Why should emigrants not have a vote in Irish elections?

Some of you may have noticed that our own Peter Geoghegan had a thought provoking piece in the Guardian earlier in the week on the perennial chestnut of votes for emigrants. It’s a very good question for a country that perennially relies on whole generations to leave an overcrowded domestic market to seek their living elsewhere.

As Peter points out, other nations are a great deal more generous to their diasporas:

More than 110 countries allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Ireland, with its long history of emigration, is not among of them. Unlike citizens of, say, Ghana, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, Irish people living outside the republic are barred from directly participating in the electoral process. Greece, the only other EU member with a similar policy, is in the process of amending its legislation following a successful appeal by two Greek nationals living in France that the law breached the European convention on human rights.

Sarah Carey however rules that kind of thinking out of bounds. Not least because the number of passport holders overseas almost equals the number of residents at home (erm, in ‘the twenty six’):

I like the guiding principle of “no taxation without representation”. It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes to the State should be allowed to have a say in how those taxes are collected and distributed. Those living in Ireland, no matter how poor, will pay tax, directly or indirectly.

If we are to change this system and insist that citizenship and not residency is the basis of the franchise, the right to vote must come with some corresponding obligations. Paying tax is the obvious choice.

And Sarah has a very salient point. What do you do about those passport holders who have never resided in the state. And never paid taxes? Northern Ireland folk for instance, who choose Irish passports but have never paid a penny in southern revenue?

And you can just imagine the havoc all those ‘ex pat’ Sinn Fein votes would wreak on the southern political ecosystem. It might be fun to watch from afar, but it’s hardly just.

But if you look slightly beyond Peter’s argument to how other countries do it, in most cases, there is something of a residency requirement. For instance, in the US, in the general election of 2004 the NYT advised that:

“Regardless of how long you have been out of the United States, you have to mail the application to the last state you lived in before moving abroad.”

So what is wrong with that Sarah?

  • Drumlins Rock

    I believe the UK allows citizens to vote for a very generous 15 years after ceasing to be a resident, personally I thought 10 would be about enough, but I think its not unfair that those overseas but likely to return should retain a vote, and 10 yrs should allow you to make up your mind!

  • How about this: expats should keep the right to vote for the length of time they previously lived in the state, or ten/fifteen years, whichever is shorter. Covers all the bases.

  • Noreen Bowden

    The UK’s time limit is actually being challenged in court by an expat living in Spain, who’s arguing that the time limit is a violation of his right to free movement within the EU. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win. Time limits are actually fairly unusual, certainly in the EU. Almost all other EU national retain their vote for life, with only the UK (15 years), Germany (25 yrs out of a Council of Europe country) and Denmark (2 years) having a time limit. (And Greece, of course, is the only other EU country that hasn’t yet implement absentee ballots, though it lost a court case on the issue in the European Court of Human Rights, so will presumably be changing that.

    The real problem with a time-limited situation is that it creates a wholly arbitrary distinction between citizens. What is the basis for a ten or 15 year limit, other than the fact that these are nice roundy numbers? The Constitution says that it’s the entitlement and birthright of all citizens to be part of the Irish nation, not all citizens who left less than a decade ago.

    The information on the US situation isn’t entirely accurate. 18 states allow US citizens who have never resided in the US to vote, by registering at the address their parents (or sometimes spouse or family member) could have registered at.

    As for the taxation argument underpinning opposition to emigrant voting rights, the problem with basing any voting argument on taxation is that it would disenfranchise the impoverished. Considering the fact that there are a substantial number of emigrants of the 1950s and 1960s generation living in destitution – many of whom sent money back to Ireland for decades, only to be forgotten in their old age – this is particularly distasteful.

    It’s clearly undemocratic and the “No representation without taxation” brigade are calling for a return to the days when only men of property could vote.

    Though as an advocate of emigrant voting rights, I have no strong feelings about the merits of taxing expats on income earned abroad – it’s a totally separate issue to voting. The US is the only developed country in the world that does it, however, and I suspect that if Ireland were to do it we’d probably find we get less money than the value of what we’re currently getting from global Irish business networking, FDI, venture capital assistance, expats opening new markets, tourism, etc. Right now, we’ve got a highly loyal diaspora that’s worth a lot of cash. Adding a layer of paperwork and an attitude of even greater entitlement to our diaspora relations probably won’t serve any of us well.

  • I can see that it would be totally wrong to allow voters living outside the Irish Republic to vote just because they have a passport (like 400,000 people living in Northern Ireland, for example).

    What about an expat? Well, if they want to vote, the chances are that they retain an economic connection with the state. You will never get a system which answers all argument but Andrew’s idea is probably as near to fairness under a set of rules as you would get.

  • pippakin

    Basically its the same argument that British constituencies have about the student vote: allowing someone who doesn’t ordinarily live in the area could have a serious effect on those who do. Its a valid point. I’m not convinced by the tax payer argument because not all voters are tax payers.

