It’s time in 2016 to grant Irish abroad the right to vote

Opinion: ‘The time has come to fulfil the promise of the Rising and give Irish citizens abroad their Constitutional birthright’

So it has begun. The Centennial Year: 40 State-sponsored events, hundreds of local commemorations, events in New York and Washington DC and countless other places where the Irish diaspora has gathered.

After a shaky start, the Government has righted itself and come forward with a thoughtful and comprehensive programme that culminates in a series of Easter anniversary events and a major national conference on the future of the Republic 100 years on. Countless books will be published, and historians will be in demand on talk shows as Irish people take a long look back of what they have made of the Republic. Everything thing seems well in hand to celebrate how far we have come, except for the reality that one million Irish emigrants are effectively non-citizens of this Republic. They can’t vote.

When it comes to the matter of emigrants, Ireland is of two minds; the current Government's policies reflect that divide. One the one hand, the Department of Foreign Affairs under Charlie Flanagan embraces the diaspora and has smartly branded Ireland as a "Global Island". The DFA has an energetic Minister for Diaspora Affairs in Jimmy Deenihan, has included the diaspora in its centennial planning, and last year held its first Global Civic Forum, bringing together scores of emigrants representatives.

The rest of the Government, however, seems unwilling to address the reality that Ireland lacks a modern absentee ballot process, and lags behind every nation in the EU save for tiny Malta when it comes to giving its emigrant citizens the right to vote. Indeed, the Republic lags behind the vast majority of nations in the world, about 125, that have already established an absentee ballot process for their citizens.


Ireland is reluctant to embrace the modern reality that it is an island nation that sends its children out into the world, including the hundreds of thousands of Irish-born and educated university graduates who were forced to leave Ireland in the last five years. Economically, this generation of young Irish people had no choice but to leave Ireland to find work. These young people, who make up a new generation of emigrants, immediately become second-class citizens the minute they leave the departure lounge at Dublin Airport.

In the coming year, President Michael D Higgins and the Taoiseach will travel the world and extol the contributions of the diaspora, and the meaning of the Rising. But their words will seem hollow to many emigrants when juxtaposed against the language of the Easter Proclamation, which called for the creation of a Republic "elected by the suffrages of all her men and women" and a commitment to cherish "all the children of the nation equally".

If nothing else, in the coming year the people of Ireland need to have an open and honest debate about the meaning of citizenship for the 20 per cent of the Irish nation now living overseas. Emigrants have played an enormous role in shaping the destiny of the Republic. Two of the signers of the Proclamation - Thomas J. Clarke and James Connolly -- were emigrants, and many of the men and women who fought in the GPO were Irish-born but living in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. Indeed, the Rising would never have taken place without the sustained support of Ireland’s “exiled children in America”.

And yet here we are, 100 years later, about to spend an entire year extolling a Republic that denies full citizenship to the 20 per cent of its population who are emigrants. No other modern democracy in the EU (and few around the world) has such a dismal record when it comes to protecting the Constitutional rights of their emigrant citizens. Ireland may be a Republic in name, but at the moment it is a Republic that lacks a democratic imagination of what it could and should be.

Ireland surely can do better. Some emigrants and supporters have come together on to suggest a number of measures to improve Ireland’s approach to emigrant citizenship. First, the Taoiseach must fulfil his Constitutional Convention promise and hold a Referendum that would allow Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote for the next President of the Ireland in 2019.

Second, Ireland needs to appoint an Election Commission to create a modern, up-to-date absentee ballot process that meets the EU standards of citizenship and human rights.

Third, establish a commission in 2016 to explore the right of all citizens to vote on future constitutional referendums, and the creation of a diaspora 5-seater constituency in the Dáil, with a report released by the end of 2017.

Fourth, build upon success of the first Global Irish Civic Forum by extending its engagement, strengthening self-organisation for a return Forum in June 2017, and a major event in June 2019.

Finally, the Irish people who boldly took Ireland into the 21st Century by voting Yes to support same-sex marriage in the recent referendum need to be equally bold and demand equal citizenship for their sons and daughters now living abroad.

The Easter Proclamation signed by seven brave patriots called for the “allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman”. Irish citizens proudly affirm their allegiance to the Republic wherever they are around the world. At the same time, they seek their “equal rights and equal opportunities” as Irish citizens and desire to be full participants in the growth of a 21st century Irish Republic.

The time has come to fulfil the promise of the Rising and give Irish citizens living abroad their Constitutional birthright as citizens: the right to vote and be full participants in the democratic life of the Republic.

Kevin Sullivan is a co-founder of Votingrights.ieand former chairman of the board of the Washington Ireland Program.