Skip to main content
Normal View

COMMITTEE ON PROCEDURE AND PRIVILEGES (Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform) debate -
Thursday, 18 Sep 2003

Vol. 1 No. 3

Presentation on behalf of Emigrants.

Witness: Dr. W. J. Smyth.

I thank Dr. Smyth for the way he kindly facilitated us and apologise for the inconvenience we put him to in having to wait. Senator O'Rourke would like me to convey her apologies. She is Chairman of the sub-committee but cannot be here this afternoon. I think Dr. Smyth is reasonably familiar with how we operate having sat here for some time. I am aware of his distinguished record in NUI, Maynooth, and his presidency of that eminent institution. It is now part of the NUI with which we had something do to in terms of the legislation which was passed. Dr. Smyth is here in a personal capacity to talk about emigrants and has some novel things to say to us. We look forward to hearing an overview after which we will move on to questions.

Dr. Smyth

I thank Senator Dardis. The last occasion on which I was in this Chamber was when the presidents, in their personal capacities, were being consulted by the then Minister for Education about a matter close to all of our hearts. Art Cosgrove of UCD and I are the only two survivors of that period.

I thank members for giving me the opportunity to express my views. My competence in this matter is, perhaps, limited to two areas on which I wish to comment. The first of these is that of university representation and the second relates to a wider issue that is linked with the area, namely, emigration and emigrants, in respect of which, in the past, as a functioning academic, I was involved in research.

With regard to university representation and the six Independent Senators on the Universities Panel, I do not believe anybody could, in current circumstances, mount an argument that the vote franchise should be restricted to graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. That position is no longer tenable. There are many instances where not only is the vote restricted to graduates of those two colleges, but where some of those graduates have two votes because they hold degrees from each of the institutions. DCU and UL have existed as entities since 1989, while the Dublin Institute of Technology, as indicated in my submission, awards its own degrees up to and including doctorate level. The institutes of technology have degrees awarded under HETAC and NQAI supervision.

There is no argument about widening the franchise. I would find it difficult to accept strong arguments about restricting it. To do so would not make sense. It seems to me that we move on the 1979 referendum result by either widening the franchise or calling the whole thing off and regrouping somewhere else. It would be too limited otherwise.

The issue of emigration is more interesting and, perhaps, more open to debate. The question of whether there should be representation for emigrants first surfaced as a live political issue approximately ten to 15 years ago. At the time we were in the concluding phase of the recession and the opening phase of the Celtic tiger. Up to 1992, this was a country of net out-migration. There was, justifiably, considerable debate and discussion about examination of emigration. Since then, we have been a country of net in-migration.

In terms of a country which has, for two and a half centuries, exported many millions to the extent that there are approximately 70 million individuals across the globe, a significant percentage of whom would qualify for Irish passports, it is probably not realistic to enfranchise them with any sort of vote for representation in the Seanad. The variety of emigrant experiences, whether first or subsequent generation, is so wide that it would be difficult to find anyone who could meaningfully capture that range. Emigrants include a wide social spectrum and occupy a geographical area that spans the globe. In many ways, it seems that the question of representation would have originally been discussed in terms of trying to console those of us who remained behind and to ensure that we would not carry too much of a conscience about allowing so many to leave at a time when we could not provide opportunities for them. In this regard, I have an academic interest but I also speak as someone who holds citizenship in three countries. I have only ever voted in a country in which I have lived and have voted in three countries. However, I do not feel I have any entitlement to maintain an active voting participation in a country in which I am not a current resident. I say this by way of an aside.

In terms of the nature of society, it seems that the big challenge for the future - it is one that the Seanad could take on in a constructive and foresighted way - would be to deal with the issue of in-migration, not that of out-migration. I am not suggesting that every in-migrant group should have a representative because those groups are just as diverse as the out-migrant groups have been. In-migration does not just bring different groups into this country, it is creating here a genuine question about multiculturalism and pluralism. The latter are driven, to a large extent, by ethnicity and birthplace. I am of the opinion that this country must genuinely tackle that question and make some provision to deal with it. The Seanad is a very apt place to do so. I do not suggest that the House should represent people from Romania, west Africa or any other place of origin, it should represent the concept of multiculturalism in an Ireland that has moved from a homogenous, restrictive view of life to being a modernised, globalised society. In that respect, I believe the issue about emigrants obtaining representation could be turned around and become one of encouraging some form of significant representation, possibly through the Taoiseach's nominees, for multicultural, in-migrant presences.

