Votes for emigrants

Last Monday morning, as Green Party leader John Gormley sounded the coalition’s death knell at a press conference in Dublin, my mind immediately turned to one thing: the general election that will, sooner or later, take place back in Ireland.

‘Will be interesting to see how many ex-pats go home to vote. I definitely will,’ I chirped cockily on Twitter. Having watched with horror the current administration’s botched attempts to extricate Ireland from a banking crisis they helped create, nothing would stop me playing my part in putting them out of their misery at the ballot box. Or so I thought.

Within five minutes my post had received a handful of replies. Some were from other Irish people living in Britain, saying they would be making the journey back for the election too, but others warned that emigrants are not allowed to vote, that to do so constitutes fraud and carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

‘Surely that can’t be correct. Irish citizens must be able to vote in Irish elections’, I thought, furiously checking various websites for information. But my digital interlocutors were right: those not ‘ordinarily resident’ – anyone who has lived outside the state for 18 months or more – cannot vote in Irish elections.

Ireland is only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Unlike citizens of Ghana, Mexico, Dominican Republic and around 115 other countries, Irish people living outside the Republic of Ireland are barred from directly participating in the electoral process.

I confess I felt slightly embarrassed not to know that I don’t have a vote – I’ve lived outside Ireland for a couple of general elections – but based on a straw poll conducted among emigrant Irish friends here in the UK I am not alone in my ignorance.

Successive Irish leaders have often, rightly, made much of the Diaspora’s reach, and its success. Estimates vary but there at least 70 million people of Irish descent dotted across the globe, while almost every family living in Ireland has experience of emigration. So why then are we not allowed to have our say in how Ireland is governed? Why does Ireland, alone among its EU partners, bar its citizens from voting if they are domicile outside the 26 counties?

Noreen Bowden, a Diaspora consultant who was born in New York but spent the past 12 years living in Ireland, believes that Irish emigrants’ have paid the price for their own generosity. ‘Irish people aboard are very generous to Ireland in so many ways so there’s never been much of a need to go the extra mile to engage with them politically. Many countries have allowed emigrants to vote as a way to encourage them to contribute economically. Ireland has never needed to do that,’ the editor of GlobalIrish.ie explained to me last week.

Emigrant voting rights have, of course, been on the political agenda in Ireland for quite some time. Back in the 1990s there were serious proposals to elect representatives of the Diaspora to the Seanad, in much the same way that universities hold six seats in the second house. Unfortunately this suggestion came to nought following a split between advocates of immediate full voting rights for emigrants and those who saw the Seanad as a first step towards this broader goal.

More recently a mandate to prepare a proposal for extending the franchise at presidential elections to include the Irish abroad was included in the current coalition’s Programme for Government. Even this proposition, which falls far short of the full representation emigrants’ deserve, has gone nowhere. Indeed both John Gormley and Brian Cowen denied all knowledge of it when questioned on the subject in the Dail by their own colleague Michael Martin.

In the matter of voting rights, as in so much else, all citizens are not equal. At both Lisbon treaty votes it was widely reported that Irish representatives in Brussels flew back home en masse to vote, despite not being ordinarily resident in Ireland. Indeed back in late 2008 there was much of talk that former Taoiseach John Bruton would be charged by the DPP with a criminal offence under the electoral acts following a complaint from a member of the public that the then EU Ambassador to the US had broken the law by flying home to vote in the Lisbon referendum. After a four-month investigation the case against Bruton was dropped.

Familiar strawmen are often marshalled to argue against extending the franchise to include emigrants: Who would qualify to vote? The number of Irish abroad dwarfs those at home, if everyone was allowed to vote they could introduce changes that might not benefit those that actually live in Ireland. And what about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included?

The way to resolve these problems is not to blithely say that no one outside the jurisdiction can vote, instead lawmakers and politicians should work together to fashion a fair, practical system that finally allows all Irish citizens to have their rightful say. It is the very least we deserve.

We are living through a time of political upheaval on a scale seldom seen in Ireland since the foundation of the state, almost 90 years ago. As the current, discredited administration crumbles the clamour for political reform, and even a ‘Second Republic’, grows ever louder.

