Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Please Let Me Vote

Last night in Geneva I had the pleasure to be invited by (recently ensconced) Ambassador Gerry Corr to a reception at his modest lakeside apartment on the occasion of Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin being in town. About 30 or so Irish people from international affairs - mainly Red Cross, UN and civil society folk - made up the numbers. This was my first time to see such a group assembled in Geneva (the self-declared humanitarian capital of the world) so fair play to the Ambassador for the initiative.

Minister Martin spoke passionately and, I would say, sincerely about the importance for Ireland to have its citizens working in international affairs. “We need to value more the international perspective and experience that you can bring to Ireland” he told the assembled guests. "We need to connect more and find more means and fora to bring the ‘international Irish’ closer to the national scene."

Great stuff. I am all for it and would contribute in any way I could but I can’t help thinking to myself: if we are so important why can’t we vote? This is something that really frustrates me. As a child of the hungry eighties I remember well the self-defeating advice of Minister Brian Lenihan Snr. for us to get out of the country because "after all, we can't all live on a small island."

The sentiments expressed so well last year by Brendan Landers in the Irish Times resonated deeply with me and with most people I know who are in similar circumstances:

“Most of us who left Ireland during the 1980s ... went away not because we had itchy feet, had found our Eldorado or fallen in love with an exotic foreigner, but because Ireland had nothing to offer us.

No jobs, no opportunities, no scope to follow our dreams or aspire to even a modicum of success in life. The Irish economy was broken and it would take a miracle to fix it.
Along with the dismal state of the nation's finances, there was a sense that whatever wealth existed was hoarded greedily by a coterie of well-connected professionals, wide boys and golden circles. The land of our birth offered us nothing but tacit encouragement to leave.”

The point being that by leaving Ireland we did not willingly give up our voting rights. After almost 20 years abroad I have hungrily kept abreast of Irish current affairs (big thanks to the Irish Emigrant online newsletter being published since 1994 by fellow Galwegian Liam Ferrie) and I desperately want to use the hard-won democratic right to vote.

And I can’t resist wondering what type of country or what form of political culture or system might have evolved if the eligible voting diaspora were allowed to participate and exercise thier vote.

By way of comparison, a 2006 study by Global Irish of countries that allow their emigrants to vote included: 21 African nations; 13 North and South American countries; 15 Asian countries; 6 Pacific countries; and 36 European countries.

I know the Irish diaspora is reputed to contain as many as 80 million people and I am not advocating for a population more than ten times that of the island of Ireland to start voting. What is needed is fair but restrictive criteria such as: leaving cert graduate; Irish university degree holder (achieved at the end of an Irish primary and secondary education); born and resident in Ireland till the age of 16; certified apprentice; or similar i.e. citizens who know what it is to be part of modern day Ireland and who have emigrated for work and opportunities that were not possible at home (and yes, it is still home).

And, to fully underscore the earnestness of this very fair (in my opinion) demand I would also propose that Irish diaspora wishing to vote (and meeting the established criteria) should also make an agreed annual contribution to the Inland Revenue. Now, isn’t that a potentially good income generator for our beleagured economy? 

Am particularly keen to hear what my compatriots living in Ireland think of giving the vote to the recent diaspora. Should I and my wife not have a say in the Ireland that I want my children to return to? What of all those young, bright souls forced to leave Ireland today for instance – should they never vote again? Is that fair? Is that good for Ireland? 



  1. "And, to fully underscore the earnestness of this very fair (in my opinion) demand I would also propose that Irish diaspora wishing to vote (and meeting the established criteria) should also make an agreed annual contribution to the Inland Revenue"

    Bollocks to that. Voting is a right, not something to be bought.

  2. Fair point Gerard. It was a pre-emptive suggestion as I know that in most (if not all) countries that allow their expats to vote, there is also a 'tax relationship' between voter and country. The fact that many Irish expats do not pay tax in Ireland is also an argument given by some who think we do not have a right to vote.

  3. Who are these people who think that Irish expats should not be allowed to vote here just because they don't pay tax here. ??
    The way things are panning out, more and more Irish people will become unemployed, fall below the tax line etc. Does that mean that they will not be allowed to vote, just because they don't pay tax. Of course not. ! So, why penalise the expats for not paying tax. ?

