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 and host of The Irish Passport podcast on Irish culture, history and politics.