Ciara Kenny

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

Emigrants want to vote in marriage equality referendum

‘They can only stand by and watch as a decision that may affect their future is made without their input’

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 10:36


David Burns, Conor O’Neill

This Sunday sees the LGBT Noise March for Marriage through the streets of Dublin, from City Hall at 3pm, in support of equal rights for same-sex couples and families. With the marriage equality referendum scheduled to come before the polls next spring, this year’s march marks the beginning of the countdown to the vote.

In the last few days, the We’re Coming Back campaign has received a huge volume of emails from Irish emigrants about their right to vote in referenda. We’re one of the larger single issue campaigns advocating for the voting rights of Irish citizens abroad, but a lot of these mails are from young people who don’t know us and don’t know much about the wider issue of external voting rights. They just want to be able to vote in the referendum on marriage equality in 2015.

According to the 2013 UCC Émigré Report, 70 per cent or so of the 250,000 Irish citizens to have left our shores since 2008 were in their 20s at the time of their departure. In that context, this kind of contact is understandable. While we don’t have the budget to reach a sizeable portion of the emigrant demographic, these people are coming to us because they want to participate – as Irish citizens – in one of the most important political chapters in the history of their generation.

Many of them probably don’t care that the Government is currently examining the Constitutional Convention’s recommendation that Irish citizens abroad be allowed to vote in Presidential elections. Some of them, until recently, were not even aware they had no right to vote from overseas. But a huge number are strongly in favour of granting marriage rights to all, and, having found us from a quick Google search, have contacted us for information and, more importantly, for representation.

Polls conducted by students’ unions across a swathe of Irish university campuses have consistently demonstrated that young people are above the national average when it comes to supporting equal access to civil marriage, and many of those who contact us are aware of that fact. Mostly, they ask us whether the Government isn’t obliged to account for the large numbers who would vote “Yes” but are excluded because they were forced to leave the country over the past six years.

It’s a compelling argument. It’s frustrating to tell them that the recently appointed Minister of State for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan ruled out an external vote in general elections, and that there seems to be no political will for reform of this scale at a national level. Despite Ireland belonging to a tiny minority of countries that completely disenfranchise their citizens overseas, one of only three within the EU, an external vote by the time the marriage equality is brought before the polls is simply out of the question.

In March last year we hosted a social media parade, in conjunction with New York’s St Pat’s For All committee, to enable the huge number of Irish citizens that have emigrated in recent years to demonstrate their support for the issue. This year, we intend to run similar events, as a means for Irish emigrants to air their views in this debate on marriage equality.

For most though, that’s a poor substitute. While this isn’t simply a young people’s issue, it is one of those political issues, alongside unemployment and unpaid internships, that many young people feel very strongly about. Furthermore, many Irish emigrants have experienced this debate playing out before them in foreign settings. Some of them have seen new marriage laws introduced while working in London and New York. Others, in Australia for example, are watching the debate unfold in parallel with what’s going on at home.

As resident foreign nationals, none of them have been able to participate. As Irish nationals, having left Ireland in the context of a crisis not of their own making, many on short-term visas and short-term contracts abroad, none of them will be able to participate in spring 2015 either. They will only be able to stand by and watch the news in a forced, frustrated quiet as a decision that may affect their future is made without their input.

Most of the replies we get from our responses to these people tell us that we should be doing more to make a difference, to change the status quo, and the truth is they’re right— as a nation, we should be. Given Ireland’s long history of emigration, and the long-standing connection between Irish emigration and failed economic policies, there should be some provision for emigrant representation. At the very least conditionally, for a period of several years following departure, if only so that people who have a stake here, who have lived and contributed here and will again, do not find themselves suddenly and irrationally debarred from their country’s democratic process and its development.

Conor O’Neill and David Burns are founding members of We’re Coming Back, an organisation representing recent Irish emigrants which campaigns in favour of extending voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad. Follow them on Twitter @WCBIreland and on Facebook