Should all Irish citizens around the world be given a vote in presidential elections?

Ireland is set to have a referendum on whether to allow all Irish citizens resident outside the state to vote in presidential elections. This has provoked a debate, with some fearing this could lead to a distant diaspora imposing a terrible unwanted president on residents of the country. Here’s why that is not going to happen

Isn’t this a radical proposal?

No. Currently, Ireland is radical in the other direction. Its lack of any provision for overseas voting is internationally unusual. Internationally, over 120 countries allow their expatriates to vote, including countries with a historically high level of emigration, like Mexico and Italy. (Some countries put a time limit on this: emigrants from the United Kingdom for example can vote up to 15 years after they have left.)

Ireland is an outlier in how restrictive it is. As soon as its citizens step outside the borders of the Republic of Ireland, they are effectively disenfranchised. Not only that, but postal voting is also restricted within the state. Unless voters apply for a postal vote citing an accepted justification, such as a disability, they must physically presnt at the polling station on the day to cast ballots in general elections and referendums.

One effect of these strict geographical limits is suppressing the youth vote. About 10 percent of Ireland’s young people emigrated during the recession. Each year since then, tens of thousands of Irish citizens have emigrated, the bulk of them under 40. Within Ireland too, young people are also disadvantaged because they are highly geographically mobile, moving about for jobs, education, and to start new phases of their lives. They must therefore jump extra hurdles to make sure they are registered to vote, present at the right time in the right place, or organised enough to arrange a postal vote if they qualify.

Another effect is that the Irish citizens of Northern Ireland have no vote at all. This creates a peculiar situation: they can run for president, but not vote in the election. Many feel that some degree of political representation in the country of which they are citizens is their right.

Won’t the current Irish electorate be swamped by the size of the diaspora?

No. The number of Irish citizens outside the Republic of Ireland is estimated by the Irish government to be about 3.6 million. That includes children and those in Northern Ireland. Irish citizens abroad should not be confused with the much larger group of people around the world who claim more distant Irish ancestral links: there is no proposal to give votes to people who aren’t Irish citizens.

International trends suggest the number of citizens abroad who would actually use their vote is far lower than 3.6 million. In countries that allow overseas voting, such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, only a fraction of their overseas voters are registered to vote, and an even smaller number use it. For example, of Canada’s roughly two million overseas citizens, 15,603 were registered to vote in the 2015 general election and of those 11,000 voted.

But what if all these overseas voters vote radically, and Irish residents suffer the consequences?

Firstly, it isn’t clear that a diverse and highly geographically dispersed overseas electorate would all vote in the same way. It’s more likely that there would be a mix of opinions among them, just like in the resident Irish population.

Secondly, the current proposal is only to allow overseas citizens to vote for the president. (There are good arguments for allowing some overseas citizens to vote in general elections and referendums too, but this isn’t currently proposed.)

Candidates for president would still have to be nominated by 20 members of the Irish parliament in order to get on the ballot, so there is little chance of a true wildcard. Furthermore, residents of Ireland aren’t going to have to “suffer” many consequences of the overseas vote, because the president has very limited powers. Presidents don’t have a role in deciding how the country is run. They are largely ceremonial figureheads. They perform certain constitutional functions when instructed to do so by the government, and have some limited discretionary powers that are rarely used, such as addressing the nation or putting a law to public vote if it is of national importance.

The Irish president acts as a unifying figurehead who speaks thoughtfully at public events, represents Ireland internationally, and maintains links with the diaspora, hence the relevance of allowing citizens abroad a vote.

What about taxation and representation?

This phrase derives from a slogan by 18th century American colonists who were opposed to paying taxes to Britain if they didn’t have political representation. Their phrase was “no taxation without representation”. The reverse of this phrase, “no representation without taxation”, is not a rule, and neither should it be. Students, homemakers, pensioners, sick people – about a third of the Irish electorate – would not be allowed to vote if paying income tax was a requirement. Restrictions on who can vote based on their wealth has the unpleasant history of having been used by the powerful to disenfranchise people and protect their own power in the past.

