By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – Irish emigrants throughout the world have been jamming switchboards phoning home in record numbers to electoral offices in Dublin and Belfast trying to register to vote in the May 22 simultaneous referenda on the peace deal.
The emigrant calls build-up peaked in the last few days as deadlines for absent or postal vote applications passed north and south of the border but all were disappointed as neither jurisdiction grants votes to the diaspora despite campaigns for some sort of extension of the franchise.
“It was not just a flood of calls, we were submerged,” according to a spokesman for the Chief Electoral Officer in Belfast, where the
deadline for signed application forms for absent or proxy votes closed on May 1.
“We have been inundated. We had people from as far afield as South Africa, Hong Kong, Guatemala and Canada all demanding – not asking about – their right to vote because they were born and bred in Northern Ireland.
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“We installed extra phones, but half of them were blocked all the time. It is unbelievable. There are a lot of people ringing who left this part of the world up to 20 years ago and are irate they can’t vote.”
It is easier to get postal votes in Northern Ireland, which follows UK practices, than in the Republic.
The Belfast spokesman said that people were able to apply for a postal vote on the grounds that will not be able to vote on May 22 – but only if they were living in Northern Ireland for the three months before the Sept. 15, 1997, qualification date.
There are 1,189,094 voters on the Northern Ireland register, but the huge demand for postal votes could push this up by as much as 80,000 more.
“We would give postal votes to people like holiday-makers, commercial travellers, long-distance lorry drivers, university students – anybody who can argue a case that it is not reasonable to expect them to be able to vote,” the spokesman said. “In some of the more keenly fought elections in the past, we would have been hitting about 40,000 postal votes, but we just don’t known what it will be this time.”
In the Republic there are 2,747,088 voters on the register drawn up on Feb. 15. It is estimated that up to 30,000 more will qualify
on the supplemental register, which closed on May 5.
A Department of the Environment spokesman in Dublin said there has been huge interest, with calls from places like Britain, Australia,
New Zealand and America seeking a postal vote. All have been disappointed.
“There is no postal vote for people in that situation,” the spokesman said. “We only permit postal votes for people abroad who are in the Garda, army and diplomatic service.
“There are also postal votes for two categories at home, the disabled and people who cannot vote because of their work, but to qualify you have get the form stamped in a Garda station.
“One caller from Melbourne in Australia wanted to go to a local police station there. When he was turned down, he asked what if he found an Irish cop behind the counter?
“It is very unusual to have such tremendous interest from abroad. The peace agreement certainly appears to have caught the imagination of people,” he said.