IN MAY 2015, I cast my vote along with close to two million Irish people in the referendum that legalised same-sex marriage in our country.
The #hometovote stories from the closing days of that campaign reminded us how attached the Irish diaspora are to the place they grew up. Two months after that referendum, I joined that diaspora and moved to Hong Kong.
Not your typical emigration story
My story is undoubtedly different from the prevailing emigration story that has become all too familiar in recent years. I was not forced to leave Ireland; in fact, I am doing the same job I was doing in Dublin, for the same company.
I communicate with Irish colleagues on a daily basis, and my livelihood and financial security still depends in no small part on the continued health of the business environment at home.
It is with this sentiment that I wonder why I have no capacity to help decide the shape of the next government, which will determine economic policy for potentially the next five years. Unless you are a diplomat or serving in the Defence Forces, it is not possible to cast a ballot for an Irish election while living abroad.
Though perhaps uncommon, my story is one that is becoming more and more possible in the global economy we live in. If, as we are constantly told, there is a recovery that needs to be kept going, we can surely expect more fine examples of Irish entrepreneurship to create more opportunities like mine as that recovery cements itself.
Overseas voting for citizens
Approximately 120 countries worldwide allow some form of overseas voting for their citizens when they go abroad.
The Irish diaspora is widespread and scattered, but the #hometovote campaign proved that we are not hard to find. Unlike the generation of emigrants that left Ireland in their droves in the 1980s, access to information is no longer a challenge.
The government itself has capitalised on the momentum created by that campaign to encourage emigrants to come #hometowork.
But despite these overtures, the lack of overseas voting rights still hits a nerve among many Irish who have settled abroad. It carries with it an assumption that those no longer resident in Ireland are less entitled to participate in the decision-making that affects the entire country.
This assumption is weakened when we look at Fine Gael’s 2016 manifesto, which links two of their core election promises, USC abolition and continued job creation, to the goal of bringing tens of thousands of Irish emigrants back home by 2020.
Regardless of whether these emigrants ever plan to return or not, the largest political party in the country is shaping its agenda partly with this goal in mind.
What the people actually want
But without an voice in national elections, who is to say that these are the issues that most concern our overseas diaspora? The answer may not lie in lower taxes, but stronger public services. What comes to mind for me is the middle income emigrant family in Australia that would struggle to meet the higher childcare costs in Ireland, regardless of whether the USC stays or goes.
That’s just one example, and a vote among emigrants may well uncover more pressing motivations that are keeping them abroad. But we’ll never know unless we give them a voice. So far, Ireland has struggled to find a suitable time to make serious progress on this topic amidst the many other valid issues that consume our national discourse. That does not mean it can be delayed forever.
We recently saw fit to ask the voters to consider lowering the age of eligibility for the office of president, thus demonstrating that the profile of the participants in our democracy is not an issue that escapes notice even in times of economic fragility.
The logistical challenges involved in the establishment of an overseas voter franchise are undoubtedly far greater, but no one is expecting such a franchise to be left undefined.
The UK sets a time limit according to the number of years you’ve been living abroad; France and Italy design electoral constituencies exclusively for its overseas citizens. As a country, we can and should discuss whether the first step should be to extend the voter franchise to EU residents only, whether it should be for presidential elections or Dail elections, or whether there is another suitable test case to judge the viability of an overseas voting system.
Making a change
But managing to take such a first step would successfully clear a massive hurdle on a topic that has been a subject of endless discussion in the national press, part of the discussion during the Constitutional Convention, and also received attention from a recent Oireachtas Joint Committee after a critical assessment from the European Commission.
It is impossible for me to feel disengaged on this topic during the Ireland 2016 centenary programme, not least due to the fine efforts of the local Irish consulate in reaching out to the local community here.
Undoubtedly, it also has a lot to do with my choice of Hong Kong as a second home, this being a place where the issue of voting rights is close to the hearts of so many people. I do not expect that my decision on whether to stay or return to Ireland in the future will be driven by the decisions made by any political party.
But while political parties will go in and out of power, citizenship doesn’t change. It should mean more than what’s written on your passport.
Aaron Mc Nicholas is a journalist for the Dublin-headquartered social media news agency Storyful, based in Hong Kong. Twitter: @aaronmcnicholas