Diaspora deserve vote in presidential polls to select who represents them

Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 00:00

‘No taxation without representation” was the 18th-century rallying cry of American revolutionaries. It is also true that there should be no representation without taxation. I don’t pay Irish tax. I have lived most of my adult life far from my Cork home. So I accept that I shouldn’t have a say in electing those who set the policies (and tax rates) for the State. But I also believe that Ireland should seek to genuinely engage with its diaspora.

In December I wrote an article for Australia’s Irish Echo ( irishecho.com.au/2012/12/09/presidential-ballot-could-be-gathering-the-diaspora-needs). I welcomed former president Mary Robinson’s light in the window of the Áras and the odd postcard about The Gathering, but I wanted something more.

I am a legal academic who has spent over a decade lecturing and researching in the area of constitutional law. And while I have not been ordinarily resident in Ireland for more than a decade, I remain gripped by Irish politics.

This is not surprising, as my childhood was dominated by Irish politics. In the early 1980s, my father would strap a loudhailer to the roof of his Volvo 66 and exhort people to “Rise and follow Charlie”. As a teenager, a poster of Dick Spring, with its exhortation “Let’s make Ireland work”, adorned my bedroom wall.

When I left Ireland, for the UK, in 2001, I continued to vote in local, Westminster and European elections. Now I live in Sydney: the sun shines; the boys and girls on Bondi wear GAA and Munster jerseys; and I am disenfranchised. I have no vote.

I remain politically engaged but my inability to vote has focused my attention on the important connection that the right to vote creates between a citizen and their state. Being resident grants me no right to vote here. Fair enough. But shouldn’t being a citizen grant me some rights back home?

Seanad vote

In the interests of full disclosure I will admit that – as a graduate of UCC and TCD – I can vote for two panels in Seanad elections. But the Seanad’s corporatist electoral system is bizarre, as the separate NUI and TCD panels highlight.

In reality I shouldn’t have even a single vote in Seanad elections. Sitting in the “Lucky Country” with its mining boom and housing bubbles I have no right to influence Irish Government policy. I oppose Seanad abolition, but equally I oppose the addition of a diaspora panel.

What I want is a vote in the elections that matter to me: presidential elections. I want to choose that person who represents Ireland and the Irish at home and abroad.

Under article 8 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, Uachtarán na hÉireann vows to “dedicate [their] abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland”. The “people” of Ireland – does that not include the Irish abroad?

Legally speaking, the key provisions are article 12.2.2. of the Bunreacht and section 7 of the Electoral Act 1992. Article 12 links the right to vote in presidential elections to the right to vote in elections for Dáil Éireann. However, I think it is clear that this constitutional provision is designed to ensure that all those who have a vote in Dáil elections will also be eligible to vote in presidential elections. It does not preclude a broader franchise for presidential elections.

While abolishing the Seanad requires a referendum, including the diaspora in presidential elections is as simple as emending section 7 of the Electoral Act 1992. Rather than restricting the ballot to Irish residents it should be expanded to include Irish citizens.

That is a group of up to 73 million. Now it is silly to suggest that 70 million people who have previously shown no inclination to even get an Irish passport would suddenly jump at the chance to vote for the largely symbolic office of President.

Motivated group

The real number of overseas votes is likely to be significantly lower. It would be limited to those who felt that electing the symbolic head of state was worth the trouble – a small but motivated electorate, worthy of the right to vote.

Ballotbox.ie, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fintan O’Toole appear to support the idea. Polling data suggests the Irish people support the idea. But here’s my ha’penny’s worth: I do not believe that my children or I should have a right to determine policy for Ireland. I chose not to live in Ireland.

But I should have a say in how Ireland is represented. That impacts upon me. I’m Irish even when I live elsewhere. How Ireland is perceived matters to those in the diaspora. And if Irish governments want the diaspora to connect with Ireland they should engage with us.

The postcard was nice. But this would be meaningful. It is constitutionally possible. It is politically feasible. Show us what you really think of us.

Fergal Davis is a graduate of UCC and a senior lecturer in law at the University of New South Wales in Australia

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