Sunday 23 October 2016

We owe a debt to the diaspora, but right to vote would be step too far

Published 21/05/2015 | 02:30

Revellers cheer as the 2013 St Patrick’s Day parade passes them in New York, USA
Revellers cheer as the 2013 St Patrick’s Day parade passes them in New York, USA

No tax without representation. This was the slogan that powered the creation of the United States. It is not hard to understand why.

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When Britain ruled its North American colonies from London, it did not give those living there the right to send elected representatives to Westminster. The inherent injustice of being made to pay tax, but having no say in what is done with the money, led to revolution. Ultimately, it led independence.

If the principal that paying tax earns citizens the right to be represented is now accepted almost everywhere as a tenant of democracy, it is curious that matters often don't work the other way round.

Many democracies not only allow their non-tax paying, non-resident citizens to vote, they actively encourage it. Postal voting from abroad is the most common way of allowing citizens living abroad to be represented. Some countries even turn their embassies in foreign capitals into polling stations.

The breaching of the principal of no representation without taxation is largely uncontroversial in the countries which offer it because the numbers living abroad at any given moment are usually small. As such, the chances that those living abroad would have a big say in the outcome of elections is limited (although it can happen - non-resident voters caused Silvio Berlusconi to lose Italy's 2006 election).

Ireland has long been different. To have the right to vote, Irish citizens must be normally resident in Ireland. An important reason for this is because of the sheer numbers of Irish citizens that have always been outside the State owing to a tradition of emigration which is unique among peer countries in its sheer size (it explains why Ireland is the only country in the world in which the population is lower now than in the first half of the 19th century).

Tomorrow's referendums have raised - yet again - the issue of giving the diaspora the vote. As has often happened in the past, including during the recent Constitutional Convention, representative groups of Irish living abroad have argued strongly that non-resident citizens should be given the vote. Many others living here - often those with families and friends abroad - also support extending the franchise.

But allowing citizens abroad to vote in constitutional referendums would be wrong. If all the Irish citizens living abroad had the vote, they would comprise a large proportion of the entire electorate. Unlike most other countries, these non-tax paying citizens would have a huge influence on the outcome. They could easily sway the outcome of the vote. A situation might even arise whereby a majority of residents voted one way, but the non-resident vote tipped the outcome of the referendum the other way. To give it to those who do not have to live with the consequences of their vote (particularly if they have no plans ever to return to live here) would be inherently very unfair. The notion that those living abroad, who are not paying tax and who are not affected by a vote, having exactly the same voting rights as those who are resident, paying taxes and affected by constitutional change is clearly inequitable.

If the case to give the diaspora a vote in constitutional referendums is very weak, there is a case for some role in Dáil elections.

This could be done by creating a diaspora constituency. Non-resident citizens, regardless of the numbers involved, would elect, say, three TDs. In effect, the entire world outside the State's border would be a single constituency.

This would almost certainly require a change to the Constitution as it currently states that each constituency should represent 20-30,000 eligible voters. Given that the eligible diaspora vote would be many multiples of those figures, it would mean that each resident voter would have a much bigger proportional say in the composition of the Dáil compared to those who are non-resident. This is just as it should be.

This would not only give Irish citizens outside Ireland a link to the politics of their home country. It would surely deepen other links too. There is always plenty said about the diaspora, particularly around St Patrick's Day. But it is less clear that action on harnessing that global resource always matches the rhetoric. Having three TDs in Dáil Éireann who were there to represent the diaspora would maintain the focus year round.

The strongest case of all for giving the diaspora a vote is in presidential elections. Because the president does not exercise powers in the framing of policy matters, giving those living abroad a say in electing the head of state would not breach the principal of no representation without taxation.

Given the largely figurehead role of the President, widening the electorate would have few downsides and, as advocates have often pointed to, would help to maintain the connections between the Irish abroad and the home country.

It would also give incumbents and aspirants greater reason to cultivate the diaspora.

Indeed, so strong is the case that the aforementioned constitutional convention was given a remit to examine the issue by the Government (it was not asked to examine whether non-resident citizens should have votes in either Dáil elections or referendums).

The convention formally endorsed the idea. But despite the Government committing to holding a full Oireachtas debate on the matter within four months, more than one year on nothing has happened (nor is it the only proposal of the convention that law makers have never discussed). Worse still, the Government's own 57-page strategy paper on the Global Irish, published two months ago, makes absolutely no mention of the idea. All this points to one thing: regardless of whether you support or oppose the idea of widening the franchise to the diaspora - in presidential elections, parliament elections or referendums - it won't be happening anytime soon.

Irish Independent

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