#HomeToVote should inspire Ireland and embarrass politicians

Young emigrants are still committed to Ireland. They deserve a vote on its future

This May it happened again: the country went to the polls, and thousands of citizens flocked #hometovote - an expression of global solidarity that reverberated around the world.

Social media lit up as groups coordinated flights. On Facebook, some couldn’t afford to travel: within minutes, complete strangers had bought them tickets. From Hanoi to Holyhead, we witnessed a poetic reversal of those lonely journeys of generations past, no longer sad and solitary but determined and together.

Gandalf arrived over the hill, and the world watched on, inspired.

Some mentioned Savita, insisting never again. Others stressed that this was not just solidarity with fellow citizens, it was personal: they wanted to return to a country where healthcare was the default. On the BBC, one woman described her 20,000km, 36-hour round trip from Tokyo, just to cast a ballot. As an expression of citizenship this is inspirational - as an assessment of our democracy, it’s an indictment.



Citizens shouldn’t need to do this. It’s expensive, exclusionary, and for every incredible home-to-voter, someone couldn’t travel.

Most countries recognise this, but Ireland remains one of the few democracies with no facility for overseas voting - a legacy of our high rates of emigration and the failure of successive governments to put an effective system in place. Our rules are some of the most restrictive in the world: no postal facility exists, and under the electoral acts, returning to vote beyond a meagre 18 months abroad is a crime, punishable by up to two years' imprisonment.

Many voters won’t have known this. On a three-year working visa, surely the ballots waiting at home don’t come with criminal charges? Given the landslide result, even the wildest estimates of how many returned couldn’t have impacted the outcome, but the absurd contradiction remains: we cheer these voters home, but our laws treat them as criminals.

This threatened to embarrass the country in 2008. Had John Bruton, then resident in the US as an EU Ambassador, committed a criminal offence by flying home to vote in the Lisbon referendum? Ireland is no stranger to absurdity, but even for us, jailing the former Taoiseach for voting was deemed a step too far - the case was quickly dropped.

Saturday May 26th, the day the result was announced, was much the same. A smiling Leo Varadkar held a #hometovote placard aloft, while Simon Harris, an enormously impressive advocate for change, recorded a video for the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign commending those who "made the effort to travel home". No mention of the fact that in doing so they were circumventing (or breaking) the legal barriers of the Government's own broken system.

Meanwhile, in UCD, a conference heard that Ireland "leads the way in diaspora engagement" - a bold claim to make while thousands of citizens crossed oceans just to vote.

When the Government appointed a Diaspora Minister, some wondered whether voting rights were needed. The referendum’s result showed why. Contrast Minister Ciaran Cannon’s repeated, heartfelt pleas during the referendum campaign to retain the Eighth Amendment with the thousands of Irish citizens, particularly young women, flying home to repeal it.

A survey by this newspaper of Irish Times Abroad Network members found nine out of ten surveyed favoured repeal- a figure which tallies with the youthful demography of recent emigrants, but sits entirely at odds with the man supposed to represent them.

A new democracy

What should we do with these contradictions?

Normally it’s a blind eye, but last week the country rejected that hypocrisy of that attitude. It also asked itself an important question: in the big decisions, who gets to decide?

Two #hometovote pushes in three years should inspire us to reflect on that more broadly. While canvassing in Dublin, I was struck by how many doors were answered by migrants, resident here for years but still denied a vote. One such woman stood beside me handing out badges, her daughter in her arms. She’d been here four years, her daughter born here, but it wasn’t enough.

She approached a group of young girls in school uniform, not yet 18 but passionate about their future and their rights. Please let it be yes, said one. We can get pregnant too, reminded another.

And in Dublin airport, emigrants made their case emphatically. Would anyone have told the young LGBT person, years away but back for marriage equality, that the vote was not for him? Would anyone have denied the young women flying home, with badges on their suitcases and hope in their hearts, a say on the Eighth Amendment?

Those people have a clear, continuing stake in our country. Just as they deserved their vote on the constitutional prohibition of abortion, they deserve some representation in Leinster House as their future access is determined.

Successive governments have failed to grasp this nettle: how long should you retain that vote, and in which elections? Should we mirror France, which sets a few seats aside for citizens abroad? Or the UK, with a 15-year time limit? A referendum on presidential voting rights for emigrants, scheduled for June 2019, is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough - many flying home last month would still be seen as criminals.

They are not. They are citizens, whose commitment should inspire Ireland and embarrass the Government into finally taking them seriously.

Conor O’Neill is co-founder of We’re Coming Back, a campaign for emigrant voting rights. He recently returned from living abroad and now works as a researcher in the Oireachtas.