What about some guy with one Irish granny who got an Irish passport but knows nothing about Ireland?

Some people oppose giving votes to Irish citizens abroad because they don’t like the idea, due to an unflattering imagined stereotype they have about what these ‘Irish citizens abroad’ might be like.

Firstly, the biggest group of new voters this change would bring in are in Northern Ireland. They can hardly be accused of having insufficient links to the country.

Secondly, being a resident of Ireland does not grant anyone the right to judge the ‘Irishness’ of anyone else. Whether someone is Irish or not is set down in the constitution and Irish nationality law, which broadly grants that legal status to people born on the island and their descendants. If your actual objection is to Irish citizenship laws, that is another debate.

Equally, voters are not required to take knowledge tests before they are allowed cast their ballots, and neither should they be. If this were required, it would certainly exclude some of the resident Irish electorate.

Anyone who would be able to vote would be 1) an Irish citizen, and 2) would be motivated enough to register and use their vote. Fearing that people who don’t have a connection to the country might vote is inherently contradictory.

But wasn’t there a rush of people getting citizenship and passports after Brexit?

There has been a rise, but the numbers don’t come close to something that would ‘swamp’ the Irish electorate. Here are the figures for all Irish passports issued in 2016 in Ireland and internationally compared to previous years. It’s important to note that most of these are renewals of passports that were previously issued:

I spoke to people who claimed Irish passports in the wake of Brexit in this episode of my podcast. I found they had complex and diverse reasons for doing so. All of them had a cultural affinity with Ireland and were taking the process of claiming a passport as an opportunity to embrace this side of their identity more deeply, such as by exploring Irish history, visiting the country, or learning some of the Irish language.

Is it unfair to allow these votes to citizens who might be Irish through descent, when immigrants to Ireland are excluded?

If you believe immigrants to Ireland and their descendents should have easier access to citizenship and to voting rights, argue for that. But that is not an argument against Irish citizens abroad being allowed to vote for the president.

So what’s the point of it then?

Ireland is a small nation that relies on soft power. Historically, the diaspora played a vital role in the Irish state coming into existence, and they have contributed economically and amplified Ireland’s voice internationally since then. For this reason, maintaining links with the diaspora is a primary foreign policy concern for Ireland. Having a large, English-speaking, successful diaspora that is invested in Irish affairs is an asset of which many small countries could only dream.

The concept of the Irish nation is not strictly geographically bound because of the long dispute over Northern Ireland, and because of Ireland’s long history of emigration. The constitution recognises the Irish nation as being made up of all its citizens on the island of Ireland, and around the world. It reads:

“It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.”

The proposal of granting votes to all Irish citizens in presidential elections was decided on by a Constitutional Convention of randomly chosen citizens, members of parliament, and Northern Ireland parties, which analysed the models used by other countries around the world and voted on what would be best for Ireland. You can read its study and conclusions here.

Irish journalist writing for @PoliticoEurope. Try my politics/history/culture podcast @PassportIrish.

  • willow

    No we don’t. We have as much in common with everyone in the British Isles. Actually we’ve probably got more in common with people in GB given we are in the same state.

  • Skibo

    A united Kingdom states unity between more than one kingdom.

  • Skibo

    We have a lot in common over the two main islands but more in common on our own island that with those of another island.

  • willow

    A united kingdom is a single kingdom. The clue is in the name.

  • willow

    No we don’t.

  • Jess

    Really, what “we” doesn’t?

  • Skibo

    Yes we do.

  • Skibo

    United means made up of parts.

  • willow

    No it doesn’t. It means a single entity: union. That was the point.

  • Skibo

    A union is made up of parts. Just as marriage is a union of two people. It does not however mean it is a union for ever.

  • willow

    The whole point of a union is to create a single whole. Nobody said it was union forever.

  • Jess

    When do you think it will come to an end?

