Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Voting Rights of EU Citizens: Discussion (Resumed)
Today the joint committee will be discussing a communication received from the European Commission in recent months on the voting rights of EU citizens and their ability to exercise their right to mobility within the European Union.
The Commission criticised five countries, including Ireland, for failing to provide voting rights to their citizens living in other member states. Malta, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Cyprus were the other member states cited for disenfranchising voters who had decided to exercise the right to free movement. Previously, we have heard the views of a number of member states and we have also heard from political parties within the State. At today's meeting, we will hear two distinct views. The first contribution will be from Dr. Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth. Dr. Kavanagh is a leading expert on political geography. We will also hear from Ms Jennie McShannon, CEO of Irish in Britain, an organisation which looks after the needs of the Irish diaspora in the UK and which was formerly called the Federation of Irish Societies. The Irish in Britain organisation has been assisting in the campaign for the right of Irish citizens living outside the island of Ireland to vote in general elections.
Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I note that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to a committee. However, if a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular issue and continues to do so, he or she is only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of today's proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
We had a brief discussion before the meeting commenced and agreed that the order of presentations would be Dr. Kavanagh followed by Ms McShannon.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
My intention is to give an overview of the different ideas people have about voting rights for diaspora populations before looking at a what-if scenario in which diaspora voting rights had been extended in respect of the last general election. This is becoming more of an issue with what people refer to as "the diaspora turn" in public policy. In recent decades, there have been growing levels of engagement between governments and diaspora populations. This cuts across a number of different dimensions including economic development, philanthropy and tourism promotion, as we saw recently with The Gathering. There is a growing sense that states are becoming increasingly aware of their diaspora populations and of the policy issues.
The way states relate to diasporas is changing. One way this has happened in more recent decades has been by way of the extension of voting rights to diaspora populations. As we all know, however, external voting rights have not been established by all states. Many academic writers see this process as similar to the extension of voting rights to other groups in the past, including the extension of voting rights to women at the start of the last century, to minority groups and to younger adults. Of course, there are differences. There are a number of arguments for and against the policy. Some of the arguments against it are based on the suggestion that political rights should be linked to the extent of taxation liabilities. Others refer to the danger of extending voting rights to emigrants in terms of extending rights to people who will be making decisions on what happens in the home state and to home populations.
The academic literature contains a number of arguments in favour of the extension of voting rights. One of the more interesting arguments relates to a report by the Hansard Society in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom extends voting rights to British expatriates and the report considered the problem of increasing the level of voting by expatriates. The basic argument was that by encouraging expatriates to vote, they would act as lobbies on behalf of their home countries. It was suggested to encourage expatriates to take a more active interest in the political and current affairs of Britain and pass this interest to future generations. Another interesting argument was to the effect that expatriates could bring an important international perspective to a national general election contest. In other arguments it is noted that the right to vote in national elections is a constitutional and human right. Leaving aside the taxation issue, diaspora members have suggested that economic remittances represent a significant contribution to the present and future well being of countries. It has also been suggested that economic circumstances were what forced people to emigrate. Other arguments relate to the emotional, cultural and patrimonial bonds that continue to exist between migrants and their native lands.
The academic literature is interesting in suggesting that what really drives decisions on the extension of voting rights is the politics of the home state rather than the extent of advocacy on behalf of different migrant groups. Much of the literature suggests it has to do with the political context or the political make-up of the state at certain times. It discusses opportunity spaces that exist at certain periods when the politics of a state might make it more open to decisions on the extension of voting rights. Often this can be down to perceptions as to the impact of extending the right to vote to diaspora populations on election results.
Ireland is an interesting case but first I note some interesting election findings from other countries. It has been suggested that migrant voters may vote in a more nationalistic way. The evidence suggests that has been the case in some instances, but not in others. There is no cast-iron proof that migrant voters vote in a certain way. I looked at Croatia. The Croat diaspora tends to vote for the more nationalistic HDZ party instead of the other parties in the state. Italy is one of the countries which gives significant voting rights and electoral power to its diaspora. Looking at the last Italian elections, we see that the centre left party, which provides the leadership of the current Government, took many more votes and seats than were given to the Berlusconi coalition. There is no strong evidence that diaspora voters will bring about particular election results.
Another interesting element of extending diaspora voting rights relates to turnout levels.
