Mary McAleese has spent her life ‘building bridges’ between communities across our island. Her commitment to Irish public life is boundless. However, until she left Belfast, she was curtailed from voting for the office she would one day be elected to. This situation applies to the thousands across the Irish diaspora.
In 2013, I asked the current Taoiseach Micheál Martin to appoint me as spokesperson for the Irish overseas and the Diaspora, which he did in recognition of the importance of the Diaspora in Ireland’s past, present, and future. For the first time, an Irish political party sought to formally strengthen ties with our own Diaspora with a formal geo-political framework. Ireland and its Diaspora is a matrix of millions of informal connections between people, families, businesses and organisations. I set about establishing what a more formal relationship between the State and the Diaspora would look like.
The first recommendation was the appointment of a Minister for the Irish overseas and the Diaspora. 43 other countries had Ministry-level or Sub-ministry level institutions focussing on their Diasporas.
Most of the political parties in the state adopted this policy over the next two years. In 2014, Jimmy Deenihan was appointed as the first Minister with Responsibility for Diaspora. This role increases in importance every year as our Diaspora grows either among those of Irish Heritage abroad or the large numbers who leave Ireland each year for a multitude of reasons. However, we, and they recognise instinctively that Ireland does not leave them. Nobody would say that those people who leave are no longer Irish. How we engage with these people is critically important across political, geo-political, social and economic fronts.
One of the other key recommendations in the policy paper I produced was extending voting right to Irish Citizens living outside the state voting rights appears to provide another opportunity for the State to connect the Diaspora and those, like Mary McAleese, living on the island. I served on the Constitutional Convention that debated extending voting rights to the Irish outside the state in Presidential elections. 78 out of the 100 members voted in favour of this initiative.
The Constitutional Convention recommended that a referendum on extending voting rights be put to the Irish people. Unfortunately, elections, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have delayed this referendum. Public opinion would appear to favour the extension of voting rights in the context of Presidential elections. The Diaspora deeply resonates with Irish people because it is often the result of painful waves of emigration. Preventing over one million Irish citizens living overseas of voting age or those in Northern Ireland entirely from the right to vote runs counter to people’s view of what our Republic stands for.
Until a referendum is held, 2.6m people, entitled to be Irish citizens, are effectively disenfranchised. This number includes those 1.8 million living in Northern Ireland and those with Irish passports living overseas who are of voting age. Basically, Irish citizens numbering the population of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford are unable to exercise any vote in their home country. Only three other EU member states still adopt a similar approach to Ireland. By virtue of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution anyone of the 1.8m people born in the North are entitled to Irish citizenship. But they cannot vote because they live in Newry, Derry or Belfast.
The most fundamental right of any citizen of any republic is the right to vote. Now could be the time to give life to the words in our proclamation of “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”