Are emigrants a valued community or a valuable commodity?

Decision not to hold referendum on emigrant voting rights shows current diaspora strategy is focused on benefits to Ireland Inc

This week, Minister of State for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan said a plan for emigrant voting rights will not be included in the Government's new strategy for diaspora policy, which is due to be published shortly. This stance only fuels the view that fostering an enduring relationship with the diaspora is largely focused on the benefits to Ireland Inc. and less on the benefit to emigrants.

Diaspora policy as it stands has a heavy emphasis on inward investment, heritage and nostalgia tourism, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. Emigrants are not foolish; they can discern the difference between being a valued community or a valuable commodity.

Voting rights for emigrants was among the many proposals and recommendations in 2002 Task Force Report on Policy regarding Emigrants, though there was no general consensus on how to address it. There were three main reasons why the political establishment dodged the issue:

Administration: There are a limited number of points of departure for Irish people on the island of Ireland. With a little effort, and building on projects like Connect Ireland, our international airports could set up consulate offices where those leaving our shores could register to vote. Most recent Government initiatives including water charges, property taxes, and septic tanks start with an idea for a registration process that is followed up on at a later stage.


Constituency: Discussions tend to focus on a vote in Presidential Elections or a vote for candidates who represent an emigrant constituency in Seanad Éireann. But there is no substantial reason why people cannot vote in their local constituency in General Elections. Whether this is facilitated via online balloting or postal votes is really a technicality. Remember a precedent has been set; those who work in the Diplomatic Service and others who are abroad on duty with the Army or the Gardaí are facilitated to vote in the elections.

People who emigrate should be allowed to vote in General Elections for a fixed period of five years following their departure registration. The reason for this is that some travel abroad on contracts and return within five years; knowing they are returning, they have a keen interest in the political and economic situation of Ireland. Those who stay beyond five years will most likely apply for citizenship in their new homeland if conditions allow.

Voting patterns: Previous Irish governments were nervous about the voting patterns among emigrants. Support for Republican parties was high among Irish people living abroad, and much of the fundraising for Republican movements was sourced overseas.

Such situations are not unique to Ireland. Diaspora communities hold onto the tension of the homeland, often to an exaggerated level. In some instances when countries settle after periods of political turmoil the new leader is drawn from an exile that lives abroad. The political situation has changed in Ireland; this is not to say voting patterns have changed but the Irish diaspora has different political sensitivities; some may still be angry over the fact that they felt forced to leave Ireland.

While aware of both the limitations and advantages of their quality of life in Ireland, emigrants may be interested in contributing to a new Ireland - one that offers a more secure future and one that might incentivise their return with their families. Ireland more than ever needs a young, energetic and visionary population. Globally, it is becoming abundantly clear that countries who are keeping an eye on development and growth can no longer ignore structured partnership with their diaspora. Only last November the Joint Dáil Committee for European Union Affairs said "Irish emigrants should continue to have a stake in the future of their home country".

What is good diaspora policy?

A review of international initiatives and diaspora policies recently undertaken by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington highlights five important characteristics of good diaspora policy. Firstly, a country's policy must have a clear set of goals. Secondly, information about the diaspora is vital. Thirdly, a communications network that is mutually beneficial to the home country and those living abroad is of the utmost importance.

Fourthly, coordinated and strategic policies that have a professional, coordinated focus are particularly important when the client group is so widespread and diverse. And finally, new initiatives must have something concrete to offer to the diaspora communities.

These five principles serve to highlight the difficulties involved in engaging with a countries diaspora but they also show the mindset that a country has to adopt if serious efforts are to be made in order to generate political will and energy for a project among diaspora communities.

Constitutional considerations

Another issue that has to be tackled arises from the Nineteenth Amendment to the Irish Constitution and the subsequent changes to Articles 2 and 3 which state: “It is the entitlement and birth right of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland.”

This issue was somewhat anticipated in the recent Constitutional Convention on voting rights for Irish people living abroad. The recommendation made by the Convention limits voting rights to the Presidential Election for Irish citizens living abroad and in Northern Ireland.

This measure highlights that you can no longer speak about votes for Irish abroad without reference to the implications of this amendment to the Irish Constitution for those living in Northern Ireland who were “born in the island of Ireland” and who may want stake their claim “to be part of the Irish Nation”. Indeed it is this complex constitutional situation that may move a discussion on real representation for emigrants off the political agenda.

Fr Alan Hilliard is a board member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants. He has written previously for Generation Emigration on the impact of emigration on those left behind, 'I've watched men cry about their children emigrating'.