THERE now appears to be vanishingly little chance Irish citizens in Britain will lose the right to vote in British elections, despite claims made in The Times last week.
The Times had reported ‘senior Tories’ were calling for emergency changes in the law so citizens of Ireland and Commonwealth nations would be unable to vote in May’s upcoming General Election.
However, one senior Conservative MP named in the story, when told by The Irish Post that Ireland’s Ninth Amendment granted British citizens equal voting rights in Dáil elections, said: “I am entirely relaxed when it is reciprocal.”
Graham Brady MP, chairman of the 1922 Committee, went on to tell this newspaper: “There are close historic and family ties between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom.
“My concern is the large number of Commonwealth countries whose citizens have the right to vote in Britain but where there is no reciprocal right,” he added.
“With very large numbers of Commonwealth citizens who can vote in UK elections, it is a particular concern that a close general Election could be decided by people who are not British citizens.”
There are 345,000 Irish people eligible to vote and stand for office in Britain under the Ireland Act 1949.
It also declares Ireland, like Commonwealth dominions, would not be treated as ‘foreign’ in British law.
The Ireland Act was passed by Parliament in the wake of the Oireachtas’s Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which took the new Republic of Ireland out of the Crown and Commonwealth.
British citizens gained the right to vote in Irish Dáil elections in 1984, when the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland passed a referendum by 75 per cent.
Overall, there are 1.5 million non-British nationals eligible to vote in elections. These include 306,000 citizens of India, 180,000 from Pakistan, and 73,000 from Australia. The number from Ireland is by far the highest.
The most recent YouGov poll, released January 7, shows the principal parties evenly matched, with the Conservatives on 32 per cent and Labour on 33.
The Liberal Democrats, with seven per cent, could continue to be kingmakers if their support translates into seats.
Labour is likely to perform particularly poorly in Scotland, and could lose up to 30 of its 41 MPs there.
Labour performed better amongst ethnic minorities in the last General Election, with Gordon Brown’s party receiving only 31 per cent of the support of white voters, but 60 per cent and 61 per cent from ethnic Pakistanis and Indians respectively, 78 per cent amongst ethnic Caribbeans, and 87 per cent amongst Africans and their descendants.
However, the vote of Commonwealth and Irish citizens also came under attack during the Blair Government, with Attorney General Lord Goldsmith proposing abolition of these voting rights in 2007.
The Foreign Office declined to comment, saying this was a ‘political issue’.
The Irish Post did not immediately receive a reply from the other MP named in the story, former Defence Secretary the Rt Hon. Dr Liam Fox.
Since leaving the frontbench, Dr Fox has been seen as a stalking-horse for disaffected members of the Tory backbench to the right of David Cameron.
The Irish Embassy said it was aware of the report and monitoring the matter.
‘A modern form of gerrymandering’
Patrick Harte, a barrister from Donegal who recently contested a London council seat for the Liberal Democrats, said of the proposal: “It certainly fits with the xenophobic rhetoric currently in vogue in Westminster but, like many of the other noises made by the likes of Mr Fox, it is hard to see such a proposal coming into fruition.”
A former MP and election-law expert, David Lock QC, called chances of law changing before May 2015 ‘virtually nil’, and the concept ‘a modern form of gerrymandering’.
“Even if a Government was unwise enough to try to rig the election by changing who can vote, it would almost certainly require changes to primary legislation and thus require a Bill to pass both Houses of Parliament and to be implemented prior to the prorogation of parliament on March 30, 2015,” he said.
“It is highly questionable that such a measure could pass all its parliamentary stages in such a short period,” he added, “and, even if this was contemplated, it would breach the UK convention on a purdah for politically contentious matters in the three months before a General Election.”
Professor Graham Walker, Professor of Political History at Queen’s University Belfast, argued “any move to change the situation would be viewed as a breach of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement with its stress on respect and recognition for different identities.”
“Moreover, it would be likely to disrupt British-Irish relations and this is hardly desirable to either London or Dublin when there are still such problematic issues concerning Northern Ireland.
“In short I think it’s highly unlikely that this will get anywhere. I think there is still a consensus that the UK and Ireland are too deeply intertwined and that the term ‘foreign’ is just inappropriate.”
Foreigners at the Ballot
Though unusual, the extension of voting rights by Britain and Ireland to each other’s citizens is not unique.
Within the Commonwealth, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, New Zealand, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines allow citizens of the UK and all other Commonwealth nations to vote.
Malawi, Namibia, and New Zealand offer it to all other foreign residents too.
There are other relationships of this nature — citizens of Portugal or Brazil residing in the other country for three years can vote after receiving an ‘Equality Status’ from the Ministry of Justice.
And Ireland has at times also contemplated opening its ballot boxes beyond the British.
An as yet unused provision of the Electoral Amendment Act 1985 would let citizens from elsewhere in the EU vote in Dáil elections, if the Minister for Justice certified Irish citizens were given the same voting rights in return.
Conor Lenihan, as Minister for Integration in 2008, promised permanently resident EU migrants would be given the right to vote in national elections, but this never came to fruition.
With a close General Election looming, temptations for speedy change to the franchise will abound, especially further from Downing Street.
There is also low political awareness of the voting rights British citizens enjoy in Ireland and Commonwealth countries, the result of years of lawmaking and patient diplomacy on several sides — which The Times rather curiously referred to as a ‘loophole’ and ‘an obscure law that has never been reformed’.
But proposals to strip Irish and other Commonwealth citizens of their vote are both unworkable in the timeframe available, and likely to alienate target demographics where the Tories must improve on their vote share — and for these reasons, will remain unlikely to gain much traction away from the Conservative party’s most marginal fringes.