I looked at three countries. If one looks at the evidence from the UK, estimates suggest that 3 million British people might be living abroad who have the right to vote but that only a couple of thousand registered to vote in the UK. According to the last estimate from December 2011 carried out by the Hansard Society, only 23,366 people registered out of what the society suggested was an estimated three million people.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
Yes, less than 1%. It might have been higher. It might have been the case that it is annual registration. This would have been after the British general election with the expectation that another election would not come up for another four years. The society knows that 40,000 registration forms were downloaded during the election year, which was the year before, so I suspect it might be higher in election years in the UK but that is still a very small percentage registering to vote let alone deciding to turn out to vote.
In the case of Italy, 3.5 million Italian expatriates were registered to vote in the last election but roughly one-third voted. It was estimated that just over one million voted in elections to the Chamber of Deputies and under 1 million voted in the contest for the Senate so we are looking at a turnout rate of roughly 30% in Italy.
Croatia is an interesting example. It is one country where one finds divergences or variances in voting rights, which the EU is concerned about. Croats living in Bosnia-Herzegovina have the right to vote in two national elections. They can vote in the Bosnian national elections but they can also vote in the Croatian elections. This, of course, taps into what is the big issue for the EU, namely, the fact that there are different voting rights for different Europeans. Irish people living in other EU countries do not have the right to vote in general elections. Obviously, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not in the EU but a Bosnian Croat can vote in an election in Croatia which is now in the EU. If one is a Bosnian Croat, one can vote in two general elections. It is these differences that seem to go against the principle of what it means to be part of the EU. A 22% turnout was estimated for the diaspora population of Croatia in the 2007 election. In the last parliamentary election in Croatia, the turnout was as low as 5%.
If one is trying to consider what impact diaspora voters might have in elections, one element to take account of is the likely turnout level. Ireland is an interesting case because of our electoral system. If one decides to extend voting rights to the diaspora, there are different ways one can decide to do it. Does it extend to the Irish diaspora living in other European countries or to all countries across the world? One could do what Croatia and Italy have done and have a separate constituency electing a number of seats. Obviously, in the case of Dáil Éireann, that could have an impact because as we know from the past, most Governments, excluding the current one and the 1992-1994 one, enjoy very narrow majorities. There might be the fear that if results turn out a certain way in the emigrant or diaspora constituency, it would dictate who forms the next Government.
The other way of extending voting rights is the model used in the UK. This involves allowing voters to vote in the constituency they come from or where their parents came from in the case of the UK. We have high levels of marginality when it comes to Irish elections because of our electoral system. As members know, a couple of hundred votes can determine the last seats in a number of constituencies.
I did a quick number crunch to examine the impact of extending voting rights to the Irish diaspora at the last general election on general election constituencies in 2011. I took the same scenario that pertains in Canada or Australia - a scenario preferred by many in the academic literature. It involves extending voting rights to diaspora populations for five or six years and after that, the right to vote in national elections is taken over by the country in which they reside. I used the population estimates published by the census last year and applied them to likely turnout levels. Emigrant populations tend to be younger than the average population and younger populations tend to be less likely to vote. Looking at the number of people who left Ireland in the five years prior to the general election and making allowances for the fact that a significant number of people might have left in 2006 and 2007 and might have returned by 2009 or 2010, I produced an estimate of likely turnout again making allowances for the fact that based on the CSO's figures, a very high percentage of emigrants tend to be in the younger age cohorts and younger people are less likely to vote. I estimated that there might have been a total valid vote of just over 32,000 among the diaspora population at the last election assuming the turnout levels for that group were the same as those for the population at home, which is a big assumption. One could ask what would have happened if it was 30%, as is the case in Italy, or 5%. Even with these figures, when one looks at the last election and divides that potential voting population of 32,000 across what were then 43 constituencies in the State-----
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
Like the UK model. The idea is that the right to vote would be in one's home constituency. Unfortunately, there is no real geography of emigration at the moment, which is probably understandable, so I could not work out whether certain constituencies are more affected and just did a very straightforward division of that 32,000 based on the population of those constituencies. Laois-Offaly was the biggest constituency in the last general election and accounted for 3.3% of the total population at that election based on the 2011 constituency so I allocated Laois-Offaly 3.3% of that total voting population. Dublin North Central was the smallest with about 1.6% so it was allocated 1.6% of the total voting population. Based on those figures, I estimated that, assuming turnout levels were the same as for the rest of the population living in the State, there would have been a range of voters. The maximum number of voters would have been an estimated 1,069 in Laois-Offaly while the minimum number would have been an estimated 521 in Dublin North Central so in most cases, one would be talking about a couple of hundred voters.
