The great victory of the Yes campaign for equality in Ireland was also a wonderful demonstration of the determination of the Irish Diaspora to come home to Ireland to make their votes count.
Confronted by outdated voting restrictions and the lack of an up-to-date absentee ballot process the Irish diaspora mounted a marvelous #Hometovote campaign that galvanized Twitter and lit up Ireland in a way never seen before.
Check out this visual illustration of that activity on Twitter:
The www.ChangeIreland.org campaign led by a young LSE student, Lorcan O’Cathain, and the www.getheboat2vote.org initiative were just two wonderful examples of the energy and commitment by Irish emigrants to make a difference in this referendum.
Who can forget the images of the crowded ships and planes and long lines at entry points as young Irish emigrants voted with their feet and revealed their commitment to staying involved and having their voices heard, often at huge personal financial cost?
The election also underscored the need for Ireland to join the rest of the EU and modernize it voting laws. Only 66,000 of the 228,000 emigrants who left Ireland in the last five years were eligible to vote because the current voting laws only allow citizens to vote if they have been out of the country 18 months or less and are willing to come home to cast a ballot.
Woe to the Irish ex-pat who has been out of the country for 19 months or even two years. The law is absolutely clear – your vote will not count. The Irish can be justly proud that they have led the world in taking a stand for equality for her gay citizens, but the Irish would do well to reflect that they are one of the last countries in the EU to allow voting rights for citizens living abroad.
Ireland is moving in fits and starts to address this issue. The government has appointed a good and decent Minister for the Diaspora in Jimmy Deenihan and they have done a first rate job in rebranding Ireland as a “Global Island” connected by people, culture and investments to the rest of the world.
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Unfortunately, the government’s new Diaspora policy prevaricates on the vital issue of whether the government will update its voting laws to EU standards. It has also not yet fulfilled its promise to the Constitutional Convention to allow the Dail to debate the modest proposal that emigrants and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland be allowed to vote for the President of Ireland every seven years.
Voting rights for the Diaspora is clearly a more complex issue than the stark Yes/No choice vote on same sex marriage. There are host of issues that have to be sorted. Who in the Diaspora gets to vote and who does not, what are the appropriate time limits – if 18 months is too short is more than 7 years too long? Should the voters in the Diaspora pay taxes? Should the Diaspora be allowed to vote in the general elections for their local TD’s and or in national referendums? These are serious issues that are worthy of a full debate by the Dail and the Irish people.
To gain their voting rights the Global Diaspora will also have to overcome a parochial Irish attitude that 'they left on their own accord and if so be gone and good riddance.' Somehow you are less than fully Irish because you left. Little thought is given to the reality that with no work at home hundreds of thousands of Irish born and educated university graduates became part of Generation Emigration and were forced to leave Ireland to find work.
Just as many families in Ireland have a gay son or daughter or cousin they also have an emigrant son and daughter as well, young people that Ireland should want to engage in the hope that they will return to Ireland sooner rather than later with all of their talent. As Noreen Bowden, the former director of Ireland’s Emigrant Advice Network, noted: their temporary “absence from the country negates neither their interest in Ireland’s future nor their stake in it.”
The ensuing debate to gain voting rights for the Diaspora will not be as uplifting as the successful YES campaign for equality because it may change the status quo in Irish politics and all political leaders have a deep dislike for such change, especially when they are in power.
Nevertheless, the government will likely be under new pressure to address the issue in the coming year. The Constitutional Convention recommendation to allow the Dail to debate the issue will have to be addressed and a Joint Oireachtas Committee has already issued a report (November 2014) calling upon the government to expand voting rights to emigrants.
More importantly, the Working Group on Senand Reform appointed by the Taoiseach in December 2014 has put forward a proposal that people born in Ireland who hold a valid and current passport be able to vote in future Senand elections as will people living in Northern Ireland who hold an Irish passport. This report has received support across the political spectrum, but the government has yet to act on it.
Emigrant groups like Irish in Britain will surely be energized by the YES campaign and the #HometoVote twitter initiative. Emigrant voting rights groups would do well to meet with the leaders of the YES campaign to learn from their success and make their views known at the upcoming Global Irish Civic Forum.
Irish America may also want to weigh in on this issue to make sure that the Global Diaspora gets a fair shake. Irish America has always played an out side role in Ireland’s history from its support of the Easter Rising, to financially sustaining the Free State in its early years, to persuading President Clinton to actively intervene in the Northern Ireland peace process and helping to make Dublin the tech capital of the EU.
The upcoming Centennial also offers Ireland a unique moment to reflect on its commitment to the 1916 Proclamation’s promise that “all the children of Ireland be treated equally” which was so recently underscored by the successful YES campaign. Ireland’s “exiled children” in New York, London, Brussels, Sydney and all around the world also deserve a voice and a vote in defining the Republic they cherish. Possibly one day, in the not too distant future, Irish emigrants around the world will once again light up Twitter and Ireland with a #HometovoteAgain campaign that helps to secure voting rights for the Global Irish.
Kevin J. Sullivan is an Irish and American citizen and a former senior adviser in the Clinton Administration who has worked on a variety of initiatives to support the peace process in Northern Ireland in the last 20 years. His family hails from Cork and Tyrone. He is currently a member of the board of the Washington Ireland Program. The views expressed here are his own.