The vast majority of democratic countries in the world offer the right to vote to their citizens living abroad. Ireland is an exception to what is now the norm.
Political rights are a central component of modern citizenship, and voting is a significant right in modern democracies and assumed to be enjoyed by all citizens, on a formally equal basis.
Dismissing fears of a “hypothetical mass invasion of electors from abroad”, for instance, a 1999 Council of Europe report argued that “the issue has nothing to do with the number of people concerned, but is essentially a matter of fundamental, inalienable human rights”.
The call for the introduction of voting rights for disenfranchised overseas citizens is growing louder. The Irish Government is now in danger of a case being taken against it at the European Court of Justice, challenging the restriction on voting rights and thereby forcing the State to act.
Why has Ireland had such a chequered record on this issue?
Campaign for emigrant voting rights in 1990s
More than 20 years ago, a measure that would have ended the disenfranchisement of Irish citizens abroad was only narrowly defeated in the Dáil. We have not been that close since.
The issue of votes for emigrants was the subject of much public debate in the 1990s, prompted by the high rates of emigration in the late 1980s and the formation of lobbying groups such as Glor an Deorai in Britain, the Irish Emigrant Vote Campaign in the US, and Irish Votes Abroad in Australia.
In March 1991, after much lobbying, a Private Members Bill was introduced by Gerry O'Sullivan TD, Labour spokesman on emigration, But it was lost by just four votes (62-66). If passed, this Bill would have given emigrants the right to vote for up to 15 years after becoming non-resident. The Bill was opposed by the government "for reasons of principle, practical and administrative reality", according to the then minister for the environment, Padraig Flynn.
Over the following years, varying commitments were given on the issue by a succession of coalition governments, although most amounted to little more than a promise to examine the issue further. The reasons for not proceeding largely revolved around constitutional issues to begin with, but when these were revealed to be of little impediment, the government changed their tack and began raising the “no representation without taxation” argument.
Subsequent proposals focused on giving the Irish abroad three seats in the Seanad. The Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left coalition government in 1996 put this proposal out for consultation, but decided not to proceed with the measure as it proved unpopular. Out of 44 emigrant organisations and individuals who commented on the proposals, only eight were fully supportive. The remainder, including Glor an Deorai and the Irish Emigrant Vote campaign, opposed, and continued to call for voting rights for the Irish abroad in the Dáil and Presidential elections, and in referendums.
After the 1997 general election, Fianna Fáil was the largest party in a coalition with the Progressive Democrats. Fianna Fáil's policy document in the campaign promised to introduce emigrant voting rights by the year 2000, but on gaining power they did not fulfill this pledge. The campaigns petered away after this.
Why now is the time to extend the franchise
Hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens have emigrated since 2010, and they are not returning at the rate the Government had hoped. Both individual citizens and the Irish body politic have little to fear and everything to gain from deepening all forms of engagement with the diaspora, including increasing the likelihood of return migration.
This is Ireland’s chance to enfranchise its emigrants in order to match its claims to an “unrivalled relationship” with its global diaspora.
When you look at other countries and their valuing of citizens abroad by giving them the vote, isn’t this the logical next step for Ireland as a modern democracy in a globalised world? Does Ireland want to be the last country in the EU to adjust its electoral arrangements to include emigrant voting rights?
Giving Irish emigrants the right to vote fulfills the constitutional mandate to cherish all citizens equally, and holds the State true to the guarantees on equal rights in the Easter 1916 Proclamation, which is to be celebrated next year.
Campaign revives but prevarication continues
The loss of their right to vote is being debated strongly again by many citizens abroad. The Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (Vica) campaign was formed in London in early 2011; and the largely online campaigns of We're Coming Back and Get the Boat to Vote (#HometoVote) have had a noticeable impact, especially at the time of the marriage equality referendum.
Pressure is not only mounting in the diaspora but also within Ireland itself. Each body that examines the issue in detail concludes that the franchise should be extended to citizens living abroad.
The Fifth Report of the Convention on the Constitution issued in November 2013 recommended amending the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections at Irish embassies, or otherwise. The Government has yet to respond by organising a debate in the Dáil as it had promised to do within four months.
The House of Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs issued a report in 2014 recommending that the Government accept the principle that voting rights should be extended to Irish citizens abroad; that the Government should proceed to design a system that would be workable in an Irish context; and an Electoral Commission should be established to implement these recommendations.
Still the Government prevaricates. Always, the message is that there are many practical and operational challenges to consider. But dozens of countries around the world have sorted out workable arrangements. There are many examples to learn from.
The Government requested in early 2015 that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, in cooperation with Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs, analyse the eligibility criteria and practical considerations for any extension of the franchise. We still await the publication of this cross-departmental analysis.
No one campaigning on this issue underestimates the organisational task involved to facilitate the franchise for citizens living abroad. But we are, first and foremost, looking for firm commitments from the Government.
General Election 2016
When asked about emigrant voting at the Irish Embassy in Brussels last December, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, after confirming there would be no referendum on the voting age in Presidential elections, said “I think this is a topic for the next general election and the next Government”.
Vica hopes the Taoiseach is a man of his word and will make this an election issue.
We are not holding our breath, and intend to make emigrant votes an election issue in 2016 ourselves.
We will ask existing TDs and all candidates for a pledge on the issue. Manifesto commitments have proven unreliable in the past.
We will ask the friends and families of citizens abroad to raise the issue on the doorstep with candidates seeking election to the Dáil. Many people voting next year will be a parent, sibling or close friend of an emigrant abroad.
We will run a media campaign focusing on social media; the press; and local radio stations in Ireland.
This is an issue whose time has come, and implementing votes for Irish citizens abroad will bring so many benefits to Ireland flowing in on a tide of goodwill.