“We owe much to our emigrants”. In 2002, the report of Ireland’s Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants made this admission. This sentence, which may seem so obvious to us today, was actually part of a groundbreaking reset on emigrant relations - a genuine turning point in Ireland’s relationship with the Irish abroad. Ireland began to step up its commitment to Irish emigrants and the diaspora, a process that continues to this day.
The Task force report had been set up response to a spate of consciousness-raising in the 1990s, sparked by concern over the welfare of older Irish emigrants in the UK. That generation sent home millions in remittances and were, in return, largely forgotten by Ireland – until the media revealed the high levels of poverty and isolation among this elderly group of people who had done so much for Ireland in their working youth. A more comfortable Celtic-Tiger-era Ireland was shocked into a greater awareness of our responsibility for this generation, many of whom had left Ireland ill-prepared and very young; a large number of this generation has sent money back to support their families at home for decades, instead of saving to ensure their own comfort.
Since then we’ve seen so much progress: the establishment of the Irish Abroad Unit, the appointment of Jimmy Deenihan as the first Minister for the Diaspora, and his successors; the Global Irish Civic Forums; the appointment of Billy Lawless, who along with Kevin Sullivan and myself co-founded VotingRights.ie, as the senator for the diaspora inthe Seanad. While it is true that much of the energy in the post-Covid years was focused on “harnessing the diaspora”, there has also been good work done on genuinely deepening the relationship between Ireland and the Irish abroad. From a welfare perspective, the Emigrant Support Program has proven invaluable.
While much has been achieved, there are still gaps - the largest gap, of course, is in the arena of political participation, and allowing emigrants to have a voice for themselves. While much of the debate about emigrant voting has been focused on younger emigrants of the “#Hometovote” generation, it is essential that any proposal for an emigrant vote should include all emigrants - not just the recently emigrated.
This perhaps seems natural for the case of the presidency: President Michael D. Higgins has repeatedly stressed an inclusive vision that includes all citizens. As we move toward a referendum that would allow voting rights in presidential elections, it is important that we include all emigrants, including the oldest generations.
Yet there are those who would set a time limit set on emigrant voting - despite the fact that citizenship does not expire, and neither should voting rights. One theory in support of time limits, for example, is that after a certain period of time, an emigrant is unlikely to return - yet there is no set time after which an emigrant’s likelihood to return home drops off. Some return home to retire, and organizations like Safe Home, which helps resettle older emigrants, are an attestation of emigrants’ geographic mobility at any stage of life.
Others have argued that perhaps emigrants might be entitled to vote for one election cycle after their departure, as if to ensure that they could give a message to the politicians who they might view as responsible for the factor that caused them to leave. But this would position the vote as an act of revenge, rather than civic responsibility.
It is no doubt for these reasons that few countries set time limits, and we need look no further than the situation of British emigrants in Europe to see their inequity. Britain allows emigrants to vote for only 15 years after departure, despite several campaigns by advocates seeking to eliminate the time limit. Thus long-time emigrants living in Europe were disenfranchised in the Brexit referendum. They were not allowed to vote in this election - which had the potential to, and which indeed did, so dramatically alter their living conditions. The most affected were not allowed to have a say, and it is doubtful that many at home considered their plight when they cast their ballots.
There are a small number of other countries restrict their citizens’ right to vote in this way: Australia has a six-year limit. New Zealand allows a vote to only those who have returned home for a visit within the past three years. But even this small group of countries that restrict the right to vote are shrinking. Canada had a five-year limit, until that was challenged in court and eliminated. Germany changed the legislation around its 25-year limit recently to allow those who maintain an interest in the country to keep their vote beyond it.
Some might propose time limits based on the idea that emigrants are out of touch. This ignores the keen desire that many emigrants have to keep in touch with the news from home, and the popularity of Irish internet news services. And one need look no further than the outcry over the proposal from RTE to close the longwave service to see how valued communications from Ireland are, even among the oldest of emigrants. Irish people abroad want to stay connected, and value staying in touch.
Another reason not to adopt time limits is a pragmatic one: It would also exclude many of the people with whom Ireland would most like to cultivate relationships: People in the prime of their working lives, who are likely to be donning the green jersey and acting as part of Ireland’s great army of “informal ambassadors”, as President Mary McAleese once so memorably called them.
But perhaps the most important reason for not adopting time limits is that it would necessarily exclude the generation that perhaps most sacrificed for Ireland: our oldest emigrants, who instead of saving for retirement, sent money back home, maintaining their loyalty to a country that didn’t always remain loyal to them, and that until recent years, seemed all too eager to forget the tremendous cost of this to them. They should be able to cast their vote in an Irish presidential election as proudly as any other citizen.
Noreen Bowden is a co-founder of VotingRights.ie, the former Director of the Emigrant Advice Network. She authored GlobalIrish.ie, and has been an advocate for emigrant voting rights for fifteen years.