LAST NIGHT, British royalty held a reception for the Irish in Britain in celebration for their contribution to the life of the United Kingdom. The reception was held as part of the lead-up to the state visit of President Higgins in April.
There is a strange irony that this reception was held on the evening that the Government here showed the same people the cold shoulder. Yesterday should have been the day that the Government announced the extension of voting rights to the Irish abroad. How ironic that the British should recognise the value of the Irish diaspora to them on the same evening we ignore them here once again.
On November 26, the Constitutional Convention recommended that a referendum be held on extend voting rights in Presidential elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and to Irish emigrants abroad. That was four months ago today, meaning the Government has let the recommendation go without responding to it in the timeframe it set out for itself.
The Oireachtas resolution that established the Convention gave a four-month timeframe for the Government to respond to each recommendation. That was an important provision. Its inclusion was to ensure that reports of the Convention weren’t left to gather dust like so many reports before them. It was particularly important for reports of the Constitutional Convention because the Convention was made up of 66 ordinary citizens who gave up their time for no personal reward and engaged in good faith with politicians in a process of deliberation.
It’s important for us all because the question of voting rights for the Irish abroad is one that touches at the very core of what it means to be a citizen and how we see ourselves in our democracy.
Our democratic revolution
It was perhaps with a sense of naivety that the authors of the Programme for Government called the general election of 2011 a “democratic revolution”. But that is what happened. Not in the ballot box but in an on-going process of change in the public mind.
The human and financial cost of the financial crisis — and the realisation that ultimately we will be left holding the can for mismanagement of the State — has caused us to rethink what the State is and the scope of control and visibility we have over it.
This rethinking can be seen in goings on such as the Constitutional Convention. For example, another recommendation of the Constitutional Convention (one that the Government has left unanswered since August last year) is to introduce a means for citizens to propose legislation and call referendums directly. The action plan from the Open Government Partnership to make government more transparent and accessible is another example.
Where does votes for the Irish abroad fit into this?
By our own words and actions, we acknowledge the contributions and interest the Irish abroad have in the State. When the crisis began to pinch, we were quick to look to the diaspora for a helping hand through the shakedown of the Gathering and the Global Irish Economic Forum. Famously, we are happy to wear the green and shuffle up to Irish communities around the world on St. Patrick’s Day for the access they give us to political and business leaders around the world.
If the crisis has taught us to appreciate a fuller understanding of what it is to be a citizens and what it means to be engaged in the democratic life of our State, we cannot continue to see our relationship with the diaspora in narrow and ad hoc terms. The fullness of the People who form the State and who put their shoulders behind it must be acknowledged.
Moreover, the returned spectre of emigration has reminded us that an interest in the management of the State doesn’t end when a person departs from Dublin or Shannon. Sadly, once again, we all know people forced to emigrate through an economic necessity brought upon them by government mismanagement. Their interest the in State and in its recover, so that they may some day return, cannot be said to be anything less than genuine.
That they are gone, for now, is bad enough. Is it really necessary that they must be shut out too?
The recommendation of the Constitutional Convention is very moderate. While other countries give nationals abroad voting rights in law-making bodies, the Convention recommended only that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and the Irish abroad should be given voting rights in Presidential elections.
The President is the only office of State directly elected by all of the People. The President promulgates all laws on behalf of the People and receives foreign diplomats and figures as the head of the Nation. As such, the Convention’s recommendation can be viewed as one step in a journey towards a fuller acknowledgement of a more engaging idea of Irish citizenship and of the place of the global Irish community among our nation.
In the early stages of that journey, do the Irish abroad not deserve an answer from the Government to the Convention’s recommendations? Or will the Government repeat the old pattern of neglect and discount? Are we happy to leave it to others to acknowledge their contributions and for us to take from them only when it suits?