Ciara Kenny

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

Young emigrants to push for overseas vote

We’re Coming Back group aiming to acheive vote for emigrants by 2018 presidential election

Sun, Nov 24, 2013, 19:15


David Burns

Chatham Brasserie, the restaurant where I used to work in Dublin, closed last September. Whenever I go back home for a visit from Paris, where I now live, we all get together for a drink. The few I knew well amongst the floor staff show up, but otherwise it’s a gathering of the old kitchen crew. They’re mostly Chinese. All of them have visas and many of them have lived in Dublin for eight years. As the Chinese government does not permit dual-citizenship, none of them can vote in the major elections in Ireland. Neither can I. It’s a joke between us.

It’s made all the more funny by the rhetoric surrounding the question of an overseas vote in Ireland. The phrase “no representation without taxation” is oft-employed by opponents to political representation without a price tag. An emphasis on the importance of residency provides for the other half of the anti-overseas vote argument. Both points ignore the fact that since property rights were abolished, citizenship has been considered as the only viable criteria for a vote.

The limits on non-EU resident participation in Ireland are also ignored by such rhetoric. These people—having worked hard to get here—live in our country and pay tax. However, unless they apply for and obtain Irish citizenship, their participation in the democratic process is partial. Even the French and German can only vote in our local or European elections.

In France, a movement has begun to include non-EU French residents to a greater extent. The campaign for their right to vote is called Droit de Vote 2014. Those who glue a bar code to the Irish democratic franchise should follow through on the logic of their own discourse and mount a similar campaign of their own. After all, we once held the highest net immigration levels in Europe.

These days, of course, the tables have turned. We now hold the highest net emigration levels in Europe. One person leaves our country every six minutes. The Government might be seen to have encouraged this policy in its last budget with cuts to U-26 social protection payments. They have certainly taken no steps to discourage or diminish the mass exodus of our youth. This tacit complicity has pushed the new youth campaign group We’re Not Leaving to brand the current youth crisis, “the Scattering”. Indeed, the lack of government action to keep people home contrasts with the effort spent to bring them back last summer. Michael O’Leary’s take on the Gathering, “the Grabbing”, seems to have been vindicated.

Amidst all the slogans, there is the sense that something is about to be done for our emigrant generations. Two months ago, the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of an overseas vote. 78 out of 100 members voted in favour of extending the franchise to all those Irish abroad. There are, inevitably, questions concerning the extent of power to be accorded to the 3.1 million passport holders outside the borders.

We’re Not Leaving is launching a sister group, We’re Coming Back this week. We’re Coming Back is a project involving young Irish emigrants that aims to obtain a 2018 vote in the presidential election. Representation within the Seanad and a vote in the European elections are also on the agenda. Given that over 120 countries including Mali, Mexico and Peru recognise the legitimacy of their populations abroad despite the logistical difficulties, it is hard to see such a campaign failing to gather momentum.

It is also hard to see how this question can be phrased in terms other than what it means to be Irish. Is there a tax threshold to be reached before you can be considered a part of Irish society? Is it a matter of time spent here? Can citizenship be brought up as a wall before non-EU residents who wish to vote in referendum if it is disregarded when emigrants demand the same thing? What is it to be Irish enough to vote?