‘Emigrants have been denied the vote for far too long’

Senator Billy Lawless calls on Irish abroad to rally ahead of emigrant vote referendum in 2019

Senator Billy Lawless: ‘Emigrants have always been in forefront in the fight for equality and democracy in Ireland and now it is our time. We have been denied the vote for far too long.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Senator Billy Lawless: ‘Emigrants have always been in forefront in the fight for equality and democracy in Ireland and now it is our time. We have been denied the vote for far too long.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

 

A referendum on extending voting rights to Irish citizens overseas in Presidential elections is planned for May 24th, 2019, the same day as local and European Parliament elections, Senator Billy Lawless has said.

Speaking at a meeting organised by the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) campaign in London, Mr Lawless said he had been assured by Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform, John Paul Phelan, that work was progressing on a Bill to be put before the people in a referendum, asking whether they agreed with extending the franchise to the Irish abroad.

“The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney and Minister for the Diaspora, Ciaran Cannon are very committed to getting this referendum over the line. They will do everything he can to secure a Yes vote. So we have the Government’s support.”

About 130 countries and territories around the world have some system in place to allow their citizens to vote no matter where in the world they live, but Irish citizens lose their right if they have lived outside the State for more than 18 months. Those who fall within that time limit must travel back to their home constituency to cast their ballot, as there is no system in place for absentee voting except in very limited circumstances.

The proposed referendum will cover voting in Presidential elections only. It is not yet clear whether it will propose extending the vote to all Irish citizens living in the North and abroad, or limit it to Irish passport holders only, or those born in Ireland, perhaps with a time limit after emigrating.

Mr Lawless said that following the #hometovote campaigns for the marriage equality referendum in 2015, and the Eighth Amendment referendum in May, this would be the third time in four years that emigrants would have to organise themselves as a political movement.

“We will have to fight for every vote... This will not be an easy campaign. We will have to put together a modern 21st century political campaign to overcome an old fashion 19th century attitude about who has the right to vote,” said Mr Lawless, who owns a number of businesses in Chicago and was appointed by the Taoiseach to represent the diaspora in the Seanad in 2016.

“An opposition will rise up and say we left Ireland, we don’t pay taxes, we aren’t connected to Ireland and if we vote in large numbers we will swamp the home vote. These are real concerns, however invalid the argument and we must be ready to counter them.”

Mr Lawless said he would spend the next nine months “campaigning to remind my fellow citizens about what emigrants have done for Ireland since the founding of the Republic”, by participating in the 1916 Rising, sending remittances home, and getting involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“Irish emigrants here in London led the way in helping to win the last two national referendums. You organised, you campaigned, and you went home to vote. Emigrants have always been in forefront in the fight for equality and democracy in Ireland and now it is our time. We have been denied the vote for far too long.”

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