Importance of the diaspora hitting home

WORLD VIEW: It’s time we had a representative body for the 70 million people claiming Irish affiliations, writes PAUL GILLESPIE…

WORLD VIEW:It's time we had a representative body for the 70 million people claiming Irish affiliations, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

THE IRISH diaspora is once more in vogue, following the Celtic Tiger years when its potential was less well regarded. That changed drastically when the collapse came last year.

As a result, official Ireland is paying much more attention to the Irish abroad, and notably to its economic elite, as seen in the September Farmleigh conference. The Government is now creating a global network dedicated to economic renewal.

But there is still a great numbness about any wider political or representational role for the overseas Irish. Successive efforts to secure voting rights for the estimated 3.5 million Irish citizens abroad, or for the one million or so Irish-born of them, came to nothing. Even a modest representation in the Seanad rather than the Dáil proved unacceptable (although TCD and UCD graduates overseas have votes there).

This puts us in the same boat as many other states which do not allow such rights (or tightly restrict them as we do to diplomats and military personnel on official business abroad), such as India, Hungary or South Africa. But most states do allow votes from abroad, including Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Britain.

This is one way to encourage identification between diasporas and homelands, even if turnout is often low. It is an important civic right in an era of globalisation, migration and easier communications. No other state except the US links external representation to taxation, as was frequently argued here against the idea.

Admittedly our virtually unique single transferable vote and multimember proportional representation system would make it unwieldy if emigrants were to vote in home constituencies. But other mechanisms could be used, as in Italy and Portugal, where there are special external constituencies (see for more details).

Given the scale of Ireland’s problems, votes for the Irish abroad may seem a low priority. But that may not be so, if it is considered along with the Farmleigh initiative and renewed debate on political reform.

Reforming the Seanad or abolishing it could give new impetus to this discussion. So could introducing a limited list system in the Dáil. Many other European states do not require ministers to be members of parliament, for example. If the entrepreneurial talent available overseas is as bright as suggested, a way could be found to bring some of this talent into the political system, even into the cabinet.

One way to do that would be to examine alternative ways of representing the Irish abroad, aside from the selected group brought together by Irish embassies and agencies at Farmleigh. Other European states have set up councils to represent expatriates, facilitate dialogue and consultation – including on economic development – and act as a vehicle for welfare and cultural initiatives. They vary from those bringing together representatives directly elected by associations; to councils of citizens or emigrants directly or indirectly elected; to mixed systems combining direct election and co-option.

These councils have more political legitimacy among citizens living abroad than ad-hoc groups or those drawn from established private or cultural networks. In principle the same argument applies in the Irish case. A good example can be drawn from Greece. The World Council of Hellenes Abroad was set up in 1995 to consult with and advise the Greek state. Originally drawn from four major geographical constituencies, it has since been expanded to seven world regions, with an estimated 20 million people.

After 14 years, it is now a stronger and more representative organisation, with an effective executive council and president elected on a four-year term. Much of its work is concerned with Orthodoxy, but it also organises economic and scientific networks intended to benefit Greeks as a whole. While it has some state finance and organisational backup, much of the funding comes from donations and its own activities. It is supported by the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad, a section of the foreign ministry with 70 employees (see

Such institutional structures are no guarantee of a successful relationship between states and their citizens living abroad, but they can engage people and provide a representative focus.

The tangled history of Irish emigration as the safety valve for a conservative society conveniently ridding itself of the most dissatisfied men and women of each generation explains much about how neglectfully they were treated until the 1990s by official Ireland. Now that emigration is resuming, new structures would maintain links.

A Council of the Irish Abroad could be organised as a representative body for the 70 million people claiming some Irish affiliations, and it could have at least seven major constituencies.

It could be set up on a North-South basis, with a broad remit to cover economic, cultural, social and political affairs, drawing on established sources of funding but stimulated by some State support. It could plug in to our economic and political system through regular gatherings in Ireland and elsewhere.

It should be imagined as a galaxy, with Ireland as a sun and the overseas communities as stars in their own right, rather than as a tree in which the Irish abroad are too dependent on the mother country.