Irish in UK slow to back calls for voting rights in presidential elections

Constitutional Convention to debate emigrant voting rights

Irish people living in Britain have been slow to back calls for extending voting rights to emigrants in presidential elections, the Constitutional Convention has said. Photograph: Frank Miller / The Irish Times

Irish people living in Britain have been slow to back calls for extending voting rights to emigrants in presidential elections, the Constitutional Convention has said.

Just one in twenty of the surveys completed on the Convention’s website have come from Irish living in Britain, even though “pretty decent responses” have been garnered from Irish in 49 countries, emigrants’ groups in London were told yesterday.

The issue will be debated by the Constitutional Convention, which is chaired by the former head of Concern, Mr Tom Arnold, at a weekend meeting later this September.

Saying that a report and recommendations should be ready within a month, or so afterwards, Mr Arnold told emigrants’ representatives that the degree of backing given by emigrants would “be part of the moral suasion”


Claire Barry, who leads Mind Yourself, a health charity working with the Irish in London, said her organisation did not have a view on voting rights "which is fairly representative of what is going in the Irish community, where, in general, there is apathy".

Responding to London-based Irish comedian, Daire O Briain's declaration last week that he would feel as if he was "intruding" if he voted in an Irish election, Martin Collins of the Irish in Britain organisation said: "What makes him feel like that?

“I have not found any noting of citizenship around the world in any democratic country that does not have the right to vote as part of that. It isn’t a question of giving citizens abroad the vote. It is a question of justifying why they shouldn’t have it.”

However, Labour councillor, Sally Mulready, a member of President Michael D. Higgins' Council of State, said some in Britain believe that the right to vote in presidential elections has been already won: "I don't take it as being read at all," she said.

Many in Irish emigrants' organisations would believe that they should be allowed to vote in Dáil and Seanad elections, not just the presidential - a right that is currently enjoyed by the citizens of 24 out of 28 European Union states living outside their home country.

Proposing that emigrants should be able to elect three TDs, businessman Andy Rogers, a holder of the President's Distinguished Service Award, said Irish politicians are "slightly scared" about opening up "the Pandora's Box of emigrant voting rights".

Gwendolen Morgan of the London Irish Lawyers Association said many are leaving Ireland in "Ryanair coffin-ships", but they will not have "a voice on the policies that may decide if they ever have a chance of returning, or not".

Some young emigrants, particularly, seem to believe that they can continue to vote at home if they keep their name on the voting register: “I have to tell them that that is illegal,” said Sheila O’Connor, who runs a day-care centre in Euston.

A presidential election vote would offer a limited voice for emigrants, said Conrad Bryan, who was raised in Dublin by an Irish mother and South African father, who pointed out that Eamon De Valera, James Connolly and Jim Larkin had all been born outside of Ireland.

During a meeting in the London School of Economics Mr Arnold speculated that a second convention may have to be held to consider reforms calls that cannot be handled by the existing 100-strong body.

Dr Mary Hickman, chair of Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad, acknowledged that many Irish have left voluntarily, but many others have not and they often cannot return when they want to do so because of the country’s economic situation.

Dr Marc Scully of the University of Leicester said the debate in Ireland often revolves around Irish people “labelling other Irish people as not being authentically enough Irish”, where citizenship is defined territorially.

Criticising the Convention, John Coyne, of "Le Chéile – the North East of England Irish" said some Irish living in Britain, said offering Irish emigrants the right to vote in presidential elections, but nothing else could be little more than "a sop".

Noting that some seem "to be despairing" about engaging Irish emigrants in the debate, Mr Coyne said President Michael D. Higgins, during his time in the Dáil, had been the only senior Irish politician who had been "vociferous" on the issue.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times