Give emigrants a vote

Emigration has been a staple part of the Irish diet for generations, yet for those Irish who have to digest it, no seat is given at the table.

 In the past four years 308,000 people left this country. 41% of these were aged 15 to 24.  Due to the decisions of a previous generation, today’s young generation bares the cost.

Instead of London or New York this new crop of Irish emigrants is building lives from Montreal to Melbourne. Many will never return, some will. But all are united by the common experience of building a life up from scratch. Surely an injection of this energetic tenacious voice is something our weary public debate needs.

Irish emigrants are the poor unwashed relations. We have no vote, no say, existing in a political no man’s land, feeding on scraps of attention from idle political masters.  We turn our heads at the snippet of news from home, we savour the packet of crisps and a pint of stout in the local. We stare longingly at Ireland, yet it glances at uneasy displeasure at us. We are conveniently rolled out on St Patricks Day or ‘harnessed’ in times of need. We are handy to know, but not to be heard.

Ireland is the EU’s well-mannered child once more, yet it is of little difference when our economic downfall copper fastened our global stereotype. Good time Charlies who couldn’t handle a bit of lucre, a the Irish are great fun.

Every day an Irish emigrant confronts and hurdles our drink sodden stereotype. Every day an Irish emigrant navigates their life through the debris of greed that swept the nation. For each every day this generation will have to deal with Ireland’s betrayal by a previous generation. The game of passing the parcel between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael has reached its logical conclusion, a dead end. Let a new generation help steer the reins of this country by allowing its emigrants a vote.

115 countries across the world allow their citizens a vote from abroad in a meaningful election. 28 in Africa, 16 in the Americas, 20 in Asia, 41 in Western and Central Europe, and 10 all the way down here in the Pacific. Yes e-voting proved a puzzling mess, but perhaps we can knock on the doors of our English neighbours, or place a call to the Portuguese, even the Afghans, or the Kiwis or the Canadians. So many case studies in allowing citizens abroad their democratic right.

The naysayers will shout of course. What rights has one to influence the path of a nation it has left many years before. As the Irish generational shuffle to the departure gate continues to be aided by others, is it time to think of doing things somewhat differently.

Why do we mute the voice of an emigrant community that enriches every other country it settles in? Why do we fail to draw from a well of knowledge, passion and experience that simply sits outsides our physical borders? Why don’t we watch and learn, see what other countries do well or fail to do well in giving their citizens abroad a voice?

The UK allows its citizens to experience life beyond its borders for up to 15 years before it decides it is time to revoke their inalienable right. The Australians give it six years before they consider muting their mates, although an extension can be granted. As Ireland claws its way off the economic floor it can look to the world for a much needed political reboot.

Since 1976 the Portuguese abroad have been represented in the House of Representatives with two electoral districts specifically fashioned for them, one for those living in Europe and another for those in the rest of the world. Eleven countries—four in Europe, four in Africa  and three in the Americas—not only allow their citizens abroad to participate in some electoral processes, but also enable them to elect their own representatives to the national legislature. Six countries even make it hard not to vote abroad, with Australia, Belgium, Estonia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden—offering the voter abroad three or more alternative ways of casting a vote.

No one size fits all and in extending the vote to the diaspora there are issues and questions to be examined and teased. Such debate should be encouraged as hand in hand with a new economic revitalisation should be a political one.

You are not responsible for this crisis was a central message of the Taoiseach’s recent state of the nation address, yes but we emigrants are the ones who bare the highest cost.

In a few days’ time Irish emigrants across the globe will usher in Christmas Day thousands of miles from home. The greatest present for many of us will be a seat at the table.

This piece  was originally published in the Irish Independent

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