Numbers of Irish citizens abroad not a barrier to voting for Dáil
Diaspora minister is wrong to think the Seanad is the only place emigrants can be represented, writes Mary Hickman
The new Minister of State for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, made it clear this week that he favours votes for Irish citizens abroad in the Seanad rather than the Dáil. His reason is that Dáil voting rights would be impractical as there “could be more voters outside a constituency than within it.” This swamping argument completely ignores the practice of a number of other EU countries – like France and Italy – who resolve this problem by having specific constituencies for their citizens abroad.
The fear of swamping is, understandably, the most common objection to giving the vote in general elections to Irish citizens abroad. People have visions of the 40 million Irish Americans or the estimated 70 million world-wide claiming Irish heritage. The number of Irish-born citizens abroad is in reality much smaller. The size of the Irish electorate at the last General Election in 2011 was 3,198,765. There are approximately 1.2 million emigrant citizens with passports (it is hard to extract the exact figures from official sources), thus the number of emigrant citizens abroad potentially might increase the electorate for General Elections by up to one third.
The Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad Campaign (VICA) has addressed the potential swamping problem by proposing that the votes of citizens abroad for the Dáil should be managed through reserved constituencies, as in France and Italy. For example, in French general elections, one member of parliament represents French people voting in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries and there are eleven other constituencies for the French abroad. Italy has four overseas constituencies: South America, North and Central America, Europe, and Australia, Asia, Oceania, Antarctica as one huge constituency.
If this approach was implemented in Ireland it would mean a certain number of TDs are designated as representing different regions of emigrants abroad entitled to vote (maybe three as proposed for the Irish Senate). This ring fences the diaspora vote, ensures the votes of residents are not swamped, and also gives the diaspora direct representation in the Dáil.
This inclusivity for citizens is important for the Irish state to address in its relationship with the diaspora. Emigration today is different from how it was, it is far more fluid and people are no longer isolated from Ireland when they leave, no matter how far away they go. They are often shocked to find they are disenfranchised. Irish emigrants travel back and forth, keep up with the news and politics as it is happening, using the internet and social media, staying involved with the political debate in Ireland, in contact with friends and family on Facebook, email and Skype. Emigrants today in these ways remain stakeholders in Irish society and want to have a say in its future because the majority hope to return.
Mary J Hickman is chair of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad group and professor of Irish Studies at St Mary’s University in London. See vica.ie, or follow the group on Facebook facebook.com/votesforirishcitizensabroad or Twitter @VICAcampaign.