All Irish passports are equal, but some are more equal than others. This was never more evident than last week as voters in both the Republic and Northern Ireland exercised their democratic right to choose politicians to represent them at local and European levels of government.
Irish passport holders from the North whose names have been entered on the voting register for the last, or during the last 10 years were entitled to vote by proxy.
This involved obtaining a special form from the relevant electoral registration office in Northern Ireland and following instructions listed on the form.
"It didn’t matter what passport the intending voter held, Irish or British," a spokesman for the British Consulate in New York told the Echo.
As such, an Irish-passport-holding native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, was entitled to vote from Belfast, Maine — assuming certain criteria were met.
In contrast, a Dublin, Ireland native living in Dublin, Ohio, was voteless in both the local and European contests south of the border.
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The Republic is alone among EU nations in denying votes to its citizens living abroad. Irish diplomats, government officials and military personnel posted overseas can vote. But for the great bulk of emigrants, leaving Ireland entails having virtually no voice in the political life of the country.
This is a sore point for some, not least those groups in the U.S. and Britain lobbying for the vote.
In the U.S., the campaign to grant voting rights to Irish citizens has been spearheaded by The Irish Emigrant Vote Campaign. The group, which also has an organizational structure in Ireland, has succeeded in focusing attention on the issue at the highest levels of Irish government. But at the same time, the voting rights debate has clearly not caught fire in the same way that the plight of undocumented Irish immigrants produced a storm of both argument and action a decade ago.
An Irish diplomatic spokesman told the Echo that the Embassy in Washington and the various Irish consular offices around the U.S. have not received many calls on the matter of votes for emigrants. Irish diplomatic outposts still get far more calls on issues related to U.S. immigration law, the spokesman said.
If there is little apparent surface tension on the voting rights issue in the U.S., there is even less in Ireland itself, where mention of emigrant votes tends to prompt a rolling of eyes or the oft-repeated mantra: "No representation without taxation."
Nevertheless, the issue is now being addressed at the higher political levels despite the fact that the present government sidelined it when its two main parties, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, were courting each other in the wake of the 1997 general election.
Fianna Fáil, the dominant coalition partner, is on the record as favoring votes for emigrants. The party’s 1997 election manifesto, "People Before Politics," stated that Fianna Fáil was "Committed to working out the arrangements to give emigrants the right to vote in Dáil, presidential and European Parliament elections, and in referendums. This can be done without amending the Constitution. Initially those who have lived abroad for up to 10 years will be eligible. Our target is to have a voting system for emigrants in place by the year 2000."
Coalition ends commitment
But while Fianna Fáil wasn’t shy about sticking its neck out on an issue that promised little immediate political gain, the party’s commitment faltered somewhat when it came to working out the coalition arrangement with the Mary Harney-led PDs, itself a party which is on record as supporting emigrant voting rights. The voting rights pledge was not ultimately carried in the joint program for government hammered out by both parties.
Since taking office, the present Irish government has largely followed the pattern of previous administrations. The emigrant voting rights question surfaces above the political horizon, is the subject of brief discussion, and quickly vanishes again. But despite the all-talk/no action record, the subject is not entirely off the Irish political agenda.
In March of this year, The Irish Emigrant Vote Campaign placed its views before the All-Party Oireachtas Committee On the Constitution, a body of politicians charged with reviewing, from top to bottom, the way in which Ireland conducts its political life in the context of the Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. The 34-page IEVC document is firm but cautious in its approach. It opens by stating that the IEVC is proposing "moderate and easy-to-implement means by which the Irish government can take a first step toward restoring voting rights to Irish emigrants. This proposal is based completely on existing provisions and procedures of the Electoral Acts."
While the submission is hardly an emotional call to arms, the reserved language in the introduction does contain one barb. The idea of granting voting rights is ignored. Instead, the emphasis is on "restoring" a right which the IEVC believes has always existed.
The submission wastes little time in addressing a long-held view in Ireland that emigrants could somehow not be trusted with the vote. This attitude was particularly prevalent during the early days of the Northern Ireland troubles when Irish politicians — and journalists – frequently painted emigrants in the U.S. in particular as being prone to extreme republican views on the North.
