Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Emigrant voting: Citizens should not lose their say in their home country

This week, we’ll sit, disenfranchised, as we read of the unfolding events of the presidential race and referendum votes in the Irish Times, and chat about them on Twitter and Facebook and Skype. It’s high time this changed, writes Noreen Bowden.

Tue, Oct 25, 2011, 10:01


This week, we’ll sit, disenfranchised, as we read of the unfolding events of the presidential race and referendum votes in the Irish Times, and chat about them on Twitter and Facebook and Skype. It’s high time this changed, writes Noreen Bowden.

Last week, Tunisian expats wept as they lined up at their consulates around the globe to cast their ballots in that country’s first free elections in decades. The week before, Paraguay’s voters approved a referendum aimed at allowing their expats to vote. On the same day, Camaroon’s expats were able to cast their ballots in the very first election in which they were allowed to vote.

Thousands of emigrants will cast a symbolic vote on

These nations have all joined the over 120 nations that allow their external citizens to vote. As for us global Irish? This week, we’ll sit, disenfranchised, as we read of the unfolding events of the presidential race and referendum votes in the Irish Times, and chat about them on Twitter and Facebook and Skype. Thousands of us will register our protest vote online at

But with the accelerating rise of absentee balloting around the world as a global democratic norm, it is inevitable that Ireland will eventually introduce the emigrant vote. It’s the normal expectation of citizens in this era of globalization and technology that they won’t lose their say in their home country simply because their work or personal lives take them elsewhere – often temporarily. And when we eventually do see the day that all of our citizens have a vote in the future of the nation, it will be good for all of us.

We simply cannot have a twenty-first-century relationship with our expats – fellow members of the Irish nation, according to our constitution – if we continue to cling on to outdated models of relating to our overseas citizens. The days of merely awaiting the remittances to roll in are over.

And our government knows it. We’re actively engaged in turning our global Irish community into business-networking, culture-consuming, roots-seeking, global ambassadors of good will for Ireland. This closer relationship with the Irish abroad, enabled by not just technological changes but also a greater understanding of the economic value of having a diaspora that is the envy of many other nations, is a good thing: it’s essential not to underestimate the loyalty of Irish people abroad, and their desire to help. And the benefits Ireland gets from global Irish business networking, FDI, venture capital assistance, expats opening new markets, and philanthropic giving are vital.

But we need to look at this from more than an economic perspective. Ireland has always been able to rely on its expats – and for too long we thought far too little of what our expats needed. It’s time to change that, to ensure that we maximise our ties with this generation of emigrants.

The reasons for not granting the vote are mired in archaic thought – with none so obvious as the argument that would limit the vote to taxpayers. Adherents of the “no representation without taxation” philosophy seem to believe that there is some genuine democratic principle in the mangled slogan they have stolen and distorted from the American Revolution. But the revolutionary plea of “no taxation without representation” was a rallying cry for greater democracy. The “no representation without taxation” argument is precisely the opposite: it seeks to undo centuries of democratic philosophy and return to the day when only men of property could vote.

The logical conclusion of such a slogan is to disenfranchise all net beneficiaries of taxation – which is exactly what some conservatives and libertarians in the US and the UK, who also brandish the slogan, seek to do. They would take the vote from welfare recipients, public servants and politicians, on the grounds that those who receive their money from the public purse should have no say in how it’s spent. It’s an ugly argument, and but it’s the logical endpoint. And proponents of that argument don’t seem to realize that the US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its expats on income earned abroad – and only a relatively small number of those pay taxes, as most of those earning less than about $90,000 are exempt.

Others point to the high number of citizens overseas as a reason to continue to disenfranchise those who leave. This is not an invalid concern: we do have an unusually large number of non-resident citizens, and it is not unreasonable to balance the rights of resident and non-resident citizens. The current situation, however, in which our expats have no voice while they are expected to continue to play a role in the economic future of the nation, is not balanced.

One potential solution that has been frequently proffered is to limit the vote to those who have been away for a number of years – five, ten, and fifteen being the most commonly cited. But what justifies these arbitrary figures, other than that they are nicely rounded numbers? Few countries use such time limits. The UK is one of three countries in the EU that does, and it’s likely that this time limit won’t last much longer; not only has the UK’s minister for political reform revealed the government was considering the limit, it’s also under threat from a case in the London High Court and another in the European Court of Human Rights.

Some suggest that the time limit should be set so that emigrants could vote for precisely one election cycle. This idea, however, suggests the vote should be about passing judgment on the past, not about crafting a shared future that all citizens should have a say in. The strongest reason for not limiting the vote by time, of course, is that all citizens should be entitled to a vote in their home nation, as is the case in the vast majority of nations in the developed world, and an ever-growing number of developing ones. If we don’t want to accord our global citizens their rightful status in the Irish nation as outlined in the Constitution, perhaps we should rethink our notion of citizenship.

Because contrary to what many seem to think, our overseas citizens are affected by the laws passed in Ireland. They can be affected most obviously by the economy, of course, which will determine whether they can ever return home, but also by decisions about social welfare, pensions, foreign policy, civil partnership and spousal immigration, taxation, broadcasting and consular protection. News reports in recent years about thousands of returning emigrants – many of whom paid PRSI before they departed – being denied benefits under the Habitual Residence Condition demonstrated that decisions made by Irish lawmakers can have devastating consequences on emigrants lives. Few voters in Ireland consider how their actions may affect citizens abroad, but that does not mean our expats are unaffected.

A possible solution to consider is that of regional constituencies for emigrants. Dedicated representatives in the Dáil have a precedent in places like Italy and France – and most recently, Tunisia. Such a system of regional representation could give our expats a voice in the Dáil while quelling the concerns of those who fear a disproportionate impact in individual local constituencies.

Irish expats should be voting in this presidential election, of course (and let’s not forget Fine Gael’s general election promise “to give eligible citizens the right to vote at Irish embassies in the Presidential election”). But while that would be a lovely symbolic gesture akin to Mary Robinson’s candle in the window, it wouldn’t be quite enough. We need to be prepared to transform our relationship with our overseas citizens in a way that reflects the realities of twenty-first century technology, citizenship, and democracy.

Noreen Bowden is a campaigner for Irish emigrant voting rights, and author of

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