What would allowing the diaspora to vote in local, European or Dáil elections do to our political system, asks Stephen Meyler
A proposal to give Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote in presidential elections has been doing the rounds recently. In March, Enda Kenny announced a referendum to change the Constitution to allow it happen.
Creating new voting rights for the election of a ceremonial head of state is one thing, but what about giving the franchise to the diaspora in local, European or Dáil elections? What about constitutional referendums, like the one to repeal the 8th amendment?
The government parties, whoever they are when the first measure happens, are likely to be of the opinion ‘this far and no further’, but if we admit (or readmit) emigrants to the electorate for one sort of election, why not for all? It’s a measure that’s likely to have enthusiastic support from the smaller parties, if not the independents, as they imagine they would benefit from emigrant votes. After all, they will argue, emigrants are typically younger and have a greater understanding of the world and its diversity as a result of their travels.
Issues of importance to LGBT people, such as repealing the 8th, as well as more symbolic actions like electing the country’s first gay Taoiseach, will surely be helped by admitting the diaspora to the franchise.
It seems like a logical view, but is it true? Are Irish emigrant communities around the world actually more liberal than the home electorate? Even if they are, would they cast their votes in the same way as home voters? Taxpayers, with their well-being and that of their families invested in the Irish economy, vote with their payslips as well as their hearts. We all want a better health system, we all want rural broadband and good public transport, but we also want to keep hold of most of our income.
Voters paying taxes in Australia, the US or the UK don’t have the same economic self- interest and so have the freedom to vote with their hearts. That sounds great, except that emigrant emotional response is shaped by so many conflicting and often negative views of the old sod, depending on the circumstances under which the emigrant left.
Emigrants may have indeed left to have a good time, to broaden their life experience, with a plan or aspiration to return when they have made a bit of cash. That might cover many of the Irish people working in low-tax or no-tax regimes in the Middle East, but what about the ones who have moved their families to the US, Australia or Canada?
How much bitterness do permanent migrants have towards the state and nation that failed them, that allowed their town to be hollowed out by years of neglect or failing to improve on the corrosive clientelism of our political system? If, right after school or college, you had no choice but to leave
the town you grew up in and any time you returned, the place seemed quieter and more depressed than ever, what view would you have of local politicians asking for your vote? Wouldn’t you be drawn to the radical ones, the ones promising to overturn the decades of gombeenism that have wrecked the town?
Viva la revolución of course, but what sort of changes would result from elections with so many economically disinterested voters? Spin the American Revolution slogan ‘No Taxation Without Representation’ on its head and the result might be a Dáil crammed with independents, who could only ever form unstable, indecisive governments, even more beholden to local interests than now – a parliament of Healy-Raes. It wouldn’t be emigrants’ incomes paying for a hospital and bypass in every town.
Not all emigrants are recent of course – the diaspora has been going a long time; think of how many Irish people left what was more or less a failing state in the 60s, 70s and 80s, often in much more desperate circumstances than in this era of cheap flights and a connected world. The emigrant franchise allows for emotional voting, but with an added soupcon of insidious nostalgia for how Ireland was in the past. If you think nostalgia is a harmless pastime, then check Brexit – as the late AA Gill argued just before the vote to leave, nostalgia is little England’s most pernicious drug. Irish people have built an international reputation for nostalgic fondness, our version of the Portuguese saudade, feeling a bit sad about missing a generalised ‘something’ in the past.
If you left Ireland decades ago, how comfortable would you be with what it’s become since? So many ethnicities now call the place home, the gays don’t hide any more, they want to have abortion clinics – Ireland is a much changed place. If you’ve preserved a crystallized version of the good parts of the Ireland of your youth as you make a new life elsewhere, should you be able to influence the shape of the society as it is now?