Living abroad should not stop you having a say at home

 

OPINION:The imminent general election will be diminished without the voice of one group being heard – the emigrant Irish

I KNOW what some, many perhaps, of the Irish abroad are thinking today. “General election? I’m booking my flight home right now,” chirped one ex-pat friend on tweeter last week as the political implosion took shape. “Can’t wait to go back to vote them out,” chimed another.

It is refreshing to see such enthusiasm for democracy – which only makes it doubly sad that few, if any, of these politically engaged emigrants will be legally allowed to vote if they do turn up at an Irish polling station.

Under our electoral law, unless you are “ordinarily resident” in the country (that is, living in Ireland on September 1st in the year before the voting register comes into force) you cannot cast a ballot in elections. To live outside the Republic of Ireland and attempt to vote constitutes electoral fraud and carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

I live in the UK, where the contrast with British passport holders could not be starker. As the Electoral Commission says on its website: “Yorkshire puddings, pubs, and having a good debate over a decent cup of tea with an old friend are just a few things you may miss while you’re overseas. But living abroad doesn’t stop you having your say back home.”

If you’re Irish it does.

More than 110 countries allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Ireland, with its long history of emigration, is not among of them. Unlike citizens of, say, Ghana, Germany or the Dominican Republic, Irish people living outside the republic are barred from directly participating in the electoral process. Greece, the only other EU member with a similar policy, is in the process of amending its legislation following a successful appeal by two Greek nationals living in France that the law breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

Emigrant voting rights have been on the political agenda in Ireland before, most recently in the 1990s when proposals were put forward to elect representatives of the diaspora to the Seanad. Although these comparatively piecemeal suggestions came to naught, the Irish abroad’s clamour for greater involvement in political life back home now seems set to intensify.

After a hiatus during the Celtic Tiger days, emigration is once again a reality for hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women. According to the Central Statistics Office, between 2006 and 2010 emigration reached a level not seen since the late 1980s. The Economic and Social Research Institute says that about 1,000 people are leaving Ireland every week.

Just how many of the Irish people moving to the US, Australia, Canada, the UK and other places around the world realise that they lose their vote when they leave is unclear. That they are being disenfranchised is beyond doubt.

As Noreen Bowden, editor of GlobalIrishVote.com, has pointed out, denying emigrants their right to vote has long suited Irish political elites: “Ireland’s refusal to allow emigrants voting rights is a tremendous advantage for the insiders of the political establishment, ensuring that a big proportion of those most affected by the economic downturn won’t be around to cast their verdict.”

A popular argument for maintaining the electoral status quo is that with 70 million people of Irish descent living across the globe, the numbers of overseas voters would dwarf the Irish electorate. As ever, the reality is at odds with the rhetoric. That 70 million figure represents the Irish diaspora in its broadest sense, not Irish passport holders living abroad. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, there are about three million in the latter category. For a population of less than 4.5 million, that is a significant number. But based on the figures for expatriate voting from the UK and elsewhere, only a small proportion of those would be expected to vote.

But as it stands, as Ireland gears up for arguably the most important election since the foundation of the State, the voices of countless emigrants will not be heard. Ireland deserves change. Allowing those who have left, many forced out by the Government’s disastrous economic mismanagement, a fair say in the country’s future would be a step in the right direction.


Peter Geoghegan is editor of Political Insight, which is published online and in Edinburgh