Monday 19 August 2019

Breda Corish: 'We live abroad but Michael D is our President too, so let us vote'

Irish citizens overseas are still Irish citizens - and should have a vote in presidential elections, writes Breda Corish

THE GREAT AND GOOD: President Michael D Higgins takes the presidential oath at his inauguration, surrounded by Irish politicians of past and present. Photo: Tony Gavin
THE GREAT AND GOOD: President Michael D Higgins takes the presidential oath at his inauguration, surrounded by Irish politicians of past and present. Photo: Tony Gavin

Breda Corish

It's April 29, 2016. I'm with my English husband, sitting in London's Royal Festival Hall and looking forward to a night of music by contemporary Irish musicians.

The Imagining Ireland programme has been curated as a musical conversation between Ireland and England, for the 1916 centenary.

I'm excited and unexpectedly emotional when I suddenly realise the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, and his wife Sabina have arrived in the Royal Box, only a few rows from where we're sitting. Why this tug at the heartstrings for someone, like me, who couldn't wait to get away from Ireland almost 30 years earlier?

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When I made my escape from the stifling Ireland of 1987 and threw myself into London life, I was emphatic I wasn't looking back. I wasn't going to be one of the Irish abroad constantly looking over their shoulder at 'Mother Ireland' who ate her young. I certainly wasn't interested in voting in Ireland any more.

And yet, as an enthusiastic newspaper reader since childhood, I couldn't shake off my addiction to Irish newspapers. As well as my new daily fix of the Guardian, I quickly mapped out the most reliable sources of Irish newspapers (these were pre-internet days). I'd vary my tracks between the international newsagent on Charing Cross Road to the complete range of Irish daily and regional papers at Finsbury Park tube station.

As the years passed in my London life, what started as keeping a detached eye on Irish news and politics from abroad increasingly became an important part of conversations and understanding the changes affecting the lives of friends and family in my 'home home'.

I remember a phone call with my dad, hearing the pride in his voice as he told me why he had cast his vote for Mary Robinson as the first female President of Ireland - and feeling a twinge of regret I hadn't been able to do the same, hadn't been one of the Irish citizens who, in Robinson's own words, rocked the system for a new Ireland.

Developments in Ireland and Irish politics increasingly moved from being of theoretical to practical relevance, even though I was living abroad: the impact of the financial crash on people's lives; the relentless litany of church scandals that rocked believers and non-believers alike; and, most crucially, the state of the healthcare system when, in May 2011, I got the call every emigrant dreads - the news of a loved one back home diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In a family in which one half lives in Ireland and the other half abroad, you don't get to sit back and leave your siblings at home to pick up the pieces. You have no choice but to go on a crash course from afar on how to navigate the Irish healthcare system so you can make a difference when taking your turn as carer back home. What it takes to keep someone living in their own home. How to access palliative care in the community. How to get a hospital bed installed in the home. How to deal with the social welfare system, the Fair Deal nursing home scheme and all the bureaucracy of death and dying.

On the last day of October 2011, I was making the all-too-familiar journey from London to Shannon yet again, but this time with the heaviest of hearts.

Michael D Higgins had delivered his acceptance speech as President that weekend. In particular these words of his resonated with me: "Always in my mind too, will be those who have gone away - and I will be their President too...

"I love our shared island, our shared Ireland and its core decency. I love it for its imagination and its celebration of the endless possibilities for our people."

I am one of the Irish who went away. My connections to Ireland have changed and evolved over the decades, but I have always been and will always remain an Irish citizen.

Sitting in the Royal Festival Hall on that occasion in 2016, I was looking at my President, the person whose constitutional role includes representing "all the people of Ireland, both at home and abroad".

It is now expected that the referendum on extending the vote in presidential elections to Irish people living abroad will be held before the end of 2019.

I am hoping the referendum result will allow me to play my part in the election of future presidents as representatives of a modern, progressive Ireland which embraces all of its citizens, both at home and abroad.

Breda Corish is a volunteer with Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) and a trustee of Irish in Britain

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