If one relates that to marginality levels at the last election, one can see that in the majority of cases, that diaspora voting population would have been smaller than the marginality level - the difference between the person who took the last seat and the person who missed out. If one looks at the extreme case of Roscommon-South Leitrim, one can see that there were 5,088 votes between the last elected candidate and the candidate who missed out. I am estimating 500. Roughly, in two-thirds of cases, this estimated number of diaspora votes would have been smaller than than the marginality level.
In cases where this estimated diaspora voting number would have been higher than the constituency marginality level, in a good number of cases such as Cavan-Monaghan, one would have had to assume that possibly 70% or 80% of those voters would have voted in a certain way. In the case of Cavan-Monaghan, if 85% of voters in the diaspora population had voted Sinn Féin, Senator Reilly might be in the Dáil rather than the Seanad.
In other constituencies, the numbers were small enough but we are looking at differences between two people from the same party. I am looking at cases like Laois-Offaly, Wexford and Cork North Central. There are three constituencies where the diaspora vote could have changed the seats in party terms at the last election, one of which would have been Dún Laoghaire.
I do not refer to the final count but the second last count. There were 147 votes between Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett and Senator Ivana Bacik. I estimated that there were approximately 735 diaspora votes. Had a significant number of those 735 voted Labour it could have changed the result. The last two candidates and in Wicklow were separated by 112 votes and in Galway West only 17 votes.
The 2011 figures seem to suggest that the extension of diaspora voting rights would have had an impact only in a handful of constituencies. That is only one example and one could consider other examples, such as the 2002 general election where there were many more close calls. I suggest perhaps the extension of voting rights to the Irish diaspora, or the Irish diaspora living in EU countries, which seems to be the issue here, would have less impact on election results than measures to increase voter turnout levels among low-turnout groups in Irish society. Implementing more voter mobilisation efforts to increase voter turnout among working-class communities or people in the 18 to 35 age group would have more impact than the extension of voting rights to the diaspora.
Notwithstanding that the EU has no rules on it, some academic political scientists suggest this will happen and it is a matter of when, not if, the EU will make a ruling on it. As the members know, the EU still regards this as a matter of national competence. The sense in some of the literature is that a case may eventually be taken to the European Court of Justice, after which states will be forced to do something. It is better to act before that than after. If and when voting rights are extended to the Irish diaspora, the evidence I cited from the UK, Italy and Croatia suggests that countries need to do it properly. We do not want a situation where we extend the right to vote to Irish emigrants abroad but only 5% are voting. The next step is to consider the infrastructure required. The obvious method would be to do it under the aegis of an electoral commission, which is a different discussion.
Ms Jennie McShannon:
I thank the committee for inviting me. Irish in Britain is 40 years old, was founded by the Irish community for the Irish community in 1973 and was originally called the Federation of Irish Societies. It comprises almost 100 organisations across Britain, primarily in England but also Scotland and Wales, which provide social care and welfare, cultural hubs, community centres and Irish clubs to the community and, increasingly, some of the new Irish who tend to form new organisations around the work they do in their area, such as the lawyers' associations and business networks. As a membership organisation we are the only national representative and do much work representing issues pertaining to the Irish community, as fed to us, to the British and Irish Governments.
Our involvement in this issue began when the Constitutional Convention was announced. Our membership was very keen for us to take up the issue of voting in the presidential elections. The initial mandate was on votes for the Irish abroad, as per the Constitutional Convention discussions. We pursued a campaign of engaging the community on the issue and finding out how people felt across the very diverse elements in the community, as they engaged with us through our membership organisations or through our wider reach. We called the project "diaspora voice", and it was a listening initiative and engaged with the Constitutional Convention. We held a number of listening events with many different groups at national meetings, through our informal network sessions and through online polling and promotion of the issues.
Initially we had a very varied response. Among the older Irish there was overwhelming support for votes in the presidential elections. People who had been living in Britain for as many as 50 years still talked about "our President" and were excited about the opportunity to be involved in the presidential elections. On the wider engagement in the legislative assemblies there was some concern about what it might mean for Irish people's ability to vote in British elections. The Irish community is very active in local politics in many of the major cities and urban areas throughout Britain. Is was an important opportunity for us to feed back what happens in other countries, as described by Dr. Kavanagh.
