The Gaping Hole in Irish Political Thinking

By Billy Lawless, Emma DeSouza & Kevin J. Sullivan . The authors are all members of the Executive Committee of www.votingrights.ie

Two themes currently dominate political thought regarding the future of the Irish Nation: the concept of a shared Ireland, promoted by Micheal Martin while he was Taoiseach and the quest for a United Ireland, promoted by Future Ireland and Sinn Fein. Both of these approaches ignore the fact that two large groups of Irish citizens, just under a million– those living in Northern Ireland and Irish passport holders living abroad – are denied the right to vote.

There are over 600,000 Irish passports holders in Northern Ireland. If a third of them are under the voting age that means there are about 400,000 citizens, mostly nationalists, who might have an interest in voting for the next Irish President. This population was abandoned by Dublin for decades and even today there is no representation from Northern Ireland in the Oireachtas one hundred years after the Partition.

Emigrants have also been forgotten, despite their steadfast support for Ireland over the centuries. Remittances supported Ireland since Famine times, and were vital in keeping Irish families housed and fed until recent decades. Emigrants sustained the cause of Irish Independence for decades, over 60 fought in the GPO and they financed the Free State in its early years. In our time emigrants played key roles in ending the Troubles, as the Irish in America like Niall O’Dowd and others persuaded Bill Clinton to get involved.

Many experts have noted how citizens living outside the State have long been treated with ambivalence by Irish politicians and policy-makers – ambivalence still evident today. And this ambivalence has real consequences: emigrants who wanted to return found it challenging until recently because of outdated state policies and they still remain excluded from all aspects of the political process – including voting for the Irish president.

The hierarchy in Irish political culture defines Irish-born citizens living outside the state as second-class citizens and this is rigidly enforced by electoral laws. Emigrants who do not intend to return within eighteen months lose their right to vote the day they leave (unlike most democracies in the world), and postal voting is so restricted that few of those who maintain the right to vote in theory can avail of it. Our overseas voting system is the most restrictive in Europe, denying emigrants the vote in local, national or E.U. Parliamentary elections.

The electoral system is weirdly illogical as well; when Mary McAleese ran for President for the first time, her husband Martin could not vote for her because they lived in Belfast. The requirement that you must be on the island to vote and on the right side of the border is a form of gerrymandering and on a grand scale. It’s hard to promote a shared Ireland when your own citizens aren’t allowed to vote for their own President.

The continued refusal to grant non-resident citizens the right to vote is a sign of parochialism and complacency – and the Leinster House establishment is content to keep it that way. The tepid suggestions about giving Northern Ireland voters a few crumbs of seats in the Seanad should not cut it any more. Fifty years ago, Northern Ireland civil rights advocates were protesting against gerrymandering and carrying “One Man, One Vote” signs. Those are the same issues today that Ireland must now face up to if it wants to be a modern, inclusive European democracy.

Opponents of voting rights view emigrants as something of an unwashed horde that will vote in lockstep and swamp the ballot box. There is no evidence for this. The emigrant vote will likely reflect the current Irish political spectrum and be slightly more centre left given that emigrants are largely younger. The emigrants most likely to vote are those who have left in the last ten years. These number an estimated 720,000, with over 220,000 of these emigrants having already returned with about 30,000 returning home annually in the last five years. So a more accurate number in this potential pool of voters is about 500,000.

Many of these emigrants are active in Irish organizations around the world playing for 400 global GAA clubs, participating in business networks, sharing Irish music, culture, and traditions. Ireland has a sterling international reputation for friendliness, cooperation, generosity and craic largely because of your overseas siblings, cousins and friends who are immensely proud to wave the Tricolour.

What about Irish citizens in Northern Ireland? In the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections the nationalist vote came to a total of 338,420 (Sinn Fein, SDLP, PbP) which is the pool of voters who would most likely vote in the next Presidential election. These voters would have to be Irish passport holders as well which may make this pool even smaller. Instead of worrying about swamping, consider the more positive alternative: expanding Irish democracy would make it stronger and more inclusive.

Ireland has always been a nation of emigrants and emigration has vastly changed. First, emigration is now cyclical with people coming and going and eventually many coming home. Second, we live in a modern world of communications where emigrants know what is going on back in Ireland instantly. A GAA hurler in Dubai knows the score of his home club back in Kerry instantly because someone coming off the pitch will text him the news. Third, emigrants care deeply about what happens in Ireland: the desire for the vote was vividly demonstrated in the last two referendums as thousands of emigrants came home to vote for marriage equality and to repeal the 8threferendum, creating a global Twitter trend – and participating in a sea change in Irish society.

Why continue to accept a political status quo that over time will make Ireland less democratic, less equal and a more insular nation and even more out of step with the rest of the E.U? The contribution of Irish emigrants to the founding of the Republic was almost entirely overlooked during the centennial celebrations; they will be unwilling to be overlooked again when it comes to voting rights. Irish politics needs to move from the parochial to a new, richer and deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a more inclusive, modern Irish Nation.

Irish political leaders can start to define that future by ending their century-old political ambivalence toward Irish citizens living outside the state. The hundreds of thousands of people who left Ireland in recent years and those about to leave are an immense source of creativity, energy and good ideas. Why exclude and deny them their voting rights when so many want to contribute and so many will return home? In the 21st century, it’s not where you live but what you contribute to the future of Ireland that matters most.

Giving Irish emigrants and citizens living in the North the right to vote for future Irish Presidents is a very tangible way to embrace a more inclusive and broader concept of citizenship and nationhood through the office of the President. Such a vote would be an affirmation that Irish citizens that have left these shores are still close to our hearts and a recognition that the Irish Nation does not stop at the Irish shoreline.


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