This weekend the Convention on the Constitution is meeting to discuss the possibility of giving Irish citizens abroad the right to vote in Presidential elections. I attended an event in the London Irish Centre a few weeks ago where there was unanimous agreement that emigrants want more – we want the right to vote in general elections.
The Convention on the Constitution has pushed the boundaries of its terms of reference when discussing some of the other issues that it has considered so far. For example, the Convention recommended that the voting age be lowered to 16; it had been asked to consider lowering the age to 17. Hopefully the Convention will push the boundaries again this weekend.
Ireland is one of only two countries in the EU-15 bloc that does not extend any voting rights to expatriates. Most other countries in the world extend some kind of voting rights to their citizens who are resident abroad.
89,000 people emigrated from Ireland between April 2012 and April 2013 – 50,900 of whom were Irish citizens. A UCC study published yesterday outlines the various reasons that people are choosing to emigrate; the biggest bloc (just under 60%) report that they are doing so to find employment. This represents a State that is failing its people. Some Irish citizens are being forced abroad to provide for themselves and their families, and to fulfill their potential.
Why should these people be disenfranchised? Many of them want to return to Ireland one day – they have as much a stake in Ireland’s future as Irish citizens in Ireland. However, the moment these citizens leave the State their views become irrelevant to the political system. There is little incentive for the Irish political system to address the reasons why these people have been forced to emigrate. That is not a good thing for Irish citizens at home or abroad.
While Irish citizens abroad could be given the right to vote in the Dáil constituency in which they were registered at home, I believe that special overseas constituencies should be created. Other countries have done this; France and Italy being two examples.
Having the votes of emigrants count in the constituency that they were registered with in Ireland would be an unsatisfactory solution. Candidates running in those constituencies would not be able to effectively reach out to those emigrant voters. Furthermore, the influence of emigrants would be diluted over Ireland’s forty constituencies. Under this method, Irish citizens abroad would be unlikely to have their interests represented in Dáil Éireann to any significant degree.
By creating new constituencies, emigrants as a voting bloc could be given effective representation within Ireland’s political system. TDs for émigrés could raise issues that are specific to the emigrant community.
The use of PR-STV would potentially allow for the creation of these constituencies to be a relatively simple process. There could be as few as two constituencies – one for Northern Ireland and one for the rest of the world. Because under PR-STV there are multi-seat constituencies, one would not necessarily have to worry about drawing boundaries, or trying to count the number of Irish in different parts of the world, or trying to anticipate the variations in turnout that there would undoubtedly be. We already see voters in Ireland effectively subdivide constituencies geographically – there will inevitably be a candidate elected from such-and-such a town or such-and-such a part of the county. Émigrés would probably do likewise; thus the distribution of TDs will alter in line with the demand of Irish citizens abroad.
The Constitution currently states that there must be at least one TD for every 30,000 people; I don’t think anybody is saying that emigrants should be entitled to that same level of representation. And I think a lot of people accept that there should be a time limit imposed on this particular right – perhaps ten years. These are all secondary issues. I hope the Convention on the Constitution will take the time to tease them out during the weekend.