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Busting myths ahead of the referendum on allowing the Irish diaspora vote for the President


THE RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT that a referendum will be held prior to 2024 on whether Irish citizens who are resident outside the state should be allowed to cast ballots in presidential elections provoked a strong reaction on social media.

This follows hot on the heels of the publication of the Electoral Reform Bill, which is purposed to modernise all aspects of the country’s election processes and infrastructure.

As an emigrant, I take for granted the fact that I maintain the right to vote in all federal, state and local elections – no matter where I happen to live or how long I have been away – as a citizen of the United States. I was, frankly, stunned when I first learned that non-resident citizens of the nation that has become my home cannot do likewise.

Once they have been outside the jurisdiction for more than 18 months, with the exception of soldiers and diplomats and the University of Dublin and National University of Ireland Seanad Éireann electorates, Irish citizens have no say whatsoever. And I must admit to finding the resistance to moves to alter the status quo equally as stunning as this near wholesale exclusion.

The opposition to change, which borders on the hostile in some instances, is apparently an article of faith for a substantial swathe of the population, including plenty of women and men who I respect and admire, who I think are generally reasonable and who I usually agree with. Most of the arguments they advance in support of their position, however, do not survive serious scrutiny.

Objections

They were trotted out again on Twitter in response to an Irish Independent article featuring the latest news on the topic. Here, I repeat, verbatim, the principal objections that were raised. Then, with some help from the informative website, www.votingrights.ie, I challenge them.

“That will be a flat NO from me! An atrocious idea.”

Some reflexively deem this an unconscionable, radical suggestion. They may be unaware that Ireland is an extreme outlier on this front. Approximately 125 other democracies facilitate the participation of all their citizens, regardless of where they are domiciled, in national and/or local elections.

“70 million people, most of whom have never lived in Ireland, and you want to give them the vote.”

Only Irish citizens would be able to vote; that amounts to 830,000 people living in Northern Ireland and roughly 750,000 Irish passport holders around the world.

“Hope it fails. Imagine Irish American Republicans choosing the president of our country… The yanks have such great experience in the people they elect as president.”

The 40 million or so Americans who claim Irish heritage are heterogeneous in their political beliefs and an oft-mentioned bogeyman. Yet those with at least one Irish-born grandparent – a tiny fraction of the larger Irish American community in the US – alone will be eligible. And within this much smaller cohort, it is very unlikely that a significant percentage will cast ballots.

Critics are prone to cite the elderly gentleman in Chicago with an Irish grandmother born before 1900 who will be enabled to vote. For obvious reasons, the chances he will go to the trouble of doing so are minimal. A vastly more probable voter is the young doctor born and educated in Ireland who is finishing a five-year stint at a hospital in the Windy City and intending to come back.

“If they’re gonna have to pay their taxes here for the privilege, then yeah.”

This is the old “no representation without taxation” canard. Just one developed country that permits citizens abroad to participate – the US – requires them to still file tax returns. And even then, the key word is “file”; only the highest earners ultimately owe anything. The others mandate neither filing nor paying.

Additionally, there are many Irish citizens who don’t live on the island, but who actually contribute more to the exchequer than fellow citizens at home, some of whom might be net “liabilities” on the balance sheets. Reducing the rights that inhere in citizenship to “euro and cents” is a dangerous road to go down.

“People who don’t have to live with the outcome should not be allowed to vote in any election.”

Speaking from experience, at multiple levels, emigrants do have to live with the results of elections in their birthplace. Of course, they have family members and loved ones who are manifestly affected on a daily basis. And when it comes to brass tacks, a wide range of legislation, laws pertaining to tax specifically, continues to apply to them.

Intangibly, though no less importantly, as the referendums on marriage equality and the 8th Amendment demonstrated, Ireland’s democratic decisions are of tremendous personal and emotional consequence to its citizens internationally. It is myopic to deny that, especially given the realities of globalisation, repercussions of elections aren’t felt further afield. Lastly, the Irish presidency is an outward-facing office. The president is a beacon for all Irish people everywhere.

“In other words, Sinn Féin will have a permanent hold on the presidency… President Gerry Adams.”

Despite currently occupying a clear lead in the polls, many will always resolutely loathe the former political wing of the IRA. They fear that Northern Ireland, together with Irish America, would provide Sinn Féin candidates a big advantage. Sinn Féin itself is optimistic that it would benefit.

But there are countervailing truths. First, a December Irish Times survey showed that 62% in the Republic want a united Ireland. The notion of northerners voting in “our” elections is not a remote prospect. The timeframe may be uncertain, but that train is coming down the tracks anyway.

Second, it is no guarantee that all, or even most, Sinn Féín voters in the north would automatically back the party’s presidential nominee. In fact, my suspicion is that Michael D Higgins would have fared pretty well with northern nationalists in 2018. Third, the supposition that Irish citizens in the US would rally unanimously around Sinn Féin is unproven. Indeed, many of those who have the closest ties and are hence most likely to vote have an irrevocably negative opinion of the party’s past and have doubts about its increasingly mainstream reincarnation. These Irish Americans are far from monolithic.

Fourth, the government parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens – are urging the expansion of the franchise. Suffice it to recall that turkeys aren’t known for voting for Christmas.

“This will spring politics further to the economic elite. You need money to campaign internationally.”

Nonsense. There may be a decent-sized bloc of Irish citizens who would vote in an urban centre such as New York. There are a lot more in New Ross and every other rural town on this island. The campaign will be waged where the overwhelming majority of voters are. Technology means that candidates can easily reach the overseas audience. It would be a welcome development for them to have to articulate their vision to a vibrant global constituency.

“What I would support is any resident, EU or non-EU, being able to vote in presidential elections. Anyone living here legally and paying taxes should be entitled to vote in any of our elections.”

I agree completely. But this is a separate issue.

“Imagine wasting time, effort and money on this ridiculous referendum… this is what they give us a referendum on!”

This has been a difficult period – Covid-19, rampant inflation, a housing crisis and now the horrendous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. There is also anger at the government and a perception of a cosy, insider-dominated culture flowing from the botched attempts to appoint Katherine Zappone to a role at the United Nations and Tony Holohan to a professorship at Trinity College. Historically, some have used referendums to kick the government, particularly when they have reservations about the merit of the question before them.

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Against that sentiment, I would ask sceptics to consider a few things. Ireland is almost uniquely restrictive on emigrant voting. Irish people appropriately celebrate the extraordinary successes of those who have departed and of the diaspora; granting these experienced, capable men and women the right to vote in presidential elections will bolster, not harm, Irish democracy.

While there are several vexed problems that definitely warrant attention, this referendum is overdue. And finally, please put yourself in the shoes of relatives and friends abroad who’d hugely appreciate at last having a say. If you had left for love or opportunity elsewhere, would you have ever ceased being Irish? They haven’t either.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His new book – The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family – is published by Gill Books and is now available in all bookshops.

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