Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: The people of this island are spread far and wide... so who decides who is or is not Irish?

In the first of his new weekly columns Malachi O'Doherty points out the problems of extending the vote in Irish presidential elections to those living abroad

Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, at the ballot box
Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, at the ballot box

By Malachi O'Doherty

The Republic is planning to give Irish people around the world a vote in presidential elections, so this is an important question now. Who are the Irish and where are they?

They are a people with a global spread, for the country exported its surplus population for 160 years, keeping the home island population almost level, at half what it was before the Famine.

So there are more of us in England than there are in Ireland and 10 times as many as that in the United States.

We seeded Australia and Canada too.

An old girlfriend of mine whose father was French and whose mother was half-Indian and half-Irish told me that her mother's parents were Irish tea planters in Darjeeling.

An article by Damian Shiels in the current issue of History Ireland says the greatest loss of Irish lives in any war was in the American Civil War, and that 20,000 Irish-born were fighting for the South, the Confederacy, in defence of slavery. Nine times that number fought for the Union.

Ireland sent missionaries around the world to convert 'heathens' to their separate brands of Christianity, mostly Catholic.

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And from what we know now of how many priests and brothers treated those in their care, we may presume that there are thousands, perhaps millions of people with genetic links back to Ireland in Africa - just as there are among the descendants of raped slaves in the Caribbean and the southern states of America.

A few weeks ago I was in Glasgow for the Crossways literary festival and heard a discussion on how Scotland had to take its share of responsibility for the slave trade.

Scotland had enjoyed the sense of being morally superior in a filthy world, a small country that suffered more damage than it caused. Sound familiar?

One of the speakers had traced two Scottish women alive today who are still receiving a dividend from their family's compensation for losing slaves.

When the slaves were freed, it was their former owners, not the slaves themselves, who were deemed to have lost something.

So, while people are discussing how a vote for an Irish President might enable our cousins abroad to identify with us, perhaps we are overdue in identifying with them.

Daniel O'Connell, when campaigning for repeal of the Union in the 1840s, fended off the accusation of treason by asserting that Ireland had played a full and vigorous role in England's foreign wars.

He recited a verse from an old song to make the case: 'At fame'd Waterloo, Old Wellington would look blue, if Paddy was not there too...'

And even since then, Irish soldiers in the British Army helped suppress uprisings in the colonies, participated in massacres in India and Kenya, died in the trenches in Flanders, parachuted into Arnhem or, like my mother, nursed the wounded in London during the Blitz.

Painful memories of that experience came back to her when she, as a night sister in Belfast City Hospital in the 1970s, saw wounded soldiers brought into Casualty.

Some of the Irish abroad come here to trace their roots. On St Patrick's Day many around the world claim a tenuous link to Ireland and perhaps by far the greater number of those descended from the Irish have little sense of that reality.

How many of the Duartes of Spain know that their name was originally O Dochartaigh or Doherty, that they are descended from clanspeople of mine who fled with Hugh O'Neill before the plantation of Ulster?

Think of the Irish on this scale and the local quarrel on the island over identity is seriously diminished in significance.

Those who insist that they are British and not Irish are making a claim that millions of Irish abroad would find difficult to grasp, given that they have no problem being Irish and American or Irish and Australian.

I have nephews and nieces who have English accents, who perhaps don't even think about the Union for they are fully British too.

My twin brother is an activist in Momentum and a Corbyn loyalist. Ask him if he wants a united Ireland and he will probably say yes - as indeed would Corbyn - but ask him what the pressing political challenge of our time is and it will be the election of a Labour Government and the routing of the Tories.

Extricating Ireland from Britain, culturally, economically and by ties of blood, would be an awful lot harder than getting Britain out of Europe. The most complicated part of Brexit is the unbreakable bond between Britain and Ireland.

If unionists have difficulty believing that they can be Irish and British, nationalists have also lost sight of how British they are. Belfast may not be quite as British as Finchley, but it's not a long spit off it.

I'm aware that I might be making a better case for the Union here than you have ever heard a unionist make. Their folly was identifying Britishness with Protestantism when its real strength is its diversity.

The Irish person walking the streets of London is mingling with people from around the whole world. Walk the streets of Glasgow and Liverpool and you are among Irish people whose accents have been modified by association with the varied English.

Contemplate Brexit and some see a little England opting out of an international Europe, but that misses the point that England is international too, and that there are more Irish there than there are in all of the rest of the EU, or even here at home.

All of this matters more than it has been allowed to if the core question here is about identity.

If it is not about identity then it is just about boundaries of jurisdictions, borders, lines on maps: that the Irish have jumped more of than any other people on Earth.

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