  • Skibo

    I guess it could have ended if the majority of the people in one Nation of the Union decided they wanted to leave. Now there is an idea1

  • IRF

    “Candidates for president would still have to be nominated by 20 members of the Irish parliament in order to get on the ballot” The rules should be changed to allow northern MLAs to nominate Presidential candidates as well. That would be in keeping with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

  • shellington

    Just more nationalist, we are special snow flakes BS. Why do you think you have so much more in common with the Scots but not the English?

    Have you been to England? And I mean a good bit of it. It’s not all just posh Torys in the South East.

    The North of England has much more in common with Scotland than Ireland ever will.

    If you look at the history objectively we are essentially one people on these islands whether you like it or not.

  • shellington

    There were high Kings of Britain as well, you should look them up. Their territory would include modern day Wales, England and Scotland.

    In reality they didn’t govern jack, there was no British state at the time and no one would try and base British nationalism on anything as desperately tenuous as a High King of Britain, and neither should the Irish it just looks ridiculous.

    When the Normans (same people who conquered the English) rocked up in Ireland there was absolutely no unitary state in Ireland until created many years later by English kings as part of the union.

  • shellington

    Well done trying to talk sense into them but your wasting your breath. If they admitted they were wrong they’d have to admit the past 100 years of the ROI was a waste of time, which essentially it has been.

  • Skibo

    Irish history says different.

  • shellington

    Sorry, it really doesn’t. If you want to make a case for a united Ireland fine. But no existing unified Irish nation was disrupted when the Normans were invited to Ireland by the King of Leinster.

  • Skibo

    All depends on what your description of what a Kingdom was then. In England while there was a King, the Barons had a certain amount of autonomy. Can that be considered the same as what as happening in Ireland?
    Incidentally even when the Normans came to Ireland they also held a certain amount of autonomy.
    I believe your only raison d’etre for such an argument is to suggest that Ireland was not an historical Nation is to try and argue a reason for the establishment of two nations in Ireland. Northern Ireland was never a political or cultural, independent region until it was imposed on the Irish Nation by the British.

  • shellington

    “I believe your only raison d’etre for such an argument is to suggest that Ireland was not an historical Nation is to try and argue a reason for the establishment of two nations in Ireland.”

    And I believe your only raison d’etre for such an argument is to suggest that Ireland was a unitary state is to try and argue a reason for the establishment of one nation in Ireland.

    History used to create political arguments, who would have thought it?

    You should have a chat with a few Argentines about Ilas Malvinas/Falklands, they take tenuous historical justification to a whole new level.

    All of it of course is trumped by international law on self determination. If it wasn’t then we have wars and violence, where countries or people take redrawing boundaries into their own hands e.g. Tibet.

  • Skibo

    I know those pesky Argies thinking they can claim an island on their back door! Of course it belongs to an island nation that is over 3000 miles away!
    I agree on your analysis on Ukraine where a larger and more powerful neighbour believes they have the right to walk into a sovereign nation and claim part of it because their citizens have moved there and settled there.
    Oddly, I see a comparison with the Falklands.
    Ireland should own an area ten times its size if that is allowed.
    When do you believe the state you call Northern Ireland came into existence?

  • shellington

    My point which you seem to have missed is there is perceived historical injustice all over the planet, and redrawing any boundaries means there will always be winners and losers.

    Just because you think your right, doesn’t make a unified Ireland a consequence free proposal.

    But your not bothered about that, because your right, right?

    You seem fairly clueless about how Argentina was formed, I also find your denial of Ulster Scots right to their homes breath taking. After five centuries they are still settlers?

    Maybe we should deport all the Irish from Scotland just to even things up? After all they’ve only been there a couple of centuries so aren’t really Scottish are they? That would likely kill any remaining flicker of Scottish independence stone dead.

