Ciara Kenny

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

Emigrants could bring a fresh perspective, if given the chance

A vote would enable Ireland to benefit from our overseas experience, writes David Burns

Young people taking part in the protest against budget cuts to youth jobseekers’ allowance, outside Leinster House today. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Wed, Oct 23, 2013, 15:37


David Burns

As it has been pointed out before on this blog, Ireland is one of three EU nations that withholds the right to vote from its emigrants. In fairness, I can understand why. Reading up on home online, it is sometimes hard to figure out whether the Celtic Tiger’s haunting Ireland or whether it’s the Government scaring people out. There was even a point where I was unsure that young people’s benefits were actually being cut. Truth is that it’s hard to keep your ear to the ground when your feet aren’t on it.

However, were citizens abroad to have the right to vote, Ireland might benefit from experience accumulated abroad. After all, that is the line trotted out these days on the topic of emigration. Though the idea such experience need be physically brought back in bags is a little outdated in a world currently hyper-connected, I find the thought of such contribution consoling as an emigrant.

The 18 months I have spent in France have certainly opened my eyes to a number of issues to which I was blinded at home. As both the political left and right here jump up and down on the Roma immigrants in France for a few votes, I see the Irish treatment of the travelling community.

This change in viewpoint has been dawning on me ever since I was told to keep an eye out for any Roma while working here as a server in a bar in the 6th arrondissement. Later when I broached this topic in the university of la Sorbonne Nouvelle, where I work today, the student responses ran down the same lines as those of my old manager. The switch really flipped though when Manuel Valls, the socialist French minister of the Interior, began to mimic the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen and the French extreme right, stating the Roma should return to and remain in Romania.

The apparently unanimous racism against the Roma in a country I had chosen for its founding Republican principles of equality, liberty and brotherhood shocked me. It also forced me to reflect, after a while, upon my own people. Upon my own attitudes, growing up in Wexford, towards Travellers. I remembered the panic and the surly discontent whenever a travelling community approached and I remembered myself as partaking in that parishioner bigotry.

Currently, there is a healthy debate over the cuts proposed to social protection payments for those under 26. As I write this article, the ‘On the Dáil’ queue that has cropped up so frequently in my newsfeed is taking place back in Dublin (click here to watch a short video on However, upon a little research provoked by all the “Romas, go back to Romania” rhetoric in Paris, I discovered that the Government has cut spending by 85 per cent on housing and education schemes that concern the Traveller community. Ronnie Fay, a director at the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, states that “Travellers have suffered austerity measures way beyond that of the settled community”.

A lot was written last week of the high levels of youth unemployment in Ireland, but Traveller unemployment stands at 84 per cent and the withdrawal of State investment in that community far outstrips its sins against the young. Yet Pavee Point has not posted any protest strikes against Government policy on Facebook, nor do its adherents equal the amount that have subscribed to We’re Not Leaving since Wednesday last.

Initially, I thought all the controversy and articles about the 20,000 Roma that are apparently “terrorising” 65.7 million French was due to a Gallic sense of superiority stemming from an imperialist past. However, the prominence of this racism in France forced me to take another look at my own country. I would argue for emigrant voting rights because I believe we can bring something back apart from new skills or foreign business ideas, even if it’s just perspective.