For the last nine years I have had the privilege of being the chairman of the Washington Ireland Program (WIP), a well-established leadership program that brings 30 young future leaders from the Republic and Northern Ireland to Washington, DC every summer for two months. More than 300 Irish university students annually apply to the WIP program. The selection process is fair but rigorous and only one in 10 applicants makes the cut.
Every year there are several gay students on the program. These young people are idealistic, patriotic, full of spark and intellectual curiosity – just the type of leaders that Ireland will need in the coming decade. They are passionate about equality and are working hard to turn out a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum with their many straight friends. In London, Lorcan O Cathain, a WIP graduate, has organized “Change Ireland,” which is raising money to help Irish voters get back to Ireland in time to vote on the 22nd. What a valiant effort to get around Ireland's restrictive voting laws.
So who won’t vote in the upcoming referendum? The answer is simple enough – the exiled children of Ireland – the one million Irish citizens living abroad including the many recent emigrants, mostly young and well educated, who left Ireland because of the economic downturn. Ireland lags behind almost all of its EU neighbors when it comes to voting rights for its citizens living abroad.
Should the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage fail, one of the principal reasons for its failure will be because Ireland has not modernized its voting laws. The 228,000 young, well-educated Irish citizens who left Ireland in the past five years grew up in a more tolerant and diverse Ireland. They are natural Yes voters, but the vast majority of them will be unable to return to Ireland to vote despite Lorcan O Cathain’s best efforts.
Earlier this year the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs branded Ireland as a “Global Island,” touting the Emerald Isle as “a country with a global people, economy, culture and outlook.” Grand stuff. The department then promptly went on to announce a new Diaspora policy which once again kicks to touch the issue of voting rights for Irish emigrants, declaring that it “would be challenging to introduce and to manage.” Yet the majority of member states in the EU sorted out the issue years ago. The report goes on to note that there “are also significant practical issues which must be given due consideration.” This is the language of the bureaucrat not the patriot.
David Farrell, a UCD professor and Research director at the Constitutional Convention, was scathing in his reaction to the government’s decision in his March blog in the Irish Politics Forum, “Why are the diaspora yet again fobbed off with patronizing pats on the head and references to matters of complexity?” Jimmy Deenihan, a good and decent Minister who cares deeply about the diaspora, is left to do the explaining. Poor Jimmy.
The vast majority of Irish citizens support voting rights for citizens abroad – 79 percent support the right to vote in presidential elections and 69 percent support the right to vote in general elections. These emigrants are their sons and daughters who know as much about their hometown as London or New York or wherever they live. They Skype, read Irish newspapers online, follow Irish sports and politics and know who won the most recent GAA game.
As an Irish and American citizen I follow with great interest the ongoing debate on whether Ireland should commemorate or celebrate the Easter Rising and the determination of every political party to prove that their origin story began at the GPO. What seems missing from this conversation is any sense of the future: any awareness that the denial of full citizenship to the one million Irish born citizens living overseas is a breach of faith with the Proclamation’s declaration of “equal rights” and the constitutional right of every Irish born person to be part of the Irish nation.
So the vital question – how can you be part of the Irish nation and be global Irish in the 21st century when there is no opportunity for you to vote? And how can you fulfill the promise of the Easter Rising when 20 per cent of your citizens are disenfranchised and will be for years to come? The men and women who fought in the GPO fought to “cherish all the children of Ireland equally.” These words need to be understood in a modern and global context.
The Irish Government should modernize its electoral system, fulfill its promises to the Constitutional Convention and expand the voting franchise to give its “exiled children” around the world the opportunity to be full and equal citizens. You might be surprised by the turnout.
* Kevin J Sullivan recently stepped down as chairman of the Washington Ireland Program. He is a former political adviser and speechwriter who worked for the Clinton administration. He is an Irish citizen and American citizen. His mother was born in Tyrone and he has family in both Tyrone and Cork.
This article was originally published in the Irish Times.