Saturday 24 August 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Should the diaspora still influence home affairs?'

We need to think long and hard before we undermine the value of our vote by diluting the electorate, writes Dr Ciara Kelly

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

The Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) campaign rolled into town last week, in advance of the presumed upcoming referendum on whether we should let the diaspora with citizenship, vote in our presidential elections. They are a London-based group of clearly engaged and passionate people who want to have a vote here. They made several arguments in both the media and the Oireachtas as to why they should be allowed to do so.

They said they wanted to clear up the myths out there about what letting the diaspora vote might mean for those of us resident here in Ireland. And they produced a list of six such myths with an explanation as to why each was a falsehood. I have read it, but I think their arguments are less than robust. Let's go through them one at a time.

1 "No representation without taxation."

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They say citizens' rights have never been granted on an ability to pay tax. First up, we haven't established there is any right for those abroad to have a vote here, so calling it a right is mere conjecture.

Secondly, that little sound bite about representation and taxation summarises a position that means, unless you are actively taking part in a society and therefore going to be affected by a vote, you shouldn't have one. It could just as easily be inverted to no taxation without representation. And in effect what it means is you should have to live with the consequences of your vote - so you cast it with proper consideration.

A reminder that democracy is but one means of government and shouldn't be taken for granted. Those who don't live here will never live with the consequences of their votes. A vote is a means to shape the society you live in - there is something deeply flawed in having a right to shape one you don't live in - but other people do.

2 "Votes abroad would swamp the vote."

They say only a tiny fraction of those eligible to vote would do so. This is somewhat reassuring, considering our disproportionately large diaspora. However in-built in this statement is the implicit understanding that if the vote abroad did swamp the home vote, that would be a bad thing. In effect, potentially allowing a majority of voters to exist outside these shores rather than on this island.

Perhaps they won't vote. Perhaps they will. But why draw up legislation specifically allowing something you don't want to happen, happen? Why take that risk?

This referendum, if passed, could allow a candidate to be elected that the diaspora choose, even though resident citizens abhor them. An incredibly foolish move by those of us who live here.

3 "Brexit passport holders voting."

They say it won't be those who took up Irish citizenship to acquire EU citizenship who will vote - it will be those born in Ireland, or the children of those born in Ireland, who do so.

Firstly, we have no way of knowing in advance who will vote. Secondly, even if this were true, you could still have an adult child of an Irish-born citizen - who'd never set foot here and whose main connection to Ireland was through fireside tales about the old sod - casting their nostalgia-filled vote. And I for one do not want to indulge the mothballing of our country.

But equally, what if the Brexit vote did materialise? What if Brexiteers decided they wanted a protest presidential candidate elected in an EU country? Why would we meddle with our perfectly functional democracy to allow that possibility?

4 "Overseas voters vote differently."

They say nope - they vote along the same lines we do. Here's the thing. I don't care how they vote. I don't care if they share the exact same politics as me, or if they are polar opposites. I don't want to dilute my vote - our votes - with theirs.

I wouldn't extend this right, just because I believed they would vote along the same lines as me. How they vote is immaterial to me when I don't believe they should have a vote in the first place.

5 "Citizens abroad aren't affected."

They say the President himself calls his role a global one. He does, and it is. But by "global" we mean he is the head of our Republic on the world stage.

That, in no way, equates to people around the globe getting a say in who he is.

Just because he interfaces with the world, does not mean the world has a right to choose him. That is the sole preserve of we the Irish citizens within this Republic.

6 "The cost would be too high."

They say we should not put a price on democratic rights. I agree with this, it's nothing to do with the cost - it's to do with it being a terrible idea.

I have heard repeatedly about what they do in other countries on voting rights and I care not a jot if we are the only country in the universe that doesn't allow our overseas' citizens to vote.

We are not comparing like with like. Our history of emigration, and indeed Brexit, means that we have a diaspora that out-sizes our home population. Other countries do not have that.

I believe the fundamental principle that if you have a vote, you should have to live with the consequence of that vote - or it becomes a vote you are likely to squander.

We need to think long and hard before we undermine the value of our vote and dilute our position as the existing electorate. Brexit was born of an ill-thought-through referendum. And they are still reeling from the consequences.

Personally, I wouldn't even hold this referendum. But if we do, we have an opportunity to decide if those who already voted with their feet should still be able to influence our affairs.


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