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Dublin: 0°C Friday 22 January 2021

Opinion: My polling card will arrive this week, but I live in the UK. Irish citizens abroad should have a vote

It suits politicians who’ve made mistakes for the ‘unforgiving’ Irish emigrants not to have a vote, writes Dr Alan Greene.

Alan Greene

THIS IS THE second general election that I’ve watched from abroad after I emigrated from Ireland in 2013.

Being the political anorak that I am, I watch with the same interest and passion as I did when I lived in Ireland but I do so now with the added poignancy that I do not have a vote to exercise next Saturday.

Skin in the game

For my sins, I tuned into all three TV debates so far.

A rather striking moment came during leadership debate on Claire Byrne Live when Mary Lou McDonald suggested that some of the construction workers needed to build the 100,000 houses Sinn Féin’s manifesto promised could come from abroad.

The presenter immediately shot back, ‘But where will these people live?’ The audience laughed.

Yet despite the audience’s frivolity, what this exchange actually shows is that if they’re talking about Irish construction workers, then even when Irish people emigrate, we still have an innate connection with Ireland.

To say that we are not affected by the decisions taken by Irish politicians, as the exchanges during these debates show, is wrong.

Many of us may wish to return home to our family and friends but this is simply not feasible due to the housing crisis.

Likewise, the cost of living, including childcare and transport costs, and problematic health services are all important factors that affect whether a person and their family can return home. We still have skin in the game.

How would I vote, if I could?

From my own perspective, the housing crisis would be the key motivation for my hypothetical vote.

In addition, living in the UK, I have seen and felt the benefits of a universal healthcare system. I would love for my family and friends in Ireland to have access to a similar system.

All the main political parties agree in principle with the Sláintecare plan but what steps will they take to implement it?

As a university lecturer, I am also interested in how parties will fund third-level education. I benefitted immensely from my free undergraduate degree and also from my government-funded PhD scholarship. Quite simply, I would not be where I am now without these.

Yet funding for third-level education has been conspicuously absent from the debate so far, notwithstanding the fact that Irish universities have plummeted in the world rankings and third-level funding is 40% below what it was a decade ago.

Climate change affects everybody on the planet. It cannot be limited to borders. How parties propose to tackle this crisis would also be an important factor I would consider before voting.

Finally, there are decisions taken at home that although they do not affect me directly, affect how I feel about myself and my country.

The pride I felt when Irish people voted for marriage equality and to repeal the 8th Amendment is matched by the shame at how we’ve failed to provide proper redress for the victims of institutional abuse, and the system of direct provision.

These are the key questions I would base my vote on.


It may be a surprise that someone living in the UK is not motivated by Brexit, but there you go.

I think the Irish government did well to get the agreement that it did; however, I also think now that for the next stage of Brexit—the forthcoming trade negotiations— the ball is in the court of the 27 members of the EU, rather than Ireland in particular.

On this issue, it may have been wise for Fine Gael to remember what the UK electorate did to Winston Churchill following World War II but it may be too late now for that lesson to be learned.

Ireland is an international outlier

When it comes to disenfranchising its diaspora, Ireland is an outlier.

With the UK leaving the EU, only five EU countries—Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Malta and Ireland— have some restrictions on their citizens’ right to vote in national elections when they live abroad. 

While countries such as Denmark and Malta deprive citizens abroad of the right to vote in their constitutions, this is not the case in Ireland where it is done by legislation.

Germany does, however, allow Germans resident abroad to vote if they have lived in Germany previously. The UK takes a similar approach, restricting the right to vote for citizens abroad to the first 15 years after they have emigrated.

Fears of an Irish diaspora with little or no connection to Ireland could, therefore, be alleviated by taking a similar approach.

Indeed, such a proposal would not even result in the expansion of the electoral register as it is so out of date. Many of us recent emigrants are still sent a polling card although we are not legally entitled to vote.

I myself was lucky enough to be recently selected for jury duty in April 2019 as a result of still being on the electoral register, despite emigrating in 2013. For this election, a polling card will still be sent to my home where I grew up and I will be counted as a non-voter.

Exporting dissenting voices

Some political pundits are suggesting that certain parties have been forgiven by the electorate because they are now riding high in the polls. They forget that many of us who have emigrated have done so because of the issues at home. You could argue this means we are not so forgiving, but we have no vote which we can use to voice our displeasure.

Of course, this disenfranchisement is precisely the point. The truth of the matter is that for decades, Ireland has exported many of its dissenting voices and the façade of a placated electorate remains.

On this point, I fear that the suggested referendum on voting rights for Irish citizens abroad in presidential elections is merely a trojan horse; it is, in reality, an attempt to constitutionalise the disenfranchisement of the Irish diaspora in general elections and make it permanent.

The most Irish thing I ever did in my life was to emigrate. I did what was expected of me and others in my position during a recession.

It is right that we should have an actual say in how the country, which we still have a strong connection to and are deeply affected by the decisions its political leaders take, is run.

But until then, I and others will watch from abroad this weekend with a mix of hope and trepidation. And that’s just the rugby.

Dr Alan Greene is a Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law and Human Rights at Birmingham Law School.


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