SHOULD IRISH EMIGRANTS RETAIN THEIR VOTING RIGHTS?

Guest post by Eleanor Fitzsimons (posted by Elaine Byrne)

The prospect of a general election early in 2011 has seen the re-emergence of a contentious debate as to whether our sizable diaspora should be allowed to vote. Ireland is unusual in the fact that those not ‘ordinarily resident’, i.e. living in Ireland on 1 September in the year preceding the coming into force of the voting register are currently precluded from having a say in who should govern their home nation.

Yet a 2006 study undertaken by Global Irish, a website dedicated to Diaspora issues, concluded that 115 countries, including all of Ireland’s EU partners, allow their overseas citizens to vote, although restrictions are imposed in several cases. France reserves parliamentary seats for citizens who live abroad, while several countries require emigrants to return home or complete a postal ballot.


The case for lifting the restriction on Irish expatriates is all the more pressing when we consider that high levels of emigration have been motivated by economic necessity. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) reports that in the period 2006-10 emigration reached levels not seen since the late 1980s. Irish citizens accounted for 42% of those emigrating with 27,700 Irish people emigrating during the first four months of 2010 alone. Many express a firm intention to return should things improve and are adamant that they should not be disenfranchised.

Irishwoman Kate McGrane, who works for CBM, a charitable organisation based in Nairobi, believes it is essential that “this new wave of emigrants have the right to vote on the future of their country, their home”. Paul Conneally, Head of Media and Public Communications at International Red Cross in Geneva, writes in his blog, “By leaving Ireland we did not willingly give up our voting rights”. Of his own situation he says, “After almost 20 years abroad I have hungrily kept abreast of Irish current affairs”, adding, “I desperately want to use the hard-won democratic right to vote”.

Those who voice opposition contend that since as many as eighty million people worldwide claim to belong to the Irish Diaspora this is a completely unworkable proposition. However, this red herring ignores the reality that only the million or so Irish-born people living abroad would actually be eligible and in reality only a small proportion would in all likelihood exercise this right. A second argument asserts that there are dangers inherent in allowing non-residents to vote since they avoid the consequences of policies implemented by any new government. There is an element of truth in this. One commentator, “Bob”, responding to Economist, David McWilliam’s call for voting rights for emigrants, was adamant that, “Having lived abroad for six years, my view is that citizens abroad should not be allowed to vote. They are not on the ground and have a twisted view of the country, as I had.” In truth those that wish to vote are likely to have the best interests of the country at heart.

It seems possible that this status quo may be open to challenge under EU law. James Preston, a British expatriate living in Spain is challenging a law limiting voting to those living outside the UK for less than fifteen years. In a recent edition of European Voice.com his lawyer, Romano Subiotto argued strongly against this restriction as he believes it violates the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. Any precedent established by the resolution of this case may offer grounds for a challenge to the current blanket Irish restriction. At a time when many emigrants are expressing a desire to return should things improve this development could not be more timely.

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16 thoughts on “SHOULD IRISH EMIGRANTS RETAIN THEIR VOTING RIGHTS?

  1. Giving the vote to Irish diaspora in the Presidential election would be a very positive move. Not only would it give a voice to those Irish living abroad but it would also create a strong connection between the diaspora and the Irish state which ultimately can only be good for investment.

  2. The real problem in all of this is the question of the 1.5 million people in northern Ireland, all Irish citizens (whether they choose to express it or not). Any consideration of giving citizens overseas a vote should first deal with that question.

    • That is a very important issue indeed and one that would have to be dealth with specifically. The particular issue being examined here is whether people who have at one time been ordinarily resident and eligible to vote should retain their voting rights.

  3. I left Ireland 26 years ago and have lived in Germany for 24 of them. As an EU citizen I have limited voting rights in Germany (local and European elections). I have a right to German citizenship, but this would mean renouncing my Irish passport – something (for reasons which are not entirely rational) I don’t wish to do.

    I still regard myself as Irish and have always felt disenfranchised by my native country’s complete indifference to those of us who have emigrated. Irish emigrants have traditionally been the subject of pious platitudes (and precious little else) from Irish politicians of all stripes.

  4. There is something ironic that this stems from a call from Kate McGrane who may well already have voting rights as it is. If Ms McGrane is a graduate of the NUI or TCD then she has voting rights in the Seanad which is more than most Irish citizens have. And something tells me that this might well be the case.

  5. I agree with the poster about the Irish citizens resident in NI. But it might be interesting to give them all the vote and have some Unionists in the Irish legislature. Disestablishment of the Catholic Church would be easier to get done with that bloc voting. As my uncle from Ireland liked to say, “We did not fight for 400 years to disestablish the Protestant Church only to replace it with another church, even it is our own.”

    Having some Unionists in the Irish legislature would, in its strange way, advance the future Union of Ireland and NI. It would certainly keep the issue alive.

    WHAT ABOUT US WITH IRISH CITIZENSHIP through a parent or grandparent?

    Millions in the US and other countries are entitled to Irish citizenship (like me) but should they vote? I think not. Should they be given one or two special seats? Possibly.

