Diarmaid Ferriter: Government ready to love-bomb Irish voters in Britain

There is a shallowness and hypocrisy about the Irish Government’s current mission

‘Perhaps the Irish in the UK should make the most of the unprecedented interest in their voting rights from an Irish government, because it certainly will not last beyond the Brexit referendum.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Perhaps the Irish in the UK should make the most of the unprecedented interest in their voting rights from an Irish government, because it certainly will not last beyond the Brexit referendum.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

The Irish government is planning to love-bomb Irish voters in Britain in the run-up to the Brexit vote on June 23rd. Last month, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, made it clear he had made the early running on this.

Determined to cover all bases, he schmoozed the elite: “For my part, I have addressed influential audiences at Chatham House and at the European Council for Foreign Relations in London, and at the British Irish Association in Oxford and Cambridge” – but also got down to the grassroots: “I met with over 30 Irish community organisations and encouraged them to inform and involve their members”.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has also promised to make visits to the UK during the referendum campaign to lobby Irish voters – “It is our duty to inform them” – and he revealed two weeks ago that he will also “be asking a number of ministers to visit Britain during this time to reach out to Irish citizens living there; to engage with friends of Ireland”. More details were unveiled during the week; a number of Government Ministers will make trips, taking in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow, where there are substantial Irish populations.

The last British census, in 2011, indicated there were more than 400,000 residents of England and Wales who were born in the Republic, and 215,000 who were born in Northern Ireland.

A social media campaign to promote voter registration by Irish citizens in the UK has also been launched by the European Movement Ireland, with this message: “Did you know that Irish people in Britain and British people in Ireland can vote in the UK’s EU referendum on June 23rd? Ask the one you love to register to vote in the EU referendum”.

Postal vote

The British embassy in Dublin is also engaged in a campaign to encourage British citizens in Ireland to vote. The 2011 Irish census recorded 288,627 people living in the Republic who were born in the UK, many of whom will be entitled to a postal vote, as British citizens living overseas are entitled to vote for up to 15 years after moving abroad. Twenty-five years ago, Labour Party TD Gerry O’Sullivan introduced a Private Members’ Bill that would have given Irish emigrants the same right, but it was narrowly defeated. The government maintained there were “reasons of principle, practical and administrative reality” for opposing it.

A few years later, when president Mary Robinson addressed the joint houses of the Oireachtas on the subject of the importance of the diaspora, she felt her speech “went down like a lead balloon . . . there was no doubt in my mind that members of the Oireachtas did not want to hear about the diaspora”.

In the years since, various proposals have emerged to at least partly enfranchise Irish emigrants. Most recently, there has been a report of the Constitutional Convention recommending Irish citizens abroad be given a vote in presidential elections; a report from an Oireachtas committee on EU affairs recommending acceptance of the principle of emigrant voting rights; and last year’s report of the working group on the Seanad, urging that Irish citizens abroad would have the right to have a vote in Seanad elections.

Enda Kenny welcomed the Seanad report as “innovative and radical”.

There is little doubting the relevance of the Brexit referendum to Ireland for many obvious economic and political reasons, but all this focus on the rights of the Irish in the UK and the British in Ireland to vote also exposes a shallowness and hypocrisy about the Irish Government’s current mission. It ignores the glaring Irish political failure to do anything about the disenfranchisement of Irish emigrants when it comes to voting in Irish referendums or, indeed, any elections.

At least the British government can send a clear and positive message to its overseas citizens: “Don’t miss out on the EU referendum”. This was not a message the Irish government could broadcast last year during the marriage equality referendum campaign; indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of that vote was those who had to trek all the way home precisely because they are not facilitated with voting rights when away.

Nauseating

When he was minister for the diaspora last year, Jimmy Deenihan insisted Enda Kenny is “very connected with our diaspora, I’ve never seen a taoiseach as connected”. It is difficult to take that assertion seriously.

It is nauseating to witness a government, in its desperation to keep Britain in the EU, court the Irish abroad, when it has no intention of doing anything about their exclusion from Irish votes.

Ironically, the Irish government is targeting Irish voters to help keep Britain in an EU whose executive, in 2014, criticised the Irish state for “disenfranchising” its citizens living abroad.

Perhaps the Irish in the UK should make the most of the unprecedented interest in their voting rights from an Irish government, because it certainly will not last beyond the Brexit referendum.

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