The President of Ireland is deemed by the Constitution as not being answerable to either Houses of the Oireachtas in the performance or exercise of his/her powers and functions. It is significant that this position does not impact on the political sway of the government thus Irish citizens living outside of the Irish state cannot sway political discourse on the island by voting in this particular election. It is further significant that the individual who holds the position as the Irish Head of State directly impacts on the lives, work and identity of Irish people living abroad. The impact of the presidency on the Irish diaspora is easily tracked through the situation in New Zealand.
Much of the duties assigned to the President, as outlined in the Constitution, relate to the formalities associated with the passing of Bills and the dissolution and reassembly of Dáil Éireann. These were the central functions of the President when the Constitution was written in 1937. However, the role of the Irish Head of State has evolved greatly in the last two decades, most notably from the election of Mary Robinson. President Robinson revolutionised the position in numerous ways but most importantly, in this instance, in relation to how the President represented the people of Ireland. Robinson extended this role to include the Irish diaspora as confirmed in her presidential acceptance speech. She promised to be ‘not just a President of those here today but of those who cannot be here.’ She committed to shining a light in a window of Áras an Uachtaráin as a symbol ‘for our exiles and our emigrants.’
This symbolic light remains in a window of the Áras as a beacon to the Irish diaspora. This symbolic move was extended in December 2020 by President Michael D. Higgins who lit a ‘river of light’ for all the Irish abroad could not make it home for Christmas due to Covid 19 travel restrictions. In the midst of the pandemic crisis, Irish citizens in New Zealand were at the furthest possible point from family and friends, a harsh reality during such a heightened time of concern. Higgins’ action offered much needed connection and comfort for the Irish abroad during this traumatic time.
During his State visit to New Zealand in October 2017, President Higgins announced the opening of the first resident Irish Embassy in Wellington. Then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, applauded the announcement noting that there were 14,000 people of Irish birth living in New Zealand. The number of Irish born living there has continually increased annually since that date. The last NZ Census taken in 2018 recorded 18,000 Irish people, that same year Ambassador Peter Ryan became the first Irish Ambassador to New Zealand. The International Migration figures for June 2019 showed an increase of 14 per cent in Irish migrant arrivals to New Zealand, year on year. Furthermore, many Irish who entered on short term work visas remain in New Zealand due to travel restrictions.
It is vital for us to build better understandings of what is driving an influx of Irish people to New Zealand. With this objective, the Embassy of Ireland initiated research led by me as Chair of Irish Studies at the University Otago and also an Irish immigrant. The report ‘Mapping the Irish Community and People of Irish heritage in New Zealand,’ was published in December 2020 and provides a snapshot of the average Irish immigrant living here. People from Ireland are mainly attracted here through categories of visa which have high qualification requirements and therefore predominantly occupy professional roles. There is a gender balance and the age range is predominantly young with 38 percent ranging between 25 and 44 years of age.
The Irish immigrant population in New Zealand are actively and positively contributing to the continuing economic, social and cultural development of the country. In their professional roles, the Irish in New Zealand are building trade networks and fostering cultural exchanges between our two countries as highlighted in a recent report from the Irish Business Network New Zealand. Such work by Irish people in New Zealand has vast positive financial implications for both country and deepens an already well-established collaboration between our two nations. Cultural exchange promotes much valued tourism into Ireland, while expanding trade networks are ever more important to Ireland post Brexit.
Granting Irish citizens in New Zealand a vote in presidential elections would undoubtedly give much needed recognition of their work here. There are a myriad of reasons why Irish people have emigrated and for many their hope is to one day return to Ireland. Statistics confirm that the Irish in New Zealand are highly educated and have gained a vast range of experience working on projects such as the rebuild of Christchurch since the 2011 earthquakes, the Irish population in that region has in fact doubled since the 2006 census. Such education and skills are highly sought after in Ireland, evident through projects to attract the Irish home into professions such as health and education. Providing Irish people in New Zealand a vote in presidential elections would ensure they remain connected with Ireland and are more likely to return.
New Zealand citizens living abroad are entitled to vote in New Zealand elections, provided they have lived in New Zealand for at least twelve consecutive months at any period and have visited New Zealand in the last three years before the election. A similar arrangement for Irish citizens abroad is a reasonable request by people who continue to contribute to the development of the Irish economy and promote Ireland’s reputation globally.