An important plank in any future reform must be extending voting rights to Irish emigrants, and not just for presidential elections. With its proud emigrant history, Ireland is the last country that should be excluding its Diaspora.

Given the current political turmoil in Dublin a legally binding resolution permitting Irish men and women abroad to vote is highly unlikely before the next general election.

But the campaign to extend the franchise should not wait until there is a new administration installed in Government Buildings. I wonder how many people in Ireland are aware that emigrants are excluded from the democratic process? Surely it’s time to remind them of this sad fact.

This piece first appeared in the Irish Post

Having caused then denied problem, Fianna Fail is in firing line

AS ANY counsellor knows, acknowledging the existence of a problem is the first step to solving it. Unfortunately when it came to Ireland’s banking crisis, the ruling Fianna Fail-led coalition chose to remain firmly in denial until the contagion had spread out of control.

As recently as Wednesday, finance minister Brian Lenihan told the nation that Irish banks had “no funding difficulties”. It was an unprovoked “attack” on the euro, he claimed, that precipitated the discussions with the International Monetary Fund in Brussels.

But if Mr Lenihan wanted to calm an increasingly restive national mood his comments had the opposite effect. Respected economists and political commentators reacted angrily to the ailing minister’s half-hearted attempts to restore confidence, accusing his government of duplicity and a failure of leadership.

Having spent two years playing down the banking crisis as a minor liquidity problem, Fianna Fail, the party of government for the past 13 years, finally admitted yesterday that the Irish banking sector needed European funding.

The Irish commentariat are in little doubt where blame lies. In a leader yesterday the normally restrained Irish Times decried Fianna Fail, saying the party’s “ideals are in tatters”. Born out of the East Rising and War of Independence against British rule, Ireland’s most successful political party must now oversee a shameful ceding of sovereignty.

The international credit crunch slayed the Celtic Tiger but it was the disastrous 2008 decision to guarantee all Irish bank debts that sealed the country’s fate. Fianna Fail’s economic policies helped create a climate in which lenders, most egregiously Anglo-Irish Bank, were able to accrue massive – and increasingly toxic – loan books. Tying the financial viability of the Irish state to that of its ailing banks made bailout a question of when not if.

How long the Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition can maintain its grip on power is a moot point. Sinn Fein is poised to win next week’s by-election in Donegal – reducing the government’s majority to just two. Meanwhile, the Green party is expected to try to claw back some credibility by collapsing the administration before the 2012 election.

Fianna Fail seems certain to pay dearly at the polls for its role in losing Ireland’s cherished self-determination. Recent opinion polls show the party on 18 per cent, a historic low

For now the big political issue is not who will form the next government but whether Ireland can get an agreement from the IMF to keep its 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate.

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, the deputy prime minister, yesterday described as “non-negotiable” the concession enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty and the basis for much of the country’s growth.

However, after the events of the past week, another Irish government denial hardly seems worth the paper it’s printed on.

This piece first appeared in the Scotsman on November 19

So Ireland's back to exporting its best known natural resource – emigrants

Here’s my Comment is Free piece on being an Irish emigrant, which appeared on Guardian.co.uk last week. The same piece also appeared in that week’s Irish Post

Mourning can be a protracted business. In the past week, after years spent oscillating between low-level anger and outright denial, I finally graduated to acceptance: having left Ireland in 2003, I am an Irish emigrant.

And after recent events, it seems like going home is no longer an option.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief have provided an unexpected leitmotif for Ireland’s economic collapse. But while public fury about the financial situation contrasted sharply with the government’s increasingly brazen disavowals, there has been a quiet, almost stoical, recognition that the country is once again stepping up production of its most celebrated natural resource: emigrants.

Forty thousand Irish people left last year; with joblessness running at over 13% another 100,000 are expected to join them before the end of the next.

Migration is an ingrained part of our national psyche. Almost every family carries traces of the instinct which, for two decades, lay in abeyance as the Celtic Tiger’s putative masters told their pups that they would never be forced to cross the Irish Sea or the Atlantic to make new lives for themselves beyond Ireland’s shores.

