I am a Boston born and educated lawyer and a dual Irish and American citizen who has lived in Ireland for nearly two decades. When I announced to my father that I intended to take up an academic post at the National University of Ireland, Galway and make the reverse journey that our people had made roughly a century earlier, he promptly exclaimed that “your grandmother would be sending the men in white coats for you!” I could not have blamed her for feeling that way, given that she was brought up with stories of the terrible poverty her family had escaped.
I am sure that my grandmother could not imagine the prosperous Ireland of 2021. It has been a land of opportunity for me and it was the best decision of my life to make it home. That said, I have never forgotten about my original home, the country of my birth, and feel as American as ever. I care deeply about the United States and still have family and close friends in the Boston area. I treasure exercising my sacred right to vote there in federal, state and local elections. I would be very disappointed and more detached if I could not.
It was, therefore, with total shock that I learned many years ago that Irish citizens abroad were denied any say whatsoever in Irish elections (with a few exceptions that apply to a minuscule number of people). And it is with bewilderment that I have heard commentators here who I respect steadfastly defend the status quo, notwithstanding the realities that Ireland is a highly globalised, outward-looking nation which has benefitted enormously from positioning itself in this fashion and that roughly 130 other democracies extend voting rights to their citizens overseas. It is beyond dispute that Ireland is an outlier on this front.
There are myriad objections to giving Irish citizens who do not live in the Irish republic the vote. There are two which relate specifically to the US. First is the old canard that all American citizens pay taxes to Uncle Sam no matter where they happen to live. “Let our citizens pay taxes at home if they want to vote” and “no representation without taxation” are the two refrains which commonly follow.
Leaving aside the moral dangers inherent in effectively making the privileges of citizenship dependent on the extent of one’s financial contribution to the state and the fact that many Irish citizens abroad pay taxes at home, only very high income earning Americans who reside elsewhere owe any money to the IRS. What’s more, the US is virtually alone among the countries that permit emigrant voting in imposing any such obligation.
The second is that there will be a massive new pool of voters drawn from some 35 million self-identified Irish Americans. They will swamp the electorate on an island 3,000 miles across the Atlantic; they are completely out of touch with the country Ireland is today; and they would opt overwhelmingly to back Sinn Féin. This is a potent line of contention, politically speaking. But to be blunt, it’s “fake news.”
Only a very small percentage of these Irish Americans have a grandparent who was born in Ireland and are hence entitled to claim Irish citizenship. Out of those who could obtain citizenship, a fraction assembles the paperwork and pays the required fee. Based on international statistics, an even smaller portion would ultimately go to the trouble of voting in an Irish election. In the US, renowned for insularity and poorer rates of voter participation, the level of take-up would likely be below the norm.
It is axiomatic that those who would make a concerted effort to vote in Ireland are the women and men who have the strongest ties to here, who are the most vested in it and who have the deepest understanding of it. Consequently, and despite what some in the establishment may assume, they will not instinctively base their votes on fables they might have heard emanate from barstools or on the reverential lyrics of old Irish ballads. The eligible Irish voters in the US are not, to a person, unthinking Sinn Féin adherents – not by a long shot.
It is, of course, an anecdotal observation, yet I have come across countless Irish emigrants in my childhood and on visits back to Boston who would purposefully use their votes to keep Sinn Féin out of power. There is abundant evidence that contemporary Irish America is not monolithic in its ideological leanings: it is not exclusively liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. The individuals who would vote in Irish elections have similarly diverse perspectives.
Some favour Sinn Féin for perfectly good reasons, including a rejection of the excesses of American capitalism. They would prefer a more equal society, as Sinn Féin zealously advocates for. To be sure, though, there are others drawn to the party primarily because they believe in a united Ireland and accept that IRA violence was a necessary step on the path to achieving it. Among them are attendees at the (in)famous $500 a plate dinners in Manhattan to fill Sinn Féin’s coffers.
Each and every argument against allowing Irish citizens abroad to have a say has one thing in common: it does not survive scrutiny. Those associated with Irish America are no different. While legitimate queries can be raised about appropriate limitations on voting rights and sensible compromises then arrived at, the present wholesale prohibition is indefensible. The pending proposal to grant all Irish citizens the right to vote for president is not radical. It is very modest.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Lecturer in the School of Law at the National University and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the United States. Follow him on Twitter at @LarryPDonnelly.