Sunday 17 December 2017

Time to give our disenfranchised emigrants a real say in our affairs

they were greeted with bells and whistles, live radio broadcasts and a frenzy of newspaper photographers. Dublin Airport was alive last week to the sounds of families reuniting - sons and daughters, brothers and sisters - in emotional embraces that would spark the real beginning of the Christmas holidays.

Over the coming days there'll be a marked difference in emotions and tears of happiness will ultimately turn to tears of sadness as loved ones step through those dreaded departure gates. It may be several months - or maybe years - before they return again.

Ireland's battle with emigration is long and twisted, stretching back to periods of religious persecution and famine and spoon fed by several recessions.

In 2013 the latest recession was finally showing signs of receding and the Gathering was an attempt to buck the trend. It ultimately proved a lucrative money-spinner for the tourism industry.

It was a start but we need to do more to reconnect with our emigrants. Installing a Minister for the diaspora has helped but voting rights for our emigrants would be a major step forward.

This week Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he wants to give Irish emigrants the right to vote in our presidential elections and has pledged to hold a referendum on the matter.

The argument is that the president represents all Irish citizens and therefore all should have the right to vote. It is estimated that over three million voters would be added to the electoral register if voting rights are extended to Northern Ireland and the Irish abroad.

Across the world there are countless example of countries who allow their emigrants the right to vote - indeed Ireland is one of the few that doesn't. For instance, all US citizens living permanently abroad and who also have an address in the US can vote in the State elections.

So, at a time when we are trying to attract back our greatest export - our people - it makes sense to embrace the disenfranchised. Currently only Irish officials and spouses have the right to vote in Irish elections once they emigrate.

Indeed, Ireland is in danger of being taken to the European Court of Justice over the matter and in a country that passed a ground breaking same-sex marriage referendum, it seems somewhat archaic that we are unable to vote if we live abroad.

Catalysed by the mass emigration of the 1980s and groups such as The Irish Emigrant Vote Campaign in the US and Glor an Deorai in the UK, the issue of voting rights for emigrants has been a hot potato for almost three decades.

Former Labour emigration spokesperson Deputy Gerry O'Sullivan introduced a Private Members Bill in March 1991 but this was narrowly defeated - the bill would have given Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote for up to 15 years after becoming a non resident. In 1997, Fianna Fáil's manifesto included plans for emigrant voting rights by the year 2000 but this was eventually shelved. Mr Kenny's proposal is the latest attempt and maybe in the 1916 centenary year we may finally see progress.

Wexford People

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