The unmentioned risk of letting Northern Ireland elect our President

People might reasonably agree or differ on whether it is a good or bad idea to let people living in Northern Ireland vote for the President of the Republic, but it’s hard to reasonably disagree with the likely consequence: If one wanted to design a way to make “President Gerard Adams” more likely, one could not do better than to extend the franchise for the Presidential election to a million or so people with a long-established pattern of voting for Sinn Fein.

Nevertheless, it’s on the table. Which is testament, in fairness, to this Government’s willingness to act in ways contrary to its own self-interest:

The SDLP and Fianna Fáil have supported a proposal by the southern party’s youth wing to extend the vote for an Irish president to Northern Ireland as they encouraged unionists to “embrace” the invitation.

Fianna Fáil members Brendan Smith TD, Senator Erin McGreehan, Niall Blaney TD and SDLP MLA Justin McNulty supported the launch of the Ógra Fianna Fáil plan at Stormont.

Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan Brendan Smith said extending the franchise for future elections for the Office of President of Ireland — Uachtarán na hÉireann — is a small but meaningful acknowledgement of the need to be inclusive of both traditions, and none, on this island in constitutional change in the future.

In practical terms, it seems to me to be very unlikely that this is an invitation which will be taken up by the majority of Unionist voters, while it seems very likely to be one that will be embraced in huge numbers by their nationalist counterparts. No political party on the island will benefit from it more than Sinn Fein.

Some people will argue, not unreasonably, that laws should never be made based on concerns about which political party stands to benefit from them. Personally, I think that’s stupid: Which political parties benefit from various laws is a very important concern, if you care about public policy. For example, we can come up with all the arguments under the sun for not giving 16 year olds the vote, but the obvious and simplest reason why that is a terrible idea is that 16 year olds are likely to vote more like Greta Thunberg than they are to vote like a family under pressure from taxes and energy prices. The fact that they would vote left in large numbers is, of course, a major reason why parties on the left are so keen to give them votes.

It seems to me, then, to be a bad policy to give one political party such a leg up in our elections. Though of course, good luck persuading politicians of that. There is no more widely held delusion in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael than that northern nationalists are very eager to vote for the “true” Republican parties – that’s why they’ve been flirting with – and failing to – establish branches in Northern Ireland for decades. It’s a nonsense.

Away from those concerns, though, I think this is an unjust idea for other reasons, too: Under the Good Friday Agreement, people living in Northern Ireland, if they wish to be voters in the Republic, have a mechanism to do so: They can vote to leave the UK, and have Northern Ireland be assimilated into the southern state. That option is theirs, and, as yet, they have neither taken it nor given any serious indication that they are likely to in the near future, despite what the dreamers may say.

But finally, there’s another, vastly more important point here, which won’t be considered: That point is that from the basic standpoint of international relations, it seems very unwise to me for the Republic to declare that its President is also effectively the elected President of Northern Ireland, with a mandate from Northern Irish citizens. That will pose enormous diplomatic and constitutional risks: Our constitution makes the President answerable, in theory, to the Irish Government. But that Government is not answerable to the voters, or some of them, who elect the President. The Irish President will have a mandate from Northern Irish voters that the Irish Government lacks.

So who, then, in a crisis, has more of a right to speak out on British-Irish relations? The elected Irish Government, or the President who claims a mandate from a section of the (constitutionally) British state? Add this to the prospect of that President being a certain Mr. G Adams, and it’s not hard to foresee the prospects of a constitutional crisis. The prospect of two separate policies – one in Government buildings, representing the Republic, and another in the Áras, representing the “President of all-Ireland”, is not hard to imagine.

As for what this idea achieves? Well, it beats me. If you think Johnny Loyalist in Portstewart is going to wake up one day, look at President Adams, look at King Charles, and say to himself “well at least I had the chance to vote for Adams, maybe a united Ireland is for me after all….”

Well. Good luck with that.


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