Voting rights for Irish emigrants: Give ‘exiled children’ their say

AS we approach the presidential election, it is worth noting that there are many thousands of Irish citizens denied the right to vote, for no other reason than they live and work outside the country.

The right to exercise a franchise that Irish men and women died for is fundamental, yet it is one denied to tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who form the Irish diaspora.

Their plight was brought to the attention of the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, where MEPs are this week discussing voting rights in the EU.

According to Dublin MEP Brian Hayes, Ireland is one of the worst EU member states, in terms of extending voting rights to its citizens abroad.

Malta is the only other EU member state with similar rules to Ireland, while citizens of the UK, Cyprus, Denmark, and Germany lose the right to vote when they live abroad for an extended period.

The failure of successive governments to recognise the rights of the diaspora has led to some bizarre situations. For instance, over 2,000 Irish citizens who work for the EU in Brussels have no vote in an Irish general election, as they are not resident in Ireland, nor are they entitled to vote in the Belgian election, as they are not domiciled in Belgium.

Unless changes are made, after Brexit more than 300,000 Irish citizens in Britain will lose their right to vote in European elections. Irish law prevents them from having a postal vote.

This neglect of our citizens abroad is odd, considering that diaspora engagement is a core element of Irish foreign policy. In March, 2015 the Department of Foreign Affairs published ‘Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy’, the first comprehensive articulation of the Irish Government’s policy in relation to the nation’s “exiled children”, in the famous words of the 1916 Proclamation.

The vision put forward by the department is of a government policy that supports, engages, and encourages “a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other.”

The policy is more than fine words, as the department’s Emigrant Support Programme has awarded almost €200m, since 2004, to Irish community organisations.

Yet, despite this engagement and assistance, there are still no voting rights for the Irish abroad. It is not as if there isn’t support for it. In 2013, delegates at the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly to support the right of overseas citizens to vote in presidential elections.

A survey by the Irish Times showed high levels of support among recent Irish emigrants for emigrant voting rights. The survey, which interviewed Irish nationals who emigrated after 2008, found that 62% of respondents think they should be able to vote for the president, 63% in general elections, 61% in referendums, and 53% in Seanad elections.

There was also support, two years ago, from former taoiseach Enda Kenny, who promised a referendum on the issue. It never happened. The time is long past to change that.

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