THE LAST FEW days of the most recent referendum campaign were filled with stories of people flying home to vote, much like in the marriage referendum. Videos were plastered over social media depicting families greeting their loved ones at airports, celebrating their journeys to participate in a democratic act.
For each of these there were just as many stories of people who couldn’t, for one reason or another, do so themselves.
A journey I made
It was a journey I made, leaving an exam around midday on the 25th, boarding a bus to Liverpool John Lennon Airport and flying to Knock, County Mayo. From there I had to wait a couple of hours before boarding another bus that would take me to Galway.
Mine was easier than many I’ve heard of, but it was stressful, it was exhausting, and it was expensive. My vote is precious, and this was an opportunity I couldn’t bear to miss.
For me, as a person with dual British and Irish citizenship who spends much of the year overseas, particularly in the lead up to exams and deadlines in spring, voting is one of the few ways I am able to contribute. I had hoped to spend a week in Ireland campaigning, but this proved not to be possible when my exam timetable was released.
Rewind only two years and I was stood at the dinner table in Ireland staring at a ballot paper, ready to make my decision on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, over two weeks prior to the referendum. That time, too, I was unable, due to academic commitments, to personally engage with the campaign in the UK. The difference, however, was the ease with which I could cast my vote.
Those who have left the UK are able to vote in the same place they or their parents were last registered within fifteen years of leaving. In the Brexit referendum this was a crucial right for British citizens living elsewhere in the EU, whose right to continue residing abroad was feared to be at risk. Unfortunately, this right was not extended to foreign nationals living in the UK.
Ireland isn’t as generous
Ireland is not as generous to its own citizens. There are people who have been pushed abroad by the lack of opportunities and prospects.
There are people who have left to escape the conservatism that has been rejected in recent referenda; people who would have taken the opportunity, if available to them, to join in with a democratic action that could give them cause to return. There are people who started families elsewhere because their reproductive health would have been in better hands abroad.
There are people like me, the children or grandchildren of emigrants, whose families returned to Ireland in recent years, and who now, as a result, have a complex sense of identity not easily defined in terms of national borders. The right to vote is an integral part of my identity and my sense of belonging. It is one of the few things we do together as a society.
Excited to be voting
I jokingly asked my mum, on her birthday this year, how it felt to be turning eighteen. She replied that she was excited to be voting in her first referendum (in Ireland).
After over a decade living in Ireland along with her family, all of whom have Irish citizenship, and after having dedicated years of her working life to this country, it was only once she forked over the cash necessary to buy citizens’ rights that she could have a full say in the democratic decisions of her community.
That something so precious can be cast aside as soon as one leaves the borders of their country is an insult to all those who have fought hard for the rights they have now, to all those who have emigrated and wish to return, and to all those for whom citizenship is their aspiration.
Allowing emigrants to vote will help preserve a connection and sense of identity, will end the unnecessary spectacle of coming home to vote, and will make our democracy healthier and more accessible. There is so much to gain and little to lose.
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