Irish electoral system not fit for a globalised world

As a New Zealand permanent resident I can vote in their elections even from abroad, but I can’t vote in Ireland

Sean Phelan: ‘The Irish State remains tied to an electoral system that cannot deal with the simple fact that people move between Ireland and elsewhere.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

At the heart of the question of whether Irish emigrants should be given the right to vote is recognising that we live in a time where people and things circulate globally.

Can the Irish State finally recognise that the movement of people to and from countries is something that needs to be integrated into the design of the electoral system, rather than ignored and permanently long-fingered?

Can it embrace an idea of citizenship and democratic participation that is not bound to a particular place, and flexible enough to allow for different forms of national and cultural belonging?

I live in a country that, on this issue at least, offers a stark contrast to the Irish case. Overseas voting rights were first introduced in New Zealand in 1890 to make special provision for absentee voting by seamen. They have since been extended to a range of people either living or working overseas at election time.


These rights are not limited to citizens. I am a permanent resident of New Zealand, not a citizen, yet I have voted in four New Zealand general elections since 2005. What’s more, the provisions in the New Zealand system would enable me to vote in the next election even if I happened to be temporarily living overseas when it is held.

In light of the voting rights that I now take for granted, without a hint of disapproval from any New Zealander I have met, the historical failure of the Irish State to legislate for emigrant voting rights looks rather inadequate. This failure of democratic imagination is mirrored in the lack of voting rights for people living in situations analogous to my own as permanent residents of Ireland.

The issue of emigrant voting rights has clearly gained momentum in recent years, helped in part by different contributions to Generation Emigration. It is also heartening to see two independent candidates, Ed Davitt and Barry Johnston, campaigning on the issue in the Seanad election.Nonetheless, as Christopher Kissane recently outlined, the commitment to emigrant voting rights in the election manifestos of the different political parties is vague and tokenistic.

The most likely positive outcome in the immediate future is that emigrants will be given limited voting rights in either Presidential or Seanad elections. The issue will then be regarded as done and dusted, and it will be back to the usual plámás about the diaspora for the endless Gatherings and St Patrick’s Day hooleys to come.

But what is truly angering about the Irish State’s failure to act are the parallels that we see if we consider the dynamics of global circulation beyond the issue of emigrant voting rights.

On the one hand, the State remains tied to an electoral system that cannot deal with the simple fact that people move between Ireland and elsewhere.

Yet, on the other, it goes to exceptional lengths to facilitate another kind of transnational circulation - the movement of finance and capital from everywhere and anywhere into Ireland.

The Irish property market is becoming a magnet for global private equity firms and hedge funds looking for quick returns on their investments. Nama and other publicly-owned banking assets are being sold at knockdown rates, leaving large segments of commercial and residential property in the hands of operators who see nothing other than financial assets. Irish citizens and families face the prospect of having their mortgages bought by companies who after purchasing the mortgage at a discount from the Government can continue to claim the value of the original loan, while simultaneously ignoring the regulatory regimes governing Irish banks.

I make these analogies because they highlight the profound differences in the Irish State’s attitude towards the movement of people and the movement of money. Irish citizens living elsewhere who maintain a strong connection with Ireland are completely excluded from the electoral process. Conversely, control of large segments of the Irish property market are given over to predatory firms with no civic affiliation with the country, and the capacity to seriously screw over Irish citizens’ lives.

There is something hopelessly antiquated about a political culture that frets about giving emigrants the right to vote in light of the transnational forces that have shaped Irish society in the last 30 years.

We see this in the reactionary nature of some of the discourse in comment sections and elsewhere. Some seem to regard the prospect of emigrants’ voting as handing over national sovereignty to just about anyone with relatives who left Cobh harbour from 1847 onwards (and who, of course, are all supporters of either Sinn Féin or the Anti Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit).

Some belittle emigrants for their sense of entitlement and victimhood, for claiming rights that they “choose” to renounce the day they left Ireland.

While others invoke the eternal truth of the slogan “no taxation without representation”, seemingly indifferent that it was originally coined in a context where women could not vote, slavery was institutionalised, and the land of indigenous people was systematically conquered and stolen.

Voting in periodic elections is hardly the be-all and end-all of politics and democratic participation. Yet, not having a vote has always been a powerful symbol of political disempowerment. The Irish State needs a new internationalist vision, one that enables an expansive ethos of democratic citizenship rather than the most corrosive form of economic globalisation.

Sean Phelan is originally from Co Tipperary and has been based in Wellington, New Zealand since 2003. He lectures in media and communication at Massey University's Wellington campus, and tweets at @seanphelan8