Thursday 17 October 2019

Ciara Kelly: 'Don't let old diaspora shape our Ireland'

DEMOCRACY: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina voting in the recent local and European elections. Picture: Kyran O'Brien
DEMOCRACY: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina voting in the recent local and European elections. Picture: Kyran O'Brien

Ciara Kelly

The Oireachtas has agreed to a referendum on giving Irish citizens abroad a vote in presidential elections. It is common in other countries for their citizens around the world to have a vote and ours may now be offered the same opportunity. I think it is a terrible idea in principle and practice.

A vote is a funny thing, largely taken for granted despite so many people being denied one. But we use our vote in different ways. At local and European elections, we vote semi-aspirationally. The green wave/ripple was part of that.

We're happy to be green now while we don't have to put our money where our mouth is. Local councillors and MEPs aren't seen as hugely important to the running of the country - so we can afford to vote in a way that makes us feel good.

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A general election has real consequences for voters and is a different beast. We might well vote green for Europe, but when it comes to voting in TDs, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail remain the biggest parties because they promise more money in your pocket, more jobs or more perceived stability.

People in general elections vote in a more self-interested way - irrespective of what they say beforehand. People lie to pollsters and even exit polls about how they've voted. Hence the persistent underestimation of the FF vote. In the same way polls missed the Cameron conservative electoral win - because no one would admit they'd voted Tory.

And in referendums people vote all sorts of ways, sometimes even illogically, often in order to kick the government.

Votes are emotive. But a vote without consequences is a vote you're often willing to cast without too much serious deliberation.

Which brings me back to our overseas brethren voting for our president. If you don't live in Ireland there are no consequences for you personally, irrespective of who our government, president or legislature are. We could vote in Boaty McBoatface and it would make little odds to you. Casting a vote as an overseas citizen allows you a distance that makes how you vote less important than is true for citizens who live here. An overseas citizen is likely to be less in tune with what is going on here in Ireland. The Ireland we live in is largely progressive and liberal - as the past few referendums have shown. That is wholly out of step for example with the Irish-American Ancient Order of Hibernians, who organise the Paddy's Day parade in New York. They see themselves as Irish but they're Irish in an old school, conservative Catholic way. So they wouldn't allow LGBT representation in the parade until recently as they didn't approve. They don't represent an Ireland we've seen around these parts in a long while.

Or think back on the 1980s and 1990s when Noraid was raising serious funds for Sinn Fein and the IRA. A particular breed of Irish nationalism was fervently embraced by many Irish Americans during that period. I've no doubt that if they'd all had a vote, we'd have had a SF president. Even though Sinn Fein could barely get elected, in the Republic at that time. And to be clear, I've no difficulty with us electing a SF president, should the people of this island vote for one. But I do not want one imposed on us by our massive diaspora.

And that is part of the problem. For an island this size, we've had a disproportionate amount of emigration. There are people who claim Irish heritage and could claim Irish citizenship all over the globe. Some of whom have never set foot here. Our election results could be skewed in a way other countries that allow their citizens abroad a vote simply couldn't.

Over a quarter of a million new Irish passports were applied for overseas in the wake of Brexit. We cannot know what might spark an even greater demand to become an Irish (and therefore European) citizen going forward.

But do we really want citizens who have either left these shores for their own reasons or have never actually lived here at all, a say in one of the pillars of our democracy?

Even giving those north of the Border a vote is problematic. They vote along sectarian lines there, in a way we don't here.

Supposing in a big field of candidates who split the vote, we ended up with a president of this republic who was a British unionist. That would be a strange state of affairs.

No one apart from those few on the fringes was clamouring for a referendum in the UK on Brexit - yet referendum they had and now they have to live with the largely unintended consequences. It is not inconceivable that we could see the same thing here. Voters overseas could decide who becomes our head of state even though the majority who live here might have preferred a different candidate.

It's my view that many of the diaspora look back at the old sod with green tinted glasses and see us largely stowed in moth balls at the point at which they or their parents or grandparents left. But that is not who we are. We are a young, vibrant, outward looking, progressive, liberal country. I'm not sure that is truly recognised by our ex-pats.

I would stick to the old rule - no representation without taxation. No vote unless you have to live with the consequences of that vote.

I'd prefer to see the new Irish who live here have a vote than the Irish who have long left and are often largely out of touch.


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