    Bottom line, I think that it is shocking that the expats cannot vote. Many may not want to. But, hopefully, a lot of them will want a say in how their country is run. A greater hope is that some of them will want to return home and maybe, just maybe, decisions they make on a polling card will bring that about a lot quicker than would have happened had they no say at all.

    Sorry for rambling and being simplistic about the matter.

  4. Great post! But Gerard and Marian are right on the taxes - no other developed nation links them, and the US is the only developed country that taxes its expats. There isn't a single country in the EU that taxes its expats, and almost all of them let them vote.

    It's totally undemocratic to require payment in return for the opportunity to vote.

    You're making a totally fair point about the way Irish people abroad are being asked to make a contribution to Ireland - Ireland is seeking to use the experience of the Irish abroad in a whole host of new ways, which is innovative and much to be applauded. But how long can we refuse to allow our expats to have the same kind of voice that they get to have in just about every developed country?

    Even the prime minister of India, a country that policy makers in Ireland point to as a leader in diaspora-home country relations, has announced he wants to facilitate emigrants to vote in the next election. It's an emerging issue in Israel as well, where the prime minister has also proposed it.

  5. Next time you are home, go to your local Garda station and put yourself on the register. If you want to vote, rather than make a tax contribution you simply pay for a flight home at election time. I lived abroad for years yet my voting card always came to the family home.

  6. Was going to write the exact same as Dave. What we really want is the postal vote to save us giving that bolix O'Leary any money

  7. Dave thanks for the advice however it is not very practicable in reality. Should my wife and I (with all the kids) really have to fly home every time there is a general election or referendum? Wouldn't it be far better for the government to facilitate our voting rights by allowing us to either post our votes or register them through local embassies and consulates? It's also a question of time: time off work, time to take the kids out of school, time to travel (good job I don't live in New Zealand, or Japan, or San Francisco etc.). It might be workable for single folk in London but other than that it's not a solution in my view.

  8. So are you suggesting that all Irish citizens (i.e. entitled to an Irish Passport) be entitled to vote regardless of where they are resident? That sounds fair enough. I strongly disagree with your suggestion that it be based on education qualifications attained -- if you fail maths in the leaving cert do you lose your right to vote? What about unskilled migrant workers?

    The real issue, of course, is not who gets to vote, but having someone worth voting for. Even a vote for Gilmore will put IndaKinny in office.

  9. Hi Dave - I didn't propose that voting be linked to educational achievement that would be plainly ridiculous and discriminatory. What I was trying to do was constructively propose criteria to ensure that 80 million diaspora are not all of a sudden eligible to vote - as many of these include 3rd generation Irish for instance it is not realistic that's why I was trying to narrow the field to people who have been schooled in Ireland (or done an apprenticeship) or could otherwise prove that they spent most of their younger years born and reared in Ireland. There are over 50m Irish passports issued so just holding a passport cannot automatically entitle you to vote it will have to be narrower i.e. to define criteria for 'real' and 'recent' emigrants otherwise it will never work and never be accepted or even discussed at governmental level.

  10. Dave, the idea of registering and returning home to vote is NOT legal...

    Irish people do not retain the right to vote when they live abroad. You are only entitled to vote if you are ordinarily resident in Ireland and you could subject yourself to prosecution if you come back home to vote.

    Here's a bit more on the subject - from when a former taoiseach was reported to the gardai for voting in the Lisbon referendum. (He was not ultimately charged, however! The situation highlighted the need for the law to catch up with today's realities, when temporary migration is more common than ever.)

    There's simply no compromise situation for people living abroad. I think it would be a great start if Irish people living abroad had the option to return home to vote (though it would clearly favour those in the UK and the continent) - although I wonder if there's some kind of de facto situation developing now, whereby some emigrants are returning home, believing they can vote, and doing so? Reuters and CafeBabel both reported on people taking the plane home from Brussels to vote in Lisbon II, and it seemed at least some of those quoted were resident abroad (and clearly the reporters didn't realise what the legal situation was.)

    Paul, there are actually only 3 million Irish passport holders living abroad, but I agree with you that passport holding shouldn't be the criteria. Perhaps limiting it to those born here would be a good start? A few countries limit the vote to those who have been out of the country for a number of years - (The UK recently went from 20 years down to 15 years as the amount of time you can be out of the country and vote.)