AS MEMBERS OF We’re Coming Back, a campaign advocating for voting rights for Irish emigrants, we spent a significant portion of last week defending the right of Irish citizens abroad to participate in Irish elections. In response, it was not uncommon to be told that this was a strange, unworkable notion – an affront to the sovereignty of resident citizens. However, in an almost perfect display of timing, these objections were accompanied by an email from Trinity College, Dublin, reminding graduates to register for their postal vote in Seanad Éireann.
As it stands, some Irish emigrants can vote in the election of representatives to the Seanad – as long as they possess a third level degree from the University of Dublin or a National University of Ireland. Seanad elections use a secret postal ballot, which graduates can easily receive and return from abroad. Under the current system, then, allowing Irish citizens to vote from abroad is strange and unworkable – unless they’ve got the right degree.
The Government’s proposed reforms to redraw this academic constituency and enable all university graduates to participate in the election of six senators to Seanad Éireann will, of course, enfranchise many more Irish emigrants. These graduate emigrants will be able to vote without having to defend that right from allegations that enfranchising the Irish abroad will threaten the sovereignty of resident citizens and undermine the political landscape of Ireland. They won’t be asked to demonstrate their continued Irishness, or to prove that the passengers on a plane leaving home don’t all suddenly become political radicals. Why? Why won’t they have to argue or debate or defend the legislation that will include them in the Irish political process?
Why aren’t Irish emigrants included in the political process?
There are a few potential answers – nobody knows, nobody cares, or they just don’t think it’s a problem to afford emigrants representation at home. On the first answer, it seems highly unlikely that successive Irish governments have had no idea that people have been posting their votes home from abroad for decades, particularly when so many openly register with overseas addresses. That it has been brought up in public debates about emigrant voting stretching back as far as 1991 confirms this.
Furthermore— to invalidate the second answer— a selection of these debates from the mid-90s demonstrate that Irish people historically do care about emigrant voting in Seanad elections. Back then, the current Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, was responsible for drafting a Constitution Amendment Bill on Votes for Emigrants. It aimed to extend the right to elect three senators to Seanad Éireann to Irish emigrants who had resided in Ireland for over 10 years and had not been outside Ireland for more than 20 years.
‘A Government of Renewal’
It was instigated on the basis of a pledge made by the coalition between Fine Gael, Labour and the Democratic Left in the programme ‘A Government of Renewal’. Enough people cared about this proposed reform for a coalition government to believe it warranted not only a referendum, but also a consultation paper chaired by a government minister, and consideration by the Dáil Committee on Finance and General Affairs. In these considerations, the fact that a portion of Irish emigrants already had a vote as emigrated graduates came up several times. They posed a problem as, under new legislation, they would be able to vote twice; firstly as emigrants and secondly as university graduates.
In the end, the Government was spared having to find an answer to this question; several Irish emigrant organisations could not reach consensus on whether representation in Seanad Éireann was enough, and the proposals were shelved. Almost 20 years later the Seanad is finally to be reformed— but to a far lesser extent. Many Irish emigrants will still see an increase in their ability to politically participate in Irish public affairs, but they only retain this right as graduates. In the eyes of the State, then, it is their degree that ultimately enables them to vote, not their citizenship. These proposals and the debates surrounding them have made clear that the third answer is most accurate: Irish citizens participating from abroad simply does not pose any credible threat to the integrity of our public institutions. The Houses of the Oireachtas will not crumble if citizens abroad are afforded a say.
Your passport, not your degree, should be the important thing
Perhaps the reasoning behind this blind eye is that the political opinions of university graduates are considered more valuable. Perhaps the intention is to encourage emigrant graduates to feel more involved in Ireland and, ultimately, to return. Regardless, it is regrettable that such inclinations are not extended to the many Irish tradespeople in Australia, or to those who couldn’t afford university and left to work in England, or to the many, many other Irish citizens abroad who have just as much of a claim to representation at home as those who hold a university degree. As Irish citizens, it is the passport in their pocket that should matter, not a four-year bachelors.
As a campaign that advocates for an emigrant vote, perhaps we should be delighted by the Government’s plans to reform the Seanad. After all, the UCC Émigré survey, carried out last year, showed that 62 per cent of emigrants aged 25-34 have a third-level qualification, and these people will now be able to vote in elections for a House of the Oireachtas. However affording emigrants a vote on the basis of their qualifications, not their citizenship, falls short of the ‘democratic revolution’ promised by our Government in 2011, post-election. The Seanad referendum and subsequent appetite for reform has provided a real opportunity to afford Irish citizens abroad representation in Irish political life; we would be remiss not to take it.
David Burns and Conor O’Neill are Irish emigrants and the founding members of We’re Coming Back, a social media campaign to extend the right to vote to Irish emigrants