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.