These hubristic promises have been revealed to be as empty, illusionary and downright dangerous as the ill-conceived bank guarantee, made in September 2008, which sounded a slow death knell for Ireland’s political and economic sovereignty ever since. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout has scarcely begun, but already Ireland’s citizens are abandoning ship.

What is there to stay put for? With its boarded-up main street, uninhabited ghost estates and derelict shopping centre, my hometown, in the midlands of Ireland, is hardly atypical. Here greed gave way to naked stupidity when developers started building houses in the boggy flood plain five years ago. Recently a gallows humour has replaced the air of despondency that marked the early days of the collapse.

The IMF and its apparatchiks hold little fear for residents of such places – what does austerity look like when your home is practically worthless, your job is gone and your children are likely to follow suit?

By even the most optimistic predictions, the Irish economy will take generations to recover. The government is once again turning to the safety valve of emigration: despite its protestations little or nothing is being done to encourage young, well-educated men and women to stay in Ireland.

Meanwhile the legions of Irish-born citizens already living in Sydney and Chicago, Edinburgh and Edmonton, have seen their daydreams of returning home dashed, probably forever.

I was glad to leave Ireland at the age of 22. The Celtic Tiger created a culture in which property prices replaced the weather as the preferred topic of the nation’s small talk, and the pursuit of money without ethics or obligation was not just acceptable but actively valorised from the very top of the social and political tree. Getting out was a relief.

Back then the word “emigrate” had been expunged from our vocabulary. Emigration was supposedly a thing of the past. I thought of myself not as an emigrant, but as an Irishman who just happened to be living somewhere else. How could I be one of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty when my leave-taking was not motivated by unemployment or lack of opportunities?

But late last Tuesday, as news bulletins on every channel reported live from Dublin and Brussels, I found my thoughts turning not to my country but to myself. The life I have made away from Ireland – first in New York, then Britain – is a comfortable one but it is also an emigrant’s. If I raise a family they will speak with a different accent to mine. The country whose passport I carry will not be my home.

The true cost of Ireland’s folly should be counted not in billions of euros but in the millions of Irish men and women who will forced to emigrate, to accept the reality that they too will never be able to go home.

Far from being finished, a new chapter has just been started in the age-old story of Irish emigration.

Time for a Default?

“There is no reason why Ireland should trigger an IMF or EU-type bailout”, Irish Minister of State for Europe, Dick Roche, told the Today program on BBC Radio 4 this morning. But despite such government protestations, the scale of Ireland’s sovereign debt crisis is such that it seems only a matter of when, not if, the country requests a bail out. Indeed it could happen as early as 5pm this evening.

But is a bail-out such a bad thing? Not if it leads to much needed debt restructuring – or even a full default – it isn’t.

Last week German chancellor Angela Merkel said that bondholders to troubled countries would need to share the pain. Remarkably Irish premier Brian Cowen called Merkel’s comments ‘‘not helpful’’ – but the reality is that Ireland should accept its debts cannot be repaid in full and take the opportunity to make a strong deal for debt restructuring from a position of at least reasonable strength.

And Britain should do the same.

Currently our banks are exposed to zero risk, as the state is using the tax payer to insure against any risk. This is a morally – and economically – wrong situation.

Why reward those who lent recklessly to our banks? Why cripple a country with generations worth of debt?

As more and more people lose their jobs, fall into arrears in their mortgages and begin to repudiate their personal debt the social stigma around defaulting on debts seems certain to change. Many of these bad loans were made in bad faith, and it is the huge cost of shoring up the financial markets – in the UK, Europe and around the world – that has provided the economic (if not the ideological) rationale for austerity.

So what’s the answer? Well fair debt restructuring would be a start, negotiating a reasonable pay off with creditors rather than maintaining the fallacy that all creditors will be paid off in full.

Indeed there is even a strong case to be made for – whisper it – repuditating sovereign debt completely. Look at Iceland, as Irish economist David McWilliams did in a newspaper column a few weeks back. Here our troubled Nordic neighbour defaulted on its debts, closed its banks, and allowed its currency to fall. The result? Lower bond rates than Ireland and a serious increase in quality of life for ordinary Icelanders.

