It’s time for emigrants to have a voice in the Irish Senate


Senator David Norris celebrates the defeat of the referendum that sought to abolish the Irish Senate earlier this month
Senator David Norris celebrates the defeat of the referendum that sought
to abolish the Irish Senate earlier this month

The recent defeat by the Irish electorate of the proposal to shutter the Irish Senate offers a new opportunity for diaspora representation in Ireland.

The defeat was a major blow for the Irish government, but it has opened up new vistas for emigrant rights.

The Irish Constitutional Convention, assuming that the Senate would be abolished, had recently come out in favor of votes for emigrants and Irish passport holders, but in presidential elections only.

This new development allows for a much broader reach and access for Irish emigrants, especially in matters that concern them.

For too long the words “lip service” and “diaspora” have belonged together, but there have been encouraging signs in recent years, especially with the diaspora economic forums in Dublin, that change was coming.

But the Irish government needs to tackle the image that they are only interested in what emigrants can contribute financially.

Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Enda Kenny has stated that he will make changes in how the currently hopelessly elitist Senate is chosen, and emigrant representation should be at the top of his list.

The fact is that on matters of representation the Irish abroad are still left without a voice in Irish politics.

We are alone among European Union countries in that regard and there are over 100 countries around the world that allow their emigrants to vote.

It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good and the reality is that the Senate's survival could be a boon for diaspora groups, who have long sought a voice.

The Irish in Britain group have already put forward a proposal that three emigrant senators be voted for by emigrant populations.

Jenny McShannon, who runs the Irish in Britain, a leading Irish organization, stated, “I believe a reformed Seanad (Senate) would benefit from establishing a new diaspora panel of three senators elected by citizens resident overseas.

“Given a commitment to change and sufficient political will to make it happen, I believe this can be accomplished reasonably quickly. I believe this proposal will be popular and seen to make sense by a clear majority of citizens overseas and citizens at home.

“Through our Diaspora Voice campaign initiative, Irish in Britain will be encouraging discussion, listening to our community and pressing politicians for positive support.”

I think the Irish in America could get behind the same initiative.

A senator each for Britain, the U.S. and Australia would make perfect sense, giving the Irish in those countries the opportunity to have a say especially when it comes to immigrant affairs.

The British suggestion is one that should be followed up in the U.S. and Australia as a matter of major importance.

The flood of emigrants from Ireland these past few years, and the issues that arise for many of them while abroad, are important ones that should occupy any Irish government.

While emigrant groups on the ground and Irish government representatives do an excellent job in working with such groups, giving them a voice in Ireland’s Upper House would be a very important psychological boost for all Irish.

It is time the government stopped being fearful of emigrants and embraced what they can help achieve.

The Gathering event certainly proved that mobilizing the Irish abroad can be very good for Ireland. Making emigrants feel more a part of the Irish state would be the next important step.


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