Ireland: prisoners can vote, emigrants cannot

We are nearing the end of the election campaign (February 25) and, not surprisingly, the topic of emigration is featuring fairly high on the list of political issues. The various candidates are going to do this, that and the other to stop emigration or help those who have to emigrate. Of course, for those parties not in the outgoing government, the number of people having to leave the country makes for a handy stick with which to beat the current office-holders.

To any Irish people old enough, this is familiar territory. Emigration was a political issue in the 1950s and 1980s too and many of the same arguments and promises are being offered today. However, one twist is that this time there is an awareness that it is unjust that those who are forced to leave to find work cannot vote.

And they really cannot vote.

I always knew that there was no facility to enable emigrants to vote either with a postal vote or at embassies and consular offices, but I always believed that an emigrant could come home to vote if he or she wanted to do so. However, they cannot and to do so is actually to commit a crime, one that could entail a prison sentence if the emigrant was actually prosecuted and convicted for having the audacity to vote in their homeland.

An emigrant could be sent to prison for voting, which is ridiculous on two levels. First, the very idea that an Irish citizen who leaves home to provide a better life for themselves and/or their family should be punished for engaging in that most basic of civic rights is obscene. I can almost see the logic of not facilitating voting from overseas, but I cannot see why those few who might wish to go to the trouble and expense of returning to vote should be considered criminals for doing so.

Second, and even more bizarre, if a voting emigrant did end up in prison they would then be the only Irish person in prison who couldn't vote! Yes, prisoners in Ireland are allowed to vote - by mail. So there is a postal vote system for all sorts of people, including criminals, but not emigrants.

Get it? Murderers, rapists, bank-robbers, drug dealers, etc. can all vote if they find themselves doing hard time, but the poor old emigrant is denied that right. They're even denied the right if they're imprisoned for voting while living outside the state because a prisoner can only vote if he or she was "ordinarily resident in the State prior to his or her detention in prison."

It's an amazing state of affairs, one crying out to be corrected. I won't, however, hold my breath waiting for the new government to fix this because emigrants keen enough to want to vote probably have a real interest in returning to live in Ireland. So long as that desire goes unfulfilled they are unlikely to vote for the governing party(ies), which is why I fully expect that the incoming government will stall and prevaricate before dropping the whole idea.

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