Seanad debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

2:30 pm

Photo of Billy LawlessBilly Lawless (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, to the Seanad and the opportunity to speak about the diaspora. We do not yet know whether there will be an electoral contest to decide who the next President will be, but it is certain that if an election were to be held, tens of thousands of Irish men and women would have no say in the outcome. Recent estimates suggest there are approximately 130 nations and territories that allow their citizens to vote, regardless of where they live in the world. In Ireland, however, the electoral register is judged not by the Irish nation but by the residential location of the voter. In respect of inward investment and even, most recently, our courageous attempts to attract the Rugby World Cup to Ireland, we speak of Ireland as a global community with a global diaspora, yet for many in that diaspora community, this is a one-way conversation - ask not what Ireland will do for the diaspora but what the diaspora can do for Ireland.

I again commend the work and engagement to date of the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and his predecessor. My comments seek not to devalue the importance of the engagement of the Minister of State and other Ministers but to emphasise just how important the referendum to allow members of the diaspora to vote in presidential elections is to those whom I represent. True connection with the diaspora is about more than Ministers attending St. Patrick’s Day parades or lobbying on behalf of the undocumented. It should be a two-way conversation in which the diaspora we exploit for their economic and social reach have a voice in the affairs of the State. It is clear that the authors of the Constitution believed deeply in the importance of the Irish abroad, codifying that recognition in Article 2 which recognises that the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage. I acknowledge that there may be some in the country who fear that those who may wish to vote in presidential elections do not fully appreciate or understand the Ireland from which they departed or from which they derive citizenship. I hope to be part of a national conversation in which those fears can be firmly put to rest. For that reason, I welcome this valuable opportunity for Members of the House to speak about the diaspora.

Emigration has changed vastly. Emigrants come and go, with multiple departures and returns. They are permanently tuned into what is happening in Ireland on a daily basis through social media and instant communication methods. We live in a globalised world, yet our democratic system, even for the largely symbolic office of the President, does not reflect this modern reality. All of the modern mechanisms for organising elections and encouraging voter participation which other EU nations and western democracies have been using for years remain untapped in Ireland. They include absentee ballots, postal voting, automatic voter registration - for example, registering to vote when one obtains a driver’s licence - and the elimination of time restrictions for citizens living abroad.

France has 12 constituencies worldwide. For example, French citizens living in Ireland are in a constituency that includes the United Kingdom, the Baltic states, Norway and Sweden. In the case of Italy, there are four external electorates, comprising Europe, South America, North and Central America and and a large electorate combining Australia, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Antarctica. In Italy 12 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and six in the Senate of the Republic are reserved for citizens living abroad. They are distributed among the four overseas electoral zones in proportion to the number of Italian citizens resident in each zone. The European electorate which includes Italians resident in Ireland has six seats in the Chamber of Deputies and two in the Senate of the Republic.

On the eve of the Easter Rising in 1916 only one in six Irishmen with enough wealth was qualified to vote, a total of 15%. The rebels rejected this limited vision of representation and made universal suffrage for all men and women a core principle of the rebellion. By 1923, all citizens over 21 years of age living in Ireland, numbering nearly 1.8 million men and women, could vote. Even in the midst of a bloody civil war, the founders of the nation made sure suffrage was expanded to meet the ideals of the Easter Proclamation.

Ireland is undergoing great changes in economics and demographics. In the years ahead we will have to come to terms with Brexit, a changing European Union and the possibility of a new constitutional relationship with Northern Ireland. These challenges and many more will demand much from our democracy. In the coming decade the people will be asked to vote on issues that will define Ireland for the rest of the century. This will only be accomplished fairly if we have a modern democratic electoral system that will be inclusive, encouraging and grounded in the principle of equality that is universal suffrage. We must be willing to embrace a more expansive Irish electoral register for presidential elections and recognise that the Irish nation extends beyond the Irish Sea.

Ireland has a choice - either to expand and modernise the franchise to meet the European Union's standards for voting and citizenship or accept the status quothat over time will continue to make us less democratic, less equal and a more insular nation. The Taoiseach is a young man with energy, who has urged the people to think about the long term and prepare for the future. I sincerely hope that when those eligible to vote in the referendum are given a chance to vote, they will do so with a mind that is open to creating an Ireland that will have a President with a mandate from not just the State but from the nation.


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