Am I still part of the ‘Irish nation’ even though I can’t vote?
Ireland is one of just three EU countries that disenfranchises its emigrants, writes Niall McArdle
I emigrated in 2002, or to put it a different way, I’ve missed the chance to vote in three general elections, one presidential election, and eight referendums. Perhaps I’m asking too much to still expect a vote. Perhaps 11 years is too long. What if, say, someone has only been gone for five years? Or three? Or one? As it stands now, emigrants are virtually disenfranchised the moment we step onto the plane.
With the nation Gathering to wave goodbye to her children again, now more than ever Ireland needs to welcome back its emigrants in a meaningful way, with a gesture that goes beyond sentiment. The Gathering and the lepping about on Beckett Bridge was nice, but if you’re going to turn me upside down and shake the loose change out of my pockets, the least you can do is let me register to vote on the way back to the airport.
Many of us didn’t want to leave, and we’d like the chance to help shape what the place will be like for us if and when we get back. Besides, isn’t it sort of embarrassing that a so-called developed country refuses to let some of its citizens vote? Isn’t that in breach of our civil rights?
Even the President feels it’s unfair. He has suggested emigrants who have lived abroad for less than ten years deserve a vote.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the Constitution already allows for Irish emigrants to vote. There is no mention of a prohibition. Article 1 outlines the rights of its citizens as follows: “The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government.” And if there is any confusion as to what “the Irish Nation” is, Article 2 states “It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland … to be part of the Irish Nation.”
I was born in Ireland and lived there for almost twenty-five years before I emigrated. Am I still a part of the Irish Nation?
As it happens, 2013 has been declared the European Year of Citizens. Ireland, Malta and Cyprus are the only EU countries that don’t allow their emigrants to vote. In a report issued in May, EU Commission vice president Viviane Reding said: “the practice of depriving citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country is effectively tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement.”
With a discussion of the issue by the Constitutional Convention around the corner, there is an increasing call for the Government to allow its Irish citizens abroad to vote. A random sample of emigrants I spoke to shows just how strong the feelings are among the Irish overseas.
Cork-native Rachel Gaffney has been living in Dallas, Texas for 17 years. In spite of being abroad for so long, she still has strong ties to Ireland, returning several times a year on business. She sources Irish products for private clients, as well as presenting an internet TV series, The Irish Kitchen. Her American friends are surprised she can’t vote in Ireland. As it happens, she can’t vote anywhere; as a “resident alien” of the United States she isn’t entitled to vote there. She keenly follows Irish current affairs and would like to be able to vote in Ireland, but says: “I do, however understand the mixed reactions I get from Irish people when I say this. Only recently I was told ‘You don’t pay taxes in Ireland, so you shouldn’t be entitled’. I find that somewhat of a harsh and narrow-minded statement.”
The argument for “no representation without taxation”, however, should not be held up as an excuse to disenfranchise emigrants. Plenty of countries grant voting rights to their emigrants without feeling the need to tax them.
Paddy Kelly is a computer programmer from Kerry who emigrated in 1997. He now lives in Stockholm, where he works for a games company. He thinks emigrants should be allowed to vote at least until they decide to become a citizen of their adopted country. “Only when you live somewhere else do you really begin to see the flaws and problems with a country,” he says. “Ireland is a mess right now with greedy lying bankers, corrupt and moronic politicians and constant interference on all levels from the babblers of the Church. As I still hold an Irish passport, I don’t see why I can’t get a say in its election process.”
Noel Scanlon has been abroad since 2011. From Clare, he now lives in Riyadh, where he works for an Irish company as a design manager for Saudi Arabia’s largest mobile company. Like Kelly, he believes emigrants should be able to vote “until such time as one claims citizenship elsewhere, or at least to a stage where they have no financial ties to Ireland”. He adds “I am raising a family back home in Ireland. I work abroad to provide for a living, an education, a roof over their heads; a huge proportion of my income goes home every month for this purpose. I believe my vote is my right as an Irish citizen and I take that very seriously. I owned and ran a business back home, paid tax and employed people. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to vote?”
But not everybody feels emigrants deserve a vote at “home”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who are away from Ireland the longest feel more interested in the politics of their new homes.
Generation Emigration blogger Patrick McKenna emigrated from Belfast 35 years ago, and his focus is on life in Canada. He believes that “no Irish emigrant will ever be fully assimilated in their adopted country until they become citizens and cast their vote”. He adds, “after a number of years away, the emigrant really will not have the foggiest as to the ins and outs of politics in the home country.” He asks “does a vote by the well-intentioned but out of date emigrant do service to the home country?”
He also points out that “emigrants who leave with a chip on their shoulder might be tempted to look back in anger and go in for vote-spoiling or silly voting for some weird fringe party,” and he thinks “it’s far more important for the emigrant to obtain citizenship and begin to play a role in the political life of their new country.”
Fellow long-time emigrant Philip Lynch has a similar view. Originally from rural Westmeath, he emigrated to Australia in 1983 when he was 22. Based in Tasmania and working as a barista, Lynch is still very interested in Irish current affairs, but doesn’t feel well-informed enough to vote. He adds, “with all that is happening in Australia, there is more than enough going on here to keep me interested. The idea of emigrants having a vote doesn’t do it for me. I guess I feel that Australia is my home now, and so it’s in this society where I want to have my political two-bob’s worth.”
No matter what the opinion, with emigration on the rise, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.