Ciara Kenny

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

An Ireland in which emigrants are increasingly involved

Ireland is reaching out to its diaspora more and more, but will this lead to an emigrant vote?

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 16:32


David Burns

“Engagement with our Diaspora is of enormous importance for Ireland,” declared Éamon Gilmore, opening up the policies that determine Ireland’s relationship with the Irish abroad to public consultation last Tuesday. Acknowledging the role emigrants have played in the economy and the history of Ireland, the Tánaiste extended an invitation to those “at home and abroad who are interested and affected by issues of emigration” to contribute their views in written submissions by email or post.

This is the latest in a series of encouraging developments and that point bears being acknowledged. The Irish have a long, long history of emigration but only recently has Ireland turned to those who have left. While emigrants have consistently contributed and participated through the different decades of exodus, it is only recently that Irish governments have made similar gestures towards communities overseas.

However, following high rates of emigration for economic reasons in the 1980s, several important political figures began campaigning at home on behalf of Irish citizens abroad. From Mary Robinson lighting a symbolic candle to Gerry O’Sullivan putting forward a bill for emigrant voting rights on behalf of Labour, there seemed to be a general consensus that policy should change in the early 1990s.

A little later in the mid-90s, when Labour entered government with Fine Gael, reform enabling emigrants to vote and to be represented in Seand Éireann was put forward in their programme for Government – ‘A Government of Renewal’.

Although little changed in the way of legislation despite these fine campaigns, a lot of ground was gained. The later developments in the early 2000s— the establishment of a Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants in December 2001 leading to the establishment of the Irish Abroad Unit in 2004— were proof of progress made. When the economic crisis hit Ireland in 2008, Irish governments were able to build on these past initiatives and reach out to the diaspora in an effort to bolster Irish exports, attract further foreign investment and promote Ireland as a tourist destination. And while projects like the Gathering are often criticised as cynical ‘shakedowns’, they fit the general picture of an Ireland in which Irish emigrants are increasingly involved.

It is in this context, then, that we are being asked as a public to examine Ireland’s engagement with Irish citizens overseas. Given that the Constitutional Convention established by the current government and all major parties in opposition – Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party – publically support extending various forms of an overseas vote to Irish emigrants, it would seem there is a general consensus for change.

Where will it lead us this time?

The answer is hard to predict. Seanad reform seems to be ruled out. Emigrants registered as University electors have been voting in Seanad elections since 1922, but Enda Kenny seems set against legislating to open this loophole to give the vote to all abroad. Declaring “such issues are wonderful to theorise about, but it is a very different matter when one considers the implications” on February 4th, the Taoiseach refused to review his position.

Meanwhile, the Government has yet to respond to the Constitutional Convention’s resolution in September 2013 in favour of granting an overseas vote in Presidential elections— despite the deadline it set itself.

At the same time, however, it is hard to imagine the Government would have embarked on a review of its diaspora engagement policies unless it intended to develop them. In general, the lie of the land is encouraging. There are far more countries now than in the 1990s that provide for an overseas vote and the EU Commission are actively encouraging Ireland to become one of them.

Since the establishment of the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2009, emigrant attendees have pointed out the importance of the Irish overseas to Ireland’s global profile and business performance on the world stage. The economic signs at home are also encouraging; although emigration continues, the conditions for growth are beginning and offering a vote now might bring people back to benefit the country later.

However, the most encouraging thing for emigrant communities everywhere has to be that both Fine Gael and Labour are historically in favour of establishing an emigrant vote. None of the major political parties in Ireland are against it, but there is a special onus on the Government that pledged “democratic revolution” in 2011 to deliver on past promises to the Irish overseas.

David Burns is a founding member of the We’re Coming Back group, which campaigns in favour of extending the vote to Irish citizens overseas. Read his previous articles for Generation Emigration here.