By Noreen Bowden | February 26, 2016
I fess up: I’m a lousy prognosticator. In 2011, I predicted that this would be the last general election that emigrants wouldn’t be voting in. It sounds so naively optimistic now, I realise. But we were in the mood for reform back in those post-crash days! I got caught up with the heady excitement of it all.
In the interest of transparency, I am copying my 2011 article in full below. I won’t make any predictions regarding the timing again, but I am certain that Ireland will eventually take its place among the nations of the world in allowing its nonresident citizens to vote. In the meantime, I’ve joined in with a few others to start work on a new venture toward ensuring that it happens – we’re just at the start of it, but you can join us over at VotingRights.ie and follow us on on our shiny new Twitter feed at @VotingRightsIE.
I’ve been writing about emigrant voting since about 2006. When I started, it seemed that any victory in the battle for the emigrant vote was a long way off. I don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I believe we’ll see emigrant voting by the next general election. Here’s why.
- We see them everywhere, still. Emigrants may have left, but they’re still up there on our Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Skype contacts, and even our TV screens. They’re joining the chat about Fianna Fail, Lucinda Creighton, rugby, The Rubberbandits, you name it. Some people still try to make the argument that Irish people abroad aren’t staying informed, but it’s a fairly obvious denial of reality: expats have the same access to most of the same media that any of us in Ireland do. They’re going to keep consuming this media, and they’re going to keep appearing in it. It’s going to be harder and harder to pretend that their voices are ill-informed or irrelevant.
- The truth is out: emigrant voting isn’t the preserve of a few countries. In reading the Dáil debates of the past, one of the most striking features is how little actual knowledge there was about how many countries allowed their emigrants to vote. People referred to countries like France, the UK, and the US as if these were anomalies, and emigrant voting were some kind of peculiar national quirk, undertaken by these few radically democratic nations. Now, however, we know that emigrant voting is a global democratic norm: thanks to a 2007 study by IDEA called “Voting from Abroad, the International IDEA Handbook, it’s fairly common knowledge that more than 115 countries and territories allow their expats to vote. This includes nearly all developed nations, and nearly every other EU country. [2016 note: since 2011, the trend has only accelerated.]
- Our current situation is irrational. Our policy-makers want to be global leaders in diaspora relations, and, in truth, Ireland is pretty close. The global Irish community is loyal, active, in touch, and engaged. We value their economic contribution: the 21st-century version of remittances includes such activities as business networking, opening new markets to Irish companies, and directing FDI. Our global networks supporting Irish sports, heritage and culture are vibrant. Yet when it comes to the emigrant vote, we’re seriously out of step with the rest of the world. We section off politics as the only realm of Irish life that’s off-limits to our overseas citizens, while most nations treat political engagement with their diasporas as a basic tool of these relationships.
- It’s only fair to give them a say. Occasionally, Irish residents will argue that emigrants should not have the vote because they don’t want non-resident citizens making decisions that affect people living in Ireland – yet they don’t consider that the government is also making decisions that affect overseas citizens.What are those issues that concern emigrants? Many are the same issues that might concern any other Irish citizen, but there are a few that are of particular interest to the Irish abroad. Some Irish people pay taxes while abroad; some who inherited family homes, for example, have had to pay the tax on non-primary residences introduced in recent years. Some of our most vulnerable emigrants (many of whom are from the 1950s and 1960s generation, who saved little for themselves while sending millions back home) depend on programmes paid for out of the emigrant support services budget. Others receive Irish pensions based on contributions they made while working in Ireland. Any expat at any time may find themselves in need of consular protection, as the troubling events this week in New Zealand and Libya showed.
If you’re Irish and you want to come home, an economy that will enable you to return home to a job will be of paramount concern. Some of those coming home have had to seek social welfare assistance, yet thousands of returning emigrants have been denied this under the habitual residence condition – despite assurances on the introduction of this legislation that returning emigrants would not be affected. Civil partnership and spousal immigration legislation will affect whether an emigrant can return home with his or her partner.Who in Ireland is speaking up for the interests of our overseas citizens in these issues? Emigrants need their own voices heard.
- The 1998 changes in the constitution deterritorialised the Irish nation – and firmly positioned our overseas citizens within it. The new Article 2 says it is “the entitlement and birthright” of every Irish citizen “to be part of the Irish Nation”. As Article 1 tells us, it’s the Irish nation that has the “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”. How can one segment of the Irish nation take away the inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign rights of another? The question needs further exploration.
- The bogeyman of The North is dead. For the last few decades, the debate over emigrant voting rights was overshadowed by the fear in some circles that there was a radicalised overseas electorate lurking within the heart of Irish-America, ready to launch gunmen into office. If this were ever true, it’s certainly not now, however many fears may linger in the minds of those Irish residents who cling on to their outdated, stereotypical notions of the Irish in America. Brian Cowen acknowledged it: The Northern Irish peace process united Irish opinion with the diaspora. The Irish in America played an enormous role in facilitating that peace process, and it’s time to get over the idea that an irrational fear of our own citizens is a reason to disenfranchise them.
- European institutions are starting to take an interest. While the EU has always regarded expat voting as an issue of national competency, there have been several international bodies that have taken steps toward emigrant voting rights recently. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, recently ruled that Greece needed to implement the emigrant voting provisions it had introduced into its constitution some decades back; while the decision was primarily based on the Greek constitution, it also took into consideration that out 29 of 33 Council of Europe countries had implemented procedures to allow voting by overseas citizens. The court is currently dealing with the case of an elderly English man living in Italy who is challenging the UK’s 15-year time limit on expat voting. [2016 note: Harry Shindler lost his case, but the Conservative government has promised to eliminate the time limit - though not before the Brexit referendum.] These kinds of cases aren’t going to go away, and it’s likely that these types of challenges will increase.
Meanwhile, the 2010 European Commission report on citizenship has indicated that the EU will take a look at this issue in the future. The report pledges that the Commission “will launch a discussion to identify political options to prevent EU citizens from losing their political rights as a consequence of exercising their right to free movement”. With the increasing international trends toward engaging overseas citizens, European institutions will be more likely to be active in these issues in the future. [2016 note: The Commission has issued that guidance, which criticized Ireland for being among the few European nations that don't offer emigrant voting rights.]
With the mood for reform sweeping Ireland, I’m confident that the many proposals that have been made aimed at giving emigrants a voice will result in real change – and if the new government doesn’t implement these kinds of changes, we’ll just fall further out of step with the rest of the world, and with the legitimate desires of our own citizens for a say in the government of their own nation. We need our emigrants. We can’t expect the same level of loyalty from our our overseas citizens as we did in the past if we continue to refuse them the basic right that nearly every other developed nation in the world would give them.