One generally accepted truth is that the Irish diaspora is an important cultural, economic and political asset for Ireland. As Ireland develops its Global Island strategy, it must find more ways to engage the Irish abroad in our future, particularly the younger generation, who may otherwise lose interest in Ireland and its advancement.
One suggested way to increase engagement is to give Irish citizens domiciled outside the jurisdiction voting rights in the Irish Presidential election or in some other elected body like the Irish Senate. A key argument against this plan is that citizens outside the Republic are not sufficiently informed to make a considered judgment in an Irish election.
The truth is that Irish emigrants are connected to Ireland as never before, especially with the recent Covid-induced digital explosion. The lockdown has facilitated the easy availability online of Irish news programmes, webinars, podcasts, theater, music and meetings of all sorts to the Irish diaspora everywhere.
Furthermore, Irish Studies programs abroad sustain a continuing intellectual and research connection to universities and institutes in Ireland. Irish professional and cultural networks, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish diplomats, thrive around the world along with hundreds of emigrant social and support groups.
The vast majority of the 3.6 million citizens who live outside the Irish jurisdiction are in Northern Ireland, approximately 1.87 million. No one could persuasively argue these citizens are less “informed” about election issues in Ireland. Indeed, as both parts of Ireland explore some form of “shared island,” it is critical to encourage an expression of engagement for the people of Northern Ireland in the affairs of the South.
The same argument could be made for many of the Irish in Britain, especially in the wake of Brexit which threatens the viability of their enjoying dual Irish and British identities.
The elephant in the room seems to be Irish America, all 35 million Irish Americans, who some fear will tip the scale for hardline Republican candidates. I believe that such fears are unfounded for three reasons.
First, the record of Irish graduates in the United States shows these emigrants voting for mainstream university candidates in Seanad elections.
Second, only a very small number of the 34 million Irish in America are eligible for citizenship
given that the vast majority Irish Americans are descendents from the Irish who left Ireland as the result of the Famine. The Irish rule on citizenship by descent makes clear that at least one
grandparent must have been born in Ireland.
Third, Irish Americans have become more savvy regarding Irish politics since the explosion of online news platforms. It is true that in the past Irish Americans had a restricted view on current affairs, dependent on the limited resources of weekly Irish American papers to keep abreast of GAA results, county news and national politics. During the Northern Ireland conflict, many in Ireland complained that Irish Americans were misinformed or uninformed given their apparent support for violence, contrasting with the low level of support for violence in Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, later research shows that it was only a small, albeit noisy minority who supported violence and the vast majority opposed it.
In 2017, three years before the Covid digital explosion, a survey of Irish Americans aged 18 to 45 conducted on Irish Central by Glucksman Ireland House, NYU and the UCD Clinton Institute provided an important insight into the positive level of engagement with today’s Ireland. Seventy percent of respondents said that staying connected to Ireland is of utmost importance.
Notwithstanding the fact that 57 percent were many generations removed from Ireland, an astonishing one third of respondents caught up on Irish news daily through online resources. Another 33 percent checked in once a week or more and another 17 percent more than once a month. The platforms used most were Facebook (26 percent), Irishtimes.com (16 percent), RTE.ie (15 percent), Independent.ie (13 percent), with Guardian.co.uk, Irishnews.com, Twitter and regional papers in single digits.
Fifty-two percent of respondents valued social media for easy access to Irish news, 39 percent for contact with friends or family in Ireland, and 28 percent for links to Irish history and culture.
The truth is that our new digital world encourages Irish citizens overseas to engage more and more with the changing face of Ireland, significantly reducing the “tyranny of distance.” While we have seen examples of Americans being poisoned by misinformation and lies peddled online, most of the news followed from Ireland is of high quality and legitimate as evidenced in the 2017 survey.
We are light years from the time when it was unthinkable for someone in Buffalo New York or Butte Montana to participate in Irish think tank meetings in Dublin, like those of the Institute of International and European Affairs, the Royal Irish Academy or the Clinton Institute.
So, if an “informed vote” means being aware of current political, economic and social affairs—including the views and policies of the competing politicians and parties— Irish citizens overseas, whether in America or Australia, certainly qualify.
Of course, being informed implies a level of voter engagement animated by the individual’s self interest or societal interest in the outcome of the election, whether that interest is based on any number of issues from identity and climate change to kitchen table concerns such as healthcare, education, jobs, retirement and security.
By the same token one has to be careful in suggesting that being “uninformed” justifies a limit on voting rights given the global practice of voter suppression justified on the basis that some residents—women, African Americans, “other” races/religions, people without property—are not sufficiently informed or economically invested to earn the right to vote.
One final thought is that the type of representation offered to Irish citizens abroad will affect their influence on policy and their motivation to register as citizens. A number of models exist in other countries in addition to that proposed in Ireland, that is, the right to vote in Irish Presidential elections. The Assembly of French Citizens Abroad represents French citizens living outside France, advising on issues affecting French nationals abroad. Membership consists of directly elected representatives who sit in the Senate.
Mindful of how successful Billy Lawless was recently as “Senator for the Diaspora,” one could see the value of Irish citizens overseas directly electing one Senator each from say, North America, Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Rest of World. This option would enable competing candidates to run on their respective Irish diaspora interests and generate additional excitement and engagement in their region, an outcome that would be of mutual benefit to Ireland and its diaspora.