'Im as Irish as anyone from Dublin' : Derry reps call for Irish Presidential voting rights for Northern citizens

Derry City and Strabane Council have called for an extension of the Republic of Ireland’s Presidential voting rights to include Irish citizens in the North.

Sinn Féin councillor John McGowan brought forward the motion at the November meeting of full council , which also welcomed the ‘indication from Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe that his government will begin planning for Irish Unity and the impact it will have for public finances; and calls for a similarly pragmatic approach regarding the establishment of a Citizens Assembly on Irish Unity’.

Addressing the chamber he said: “I think most of us welcomed the announcement from the Minister for Finance in the South that the government will now begin the necessary fiscal planning for Irish unity, and I think that’s a very pragmatic approach by them in the light of what we all know has been the Brexit debacle.

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“We would also want the same pragmatic approach taken in terms of the issues in terms of voting rights for Northern citizens. We call on the Irish government and would ask them to hold a referendum on extending the rights to vote for the President to Northern citizens and Irish citizens here and the diaspora across the world. It’s unsustainable in our opinion that any Irish citizen in the North can stand as President, and be nominated, but can’t vote.”

2017: Irish President Michael D Higgins with the Bishop of Derry Dr Donal McKeown the funeral of Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower. Niall Carson/PA Wire

“We are now planning what unity will mean for this island and for a 32 county Ireland in doing that. We also believe that in line with that, the voting rights needs to be addressed.”

Supporting the motion, councillor Brian Tierney stated the cornerstone of the motion is ‘planning and preparing for Irish unity’.

He added: “I have always said, and the SDLP has always said, that the only way we are going to build with regards to Irish unity is to plan in advance, not by sending out press releases and calling for a border poll here there and everywhere, it’s about planning and preparation and then taking that view and vision forward.”

“I’m as Irish here in Derry as anyone in Dublin and I should have the same right to vote as the people in Dublin for my nation’s President. I think this is a very timely motion in preparation for Irish unity and calling on rights and entitlements that Irish citizens in the South have are now extended to Irish citizens in the North and further afield.”

Sinn Féin Councillor John McGowan.

Talking about how Partition had failed people on both sides of the border, People Before Profit councillor Shaun Harkin said his party wanted to see a ‘new Ireland and one that empowers and redistributes wealth right across our communities’.

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He continued: “We don’t have very much confidence at all in the Irish government. As James Connolly said, it’s always been the leaders of Irish nationalism that have betrayed the cause of an independent Ireland.

“I don’t think we can trust Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael or those who are aligned with them to bring about a new Ireland that would benefit the majority of the people.”

"What Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael want to see is an extension of what exists in the South to the North that will protect the privileges and power of a tiny elite.

2018: Civic Reception for current Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who delivered the keynote address at the NICRA 50th Anniversary Festival in the Guildhall, Derry. President Higgins presented an award on behalf of NICRA to founding member, the late Ivan Cooper.
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“It’s less about planning and more about participation by people who right now don’t have power and don’t get to shape what society looks like.

“We think it’s time for a united socialist Ireland and we think it’s time for a border poll, we think it’s time to revive the vision of a workers’ republic that James Connolly talked about.”

Expressing his party’s wish to abstain on the vote, Alliance councillor Philip McKinney commented: “When we look around the chamber there’s quite a few here who would have both passports – Irish and British – I do personally. I have no objections to anyone wishing to vote for an Irish President as their right to do so and on that part we do agree.

“Our party has stated that we have no objections to the discussions on Irish unity but it must be all inclusive and it must include everyone on this island so we will be abstaining.”

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SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney.

DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney stated his party would not be supporting the motion.

He said: “We talk about Irish unity and it’s not so long ago since TDs from the Republic of Ireland were on the news and social media platforms saying they couldn’t afford Northern Ireland so they must have found a goldmine down there if they have said they can afford it.

“From a unionist perspective in Northern Ireland, for Irish unity to happen I would ask republicans to give me six good reasons why I would be content in a United Ireland or what would encourage me to support a United Ireland.

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“We always hear this issue in and around Partition, we know it’s 100 years since it happened but let’s remind ourselves republicans and Sinn Féin supported partition back then.

“I have no fear about a border poll coming forward because I know the majority of the people in Northern Ireland will not support a United Ireland and many of those people come from the nationalist/republican community.”

Although voting in favour, Independent councillor Gary Donnelly commented on the terminology in the motion.

“Regarding the Irish Finance Minister, it’s a 26 county Finance Minister,” he said. “It’s a notion that we have an Irish president, we have a 26 county President or a Free State President and that’s the reality and I don’t take any pleasure in saying it.

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“A quarter of a century after the Belfast Agreement and the fact we are sitting here discussing this and whether people should or shouldn’t be allowed to vote for an Irish President shows you the failure of that process. However, I do believe there is going to be change and this is where I disagree with my unionist colleagues, I think there’s a section of the unionist community who would say it is inevitable. “

Independent councillor Paul Gallagher stated that there should be a call for compensation from the British Treasury ‘because they divided this country 100 years ago’, and from Brussels ‘to allow for the smooth transition’ should have been included in the motion, before UUP Alderman Darren Guy commented that ‘the best approach would be to stop pushing these echo chambers and actually try to make Northern Ireland work’.

Summing up, Councillor McGowan said: “In this new Ireland we won’t fail any minority, we will protect all rights and that’s a given.”

The motion passed with 28 votes for, eight against and two abstentions.

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Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter