The French elec­tion showed how em­i­grant vot­ing could work for Ireland

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Barry Dun­ning

The lines snaked through the door and out into the au­tumn sun at the Ly­cée Con­dorcet in Syd­ney’s eastern sub­urbs last Sun­day, as French­men and French­women lined up to vote in a mo­men­tous pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Glob­ally, about 600,000 ex­pa­tri­ate French cast their bal­lots in the elec­tion – and al­most 90 per cent of them opted for Emmanuel Macron, help­ing the cen­trist to vic­tory against Ma­rine Le Pen, the queen of the far right.

There was much cel­e­bra­tion of her com­pre­hen­sive de­feat. Sim­ply be­ing able to vote while liv­ing abroad would be a cause for cel­e­bra­tion for this Ir­ish em­i­grant in Aus­tralia.

I re­mem­ber with pride the #home­tovote cam­paign and cel­e­bra­tions in 2015 for the mar­riage-equal­ity ref­er­en­dum, which demon­strated how so many of those who had left still cared deeply about their home and its fu­ture. It was a pro­found state­ment of civic en­gage­ment and of the ex­tent to which mod­ern emi­gra­tion is dif­fer­ent from that of the past.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of us left, fly­ing to all cor­ners of the globe, af­ter the 2008 crash. Through Skype, Face­book, What­sApp and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of other com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies, we have been able to stay in­ti­mately con­nected to home.

We get the in­stant pho­to­graphs and videos of the wed­dings, the nights out and the Christ­mas-tree lights. We can stream Mass or the lo­cal GAA. We can stay en­gaged in every­day Ireland in a way that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions couldn’t.

But while Ireland now has a Min­is­ter for

About 600,000 ex­pa­tri­ate French voted – and al­most 90 per cent of them cast their bal­lots for Emmanuel Macron, help­ing him to de­feat Ma­rine Le Pen

the Di­as­pora, and last week’s Global Ir­ish Civic Fo­rum brought em­i­grant or­gan­i­sa­tions to­gether in Dublin to dis­cuss cur­rent is­sues and con­cerns, of­fi­cial Ireland has achieved lit­tle for Gen­er­a­tion Emi­gra­tion.

France is by no means an out­lier when it comes to vot­ing rights. As a dual Ir­ish-Aus­tralian cit­i­zen I can vote in Aus­tralian elec­tions for up to six years while liv­ing out­side the coun­try. Even the US, which has a rep­u­ta­tion for re­pres­sive voter-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion laws in some states, al­lows its cit­i­zens to vote while liv­ing abroad. More than 130 na­tions around the world have sim­i­lar pro­vi­sions. But not Ireland. We are an ex­cep­tion to the global norm.

The Ireland I grew up in dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s talked a good game about its love for the di­as­pora, par­tic­u­larly the Ir­ish­men and Ir­ish­women who’d made homes in the United States over many gen­er­a­tions. But this rarely ex­tended be­yond an in­vi­ta­tion to spend your tourist dol­lars in the town your fam­ily em­i­grated from or to raise a toast to the old coun­try on St Pa­trick’s Day.

Fast-for­ward to 2017 and you could be for­given for think­ing lit­tle has changed. There was the wel­come news from Si­mon Coveney, at the global fo­rum, that the Gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing a ref­er­en­dum day in 2018, when pro­posed amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion around em­i­grant vot­ing and the re­peal of the eighth amend­ment could be de­cided on.

But the vote that is po­ten­tially on of­fer to em­i­grants, should the ref­er­en­dum pass, is far from the full fran­chise en­joyed by French or Amer­i­can ex­pats, who can vote in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions also; Ir­ish em­i­grants would be en­ti­tled to vote only for the pres­i­dent.

Even if this mod­est ref­er­en­dum is put to a vote I and many other em­i­grants will still be de­nied a say. Hav­ing lived out­side the coun­try for more than 18 months, we can’t le­gally cast a bal­lot in a ref­er­en­dum. Once again we’ll be cheer­ing from the side­lines, en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple via so­cial me­dia and text to use their vote.

Politi­cians from all sides love to talk about Ireland’s spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the over­seas Ir­ish, and never more so than on St Pa­trick’s Day jaunts to Syd­ney, New York or Rio de Janeiro. But the re­al­ity has never matched the rhetoric.

When Billy Law­less, who is based in Chicago, was ap­pointed to the Seanad, last year, he be­came spokesman for ar­guably the largest con­stituency of all: the di­as­pora. But he was not elected by the di­as­pora.

Prop­erly en­fran­chis­ing Ir­ish cit­i­zens across the world and giv­ing them po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion would send a pow­er­ful mes­sage about how the State val­ues the di­as­pora. The idea that the elec­torate would be “swamped” by em­i­grant votes ig­nores the ex­pe­ri­ence of all the coun­tries that have en­fran­chised their over­seas cit­i­zens.

The full fran­chise could be time lim­ited, such as the six years af­ter leav­ing of­fered by Aus­tralia, or even the 15 years pro­posed by the for­mer Labour TD Gerry O’Sul­li­van, all the way back in 1991. There are plenty of so­lu­tions avail­able to a Gov­ern­ment will­ing to be brave.

It’s time we looked to the French ex­am­ple of how to pro­vide égal­ité to Ir­ish cit­i­zens abroad, by ex­tend­ing us the right to vote no mat­ter where we are liv­ing on elec­tion day. Now that would be some­thing we could toast with a glass of French cham­pagne.

Pres­i­den­tial poll: French na­tion­als wait to vote in Syd­ney last Sun­day. PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID GRAY/REUTERS Love for the di­as­pora

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