Why referendum on emigrant vote is so important for young Irish
Marie-Claire McAleer of the NYCI on possibility of vote for Irish abroad in presidential elections
Over the past seven years, there has been a 34 per cent drop in the number of 20- to 24-year-olds living in Ireland. Phottograph: iStock
In 2014, a Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs examined the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens living outside the Republic of Ireland. The committee recommended that the principle of voting rights should be extended to Irish citizens abroad; that the government proceed to design a system that would be workable in an Irish context; and an Electoral Commission be established to implement these recommendations.
After decades of political inaction on the issue of extending voting rights for emigrants, at last the Irish Government has now grasped this nettle and is proposing a referendum on the issue of extending voting rights to all Irish citizens in presidential elections. This decision is very welcome and if it comes to pass, will have significance for the many young Irish people currently living abroad.
In recent times, we have witnessed significant numbers of young people emigrating from Ireland. Over the past seven years, high emigration rates, combined with low birth rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have led to a 34 per cent drop in the number of 20- to 24-year-olds living in the country, and a 27.5 per cent drop in 25- to 29-year-olds.
We know from the statistics that many of these young emigrants were highly skilled and educated individuals. If Ireland wishes to encourage, attract and support these young Irish emigrants to return home in the future, then we need to foster greater connections with them when they are abroad. Allowing all Irish citizens the opportunity to vote in presidential elections would represent a meaningful gesture - highly symbolic of a new chapter in Ireland’s history - a chapter that celebrates Ireland and cherishes her diaspora.
Since the publication of the National Youth Council of Ireland’s (NYCI) research on youth emigration in 2013, the NYCI has actively campaigned for the extension of the voting rights for Irish emigrants. There are many compelling arguments to support extending the voting rights for Irish citizens (at the very minimum) in presidential elections, particularly for young people.
We know from our research that many of them harbour a strong desire and intention to return home in the future, when they first emigrate from Ireland. As time passes however, the aspiration to return diminishes as they start to put down roots in another place they call home. To extend the franchise to Irish citizens abroad would help to forge and maintain closer ties with home.
This was supported by the recent Irish Times poll of emigrants, which found that young people had a stronger desire to vote from overseas than older emigrants. This desire was clearly demonstrated when thousands of young people travelled home to cast their vote in last year’s marriage equality referendum.
Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, in an address to the Houses of Oireachtas in 1995 said:
“The men and women of our diaspora represent not simply a series of departures and losses. They remain, even while absent, a precious reflection of our own growth and change, a precious reminder of the many strands of identity which compose our story…They look to us anxiously to include them in our sense of ourselves and not to forget their contribution while we make our own.”
Allowing our emigrants the right to vote would reflect a greater sense of solidarity and commitment to Irish emigrants throughout the world. It would also go some way towards including Irish citizens abroad (of all ages) more fully in Irish society.
Marie-Claire McAleer is head of research and policy at the National Youth Council of Ireland