In January 2009, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the first Dáil, then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen reflected on the Celtic Tiger years – an “era of full employment, record investment and migration to Ireland, replacing the historic experience of the forced emigration of our people.” However, he added, the economic writing was unfortunately on the wall: “the next few years will be very difficult.”
On the latter point at least, he was right. The rapid crash of the Irish economy brought with it rising unemployment, crippling austerity, and rates of exodus not seen since the 1980s. From 2008-2014, about a quarter of a million citizens emigrated. I was one of them. Research from UCC has indicated that over 70% were, like me, in their 20s at the time of departure, a youthful picture that tallies with CSO estimates and past experience.
In this manner emigration has long functioned as an economic safety valve for the Irish state, driving down joblessness and relieving pressure on social services in times of crisis. Governments have turned to it as an almost natural corrective, downplaying concerns over thousands of people – primarily young – leaving the country in record numbers. As Brian Lenihan Snr infamously put it in the 1980s, “we can’t all live on a small island”. Never mind that Ireland was then, and remains, one of the least densely populated countries in Europe.
What have these cycles meant for Ireland, and for emigrants? Over time, the relationship between the two has deepened but diverged. On the one hand, drawing on a long history of remittances, citizens abroad are increasingly cast as an economic resource to be ‘harnessed’: boosting Ireland’s export market, building our international profile, and attracting foreign direct investment. In September 2009 Foreign Minister Micheál Martin inaugurated the Global Irish Economic Forums, an attempt to “shape a more strategic relationship, which will bring benefits both to Ireland and to our global community, and which has a more developed economic focus”, arguing that the Irish abroad “constitute one of the most powerful and far-reaching resources at our disposal.”
Initiatives like the 2013 ‘Gathering’ and the IDA-backed ‘Connect Ireland’ programme made a similar pitch for tourism and investment, and in this sphere Ireland arguably leads the world. But while the economic relationship between the State and emigrants continues to deepen, the political one lags far behind. At EU level, Ireland remains a stark outlier: one of only four Member States to suspend its citizens’ voting rights while abroad. Those who left in the wake of catastrophic mismanagement of the economy have been denied the most meaningful, fundamental opportunity to have their say on it.
Internationally this blanket disenfranchisement is increasingly rare. As migration rose sharply from the 1960s onwards and technological advances made it easier to move, return and stay connected with home, most democracies established systems for people to travel and work but remain accounted for politically. Faced with an increasingly mobile citizenry, over 120 countries (and counting) introduced forms of postal or absentee voting, now a well-established democratic norm.
Not so Ireland. Our rules are some of the most restrictive in the world: no general facility for an absentee ballot exists, and under the Electoral Acts, returning to vote beyond a mere 18 months abroad is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison. The European Commission has warned that this “extreme” position creates a “gap in the rights of EU citizens”, one long criticised by generations of emigrants.
It was in this context that thousands of citizens flew home to vote in successive referendums on marriage equality (2015) and abortion rights (2018), highly topical social issues that held particular resonance with younger voters. Many would not have been aware that they were circumventing, and in some instances potentially breaking, the legal barriers of an outdated electoral system designed to exclude them.
Traditional and social media lit up as groups coordinated flights and ferries, arriving home draped in the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement and pro-choice slogans. The public and political response was overwhelmingly positive. In 2015, Taoiseach Enda Kenny thanked those who had “travelled from wherever to wherever, to put a single mark on a paper”, and three years later, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris commended those who “made the effort to travel home”, holding #hometovote placards aloft as campaigners celebrated the vote results coming in.
On the BBC, one woman described her 20,000km, 36-hour round trip from Tokyo, just to cast a ballot – to have her say on an issue in which she had a clear and personal stake. “I want to live in a country where I feel safe, where I know that I have the autonomy to make decisions about my own body," she said. As an expression of citizenship, this is inspirational. As an assessment of Irish democracy, it’s an indictment.
In the bluntest terms, citizens should not have to do this. It’s expensive, exclusionary and while some may have had the time and money needed to travel home, many others simply couldn’t. Suffrage should not be conditional on your capacity to purchase a long-haul flight; politicians should not celebrate these herculean journeys without considering how the laws they stand over make them necessary in the first place. This process, played out on newspaper covers and in airport arrival halls, exposed the absurd contradiction at the heart of the current system: we cheer these citizens home, but our laws treat them like criminals.
Two #hometovote campaigns in three years – colourful, energetic, enthusiastic, and driven primarily by young people – should give us cause to reflect on this. They demonstrated in real terms what was often abstract: that citizens abroad have a clear and continuing stake in the political affairs of their home country. Decisions taken here both interest and impact them, and this shift to a broader, more inclusive ‘stakeholder’ perspective on voting rights is important. It offers a framework through which we can challenge the unjust exclusion of other groups of people – such as immigrants, or 16-17 year olds – who can also demonstrate a clear, material stake the outcome.
In 2018, as a returned emigrant canvassing in Dublin ahead of the referendum on the eighth amendment, I was struck by how many doors were answered by migrants, resident in Ireland for years but still denied a vote. I handed out badges to a group of girls in school uniform, not yet 18 but acutely aware of the impact this decision would have on their lives. Shallow dismissals of their understanding of the issue fell to pieces as they debated it at length.
And in Dublin airport, emigrants made their case emphatically. Who would have told the young LGBT citizen, years away but back for marriage equality, that the vote was not for him? Is it right that Ireland’s electoral laws would criminalise many of the young women who flew home to vote on the eighth amendment? For decades, emigrants have refuted the idea that decisions taken at home don’t impact them, citing family ties, property or pension rights, and a desire to return. In recent years, many have emphasised that decisions in key policy areas like housing significantly impact (or impede) their ability to do so.
These citizens have a clear, continuing stake in our country. Just as they deserved their vote on the constitutional prohibition of abortion, they deserve a meaningful level of parliamentary representation as the system for future access is debated and determined. This is the case across the vast majority of EU states and other western democracies, where suffrage is not circumscribed neatly and strictly within national boundaries. People move, migration is increasingly common, and modern electoral systems need flexibility built in to allow for this.
Questions raised over the potential size of the external vote, or the administrative processes through which it would be managed, are important. But as central as emigration may be to our national self-image, it is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. Through decades of research and state practice, across a long list of jurisdictions, numerous workable models and controls exist to account for it – to ensure that citizens abroad can be afforded meaningful political representation as they leave or return. Successive Governments have accepted the principle behind this, outlined in years of white papers and reports. What is needed now is the political will to act on them.
Conor O’Neill is a returned emigrant and co-founder of ‘We’re Coming Back’, a campaign for emigrant voting rights involved in the Home to Vote movement. He returned to Dublin from Brussels and works as a researcher in the NGO sector.