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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 17 August, 2018
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Giving vote to emigrants won't lead to 'President Bono' but these are arguments expats hear

Irish politics matters in a very real fashion to me as an expat; it’s not just a sporting interest, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

I WAS FORTUNATE to spend ten days with family and friends back in Boston after Christmas. Trapped indoors there for long stretches by arctic temperatures that dropped to as low as -26 degrees and a blizzard in which 17 inches of snow fell, however, I actually consumed as much Irish media via the wonders of modern technology as I would have if I hadn’t travelled 3,000 miles.

One topic that dominated the airwaves, opinion pieces and “Twittersphere” was the prospect of amending the constitution to allow votes for Irish citizens living abroad in presidential elections and perhaps to further broaden the franchise to Dáil and/or Seanad elections in future. Following on from the recommendation of the 2013 constitutional convention and a recent decision taken by the cabinet, it appears that a referendum will be held with respect to presidential elections in 2018.

Having been around politics for a long time, not much takes me by surprise. Yet I find the widespread, vociferous opposition to allowing Irish citizens who are not currently resident in the 26 counties to vote astonishing. That the resistance is coming from men and women who I ordinarily find to be thoughtful and reasonable adds another dimension to my shock.

What are the grounds for the opposition? There are several. Most are canards. “No representation without taxation.” “Expats don’t have to live with the results of an election.” “The overseas electorate will overwhelm us.” “How can anyone who isn’t phenomenally wealthy run a five continent campaign?” “Between misty-eyed Irish Americans and the north, Sinn Féin will have an unfair advantage.” “President Bono.” “Someone in Chicago whose only connection to Ireland is that he wears an Aran jumper on 17 March and has a granny from Westport will be able to vote and an undocumented migrant living, working and paying taxes here won’t.”

These are all statements – as near to verbatim as makes no difference – that I either heard or read while seeking warmth in frigid Boston. There was even a suggestion that Irish citizens abroad who want to have a say at home should be required to pay for the privilege. Being away in a place where I have not lived for some time, but where I still vote regularly, made me think about these objections more deeply. In this vein, it is crucial to note at the outset that, while all non-resident Americans are required to file a tax return (experts say that the majority never do), only high income earners wind up paying any money.

Those who make the argument about taxation and representation are going down a very dangerous path. In truth, there are many people living in Ireland who are not net contributors to the state coffers. On the flip side, there are lots of Irish citizens around the world who pay far more in taxes to the exchequer than they obtain in services. If we reduce voting rights to a balance sheet equation, what then is the logical conclusion?

‘Irish politics matters in to me as an expat’

And as I once again surveyed the landscape in my country, my state and my locality, it became immediately apparent that I still live with the results of American elections: from all of the intangible ways the perceptions of the country of my birth and its citizens have been affected by the Trump presidency, to a wide range of federal and state government decisions about health and tax policy and their significant impact on US citizens abroad, to the rent increase recently imposed on my elderly and increasingly frail father’s government owned and subsidised apartment. In short, politics there matters in a very real fashion to me as an expat; it’s not just a sporting interest.

Opponents of emigrant voting also allude to the numbers of current and potential Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland and further afield. If one looks solely to these figures, they would seem to have a point. But do we not aspire to a united Ireland? Do we deny that people in the north are Irish? Moreover, in the 130 plus countries which allow emigrants to vote, a tiny percentage exercises the right. Widely mooted fears about the population here being swamped at ballot boxes in embassies and consulates around the world by men and women with a tenuous connection to Ireland are wholly unsubstantiated and are not supported by any of the international evidence.

The vast majority of Irish Americans, who are often unfairly lampooned in the context of this debate and more broadly, are not entitled to a passport or a vote. The notion that globetrotting in search of Irish passport holders will displace canvassing this country’s cities, towns and villages is farcical. If Sinn Féin gains some advantage by extending the franchise, that’s democracy. And those who claim that Irish America is monolithic on this front clearly don’t know it. Opinion is divided among the people I speak with in Boston. The emigrants with the closest ties to home tend to have little time for the party and particularly abhor its leftist economics.

Juxtaposing those with little connection to Ireland other than lineage and men and women living and working here is the most compelling line articulated by opponents of emigrant voting rights, even if this is a slightly different subject. Of course, the status of those who have made lives and livelihoods here with their families should be regularised and they should have a vote. And in light of the relatively (and rightly) liberal legal provisions conferring Irish citizenship by descent, there is definitely room to discuss certain restrictions on voting rights for emigrants, such as time limits or some distinction between emigrants and citizens who’ve attained their status through ancestry.

But the current regime, pursuant to which someone who owns a home and pays taxes in Ireland and takes a ten year contract to work overseas is suddenly denied a vote, is indefensible and makes this country a real outlier. And this citizen, not the elderly woman in Sydney with an Irish grandfather, is the one most likely to exercise what should be an inalienable right in a democracy.

Purported justifications for disenfranchising Irish citizens who don’t presently live here aside, it is what – I fear – underpins them that I find most disappointing in all of this. It is a quite paradoxical, love-hate attitude towards emigrants and the diaspora. Ireland is a global nation. Irishness and all that attaches to it is something that other countries would kill for. We are right to be proud of “punching above our weight” around the world. And we do so in large part because of the extraordinary trails that Irish people have blazed, and continue to blaze, everywhere.

But should these citizens – with all of their experience, all of their expertise, all of their wisdom, all of their love for this country – have any say in how Ireland is run? The response of more than I ever could have imagined is no. It’s not just a no; it’s ABSOLUTELY NO! I think that stance is terribly sad and at odds with the open minded, outward looking disposition of many who now espouse it.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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