It’s been a strange time to be Irish, this past year. Whether in Longford or London or Sydney or San Francisco, there’s that feeling everywhere that the music stopped – and wherever you happened to be at the time, that’s where you were stuck. COVID has drawn a curtain between family members, friends and colleagues all over the world, and the normal criss-crossing thrum of departures and arrivals has stopped, at least for a little while.
It’s the kind of situation that could make you feel that little bit less Irish – not being able to get home, not being able to see the ones you love – but in many ways it’s had the opposite effect. Because while we might not all be in the same boat, we’re at least all in the same storm. Since the world went into lockdown Irish people like myself all over the world have been using technology to deepen the connections with the ones we have left back at home. In many ways, COVID has made us feel closer – if you’re from Longford, like I am, then anything outside Longford might as well have been London, or Naples, or Timbuktu. The distances that we used to measure in miles and kilometres have instead snapped into a sort of binary – are you In The House, or are you Not.
And at the end of the day, either way, you’re Irish.
As I follow the cavalcade of news, broadcasts and memes from here in London, where I’ve lived for the past ten years, I’m struck by how much I don’t feel like I’m gone. And it’s not just the constant traipsing back and forth through airports and ferry terminals – it’s the fact that Irish people living abroad are constantly in touch, constantly in the know, constantly thinking about Ireland.
Which begs the question – considering Irish people are so universally recognised as having a deep connection to the nation of Ireland, why do we have some of the most restrictive voting rights for those of us living outside the State?
While over 100 countries make allowances for their emigrant citizens to vote, including dozens of European countries, it’s somehow an issue that Ireland has let slide. A country that prides itself on its relationship to its diaspora, on its reputation across the world, on its hard and tragic history of its children leaving out of choice and out of necessity, still hasn’t found a way to enfranchise its emigrant citizens in the most important way of all.
Once you leave Ireland, you have 18 months in which you can cast a vote – and this vote must be cast at your local polling station back in Ireland. Not only does this preclude citizens who don’t have the money or the time to literally fly back to Ireland every time there’s a vote, but the lack of postal voting also disenfranchises those who might find mobility and travel difficult.
And this concept of Irish people being forced to travel to take part in a vote isn’t some hypothetical, it’s one that we’ve seen play out on a large scale twice in the past decade. I myself was one of the many Irish citizens living in London who travelled back during the marriage equality and Repeal referendums, hopping on a train from Euston, changing at Crewe, landing in a rain-soaked Holyhead and boarding the ferry home. And the journey didn’t end for us there – people flagging down taxis, catching lifts, jumping on buses and trains, even one woman who hitched a ride on a motorcycle in order to get to her polling station before it shut.
It was plastered across all the papers and news channels, both in Ireland and all over the world – the proof that Irish citizens living everywhere cared deeply about the direction in which their country was going.
It was a moment of national pride.
It also shouldn’t have had to happen that way. People shouldn’t have to take days off work, find childcare, spend money on travel in order to exercise a right that is afforded to them by citizenship.
I didn’t even get to vote. My 18 months were up. I just wanted to show my support.
So how do we fix this? Quite easily, actually. Because we’re not trying to do something new – we’re just catching up with the seemingly endless list of countries who allow citizens to vote from abroad.
Most countries - such as Sweden and the United States - allow voting rights for life, while others impose reasonable time limits for those who’ve left such as Australia and the UK (and even the latter is planning to scrap this time limit). The idea of having to travel home to vote is almost non-existent, with many offering postal votes, or the opportunity to visit a local consulate or embassy. Such were the scenes outside French embassies during the election of Emmanuel Macron. France offers full voting rights for life to her citizens whether at home or abroad, and by the presence of specific representatives for the diaspora allows emigrants to vote for politicians who will have their best interests at heart.
And we do have interests – we don’t just want to participate in our democracy because it’s a right of citizenship (though that should be enough). As we all know, before the whole world ground to a halt Irish people were notorious for going back and forth and back and forth. We move away, we come back, we move away, we come back. We are invested in the state of our country because it has a direct impact on the life that we plan to live – as a gay man living abroad, the marriage referendum changed my understanding of what it would be like to move back to Ireland. These are tangible, concrete issues that affect us – and beyond our own personal lives, we all have family in Ireland who are affected by public policy on everything from healthcare to education.
Changing the law by referendum would mean an awful lot to us – not just for the intricacies of who we choose to elect or the ability to be a part of decision-making, but also because a vote means something. It means that you are a citizen of Ireland. It means setting right a situation that never should have happened in the first place, and coming in line with what so many other democracies realised long ago – one vote for one citizen, and when we all work together we come up with the best solutions.
It has been a strange, disquieting year – but one that has only confirmed for the Irish living outside the State that we are just as Irish as anyone else. Making long phone calls to elderly relatives, writing letters for the first time in years, staring at laptop screens on late night calls that threaten to tip into the morning… we’re all here, we’re all Irish, and we’re all dreaming of being together again. We’re all the same.
And it’s time that was recognised by granting us a vote.