An issue that will not go away—votes for Irish citizens abroad

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Platform, Volume 24


By Mary J. Hickman

Above: ‘Whose diaspora is it anyway?’—Mary Hickman speaking at the History Ireland Hedge School at the annual Transatlantic Connections conference in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, on 16 January 2016. (Brian Drummond)

Above: ‘Whose diaspora is it anyway?’—Mary Hickman speaking at the History Ireland Hedge School at the annual Transatlantic Connections conference in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, on 16 January 2016. (Brian Drummond)

When citizens leave Ireland they continue to have the right to vote in Irish elections and referendums for eighteen months. This status has not changed since the Electoral Act of 1963. In the 50 years since, dozens of countries around the world have altered their laws to enable citizens abroad to participate more fully in their political systems. Why not Ireland? The size of the diaspora is often cited as a reason, and the red herring of taxation is also brought up, but it may be that a more fundamental reason lies in the deep ambivalence of Ireland towards the issues raised by its long history of emigration.

From the beginning of the new state in the 1920s a slippery line was trod between deploring emigration and glorying in the diaspora. A wish for people to return ‘home’ has existed in tandem with the fervent hope that barriers to Irish emigration would not be erected in receiver countries. The Irish state held its breath many times between the 1930s and the 1960s, when there were periodic calls in Britain for restrictions to be imposed on immigration from Ireland. And in the 1980s it vigorously supported the campaign of Irish illegals in the United States to be granted favourable terms of entry to the USA, resulting in thousands of Donnelly and Morrison visas for Irish immigrants.
Contradictions have been threaded through the Irish state’s policies towards the diaspora, as historian Mary Daly noted in her O’Donnell lecture, ‘The Irish State and the Diaspora’, in 2008. On the one hand, Irish emigrants were encouraged, especially in Britain, to assimilate and play a full part in the political and social life of the country in which they settled. A minister at a St Patrick’s Day event in London in 1966 urged them to reject ‘maudlin sentimentality about the “old country”’. On the other hand, increasingly the diaspora came to be seen as an important element in enhancing Irish prestige and trade abroad. This latter strategy required that individuals retain their ethnic identifications rather than fully assimilating.

In the mid-twentieth century there were few consular services for Irish emigrants, and in many parts of the world they used the local British embassy. The Irish government resolutely took the position that the condition of Irish citizens in Britain was not their business. Two events prompted a partial rethink of the Irish state’s policies towards the diaspora: the beginning of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in 1968 and renewed heavy emigration in the 1980s. Owing to the former, Irish ministers wanted to forge closer links with different layers of community leaders; owing to the latter, far greater demands were placed on the Irish government by an emigrant generation who did not expect it to be that way. The provision of consular services and grants for welfare assistance, plus inviting Irish people beyond the élite to embassy receptions, only systematically dates from the late 1980s.
In the 1990s, in the wake of the latest outflow from Ireland, one demand that surfaced strongly was that of votes for Irish citizens abroad. Lobbying groups sprang up, such as Glór an Deorai in Britain, the Irish Emigrant Vote Campaign in the USA and Irish Votes Abroad in Australia. In March 1991, after much lobbying, a private member’s bill was introduced by Gerry O’Sullivan TD (Labour spokesman on emigration); it was narrowly defeated 66–62. If passed, this bill would have given emigrants the right to vote for up to fifteen years after becoming non-resident.
The bill had been opposed by the government ‘for reasons of principle, practical and administrative reality’, according to the then minister for the environment, Padraig Flynn. In December 1991 a feasibility study of the issue included documents from the then British prime minister, John Major, and other British authorities, stating that if recent Irish emigrants resident in Britain were given the right to vote in Ireland it would not affect their voting rights in Britain. It was even stressed that this would merely be balancing the equation, since British citizens living in the Republic are entitled to vote in British elections for fifteen years after becoming non-resident and, after legislative change in 1984, could also vote in elections for the Dáil.

This unusual arrangement exists because of a deal struck between the two governments in the 1950s that facilitated lowering the unemployment rate and avoiding potential social unrest (for the Irish government) and the growth of the labour market (for the British government). This situation does not benefit Irish citizens elsewhere in the world. Unless they take out citizenship of the country in which they settle, Irish citizens in the USA, Australia and most other countries have no vote in any general election.

Back in the 1990s the reasons given for not proceeding largely revolved around constitutional issues at first. There is, in fact, nothing in the Irish constitution that would prevent external citizens from voting in national elections; it requires legislative rather than constitutional change. Indeed, close scrutiny of Articles 1 and 2 of the constitution demonstrates that the key distinction drawn is between citizens and non-citizens, even if the latter are of Irish descent.

Above: Two members of Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) posting a letter to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February 2016, making the case for votes for Irish citizens abroad. (VICA)

Above: Two members of Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) posting a letter to Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February 2016, making the case for votes for Irish citizens abroad. (VICA)

With the constitutional argument holding little water, Irish governments in the 1990s began raising the argument of ‘no representation without taxation’. This diversionary tactic, still frequently used today, is of little substance. Voting is linked to citizenship, not taxation. This is not an issue for other countries that extend the right to vote to their citizens abroad. ‘No representation without taxation’ is a bogus argument that erroneously cites the United States of America as a precedent. In fact, the cry of the American Revolution was for ‘No taxation without representation’, a far more expansively democratic claim.

In the 1990s various governments got no joy from offering the Irish abroad three seats in the Senate. The main groups, Glór an Deorai and the Irish Emigrant Vote Campaign, continued to call for voting rights in all national elections. In the general election of spring 1997 Fianna Fáil’s policy document promised to introduce emigrant voting rights by the year 2000; on the party’s gaining power this did not happen.
With the crash of the Celtic Tiger and a large outflow of Irish citizens since 2008 the votes issue has resurfaced. This generation of emigrants expected to have to leave Ireland even less than those in the 1980s. Often angry, completely connected by social media to friends, family and news in Ireland, a focus for their frustration has been for many their disenfranchisement.

The government published its new diaspora policy document, Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy in 2015. In it the Irish government acknowledges that the issue of voting rights in Irish elections is of ‘enormous importance to many Irish citizens abroad’, as well as the existence of ‘well organized and vocal campaigns’ on the issue. They note that the Convention on the Constitution in 2013 came out clearly in favour of citizens resident outside the state having the right to vote in presidential elections, including those in Northern Ireland. This was welcomed as an important first step by many of the campaigns, especially in Britain and the USA. The promised policy statement and referendum on the subject have yet to materialise.

Irish citizens abroad are stakeholders in Irish society; their continuing social attachments and ties, and often their financial commitments and obligations, ensure that their well-being is at least in part bound up with Ireland and the direction the country takes. Being present on the territory of the state is not a necessary condition for their being subject to its collectively binding decisions. Denying any (competent) citizen or group of citizens their right to participate as an equal member of the democratic community in the decision-making process is to deny their status as citizens. No wonder many emigrants are angry.

Mary J. Hickman is Professor of Irish Studies at St Mary’s University, London, and chair of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) campaign.


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