Seanad debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

2:30 pm

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and welcome the opportunity to debate Ireland's relationship with the diaspora. The Minister of State said this is definitely something he has been working on and that circumstances have improved. There is no doubt about that. It is great to see a shift in State policy towards greater engagement with our citizens abroad. This effort has been symbolic, as with Mary Robinson's candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin, in addition to more concrete steps such as the creation of a dedicated Irish abroad unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2004. The staff in the unit and in the embassies do great work. Through the emigrant support programme, we fund over 200 community organisations in over 20 countries. We should be proud of this, particularly when it comes to vital services for older citizens abroad.

The elephant in the room, however, is the lack of voting rights for Irish citizens abroad. This is going to be the central feature of this debate. As my colleagues said, I arranged a briefing for Deputies and Senators on this topic just last week. Emigrant organisations outline just how important voting rights are to them and emigrants' deep disappointment over being disenfranchised. It has been said time and again by emigrant groups and politicians on every side of this House that we are violating a basic democratic norm in this regard. The reality is that Ireland is totally out of step with the vast majority of democracies worldwide. Over 120, and counting, have put workable systems in place to represent their citizens while abroad. Ireland is one of only three new member states to completely cut off its emigrants politically, and we have been repeatedly criticised by the European Commission for this. As the Commission reminded us in 2013, the right to vote is one of the fundamental political rights of citizenship. It is part of the very fabric of democracy. Depriving citizens abroad of their right to vote risks making them second-class citizens. This EU context is important. Denied the right to vote at home and often unable to vote in their country of residence, Irish emigrants are members of the tiny group of EU citizens who have no vote and no democratic representation anywhere in the world. They are completely denied access to the democratic process. This is unacceptable and we cannot stand over it.

As in the 1980s, this issue came to the fore as emigration peaked during the recession. In the context of considerable cuts to social services and rising unemployment, thousands of people left, including my own two brothers. This was especially true for young people in the years after 2008. Over 250,000 Irish citizens emigrated, and the vast majority were in their 20s. Over this period, we saw a 25% drop in the number of people in their 20s living in Ireland. This is emigration on an industrial scale but it is not a new phenomenon. Emigration has existed as a safety valve for this country in times of crisis. The sad reality, however, is that one cannot count towards the live register if one is in Sydney or London.

Despite years of debate and workable templates that exist all over the world, we have put no system in place to deal properly with migration and citizenship. Many people left on one- or two-year visas but were afforded no say in any votes that took place while away. No concern is shown for plans to return, for family back home and for their clear stake in what happens here. The attitude has been one of "out of sight, out of mind". It is simply not good enough. Nothing made this more clear than that the 2015 vote for marriage equality and the incredible #HomeToVote campaign. Former Taoiseach Deputy Enda Kenny warmly congratulated the thousands of people who had, in his words, "travelled from wherever to wherever", to put a single mark on the paper. Without a postal voting facility and with significant ambiguity as to who could stay on the register, many flew from London, New York, Sydney and further afield at huge expense. They did this just to vote and to stand up for their fellow citizens. If we had proper systems in place, they would not have had to travel. Ultimately, the fact that so many travelled so far is a testament to our citizens' desire to remain connected and their clear stake in the direction of our country. That they had to do so in the first place, however, shows just how outdated our democratic system is.

With several referenda scheduled over the next two years, this will happen again, and we need to be prepared for it. The economic context is also very important when we examine our relationship with the diaspora. It has been made clear in several policy documents that successive Governments have sought to harness our citizens abroad to attract jobs and investment and create a better export market. It was a key theme at the first Global Irish Economic Form in 2009 and it has been repeated at every edition since. There are still IDA posters in Dublin Airport of Saoirse Ronan and other celebrities asking those passing through the departures lounge to play their part and seek to send investment home. If, however, the global profile of Ireland is essential for investment and development, it is underpinned by the links created by those abroad. For too long we have seen this is a one-way street. In 2009, the Government's strategic review of Ireland–US relations stated:

Our single greatest asset in the US is our diaspora.

Irish America has helped Ireland's development and it remains a resource of incomparable benefit. This perfectly captures both the potential and mishandling of our relationship with the diaspora. Irish citizens abroad are a population with rights, not just an economic resource. An outlook that constantly emphasises their economic value but overlooks their citizenship and the rights that come with it does not befit a modern democratic nation.

We are always keen to harness the diaspora but we are less keen on vindicating their rights as citizens. This has to change.

The referendum in 2019 on a presidential vote is the obvious next step, and that is rightly the focus at the moment. It has been a long time coming, after 78% of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of the change in 2013. This tallies almost exactly with research from the UCC Emigre project, which showed 79% support from resident citizens. This is not surprising given the number of Irish families affected by emigration and the number of emigrants away on short-term visas and contracts.

Successive Irish Presidents have consistently spoken about being a representative for Irish people all over the world. In this regard I am delighted the Government has committed to a referendum on this issue. However, we must show courage and look to longer-term solutions to this very Irish problem as well. One fitting example is that several Members have been elected by votes from abroad from graduates of the University of Dublin or the National University of Ireland. These graduates can easily register and have their ballot sent abroad. Under the current system, a ridiculous situation has emerged where a person can vote from abroad, but only if she has the right degree. This is something we have discussed as part of the Seanad Bill and we need to fix it. Irish citizens abroad have a right to representation, regardless of their degree.

The key is to look towards the 2019 referendum on a presidential vote. We need to show courage and put a proper overall system in place for the longer term. Historically, we have excluded our citizens abroad due to worries about the size of the overseas vote. This ignores the many models throughout the world that control for this, such as the reserved constituencies used by France and Italy or time limits in Australia and the United Kingdom. The recent options paper from the Department goes into more detail here. I urge the Minister of State to be brave in grasping this nettle and to put such a system in place. We have been debating this democratic deficit for decades. It is time now finally to do something about it.


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