The proposed extension of voting rights for Irish presidential elections to all Irish nationals from the north of Ireland (as well as to Irish nationals based abroad) announced by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny last Sunday (the 12th of March) is a very welcome development.
It represents a positive step towards subverting the continued political partition of Ireland (which will only further physically divide and impoverish Irish people, especially those in the northern and border regions, in the post-Brexit economic winter) and hopefully towards undoing the sense of abandonment felt by many northerners as a result of that partition and the negligent approach of the southern establishment to their northern compatriots ever since.
Extending the vote to all citizens – be they from the north of Ireland, the south of Ireland or abroad – has great symbolic significance; it emphasises that we are all one.
The President also happens to be the Irish nation’s global representative. Thus, it is only fitting that all Irish nationals, wherever they may be, have a say in his or her appointment.
Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said: “I don’t want polling stations set up here in Northern Ireland.
“That would be imposing on the people of Northern Ireland.”
He also said the presidential campaign should not be entitled to any special treatment from mainstream TV channels in Northern Ireland.
“If they need to vote, they need to find another way,” he said.
This, the stock-unionist response, was as depressingly uptight, defensive, resistive and disingenuous as one would expect.
First of all, nothing is to be imposed; the proposal would simply be an extension of a choice to vote for those who wish to voluntarily participate in Irish presidential elections. If Elliott and other unionists, or anyone else in the north for that matter, wish to opt out, boycott or ignore the whole enterprise, they will be fully free to do so and they can continue with living their lives unaffected and as normal.
Secondly, why does Elliott assume that unionists will or should have the power to veto the establishment of polling stations to facilitate Irish nationals north of the border? The Irish government has office-space and a residence (for its northern-focused staff and British-Irish Council officials) in Notting Hill (just off the Malone Road) in south Belfast, which, one would imagine, could potentially be converted into a regional polling station if necessary and I do not see why the permission of unionism would necessarily be required.
Nationalist-majority councils, operating on an entirely democratic basis, may also be happy to provide assistance with the provision of space for such polling stations, if needs be.
If this was not viable, the southern government could, as an alternative, surely rent private spaces in which to set up polling stations rather than having to rely on the provision of public spaces by northern governing bodies.
And thirdly, just who on earth does Tom Elliott think he is? Just because he doesn’t want something, it doesn’t mean other people must also be deprived of it. How utterly imperious and narcissistic.
Did Elliott object as loudly when the Polish government set up a polling station for Polish citizens living in the north in 2010 so as to allow them to participate in their country’s presidential election that year, or in 2009 when similar provision was made for Polish citizens for that year’s European elections, or when the same station was used for the Poles’ parliamentary elections in 2006? Not at all.
Did Elliott object as loudly when the Bulgarian government arranged the setting up of a polling station in Armagh last year – using booths and desks borrowed from the north’s Electoral Office – so as to enable Bulgarian citizens living in the region to vote in Bulgaria’s 2016 presidential election? There wasn’t a whisper from him.
It is nearly as if there might be some bigoted or sectarian intent behind Elliott’s objection to the facilitation of Irish presidential-election voting rights for Irish citizens based in the north…
For Elliott, it seems that Irish nationalists in the north can have their rights, but just so long as the exercising of those rights does not offend his unionist sensibilities.
Naturally and thankfully, the Polish and Bulgarian precedents make any unionist objection to the present Irish proposal all the more difficult to justify.