Deirdre Hargey, Liadh Ní Riada, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill
Saturday is count day to elect the next President of Ireland. Irish citizens living in the North do not have a vote in this election. But that shouldn’t stop you from having your say. Almost all of us have relatives, friends, associates who will have a vote. So it’s not too late. With less than 48 hours to go before polls close give them a ring. Send them a text. Email. Facebook. Instagram. Urge them to vote for the only Presidential candidate who has put the North and the issue of Irish Unity front and centre in her campaign – Liadh Ní Riada.
Liadh is the Sinn Féin candidate. A gaelgeoir. A musician. An activist. A republican. A woman. A member of the European Parliament representing the Munster constituency. The daughter of Sean O’Riada who was the single most important figure in the revival of Irish traditional music in the 1960s and who wrote the acclaimed Mise Éire.
For weeks now Liadh, along with her team of party activists, have been a familiar sight on the roads and motorways as they crisscross the island of Ireland. This week she was in Belfast.
Whatever the outcome of this Presidential election we all need to ensure that this is the last time that Irish citizens in the north are denied the vote to elect the President of Ireland.
Next May there will be an opportunity to change this. On May 24th, the same date as the EU and local government elections in the south, a referendum will be held on extending the vote in presidential elections.
Sinn Féin has consistently argued for Irish citizens in the north and those who in live in the diaspora to have a say in the life of the nation, including the right of northern representatives to speak in the Oireachtas. When we raised it during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, committed to facilitate this. However, in 2006 the Fianna Fáil government reneged on this commitment.
In 2011 the newly Fine Gael/Labour government agreed to establish a Constitutional Convention to recommend constitutional reform. Sinn Féin made a detailed submission including the proposition that Irish citizens in the north and the Irish diaspora should have the right to vote in Presidential elections.
Two years later in September 2013 the Constitutional Convention heard evidence on this from academic and legal experts. The views of representatives of Irish communities living in the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere around the world, were also heard via a live video link-up.
I was there along with Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald. It was a good debate. Many speakers took the view that the opportunity for unionists to vote for an Irish President – if they choose to – was a positive way of engaging with unionists. It is also a natural extension of the Good Friday Agreement.
78% said yes to citizens’ resident outside the State having the right to vote in a Presidential election. When specifically asked about citizens resident in the north 73% said yes.
It has taken five years of constant lobbying to get to get a date for this referendum. In May the Taoiseach said that: “Following through on a Citizens’ Assembly proposal, we will have a referendum next year on extending the right to vote in presidential elections to all Irish citizens, including those living in the North and across the world …”
The date set is May 24th next year.
That gives all of us who support this concept the time to plan, strategise and prepare a campaign to win that referendum. Inevitably parties, including Sinn Féin, will be very busy fighting the local and European elections, and possibly a general election. Despite this there must be a significant and priority focus on the referendum vote.
It will also require a dialogue with unionism. A widening of the franchise for Presidential elections will offer those who are unionist the opportunity to engage in a positive and inclusive way and to participate in the life of the Irish nation. It will enhance the role of the President as the representative of all the citizens of Ireland and will be seen as a modernising measure in the context of Irish citizenship and of the institution. So, once the count concludes on Saturday this is our next big project.