GERARD HOWLIN: Why try to change an institution that does not need to be fixed?

Last Thursday theMinister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney announced on Twitter that he is “looking forward to finalising” a proposal “allowing Irish citizens all over the world have the option to vote in presidential elections — it will change and broaden the nature of the presidency for the better...”

It was an almost true statement. The scale of broadening advocated will irrevocably change the nature of the presidency, but not for the better. I usually try to avoid vituperation, and feel genuinely ashamed for occasional lapses. But this is one of the most stupid, ill considered, populist wheezes I’ve heard of in a long time. It takes an institution that works and, for the sake of it, shakes it up just to see what happens. Meantime, a longstanding proposal to give our diaspora seats in the Seanad remains mothballed. Having had nearly a week to think about it, that’s the mildest censure I can come up with.

Coveney’s statement follows coverage on Christmas Eve of his minister for state Ciarán Cannon, who specifically promised a referendum in 2019. At first it seemed Santa got lost on his way home to the North Pole; but no. What he left behind is an enormous Lego set, with enough pieces to build an edifice far bigger than the modest home it has been left in.

Up to 70m people around the world claim Irish ancestry and heritage. That’s a flexible measure of self-identity. To put context on that scale, the minister’s department in its 2015 document Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy estimated that in proportion to the total population on the island of Ireland, Irish-America numbers 550.5%. Next down the scale are Germans, with German-Americans numbering 59.3% of their respective home population. The scale of the Irish diaspora is staggering by any comparison globally.

In considering eligibility to extend voting rights, numbers matter. Elections are a numbers game. If the diaspora is based on self-selected affinity, citizenship is defined and voting rights even more so. We have an electorate of 3.2m but a further 3.5m citizens living outside the State including Northern Ireland. There are additional kinks in our system including the fact that British citizens resident here are eligible to vote in general elections but not in a presidential election.

Assuming not a single additional person who is entitled to seeks citizenship, we would more than double the electorate, and most of it would be outside the state. These are 2016 figures. In the same year the number of passport applications in Britain increased by 40%. This is a scale of citizenship outside the state of origin, unseen since the end of the Roman Empire.

What is being ignored, regrettably, are long-standing and sensible suggestions to ensure a deeper connection with the Irish abroad. Principally, these include representation in the Seanad. Since 2013, the bill proposed by then senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone which would have allowed citizens abroad to vote in Seanad elections, and thus considerably widen the platform for public conversation and legislation has sat sadly unsupported. It would not, however, have fundamentally disturbed the basis of functioning democracy, which requires that decision making ultimately rests with those within the State, who must bear the consequences. With the presidency, it would be an election where the result is the ultimate free kick. The kick could come from anywhere in the world.

We may yet elect a president we regret, but we haven’t yet.


Our nine so far have been exemplary. What is it about the institution that has now drawn this government, not once but twice, to attempt to disorder something that clearly doesn’t need to be fixed? In May 2015 the referendum to reduce the eligible age for presidential candidates from 35 to 18 was both unasked for, and comprehensively rejected. On a relatively high turnout of 60.5%, it was defeated by a margin of 73.06% to 26.94%. No referendum ever went down to deeper defeat.

It was coincidently on the same day as the marriage equality referendum. It was clearly tossed out without a thought. No effort whatever was made to campaign for it. So why? One thought which occurred to me, is that on the basis that a proportion of the electorate will always vote against whatever government proposes because it feels out of sorts with them, better then to give them something to actually vote against. Even the fact of debating this nonsense serves as a sandbag to soak up discussion of issues that might actually be damaging to government. I long ago learnt that most so-called crises and public rows have no effect at all on the electorate’s ultimate political decision. The more time and oxygen they take, the better. Whatever the ultimate motive behind this proposal now, if it is put to us the people in 2019, it must be dismissed decisively.

Widening the electoral franchise to all citizens regardless of where in the world they live, or whether they have ever lived in Ireland, may first of all have the completely opposite effect of its intended consequence. It this is actually about reaching out to the Irish abroad,
a cack-handed proposal that is likely to be soundly defeated, will garner headlines for all the wrong reasons. A defeat will be both a necessary response at home, and taken as a slap in the face abroad. If it were passed, and it must be taken at face value that this is really the intention of its proposers, then firstly the nature of a presidential campaign will be completely changed, and ultimately the nature of the presidency.

When framing law, it is necessary to examine the law of unintended consequences. Only the extraordinarily well funded, the very famous, or both could mount an effective electoral appeal in a global constituency. The scale of that constituency relative to its base, is ultimately unknown. But we can say definitely nothing like it, has been attempted in the history of democracy. I wish the Standards in Public Office Commission well in policing a process across five continents. That is not to mention the cost to the exchequer. I presume exact detail on that will be part of the “finalising” now promised.

Then there is the presidency itself. The constitution specifically requires that “The President shall not leave the State during his term of office save with the consent of the Government”. This is to ensure that the Government alone controls foreign policy. By embedding the presidency in an electorate beyond the borders of the State, an insolvable tension is created. That is not to think of a future government, denying a president’s request to travel and effectively seeking to knobble his re-election. I could go on.

Whether the ultimate consequences are unintended or simply uncared for, I don’t know. What is proposed is absurd gigantism. It’s an exploding leprechaun sort of politics.

A defeat will be both a necessary response at home, and taken as a slap in the face abroad

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