- 28 Feb 19
While there is considerable support for voting rights for Irish people overseas, the practicalities have yet to be teased out. It is an issue that needs to be carefully considered.
So many urgent matters are on the boil right now. Brexit is the most threatening, but there are others, especially in public health. As the nurses suspend their industrial action, the fiasco of the National Children’s Hospital comes crashing centre-stage. And what about those sinister developments in Rooskey?
The nurses’ dispute gave the Irish media plenty of scope to canvass opinions among the many Irish nurses working in other countries. One strand of response echoed Irish emigres in other domains. You can boil it down to a simple sentiment: I’m having a great time here, pay and conditions are fabulous, weather’s good, Ireland is shit, I’m never coming back. It’s essentially an Instagram post: look how great my life is you sad, soggy, impoverished losers. The fact that Dubai is an appalling apartheid State or that women are treated like dirt in Saudi Arabia is never mentioned. No matter: the emigrant nurses said other things too, citing wretched conditions for both staff and patients. For many, this was the primary reason for staying away, even though their departure probably started out as either short-term economic migration or adventure. Well, one of the policy debates set for later this year concerns votes for these emigrants and others. There is talk of a referendum. Everyone was deeply moved at how tens of thousands of Irish émigrés returned to vote in the marriage equality referendum in 2015. They are seen as concerned and progressive people who are heavily invested in Ireland, Irish life and times, and should be Given-The-Vote. While sentiment in Ireland is broadly in favour of the idea of voting rights for Irish overseas, as happens in many other countries, it is not clear how this would operate. So how it would play out in practice. And what can we say about the numbers involved? KISS ME, I’M IRISH At a million, or 17%, Ireland has the highest proportion of citizens living beyond its borders among OECD countries. And that’s just those who were born in Ireland. In addition, there are many who claim Irish citizenship through ancestry and who carry Irish passports. Brexit has greatly increased those numbers. Apparently, close to 200,000 British passport-holders have applied for Irish passports, 84,855 from Northern Ireland and 98,544 from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). There’s also a large, number of people holding Irish passports, who have never actually lived in Ireland, read an Irish newspaper or paid Irish taxes. Or felt the cold of an Irish winter! They may have worn a hat saying “kiss me, I’m Irish” at a St Patrick’s Day parade somewhere, which is okay. They may also support Donald Trump. After all, he seems to have an unnaturally large number of Irish-Americans in his team. So, they may be anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Choice, but they’re the diaspora too, right? On top of that, there’s the wider diaspora: the tens, if not hundreds, of millions who claim Irish descent and could conceivably procure a passport in the future. On the flip side, over 24,000 Irish became Australian citizens in the past decade. According to InterNations, 42% of Irish expats want to stay abroad forever. Good for them. But should they still be able to vote in Irish elections? The basis on which other countries offer a vote to their émigrés is that the individual isn’t exercising a comparable vote in their adopted country. We allow citizens of EU countries to vote in local elections, but not national. So they vote in their own countries’ national elections. In what elections might the diaspora be entitled to vote? The government have identified Presidential elections, on the grounds that it’s a largely ceremonial and representative role – a strange comment on the importance of the Presidency. The view from Hog Heights is that it makes sense to allow emigrants who would be entitled to vote if they still lived in Ireland to have a say in who becomes President, as long as a mechanism can be found to distinguish them. But we’re really wary of simply allowing everyone who holds a passport to vote in any election. You also have to watch for creating arrangements that are open to legal challenge – with who knows what effect. On our recent excursion to SE Asia, we encountered many young Irish. A lot of them are from Northern Ireland and don’t have a vote in Ireland. But if anyone with an Irish passport could register to vote with the Irish embassy, a person who couldn’t vote if they were at home could vote if they were away. That bizarre anomaly might trigger a range of challenges from people in Northern Ireland. Maybe that would be a good thing. But we need to think about it very carefully – for obvious reasons. As Brexit has underlined, some of them have an anti-Irish agenda. The best solution may lie with the Seanad. The then Government’s proposal to abolish it was narrowly defeated in the referendum of 2013. At the time, many argued that it needed reform rather than abolition. Here’s an opportunity. While deep tissue changes might require approval in a referendum, there is one that could be organised quickly, if politicians got themselves in gear. There are six university seats: three voted for by Trinity College graduates and three by NUI graduates. The former were written into the Constitution in 1937 to guarantee representation for Protestants, the latter were there to provide a Catholic counterweight, at the insistence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. In 2019, this is manifestly unjust. We have many more universities now, not to mention other higher education institutions. Some minor colleges have their degrees issued by NUI, others don’t, thereby foregoing a vote in Seanad elections for their graduates. It’s riddled with inequities. One interpretation of the relevant article in the Constitution suggests that the Government could establish a single six-seat university constituency by legislation and extend the relevant franchise to graduates of all higher education colleges. That would include a very high proportion of modern emigrants. The only remaining issue would be mobilising them to register to vote. This is in no way a criticism of our university senators. Over the years, many of them have made exceptional, historic contributions to Irish public life and it is likely that this will continue. True, others have been chancers, cowboys and stooges of the clergy. In all probability a high proportion of the current senators would be re-elected under the arrangements I suggest. But their mandate would be more sustainable and emigrants – or at least some of them, with a strong connection to Ireland – would be having their say too. Over to you, Leo.