The response of the new or younger Irish was very different. While they felt the Irish presidential elections were very important, they felt it did not go far enough and that they had a significant investment in what happens in Irish public life. Many of them talked about returning to Ireland, and we know that many will while others will not. Many of them had come to Britain in order to sustain mortgages in Ireland and are considering the care and support of elderly parents. Some are living in Britain while their immediate families and children remain in Ireland. Through that we began to form our position as a representative organisation and made a submission on the issue to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
We believe Irish citizens have a major contribution to make to public life. We talked about diaspora engagement in terms of remittances in the past, and in the future they may support Ireland through investment. There are "transnationalists": people who live in Britain but still feel very much that they have a life back in Ireland. We made four main proposals for action, namely, to end the disenfranchisement of recent migrants, facilitate some kind of diaspora vote in the presidential elections, provide for diaspora representation in the Oireachtas, and possibly appoint a Minister for diaspora engagement.
We began by picking up on the some of the President's statements, asking whether we are really Irish and part of the nation and whether we would pervert the national vote. President Higgins expressed his very visionary form of Irishness, saying that the Irishness he believes is emerging, even if not yet fully realised, is one that will be informed by the experience of the Irish abroad as much as, or even to a greater extent than, it will be informed by those of us who live in Ireland. This was a very significant statement around the role of the diaspora in Irish life. We welcomed the European Commissioner's advice on our participation in national elections and whether it is binding in EU law - which the committee is examining - that the citizens' right to vote is fundamental to any democracy. The authority is not just for membership of the EU but is also set out in the UN and Council of Europe human rights treaties.
There is national consensus that the Irish diaspora is a vast human resource with economic, political and social opportunities and a contribution to make.
Diaspora leaders both in civil society and business believe we should be promoting active participation. For our own position, we encourage the Irish community to vote as much as possible and to participate in the British elections because they have a vote in that country and they should make their vote count. We pursued such a campaign in the last British election. They should also participate as much as possible in Ireland, particularly those who have such concrete and tangible reasons to be involved. Exercising the right to vote is a very powerful way to engage and involve the diaspora. Removing barriers to voting is in the interests of the citizens overseas, but also in the interests of citizens living in Ireland.
We know there are many objections, as Dr. Kavanagh has mentioned, including that the overseas voters will not know the issues. We point to things such as data indicating that a large amount of the readership of The Irish Timesonline comes from the diaspora, particularly in Britain. I do not have the exact percentage so I do not want to fire it out there, but I was quite taken aback by that figure. There are many discussions about anything that is going in Ireland and people are still very involved and knowledgeable. In the light of the revolution in global communications and social media, it is much easier to stay involved and engaged in the issues.
Taxation and representation is another issue that has been raised. Noreen Bowden, who is in America and has used social media a lot to put forward a similar campaign supporting the votes, pointed out that no representation without taxation would have implications for Irish living in Ireland - for those who are not paying tax or not employed and are not able to contribute to the taxation system. They do not lose their vote as a result of that and nor should the Irish abroad. The income of EU citizens is taxed primarily in the state of residence so they are contributing in terms of the EU. The Irish overseas transfer money home and are liable to many forms of taxation through property tax and different services.
The fear of swamping is something that in our community among the Irish diaspora in Britain they worried about in itself and that is something they wanted to consider. There have been estimates of the diaspora being 70 million and concern that the votes overseas would distort results. We considered the international experience before we made our submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and talked about it with our members. We concluded that those fears were relatively unfounded. We believe the biggest challenge for diaspora leaders would be persuading citizens to vote. Just because it would be an uphill struggle to get people to vote is not sufficient reason not to actively give people the right to vote. They are two very different and distinct things.
We have a few things to say about the fear of swamping. The number of those of Irish descent and heritage obviously vastly exceeds the current passport holders who might be entitled to vote. That is estimated at about 3 million - exact figures are not available. Of those who may be entitled to vote, only a small proportion would be likely to register and request a voting ballot. International comparisons based on our figures - Dr. Kavanagh's are probably more accurate than ours - would suggest a figure of more like 300,000. In the UK with an overseas population of 27 million, citizens are entitled to vote for up to 15 years after leaving their constituencies and yet only 23,000 register to vote. The issues are similar. Even those on the register must be committed to casting their vote in any given election. Among US registered overseas voters, the turnout is 6.8% and if that were to be replicated, numbers could be as low as 20,000.
In terms of no voting without representation, the parliamentary institutions and the government that we felt should represent the Irish at home and abroad, the residency requirement should be removed. It would not necessarily require a constitutional change as we understand it, but we are not experts in constitutional issues.
Votes in national elections could be counted in the constituency of origin or it could be voting for representatives in a dedicated five-seat diaspora constituency. A new Seanad diaspora panel was obviously also a possibility. Procedures would obviously need to be put in place to accommodate that. The Irish in Britain who have talked to us about this are aware of the seismic changes in terms of procedures and processes. However, they are very keen on the commitment and principle.
