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Votes for the diaspora: flying kites and paying lip service


Joe McHugh, Minister of State for the Diaspora and Overseas Development Aid. Photo: Tom Burke

Joe McHugh, Minister of State for the Diaspora and Overseas Development Aid. Photo: Tom Burke

Joe McHugh, Minister of State for the Diaspora and Overseas Development Aid. Photo: Tom Burke

The week began with Enda ­Kenny's headline-grabbing news that there'll be a referendum to allow Irish citizens abroad to vote in ­Presidential elections. The recycled announcement made headlines because it was delivered to an audience of mostly Irish-Americans at a Saint Patrick's festival do in Philadelphia.

The same disclosure barely warranted a couple of paragraphs when it came from Diaspora Minister Joe McHugh last July. Kenny's declaration that an options paper would be published by the end of this month echoed that of his Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, late last year who said the same options paper would be published by the end of 2016.

Having skilfully meshed the arts of kite-flying and paying lip service to the Irish abroad, the multitasking Taoiseach tossed the warm-ish potato to Minister McHugh. Pressed for any fine detail he might have on the planned referendum, McHugh set a new world record for squeezing the word "option" into his opening two minutes of chatter (a formidable 19 times).

His enthusiasm for the scheme could not be faulted - he peppered his patter with buzzwords like "groundbreaking" and "pioneering" - but he seemed on firmest ground when outlining the difficulties that would have to be overcome to make it actually work. On Morning Ireland it was put it to McHugh that since everyone currently eligible to vote in a Presidential election is entitled to vote in general elections, the upshot of separating the two rights "would be to ensure those voting rights are not extended to the Dáil". The Minister set off on a rambling reply that incorporated "pioneering" and "groundbreaking" once again, but didn't stray anywhere near answering the question put to him.

No Irish government has ever seriously contemplated giving citizens abroad a vote in elections that really matter, like those for the Dáil, rather than those that really don't, like the Áras. Emigration has always been seen as an indispensable safety valve by those anxious to preserve the status quo and their positions in it. Following the foundation of the State, US emigration in particular put a relatively safe distance between the Irish body politic and a great many unwanted dissident Republicans. With the economy on its knees in the 1950s, some 80,000 labourers, nurses and other jobless annually joined the steady stream of socialists, gays, artists and others who'd given up on trying to change their stifling society from within.

A Commission Into Emigration was established in 1948, but neither Fianna Fáil or a short-lived coalition was in any hurry to have it finish up its business. It took more than six years to report, enabling a succession of Ministers to swat away Dáil questions on the crisis, claiming they must wait for the report before formulating policy.

Taoiseach De Valera was even more cynical when a 1951 report exposing the plight of Irish emigrants in England forced him to respond. Urging the masses to return, he declared: "There is no doubt that many of those who emigrate could find employment at home at as good, or better, wages, and with living conditions far better than they find in Britain."

It was an outrageous lie, a monstrous "alternative truth", and there would be no takers, but it would play well with the diaspora in the US and elsewhere. The emigration safety-valve was key to the Church too. Bolshie priests and nuns - often working class - drawn to Liberation Theology, were packed off to the missions while tame, middle-class recruits who wouldn't rock the boat were kept at home.

Today, though the tables have turned, the mistrust of our rulers towards our diaspora is unchanged. Where once our conservative political elite mistrusted Irish-Americans as either rabid IRA supporters or dangerous freethinkers who'd contaminate Ireland with their liberal views, nowadays they're feared and loathed as rabid Trump reactionaries by an Oireachtas led by a man who branded their hero's rhetoric as "racist and dangerous".

Still, Enda got his headlines.

Damian Corless

Indo Review