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Why is voting booth door barred to us?

(Jude Collins, Irish News)

Last Sunday John Hume was on an RTE news clip holding the letter Y. To his left was Garret Fitzgerald gripping an S and, between them, Bertie Ahern clutching an E. Many Derry people assumed John was saying hello, since 'Yes' is a traditional Derry greeting; in fact he was signalling his approval of the Nice Treaty. Last week Gerry Adams was on RTE's Questions and Answers, arguing the case for a 'no' vote on Saturday. It is good to see these two Irishmen involved in the debate on an issue destined to shape our country's future. The irony is that while both men can add their weight through campaigning, they'll be barred from entering a voting booth in two days' time.

That's because Hume and Adams are from the north – or rather, because their main residences are in the north. If they open their Irish passport, they'll see it describes them as "a citizen of Ireland" who should be allowed "to pass freely and without hindrance". If they check the conditions of registration to vote, they'll see that Irish citizens are allowed to vote in all elections. But only if they live on the southern side of the border.

For anyone who considers him or herself a nationalist, that should be a source of concern and some anger. By definition Irish nationalists believe Ireland would be a better place if it were united and run by Irish people. Given this, their concern must of necessity be, not with portions of the country but the country as a whole; not with the welfare of some Irish people but that of all. That's why John Hume and Gerry Adams have been campaigning for their respective points of view over Nice – they're both nationalists. If their participation on different sides in the south's election process is seen as right and desirable, why, come voting day, are they turned into electoral eunuchs, barred entry to the booth? Why, for that matter, is the door barred on all Irish citizens this side of the border, even though we should be as concerned as people in the south that Ireland finds its proper place in Europe?

There are people in the south who splutter at such a notion. These are the same people who muttered when Mary McAleese put herself forward for election to the Irish presidency. Who was this outsider, this intruder? But then southern partitionists have always wanted northerners and the northern problem to stay at arm's length. Passports, yes, give them passports; but let them stay where they are – south of the border is none of their business.

Except that it is. A 'yes' or 'no' on Saturday will determine how Ireland and perhaps Europe itself develops over the next 10 to 20 years. There would be a deep irony if northern nationalists were finally to achieve their goal of a united Ireland – which an increasing number of commentators believe is inevitable - only to find that the larger part of the island had been permanently conscripted into a Europe of unequals and bolted onto a Nato military machine from which there was no escape.

Meanwhile, as long as partition remains a reality, an electoral say in southern affairs would benefit everybody. It would bring home to nationalists their civic duty to be informed and concerned about developments in the south, just as we expect Irish citizens in the south to be informed and concerned about developments here. Northern nationalists would break their nasty little habit of focusing solely on local problems, and learn to think and act and vote on an all-Ireland basis.

Southern conservative forces will of course resist any such development.

"Northern input would warp election results in the south," they'll argue.

"And if we let northern nationalists vote in southern elections, even in referenda or presidential elections, we'll have to let northern unionists vote as well. Think of the mischief they might get up to!"

Well it depends on your idea of mischief. Of course unionist votes might sway an election. And of course their effect mightn't always be what nationalists would wish. But that's what nationalism – and democracy – means: cherishing all the children of the nation equally, even the ones determined to give you a hard time. It's precisely because unionists have always suspected their views and values would be ignored in an all-Ireland state that they've resisted it for so long. It's time the south showed its respect for all Irish citizens goes beyond promises in a passport and into the reality of the voting booth. To quote that eloquent Irishman Gregory Campbell, speaking on Tuesday night: "It's time for action, not words."

October 18, 2002

This article appeared first in the October 17, 2002 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News