Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

An Emigrant President?

What Michael D’s victory in last week’s presidential election could – could – mean for Irish emigrants. From this week’s Irish Post.

Last week, Michael D Higgins won by a landslide a vote for Ireland’s next president. Capturing 40 per cent of ballots cast, the Labour man comfortably topped the poll, with his nearest rival lagging more than 10 precentage points behind. The government candidate, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell, fared worse, winning less than a tenth of first preferences.

They might look like the Cliff Notes version of last week’s presidential election, but the above are the final results from’s innovative on-line presidential election for Irish emigrants. With IP technology used to block voters in Ireland, over 2,500 Irish passport holders around the world selected their preferred candidate in the symbolic vote. When the results were announced ahead of Thursday’s vote, Michael D came out on top, although it was David Norris – not Sean Gallagher – who took second place from Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.

Self-selecting and completely non-binding, the vote is not an exercise in direct democracy, but that’s hardly the point. For generations the putative ‘extreme’ views of Irish emigrants have been held up as a valid reason for not extending voting rights beyond the borders of the state. ‘They’d all vote for republicans or socialists, or, worse, republican socialists’, ran the implicit establishment logic.

It’s a tendentious argument, fatally undermined by experiments like Emigrants might have different priorities and perspectives than those who at home, but the notion that, if given a vote and a voice, we’d inflict a parliament of foaming at the mouth diehards on the Irish people has little basis in reality.

Representation for emigrants – in some form or other – was a feature of plenty of candidates’ presidential pitches. During the campaign, Michael D pledged his support for Irish citizens remaining on the electoral register for 5 to 10 years after leaving the country and being allowed to vote in both presidential and general elections. He also said that he would establish a presidential seminar on youth emigration.

Ireland’s new president returned to the theme of emigration during his official acceptance speech on Saturday. Rarely short of a couple of words, or, for that matter, a cúpla focail, Michael D’ bi-lingual oration was by turns passionate, generous and statesman-like. Speaking of those who have emigrated he said: ‘Always in my mind, too, are those who have gone away – I will be their president too.’

There is nothing to suggest that his solicitude for Irish emigrants is anything but genuine. Having spent large chunks of his political life campaigning against human rights abuses around the world, Michael D’s humane, outward looking character seems perfectly suited to the role of president.

The capacity to successfully represent Ireland abroad is a vital part of the presidential job description. Indeed according to a Red C telephone poll conducted after polls closed on Thursday, this characteristic was second only to integrity in terms of its importance to voters. But representing the Irish abroad is also a crucial aspect of the president’s remit, especially at a time when emigration is increasing.

Michael D could start by putting some rhetorical pressure to bear on his former Labour party colleagues in government to ensure that the promised voting rights for emigrants in Irish presidential elections actually materialise. Such pledges have been made before – most notably during the 1990s – but so far no concrete reforms of Ireland’s punitive restrictions on emigrant voting have ever been delivered.

Of course, the real power of the president’s office is symbolic. Above the mucky fray of quotidian parliamentary politics, Michael D can use his role to outline bolder, wider horizons for Ireland and its emigrants.

On Saturday, he spoke of leaving behind the ‘individualism’ of the Celtic Tiger, embracing instead a ‘vision of Irishness of which we can all be proud’. This positive vision needs a new understanding of how emigration and the Irish Diaspora are changing. Emigration is often spoken of as a ‘tragedy’, a one-way street that young Irish men and women go down but never come back from. In this reading, the emigrant loses touch and rarely returns once they’ve left Ireland’s shores.

The contemporary reality for many new – and old – Irish emigrants is very different. Social media and the internet have transformed how we connect with Ireland and each other. Increasingly fluid labour markets have myriad drawbacks, but they do allow well-trained young graduates to move with relative ease between Ireland and the rest of the world. For many, emigration might no longer a cul-de-sac: if the economic situation improves at home they will return.

Erudite and engaged, Michael D is perfectly placed to both comprehend and react to the changing emigrant experience. Hopefully when the time comes for Ireland to elect its next president, emigrants around the world will have a real say in the outcome.

An Emigrant President?
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