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I can vote in UK but not country I was born in: fixing this is least State can do for diaspora


President Michael D Higgins. Photo :PA

President Michael D Higgins. Photo :PA

President Michael D Higgins. Photo :PA

The Cabinet is set to back a referendum to grant voting rights for the Irish abroad. But be under no illusions: the diaspora will not fall to their knees to give thanks. This is the least they could offer.

In November, Americans across the globe cast their ballot for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

As an Irish-Australian dual citizen, currently resident in London, I was legally compelled to vote in the 2016 Australian Federal elections. Irish citizens voting in presidential elections would be a welcome, but minimalist reform.

I was born in Cork in 1976. One of my earliest memories is my father lashing speakers to the roof of our Volvo 66 before driving around Ballincollig calling on our neighbours to "Rise and follow Charlie".

As a teenager I chose a different political path. In 1990, I posted leaflets through doors in Cork South Central for Mary Robinson. Dick Spring was my poster boy - his image adorned my bedroom wall.

And when I left home, for the Yorkshire dales in 2001, I naively assumed that my political ties to home would remain meaningful.

In the UK, I voted in local, national and Euro elections. I engaged with my country of residence but my Irishness meant more than just the team I cheered for during the Six Nations.

My first two children were born in Manchester. It was obvious to me that they should be Irish and their Scottish mother saw no reason to object.

And then we moved to Australia. My youngest was born in Sydney but was not entitled to Australian citizenship. Like her siblings, she is Irish. When we received permanent residency, our tax situation improved but we were still ineligible to vote in Australian elections at any level - when we became (dual) citizens we were suddenly legally obliged to vote.

While in Australia, I taught constitutional law and I wrote for the 'Irish Echo' - a newspaper for the Irish-Australian community. I followed Aussie politics but I devoured news from home. And I was proud of our President.

There was a picture doing the rounds on social media of President Michael D Higgins standing in line to use an ATM.

I would show this to my students and colleagues and say "this is my President". No absent monarch or governor general. A poet. A man of the people. His image is not on our coins but he represents me (and he has more than a passing resemblance to my Uncle John).

In 2013, the Constitutional Convention recommended votes in presidential elections for the diaspora. I supported the idea. I argued that while the Oireachtas set policy affecting residents, it made sense that the President - who represents the nation and upholds the Constitution - should be elected by the entire Irish nation, at home and abroad.

Many objected to my willingness to accept the "no taxation without representation" line. They wanted a debate on a Seanad panel for the diaspora. Some argued that citizens should have a say in referendums - the Bunreacht is for citizens, not just residents. So I believe that the Cabinet's proposal will be seen, from Bondi to Boston, not as radical, but as the bare minimum.

And there will be those who call for this tokenism to be rejected. Some smell something suspiciously cheesy in the Taoiseach's Philadelphia announcement.

Article 12.2.2° of Bunreacht na hÉireann states: "Every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President".

The Cabinet's proposal would break the link between the franchise for Presidential and Dáil elections. The referendum might be less about granting overseas citizens the right to vote in Presidential elections and more about ensuring their long-term exclusion from the Dáil franchise.

Others will argue that more pressing reforms are needed. That this promised referendum is a sentimentalist bauble to distract from bigger issues. I have sympathy with that view. I campaigned to retain the Seanad in 2013 - but I did so because I feared unicameralism, not because I was in thrall to the strange quango that is the Irish upper house.

Now that Travellers are a recognised ethnic group, is it not time they had a panel?

And what possible justification is there for NUI and TCD panels while other third-level institutions are excluded? The panel system needs shaking up.

And the issue of votes for the diaspora pales when compared to the need for repeal or reform of the Eighth Amendment. The bodily integrity and autonomy of women in Ireland are undeniably issues requiring urgent attention. And there are other issues.

But, as a dual citizen of Ireland and Australia currently resident in London, I can vote in the country of my residence, I am obliged to vote in the country of my acquired citizenship, but I am excluded from voting in the country of my birth.

The Gathering was nice. The calls for investment are grand. But Irish citizens living abroad are entitled to more than a light in the window of the Áras and a mawkish ESB ad at Christmas.

Dr Fergal Davis is a reader in law at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London

Irish Independent