Ciara Kenny

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

‘State of the Nation address left emigrants cold’

Group of young emigrants are organising a #toastforavote this weekend in favour of a vote for emigrants, writes David Burns

Thu, Dec 19, 2013, 00:00


David Burns

“It is now clear your sacrifices are making a real difference,” the words sounded tinny last Sunday night. They came, after all, through laptop speakers as I sat before my small screen in a studio flat in Paris. I wonder did they sound as tinny and tiny to the Irish at home. Who were they intended for though? The Taoiseach made scant reference to the 397,500 people who have left the country since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Perhaps this is because they didn’t have to make as great a sacrifice. They’re not the ones weathering it out at home.

They are, in part, responsible for the fall in unemployment however. Various foreign bodies and publications have recognised this in the past few weeks. ‘Only mass emigration over the last five years has stopped [Ireland’s] unemployment figures from rising over 20 per cent,’ noted the Economist last Sunday, drawing perhaps on figures published in the IMF’s quarterly review last December. Figures backed up by the EU Commission’s Spring Economic Forecast, in which the current fall in unemployment was predicted and tied to expected emigration. The Government recognises these views in its promotion of emigration as an alternative through the letters it sends out, but it doesn’t recognise the contribution in its speeches or spokesmen.

Hence the fact that although the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of attributing an overseas vote to the Irish abroad in September, there has been little pressure put forward by the public before scheduled government discussions. There is little sense of support for emigrants from home. Skype calls aside, it is time for the majority to acknowledge that those who leave lend a helping hand, statistically proven and elsewhere in print.

This weekend the emigrant pressure group We’re Coming Back (WCB) is running an event, the Quiet One 2013, to raise awareness for emigrants and emigrant disenfranchisement. Seeking to profit from the pub reunions pre-Christmas Eve while maintaining a distance from binge-culture, the Quiet One to portray public support through social media participation. The organisation is asking all participants to #toastforavote and post pictures to their Facebook page. In this way, the group aims to get people speaking of emigrants in the public sphere as part of its campaign for increased political representation for the Irish abroad.

The objectives of WCB, primarily a presidential vote and a say in the Seanad elections, have been variously and previously supported by many Irish politicians. Paul Kehoe, the Fine Gael chief whip, has expressed personal support for a presidential vote. The President, Michael D Higgins, has himself also supported a form of this vote though proposing a time limit on eligibility for the electorate overseas. Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly, outspoken on this issue, has stated that Ireland is in ‘democratic deficit’ as long as it fails to enfranchise its emigrants.

However, Ireland has the largest diaspora in the world relative to its domestic populations. There are over 3.1 million overseas possessing an Irish passport. WCB has repeatedly stated its respect for the sovereignty of those Irish at home in its campaign to enfranchise the Irish abroad. Yet the numbers play upon the public mind along with the prejudice associated with those who ‘jump ship’ in hard times. So Ireland finds itself one of only 3 EU countries that continue to refuse all forms of a vote to their citizens abroad.

This weekend the call for change could be taken up. Last weekend, however, won’t have helped. Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are popular according to the polls. However, youth group We’re Not Leaving managed to get the derogatory #stateofit hashtag trending during the address on Sunday. In order then for Enda to reconcile with those angered by Government policy and the cuts to U-26 dole, it might be advised that the next time he speaks to the nation he recognises the contribution of all its citizens. Not just the ones at home.