As some Members are probably aware - others will detect it from my accent - I have an interest in the North of Ireland. It seems that since the Good Friday Agreement there has been an attempt to continue and perhaps extend cross-Border linkages, as has been done in recent compositions of the Seanad - the reasons for doing so arguably predated the Agreement. This is a genuine attempt at fostering such linkages and it is a very fruitful enterprise. I am of the opinion that people on both sides of the Border do not really understand the full complexities of their counterparts in the respective jurisdictions. The presence of someone in the Seanad who would not speak solely on the North of Ireland but who would help Members distil a view of the world through the lenses of a person who grew up, lives or works there would be extremely valuable for this House. Those are the three points I wish to make.

With regard to Dr. Smyth's last point, we have such a representative in the person of Senator Maurice Hayes who has spoken not only about Northern Ireland but also about a wide range of issues regarding society.

I welcome Dr. Smyth. In a moment I intend to read a passage from his submission because it is so good it deserves to be on the record. I recall Seamus Mallon being incandescent in the House on a particular occasion because somebody in the then Department of Agriculture had decided to classify eggs produced in Northern Ireland as foreign.

Orange eggs.

Yes, the former Senator Mallon was incandescent about the incident.

In advancing his argument about the invalidity of discussing emigrant representation, Dr. Smyth asks:

Could the stockbroker on Wall Street and the homeless in Camden Town be really empowered by being represented in Seanad Éireann by a graduate Pleistocene geomorphologist from the Transkei in South Africa?

The answer to that question is, "No". However, does Dr. Smyth not think that, if we arrived at a process of electing them to this House, emigrants might have a contribution to make to our society? He raised many issues about the nature of emigration and knows far more about this subject than me. There were different waves of Irish emigration and the 1980s wave was probably one of the reasons we were able to have a boom in the 1990s. An entire generation of highly skilled people obtained experience abroad and when they returned home, they were able to feed an economy that was booming.

My second question relates to Dr. Smyth's very interesting idea about new arrivals in Ireland. The first thing we must recognise about the people concerned is that, by and large, at the stage when they need the sort of support to which he refers they will not, by definition, be Irish citizens. If they were to be represented directly in the Seanad, it would mean changing a fundamental provision of the Constitution regarding citizenship and elections. However, has he considered how this might be achieved?

Dr. Smyth

I thank the Senator. There are two points. First, I know both stockbrokers on Wall Street and down and outs in Camden Town. However, the contribution of the out-migrants of the 1980s, as the Senator rightly pointed out, is that many have been attracted back. Most of the growth, development and success of NUI Maynooth in recent years has been due to the fact that we have pulled many of them back from places such as Berkeley and Chicago and derived real benefits. With regard to the benefit that could be gleaned from people who have already left, are perhaps long-term emigrants and, therefore, have no interest in coming back for one reason or another, one can lose touch with the subtleties of the homeland roots and interplay of forces that shape it. I have been an emigrant and one can romanticise about the Ireland one left. Without pointing a finger too closely, certain elements in transatlantic communities whose view of the Ireland they or their forefathers left has been romanticised by a certain tinge of colour not rooted in reality. The reality check has been dissipated. In terms of the emigrant experience being brought back to the country, the reality check is a filter that weakens the validity and perhaps its strength and utility.

I am also not of the school that believes emigration equals exile. Many left the country because they could not get a job. I left at a time I could not get a job but emigrants are not necessarily tear-dropping exiles. Many, once they left, were quite happy to be away and make their lives abroad. There is an issue regarding many emigrants, particularly those who left in the 1950s and are now coming to old age and retirement, who wish to come back to the country. People are working hard to create an infrastructure to cater for them, an area in which I can see a juxtaposition of the reality check between the emigrant experience and the ongoing business of the country at home.

