Saturday 25 May 2019

Diaspora want their voices heard - so why must they fall silent at the ballot box?

Police officers march in the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in New York. Ireland has been sending its citizens across the globe for centuries. Photo: Getty
Police officers march in the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in New York. Ireland has been sending its citizens across the globe for centuries. Photo: Getty

Theresa Reidy

Nearly all democracies across the world provide some form of voting rights to their citizens living abroad. Ireland is a bizarre anomaly in not granting this basic right to its citizens.

The situation is all the more odd when we reflect on the generations of Irish citizens who have emigrated. Ireland, more than so many nations, should be deeply sensitive to the emigrant experience.

US citizens living in Ireland were able to make their choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but a reciprocal situation does not apply to Irish citizens living in the US (or anywhere else in the world) who would like to participate in Irish elections.

Irish citizens retain their ordinary voting rights after they emigrate, if they plan to return to the State within 18 months. But they must be in Ireland if they want to cast their ballots.

In contrast, most democracies around the world facilitate their citizens abroad through postal voting, e-voting or voting at embassies and consular offices. In many cases, voting rights are retained indefinitely, although some countries expire emigrant voting rights after a set period of time.

Ireland has been sending its citizens across the globe for centuries, but to a large extent the demand for interactive engagement between Ireland and its extended community abroad is the product of the last two decades.

Technology is a really important part of this changing dynamic. The Irish abroad can listen to national and local radio and watch TV on their phones as though they were sitting in Limerick or Louth.

In some parts of the world, Irish citizens have read the morning newspaper long before alarm clocks begin to go off in this time zone. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have created a space where people can contribute to debates and discussions anywhere in the world.

The comments sections on newspaper sites fulfil the same function. The Irish abroad have many ways of having their voices heard but they are still denied a role in Irish decisions.

Emigration has also changed in character. The 1990s marked the first decade in which there was a large flow back to Ireland and, indeed, research has shown that many recent emigrants are keen to return, should circumstances allow. These Irish citizens maintain a close eye on events at home.

For many people, voting is an intrinsic part of citizenship. Irish data from the European Social Survey from 2002 show that an overwhelming majority of people believe that voting at elections is an important part of being a good citizen.

The failure to provide for emigrant voting means that a significant minority are not able to fulfil what they see as their responsibility as citizens.

The diaspora have demonstrated that they want to engage. One of the remarkable features of the marriage referendum in 2015 was the mobilisation of Irish citizens abroad to participate in the decision. Now it is time to provide them with a guaranteed legal right to participate in Irish decision making and to develop the necessary structures to facilitate voting.

Initiatives to engage with the global Irish have been introduced in recent years. The Gathering was a tremendously successful tourism scheme, but it hardly counts as substantive engagement with the Irish abroad.

The Constitutional Convention considered the question of whether voting rights at presidential elections should be extended to Irish citizens abroad and it overwhelmingly endorsed the principle and indeed, a joint Oireachtas committee went even further in the details of its recommendations on the matter. A minister for the diaspora was established during the term of the last government but still no action.

Now another process of consideration is under way and the hope is that there will be a response from the Government early next year, possibly coinciding with the Global Irish Civic Forum. The issues are complex, that is not in doubt. But indecision, by review, report, consultation, more review and working group evaluation, is the defining hallmark of electoral reform in Ireland.

We have heard all of the arguments about how it is too complicated; the diaspora is enormous and dispersed across the globe, Northern Ireland poses an unusual set of circumstances, registration would be too complex, how would they vote. These questions are aired as though Ireland is a state on Mars and these types of issues have not been considered and addressed in a variety of different ways by other democracies.

It is time for the Government to come good on its promises. A decision needs to be made with a detailed implementation plan. There could be a presidential election in 2018 and it would be a particularly meaningful year in which to enfranchise Irish citizens abroad, a fitting commemoration of the one hundred year anniversary of the largest franchise reform on the island, when women were first granted the right to vote.

Theresa Reidy (University College Cork) and Marie-Claire McAleer (National Youth Council of Ireland) are working on an Irish Research Council-funded project on young people and politics

Irish Independent

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