  • Derrick O’Leary

    If those were the results, explain why the border didn’t only include the blue bits.
    Were Unionists standing for partition in that election? Because that’s the only time I can see when the people of what became Northern Ireland could have been asked about the issue.
    And even then….I see some bits on your map you’ve no right to.
    And until 1918, Home Rule was not about creating a separate nationalist state at all, it was only devolution within the UK. Yet Unionists wanted to either stop it entirely or get their own Home Rule part of Ireland. It seems your view of democracy is “whatever Unionists vote for”.

  • willow

    Well, firstly the map is a rather basic representation as it is based on fptp constituencies and some of the green bits contained some smaller majority area blue bits. Secondly, only county units were considered, not constituencies. Thirdly, the boundary was meant to be refined by a boundary commission and wasn’t meant to be permanent.

    “Were Unionists standing for partition in that election?”

    Of course they were, yes.

    “And until 1918, Home Rule was not about creating a separate nationalist state at all, it was only devolution within the UK.”

    It was about a separate nationalist jurisdiction and was seen at the time as the end of the UK

    “Yet Unionists wanted to either stop it entirely or get their own Home Rule part of Ireland.”

    They didn’t want home rule.for their part.of Ireland.

    “It seems your view of democracy is “whatever Unionists vote for”. ”

    What makes you say that?

  • Derrick O’Leary

    I’ll take your word that Unionist candidates stood in what became Northern Ireland in 1918 on a platform of partition, expressly abandoning Unionist candidates in the rest of the still unified Ireland. That must have been an interesting party conference.
    But they took home rule for their part of Ireland. Even built Stormont, at some considerable cost. If they didn’t want home rule, that was a funny way of showing it. (The original British plan was to reopen the parliament in College Green in Dublin, a rather fine purpose-built building in its day. However traffic and, to a degree, the price from the Bank of Ireland said no. Ironically, it’s due to be closed to traffic apart from trams in the next few years.)

    Why did I say that? You express the opinion that as nationalists wanted to split the UK, it was ok for Unionists to split from Ireland to stay in the UK.
    Despite the fact that splitting from the UK was not in fact the original arrangement. The IPP were not trying to split from the UK and would have gotten, but for Unionist intransigence, exactly what NI got in 1922. The RIC would have remained. Representation in London would have remained. There would have been no separate Irish military force. The British army would have remained in Ireland. But even that minimal devolution with a local government majority Catholic was too much. Bear in mind this was a plan agreed upon and designed by the parliament of the UK, but that was not enough, Unionists opposed it anyway. UK democracy not good enough?
    So the UVF was formed, the Irish Volunteers were formed in response, the whole show was put on hold in 1914, supposedly for one year but actually permanently.
    We got 1916, the War of Independence and suddenly home rule was not enough for the majority in Ireland. So, Ireland would get home rule at least, but likely something more.
    So partition. Only areas with a Unionist majority? No, a quite cynical maximalist approach to territory based on the reality, known even then, that NI would not be very viable.
    The Boundary Commission was a farce, with the newly evangelically Imperialist Jan Smuts at the helm it recommended transferring a hundred square miles or so from the South to the north, and two hundred square miles or so the other way. After some furor the Irish government agreed to it being buried in return for forgetting the Irish share of Imperial debt agreed upon in the Treaty.
    So I put it that Unionists have a long history of only accepting democracy, or the decisions of London, when those are in accord with their wishes.

  • Skibo

    I have no issue with the people who came here four hundred years ago or even those who came in the last couple of decades during the EU.
    What I do question is the right of their future generations to partition the country they moved to to create a Protestant homeland. They moved to Ireland, not Northern Ireland. Democracy didn’t just miraculously ignite after partition in 1921.
    I have never promoted anyone to return to a home they left four hundred years ago, merely accept the country they moved to and accept the democratic will of the majority.
    I am not right all the time, possibly some of the time and on the balance of chance I am taking this as being one of those times.

    What is your argument that NI is a defined region different and divisible from the rest of Ireland?
    Does the fact that one set of people adore the same God in a slightly different way permit them to divide a country?