In terms of the electoral roll and overseas vote, there is an urgent need for reviewing the method of updating and maintaining the electoral roll and postal and in-line facilities. The community felt that there were great opportunities there. Perhaps the inclusion of overseas voters should be subject to application and regular renewal as opposed to languishing on an electoral roll.
There is a need for review of voting and counting procedures from paper to electronic and online voting to guard against digital exclusion overseas. Obviously, in terms of the presidential election, many of the older Irish are not digitally included and that is an issue. Among the new Irish, it felt like a much more surmountable change to make. Among the older Irish, it was a bigger issue because they would not be as active digitally. There is the importance of training young voters, administrators and candidates on the issues and the ways that those living in Britain would want to engage.
I want to talk about time limits. Germany has a time limit of 25 years and the UK has 15 years. Irish citizens lose the vote instantly unless they can demonstrate an intention to return within 18 months, but that benchmark is very difficult to ascertain especially for those who are coming and going - coming home for a summer or a spell and then going back or possibly moving on. We believe there is a positive requirement to renew electoral registration. That would be a better mechanism. EU citizens should have equal entitlement to vote in national elections throughout the EU. I know Dr. Kavanagh has referred to some places that are not within the EU, but there should be some comparability across EU countries and there should not be a different standard.
Those were the things that came up in our discussions. The Irish in Britain are unique in a way because we are the only members of the diaspora in a country that automatically gives us the right to vote immediately on arrival in Britain. There was a thing about people feeling they could be engaged in two political jurisdictions. They would have an interest in local elections in Britain because it affects their children going to school and the health care they are receiving. Their interest in the Irish system is still very much alive. In seeking the support of the Irish diaspora, they were seeking the support in return on that.
I have two questions for Ms McShannon and one for Dr. Kavanagh. On logistics, it has been suggested that if we extended voting rights to our citizens in the United Kingdom and did not make it possible to vote online or electronically, we could end up with people queuing for miles at our embassy at Grosvenor Square or wherever. How would voting work in practice? How would people living in Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham, where many members of the diaspora live, get to vote? Has Ms McShannon given any thought to the mechanisms and logistics behind that?
Regarding dual-voting rights, if I was living in the UK, does Ms McShannon believe I should have a vote in Irish general elections and in UK general elections or should I have the right to choose between Dáil elections and Westminster elections? Particularly if I were living in Newry, should I have the right to vote in both?
Where would the diaspora's votes go?
Would they be for constituencies in Ireland or separate constituencies?
My next question is probably more for Dr. Kavanagh. We have heard of turnout rates among diasporas as low as 5%. France and Portugal have overseas constituencies. The French have five and the Portuguese have a European constituency. We were hoping to hear from some of their representatives, but I do not believe that will be possible in the time we have left for this work. Does Dr. Kavanagh know what the turnout is for the constituencies in question? If we were to have specific constituencies for the diaspora, we would have a very low turnout. A very small number of people would be deciding on the Deputies to be elected in their constituency. A North American constituency could have 100,000 people - the equivalent of a three-seat constituency. With a turnout of only 3% or 4%, only 1,000 people might vote for each Member, as supposed to ten times that number in this country. Have the delegates given any thought to whether this would be fair or whether we would be better off linking foreign constituents' votes with Irish constituencies?
I made a submission a few weeks ago on voting by the diaspora. I have two questions, in particular. Dr. Adrian Kavanagh referred to a figure of 1% and the consequences of this rate for elections in Ireland. Much of this is hypothetical, based on the potential of so many people to vote. Has there been an assessment of potential voting patterns among the Irish, particularly in Britain? Perhaps this question is relevant to both delegates. I am aware that the turnout is very small in the case of other countries. If voting rights were given in some form, what would the potential take-up be?
I thank both delegates. We must go back to the fundamentals and I am asking them for their opinions. What do we mean when we speak about the Irish diaspora? Does it amount to 30 million or 40 million people? Is it 3 million in England? I am looking for guidance on the foundations of this debate. Whom do the delegates believe should be allocated the right to vote and what criteria should be used? Should Irish passports issued in the past five or ten years be used? What would the criteria be in establishing the electoral base?
I would like to know the delegates' thinking on what exactly the electorate would actually vote for. It is a mystery. There are different electoral systems throughout the world, as the delegates know. The list system is the most simple and straightforward for a diaspora. Where there is a multi-seat, multi-party constituency, how should eligible voters cast their votes? Should they vote for a party or candidates attached to parties? I have not got my head around what kind of ballot paper voters should receive in their embassy's polling station. One could hardly be given a ballot paper for one's original constituency.
