In the three-and-a-half years since the divisive Brexit vote took place in the UK, the political vocabulary of the average person following it has increased considerably. Phrases like, “backstop”, “hard or no-deal Brexit” and “customs union” have become commonplace. Yet, despite the countless number of hours spent discussing Brexit, we are still no closer to any real resolution on the matter. Perhaps next month’s general election in the UK will change all that, but maybe it won’t, and where will we be then?
The dark shadow cast by Brexit has meant that there has been very little room for any other policy priorities to get a look-in since 2016. From the perspective of Irish emigrants, the highly-anticipated referendum on extending diaspora voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad for presidential elections has been shelved indefinitely until a resolution on Brexit has been reached. However, with Brexit still far from being sorted, and an Irish general election on the cards for Spring 2020, it is uncertain whether diaspora voting will ever actually materialize.
You might be reading this and saying to yourself, “who cares?”. And you may even have a point. The office of the Irish President is largely a figurehead role that doesn’t wield much influence in the day-to-day lives of Irish citizens, whether they’re living at home or abroad, so why should the election of this role matter so much? Similarly, some would argue that there isn’t even a need for diaspora voting. After all, they’re not paying tax in Ireland, are they? Again, another valid concern and one that deserves proper consideration. However, and despite the soundness of these points of view, some of the major concerns felt by Irish emigrants living abroad are being overlooked.
Many of my friends and family that left Ireland in the last decade or so still feel somewhat detached from life at home, especially a lot of them had little choice in the matter. Yes, they might go home at Christmas time, or subscribe to GaaGo to watch the All-Ireland Final each year, but many don’t feel like their voice matters at home. This referendum was a chance to fix that, especially as an increasing number of these more recent Irish emigrants are considering moving home in the near future.
The referendum would also be an opportunity to extend an olive branch to the most Irish emigrants who often feel voiceless in modern-day Ireland, while offering a symbolic gesture of goodwill to those who have been living abroad for longer. The referendum may have started off solely with presidential elections, but there is no reason why this couldn’t have been a stepping stone to include general elections in time (indeed, this ‘stepping stone’ argument has been mentioned by those for and against extending the presidential franchise this time around). More importantly, the campaign that this referendum would have created could have been a great opportunity for Irish people, at home and abroad, to have a discussion on how the country really views Irish citizens living abroad. It would have also provided an opportunity to tease out what kind of diaspora voting system would have been most beneficial for non-residents, should it have been enacted.