Extending the franchise abroad is a welcome first step

Extending a hand to our separated brethren in the North gives expression to the aspiration for a united Ireland

 

The announcement by Taoiseach Enda Kenny of a referendum to enfranchise some Irish citizens abroad in presidential elections – how many, and for how long, we have yet to discover – is a belated, welcome step forward. It is a formal acknowledgement that those who have left us in recent years, voluntarily or involuntarily, are still part of us. And, importantly, in extending a hand to our separated brethren in Northern Ireland, gives expression, to some small degree, to the aspiration to a united Ireland.

But, before we pretend that it is a measure of how much our diaspora is valued and cherished, perhaps we should consider the offer more a measure of how the political class really views the presidency – an office of largely symbolic significance rather than real political clout. It is seen as a relatively easy offer to make that will not upset the political balance. Although, if the fears of some politicians are realised that this will prove to be an ideal constituency for Sinn Féin, however symbolic the post, a political price will be paid.

The idea of non-resident citizens voting is far from new. It goes back to Roman emperor Augustus, but really only took off in the 20th century when some states wanted initially to enfranchise soldiers fighting abroad in the first or second World War. In the US case the vote was only extended to all citizens abroad in 1968.

But Ireland remains very far behind. Some 115 states have established some form of voting for non-resident citizens, 14 of them in presidential elections alone (that includes some, like the US, where the president has real power), 31 in legislative elections alone, and none in referendums alone. Eleven states allow non-resident voting in all three categories. Such elections/votes can, however, be problematic in host countries: Turkish citizens living in Germany and Holland who are entitled to vote in referendums are currently protesting against restrictions there on campaigning, while Canada briefly banned voting booths for foreign elections.

Only 14 of the 115 set time limit restrictions on voting by their diaspora – in the UK the right to vote goes after 15 years abroad. In the Irish case picking such limits will be controversial – how many of the last decades of emigration waves will be enfranchised?

Yet, if the Government were serious about extending voting rights to the diaspora or Northern voters, one means would be to reserve a number of seats in the Seanad for non-resident citizens or/and Northern voters. The French, for example, have 11 such seats in their upper house – 200,000 French living in Canada and the US vote in the 1st constituency. And Tunisia has 18 reserved overseas seats in its 217-member constituent assembly. Almost one million Tunisians live abroad, including approximately 500,000 in France.

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