Fiona O’Brien speaks to one of two overseas candidates who are looking to win a seat in the Seanad to force the issue of voting rights for Irish emigrants
An Irish emigrant living in the UK is looking to win a place in the upcoming Seanad elections, so he can help to earn more rights for the Irish abroad. Barry Johnston, who is based in London, is running as an overseas candidate for the NUI Panel.
As the general election looms, his Emigrant Manifesto has hit the headlines and has received widespread support from those both in Ireland and across Europe. Having launched his campaign solo before Christmas, he is now joined by Ed Davitt, a Brusselsbased Irish citizen, to highlight emigrants’ rights.
“It has really irritated me how we are being ignored somewhat,” he says.
“At Christmas time you had the media covering sentimental reunions of Irish people returning home, and you had the Taoiseach’s message to emigrants abroad, that they would always be welcome home, and would always be ‘of Ireland’.
“Fast forward two months later and that has been ignored. Even those who are still registered to vote in Ireland will not be able to return home in time to exercise their right to vote due to the timescale of the calling of the election.
“I think it’s a real shame, you can see the huge positive contribution those who were able to come back made to the marriage referendum.
“It won’t be practical for a lot of people to get time off work to book the flights, even from London.
“If you’re on a one-year work placement in Australia there is no way you can come back in that time perimeter. You’ve excluded these people from participating. It’s not a coherent way of talking about the Irish diaspora. Either you value them and let them have a say or you don’t.
“We need a parameter to let them have their voice heard. “There should be a new subcommittee to look at all policies to make sure they are heard in the immediate day to day affairs in the country.”
His manifesto comes up with a ‘tiered’ voting system to allow all Irish citizens abroad vote.
“The first tier is an absentee vote and we are looking to extend that for the comparatively brief period of 18 months that people are entitled to remain on the register at present.
“In the UK it is 15 years. We want it to be at least one electoral cycle up to perhaps a maximum of 10 years.
“The next tier would be for a series of overseas constituencies which would be weighted based on the population in each international zone. These would be seats in the Dail.
“The next, drawing on the constitutional right of citizens to vote, would be for all Irish citizens, regardless of their place of birth, in the presidential election.
“This is from the OECD statistic that shows that one in six Irish people live outside of the country.
The son of two teachers, he was born in Ballinasloe and has a psychology degree from NUI Galway, and the University of London, followed by International Relations at Dublin City University.
He is now living in London for the third time in 10 years, having most recently relocated from Dublin in 2011. Barry works with international charity ActionAid UK, where he leads their political and corporate engagement. He has been bringing his views to people in Ireland and says the response has been generally positive.
“It affects more than the people who have left, it affects those left behind who have seen family business or agriculture change because of mass emigration.
“I can probably count the number of people on one hand from my school photo who haven’t spent a significant amount of time outside of the country.”
He does not believe in the taxation route of voting either.
“It is a big argument but the only two countries in the world which use that model is America and Eritrea.
“From surveys we can see that a lot of people outside of Ireland are still paying tax within the country whether through vehicles or properties, and then you still have people entitled to vote within the State who are not tax contributors anyway. “And to be fair those who are genuinely disengaged with Ireland and the issues there are unlikely to exercise their right to vote there anyway.”
Visit Emigrant Manifesto – A Voice for the Irish Abroad to find out more at www.emigrantmanifesto.irish
Proposal for diaspora voting rights
• Extend the current 18 month period in which emigrants can remain on the electoral register to a minimum of at least one electoral cycle and allow votes to be cast overseas (In the UK this period is 15 years) • Beyond that, extend the right to vote in elections for the Dail to all Irish citizens abroad who are first generation emigrants (that is, who were born in Ireland and left) • That this be managed by a system of reserved constituencies in order not to swamp the votes of resident citizens (as happens in 14 other countries). These votes would not have a time limit • That all citizens abroad (including those of Irish descent who have become citizens) should be able to exercise the right to vote for the President • An Electoral Commission should be established in the first 100 days of the new government to begin this process.
Seanad Éireann consists of sixty senators:
• Eleven appointed by the Taoiseach (prime minister).
• Six elected by the graduates of certain Irish universities:
• Three by graduates of the University of Dublin.
• Three by graduates of the National University of Ireland.
• 43 elected from five special panels of nominees (known as Vocational Panels) by an electorate consisting of TDs(member of Dáil Éireann), senators and local councillors. Nomination is restrictive for the panel seats with only Oireachtas members and designated ‘nominating bodies’ entitled to nominate. Each of the five panels consists, in theory, of individuals possessing special knowledge of, or experience in, one of five specific fields. In practice the nominees are party members, often, though not always, failed or aspiring Dáil candidates:
• Administrative Panel: Public administration and social services (including the voluntary sector).
• Agricultural Panel: Agriculture and the fisheries.
• Cultural and Educational Panel: Education, the arts, the Irish language and Irish culture and literature.
• Industrial and Commercial Panel: Industry and commerce (including engineering and architecture).
• Labour Panel: Labour (organised or otherwise). Under the Constitution of Ireland the general election for the Seanad must occur not later than 90 days after the dissolution of Dáil Éireann.
Ireland’s parties’ pledge to emigrants
Fine Gael • Continue to support Irish communities overseas through the Emigrant Support Programme Aim to bring back 70,000 emigrants #HometoWork by 2020 • Organise another ‘The Gathering’ for 2019 • Advance the case of undocumented Irish citizens in the United States • ‘Revitalise and restructure’ the Global Irish Network • ‘A view’ to holding a referendum to give emigrants the right to vote in presidential elections • Support local communities and counties to reach out to their own Diaspora. Fund the Local Diaspora Engagement Fund to support local engagement projects and initiatives and develop strategies for Diaspora engagement.
Fianna Fáil • Retain the position of Minister of State for the Diaspora • Increase Funding for the Emigrant Support Programme (ESP) by €3.5 million, to support the older, more vulnerable overseas communities • Expand voting rights for Irish citizens resident abroad to vote in Presedential elections • Encourage emigrants to return home by: creating decent jobs and supporting enterprise (creating 250,000 jobs by 2021), cutting the cost of living and improving public services, developing community services and securing home ownership.
Labour • Creating full employment to reverse cycle of emigration • Encouraging GPs to return through the HSE estimates of free GP care for all will require an additional 1,426 full-time GPs in Ireland by 2021. • Enable citizens who emigrate to remain on the electoral register for up to five years
Green Party • Hold elections at weekends to help any eligible voters currently living overseas
Social Democrats • “Could” bring improved improved voting rights for recent emigrants, but no specific policies published as yet
Sinn Fein • Introduce a pilot scheme for rural resettlement which will provide a relocation package of up €5,000, including return flights for qualifying emigrant families to return to rural Ireland. • Hold a referendum to reduce the voting age and extend voting rights to citizens in the North and to the Diaspora.