I refer to in-migration. I did not suggest that people who were asylum seekers, refugees or recent arrivals should not qualify for the vote on any count. I do not suggest a major overall review in this regard as it would be a fundamental change. However, through their presence, these immigrant groups have created a more multicultural society. The concept of multiculturalism needs to be better represented and identified and it can be, not necessarily by the person who is more recently arrived as a participant group but by groups, organisations or individuals who are sufficiently well informed to be able to take that concept of the multicultural, pluralistic effect of in-migration and articulate it here.

I have a concern that a country that has been exporting people for two and a half centuries is ill-prepared to import people and, unless there is constructive thinking about this, there will be major difficulties. We cannot wait until the immigrant groups have been here for a sufficient time to acquire citizenship or political status, which would allow them a voice directly. This is a matter of urgency and vital importance and it is not a question of Ireland having to reinvent the wheel. We are one of the last western democracies to turn from a homogenised society to a heterogeneous one and are much improved for it. However, we can learn from countries such as Canada, for example, which has had an established multicultural policy since 1968. That is where I am coming from, not the enfranchisement of immigrants themselves.

The emigrant matter has been well elucidated but I refer to the Northern Ireland element. Several groups, including political parties from Northern Ireland, have expressed views on this issue. They have suggested a diverse range of arrangements, one of which is that the Assembly would nominate appointees. Does Dr. Smyth have a view on how the mechanism might operate regarding Northern Ireland representation?

Dr. Smyth

The Senator has put his finger on a difficult issue. Worthy individuals - Senator Maurice Hayes would stand out in any country - can be identified and appointed but a structure is not being put in place. A structural linkage is needed in the long-term. The Assembly carries with it a fraught nature in terms of views but the Assembly or, perhaps cross-Border organisations such as InterTrade Ireland, could be, in the first instance, selected as structures that might yield people. The reason I mention InterTrade Ireland is that the integral nature of the economy, North and South, is probably something on which people have a reasonably united view. There is a view that there might be more agreement. However, the true mark of success will be seen when a structure rather than the ad hominem relationship is achieved. I do not criticise the ad hominem approach but true maturity will come through a structure and rather than codifying a structure; it might be seen as an evolving set of structures whereby perhaps one begins with some and then moves to others.

Dr. Smyth referred to a structure that is a sign of the true maturity in the relationship to which I presume both communities would subscribe. A number of parties believe that to move to a formalised structure using a direct vote in Northern Ireland may be problematic now——

He said it would evolve.

I accept it must evolve but it must be representative of both communities.

Dr. Smyth

I have absolutely no difficulty with that. I am known as William Smyth and I am the only president of an Irish university who has been invited to join the Orange Order three times. I have frequently worn an orange sash in Maynooth. The birthday of the Orange Order was 23 September 1795 while Maynooth was founded on 21 June of the same year. It would not be constructive to engage in an enfranchisement that would give a vote but one should work with the building blocks one has in order that one can move to a higher range of building blocks. However, structures are where one should ultimately try to position oneself in a relationship.

I refer to the extension of the university franchise. Dr. Smyth stated one could be a national university and Trinity College graduate and have a vote in both elections. I assume if the franchise was extended, one would opt for one institution if there were sub-panels.

Dr. Smyth

Yes. It is a long time since one man, one vote was fought on the streets of Derry but it had a certain resonance.

Canada has an appointed Senate. Is there an arrangement whereby ethnic groups and other immigrants are included?

Dr. Smyth

I am not aware of them being represented per se as immigrant groups but the appointed Senate draws on a range of people, which brings both the French-Canadian view and people from a more diverse ethnic background together. I am not sure about the precise mechanism or whether they come from organisations but the membership of the Canadian Senate is representative of a wide range of ethnic groups. This is coming from a country which has been actively supporting multi-culturalism since 1968. Many of these have emerged through structures that have matured with the overall structure of the country.

I thank Dr. Smyth for his input. He has shattered the emigrant consensus which was developing and about which we were being put under significant pressure.

The witness withdrew.

The sub-committee adjourned at 4.50 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 19 September 2003.