The European Union is talking about participation in general elections. We have dealt with the Constitutional Convention issue that addressed the right to vote in the presidential election. Are the delegates in a position to advise us on whether we could have an incremental process involving our finding out who the electorate were? Should we start with the presidential election as the basis, although it would not conform with European requests? The delegates know that our electoral register is completed every year. When we decide who should comprise the electorate, what will be the basis on which they might be allowed to participate? Considering that Irish citizens must register every year to ensure they remain on the register, should members of the diaspora register every year in order to be eligible? There are many complications. However, as we must produce a report, I would be very interested in the delegation's explanation of how it believes we should proceed.
My final point concerns the key difficulty - Northern Ireland. In the North there is a divided community where some claim to be republican Nationalists and carry Irish passports, while others claim to be Unionists and carry UK passports. In debating the allocation of voting rights to the diaspora, should we logically carry through in respect of the rights of Nationalists in Northern Ireland, or even Unionists who may opt to carry an Irish passport?
We do not have an electoral commission, but I presume the system would have to be managed by embassies. Could we work on this issue incrementally, given that it is a European debate? Could we start with the 28 EU countries where, I presume, we at least have the ambassadorial infrastructure required? Would this create second-class citizens in America? While we are not going to write the manifesto now, I would be interested in knowing how the delegates believe we can overcome these preliminary issues.
Ms Jennie McShannon:
I will answer a few questions. As Dr. Kavanagh is in a better position to respond to others, I will leave them to him.
On voting mechanisms, Irish communities are mainly in conurbations in Britain, including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and, increasingly, the surrounding areas as the Irish community spreads outwards. There are not consulates in all of these areas. The number of consulates and embassies has diminished, but there are very active and engaged Irish centres that could work effectively as polling stations. There is also the online facility. Obviously, there are ways of promoting this.
With regard to those who are not digitally engaged, there are Irish centres, including the Irish World Heritage Centre. I do not know whether there is a possibility of using such centres. It would have staffing implications, as they would have to be managed in the way polling stations are managed here. However, there would be a facility through using both online and off-line opportunities. There is a significant Irish centre infrastructure across Britain.
On dual elections, if a person from Britain comes to live in Ireland, he or she receives the vote, but he or she also retains his or her vote in Britain; he or she does not have to make a choice. That is what we would envisage for Irish citizens living in Britain. When the Irish go to Britain, they receive a vote, but they do not have an entitlement to vote here. Therefore, there is already a disparity. We cannot see any reason the British system could not be operated here.
Mr. Mark Scully has talked about transnationals, or those who have a sense of home in two places because they move so much between Britain and Ireland. I refer to the Ryanair generation. People are as much involved in what is happening here as what is happening in Britain. This presents a great opportunity in making a contribution to the Irish economy. What I describe has not been a massive issue for the British electoral system.
Asking who is the diaspora is like asking how long is a piece of string. With regard to who should be allocated the right to vote, our view has been that a distinction can be made with regard to those who are Irish born. In Australia or New Zealand one can be a citizen whether one was born there or not, in the same way as we have Irish citizens who were not born here, but only citizens born in the country can vote. There is a realm of possibilities. This would probably narrow things down a lot with regard to those who are second or third generation and the fear of swamping, as they can be Irish citizens but would not necessarily have the right to vote.
With regard to what people vote for, through digital communication they can see what candidates and parties state. Who the diaspora would vote for would depend on whether the diaspora would have a reserved constituency. An issue has been raised with regard to whether being a diaspora candidate would depend on having the money to canvass. This is a genuine issue. Would those without the financial backing to meet the diaspora to generate a vote be excluded? If there was not a diaspora constituency but people had a right to vote in their home constituencies, such as Meath or Dublin, would they be able to engage and understand what the candidates from each party offer as opposed to having a general sweep of the parties?
A campaign in countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have a large number of Irish emigrants, could be very difficult. One might have a much bigger campaign from emigrants living there if those living in Europe were given a vote.
Ms Jennie McShannon:
If it was decided that those living in Australia but born here could vote while those who were not could have a passport and be a citizen without a right to vote, this would mean a change to the notion of citizenship as it stands in Ireland. It would mean a significant change and rethink. If one were then to state there were further degrees of citizenship, it would create real rot.
