We’re Coming Back: the vast community and the right to vote

Tommy Gavin

Deputy Editor

My primary role as President will be to represent this State. But the State is not the only model of community with which Irish people can and do identify. Beyond our State there is a vast community of Irish emigrants extending not only across our neighbouring island — which has provided a home away from home for several Irish generations — but also throughout the continents of North America, Australia and of course Europe itself.
– Mary Robinson, Inaugural speech, December 3rd 1990

We’re coming Back (WCB) is a movement campaigning for voting rights for Irish emigrants that has recently been founded by emigrants abroad. Connor O’Neill is one of the founding organisers and is now living in Brussels.  He said in an interview with Trinity News that, when asked why people who are not currently residing on the island of Ireland should be allowed to vote; “because I’m an Irish citizen too. The idea that you completely disregard Irish citizenship politically unless you’re actually standing on the island of Ireland is ridiculous.”

“Nobody ever accused Tony Cascarino of citizenship tourism, and he didn’t even technically qualify since his mother was adopted”

According to statistics released by Eurostat last November, Ireland sits at the top of the list of European countries where the number of people leaving the country is higher than those coming in, by 35,000. Indeed, the government can be seen as having adopted a policy of encouraging emigration with the repeal of air travel tax and the letters sent by the Department of Social Protection advising jobseekers of work in Canada. Yet despite these overt suggestions that the grass may be greener in far off lands that don’t factor into the measurement of Irish youth unemployment figures, there is a glaring contradiction. There is no postal vote, and you are not allowed to remain on the electoral register once you’ve emigrated. This basically means that accepting the government’s invitation to please leave without a fuss carries with it an accompanying sacrifice of the ability to participate in the democratic process. That is the elephant in the room with the thorny topic of emigration; the prospect of potential jobs abroad is being valorized at the expense of political agency.

We’re Coming Back began as a campaign last year when the friends and family of a group of people, particularly based around Wexford and Dublin began to leave the country. David Burns, also one of the founding organisers or WCB, is currently teaching and undertaking a masters in Paris, and he was one of the first of his group of friends to move away, with Connor later moving to Belgium. Connor says that “before emigration started to peak over the past few years, this wasn’t an issue I was particularly aware of or put much thought into.  As soon as so many people started to leave and it became more topical, the campaign sprang up in response. It became starkly apparent to us that Ireland is anachronistic in how it treats its emigrants after they leave”

The name is a reference to the We’re Not Leaving (WNL) campaign that emerged last year in response to forced emigration, youth unemployment and JobBridge internships. While David and Conor are tangentially involved in WNL, they say that WCB is much narrower in its aims. According to Connor, “we’re aware and supportive of what We’re Not Leaving are doing, and WCB can link in there. WNL is supportive, but it has taken stances on a huge number of issues, and we lobby for voting rights for Irish emigrants, and that’s it. Obviously our members have personal positions on the role the government has played in emigration and the various social issues, but we see WCB role as purely lobbying on one issue.”

“Irish citizenship laws can more concretely be said to have been abused by former Leeds Centre-half Jackie Charlton, who used the ‘granny rule’ as manager of the Republic of Ireland team to actively canvass in the UK for candidates for the green jersey, going so far as to place notices on the notice boards of English clubs.”

We’re Coming Back is primarily a social media campaign, and over the Christmas weekend they asked for Irish people around the world who had emigrated to send in pictures of getting together with friends and raising raise a toast in what they called #toastforavote. The concept was an attempt to put names and faces to emigrants because, Connor argued “we had become very accustomed to seeing a lot of numbers and statistics about emigration, and I think that can be almost sanitising.” The running of the campaign, like WNL, attempts to be as inclusive as possible, due to the fluid way it operates without organised leadership, and the fact that everyone involved is either working, studying or interning. However, they have made efforts to link with existing migrant networks like the London Irish Centre, and groups on facebook. One such group set up for Irish people in Australia has 40,000 people in it, and the admin approached WCB and offered to share their material.

Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore said in March 2012 that of the 70 million people belonging to the diaspora, you would have to decide who qualifies for a vote. Connor disputes that framing though; saying  “I don’t think anybody would take that figure as being realistic. Even if you promoted a very conservative extension of the franchise. If it was a limit of having left the country after a maximum of seven years and it was only in presidential elections, that would enfranchise a very small number of emigrants, and it would be under 300,000. Michael D Higgins supported a vote in the presidential election for people who’ve left within ten years. You’d at least get ten years to build up a life somewhere else and gain citizenship somewhere else. It’s very difficult to put a definite figure on that, especially without having the tools or resources that the government would have if they were to draw up a taskforce on this.” The constitutional convention overwhelmingly supported voting rights for presidential elections in September, which Connor and David find a cause for optimism.

