“WE could be discussing the A6 and A5, improvements to our port and the 100 new jobs announced in our area. Instead we have nationalist councillors trying to outdo one another with pointless motions.”
Those are the words of Councillor Graham Warke (DUP). He was reacting to a motion passed by Derry City and Strabane District Council, urging the extension of Presidential voting rights to Irish people not living within the twenty-six counties. He was joined in his objections by Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly, who refused to vote on the motion, claiming the Presidential office was partitionist and represented only the 26-county Free State.
So who’s right – Graham and Gary or those who voted in favour of extending Presidential voting rights?
Part of me agrees with Graham Warke. This motion could be seen as a distraction, when the council should be taking off its coat and working for improved infrastructure and more jobs in the area.
But there is also a logic to the argument for extension of voting rights. If the Irish president represents all of the Irish people, it makes no sense to exclude the sizeable chunk of the Irish people living north of the border. If Presidential voting rights were granted, people in the north might well play a major part in deciding what kind of President Ireland elects. It would also help stop the rest of the world laughing and rolling their eyes when they hear we recently had a President of Ireland for fourteen years who wasn’t eligible to vote for herself. And consider this alternative history: last time out, thanks to northern votes, Martin McGuinness was elected President. Mightn’t that have produced a sea-change in the thinking of Irish people throughout our island?
At the same time, let’s not lose the run of ourselves. The role of President is to a marked degree an ornamental one. He or she does not have direct input into how the Irish people are governed. You could even argue that getting into a tizzy about not being allowed to vote for the President is like being deprived of the right to see your flag flying over Belfast City Hall, or Stormont, or Leinster House. You can’t eat a flag and you can’t eat a Presidential vote.
Still, you can see why Graham Warke reared away like a jittery stallion from this motion. If you acknowledge that all Irish people should be able to vote for the Irish President, what next? Just like across the water, the abolition of a hereditary House of Lords might raise that dark question: why have a hereditary monarchy? Similarly, if all Irish people get to vote in a presidential election, people might then start posing awkward questions like “Why can’t we vote for Seanad candidates?” or “Shouldn’t northern politicians have speaking rights in the Dáil?” And then, of course, the Big One: “Why aren’t all Irish people involved in voting for an all-Ireland parliament?”
So yes, Graham, I see your concern and feel your pain. Perhaps you’re right about the A5 and the A6 and jobs, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest your real concern is with the domino effect.
Still, worry not, Graham. Before any progress can be made in the direction of an all-Ireland Dáil, the people of the twenty-six counties will need a gentle or maybe vigorous wake-up call. As things stand, they are in a deep sleep state where Nordies are a pain in the neck and not even real Irish. A hard border could well be the alarm clock that jolts them upright, suddenly aware and maybe horrified that a wall has been built dividing the mutual interests of north and south.