I am not mandated with regard to Northern Ireland because we are engaged with the Irish in Britain so I will not comment on this matter. If citizens had to register every year, we have already stated we believe it would be important that people here would follow a similar reregistration process. It is a way to get people engaged and involved. We encouraged people to vote and make their vote count in the British elections, but the first step was to ensure they registered in time for the elections. This started people thinking about the next step after registration. Registering is a way to get people involved and interested and we do not believe it should be any different here if people abroad have to register annually.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
The people in this room are probably even more expert on some of the issues than I am but I will give my opinions. The question on the constituency issue was a good one. Would a low turnout for the diaspora population mean people would be elected with very small numbers? The example of Croatia suggests this would be the case. Some people were elected with 1,000 votes. It would be an issue. If and when we go down the line of extending voting rights to the diaspora, it might be an issue. On the other hand, one could argue there would not be an issue if it were done right. I suggest a body, preferably an electoral commission, should be in charge which would be mandated to organise it and ensure as many members of the Irish diaspora as possible are registered and have the potential to get as much information about the elections as possible, and this body would also facilitate the voting process.
How to facilitate it is a very interesting question. Unsurprisingly, geography comes into it. I believe Maltese people who are overseas and allowed to vote fly back to Malta and part of their expenses is paid. Obviously this is not something we want to do. Another issue is whether people would only be allowed to vote at the embassy. This would be another geographical issue. One would probably find more Irish people living in and near London would vote than Irish people living in and near Glasgow. This needs to be thought out. There are also issues with postal voting which would need to be considered. Estonia is working on e-voting. The suggestion from the literature is that e-voting has potential but may need a few more years of development. Potentially it could be the way to do it.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
Instead of having to rustle through the ballot box for one's vote. It has interesting potential. I suspect if and when we decide to extend voting rights, it will be a few years down the line, by which stage technology may have developed in such a way that e-voting is the more logical way of managing it, particularly for younger voters who are comfortable with it, and then postal voting or consulate voting for others could be considered. I do not want to say this would be for older people, because many older people are much better with technology than I am, but those who are not comfortable with technology would have a fall-back position.
With regard to the question of who is the Irish diaspora, everyone in the room will have a different opinion. Who the Irish diaspora should be with regard to voting rights is interesting. Political philosophy suggests people should be allowed to vote in one national election and, ideally, once they become settled, they should vote in their country of residence. The suggestion in academic literature, which is why I took this five year window, is that emigrants should have voting rights for five or six years, by which stage they should be established in their new country of residence. This would mean we would not have a situation whereby people would vote in general elections in two countries as happens with regard to Croatia, which is a member of the EU. The Bosnian Croats can vote in Croatia and also vote in Bosnia. It is a tricky question.
My apologies, I had to go to the House for other questions. I thank our guests and congratulate them on their presentations.
I tend to get uneasy when I hear too many emerging technicalities, particularly in terms of e-voting. I have often expressed my views on this matter. Our voting system does not lend itself readily to e-voting. Indeed, that was a conclusion from our foray into that area. This situation will not change. Nor should we change our system to accommodate e-voting. I am one of those who believe that voting is an essential part of democracy and should be treated as such. It should not be easy or simple to do, for example, while one is walking a dog and accessing the Internet. It needs careful consideration and democracy will suffer unless we ensure that the system on which it is based continues to be revered. If it is treated in an off-handed or contemptuous fashion, there will be serious problems.
Dr. Kavanagh referred to how particular issues in a constituency or home country might affect the outcome elsewhere. One of my colleagues was famously in a Mexican stand-off with an opponent after an election, in that five or seven votes were at issue. I am not opposed to the concept of representation from abroad, but there must be some control over it. There must be some contact with the home country. The constitutionality of any proposal needs to be proofed. Obviously, a proposal will be challenged at some stage if a group has entitlement by virtue of taxation, legislation and so on while others do not.
To what extent will it be possible to present to the diaspora the prevalent situation in the country of origin? At what stage will this approach be possible, for example, after five or ten years since leaving the homeland? Should it be left open forever? Flying home could become an expensive prospect. Failure to give the same access to the system enjoyed by the national population will lead to a constitutional challenge by someone aggrieved after an election.
Many issues arise. Some recognition of the diaspora is necessary, but it must be handled carefully and in a way that will not skew the result in a region because of the prevailing issues.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
How to manage e-voting was the last matter I discussed. I take Deputy Durkan's point, in that voting should not be too easy, but voters also need to be facilitated. It is better to have as many people voting as possible instead of assuming that certain groups are better able to vote than others, and if the others do not make the extra effort to vote, hard luck. I disagree with that assumption. The more people voting, the stronger the democracy. I do not want to make voting too easy, but the more ways we can, within reason, help to facilitate voters, be they in our home country or among the diaspora, the better it will be not just for them, but for democracy at large. I have a different take from the Deputy.