    I wonder is it possible to create some Diaspora constituencies within the Dail and the representation there should be the same as any other TD, with the number of people already and about to emigrate they would be very busy.

  • Mick Fealty


    “I’m not convinced by the tax payer argument because not all voters are tax payers.”

    No, but she’s elucidating an important principle. Tax or benefits, they come with residency and imply some commitment/obligation to the state.

  • Dec

    ” Northern Ireland folk for instance, who choose Irish passports but have never paid a penny in southern revenue?”

    Those passports cost €80, Mick.

  • danidiot

    So, the passport is ok to entice young Northern Irish Roman Catholic footballers to join the FAi teams, but allowing these self-same cherished citizens of the nation to have a vote…no chance, your passport only gets you so far.
    ‘Pretend Irish’ .

  • Neil

    So, the passport is ok to entice young Northern Irish Roman Catholic footballers to join the FAi teams,

    I know, poxy fenians not wanting to support a team that hated them, with fans chanting Loyalist party tunes, no surrender and threatening their best player with death as he was a dirty fenian. I think you’ll find that’s why many self respecting Irish Catholics from the North want to turn out for a team that will treat them like human beings, unlike the Loyalist NI team who play in the Loyalist Linfield’s ground in the Loyalist Village, while the crowd chant Loyalist chants and wave Loyalist flags. Fenians eh? Who’d understand ’em? Anyway, no enticing necessary it was the repellant actions of the Windsor crowd that did the job.

    but allowing these self-same cherished citizens of the nation to have a vote…no chance, your passport only gets you so far.

    I know this is a complex idea for some people, but let’s see if you can keep up. What electoral area would a voter from, say, North Antrim vote for a TD? Taking North Antrim as an example, and using the Westminster election as an illustration, you do understand I hope that a voter living in Ballymena will have to vote for an MP in North Antrim. A Ballymena voter can’t vote for example for a candidate in Derry.

    In simple terms for you dan idiot, the problem is that the Northern counties aren’t part of the election and hence people from the North cannot vote for parties in, say, Dublin, or Louth or West Meath, in much the same way that a Londoner living in Dublin cannot vote for the DUP in Belfast. Hope that straightens that out for you.

    ‘Pretend Irish’

    To satisfy my own curiosity can you explain who you are quoting above? That’s what those funny little marks you’ve stuck on there are by the way, they’re known as quotation marks. If you’re quoting yourself then either I’m giving you less credit than you deserve, or much much more, as that’s variously a tactic used by people pretending to have some support for their argument by pretending to quote someone who agress with them, or it’s used by morons who don’t know shit about the English language.

    On the more substantive point, allow me to reply: pretend Brit.

    The Brits laugh at you, I know many of them having studied over there. They fail to understand the britisher than the British people who hang Israeli flags from lamp posts while burning ethnic minorities out of their homes, who protest outside churches and pipe bomb small school kids. I am Irish, always will be. You may try to tell me that’s not the case, but your kind haven’t succeeded in that in 400 years so it would be unlikely you, even with your impressive intellect and snazzy, convincing arguments will convince us otherwise.

  • Mick Fealty

    Touche Dec. Touche.

  • danidiot

    Who exactly are you trying to convince there, Neil….. yourself or the rest of us?

  • pippakin

    Mick Fealty

    As I said I’m not sure I agree with it. Other countries allow the vote for their emigrants presumably most of their voters also pay tax and/or claim benefits.

    I wonder if Ireland could end up being forced by the courts to recognise the rights of its emigrants. If it happened it might take some of the initiative away from the Irish government.

  • Reader

    pippakin: Basically its the same argument that British constituencies have about the student vote: allowing someone who doesn’t ordinarily live in the area could have a serious effect on those who do.
    I lived at my university town for 3 years as part of a constant, but churning, student population, it would have made less sense for me to vote in my parents’ constituency.
    I think the ex-pat issue is somewhat different. For a start, they might chose risks that residents wouldn’t be willing to take. Though on the other hand they might be immune to the lure of pork-barrel politics. They might be nostalgic, or cosmopolitan. Actually, this might be fun to watch!
    However – the ‘citizenship’ argument is surely a non starter. There are many citizens who are not ex-pats and have never set foot in Ireland.
    And the intermediate, Nordie, case is the most fun of all. I see that one has got properly started now.

  • Reader

    Dec: Those passports cost €80, Mick.
    If SF get a sniff of power in the forthcoming election will they put the price up to raise money, or lower it? Say, 400,000 nordies replacing their passport every 10 years, that’s €3million in exports every year, already.

  • pippakin


    I remember there used to be squabbles over student votes having the potential to affect the outcome of elections in towns with a big university. In most parts of England expat votes would make little difference but here the difference has the potential to completely swing some constituencies in the same way the student vote was said to.

    i just think the Irish government should seize the initiative while they can. The world has become far more ‘rights’ conscious and its hard to see how the 50,000 who it is said will emigrate this year should be denied a job, a home and a vote, all due to government incompetence..

