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Opinion: 'Emigrants care about Ireland. We love Ireland. Give us the vote'

It’s time for Ireland to catch up with our EU neighbours, and give emigrants the vote, writes Senator Billy Lawless.

Senator Billy Lawless Senator for the Diaspora

AS THE FIRST Irish Senator representing the global Irish, I have a worldwide constituency of 1.73 million citizens, most of whom are Irish born and educated.

Irish emigrants have a long and distinguished history of giving back to Ireland for over a hundred years. Close to 100 emigrants fought in the GPO in the 1916 Rising, and for decades their remittances kept Irish families afloat. Irish America played a huge role in getting Bill Clinton to send Senator George Mitchell to Belfast to secure the Good Friday Agreement.

And today Irish emigrants have created business and cultural networks all over the world that Ireland uses to its great advantage.

Emigrants are second-class citizens

Yet Irish emigrants are treated as second-class citizens here at home. They are not allowed to vote. This continuing inequality stands in sharp contrast to the demand for equal rights and equal citizenship which was at the core of the 1916 Rising.

But in the intervening decades, Ireland has lost its way, and has become a less equal society. We now have a three-tier system of citizenship.

Voters in the Republic are first-class citizens who get to vote. Citizens living off the island are second-class citizens, and cannot vote. And then there are – of course – the Irish citizens in the North of Ireland, several hundred thousand, just over the border who have Irish passports, but they are not allowed to vote either. They represent the third-class citizens.

Three-tier system

As a result of this three-tier voting system, Ireland is now out of step with the majority of its EU neighbours, and 130 other democracies around the world, that allow their emigrants to vote. In my opinion, our voting laws and regulations are no longer fit for purpose.

Emigration has vastly changed. The relationship between Irish emigrants and Ireland has also changed dramatically. Emigrants come and go, and they are totally tuned into what is happening here in Ireland.

I believe this current three-tier system of citizenship is undemocratic, unequal and does not meet the inclusive principles of equality that define the Irish Constitution. In my opinion if you’re a citizen, you’re a citizen.

Swamping the vote at home?

I was very pleased when the Constitutional Convention recommended in 2013 that all Irish citizens be allowed to vote in the future for the President of Ireland. And I was very pleased that the Taoiseach took the next step, just a few months ago, and called for a Constitutional referendum that will likely be held in the spring of 2018.

Now some commentators suggest that overseas Irish citizens will swamp the vote back home. This is not going to happen. Actual Irish citizens make up just a tiny fraction of the world wide Irish diaspora – less than a half-percent – of the 70 million in the global diaspora.

It’s time for Ireland to catch up with our EU neighbours, and the rest of the world’s democracies, and modernise our voting system. It’s time to give Irish emigrants the vote.

I listen to all my colleagues in the Dáil and the Seanad, and I always hear them complaining about the apathy of voters when they go door to door. Well, my constituents – all 1.73 million of them – are passionate about gaining the vote. They care about Ireland. They love Ireland. They want the best for Ireland’s future, just like Irish citizens here at home.

Irish emigrants will be calling home and coming home next spring, and they will be asking every Irish citizen to “Tabhair dúinn an vóta” – Give us the vote.

Billy Lawless was appointed to the Seanad by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in May 2016, as Senator for the Diaspora, the first ever non-resident Senator. He is a Galway born restaurateur and a strong leader in Chicago’s Irish Community. Senator Lawless is also co-founder of VotingRights.ie an organisation which is campaigning for Irish emigrant voting rights. He founded the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform, was Vice-President of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and a founding member of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition. 

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About the author:

Senator Billy Lawless  / Senator for the Diaspora

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