Where’s the Irish Mandela to lead us back into the Commonwealth?

ELECTRONIC voting has a long and rather chequered history in Ireland. Cost considerations aside, part of me rather likes pen and paper, disputed ballots and the drama of interminable counts.

I’m also aware this fetish for an inefficient way of determining the popular will is deeply irrational and inexplicable to many others.

I’m aware too that making the political system accessible is a solemn duty on the political class.

So if internet voting would encourage more young people – or older people, or the physically disabled for that matter – to vote, I am, in principle, open to the idea.

Or I was. It was two weeks ago that it struck me: if people can send emails and text messages they live to regret from their mobile phone or Blackberry on a night’s drinking, what if people could vote from the comfort of the bar?

Even if eight pints of lager were not involved and it wasn’t 3.30 in the morning, what effect would voting while parked in the nearest tavern have on Irish democracy? Not a very healthy one, I suggest.

This was brought home to me on a night out with a Dublin writer friend. We were gently bantering as usual about politics. (What used to be called the National Question tends gently to bubble under the surface on nights like this, although when sober our views aren’t really as dissimilar as either of us cares to admit.)

“Still working a lot in India, Steven?”

I nodded.

“Commonwealth Games in Delhi, eh? As bad as we’re told?”

“Don’t ask,” I replied: “It’s like an Indian wedding. There’ll be disasters. There’ll be chaos. There’ll be confusion. But somehow, it will work out in the end. Or, I hope so anyway – for India’s sake. Right now though? A disaster in the making.”

I knew what was coming next: “Ah you see, Steven, another good reason not to be in the Commonwealth. Not this side of a united Ireland anyway.”

We both laughed. The alternative was to argue and we weren’t in the mood. Drink had been taken, after all.

But it occurred to me: thank heaven, Joe votes after his breakfast – Labour, as it happens – when all he has inside him is coffee. Imagine if bar-room nationalists could enter their first preference at the touch of an iPod screen after a few too many?

How many more votes would Sinn Féin get then? (I am presupposing here that most people would be a bit embarrassed staggering up to a polling station half-cut minutes before the ballot boxes are sealed. Besides, the bars are still open and, at that stage, wouldn’t most people prefer to order another round rather than cut the night short and go home and vote?).

Evoting, for general elections at least, is some way off, I suspect, therefore. Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, unfortunately for the organisers, are not. They open at the weekend.

The unprecedented public anger in Delhi over the farcical preparations of the games is best understood as a clash between two Indias. The people in charge of the games typify old India: corrupt, slothful, incompetent, chaotic, unconcerned with the pursuit of excellence and unwilling to benchmark their country against global standards.

The people most horrified by the cock-ups – far, far more horrified than any of the athletes, I suspect – are those who believe they are creating a new India. Their India is a nation whose ability and intelligence are highly regarded all over the world – an India where people work hard, where there are high levels of accountability and where people are as good as their word and their contracts. Theirs is the India that is an emerging superpower to rival China which the developed world wants to befriend.

But just as young, thrusting Indians begin to believe the hype about the new India, the old India pisses against a wall again to humiliate them.

There are still a few days to go to rectify some of the damage caused to India’s reputation, but young India is beginning to feel that so long as old India is in charge, the country can’t even manage to put on a half-decent Commonwealth Games for 50-odd countries, let alone a spectacle to match the Beijing Olympics complete with athletes from four times as many nations.

Every Indian I know is deeply ashamed at pictures of the filth, for want of a better word – not to mention snakes, monkeys and packs of stray dogs – in the games village.

They hold their heads in their hands when they hear about collapsed footbridges, inadequate security, botched buildings and diseased pools of stagnant water. When the chairman of the organising committee casually dismisses the problem as merely differing standards of hygiene between India and the west, they despair.

To young India – young, middle-class India? – it would be like an Irish minister going on television and saying “Yes, we do keep coal in the bath, and so what?” To them, the stench is not of faeces but of old Indian corruption.

Does any of this excuse Ireland’s boycott of the games? Not one jot.

I ask you: if the commonwealth is good enough for Canada and Australia, not to mention countries that have had a far rawer deal from history like India and most of Africa, why not Ireland? And, before anyone starts whining about the colonial experience and the Famine and the Fourth Green Field, let us not forget one thing. Whatever injustices were meted out to Ireland, Ireland was quite happy to mete out to Africans and Asians and Caribbeans once upon a time, even if there is widespread national amnesia about that fact.

But, leaving that to one side, what harm would Commonwealth membership do? Would it impinge on Irish sovereignty? No. Would it make Ireland any less of a republic? No.

Would it mean bowing and scraping to the British monarchy? No – it’s optional even for the Brits in the north of this island.

ON the other hand, would those awkward customers up there instantly throw in their lot with the Republic if Ireland rejoined? Well, the answer to that is ‘no’ as well (To suggest as much is patronising anyway, which means Irish unity without 26-county Commonwealth membership first is a non-starter when you think about it).

Would commonwealth membership, however, send a subtle signal that this part of the island has matured and gained in confidence and escaped from its ancient psychosis – and, dare one say it, become a bit more serious about its nationalism?

Yes, it most definitely would. Is that something any sane person who aspires to ever closer unity between the people of this island should welcome? Very much so.

And would it also be welcomed warmly by all those countries in Africa and the Caribbean, in particular, with which Ireland has long historical – and very contemporary humanitarian – links? Eagerly.

The story of how Ireland managed to become a full republic and needlessly drop out of the Commonwealth at the same time is a long and complicated one which does not reflect well on the Fine Gael party of the time.

But South Africa rejoined the club. Now who will be Ireland’s Nelson Mandela and show similar leadership?

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