Part of the problem though is the complicated Irish relationship with citizenship, and the weight it put on as a result of having been bluntly wielded as an instrument of policy. More often than not in the history of Irish politics, what it means to be an Irish citizen was defined out of spite or with an agenda, rather than out of considered civil rights or entitlements. Article 2 of the revised Bunreacht na hÉireann established that “it is the entitlement and birthright of every person born on the island of Ireland … to be part of the Irish nation.” This was initially inserted as a territorial claim to the island, against the partition of Northern Ireland. It was later revised to allow Ireland to sign the Good Friday Agreement, allowing people in the North to claim either British or Irish citizenship, or both. The issue of citizenship became further politicised after perceived unintended consequences of the attainment of citizenship by anybody born in Ireland, once Ireland became a net receiver of migrants in the 90’s. This translated into a public fear that immigrants were exploiting a loophole to gain citizenship, and that pregnant Nigerian women were clogging up Irish maternity hospitals in order to take advantage of the Irish welfare state. This lead to the 2004 citizenship referendum which established that citizenship is only available to a person born in Ireland to non-national parents if one of the parents had been a resident for three of the four years preceding birth. That’s still comparatively more liberal than many other European countries, but it emerged out of a deeply racist impulse, the same place from which a blonde Roma child was taken from her parents last October.

Irish citizenship laws can more concretely be said to have been abused by former Leeds Centre-half Jackie Charlton, who used the ‘granny rule’ as manager of the Republic of Ireland team to actively canvass in the UK for candidates for the green jersey, going so far as to place notices on the notice boards of English clubs. Nobody ever accused Tony Cascarino of citizenship tourism, and he didn’t even technically qualify since his mother was adopted. Perhaps the converse also holds; that pregnant Nigerians would have been welcome if they were going to captain the Irish team. Incidentally, while WCB doesn’t explicitly campaign on a position regarding migrants residing in Ireland, they’re very supportive of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, with whom they maintain contact. David though, did note the similarity in rhetoric between opponents to the enfranchisement of Irish emigrants, and the opponents of the enfranchisement of non-Irish immigrants. “This rhetoric of flooding that ‘they’ll sweep the country and change it, that similarity has always shocked me. You get the idea of this regressive idea of citizenship where they don’t see it as giving people the ability to participate in the democratic process, but something that needs to be defended from invaders and people who’ve jumped ship. That’s why we put a progressive idea of citizenship at the heart of We’re Coming Back.”

They pointed out that fears of the electorate being outnumbered by diaspora are common to states with absentee voting, and there are various ways to control for those. Two of the main ones are having a time limit of eligibility: typically ten to fifteen years; and having weighted diaspora constituencies. So if County Wexford is a constituency that elects five TDs, you could say that all of the eligible diaspora within a ten year limit can be a constituency and they can have one TD or ten. Or however many you see as being appropriate. “So”, David says, “one of the big obstacles is people saying ‘could we not double or triple the electorate overnight?’ “That’s not what would happen here, and it’s not what we’re campaigning for either. We want this to be viable, we want it to work.

There’s a subtle message between that lack of absentee voting and the cynical message of the Gathering that the Irish diaspora are a potential revenue generator who can be tapped for a few quid and have their Irishness sold back to them. It’s a seemingly glaring admission that you have to be able to pay to play, and that participation in the democratic process is of secondary importance. This seems to be reflected in Gilmore’s questioning of the fairness of “representation without taxation,” as if citizens of a state need to be in that state to be affected by the actions of its government.

Connor is perhaps more stoic in his take on it,  that even though emigration is seen as a “safety valve for policies  that were seen to encourage people going, I think if emigrants were given some sort of voice back home, that contradiction would be less stark.” He continued; “when young people are leaving at such a high rate, I don’t think it’s going to placate them that they could vote for the president when they’re away from their friends and family. But I do think that it would be important. It’s a signal that we’re still part of the Irish nation and we’re not forgotten about.

Tommy Gavin

Journalist of the Year, Student Media Awards 2013, Journalist of the Year, Student Achievement Awards 2013