Maybe the difference between Iceland and Ireland really is one letter and six months after all.

A Scottish Political Innovation?

When Mick Fealty calls asking for a favour it’s hard to say no. Not because he leans on you (which he doesn’t) but because you know that if he’s involved it’s going to be something vibrant, challenging and original.

And that’s exactly what the Edinburgh Political Innovation camp on Saturday was.

Billed as an ‘unconference’ it was a free-form opportunity for politically engaged folk to creatively address old – and new – political problems. I gave a short spiel on the role of bloggers in the Irish financial crisis (have a look at Robert Stewart‘s excellent video below), and enjoyed some really fecund discussions with a host of interesting folk including Scotsman columnist Joan McAlpine, writer, musician and activist Pat Kane, and Green blogger Peter McColl.

Political Innovation plenary session from Robert Stewart on Vimeo.

Event orgainsers Slugger O’Toole also have put up a summary of the day – and the resulting blog posts – on their site (which I promised Paul Evans I’d contribute more to).

As well as talking about the Irish economy and media, I was busy enlisting supporters, and ideas, for my campaign for spending increases. Commentators don’t come much more witty, intelligent and insightful than Pat Kane who had some excellent suggestions for viral videos as well as delivering a timely reminder of the need to encorporate environmental and social sustainability into any campaign for effective political change. Hopefully I’ll be posting more on this shortly.

Since the Political Innovation camp I’ve read with interest a call by James Masters, who works for Green MSPs Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie at Holyrood and spoke at the day’s plenary, for a cross-party politics event based on the annual Swedish summer conference at Almedalen. The Swedes’ model is a basically a political conference freed from all the partisan trappings where new ideas can be brought to the table and (hopefully) a much wider swath of the public involved.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be a physical conference, as some have suggested, but could be hosted online instead to broaden participation. As someone who is easily put off by party political machines and their mega-conferences the Almedalen model certainly sounds great: new ideas, no political grandstanding, some decent debate, and maybe (just maybe) some Scottish sunshine.

Campaign for Spending Increases Starts Here (A Hack Gets Political!)

Journalists are supposed to stay well away from Politics (and the capital ‘P’ is no typo). The fourth estate’s putative duty is to ask awkward questions, to speak truth to power, to avoid political biases, etc. etc….

But what happens when a cynical hack wakes up one morning and realises that the government he lives under is passing off myths and rumours as truth? That the country he lives in is about to be torn asunder not in the best interests of the people but for the sake of ideology?

Spending cuts are not inevitable, and what’s more they will destroy the livelihoods and futures of millions. This is a journalist making a statement of fact that can be supported by evidence (some of it below) but it is also a concerned citizen waking up and smelling the coffee.

The time has come for me, and you, to cross the Rubicon, to openly question the economic orthodoxy that threatens to decimate the UK. We need to make a political stand, many of us for the first time in our lives, before Britain cuts itself back into the 1930s.

On October 20 Chancellor George Osborne set out proposals to cut government spending by some £81 billion in the next four years. Osborne said that only such drastic spending cuts would bring Britain back ‘from the brink’. But is this really true?

Well, almost every non-aligned economist (those not in the pay of think tanks, government or pressure groups) disagrees.

David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, describes the cuts as ‘unnecessary, misguided, doctrinaire’. Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics, has warned that, ‘the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump’. Leading UK economist George Irvin calls the Chancellor’s argument ‘a mixture of fact and myth’.

The economic case against cuts is manifold, but arguably the most important point is that for vast swathes of the population the economic crisis that began on Wall Street in late 2007 is nowhere near over.

Unemployment is already increasing across most of the UK (only the Conservative heartland of south-east England bucks the trend). With joblessness on the rise, what has our government decided to? Why, cut two million public sector jobs – directly and indirectly – of course.

Osborne’s argument that the private sector will simply ‘grow’ to fill the gap left by government is totally unproven and goes against the advice of everyone from the OECD and the IMF to the think-tank Compass, who have said that, ‘the government’s hope is that this will come about by simply creating ‘space’ for private initiative. It has an agenda for cuts but not for growth’.

