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