Brexit exposes vulnerability of citizenship rights for Irish abroad

After Brexit, will Irish in Britain lose ability to vote in European elections?

‘Irish legislators need to recognise that an integral part of citizenship is the right to vote and have representation in their home country.’ 
Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / The Irish Times

‘Irish legislators need to recognise that an integral part of citizenship is the right to vote and have representation in their home country.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / The Irish Times

 

As an Irish citizen living in London I was pleased that the British Labour Party changed its policy on Brexit, to support the UK staying in the EU customs union and the single market.

Unlike some of the Irish in Britain who shared their views with Irish Times Abroad recently, Brexit hasn’t forced me to change my plans for my future in the UK. I have enjoyed a good career here and contributed to this community. I have worked hard to give my children a good childhood here.

With my son studying physics at Oxford and my daughter just about to start anthropology at Exeter University this year, I am in no position to pack it in now. In fact, I campaigned with the pro-EU group Irish4Europe in the UK during the referendum campaign and supported the Liberal Democrats in the general election because of their pro-EU stance.

The EU referendum result last June surprised and shocked me deeply. The expletives rolled out that morning as I lay on my bed with my wife, who is German. As (non-British) European citizens we were left wondering what the future held for us. We are a quintessential European family living in London. In a sense, we are the product of the post-war, open and peaceful Europe.

Likewise, our bilingual children and their school friends couldn’t understand why anyone would want to “leave Europe”. Their childhood experiences in the UK, Ireland and Germany shaped their young lives as they moved freely between all three countries over the years. With advances in transport, Europe has become much smaller; it’s as easy as travelling between Wexford, Dublin and Galway. As parents, we have to constantly reassure them about their future.

We are very comfortable with our European identity. My Irish European identity is typical of many Irish living in Ireland today. Many of us feel part of Europe, and with that comes certain EU citizen rights, such as anti-discrimination rights, freedom of movement, social security and healthcare rights, and voting rights in European elections.

I have watched the reaction of the 900,000 British citizens living in Spain who benefit from their EU citizen rights on healthcare and pensions. Their rights to healthcare in Spain are threatened by Brexit as they would no longer have the protections as EU citizens. However, as “British expats”, many had the right to vote in their Brexit referendum under the UK 15-year rule for citizens voting from overseas.

British citizens who left the UK more than 15 years ago were furious they could not vote on such an important issue which had a direct impact on their rights as both British and EU citizens. If Ireland had an “Irexit” referendum today, very few Irish people living in Spain for example would have voting rights at all on this important issue, because Ireland is one of only four EU countries that does not allow its citizens living overseas a vote.

The disenfranchisement of Irish emigrants is, in my view, highly inequitable and antiquated. Brexit has highlighted the vulnerability and weakness of Irish citizenship for Irish people living overseas. In October 2016, after the referendum, the UK government recognised the importance of voting rights for overseas citizens by issuing a policy paper on its pledge to give “votes for life” to all emigrants for parliamentary elections and referendums.

The disenfranchisement of Irish emigrants also means that hundreds of thousands of Irish-born people living in the UK will not be able to exercise their democratic right to vote in European elections after Brexit. They cannot vote online or by post to Ireland, and won’t be able to cast a ballot in Britain either.

I will lose this right post Brexit, and my wife will also lose her right to vote in both local and European elections in the UK as a European citizen. Recognising this, Dublin MEP Brian Hayes recently called for Irish legislation to be changed to allow the Irish in Britain to vote in European elections in Ireland.I believe Irish legislators should go further than this and recognise that an integral part of citizenship is the right to vote and have representation in their home country, a right provided by most developed countries, even if living abroad.

I attended this year’s Global Irish Civic Forum in May at Dublin Castle. At that forum, Simon Coveney questioned how overseas citizens can show a “connection” to the country. I would turn this on its head and say, it is the Republic that grants citizenship and its associated rights.

The question should also be: How can the Republic recognise and protect overseas citizens’ rights?

Conrad Bryan is treasurer of Irish in Britain (irishinbritain.org), which is funded primarily by the Irish Government. He has lived in London since 1989, where he works in finance.

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