By David Hennessy
Ireland’s recently created Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, has held out the possibility of allowing Irish passport holders in this country, and overseas, to vote for up to three Senate seats.
The junior minister, whose brief is shared between Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Taoiseach, told a think tank in Youghal last week that more than a million Irish passport holders live outside Ireland.
Giving them a greater sense of involvement in Irish affairs could be a profitable investment both financially and politically, said the Kerry TD.
“The three senators could prove to be worth more than the taxpayer is paying to have them there.
“They would be making a very important connection with the diaspora and could be using that connection to pursue investment. It would be a two-way process,” he said.
He mooted the idea that the three Senators voted for by Irish citizens overseas would have responsibility for Irish people in America, the UK, Australia and other popular Irish migrant destinations such as Canada, Asia and the Middle East.
Voting rights would enhance a “sense of belonging” and encourage them to visit ‘home’, Ireland, he said.
He said voting rights for the Senate level and for Ireland’s presidential elections might be possible buthe ruled out extending the right to vote in Dáil elections to Irish citizens overseas because “could be more voters outside a constituency than within it.”
Long-standing campaigner and organiser for Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) Professor Mary Hickman of the Irish Studies department at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham rejected Mr.Deenihan’s reasoning for ruling out Dail elections.
The numbers of actual Irish passport holders overseas – and therefore those qualified to vote as Irish citizens – is actually much smaller than Mr.Deenihan suggested and possibly no more than third of the electorate in Ireland.
She suggested Ireland could get around this difficulty by following the French and Italian examples and assigning overseas ministers.
“This swamping argument completely ignores the practice of a number of other EU countries – like France and Italy – who resolve this problem by having specific constituencies for their citizens abroad,” said Professor Hickman.
“People have visions of the 40 million Irish Americans or the estimated 70 million world-wide claiming Irish heritage. The number of Irish-born citizens abroad is in reality much smaller. The size of the Irish electorate at the last General Election in 2011 was 3,198,765. There are approximately 1.2 million emigrant citizens with passports thus the number of emigrant citizens abroad potentially might increase the electorate for General Elections by up to one third.
“Votes of citizens abroad for the Dáil should be managed through reserved constituencies, as in France and Italy. For example, in French general elections, one member of parliament represents French people voting in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries and there are eleven other constituencies for the French abroad.
“Italy has four overseas constituencies: South America, North and Central America, Europe, and Australia, Asia, Oceania, Antarctica as one huge constituency.
“Emigration today is different from how it was, it is far more fluid and people are no longer isolated from Ireland when they leave, no matter how far away they go. They are often shocked to find they are disenfranchised,” she said.
“Emigrants today in these ways remain stakeholders in Irish society and want to have a say in its future because the majority hope to return.
Last week, the University College Dublin’s Clinton Institute published a report, Supporting the Next Generation of the Irish Diaspora
Its director Liam Kennedy said“Ireland is not alone in engaging its diaspora. It is becoming quite a common thing for states which are trying to network relationships in a global environment.
“Ireland has one of the largest diaspora ratios per capita in the world, allegedly 70-plus million, and we are actually considered, in the policy space, among the top five countries in the world for diaspora engagement.
“Diaspora engagement is a pretty nebulous thing to pull off in policy terms. It depends on mutual respect and benefit on both sides.
“I think Ireland is already doing a lot to get that balance right and, if they succeed, that will define the character of our engagement. And it will set us apart.
“There are very few other countries in the world who are supporting the vulnerable, though many others are engaging the successful.”