Is it time we had some more emigrant Senators?

Ted Smyth: There is a belief Irish voters could reject a referendum on votes for the diaspora in presidential elections over fears of a future outsize vote. So here’s an alternative proposal

Why should we care about Irish America? Some in Ireland wrongly think of it as an inferior and more conservative form of Irishness. But the reality is that the end of the Catholic Church’s predominance over Irish-American life has resulted in the flowering of a new cultural and diverse expression of their identity.

It is in Ireland’s strategic interests as a small, vulnerable island economy to sustain its special relationship with the United States, as underlined by the memorable state visit last month of the “most Irish US president”. This was an opportunity to reflect on the political and economic power of Irish-Americans like Joe Biden, and how we as Irish people can help prevent that power from ageing out in the US.

As the Economist magazine observed a few years ago, “Ireland’s soft-power triumph in the United States is mainly testament to the continued enthusiasm of 32 million Irish-Americans for their heritage, and to their equally remarkable dominance of American politics.” If we lose this enthusiasm, we lose a very powerful political ally for Ireland. This soft power is crucial for political and economic reasons, including the US acting as a continuing guarantor for the Belfast Agreement and for sustaining the ongoing prosperity of Ireland, thanks to American investment and the flow of Irish-American visitors.

Once identified only with Democrats, Irish-Americans have become prominent in both political parties and, as one of the rising political stars congressman Brendan Boyle put it, “continue to be over-represented numerically when it comes to Washington, DC, whether in Congress or the White House”.


Irish-American politicians will act as an advocacy arm for Ireland so long as they believe that Irish-American voters care about this country and identify as Irish. President Biden makes that identification very popular in the US – where most people have multiple ethnicities from which to choose – by equating middle-class values with being Irish, making Irish identity a positive attribute in contrast with the fighting Irish stereotype of the past. As Ed Luce noted in the Financial Times, “Biden’s account of that value – getting up when you are knocked down, making a better life for your children, judging a person’s honesty by the sweat on their brow – is indistinguishable from how he depicts Irishness.” As one observer quipped, “What’s not to like about that?” According to a nationwide poll of Irish-Americans, the majority share this compassion, including President Biden’s support for the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage, despite the vehement opposition of the US Catholic bishops.

Five years ago, the Irish Government promised to hold a referendum granting voting rights in Irish presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad to enhance their engagement with Ireland. But despite endless assurances, nothing has happened

Following a memorable week of being in Ireland with President Biden, president Clinton and senior Irish-American politicians like senator Ed Markey and Congress members Richie Neal and Mary Gay Scanlon, I participated in the Global Irish Civic Forum hosted by Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Minister of State for Diaspora Sean Fleming. Attended by hundreds of representatives of the international Irish network, one of the forum’s goals was to address how to engage the changing Irish diaspora identity in a 21st century, post-pandemic context. The Irish Government should be commended for its initiatives so far to reach this next generation, including the Emigrant Support Programme, the Irish Abroad Unit, and the establishment of new consulates in key cities.

But frankly, it is not enough. Five years ago, the Irish Government promised to hold a referendum granting voting rights in Irish presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad to enhance their engagement with Ireland. But despite endless assurances, nothing has happened. Reading between the lines, there seems to be a belief that Irish voters might reject such a referendum due to fears of a future outsize vote from citizens overseas, who don’t pay Irish taxes, distorting the outcome.

So, what should we do? Rather than continuing to beat our head against the wall – the definition of insanity – why not adapt the Seanad composition to include four representatives to be elected by Irish citizens overseas to a new international panel, complementing other panels such as those for agriculture, labour etc? In practice, these senators would act like four versions of Billy Lawless, who was a very effective senator for the Irish diaspora appointed by Enda Kenny. Irish-Americans would potentially then have their own senator who could represent their interests and give a voice to their concerns and needs.

If the Government would support this initiative and the Irish people voted for the referendum, it would send a very positive message to Irish-Americans and other Irish abroad that the Irish nation does indeed “cherish its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad”.

With close to 30,000 nationals emigrating from and returning to Ireland annually, the international panel would help the Seanad understand how best to assist these “sojourner” Irish, including on such basics as quicker access to driving licences.

It is about time that Ireland did something tangible to recognise and energise the Irish abroad and to continue to retain vital international connections and the soft power that flows from the love of people of Irish descent for Ireland. Rather than question the expression of that love, it is time to return the love.

Ted Smyth is president of the Advisory Board of Glucksman Ireland House in New York University and a member of the Irish Americans for Biden Committee.