The IEVC submission describes this view as one of a number of "red herring objections of yesteryear." While it also points to the tailing off in Irish emigration, and the rise in the number of emigrants returning to Ireland, as factors taking the edge off the voting rights debate, the submission then uses both to attack once again the attitudes of former years. "The specter of hordes of ‘uninformed’ emigrants casting their votes in a constituency, or the notion that appropriate voting mechanisms could never be put in place, should no longer cloud this issue," the submission argues.
"Today, the issue should be viewed as one of principle. If the principle is accepted, everything else can follow."
Strong legal footing
Resting the issue on simple principle, while stating that the right to vote is "fundamental and democratic," does appear to place the IEVC’s stance on strong political and legal ground. Equally, the group’s contention that its position is in no way contrary to the Irish Constitution — a view endorsed by Fianna Fáil — would also appear to rest the argument on a solid, virtually unassailable base. The submission even seeks to soothe old fears by stating that, on the basis of experience in other countries, only a small percentage of non-resident Irish citizens would ever choose to vote in a given election.
But, as is often the case in politics, one person’s principle is another’s problem. The IEVC might well discover that more than an appeal to principle, coupled with soothing words of reassurance, is required before Irish suffrage takes on a truly universal dimension.
This summer is certain to pass before the views of the IEVC and its British and Irish-based equivalent, Glór an Deoraí/Irish Emigrants Voice, are tested on the all-party committee’s table.
The committee, established in October 1997, has been working its way through the various political offices and institutions of the Irish State with a view towards finding ways of improving the workings of same. Its findings are being outlined in a series of Progress Reports.
The latest report, entitled "Third Progress Report," deals specifically with the office of president. The Irish presidency, and voting for the president, is viewed by the IEVC as being a particularly critical issue, one indeed fueled by the efforts of both Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese to present themselves as the constitutional representatives of Irish citizens, not just in Ireland, but in all countries.
At the end of the Third Progress Report there is a reference to submissions received from emigrant groups, IEVC and GnaD, that point to how emigrants "might" play a part in national political life.
"For both groups the issues in relation to presidential elections arise and in both cases other issues arise as well," the committee concluded before stating that it has decided to publish a separate report dealing with all the constitutional issues involved in the electoral process.
That separate report is expected to begin taking shape in the fall when the all-party committee turns its attention to voting in the context of a "National Parliament" progress report.
The committee chairman is Brian Lenihan TD, son of the late Brian Lenihan, one of the leading figures in Fianna Fáil over three decades and a politician who was no stranger to the sharper edges of emigrant sentiment. Lenihan senior once aroused the ire of many emigrants in the U.S. with a statement – made during an interview given to Newsweek magazine during the height of the 1980s undocumented crisis – in which he paid tribute to Ireland’s "global generation" while at the same seemingly condemning that same generation to permanent exile and exclusion with the statement: "After all, we can’t all live on a small island."
The question now facing Lenihan’s son and political successor is whether Ireland’s emigrants, more global now than ever before, can have a direct say in the political affairs of that same small island. Meanwhile, the link, tenuous though it might be, between the main emigrant issue of the 1980s and the voting rights question is underlined by the fact that the national coordinator of the IEVC in Ireland is Sean Minihane, co-founder of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement.
In it for the long haul
The voting rights campaigners might not be quite kicking up the degree of political dust once generated by the IIRM, but the IEVC, as with the IIRM, has demonstrated that it’s in for the long haul.
The IEVC is pleased that the voting rights issue is before the all-party committee, but at the same time it has doubts over the committee’s role given that its primary function is to recommend constitutional changes that will ultimately be put to the voters — Irish based voters — in a referendum.
"Such a referendum would exclude the very people who the question is being asked about and this is unconstitutional and unnecessary in itself," Andrew Doyle, U.S. Campaign Coordinator for the IEVC, told the Echo.
"This issue has been discussed over 10 years. All Irish political parties have indicated support for voting rights while in opposition, but when they get into government they seem to change their tune," Doyle said.
"The Irish constitution does not have to be amended. All that is required is an amendment to the Electoral Act and the government could do that if it had the political will," Doyle added before drawing the IEVC’s line in the sand. "The constitution," he said, "does not bar any Irish citizen from voting in any election."
The view from the U.S. is a simple as that. The view in Ireland, as events have demonstrated, is a little more complicated.