“Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr., served for 34 years representing the northern portion of Boston, Massachusetts. He served as Speaker of the House from 1977 until his retirement in 1987, making him the only Speaker to serve for five complete consecutive Congresses, and the second longest-serving Speaker in U.S. history after Sam Rayburn.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
He was a man of great loyalty best demonstrated when Kennedy was first running for congress. Tipp had committed to supporting the rival candidate and stuck with him even when all others had jumped to the Kennedy camp. Kennedy asked tipp to help after wards realizing that a man with such loyalty was vital to having on his side. Tipp eventually took Kennedys seat in congress. The story I love most about Tip O’Neil is when he turned to his wife Millie as they went to vote ‘can I ask you to vote for me’. It’s the vote I wish to talk about.
Ireland has now assumed the election mode it comes as no surprise that we find ourselves ready and willing to talk about jobs and economic growth but not a word will be said about Ireland’s dismal record when it comes to voting rights for her own citizens. Ireland does not allow the 800,000 Irish born citizens living overseas or those in Northern Ireland the right to vote. The real scandal is that we accept as a given this peculiar system of citizenship that distorts the very meaning of the Republic.
Ireland is like a Third World nation when it comes to sustaining democracy. It is more than ironic that former president Mary McAleese, whose allegiance to Ireland is unquestionable, was denied the right to vote for so many years because she was born and lived in Belfast.
One of O’Neill’s greatest accomplishments as Speaker involved Northern Ireland. O’Neill worked with fellow Irish-American politicians New York Governor Hugh Carey, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to create the 4 horse men of Irish America on Capitol Hill and worked towards craft a peace accord
Beginning with the “Saint Patrick’s Day declaration” in 1977, denouncing violence in Northern Ireland and culminating with the Irish aid package upon the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, the “Four Horsemen” convinced both Carter and Reagan to press the British government on the subject. O’Neill also created the Friends of Ireland organization with Kennedy and Moynihan in 1981 to promote peace in Northern Ireland.
The next step in the peace process started in 1977 needs to be extending the most basic of right to those in the north. It is also ironic that 187 years after Daniel O’Connell, the Great Emancipator, secured the right to vote for Catholics, 98 years after the franchise was extended to women and over 48 years after nationalists marched in Derry for ‘One Man One Vote’ that Ireland continues to disenfranchise 2.6 million people who are entitled to be citizens. This number includes those 1.8m living in Northern Ireland and those who are Irish born passport holders living overseas (800,000). This figure constitutes 36% of all those who are entitled to be citizens of the Republic.
Consider the facts. Only four out of the 33 members in the Council of Europe do not afford their citizens living abroad the right to participate in elections at home. In contrast, over 120 of the 196 nations in the world have enfranchised their citizens living abroad. Many nations that deny the vote are either military dictatorships or nations where elections are neither free nor fair.
The record shows that for every two people born in Ireland one emigrated including the Tip O’Neills ancestors from Mallow. Compared to the domestic population of 4.6m in the Republic, Ireland has the largest diaspora in the world relative to its domestic population, standing at 70m people of Irish heritage of which 800,000 are born in Ireland and hold Irish passports — a number that is just below the combined total of those living in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
By virtue of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution anyone of the 1.8 million people born in the North is entitled to Irish citizenship. But can they vote? Surely not because they live in Newry, Derry and Belfast and their votes might actually change the political landscape for the better? The Constitutional Convention which proposed the extension of the right to vote to citizens outside the State in presidential elections was taking a step in the right direction, but even this small step has not been taken. However, allowing a third of our citizens the right to vote only once every seven years is too small a step.
In other countries, citizens living abroad are generally less directly or continuously concerned with or affected by the day-to-day problems of a country. This is not the case in Ireland where 50,000 citizens emigrated annually over the last number of years would argue that they had to leave because the economic and political system failed them. Yet we deny them the most basic form of democratic engagement.
The reality is that we are perfectly accepting of a one-sided relationship with the diaspora. Gabriel Byrne was making this point — we want the remittances, the investments and all the tourist dollars we can get from The Gathering, but we are unwilling to give much in return. A vote, surely not!
We are at a point in time when Ireland must mature and fulfill the democratic aspirations of all of our citizens. As a first step we must allow all Irish citizens the right to vote in our presidential elections including Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. Second, we should follow the example of our European colleagues and allow citizens living abroad some form of parliamentary representation. Portugal, for example, where 20% of the electorate live overseas, allows its citizens living abroad to vote in the Assembly of the Republic elections. However, these voters are confined to voting for just 4 of the 230 seats.
Minister Leo Varadkar made a proposal to extend the franchise to the Irish overseas, but we need many more leaders to step forward to speak on their behalf. However the political establishment is unlikely to allow those 2.6m people living outside the State to decide the outcome of Dáil seats and thus the Government. In the French Senate there are 12 senators elected to represent French nationals living abroad. In an Irish context a reformed Irish Senate is one possible and practicable option that would ensure that Irish citizens who live abroad and in Northern Ireland have a voice in Leinster House. Ireland has a democratic deficit that we must address. We also need to acknowledge the bankruptcy of our democracy. If we are to strengthen our Republic for the long term we must couple economic reform with voting rights reform.
Finally On this the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising we must remember the likes of Tip O’Neill who was part of the ‘Exiled children in america’ who gave so much towards our freedom and peace and we must also move to fulfill the other words of the proclamation cherishing all the children of the nation equally, where ever in the world they may be. The most basic right of any citizen of any nation is a rights to vote.
So in days to come future generations of candidates where ever they are can turn to their wives and ask them for the vote.”