Ireland’s history of emigration is both complex and emotive and its representation in discourse is often contested, arousing many different feelings, emotions and perspectives. Contemporary narratives of emigration reflect a more nuanced portrayal of youth emigration with both positive and negative stories of the emigrant experience told through the voices of emigrants.
During the height of the last economic recession in 2012, NYCI conducted research with young Irish people who had emigrated from Ireland. The research published in 2013 reflected the experiences of many young emigrants and their views on how Ireland should connect and engage with its citizens abroad. Further work was done in subsequent years to explore the issue of return migration and barriers to return to Ireland for young Irish emigrants. A recurring theme in both studies was the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens living abroad.
Arising from extensive engagement with young people who had left the country, it became apparent that they felt disenfranchised once they left Ireland. Alongside the call for further political representation for Irish people who were living abroad, there was a call for a vote in Irish presidential elections to recognise the needs of Irish people who, for a variety of reasons, were residing outside the state.
Indeed, it is an issue that overwhelmingly commands the support of young Irish people living both in the country and outside the country. An Irish Times Poll found greater support for the right to vote amongst younger emigrants (Irish Times, 2016). A Red C poll commissioned by NYCI found that 66% of 18 – 29 years surveyed (who were living in Ireland) supported the Government’s proposal to extend the franchise in presidential elections to include Irish citizens living abroad and in Northern Ireland (NYCI, 2017).
In 2014, I interviewed Eoin, an native of Limerick city who emigrated to the USA. I asked him how he felt the Irish Government should connect and engage with young Irish emigrants living abroad. His response focused on the need to extend voting rights to Irish citizens abroad:
“I feel sometimes like I’m totally connected and plugged into Ireland at home through Facebook and watching the news and talking to my friends and stuff but I am not sure if I feel as if I am part of the country anymore and in many ways you know one of things I find really amazing is, I have dual citizenship, I have both American and Irish citizenship and I have voted in more America elections than I have Irish ones because of the fact that I can do postal voting from Ireland to the US. Now I can’t do the opposite as it stands now, as an Irish citizen in the US. So, I feel like in many ways that buy in, that kinda sense of appreciation from the Irish political system just isn’t there and I feel like that would go a long way to people feeling like yeah I am still of part of Ireland too. I haven’t just cut the rope and gone somewhere else and gone off on my own jolly way and just kept kind of in contact with family. That there is a sense of inclusion there with the Diaspora.”
Another young emigrant, David from County Clare living in Brussels, made the same assertion stating:
“I think the Irish government needs to keep in touch with us, now keeping in touch isn’t a one-way communication, it needs to be both ways. We need to feel like when we cross the border we’re just not forgotten about. I know for example one of my friends is French and the ability they have to elect representatives in their embassies that take care of them in the country they are living in. Also MPs, Senators and national representatives as well, they have a vote in their presidency. We have nothing…we have very, very little connection with our country. We have this emotional connection and I think sometimes that’s relied upon by the Irish government and it is not enough.”
Of course these sentiments are not new. The campaign for the right for Irish emigrants to vote began in earnest in the 1980s and has continued to the present day. For decades, emigrant issues were often denied by the political system under a veil of silence. In part, as it shone a spotlight on the failure of the state. During her Presidency of Ireland, Mary Robinson championed the voice of the Irish abroad, highlighting the importance of forging a greater link with the Diaspora.
In 2013, the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of extending voting rights in Presidential elections to Irish people living outside the State. The following year, Ireland appointed its first Minister of State for the Diaspora. In the current Programme for Government, the Government has committed to holding a referendum on this issue within the lifetime of this administration. This is a momentous step in the right direction and signifies a historic opportunity to strengthen our democracy and to recognise the value Ireland places on her diaspora. This has a particular significance to young voters living outside Ireland. Many of whom engage regularly with Ireland from abroad but are denied the right to vote in Irish Presidential elections.
The proposed referendum on extending voting rights to Irish citizens living outside the state in presidential elections is a positive step forward. From a youth perspective, this is a significant and welcome development. There is strong support amongst young people to extend the vote in presidential elections to include Irish citizens living outside the state. There is a moral and political imperative to address the current anomaly that exists by allowing our citizens the right to vote for the Irish President, regardless of where they live in the world. Extending the franchise, in this regard, will help to enhance engagement and connection between Ireland and its citizens abroad, especially at a time of social and political unrest and global uncertainty.
Head of Research and Policy
National Youth Council of Ireland
McAleer, M–C. (2013) Time to Go? A Qualitative Research Study Exploring the Experience & Impact of Emigration on Ireland’s Youth, Dublin: NYCI.
McAleer, M–C. (2015) Home is Where the Heart is, Dublin: NYCI.
Kenny, C, (2016) ‘Majority of emigrants surveyed want right to vote in Ireland,’ The Irish Times, 5 July 2016
Red C National Youth Council of Ireland Polling, 2017.