Tom Arnold, chair of the Constitutional Convention, talks to Niall O’Sullivan about the prospects of allowing the Irish abroad to vote for Ireland’s next President.
“I HAVE certainly not come across a well-articulated case from any group in Ireland opposing it,” says Tom Arnold, engaged and hunched forward in the parlour of London’s Irish Embassy.
He’s talking about a potentially historic move to break down a major barrier between Ireland and hundreds of thousands of Irish people around the world. If all goes to plan, the Irish in Britain and those further afield will be able to cast a vote in Ireland’s presidential elections for the first time in 2018.
As chair of the Constitutional Convention, a 100-strong group tasked with updating Ireland’s 75-year-old Constitution, Arnold is leading Ireland towards that goal.
He will also be responsible for bringing the thoughts of the Irish in Britain to the Convention when it meets in September to debate the issue.
After a long day of meetings with members of Britain’s Irish community, the former CEO of Concern Worldwide says he is at least partly clear about what those thoughts are.
The “dominant view”, he says, is that the Convention should recommend giving the Irish abroad voting rights in Presidential elections. And the Irish public at home seem to agree, with seven-in-10 backing the proposal in an opinion poll of 1,000 voters taken in June.
The indicators are so strong that Arnold has no idea who will take on the task of trying to persuade the Convention otherwise.
“We may indeed consider bringing in a devil’s advocate,” he says.
But if no “well-articulated” case does come forward by the weekend of September 28, the Convention risks looking as un-needed as it did when debating whether or not the Irish Constitution should continue to suggest that a woman’s place is in the home as a mother.
Arnold agrees that there may be an analogy between that and the complete disenfranchisement of the Irish abroad, but he believes the “practicalities” will provide more than enough fuel for meaningful debate.
Quickly plucking two examples from his head, he adds: “Which citizens abroad is it (who get to vote)? Is there some kind of time limit, that people should have lived in Ireland within the last 10 or 15 years or whatever?”
And what about Dáil votes for people living abroad? Referring to the Irish Government's mandate for the Convention, Arnold answers hesitantly.
“Well I think it will be raised. Let’s be clear though, we have not been asked to discuss it. We have been asked to discuss the Presidential elections.
“But as with other issues it is almost inevitable that when we start discussing the matter, some people who have strong views on the Presidential vote will say that the discussion should be extended (to Dáil votes).”
One group that is arguing for such a bold step is London-based Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad.
In a presentation given to the Convention earlier this year, Mary Hickman, a leading member of VICA, argued that new Dáil constituencies must be created for Ireland's sprawling emigrant communities.
Arnold insists that, unlike the topic of Presidential votes, Dáil voting was not unanimously backed by the people he met during his time in London – a message he will relay to the Convention’s 66 ordinary citizens delegates and 33 political delegates.
“Some feel that there is a principle of no taxation without representation and no representation without taxation,” he explains.
“Others feel that some people who have been living here for quite a long time actually do not feel like they have the right to vote in general elections.”
“I think what we will try to do when we come to consider the matter at the Convention is to just ensure to see where the Irish practice in terms of voting arrangements for citizens abroad fits vis-à-vis international practice. There are a number of different examples of other countries that give citizens abroad the right to vote at different levels in their Government’s arrangements.”
That number is at least 115, according to VICA.
Whatever happens in September, Arnold does not expect anything to happen that would bring the Convention into disrepute.
He speaks from experience here, having been forced to steer it through controversy twice before.
The first incident he recounts is an impassioned intervention by Convention-member and Senator David Norris.
Speaking from the floor, Norris implored Arnold to write to get permission from the Taoiseach for the Convention to discuss the Government’s proposed abolition of the Seanad.
“I had to make a judgment when he got up and made that long intervention, whether to rule him out of order or to allow some level of discussion to take place later on in the day,” says Arnold about his decision to put the proposal to a vote, which was defeated.
“I took the view as Chair that this was running the risk of getting the Convention embroiled in a short-term political controversy, which I felt would not be wise. But we did go to a vote on it and a number of the citizens came up and spoke on this matter.”
One member, he adds, captured the view held by several of the citizen delegates, by saying it felt like “an attempt to hijack the Convention”.
But while Norris may have gotten the benefit of Arnold's doubt, he offers no such magnanimity is the case of Senator Rónán Mullen.
Just hours after the who hours after the Convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing same-sex marriage in Ireland, the strongly conservative senator issued a scathing press release to journalist.
A long list of flaws in the Convention’s meeting rendered it a "failure", he claimed.
Senator Mullen argued that advocacy groups addressing the Convention had compromised its integrity by bringing undue emotion into the debate. He also accused the Convention’s organisers, including Arnold specifically, of failing to cover all the relevant issues.
“I was disappointed with that,” says Arnold. “I felt the comments were unfair because he suggested that the process had been set up to achieve the result that happened and nothing could be further from the truth.
“I and the secretariat went absolutely out of our way to make sure that there was a fair possibility for both sides to make their argument."
Explaining what form that effort took, he adds that he personally met the participating advocacy groups a week before the Convention gathered to urge them to promote an unemotional and fair discussion.
That process was further aided, he believes, by giving each side of the debate equal time to make its arguments.
“So there was nothing set up about the weekend,” he concludes. “As it turned out there was a quite decisive majority in favour of this, but it was the delegates speaking.”
In its first seven months, the Convention has otherwise received broad support. But its power to bring about change remains limited.
Like the verdict on same-sex marriage, any conclusion its members reach on voting for the Irish abroad will be put to the Government. It will then be up to the Dáil to decide whether to put it to a referendum.
Yet Tom Arnold enjoys his role in bringing important issues to the forefront of the debate. In fact, he thinks there is good reason for the Oireachtas to give the Convention a few more months in 2014 to discuss another set of issues.
Would he be happy stay on to chair those discussions? He smiles. “Yeah I think I would.”