August 10th 2000
THE NORTH, DEMOCRACY AND THE IRISH NATION
Article by Martin McGuinness MP, MLA
Minister for Education in the Northern Executive
``It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland ... to be part of the Irish nation.''
On 22 May 1998, the above amendment of the Irish Constitution was approved by an overwhelming majority in a referendum. It follows inexorably from this that such persons have a democratic right to full engagement in the political life of the nation. But that does not obtain at the moment. People in the six counties cannot vote for the President of Ireland; indeed, the incumbent President could not therefore vote for herself! They cannot cast a ballot on any proposed change in the constitution which includes them. And they have not been awarded a representative or participative presence in the D.il which frequently holds debates and takes decisions about their welfare. There is now usually some northern presence in the Seanad, but that is at the discretion of the Taoiseach and not of right.
It is important to realise the historical and contemporary sense of alienation which northern nationalists feel in this situation. From 1918 to `22, they did enjoy the right to vote for and have Deputies in the D.il. But, with the onset of partition, for which not a single Irish vote was cast they were disenfranchised in this regard and gerrymandered into electoral insignificance and political impotence, in the six counties in particular and the United Kingdom in general. Even if those who view an oath of allegiance to a foreign monarchy as repugnant (on both national and republican grounds) were to take it, they would simply attain a state of sublime irrelevance in London. Tens of thousands of electors in the north wish to be represented as Irish citizens in a national assembly, not portrayed as British subjects in an off-shore house of commons. If unionists and some others want to go to Westminster, why can't republicans and other nationalists go to Leinster House?
It is also important to appreciate that if unionists do not wish to come to the D. il , that is no reason, despite what some have suggested, why nationalists should be excluded from it. To maintain that one individual's failure to exercise a right should lead to another individual being deprived of it is simply preposterous. Besides, it is not at all clear that all unionists would in fact turn down such an opportunity or that others would forever do so. The experience of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation revealed that there are unionists who are prepared to come forward in this way, whether from the traditional unionist fold or in the shape of the Alliance Party. And others again have accepted membership of Seanad Eireann in the past.
In addressing the question of a northern dimension in the political life of the nation, the matter might be specifically approached in terms of what requires a constitutional amendment and what does not, with the latter being dealt with first. The minimum that could be expected is that the Standing Orders of the D.il be altered by that body to allow northern Westminster MPs (18 in all) to attend and speak at certain debates. (Although, in fact, probably only about 5 will turn up to begin with.) Debates on the work of the North-South Ministerial Council and of the all-Ireland Implementation Bodies would be obvious examples and Ireland's general role in the world through its international relations would be another one.
Moving into the area of constitutional amendment, the existing northern presence in the Seanad should be provided for as of right and through some mechanism of electoral choice. Moreover, in the process, that presence needs to be enhanced to a more realistic number. It should also be recalled here that membership of the Seanad allows for involvement in Oireachtas Joint Committees and participation in joint sessions of both houses, which possibilities should be fully availed of by Senators from the six counties.
Also on the constitutional front, Irish citizens in the north ought to be given the right to vote in certain referenda. In the jurisdictional circumstances which prevail at present, it is understandable that such a right should be confined to issues which affect all citizens on the island, i.e. the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 or cabinet confidentiality in 1997, to take the two most recent examples. What could further fall into this category would have to be discussed and no doubt there would be boundary-line cases that would need to be categorised one way or the other. It is accepted, however, that Irish citizens in the north could not reasonably anticipate having a vote on something which would exclusively impact upon those living in the twenty-six counties, e.g. an item to do with taxation, which may surface in the EU context.
A constitutional amendment to allow for votes in Presidential elections would be more straightforward. But the same urgency does not attach to this as to other aspects raised, because there is not likely to be another election until 2004, if even then.
Constitutional moves may also be required to take involvement in the D.il into the voting stage or to have northern Deputies directly elected to it, depending on the exact proposals; changes in electoral law would definitely be necessary.
Much has been said and written about the need to consolidate peace and deprive those who wish to wreck it of the chance to do so. Looked at properly, it will be seen that the steps outlined in this article, in addition to what is already in train, would go a long way towards that end. The transformative effect on northern and national politics cannot be underestimated. I call on all sections of our society, all political and civic leaders throughout the country to support these constructive proposals as concrete contributions to building reconciliation, democracy and peace.
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