While many nations around the world can claim to be countries of immigrants, Ireland can somewhat uniquely also claim to be one of emigrants, and on account of our unique historical relationship with migration, huge numbers of Irishmen and women live abroad. Despite this large and politically-engaged emigrant citizenry, however, Ireland refuses citizens living abroad the right to vote in Irish elections. Given that many of us at university will later move overseas, we ought to consider the benefits of allowing citizens living outside of the Republic the vote.
“Irish citizens living overseas have consistently proven that they remain invested in, and passionate about, domestic politics — one need look no farther than the flurry of flights carrying citizens back to Ireland in the days preceding the 2018 abortion referendum.”
Why allow expatriates the right to vote? It might be better to begin by asking why we should deprive them of that right, as it is common practice not just in Europe but around the globe to allow citizens living outside of the state to vote in national elections. American and French citizens living in Dublin, for example, are as capable of deciding their own countries’ future as they would be back home, yet Irish citizens are left completely disconnected from national politics the moment our feet leave Irish soil. This is despite the fact that Irish citizens living overseas have consistently proven that they remain invested in, and passionate about, domestic politics — one need look no further than the flurry of flights carrying citizens back to Ireland in the days preceding the 2018 abortion referendum. It is laudable that so many citizens living outside of the state flew home to vote in that referendum, yet they can hardly be expected to pay for a flight every time an election comes around — and there were surely many who wished to do so but unfortunately lacked the funds. Students in particular would likely find the costs of returning home to vote cumbersome, and we therefore owe it to our friends studying at foreign universities and on Erasmus+ placements to ensure they can retain a voice in Irish politics.
Refusing Irish citizens living outside of the state the right to vote does not only affect emigrants, however, as it also disconnects those living in Northern Ireland from engaging fully with politics in the Republic. Northern nationalists have justifiably long felt ignored by the government in Dublin, and allowing them to vote if not in Dáil elections, then at least for the largely ceremonial presidency, would go some way to rectifying a century of exclusion. While the geographic basis of Dáil elections makes extending the franchise difficult, giving Irish citizens living both in the North and overseas the right to vote for the president (who is intended to represent the entire nation) would add to the legitimacy of the office without many drawbacks. There is also a rather strong argument now for allowing the citizens of Northern Ireland the right to vote in Irish elections to the European Parliament, given that EU rules continue to apply in the North following the UK’s departure from the European Union. Any future reform of the Seanad might also conceivably involve a minimum number of seats for emigrants and for those living in NI.
“In the Irish case, so many of those living overseas initially emigrated because of government mismanagement of our economy makes opposing their right to vote even more difficult — why should they be punished for the actions of the government that forced them to leave?”
It is often argued by those opposed to extending the franchise to emigrants and Northerners that only those paying tax in the Republic ought to choose its governments. While the logic behind such an assertion may at first seem sound, it leaves one in an awkward position; what about people who receive more from the state in benefits than pay into it in taxation? Should they be refused the vote too? The fact that no rational or caring person would accept this demonstrates clearly that taxation is not in fact the basis for representation, and that to limit democracy in this way would frankly be to disfigure it. The fact that, in the Irish case, so many of those living overseas initially emigrated because of government mismanagement of our economy makes opposing their right to vote even more difficult — why should they be punished for the actions of the government that forced them to leave?
Every Easter, we hear Ireland’s “exiled children” praised as the 1916 Proclamation is read out at the steps of the GPO. Yet while nations as dispersed and different as France and Namibia or Austria and the United States allow their expatriates to engage with domestic politics, we instead exclude them. Those who only hold an Irish passport because of an Irish-born grandparent should of course have no automatic right to vote here, but we do owe that right to our expatriates and to those living in the North and it is high time we include them.