Irish abroad should have the right to vote back home. Here’s why… (Opinion, theJournal.ie)

Opinion piece by Dominic Hannigan TD, Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs, on voting rights, published in theJournal.ie on 13 November 2014.

It seems that no family in the country has been left untouched by members leaving as a result of the extraordinary economic and financial crisis that engulfed our country in 2008.

Cheap airfares and advances in digital technology means that this latest wave of Irish emigrants are undoubtedly more connected with events at home than previous generations of emigrants. However, as Salman Rushdie declared, global citizens sometimes feel that they straddle two cultures and that at other times, they fall between two stools.

In that context, the increasing public debate in Ireland on how to engage with our extensive Diaspora is to be warmly welcomed. With political events at home resonating deeply with Irish citizens abroad, it is not surprising that many are calling for voting rights in a range of elections.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, which I chair, has this morning published a report exploring voting rights for Irish citizens abroad. The body of work was sparked by guidance by the EU Commission, issued in January, which posed a number of important questions for Ireland’s electoral system. Ireland, along with four other Member States, was cited for disenfranchising voters who have exercised their right to free movement in the EU.  

The European Commission’s central argument is that citizens should not lose their voting rights in national elections in moving to another Member State. As a Committee, we agree with the European Commission’s rationale for the guidance. Mobility across the European Union, compared for instance with the United States, is relatively low with just three percent of EU citizens living in a different EU Member State from their home country.

The electoral systems in Ireland therefore need to be closely examined, so as not to impede to the free movement of people within the European Union.

So that is why the Committee is calling on the Government to accept the principle that voting rights should be extended to Irish citizens abroad.

While the size of our Diaspora as a proportion of our population makes Ireland almost unique in a European Union context, the systems in other Member States that allow voting rights to their citizens abroad are a useful first port of call. As part of our series of hearings, we met with the Ambassadors to Ireland of Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia and Spain.

We heard that migration has been a defining phenomenon through Spanish history with Spaniards, for different reasons, migrating in large numbers particularly to Latin America and other parts of Europe. The Spanish Ambassador spoke eloquently of the perception within Spanish society that the country owes a debt of gratitude for the sacrifice of those who had to leave their country for economic or political reasons. So Spanish citizens living abroad permanently have the right to vote in referenda, national and regional parliamentary elections, and European Parliament elections.

Evidence from the UK, Italy and Croatia cited by NUI Maynooth academic Dr Adrian Kavanagh suggests that Ireland needs to act carefully should it decide to extend voting rights in a meaningful manner. The Committee does not want a situation where we extend the right to vote to Irish emigrants abroad only to be followed by a miniscule turnout. So if and when voting rights are extended to the Irish Diaspora, the Committee suggests that an Electoral Commission would need to be established to consider the infrastructure required.

During its hearings, the Committee also has the opportunity to hear political perspectives of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independent TD John Halligan on the issue, which all emphasised the need to allow our citizens abroad have a say in political life at home.

Of course, many recent Irish emigrants reside in non-EU countries, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  So we are also saying very clearly that the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens resident abroad but within the European Union cannot be separated from the wider issue of voting rights for Irish citizens resident abroad more generally. We believe that by taking action to address the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens resident abroad in a global sense, the EU dimension can be also be addressed.  

The tentative economic recovery of late has thankfully appeared to stem the flow in numbers, but it is a fact of life that many emigrants will decide to firmly put down roots in their new homes. And a proportion of Irish people will continue to emigrate in numbers in years to come – hopefully by choice – to explore the world beyond our small island.

In this globalised and interconnected world, Salman Rushdie’s warning about emigrants falling between two stools was never more apt. That is why this cross party report has presented a clear roadmap to ensure that Irish emigrants can continue to have a stake in the future of their home country.