By Steven McCaffery
IT COULD be called the `Mary McAleese question’ – how can you be elected president of a State, yet be barred from voting for yourself?
This weekend the Republic of Ireland’s Constitutional Convention meets in Dublin to consider whether the right to vote in presidential races should be extended to citizens living outside its borders.
And while any reform might be aimed at the huge numbers forced to emigrate because of economic pressure, it could also see Irish citizens in Northern Ireland allowed to vote in a `southern’ election for the first time.
A change in the law would avoid a repeat of the situation where Mrs McAleese lived in Áras an Uachtaráin as president for 14 years, yet was unable to vote for herself because she was born in Belfast.
But the apparently simple logic of the calls for reform could now come up against tough political barriers – possibly on both sides of the border.
The 100 member Convention, drawn from political parties and other walks of life, was tasked by the Dáil to review a series of clauses in the constitution, and to consider fresh issues including reducing voting age, provisions for same-sex marriages and “giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections at Irish embassies, or otherwise”.
It has been suggested that those living outside the Republic, but who hold Irish passports, could be offered the chance to vote for the highly symbolic if non-political role of Head of State.
While supporters argue such a reform would better embrace the modern concept of Irishness, the move faces political hurdles.
Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey came to international prominence when he launched a legal challenge to the Republic’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, before they were overhauled under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
He now believes any move to extend presidential voting rights to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland would work against the spirit of the Agreement.
“I have to say I think it would be politically very, very damaging,” he said.
“The key element within the Agreement for unionists was, articles 2 and 3. They disappeared.
“The age old question of who owns Northern Ireland – London or Dublin – the answer is it belongs to neither, it belongs to the people of Northern Ireland and those people determine where Northern Ireland sits.
“As far as any of us can see into the future, it’s going to be in the United Kingdom.
“Now to try and muddy that or blur that, I think unionists would see that very much as a tearing-up of the Agreement and I think it would be very, very damaging.
“The image would be then, it’s really articles 2 and 3 in their old form, that the national territory is the island of Ireland.
“I just think it would be seen as a slippery slope.
“It would be seen as trying to draw Northern Ireland into an all-Ireland franchise rather than respecting the arrangements that we currently have.”
Ryan Feeney, a senior official with the GAA in Ulster and an independent member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, will give expert evidence to the Convention when it meets on Saturday.
He was part of the lobby group `One Voice, One Vote’, where public figures outside the political parties called for the extension of voting rights in presidential elections.
He says the campaign has nothing to do with Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
“I think it complements the agreement,” he said.
“The Agreement makes it very clear that by law and by statute, that I have the right to call myself an Irish citizen.
“I am a tax-paying, law abiding citizen of the northern State, there is no doubt about that and I accept that, that is the compromise.
“As part of that I have a responsibility to defend and protect the people of this State who are British.
“So, park the constitutional question. This is about national identity.
“The Good Friday agreement allows British people to express their national identity in the political realm, or in terms of the fact that there is a monarchy.
“As an Irish citizen and a member of the Irish nation, I have no role in participating in electing the head of the Irish nation, which is fundamentally wrong and against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which talks about dual nationality or separate identities in terms of Irish or British.
“This is not about offending anybody. It is not about taking away anyone else’s rights.
“The constitutional question – we have a compromise in place – this is not about the border. We have accepted that until a majority of people in this State want a united Ireland or don’t, that issue has been parked.
“This is simply about me as an Irish citizen who lives in the northern State getting the right to vote for the head of the Irish nation.”
The presidential election fought in the autumn of 2011 to succeed Mrs McAleese featured two candidates born north of the border – Dana, and most famously, the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Michael D Higgins won the race, but Mr McGuinness said his involvement further underlined the anomaly of northern nationalists being unable to vote. He has also argued that his candidacy, which saw him step away from his Stormont role temporarily, did not disrupt political relations with unionists.
But whatever the view from the north, the key decisions on whether the possible reforms rise or fall will be made by decision-makers in Dublin.
Richard Moore is a former Irish government press aide and ministerial adviser who now runs his Dublin-based PR company, MComm.
In 2011 he led the meteoric presidential campaign of independent Seán Gallagher, which was derailed in the final stages of the battle by a now infamous TV clash with rival candidate Martin McGuinness (who, in a further twist, is now one of four Stormont MLAs on the Constitutional Convention).
Mr Moore said it was possible that extending the voting rights to Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland could strengthen the hand of a party like Sinn Féin, which has such a strong northern presence.
Against that, he also argued that any danger of an emerging `northern block vote’ is likely to be blunted by the fact that presidential contests tend to focus on individual personalities rather than party politics.
But he wonders if the reform is ever likely to happen, given that political parties in the south could instinctively be wary of introducing unknown and possibly unpredictable elements to elections.
“I think behind the scenes though – and I am only an outsider looking in – generally speaking political parties tend to shy away from the idea of having people who don’t live actually in the State having votes in big elections in the State.
“I suppose by the nature of the fact that they are not present in a State, they might be seen as much more volatile and much more likely to have a knee-jerk reaction.
“Elections are volatile anyway and the elections have got more and more volatile.
“So while it’s a good idea on paper, I could see political parties being somewhat reluctant to open it up. I think there may be a certain amount of lip service to it.”
The debate faces a key test this weekend.
© The Detail 2013