My last point was on the Irish diaspora. Some of the academic literature suggests a cut-off of five to six years, by which time voting rights in national elections should be limited to the country of residence. It is an interesting suggestion and will be debated further as time passes. Nearly every European country has a different model. An approach has already been adopted by the EU in terms of environmental legislation. As the idea of creating equal conditions across the EU starts to weigh more on the issue of voting, I suspect that we might see a greater push from the Union for a homogenisation of the voting practices applied to overseas populations.
Deputy Byrne asked for whom the electorate should vote. This is where the problems lie. There would be the same type of electoral system that Ireland has. In a diaspora constituency of three seats, there would be a ballot paper showing Fianna Fáil candidate X, Fine Gael candidate Y, Labour candidate Z and possibly others. Unless we change the electoral system, this approach could raise constitutional issues and require another referendum, which is a route we do not want to take too often. That scenario is the probable one, although I am not a legal expert.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
Yes. That is why we would need an electoral commission. Such a commission is necessary for other aspects of the process, but extra support and infrastructure would definitely be necessary to move this process along.
An interesting question was asked on whether the Presidential election should be the first step. I was surprised that the Constitutional Convention was asked to focus on Presidential elections. In terms of voting rights, the most restrictive voting processes in Ireland are referenda and Presidential elections. Focusing on the latter was putting the cart before the horse. I would have preferred it had the Constitutional Convention been allowed last year to discuss general elections as well as Presidential ones. It was a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, I see a great deal of logic in applying this to Presidential elections. They do not have the same impact, although I am not using that word correctly. To all intents and purposes, the Presidency is a symbolic office. It is an interesting suggestion. I am not fully agreed on either position and can see the logic in both.
As to whether the diaspora should be required to register every year, it is important to ask members of the diaspora about their continuing interest in their home country and its policies. The same rules must apply. One must be able to facilitate registration, though. For example, there should be a form of online or postal registration. However, people should also be expected to register each year.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
Yes. I gather it is the same in the UK's case. It makes sense. The literature suggests there should be an ongoing interest in the home country's political affairs. An obvious way to show such interest may be through registering annually. If one stops registering, there might be a pair of suspensions. First, the home country needs to consider whether the process is too difficult.
The other suspicion is that people have lost interest at this point and maybe they do not want the right to vote.
Dr. Adrian Kavanagh:
Yes. There are many people still on the electoral register who fit that category in Ireland. The Northern Ireland case is interesting and it relates to the low turnout issue. If voting rights are extended to the Irish diaspora, they must also be extended to people in Northern Ireland. That may sort out the problem of low turnout in elections in that case. My answer is "Yes," and these are same rules which would apply to Irish citizens in Estonia. It is one issue on which I will give a strong "Yes".
Deputy Byrne asked another interesting question on whether we should do this incrementally if we go down this route. I suspect legal perspectives may be required. If Ireland decides to respond to the European Union, or if, as I suspect, the EU forces the issue five or ten years down the line, would it be okay to start by just extending voting rights to Irish citizens in Europe? It is an interesting point and I do not really have the legal expertise required to answer. My personal view is that if and when voting rights are extended, it should be done for Irish citizens outside the European Union in the interest of fairness. That applies whether the citizens live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Australia or the United States of America.
I am a bit concerned about the extent to which the European Union might decide to force this or any other issue given the amount of euroscepticism prevailing across Europe. To what extent does the witness envisage the eurosceptics either accepting, embracing or opposing this suggestion of wider voting rights for the diaspora?
As the witness has raised the hare of Northern Ireland, I have a supplementary observation. Perhaps we need to bring in the Border poll to decide once and for all who would have the ultimate right to vote in the North.
I thank the guests for attending and particularly Ms McShannon for travelling from London to be with us. The discussion has been very useful and it certainly helped extend our knowledge of the issues facing our diaspora. I thank Dr. Kavanagh for explaining the impact that would have been felt if the system had been place for the last election and answering our questions so thoroughly. This is the last meeting we will have on this subject and the next step is for the committee to draft a report. That will take in all the issues raised not just today but at previous hearings as well. It will be circulated to members prior to discussion and I hope we can have it this side of the recess. I thank our guests for coming along today.