    I have never understood why the UK or the EU tolerate how easily Ireland grants citizenship to its diaspora. I have advised some Americans to take out Irish citizenship and then go to a UK university at in-country rates. And they did. Or work freely in Europe in a country whose language they speak. And they did. Ironically they have an easy time getting jobs because of their dual EU/US citizenship. I tell them to put Dual US/EU Citizenship at the top of their resumes/vitae. Gets lots of interviews.

    Certainly those born in Ireland and attaining voting age should retain voting rights when they emigrate.

  6. The lack of a fully engaged citizenry is a generally accepted issue which needs to be addressed. As such it’s impossible to see how it can be a positive step to give representation to people who, by definition, will not be able to be part of a more participatory democracy and who will not be impacted by 99% of laws.

    ‘Others do it’ is not a convincing argument.

    It would be far preferable to support/initiate a campaign amongst EU countries to allow all long-term residents from other member states to vote irrespective of their citizenship.

    Mitterand once praised the Irish constitutional provision which allows such an extension to take place. If it can be done without the sort of reciprocity we have with the UK then we should consider doing it unilaterally. Anyone here for longer than 5 years is likely to be fully embedded in our society and economy. Far better to give them the vote than someone who, for example, has lived in Argentina for 30 years but has a harp on their passport.

  7. We could do with voting rights for Irish people IN Ireland first!

    As far as I know postal votes are only available to Gardai, Army, severe medical patients and other very rare circumstances.

    Why are elections on Thursdays?

    • Fair point.

      Thursday, Friday and Saturday have each been tried – with Friday clearly the worst day.

      The answer is to change the constitution to allow for polling on more than one day – say Friday and Saturday all day.

  8. re. Voting Day: Many European countries have had very good experiences with Sundays. This has the added advantage that schools don’t have to be closed for the day in order to use them as polling stations.

  9. Ihave some reservations about giving a vote to people who don’t live in a country. We are all familiar with “no taxation without representation”, well the converse should also be true – not that you have to be paying taxes (your income might be too low) – but you should maybe be subject to the taxation regime of the country where you want to exercise the right to vote. I can see the logic of free movement of people within the EU generating an increase in people wanting to retain their right o vote at home. I believe this needs to be controlled such that you can’t vote in several countries. Maybe the rules need to be standardized for intra-EU citizens.

  10. +1 @ Liam O’Connor
    My position on this issue has always been “no representation without taxation”. Allowing Irish emigrants, particularly those forced into emigration against their will by economic circumstances brought about by corrupt/incompetent government, to vote in general elections is a mistake. They would feel free to vote for parties with extremist positions without fear of the consequences for their own incomes or economic circumstances. If they want a say, then stay here and fight the good fight, otherwise get out of the kitchen.

  11. The lack of a fully engaged citizenry is a generally accepted issue which needs to be addressed. As such it’s impossible to see how it can be a positive step to give representation to people who, by definition, will not be able to be part of a more participatory democracy and who will not be impacted by 99% of laws. ‘Others do it’ is not a convincing argument. It would be far preferable to support/initiate a campaign amongst EU countries to allow all long-term residents from other member states to vote irrespective of their citizenship. Mitterand once praised the Irish constitutional provision which allows such an extension to take place. If it can be done without the sort of reciprocity we have with the UK then we should consider doing it unilaterally. Anyone here for longer than 5 years is likely to be fully embedded in our society and economy. Far better to give them the vote than someone who, for example, has lived in Argentina for 30 years but has a harp on their passport.

  12. It’s a complex issue and I can see both sides of the argument.
    What of giving the right to vote to those who have gone abroad on a temporary basis, for example people working overseas but whose families are still in Ireland.
    I appreciate it would be difficult to find a watertight definition. But take the case of my late uncle, who was seconded for many years by the ESB to work in projects in Bahrain.
    His family remained in Ireland, and visited him, and he eventually returned full-time to Ireland. I would not class him as an “emigrant” and I reckon people like that, who still have a stake in Irish society, should be allowed to vote in Irish elections.
    The current position is far too rigid, but I wouldn’t advocate giving the vote to someone who has been 30 years out of Ireland and knows nothing about the country as it is today.

  13. I have some sympathies with G Sullivan and others who have suggested that we have more pressing matters to deal with before we subscribe to the the rather romantic notion that emigrants should have their say.

    Having said that, the electoral register is a bit of shambles anyway. I have lived and (voted) in the UK for the past three years but I will receive TWO polling cards for the next general election at home – one for Louth and one for Meath.

  14. Good reasons to allow emigrants vote:
    1. Emigrants’ voices ought to be heard, both in good times and in times of crisis, because they may offer useful, balanced and non-parochial insights. So it’s in the country’s best interests.
    2. The pool of political talent is small in ireland and our electoral system promotes parochialism instead of globalism; surely it’s clear to all how this may have contributed to the decadent and failed policies of the past decade.
    3. ‘No representation without taxation’: Emigrants do indeed pay taxes (vat and the many other shocking high indirect taxes!) when they visit and holiday. Require they confirm to their local embassy that they spent X days in the country in the past Y years.
    4. Emigrants who take the time to register, meet the qualifications and take an interest to vote are most un likely to be extremists. Indeed they’re probably going to have strong interest and love for their

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