‘Pressure for emigrant vote will only increase’

Opinion: Irish Times survey shows under-25s are strongly in favour

It is heartening but unsurprising to read that such a substantial majority of emigrant citizens interviewed for The Irish Times' Generation Emigration Survey believe they should have the right to vote.

Most emigrants, of course, have moved to countries where emigrant voting is an uncontroversial norm - just as most immigrants living in Ireland are entitled to retain their vote in their home countries. With over 125 countries allowing their emigrant citizens to vote, Ireland's outlier status on this issue is starkly apparent.

But it’s not only global democratic norms that affect emigrants’ expectations - the Irish abroad continue to be involved in Irish life in so many ways. Many expect to return home and will be affected by a range of policies that may make that return easier or more difficult. Even while abroad they can be affected by a range of decisions, from consular protection to broadcasting to funding levels for vulnerable emigrants and more.

We need only look to the Brexit referendum for a vivid illustration of how profoundly affected overseas citizens can be by the political climate at home. Britain, of course, with its 15-year limit is one of the small handful of nations that limit the vote by time - yet it’s clear that long-term British expats will be among those who feel the effects of Britain’s departure from the EU most acutely. And of course, the substantial Irish efforts to engage Irish-linked voters in the UK to vote against Brexit highlighted the need to cultivate political loyalty among the Irish abroad.

In our increasingly globalised world, Brexit won’t be the last time Ireland will be looking for its overseas citizens to use their influence on the nation’s behalf. Emigrants who are frustrated at having no voice in their home political system will surely see the contradictions inherent in repeated pleas for assistance if Ireland remains unwilling to open up a two-way political relationship.

The Taoiseach's recent statements that the new Minister for Diaspora Joe McHugh will be prioritising the issue of emigrant voting in presidential elections will no doubt be warmly welcomed by the nearly two-thirds of emigrants favouring such a vote.

Granting emigrants the right to vote in presidential elections would be a tremendous first step toward Ireland's overseas citizens having the same kind of voice in the political system that nearly any other country in Europe would give them. It would reset the standard for political engagement, establish an absentee ballot system and set out procedures for running elections on the same kind of global basis that most developed nations are already doing.

The issue is becoming increasingly urgent: with 76 per cent of emigrants under-25 favouring emigrant voting rights, it's evident that pressures for Ireland to open up its political system to overseas citizens will only increase.

Noreen Bowden is a diaspora consultant and co-founder of VotingRights.ie, a global coalition of groups campaigning in favour of granting the vote to Irish citizens living abroad. This article forms part of the coverage of the Generation Emigration Survey 2016, a major poll conducted by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of The Irish Times between May 20th and June 2nd.  

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