The French election showed how emigrant voting could work for Ireland
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