If you want my vote, don't talk to me about Ireland

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I have never voted in a British election. For that matter, I haven't voted in any election, anywhere, for the past 10 years. The life of the foreign correspondent involves certain acute privations, not least being denied the pleasure of listening to your own leaders blather and promise their way into power. And if you'd grown up in Ireland in the era of Charlie Haughey, the longest carnival of lies in modern Europe, believe me, you too would have developed a healthy cynicism about election campaigns.

I have never voted in a British election. For that matter, I haven't voted in any election, anywhere, for the past 10 years. The life of the foreign correspondent involves certain acute privations, not least being denied the pleasure of listening to your own leaders blather and promise their way into power. And if you'd grown up in Ireland in the era of Charlie Haughey, the longest carnival of lies in modern Europe, believe me, you too would have developed a healthy cynicism about election campaigns.

I've seen plenty of elections in other countries: Mandela becoming president in South Africa, Kaunda being kicked out in Zambia, the pro-democracy camp winning (for a while) in Hong Kong. That was all dramatic, inspirational stuff. And I had no direct stake in what was going on. My taxes weren't going to be raised, my job wasn't threatened. For the last British general election, I was based in Hong Kong and watched the proceedings from the bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club.

But now I must contemplate what to do with my vote when London's mayoral election rolls around in a few weeks' time. The polling card dropped through the letterbox a few weeks back, advising me that my son's nursery school would be hijacked for the day. And I am determined to vote, assuming the BBC doesn't find a foreign crisis which demands my sudden dispatch.

I come to British politics as a self-confessed ignoramus. I was born in this country, in the city of London, but was taken back to Ireland after a few weeks. My encounters with British political life centred mainly on what was being done/not being done in Northern Ireland. So, to be very clear, I don't support Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems or anybody else. I slide from left to centre to right depending on the issue involved. The political culture in which I grew up was - with the exception of the "national" question - devoid of serious ideological confrontation, nor was there the prism of the class system through which we could gaze resentfully at one another. My family were centrists with a passion about human rights. If I fall anywhere politically, it is into that rather poorly defined category.

Being a completely, totally avowedly, unremittingly, relentlessly dispassionate, objective, fair-minded observer of the political scene, it would be wrong for me to declare my voting intentions in this column. But I do have one request for all the candidates. Please don't patronise me by pleading your sympathy and affection for the cause of a United Ireland. I have my own feelings about that. They won't be affected one whit by what you say. My view of you, however, will very definitely be affected.

For the past few weeks, we have been treated to the disturbing sight of some of our mayoral candidates clambering to secure the "ethnic" vote in London. The Irish, the Greeks, the Turks have all been targeted as groups. As if they have ever voted on a group basis, or made up their minds on a group basis, about how the country or the city should be run. It is an insult to our intelligence to believe that, because a candidate promises to support a United Ireland or, for the sake of argument, makes positive noises about Turkish Cyprus, an entire community can be persuaded to deliver its vote.

The politics of the ethnic vote has long blighted American politics. Take a look at US policy in the Middle East and you will see how rational debate was for years distorted by the desire to play to an ethnic bloc vote; in New York, both Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are falling over themselves to curry favour with the political wings of the city's various ethnic groups. Look at Al Gore's ludicrous intervention in the case of Elian Gonzales, the Cuban tug-of-love boy, and you'll have some idea of how a minority in one ethnic group can hijack the agenda in a presidential election.

If a national, or even a metropolitan, policy is framed with the express intention of securing the vote of one ethnic group, what message does it send to those who don't share that view? To take the American example, for years US policy on Israel was at least partially shaped with an eye to the large Jewish American vote. What message did that send to the much smaller Arab American community, not to mention the effect on America's reputation in the Arab-speaking world? There is now a wiser American policy, but only after years of alienating the Arab world.

In London this week, we had both Ken Livingstone and Frank Dobson speaking of their belief in the inevitability of a United Ireland in their lifetime. According to the Evening Standard's version of events, Mr Livingstone made the running and Frank Dobson said he agreed with everything Ken had said. So gentlemen, what about the community of Ulster Protestants who live in London? Did you factor their views or interests into your Irish policy? From the report in the Standard, it appeared as if those Unionist constituents of yours are viewed as little more than tedious revanchists. Or what about the London Irish who feel that it's the job of London politicians to worry about running London and not prescribe the future for Ireland?

I have no problem with anybody believing in the inevitability or desirability of a United Ireland. That isn't the issue here. But the London Irish represent a broad range of political opinions. They don't live in an ethnic ghetto of the mind. I reject absolutely the idea that they will vote for the candidate who waves the green flag. I am not saying that the Irish community in London doesn't have specific interests. For example, the promotion of Irish culture in the capital is a perfectly legitimate item on any mayor's agenda. But when candidates who will have to represent all the people of London become this partisan on the issue of Irish politics, I start to feel manipulated.

It isn't just the Irish being targeted. We had the Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond pleading to the 300,000 Scots who live in London not to vote for the Tory candidate, Steven Norris. What next? Will Indian nationalists, Pakistani nationalists, Kurdish nationalists urge their people only to support the candidate "friendly" to their cause? The last thing the city needs is to become a battleground of ethnic politics.

When I do vote, I won't give a damn what any of the candidates promise to do about Ireland. This election is about London. I want to know who will sort out the transport, who will make those miserable sink estates into fit places for people to live. More than all of that, I want to know who has a plan to revitalise the notion of community. And "community" is by definition an inclusive concept. It certainly isn't encouraged by separating people into ethnic voting blocs. I have come to love living in London. It is a vibrant, exciting city. There are daunting problems of racism in parts of the city, but it is a wonderfully multicultural place.

To keep it that way, the mayoral candidates ought to remember they are looking for the votes of Londoners - not Irish, Greek, Indian, Kurd, Chinese or Afghan. Just Londoners. I haven't made up my mind who to vote for yet. But Ken, Frank, Steven, Susan and the others, do me a big favour. If you knock on my door, don't mention Ireland.

fergal.keane@bbc.co.uk

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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