Recent polls among Irish Students’ Unions have shown that 90% of Irish young people support same-sex marriage. A recent study by University College Cork also shows that, of the current 250,000 Irish emigrants, about 70% are in their 20s. This leaves a significant proportion of the age group deemed to vote “Yes” in the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum without any (easy) means of casting a vote.
Many of these people are unaware that they forfeit their vote once they leave the country. As it stands, an Irish citizen is still entitled to vote in an election or a referendum for up to 18 months after departure. If they wish to cast this vote, however, there is no provision for a postal vote. The citizen must inform their local authority that they plan to return to Ireland within 18 months of their departure and they must be in Ireland and able to cast their vote at a polling station on polling day. A long way to travel to cast a 2-minute vote that may affect the rest of their lives.
If an Irish citizen lives outside of Ireland for longer than 18 months they are no longer entitled to any vote unless they are (or are a spouse of) an Irish official on duty abroad, in which case, they are eligible for a postal vote.
From the figures presented above, we could surmise that there are 157,500 “Yes” voters and 92,5000 “No” voters currently living outside of Ireland, many of whom will not have the money or means to travel back to Ireland to vote on May 22.
If we take the 18 month rule as a cut-off point for the allowance of a postal vote, the number of potential vote-casters shoots down to a smaller but still significant number of 60,000.
Will the lack of opportunity for this section of the Irish community, some of whom plan to return to Ireland in the near future, affect the eventual outcome of the referendum in any way?
Ross Frenett represents the group “Irish Abroad for Yes,” a group established for those Irish living overseas who support a “Yes” vote. He is unsure as to whether Irish citizens living outside of Ireland could swing the vote one way or the other. He says, “The diaspora are not one body, there are a lot of differences there.”
“The Irish diaspora does now have a whole new generation. There are an old school diaspora but since the crash there are more of a younger generation who are seen as a progressive successful group.”
Frenett told IrishCentral that he was not entirely convinced the lack of vote for Irish citizens abroad would affect the outcome of the vote. “Not entirely,” he says. “I think that an awful lot of the diaspora could vote one way, one part could vote another way depending on the different generations.”
Conor O’Neil from We’re Coming Back, a group acting as advocates for voting rights for Irish people abroad, agrees. He tells IrishCentral that the main aim of the group is to campaign for voting rights – “it’s not about how you’re voting, it’s about the ability of these Irish citizens to vote.”
When asked about the absence of these votes in the eventual outcome, he replies, “It’s hard to say. I would be confident that it will pass. I think it will be hard fought. The people back home will have to vote and in that sense, I don’t know what the final turnout will be.
“Maybe it would have mattered [the emigrant vote], maybe it wouldn’t have. People are saying it will be close and in this context, it would would feel safer if “Yes” voters abroad weren’t being told ‘no you can’t vote.’”
Independent TD for Tipperary South/West Waterford, Mattie McGrath, was one of the first public faces in Ireland to show his support for a “No vote.” In a recent article in The Irish Times, he outlined his belief that a “no” vote is important for the protection of the family.
“The loving relationships that exist between people of the same sex deserve to be protected,” he writes. “From the point of view of the couple, such relationships differ from those of heterosexual couples neither in emotional intensity nor in the depth of their value.”
“Essentially the State would do this by having implicitly adopted the view that there is no special or added value to a child having a mother or father.”
“It has nothing to do with the ludicrous view that those of us who are calling for constitutional caution are motivated by a thinly veiled homophobia.”
Speaking to IrishCentral, McGrath indicated that the lack of a vote for emigrants would have an impact on the referendum result but not just for the “Yes” vote.
“In terms of whether this would have an impact on the outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum, I am inclined to the view that it would,” he says.
“As Irish citizens, who are often living in jurisdictions which have made legislative provisions for same-sex marriage, for example, they would be uniquely placed to offer a valuable insight into how they feel it has impacted on the broader community.
“It is clear that this would open up the debate and offer fresh perspectives from what, at times, has been a rather insular ‘Yes Vote’ perspective.”
He also felt that it was important to put the referendum in a worldwide perspective.
“Those on the ‘No’ Side are somehow being characterised as democratic pariahs even though not one country in the world has taken the Constitutional route that we are proposing here,” he continues.
“It is also the case that only 17 of the over 190 members of the United Nations have made provision for same-sex marriage. This fact has been lost in the debate here and so the perception has been allowed to grow that opposing same-sex marriage is contrary to a worldwide consensus.”
There are arguments that there is no licence for an emigrant vote to be made available, with protesters claiming that these citizens don’t pay tax and will not have to live in the country with the consequences of the outcome of their vote.
O’Neil believes that it is unsympathetic to say this with regards to the marriage referendum: “Especially for this referendum, it is unsympathetic to say that it doesn’t matter to gay and lesbian Irish citizens currently living in London and Australia who want to go back to Ireland. You can’t say that it doesn’t affect them and that it doesn’t matter to them.”
More than 120 countries have a provision for their citizens to cast their vote from outside the country, either through a postal vote or by traveling to their embassy on polling day, leaving Ireland with some of the most restrictive legislation in Europe with regard to an overseas vote. O’Neil says, “the Irish Government have a lot to answer for because a lot of voters are excluded from their right to vote.”
Joey Kavanagh, is a young Irish man living in London. On learning that he was not entitled to a postal vote, he established the group “Get the Boat 2 Vote” which is garnering massive support from around the globe in its attempts to encourage people to travel home and use their vote.
“I think the reality is, a lot of people who have emigrated in the past two years are young people,” he says. It’s looking like the young ‘Yes’ vote will suffer a bit, and part of the reason [in setting up Get the Boat 2 Vote] is to try and ensure that the ‘Yes’ vote comes out.”
“I think my primary reason was that I wanted to feel involved, it’s what it was all about. I would be excluded from voting. I didn’t want to be sitting around while a decision was made that could impact my life and the life of my friends.”
TD McGrath also agrees that there should be provision made for a postal vote. “I am certainly of the view that the greater Irish diaspora of Irish citizens should have access to a postal vote for general and presidential elections,” he tells IrishCentral, “and also for constitutional referendums such as those that are scheduled for May 22nd.”
“It seems quite unreasonable on the face of it that an Irish citizen may legally cast his vote on the 22nd if he is resident here but be debarred from doing so if he takes up residence in another country on the 23rd.”
The subject of an emigrant vote, while now too late to be introduced for this referendum, has been shrouded in debate in the past few months. At the time of the Irish Constitutional Convention in 2013, it was decided that a referendum would be held on whether the postal vote option should be extended to emigrants. It was decided, however, that referenda on same-sex marriage and on the age allowed to stand for Irish president would be held preceding this.
Despite the appointment of a Minister for the Diaspora, no other moves have been made on the part of the government to include recent Irish emigrants in the country’s major decision-making.
Should Irish emigrants be entitled to vote from abroad? Will their absence influence the eventual outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.