Ciara Kenny

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

Disenfranchised and frustrated

Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad campaign is appealing to the electorate for support, writes Sarah Cantwell

Tue, May 6, 2014, 11:22


Sarah Cantwell

As a disenfranchised young emigrant, I am frustrated by three things:

FRUSTRATION #1: Being abroad and wanting to give back to Ireland

I moved to London in 2012, and after a difficult first year, found a funded research position that wouldn’t ever have arisen in Ireland. I am grateful for the opportunity, but feel sad and frustrated too, that London has to be “where it’s at” for me.

Through free fees and generous maintenance grants, Ireland poured money into my undergraduate and postgraduate education, only for me to now reap the benefits in London. I prosper thanks to Ireland’s investment in me, but Ireland does not.

Ireland has given me so much and I want to contribute my energy and skills to it in return. It would simple if I could contribute while living Ireland, but with a lack of decent employment opportunities this is not a possibility for me and many like me for the foreseeable future.

FRUSTRATION #2: Being denied my right to contribute from abroad as an Irish citizen

Ireland has the highest rate of net outward migration in Europe, but we are still one of a tiny minority of nations which disenfranchise their citizens abroad. As soon as I left, Ireland stopped treating my opinions in the same way it treats the opinions of Irish citizens who live in Ireland by not allowing me to vote.

I am highly motivated to retain my deep-rooted connection with Ireland and to contribute as an Irish citizen to the Irish State, but the State will not facilitate this by allowing me to participate in its democratic elections. In doing so, it foregoes its substantial investment in me as one of its citizens.

FRUSTRATION #3: The focus on emigration as an individual endeavour 

Irish society tends to see emigration through an individualising lens, attributable to the person’s personal choices and unique circumstances. Most emigrants would probably say: “I had to leave because there were no opportunities and yes, this scarcity of opportunities is something with which Irish people have been confronted for centuries. But it was my own choice to emigrate. No-one forced me to.”

The one in four families in Ireland who have had one or more members emigrate might say: “Yes, it’s heart-breaking. And time is ticking by and we’re missing out on sharing our lives with each other.”

However, if we explore the situation using a collective lens, then question of State responsibility starts to arise. Fintan O’Toole has argued that Ireland has been failing as a state since its inception, because so many of its people can’t envision a future in Ireland. It is too simplistic to categorise Ireland’s reliance on emigration as a national safety valve as “State failure”. However, Ireland undeniably fails the “state” test in its unjust treatment of its citizens abroad by not allowing them a vote.

Irish politicians may speechify about the need to stem emigration and to engage more with our emigrants, but tackling these issues is not a priority for the Irish political establishment. They don’t have to care, primarily because Irish citizens abroad can’t hold them accountable in the polls, but also because Irish citizens abroad and their families at home do not usually view their situations collectively.

This individual lens through which it seems that Irish people emigrate only for their own personal reasons is depoliticising and disempowering. But what could be achieved if the one-in-four families collectively stood up for their loved ones abroad?

A PLAN OF ACTION: ‘Give Them Back Their Vote!’ campaign

Irish citizens abroad have already started to stand up. Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) formed in London in 2011 and We’re Coming Back in Paris in 2013, both campaigning for voting rights. Irish in Britain and other emigrant groups across the world made submissions to the Constitutional Convention on the issue last year.

I joined VICA recently and I feel heartened and empowered to see Irish citizens in London coming together to stand up for our rights. But we can’t effect change from outside Ireland. We are encouraging our friends and families at home to join our call for a vote, since the politicians are only really motivated to listen to them and not us.

To this end, VICA have launched an email campaign, Give Them Back Their Vote, in the run-up to the local and European elections in Ireland on May 23rd. The campaign asks

  • people living in Ireland to email their local and European politicians regarding the disenfranchisement of Irish citizens abroad;
  • Irish citizens abroad to personally ask family and friends at home to send an email for them.

Local politicians well know the painful impact emigration is having on communities across Ireland, and MEPs must be aware of Ireland’s anomalous position in the EU in disenfranchising its citizens abroad. We can pressure these elected representatives to fight for our rights and to ensure that Ireland stops losing all it has invested in us as citizens. We’re all in this together.

Visit for further information about how to participate in the ‘Give Them Back their Vote!’ campaign.