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Irish people aged 25 to 44 are emigrating again. Giving them the vote in Irish elections is a no-brainer

It’s unfair and undemocratic to not allow citizens abroad to have a say in the shape of the country. It’s also shortsighted

On the face of it, the theme for the scattering of Irish politicians around the globe for St Patrick’s Day 2024 is a worthy one. “Ireland’s Future in the World”, we are told, will preoccupy the minds of 38 Ministers as they jet off to 86 cities in 48 countries.

The Department of Foreign Affairs press release proclaims that the emissaries will focus on “young Irish people, and our diaspora, and their perspectives about the world of the future and Ireland’s place in it”.

But if Ireland really wants to harvest the perspectives of both young people and the diaspora, there’s a more effective way to go about it – to allow citizens abroad, or at least some of them, to vote.

Most democracies gauge the perspective of their citizens in this way. Candidates campaign. Issues are interrogated. Citizens vote.


In almost all comparable countries, the prospect of allowing citizens abroad to vote is entirely uncontroversial. It’s been normalised. The sky has not fallen in. France and Italy treasure their distant citizens so much they have seats in parliament reserved only for them.

Ireland, however, is an outlier. In Ireland, we’re struggling to even get a referendum together to consider whether non-resident citizens should be allowed to vote in presidential elections. Although this represents progress – if it gets to a public vote and passes – this an Irish solution to an Irish problem. In the last presidential election, almost six in 10 eligible Irish voters didn’t show up to vote. The election Ireland cares least about is the one for which the franchise is extended.

Meanwhile Irish in their 20s and 30s, it seems, are again voting with their feet, and you might think elected decision-makers would want to know why. According to the Central Statistics Office, annual emigration for the year to April 2023 is above 60,000 for the first time since 2016. Exactly half (32,300 people) of the total emigrants in the year to April 2023 were aged between 25 and 44 years.

Migrant arrivals into Australia from Ireland increased from 3,260 in 2021-22 to 11,080 in 2022-23. Meanwhile, more than 21,000 Irish citizens were granted working holiday visas in Australia in the 12 months to July 2023, the highest recorded number in more than 16 years. Irish accents are again conspicuous here in Sydney. In offices. In hospitals. In cafes and pubs. But when the next general election comes, these recent departees will be non-citizens. Their “perspectives” will not matter a jot.

It was back in 2011 that Minister Simon Coveney said it was “obscene” that young Irish leaving the country in droves “would not have the opportunity to choose future governments”. But nothing has changed. Why? Isn’t Ireland interested in what those who should be part of its next generation think?

Whenever I raise the question during trips back to Ireland, the prospect of overseas voting is summarily dismissed. The reasons offered range from “there’s too many citizens abroad” to “no representation without taxation” to “we just wouldn’t be able to manage it”. But perhaps this view does not discriminate between those who have recently left to live and work overseas and the broader cohort of those with Hibernian heritage.

When many Irish people think of the diaspora, they might conjure up an image of someone who looks and sounds like Joe Biden, not, say, 22-year-old rugby hero Joe McCarthy. But how long do you have to be away to become part of the much-vaunted “diaspora”? An Irish nurse leaving today, and bound for Melbourne or Sydney, becomes a second-class citizen as soon as the plane leaves Ireland’s airspace. That is undemocratic and unfair.

During past referendums on marriage equality and the Eighth Amendment, thousands of young citizens responded to the #HometoVote campaign and travelled back to cast their ballot, often at great expense. But expecting eligible voters to fly back for elections is completely unrealistic, especially from Australia. In any case, this narrow window officially closes after 18 months according to the 1992 Electoral Act.

What if there was a system that allowed for recent emigrants to vote in elections but withheld that provision from people like me? (I left Ireland in 1987). It could also exclude those who gain Irish citizenship overseas through heritage or marriage.

Australia has a very pragmatic and reasonable template that could be adapted for Irish use. To register as an overseas elector, you must first be registered to vote in Australia. This means that those who gain citizenship while overseas are ineligible. You must live and enrol in Australia first, and then register as an overseas elector. Such a system in Ireland would mean that the Irish nurse – assuming she is on the electoral roll – could vote in the next general election while an Irish-Australian, who has never lived in Ireland but has gained their citizenship through parentage (like my children, for example) or grandparentage, would not.

The Aussies put a six-year limit on this but it can be renewed. Britain has a 15-year limit. It is designed to keep citizens connected and it works. At embassies and consulates around the planet, Australians gather on election day to vote. It’s a point of connection. The overseas voters feel included, not forgotten. They are not emigrants. They are “Aussies abroad”.

Ireland now has an Electoral Commission. Its chief executive Art O’Leary, speaking on The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast in January, described as “heartwarming” the sight of Brazilian immigrants in Dublin queuing up to vote in their 2022 presidential election. In the future, that heartwarming sight could be Irish citizens lining up to cast votes in Brisbane, Berlin, Boston or Birmingham. Yes, such a scenario would demand that Ireland’s politicians work harder to understand the perspective of citizens abroad, and the reasons why they left. But it would also inevitably lead to a better understanding of Ireland’s future place in the world.

Billy Cantwell is deputy opinion editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He was the founding editor of Australia’s Irish newspaper, The Irish Echo.