We The People

There are 9381 new people in Co Donegal since we last counted in 2002.

In the State as a whole, there are an extra 317,000 people. The population, boosted by returning emigrants, new immigrants, and the natural growth due to all those who in earlier days would have left our shores but instead have stayed and are starting young families, is at its highest point since 1861.

The increase in population has been so dramatic that in some constituencies, there are question marks over whether the next general election will be constitutional. Bunreacht na hÉireann specifies that a TD must represent at least 20,000 constituents, and cannot represent more than 30,000 constituents.

But in at least one constituency there are now more than 30,000 people per TD. According to some reports, there may be up to 19 constituencies with similar problems.

In the 19th century, so-called “rotten boroughs” with only a few voters returned MPs to the British Parliament, giving voters in those areas a disproportionate influence on the shape of government.

Rotten boroughs were usually areas where the population has declined, but where the number of seats still reflected former glories.

In some cases, boroughs with less than one hundred voters returned one (or even two) MPs. In the days before secret ballots, wealthy and corrupt landowners were able to bribe or intimidate the voters.

The boroughs were finally abolished in a series of measures ending with their final removal in the Reform Act of 1867, which established the principle that each constituency should hold roughly the same number of electors.

Irish politicians played a large part in the reform process. Men like Daniel O’Connell and Donegalman Isaac Butt, as well as the English Chartist movement, spent much of their political careers fighting for political reforms to clean up the rotten boroughs, for the right of voters to a secret ballot, and even universal suffrage, the principle of ‘one man (and eventually, one woman) one vote’.

These basic democratic principles were in turn embedded in Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937. Because of the population boom of the last decade, that decision now means that an urgent revision of constituency boundaries may be necessary before the next election.

Over the hot Summer months, while the Dáil and Courts are in recess and there’s little news to report, there will be much fretting and wringing of hands as this issue is agonised over to fill column inches, along with reports of inaccurate electoral registers and electronic voting machines that don’t work, and apparently never will.

But there’s another issue that concerns me about the basic machinery of democracy, and one which seems to get very little attention in these debates.

Article 16 of the Constitution gives the right to vote to every Irish citizen and “such other persons in the State as may be determined by law”. Until 1984, the right to vote was restricted only to citizens, when we added that amendment. So far though, the only “other persons” with the right to a Dáil vote are British citizens living in Ireland, a quid pro quo for the same right enjoyed by the Irish in the UK.

Back in 1984 of course, emigration was a major issue in Ireland, and only a lunatic would have predicted that the day would come when we’d see up to 100,000 new arrivals in the country each year, eager to work in our booming economy. Few people came to live here, apart from the occasional Briton, or a returned emigrant. The returning emigrants already had a vote (and thanks to our citizenships laws, so did their children and grandchildren), so the only real issue to be addressed was the vote from Britons in Ireland.

Since then however, Ireland has experienced a surge of immigration, many hailing from farther afield than the UK. As a consequence, although they make their lives here, work here, and pay taxes here, they are denied the right to vote.

In simple terms, this raises two serious questions about the nature of democracy in Ireland.

First, voters in constituencies where disproportionate numbers of international residents have made their home will have a disproportionate say in how the next government is composed. This is because the number of TDs in a constituency depends on the total number of people living there, even those who don’t vote, such as minors and more recently, international workers.

The situation isn’t as bad as it was in the days of the rotten boroughs, but it does raise a serious issue about the potential for gerrymandering.

Second, and much more important, a large and growing number of people in this country have no stake in how the country is run.

The preliminary census report is silent on the number of international residents in Ireland. The headline increase is broken down into a natural increase of 131,000 and net immigration of 186,000, but there is no clue as to where our immigrants come from.

In the last census in 2002, a total of 224,261 people gave a nationality other than Irish. Its a fair bet that the number is now over a third of a million people. To put is in perspective, that’s roughly the population of Galway and Mayo combined. A significant number of those people are disenfranchised.

Last week, at the Patrick MacGill Summer School, I heard Justice Minister Michael McDowell talk on the subject of Ireland’s Soul, and how we are dealing with the increasing numbers of international visitors in our midst.

He said some sensible things about the nature of a Republic, its commitment to equality, to the idea that discrimination should be abhorred. He also spoke about the idea of integration, as did the rest of the panel that night, and of giving the new arrivals a stake in the community. In a republic of course, the ultimate stake is the right to vote.

Abraham Lincoln once defined the idea of a republic as “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Our own proclamation speaks of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. That commitment isn’t just an abstract ideal. When the people choose the government, it keeps the government answerable to the people, because the people can vote them out. When one group is disenfranchised, that group can them be discriminated against, because there’s no comeback.

Immigrants have a tough enough time adapting to new homes, as the Irish are well aware. We still have a cultural memory in this country of signs that read “No Irish Need Apply”, and stories of anti-Irish racism. Our ancestors knew the right to vote was the first step on the road to equality, not just those who campaigned for suffrage at home, but those who emigrated and built the Irish party machines in cities like New York and Boston.

Put simply, if everyone has the right to vote, we’re less likely to see things like the recent news reports about workers stuck in jobs where they’re paid below the minimum wage. We owe it to those who came before us and established rights we take for granted such as universal secret suffrage to pass on the favour.

This Summer, while the debate runs about the shape of constituency maps before the next election, or the need for electronic voting, we should consider a simple, practical step to give everyone a stake in the future of the country. One person, one vote. Not just for the Irish, not just for the British, but for everyone who chooses to live and work here and contribute to our future.

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