Meanwhile, house prices are still far below pre-crash levels, economic growth hovers below the developed world average and is expected to fall in the next quarter.

So why are the coalition carrying out these savage cuts? Their answer is that without cutting the country’s budget deficit bond markets will lose faith in the UK’s ability to pay back its loans and interest rates on government borrowing will rocket to uncontrollable levels.

All available evidence suggests the exact opposite. Those countries that have radically cut public spending – Ireland, Greece – have seen their interest rates go through the roof, while those who have resisted the urge to self-flagellate have been rewarded with interest rates around 3 per cent. (Last week the yield on Irish government debt hit a record high of 7.19% after the government announced a further €15 billion cut in spending.)

Bond markets do not reward reckless deficit cutting: it radically erodes a country’s tax base (as Ireland is finding out) and leaves a massive black hole in tax receipts, both now and in the future.

Paul Krugman called it right when he recently described economic policy makers as ‘like the priesthood of some barbaric cult, demanding sacrifices in the names of invisible gods’. These ‘invisible gods’ are global financial markets, the ‘sacrifices’ gargantuan spending cuts.

If we no longer believe in pagan ritual, why are prostrating ourselves before an altar constructed out of smoke and mirrors?

Of course, economics does not easily set the blood racing. The dismal science is too often presented in opaque, jargon-filled prose that most are unwilling – or unable – to engage with. However, instead of accepting the cuts as ‘inevitable’ and the ‘only option’, the economic arguments against the cuts need to be presented as clearly as possible. When they are the holes and fallacies are all-too-clear.

Many economists agree the only way out of the black hole that we are in is sustained, massive increases in government spending. Not quantitative easing but government spending on capital and non-capital projects. This will produce employment, tax revenue and growth. Only then can we talk about deficit reduction.

But economics is not the only reason to oppose the proposed spending cuts.

Walk through any Scottish town today and you will see boarded up units on the high street, pass streams of jobless young men and women. Scotland, and many other parts of the UK, needs investment: imagine what these towns and communities will be like after five years of continuous disinvestment? What it will be like for a generation to grow up into unemployment? As many vital services are either pared back to the bone or cut altogether, the social glue that keeps the nation together will be pulled apart, inducing a downward spiral of poverty, crime and drugs.

Opposing spending cuts is not a matter of left or right. Wanting to stop our leaders’ grotesque experiment in political economy is not about socialism or capitalism: It is about our own, and everyone else’s, right to a reasonable future.

There are plenty of oppositional politics out there – as the endless reams of flyers and inky, black and red posters attests – but this cause is different. It is precisely this difference that means we must make the case against cuts and in favour of stimulus spending as cogently, as forcefully, and as creatively as possible.

Instead of shouting ‘down with this sort of thing’ we will explain to people the economic argument against deficit reduction in a language everyone can understand. But we also need to organise, to be bright, to be new, and to appeal across classes and affiliations.

I am still not exactly sure what I am proposing but it might go something like this: a broad-based campaign, involving everyone from pensioners and community groups to students and parents. This campaign will take the argument in favour of increased government spending right into the public domain, publishing economic data in pamphlets and online, and arguing our case in the media and elsewhere.

Of course mobilisation is vital, too. Old-school street protests and demos have their place but for this campaign to work we need to move beyond the tried and the tired. We need to be creative, to get our message across in a clever, innovative, and unpredictable fashion, from inventive PR stunts one day to reasoned public debates the next.

The time has come for all of us to take what belongs to us all – our future. If you want to call this a Tea Party go ahead, but this is not about getting ridding of government per se – government is the only way out of this mess – but changing government policy.

We already have the support of several leading UK economists, why don’t you come onboard, too?

This is probably the first considered, overtly political act in my life: I am calling on anyone reading this to help start something new, to imagine a better way. If it all sounds incredibly idealistic for a hack on a Monday afternoon, well it is, but if this is something you think you want to get involved in (and why wouldn’t you?) drop me an email, get in touch or follow me on Twitter (@PeterKGeoghegan).

Spread the word, the cuts may be coming but we are too.