  • shellington

    As others have pointed out the other way of looking at this was the nationalists split the UK, what right did they have to do that against the wishes of the majority of citizens in the UK?

    This all depends entirely on your point of view.

  • Ssej

    There has never been and is not now a majority of the UK who oppose an independent and united Ireland.

    It was the people of GB and England in particular that persuaded the UK government to give Ireland home rule to end the conflict which they were sickened listening to the actions of their forces in Ireland to deny the democratic wishes here

    They accepted this and the decision was made

    The UK government did not want then to keep any part of Ireland within the UK, they fought hard to ensure that was the case but distracted with more important matters they soon backed down after threats of violence and civil war and caved in to Ulster unionists demands for partition

    Even Margaret Thatcher admitted they got it wrong in allowing the partition of Ireland

  • shellington

    The majority of people in the UK including the King and most of parliament did not want to see Ireland awash with blood just to keep it in the UK, that is true. But that had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with multiple armed rebellions in Ireland, some sickeningly timed in the middle of national crisis with the support of Britains enemies.

    Ireland has to be the only place in history that staged an armed rebellion with legislation in place for home rule. That one stupid action probably cost any chance of reconciliation with the North.

    After that if the British hadn’t partitioned Ireland, the Irish would have done it themselves. Dublin had no chance of governing Ulster.

  • willow

    “ll take your word that Unionist candidates stood in what became Northern Ireland in 1918 on a platform of partition, expressly abandoning Unionist candidates in the rest of the still unified Ireland. That must have been an interesting party conference.”

    Don’t take my word for it. Read a bit of history.

    “But they took home rule for their part of Ireland. Even built Stormont, at some considerable cost.”

    They did indeed.

    “If they didn’t want home rule, that was a funny way of showing it.”

    It was indeed. Though it shows that the main opposition was to being included under in *all-Ireland* jurisdiction, that is under the control of nationalists.

    “Why did I say that? You express the opinion that as nationalists wanted to split the UK, it was ok for Unionists to split from Ireland to stay in the UK.”

    Indeed. It would be hypocrisy to support one but not the other.

    “Despite the fact that splitting from the UK was not in fact the original arrangement. The IPP were not trying to split from the UK and would have gotten, but for Unionist intransigence, exactly what NI got in 1922. The RIC would have remained. Representation in London would have remained. There would have been no separate Irish military force. The British army would have remained in Ireland.”

    See above. The objection was to being included under an all-Ireland nationalist parliament against their will.

    “But even that minimal devolution with a local government majority Catholic was too much.”

    It wasn’t minimal.

    “Bear in mind this was a plan agreed upon and designed by the parliament of the UK, but that was not enough, Unionists opposed it anyway. UK democracy not good enough?”

    It wasn’t democracy to force an entire people into a jurisdiction against its will.

    “So the UVF was formed, the Irish Volunteers were formed in response, the whole show was put on hold in 1914, supposedly for one year but actually permanently.”

    It only became permanent because 1916 happened and the subsequent rise of SF.

    “So partition. Only areas with a Unionist majority? No, a quite cynical maximalist approach to territory based on the reality, known even then, that NI would not be very viable.”

    It wasn’t maximalist. Maximalist would have included nine counties.

    But nationalists were the ultimate maximalists. They wanted the whole of Ireland.

    “The Boundary Commission was a farce, with the newly evangelically Imperialist Jan Smuts at the helm it recommended transferring a hundred square miles or so from the South to the north, and two hundred square miles or so the other way. After some furor the Irish government agreed to it being buried in return for forgetting the Irish share of Imperial debt agreed upon in the Treaty.”

    Indeed. But that wasn’t to be known at the time. Still it would have been better to follow its recommendations than not.

    “So I put it that Unionists have a long history of only accepting democracy, or the decisions of London, w hen those are in accord with their wishes ”

    You’re wrong about democracy, but re decisions of London, 1912-20 isn’t a “long history”.