  • joeCanuck

    What about the other side of the story? Shouldn’t (semi) permanent residents who aren’t yet citizens but who pay taxes be allowed to vote?

  • JoeCanuck, Non-citizens can vote in Irish local elections. It’s not about taxes – in the case of non-citizens, it’s about residency. The electoral register is not connected to tax matters.

    It’s a little weird how the debate in Ireland is all about taxes – it’s a measure of how little we value our citizenship, I think. And the irony is that we’ve got the tax exiles, who actually can vote even if they’ve declared themselves non-resident for the purpose of taxation! (They can retain ordinary residency for three years.)

    115 nations and territories give their expats a vote – only one developed nation (the US) taxes its expats on income earned abroad (and the US doesn’t even link the two.). Isn’t this telling us something? Like that our overlords are happy to disenfranchise the dispossessed because it suits their own purposes?

  • joeCanuck

    Here in Canada it’s also residency that counts for Municipal Elections. But for Provincial or Federal elections you have to have citizenship.

  • “the “No representation without taxation” brigade are calling for a return to the days when only men of property could vote.”

    Wrong. Even the poorest Irish resident pays tax. Excise duty, VAT, VRT and so on.

    An emigrant pays nothing except a few quid when he or she comes home every year or two for holidays – as I do. As I wrote to Madam Editor during the week, streaming Vincent Browne or reading the Irish Times online does not compare to watching your neighbours evicted or being escorted out of your closing factory with your box of belongings.

    If this were to be countenanced at all, it would be perhaps doable in the Seanad (which I would prefer abolished) since every other crackpot lobby has seats in there.

  • joecanuck – in Toronto you must be a citizen to vote. I’m surprised to hear it is different elsewhere in Canada.


  • joeCanuck


    You are quite right. I think the requirements have changed since I first came to Canada.

  • Mark, it’s you who are wrong. You don’t understand what I said. I am saying that it is wrong to view voting as a privilege to be exchanged for the payment of money. I couldn’t care less how much the poorest or the richest person pays in taxes – it doesn’t buy them a right to vote. In every other EU country and in scores of other countries, citizens take to the polls around the world as an act of citizenship, not an act of tax-payership.

    Plus, there are lots of non-resident Irish who do pay taxes in Ireland. Just because you don’t doesn’t mean no emigrant does. And I have yet to hear a single person of the “no representation without taxation” bent advocate for giving the vote to taxpaying expats. I wonder why. I suspect that it’s because it’s a disingenuous argument, and they know it.

    And I live in Ireland – I have yet to see one of my neighbours being evicted, and I’ve not been escorted out of my closing factory with my box of belongings. I know that these things happen to people who live here, because I stream Vincent Browne (as I don’t have a TV) and I read the Irish Times online (because I’m too cheap to pay for it).

    It would be interesting if we all had to pass a personal hardship test to vote, but we don’t – and if you think there aren’t plenty of extremely comfortable people in this country (starting with our overpaid politicians), you should probably stream some more Vincent Browne. And if you want to look at the people who are really suffering, I’d start with the young people who haven’t a hope of a future in this country, and are about to say teary goodbyes from the shiny new Terminal 2.

    If you’re really concerned about them and their future, and whatever vain hopes they might have to return some day, you might think twice before you advocate stripping them of their vote.

  • Manfarang

    If you are a citizen and a former resident I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to vote.
    The world is a globalised place now and in some other countries of the world you will not get a vote in elections no matter how long you haved lived there.
    The test should be whether you have a connection to the country.There are other groups that have the right to vote but don’t pay much in the way of taxation.

  • Valenciano

    There are lots of ways around the problems mentioned above. One way would be to set up a 3 member expat constituency. In terms of voting rights the “Nordies with passports” issue could be taken care of by only granting voting rights to those that have lived in Eire for a set minimum number of years.

    Alternatively or additionally, elected members in question could simply be delegates on the model of the US Virgin Islands which elects one delegate to the US House of Representatives who has speaking rights but not voting rights in the chamber.

  • The decision against Greece in the ECHR has been cited during the various articles on this issue. I’ve just had a look at a summary of Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos v. Greece (application no. 42202/07).

    The difference between Greece and Ireland is that Greece has a constitutional provision for emigrant voting (Article 51.4) but did not legislate to enable citizens to vote abroad (sounds a bit like A,B,C vs Ireland to me)

    The summary states: “Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights did not require States to secure voting rights in parliamentary elections for voters living abroad.”

    I note that some people have said that former citizen-residents should have their voting rights retained. Should Irish citizens who never lived in Ireland be denied a vote? How recently should ex-residents have lived in Ireland? If there is no limit, how can they prove their former residency? I’d be interested to see what range of opinions there are to these questions.

  • @Valenciano the Dail already has scope for people who can talk all they want but have no power to change anything. They’re called backbenchers.