Voting Rights for Irish Emigrants

The thorny issue of voting rights for the Irish diaspora emerged again yesterday on the Marian Finucane show. As reported over at thejournal.ie, TCD lecturer Elaine Byrne suggested allowing the Irish diaspora to vote in elections for the Seanad as a means of allowing more voices have an impact on Irish politics.

Meanwhile in the Sunday Times, Eleanor Fitzsimons noted that ‘according to the law, those not “ordinarily resident”, that is living in Ireland on 1 September in the year before the voting register comes into force, cannot cast a ballot in Irish elections.’ Fitzsimons’s article is behind a paywall but the piece was broadly sympathetic of the rights of Irish citizens abroad, if wary of their impact on Irish politics.

But in truth Irish emigrants should be expecting more than just the right to vote in the Seaned. Ireland is the only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow citizens  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.

Noreen Bowden, editor of GlobalIrish.ie, 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.

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.

As the current, discredited administration crumbles the clamour for political reform, and even a ‘Second Republic’, grows ever louder.

Surely any future reform must involve extending voting rights to Irish emigrants, and not just for Seaned elections? With its long emigrant history, Ireland is the last country that should be excluding its Diaspora.

There are also practical questions around allowing the Diaspora to vote – who would qualify to vote?  What about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included? – but are these logistical issue sufficient reason to deny Irish citizens the right to vote?

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