By Noreen Bowden | May 17, 2013
Ireland’s Constitutional Convention will be looking at the issue of votes for emigrants this weekend, as it examines the issue of electoral reform. Mary Hickman of the VICA campaign will speak. The public has been invited to make submissions on the Constitution.ie website. There are many people who have written in on the issue of votes for emigrants, and VICA and the Federation of Irish Societies in London have made particularly good ones.
If you haven’t submitted yet, it’s not too late. It doesn’t need to be terribly long – put in a few words and help shape Ireland’s future, and your own.
Here is what I submitted today:
(a) Votes for overseas citizens should be considered as an important part of electoral reform, and especially for Dáil elections. Overseas citizens are affected by decisions made in Ireland, and they need genuine political representation that will enable their interests and concerns to be voiced and addressed.
2. Issues affecting emigrants
(a) Opponents sometimes argue that allowing overseas citizens the right to vote would be giving them power to make laws they won’t be affected by. This argument ignores the fact that emigrants are, in fact, affected by many laws and policies enacted in Ireland, in which they have no say.
(b) Overseas citizens who are hoping to return can be particularly affected by decisions made by legislators regarding any of the following:
- Economic policies affecting their ability to return
- Social welfare policies (like the habitual residence condition that has been reported in the Irish Times to have prevented at least 3,000 returning emigrants from accessing social welfare after they returned home to find work or care for elderly relatives, sometimes resulting in destitution.)
- Policies around education and the cost of university education for the children of returning emigrants.
- Spousal immigration laws, which could determine whether an emigrant has the right to return home to live with his or her partner
(c) Decisions that affect citizens while they live abroad, whether or not they plan to return, include those made in areas such as:
- Taxation: Many emigrants are required to pay tax on property they own at home. “Taxation without representation” is a reality.
- Pensions: Many emigrants have worked in Ireland and are entitled to a contributory pension; they will thus be affected by any changes in pension levels.
- Levels of consular staffing and protection, which can affect the safety of citizens during times of crisis
- Levels of emigrant support, which provides for on-the-ground assistance in local Irish communities abroad, often to the most vulnerable of emigrants.
- Broadcasting policy, which regulates the ability of Irish communities in the UK and elsewhere to access Irish radio and television broadcasts as well as access to RTE onine services
- Diaspora engagement policies, including the development of cultural, heritage and business initiatives; network development, return policies, foreign direct investment initiatives, and more.
- Citizenship, which can affect the citizenship rights of spouses and descendents.
(d) Many of these policies have a strong impact on the lives of the Irish abroad, yet the effects of these policies on emigrants and overseas citizens are barely on the radar for Irish policy-makers and voters.
(e) There is thus a real need for meaningful representation of the perspectives of overseas citizens in the government.
3. The problem of balance
(a) Some object to the notion of votes for emigrants based on the idea that the Irish abroad could wield disproportionate power in their home constituencies. This is a legitimate concern, but the solution is not to ban all emigrant and overseas citizens’ voices, but rather to come up with a compromise solution that allows for a more balanced representation of all citizens’ perspectives.
(b) Regional constituencies for emigrants, such as exist in France and Italy, should be explored as the simplest solution for allowing the clearest and most balanced representation of emigrant interests.
4. The problem of taxation
(a) Some people question whether it is fair for overseas citizens to vote when they do not pay taxes. It is often forgotten that the young emigrants of this generation, in particular, who have left Ireland in order to be able to pay their mortgages, will have to pay taxes on those properties. Similarly, older emigrants, many of whom are on limited incomes, may have inherited family properties which are also taxed.
(b) A problem arises when people treat the saying “no representation without taxation” as if it is a well-established democratic principle. It is not. The US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its non-resident citizens on income earned abroad – and yet the US is only one of well over 100 countries around the world that allows its expats to vote. Even in the US, there’s no actual connection between paying taxes and being allowed to vote: the requirement is that non-residents file taxes, but don’t owe them on income under about $90,000. So relatively few US expats actually owe any taxes to the US – yet all US citizens are entitled to vote.
(c) The confusion arises from the fact that the “No representation without taxation” sounds like “No taxation without representation” – a genuine rallying cry for democracy arising out of the American Revolution. “No representation without taxation” is the opposite – it’s a call to restrict democracy; a demand for a return to pre-Enlightenment era when only men of property could vote. We don’t demand the exchange of taxation for voting rights in any other context: the penniless are as entitled to vote as the wealthy, and we don’t exclude net beneficiaries of taxation from voting.
5. The distinction between “citizens” and “the diaspora”
(a) In the public debate over emigrant voting, there seems to be some confusion about whether the vote should be for emigrants, the 3 million citizens living around the world, or for the wider diaspora estimated at 70 million. Yet few, if any, advocates of emigrant voting rights are calling for the diaspora to be allowed to vote.
(b) The Constitution currently, it could be argued, supports votes for all citizens, but not to the wider diaspora. Article 2 makes a clear distinction between them:
It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.
(c) The Irish Nation, thus, is specifically meant to be comprised of everyone who has Irish citizenship. The Constitution states that there is a distinction between citizens, no matter where they live, (who are entitled to be part of the Irish Nation), and the wider diaspora (“the people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”). The worldwide population of citizens have a claim on the Irish Nation, but the non-citizens of the diaspora have merely a ‘special affinity’ that is to be cherished but which offers no such claim.
(d) Article 1 sets out the rights of the Irish nation:
The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions.
(e) This begs the question: If the self-determination right of the nation is “inalienable, indefeasible and sovereign”, how is it just or appropriate that a significant part of the Irish nation is deprived of that right?