Ireland is a nation of emigrants. Every family in Ireland has a brother, an aunt or cousin living abroad. America has always been one of the top destinations for the emigrant Irish, as well as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. As each successive generation comes of age, new waves of Irish people leave home to seek out a new lives abroad, joining the great Irish diaspora community of 70 million.
After a period of sensational economic growth, Ireland changed course and became a desirable destination for migrants from around the world. Then it all came crashing down with the economic downturn of 2008 and emigration began again en masse.
But things have changed now for Irish emigrants. Recent figures show that four out of every five emigrants were employed prior to leaving the country, suggesting that more people are leaving Ireland out of choice, to seek opportunities abroad, not because they can’t find work in Ireland. Many of this new generation of Irish emigrants intend to return to Ireland one day, and many want to continue to have their say in Irish politics. That is why the issue of emigrant voting rights has come to prominence again.
At the forefront of this positive action is We’re Coming Back, a group lobbying for emigrant voting rights. We spoke with one of their organizers, Conor O’Neill, about the motivation behind the movement and what an emigrant vote could mean for Irish diaspora.
O’Neill outlined the motivation behind the movement:
“We’re Coming Back is a campaign that advocates for voting rights for Irish citizens abroad… We want to see our emigrant communities represented in both Houses of the Oireachtas, and in the office of our President. Ultimately, we campaign for their right to vote as citizens of a democratic state.”
The organization grew out of the shared frustration of young Irish people living abroad, who feel disconnected from Ireland and disenfranchised by their government. What initially began as a group of friends airing their frustrations quickly gained momentum and grew into a movement campaigning for change, counting Irish emigrants all over the world among its members. Social media has been essential to the growth of We’re Coming Back:
“University College Cork’s Emigré Project found that over 90% of Irish emigrants are using social media like Facebook, Twitter and Skype – that’s been invaluable in allowing us to connect with people all over the world.”
The interview and various follow-ups with O’Neill were conducted through various forms of social media. Sending emails back and forth from late night New York to early morning Romania, where O’Neill was attending an EU conference, it very much felt like we were on the frontier of new communication and super-connectivity. What is doubly impressive about this lobby group is that they all work on a voluntary basis. When asked about the main challenges, O’Neill responded:
“Being perfectly honest, it’s finance. WCB doesn’t receive any funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Emigrant Support Program (ESP) or any similar scheme. Everyone who contributes is a volunteer, working because they care about the issue… People contribute their time and expertise, but it’s definitely a challenge to organize to the scale we want on limited resources.”
Support for emigrant voting rights is growing at home as well as abroad. At 2013's Irish Constitutional Convention 78% of the delegates supported emigrant voting rights in presidential elections.
“The most comprehensive study on this to date (UCC’s Émigré Project) found that 71% of those surveyed at home supported an emigrant vote, while at last year’s constitutional convention, 78% backed the idea. Amongst the emigrant community, that feeling is obviously stronger – UCC found that 80% of emigrants surveyed wanted to vote in Ireland, and that’s certainly tallied with our own experiences, too.”
When asked about arguments that Irish emigrants are either out of touch or unaffected by the decisions of the Irish government and thus shouldn’t have a vote, O'Neill answered emphatically:
“There may have been a time when that argument applied, but it certainly doesn’t today. The rapid proliferation of online and social media has made it so, so much easier for Irish citizens abroad to stay in touch with Ireland. People can wake up, read the Irish papers, Skype family back home, and remain as informed and in touch as they want… modern patterns of migration show that people leaving Ireland today tend to move back and forth frequently and more regularly than they used to – either in between jobs, visas, or visiting family. Over 100k Irish citizens have returned to Ireland since 2008 (Central Bank figures, 2013). They remain heavily invested in Ireland and many do return for the long term. I mean, there are Irish citizens on one-year working Visas in the US and Australia right now that wouldn’t be able to vote if a general election was called in the morning – that’s ridiculous. In the vast majority of democracies (120 and increasing), it wouldn’t be tolerated, because your citizenship still matters if you’re away.”
Despite the challenges and opposition in political circles, very real progress on this issue has been made. There is mounting pressure to recognize the contribution that Irish emigrants and the diaspora have made to Ireland through granting voting rights to Irish non-residents. The fact that over 120 countries around the world currently have measures in place to allow their citizens to vote while abroad has not gone unnoticed by the Irish government.
Never ones to want to seem to be out of step with the international community, the Irish government is due to make a decision before the end of 2014 on whether or not to hold a referendum to allow the Irish abroad to vote in presidential elections. The recent appointment of former Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan to the new post of Minister of State for the Diaspora has been welcomed by many diaspora communities. Even more recently, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs, a cross-party working group within the Irish Parliament, called on the Irish Cabinet to allow the Irish abroad to vote in elections back home. O'Neill is upbeat about the chances of an Irish emigrant vote in the near future:
“Historically, the four biggest parties in the state have all put forward motions in favor of it. The Taoiseach himself voted to extend the vote (in both Dáil and Presidential elections) in 1991… Earlier this month, the Oireachtas EU Affairs Committee strongly recommended extending the vote to Irish citizens abroad (including in Dáil elections) and again, that’s made up of representatives from every party. The support is there – the problem is political will. It’s up to those who care about this issue to push it across the line. To his credit, the one who’s been most vocal about it recently is the newly-appointed Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan. WCB representatives and I have met with him several times since his appointment in July, and I think it’s clear that he’s serious about reform and inclusion.”
Of course an issue of great concern to Irish emigrants in America is President Obama’s recent Executive Action on immigration. It is estimated that at least 50,000 Irish people are living in America illegally.
“Many of our members are based in the US, and at the heart of what we’re campaigning for is a more modern, workable attitude towards migration. We live in a world increasingly shaped by it: the number of international migrants increased from 75 million in 1960 to 214 million in 2010. When it comes to the US and Ireland, the economic ties and trade links… have been hugely advantageous to both. When we talk about our emigrant communities in solely economic terms, it indicates both the potential and the mishandling of our citizens abroad. They’re a population with rights, not just a resource. As migration increases, it’s important that our legislation changes to reflect that.”
With Ireland facing the possibility of multiple referendums in 2015, the importance of enfranchising Irish people abroad will only grow. As O'Neill said, it is a not so much a matter of political conviction, but political will: it is unlikely the Irish government will introduce any measures unless it will benefit them in some way. The first steps towards an emigrant vote for Irish people may be taken before the end of 2014, when the government makes its decision on whether or not to hold a referendum. For now, it’s just a case of having to wait and see.
Conor O’Neill is a founding member of We’re Coming Back, an emigrant organization campaigning for voting rights for Irish citizens abroad. He lives in Brussels and works with a human rights NGO. If you would like to get involved with the campaign you can follow and connect with WCB on Twitter @WCBIreland and on Facebook at facebook.com/WCBIreland.