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Opinion: Young, debarred and politically exiled – Ireland's emigrants have no voice

Ireland remains amongst a small minority of democracies that fails to provide systems for citizens to vote while abroad – recently emigrated or otherwise.

David Burns and Conor O'Neill

EMIGRATION FUELS DEBATE in Ireland. On one hand, research shows that the mass departure of young Irish people over the last six years has negatively impacted on the mental well-being of affected families, on rural communities, and the robustness of key sectors of our economy, such as health and education. But studies also show that the majority of Irish people leaving today are highly qualified – they go on to find work abroad and prosper, integrating into other cultures and succeeding in their host countries, undercutting the traditional rhetoric of tragedy.

Politicians, academics and journalists have been sparring over sad versus sunny narratives of emigration since the 1980s, when Brian Lenihan – ahead of Michael Noonan – first chalked it up as a lifestyle choice for college graduates. Yet despite the obvious political nature of this debate on whether emigration is the forced result of Government failure or a freely decided upon adventure, few commentators today are examining the consequences of so many young people leaving for Irish democratic renewal.

No Emigrant Vote

Ireland remains amongst a small minority of democracies that fails to provide systems for citizens to vote while abroad – recently emigrated or otherwise. While over 120 states have implemented legislation to allow their expats to vote at their embassies, by post, or by proxy, Ireland’s persistent position is that emigrant citizens do not warrant representation. Given that nearly 10% of Ireland’s young people emigrated during the recession, the result of this policy is that huge numbers of young voices are being excluded as we now debate how to rebuild.

Young emigrants spoke out last year about the anger they felt at being completely disenfranchised ahead of a very important political chapter for this generation – the 2015 marriage equality referendum. Research has consistently shown that young people support equal marriage more than any other demographic and the majority of those to have moved abroad since the crash in 2008 are in their 20s. Many are on short-term working visas and intend to return. Our current system currently debars all of them from voting, including young LGBT citizens that might wish to raise a family here.

Meanwhile, the first ever Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, has publicly rejected the idea that his role should involve representing the views of emigrants on social issues like marriage equality or abortion. He has instead prioritised extending a vote in Presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad, on which Cabinet promised a decision by Christmas. This deadline came and went without a word, however. Instead, while meeting with us in Brussels, the Taoiseach put forward the opinion that reform on emigrant voting rights was “a topic for the next general election and the next Government”. Despite past commitments and public overtures by Fine Gael and Labour that stretch back over 20 years, the buck is being passed again.

No coverage

Disappointingly, Irish media have shown little interest in highlighting this Government backtracking or the broader issue at stake here. Where is the debate on this country’s paradoxical endeavour to search for a fairer political model whilst simultaneously debarring huge numbers of young people from participating in its construction? Where is the concern over the political implications of this exclusion, beyond crowds of cameras at Dublin airport each December?

Several organisations have attempted to raise these questions in recent years. Last September, the National Youth Council of Ireland organised their ‘Homeheart’ conference, which allowed emigrants to link in and participate from abroad. The first expat to speak via Skype raised the issue of voting rights and inclusion. Similarly, a worldwide “Toast for a Vote” was organised across social media over Christmas weekend (Dec 19-21st), during which upwards of 1000 people participated on Facebook and Twitter to show their support. Notable among them were the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan and Sinn Féin’s Mary-Lou McDonald, the Migrant Rights Centre, as well as ordinary Irish citizens in Sydney, New York, London and Toronto, and at home in Galway, Cork, Belfast and Dublin.

Democratic Renewal

Voting systems which offer representation for the views of expatriate citizens exist all over the world. Successive Irish governments have claimed that the size of our diaspora makes it impossible to do the same here. Yet emigration is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. Where Croatia, Romania, Poland, Portugal and France have acted, we have turned a blind eye. If you were a cynic, that choice might seem a strategic one. Certainly it will not change unless we as a society start asking ourselves how far forward we might progress, cutting ourselves off from our younger voters.

It is clear now that this Government has retreated on many former promises for democratic reform. However, if we continue to allow them to discount the views of 1,000s of young Irish people because they sought work elsewhere during a recession, then we are just as complicit in the stagnancy of our political system.

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.

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David Burns and Conor O'Neill

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