GERARD HOWLIN: Opening presidential vote to diaspora is an exercise in comic gigantism

By engorging the presidency... it disturbs a delicate equilibrium in which the president is primarily a bulwark for restraint in the face of potential irresponsibility, writes Gerard Howlin.

LAST Sunday in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, our Taoiseach announced another constitutional referendum.

If approved, this would allow Irish citizens resident outside the State, including in the North, to vote in presidential elections. 

It is potentially the largest extension of the franchise, in the history of modern democracy. But it not so much extends that franchise as overwhelms it.

 The furthest extent of the enlarged electorate could be measured in the tens of millions, but is unknowable. It would immediately and irrevocably redraw the boundaries of the one office, which works well for us. 

The credibility of the presidency is intrinsically tied to its restraint, including vis-à-vis the Government. 

Installing a president with a global mandate, from an electorate many times larger than available to any government, brings tensions unimagined in the Constitution.

The word ‘diaspora’ was the point of departure in Enda Kenny’s speech, and one then iterated repeatedly throughout it. In its current common usage, it’s a relatively new word in an Irish context. 

If not originated, it was successfully colonised by Mary Robinson in her campaign for the presidency. 

The candle she memorably placed in the window of the Áras was a beacon to them, among others. 

Culturally and politically, her effective invention of the concept of an Irish diaspora in the popular mind was a continuum of a change of attitude that can be dated to the election of John F Kennedy as president of the United States. 

In the person of a glamorous and powerful man, occupying an iconic office, the Irish identity was reimagined. Emigration had overwhelmingly been the story of political failure, and in personal terms of irretrievable loss. 

The scale and speed at which the Irish language was abandoned remains an unequalled phenomenon of a people abandoning cultural baggage.

In Kennedy’s homecoming, a great reclamation was begun. In Kenny’s claim last Sunday for a permanent institutionalisation of the diaspora as an electoral empire, it is reborn as comic gigantism and perversely a failure of imagination.

The failure of imagination is that the most potent forces are undefined for a reason. 

The claim of the Irish diaspora is, at its most powerful, as an unquantified claim on the loyalties of uncounted numbers. 

Once the headcount is complete, the claim is diminished but becomes sufficiently large to overwhelm the institution of the presidency it is appended to.

By engorging the presidency, in contrast to the other exclusively domestic institutions it interacts with constitutionally, it disturbs a delicate equilibrium, in which the president is primarily a bulwark for restraint in the face of potential irresponsibility. 

If that is the gigantism, the comedy is apt as the opening tableau of a tour that concludes in the White House with US president Donald Trump tomorrow. It is a confection of nativism and globalisation, unequalled since the invention of Irish coffee.

Diaspora, unlike migration, requires continuing mythic connection with the homeland. In the short stories ‘The Visitation’ and ‘Foundry House’, written in the early 1960s contemporaneously with Kennedy’s election, Brian Friel contracted the actuality of homecoming with home as it exists in the imagination. 

It is one thing to illuminate the homestead in the bathos of candlelight or to advertise it as a place for holidays. It is another matter entirely to place it under the bleaching strobe lights of a presidential election. It is the equivalent to disturbing a fairy fort. No good will come of it.

The modern emergence of the Irish diaspora, at first in the discreet glow of presidential candlelight, was propelled onto the international stage by Riverdance.

It is impossible to understand Kenny’s proposal — indeed it will ultimately be impossible to work it out — without a detailed knowledge of the voting system for Eurovision. It was there as an interval act in 1994, that Riverdance was introduced on stage by the late Gerry Ryan as “a full-bodied orchestral dance piece”. 

That performance, given before President Robinson, is the iconic moment Kenny is attempting to recreate for himself. It was also the beginnings of an invented tradition. 

It is an unquestionably great spectacle, and aptly at the birth of the Celtic Tiger, an even greater commercial success. But culturally it is Irish stew on the move. It presaged the mass opening of interpretative centres as shopping malls for national identity. Soon, the ‘new Irish’ arrived. 

In an instant, they were more Irish than the Irish themselves. Then marriage, that most oppressive of institutions, was visited on the LGBT community. Some, including myself, remain several letters short of a full acronym. What is proposed now in extending the franchise, is a hapless answer to globalisation, and the conformation of it.

Identity politics, on which many tips might be had in Mr Trump’s White House tomorrow, is the last gasp of 19th century nationalism. Border polls, and plebiscites of that sort, are another example of the search for certainty by those who lack a capacity for ambiguity or those who do, but are unscrupulous enough to lead them on. 

The fantastical extension of the electoral franchise, is an extension of the globalisation of Saint Patrick’s Day. 

That was commercially a brilliant idea. For a pittance, the Niagara Falls are greened, our ministers are received everywhere to pursue our agenda. But us; to take seriously? Surely not. We must know better.

The scale of what is proposed, is equalled only in its shallowness. 

The Irish airwaves are alive with cries that Church property be expropriated. But one constitutional amendment that will never be seriously pursued is one to weaken the robust property rights of the Irish people. 

That is to overlook the inconvenient truth that a reason for Church-run institutions, now required to pay reparation, was to protect Irish homes and land, from the claims of the illegitimate, and from which so many emigrated. 

By popular demand then, no State event was complete without lavishly outfitted bishops presiding. Things change, but the lasting hallmarks of identity lie between boasting and shame. The rest are just props, to be tossed away when inconvenient.

A magical extension globally, to a population many times greater than our indigenous inhabitants, of the franchise to elect our president is the politics of Riverdance. 

It’s a fantasy identity that in 1994 was aptly and enjoyably an interval act, in a song contest. We are meant to have the irony, to appreciate the parody, not the gormlessness to become it, a generation later.

But by repetitive acting out of successive fantasies of what it is to be Irish, we can persuade ourselves of anything, however, contradictorily.

Lines for tomorrow’s speech in the White House might include: “If you’re Irish come into the parlour, There’s a welcome there for you; If your name is Timothy or Pat, So long as you come from Ireland, There’s a welcome on the mat, and a right to vote for the office of President of Ireland.”

It trumps Trump.


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