enough for me. So five ago I co-founded VotingRights.ie with former Irish Senator for the Diaspora Billy Lawless and Irish diaspora expert Noreen Bowden.
So here are a few facts. A 2018 global Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) gave Ireland a very fine overall ranking of #27 in the world. However this same report also ranks Ireland as #137 when it comes to the integrity of our voter registration system clustered with Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Honduras. Ireland is extraordinarily behind the rest of the E.U. when it comes to the basic mechanics of a modern democracy. Ireland has yet to stand up a long promised national electoral commission, lacks an automatic voter registration system and always kicks to touch any proposal for the Seanad reform.
The phrase “We will examine” in any the new program of government is almost like a dead weight for three important reforms: increasing postal voting, allowing 16 year olds to vote, and eliminating the current discriminatory time limits that prevent citizen temporarily living overseas from being struck from the voting register. The 2013 Constitutional Convention recommended that Irish emigrants and citizens living in Northern Ireland be allowed to vote in future Presidential elections. That was eight long years ago.
Ireland thinks of itself as progressive, but for a moment perhaps it should stop patting itself on the back. Ireland's progressive moment has been relatively short. Yes, there's the UN Security Council seat and the repeal of the 8th Amendment was a great grassroots victory but somehow, Ireland has held on to an antiquated view of voting rights, so well over 20% of all Irish citizens are disenfranchised. That's a lot of people.
There are about 830,000 Irish citizens and passport holders just living over the Border; many of them are of voting age and another 850,000 Irish emigrants living overseas who would be eligible to vote given their age. Their part of the Irish Nation and they would like to be included. I remain perplexed how a very young Republic could become so complacent in just over 100 years about protecting the core values of the Revolution and rights of so many citizens.
Here in America we have spent years fighting to save our democracy from Donald Trump who did everything possible to divide America and suppress the vote in the run up to the Presidential election. It’s amazing that 50 years after the march in Selma we are still fighting for our voting rights. In aftermath of our Presidential election Donald Trump spent months directly attacking our electoral system and the core tenet of our democracy that voters have the final say when it comes to who sits in the White House. All this culminated in the January 6th insurrection which failed.
My hope is that in Ireland right now there are a few young people who will care enough about Irish democracy and what it means to be a Republic that they will follow John Lewis call to make “good trouble, necessary trouble” to expand voting rights. Emma De Souza’s five year fight against the UK Home Office to defend her Irish identity and uphold the Good Friday Agreement is an example of what can be done when one citizen stands up.
In 2014 John Lewis came to Dublin to the give the annual Iveagh House lecture at the Department of Foreign Affairs connecting the dots between the Great Liberator Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass. I was there and fortunate, as always, to listen to John Lewis. Nothing had much changed from the John Lewis that I met forty years before in his office. Still determined, still hopeful and optimistic and still keeping his eye on the prize voting rights and equality for all. He would go up to Derry and walk across the Peace Bridge with John Hume; two kindred spirits who believed in justice and equality.
Ireland needs its own John Lewis. He or she will likely be met with indifference, inertia and complacency as you seek to reclaim the Republic and fulfill the promise of the Proclamation to create a government that cherishes all of her children equally. In his final essay published after he died John Lewis wrote “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build” a better nation and a stronger more vibrant democracy. Someone In Ireland needs to act and create the “good trouble, the necessary trouble.” to reclaim the Republic. The Irish Nation will be better for it.
Kevin J. Sullivan is currently the Project Director for the Ad Hoc Committee to Protect the Good Friday Agreement, a co-founder of www.votingrights.ie. And the director of this conference.