1 March 2019 Edition
Brexit’s threat to civil rights
Varadkar must come through on promises to Northern citizens
Voting rights key in 2019
2019 is set to be a critical year for voting rights in Ireland. There will be a referendum on the extension of voting rights in Irish presidential elections to all Irish citizens, North, South and the diaspora spread around the world. At the same time Six-County voters, tens of thousands of whom are Irish citizens, are set to lose their right to vote in EU parliamentary elections as the disastrous Tory Brexit fiasco stumbles from crisis to crisis.
Northern MEP Martina Anderson makes the case for keeping Irish citizens across the border enfranchised.
Brexit represents one of the greatest threats to our democratic rights in the north since the Civil Rights movement began five decades ago.
The outworking of the disastrous Tory Brexit agenda will see people in the north lose their right to vote in European Parliamentary elections and, as a result, will lose their voice in Europe.
After Brexit, Irish citizens in the north will still remain EU citizens but with one important difference; unlike EU citizens from other parts of the Ireland, we will have lost our democratic right to stand in and vote in European elections.
This disenfranchisement of people in the north is unacceptable and should be regarded as such by everyone who believes in democracy. But we don't have to lose our voice. There is another way. The additional seats could be allocated to the north to ensure that Irish citizens retain this basic democratic right regardless of where we are on the island.
With Britain leaving the EU, the seats currently held by British MEPs are being redistributed by the EU and Ireland is set to get two of these seats.
There are currently three EU constituencies in the 26 Counties, Dublin, Ireland South and Midlands North West. Adding two additional seats to three constituencies does not go so the Irish government launched a Constituency Commission on the EU parliamentary boundaries to garner views on the issue.
In our submission to the Commission, Sinn Féin made the case that the two additional seats should be elected by Irish citizens from the north.
This is not just the view of Sinn Féin. Others, including senior figures from within Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have also indicated their support for the proposal.
And it is also a position which has been proved by experts to be workable and achievable.
Our group in the European Parliament, GUE/NGL, commissioned an independent legal opinion which was authored by barrister Mark Bassett which proved conclusively there is no legal or constitutional barrier to the additional seats being allocated to the north.
The Voting Rights for All report, which I launched alongside our party President, Mary Lou McDonald and my MEP colleague, Liadh Ní Riada, clearly sets out how and why the seats could be allocated to the north.
The EU has also made it clear that it would have no objection to the Irish government creating a new constituency and extending the franchise to Irish citizens in the north.
In fact, external voting is allowed by the EU and is common in most EU member states. In the north, EU citizens have already been able to cast their vote in elections in their own member states in pop-up polling stations created for the purpose.
For example, the Chinese Welfare Association offices in Belfast were used for Polish elections in 2010 and the Latvian Consulate in Newry was used for Latvian elections and in London over 100,000 French people voted in polling stations there in the French elections.
The report also proves that extending the franchise for EU elections to the north is in line with the spirit of the Irish constitution.
"The right to citizenship was not intended to be a placebo or a token acknowledgement. It cannot be limited to an entry in the census form or the receipt of a passport. Citizenship is a community of equals. It is the right to have rights. The most basic element of citizenship is participation," the report states.
It goes even further and argues that citizenship without voting rights would be against the values of the constitution. "Citizenship of Ireland and of the European Union without effective representation must be considered democratically suspect. It is surely anathema to any concept of republican democracy to leave fellow citizens without a voice in the decisions that affect them," the report argues.
That clearly puts an onus and a responsibility on the Irish government to act and act quickly to ensure the rights of citizens in the north are not taken away.
While it is the British government who will take away the rights of people in the north to vote in EU elections, it is the Irish government which has the power to do something about it.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave an assurance to the people of the north when he said that Irish citizens in the north would never again be left behind by an Irish government. If those words are to mean anything then the Taoiseach should now take this opportunity to prove he is serious about protecting our rights by allocating these two additional seats for the north. Otherwise it is mere empty rhetoric.
This independent legal report clearly calls on the Irish government to act to allocate these additional seats to the north in line with the constitution and the publicly expressed position of the government.
"The 2019 European Parliament election provides and important opportunity for Ireland to reinforce the connection between all citizens on the island on the basis of equal standing. The extension of the franchise and the creation of a new constituency in the north would demonstrate the democratic values of the State and the EU are taken seriously," the report states.
The legal advice makes it clear there is no legal or constitutional barrier to the Irish government acting to ensure the democratic rights of all Irish citizens are upheld.
The only barrier that remains is the political will of the Irish government. This offers the Taoiseach and his government a chance to demonstrate it is serious about protecting the rights of all Irish citizens.
50 years on from the civil rights movement when a community took to the streets to demand its democratic rights, and a century since the only universal suffrage all Ireland election, the Irish Government cannot stand by and watch while those democratic rights are forcibly taken off us.