Archive | January, 2011

Irish Times: Economist warns against disenfranchisement

29 Jan

I was surprised to see a reference to emigrant voting rights in an article by former Central Bank chief economist Michael Cleary in today’s Irish Times. Cleary, who is also on the executive board of the IMF, gave an analysis of factors leading to outward migration from Ireland. He noted that the problem of emigration in Ireland seems intractable:

In short, it now seems as if the boom years were an anomaly and that high unemployment and emigration are never far from the surface here, especially when demand is constrained by recession and deflationary policies. Structural factors also play a part – though perhaps not the dominant one.

The concept of “hysteresis” may be relevant. Normally applied to unemployment, it suggests the problem feeds on itself. That is why, in inner cities, if parents are unemployed there is a strong probability that their children will also be unemployed. It is difficult to break the cycle. The same may be true of emigration. Once it begins or resumes, it becomes easier for others to follow. This may be because existing emigrants urge friends and relatives to do the same. If this is true then even if cyclical and structural problems are largely corrected, unemployment and emigration may continue for quite a long time. There is an urgent need to examine in detail the motivations of emigrants. They should not be ignored or disenfranchised as they were in the past.

That last sentence is particularly important, highlighting as it does the way we’re ignoring our emigrants by silencing them from our political system. Why should emigrants not have a vote?

29 Jan has a lively debate going on over whether only previously resident emigrants should have a vote. It’s worth a trawl.


Irish Times columnist: votes for emigrants “an idea no one wants to crush”

29 Jan

Journalist Sarah Carey has advanced a particularly poor argument against emigrant voting rights in the Irish Times.

She sets up a straw man of worthy sentimentality as the reason behind the call for emigrant voting rights, then claims this:

I like too the guiding principle of “no taxation without representation”. It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes to the State should be allowed to have a say in how those taxes are collected and distributed. Those living in Ireland, no matter how poor, will pay tax, directly or indirectly.

One suspects she actually meant she believes in the “guiding principle” of “no representation without taxation” but was corrected in the editing process. Because she clearly doesn’t believe in the principle of “no taxation without representation”  – or she’d be advocating for a vote for emigrants on the basis that many of them are already paying taxes.

Carey adopts a remarkably snarky tone and seems to feel that any concern for our overseas citizens belongs to the realm of a 19th century novel. She uses words like “lament” and “tragic eloquence”, while noting that “votes for emigrants” is “an idea no one wants to crush because it sounds so worthy. Instead we politely indulge its advocates but do nothing about it.”

It’s not about tragic eloquence, of course, it’s about the rights of transnational citizens, and developing a relationship with our diaspora that is worthy of the 21st century. The traditional model, where we send off our young and wait for the remittances to roll in, isn’t going to work for much longer. Our well-educated and well-connected expats expect to keep their vote when they leave, and there have been many reports of European work colleagues expressing shock at realising there is no postal vote option for our overseas citizens. All this while our government actively seeks to network (or “harness” as the favoured phrase has it) our diaspora in order to benefit the Irish economy.

Anyway, there are pages of comments following her article, with the majority of them chiming in disagreement. There is actually so much wrong with this article and Carey’s reasoning that it would take far more time than it’s worth to deconstruct it. I’ve contributed on the comments, and I’ve also sent this letter off to the Times:


Regarding Sarah Carey’s article on emigrant voting rights (27 Jan), the notion that overseas citizens are unaffected by decisions at home is completely out of touch with the realities of transnational citizenship in the 21st century. Irish citizens abroad are potentially affected by decisions about social welfare, pensions, foreign policy, civil partnership and spousal immigration, taxation, broadcasting and consular protection. Your recent report on the thousands of returning emigrants denied benefits under the Habitual Residence Condition demonstrated that decisions made by Irish lawmakers can have devastating consequences on emigrants’ lives.

As for Ms Carey’s suggestion that emigrants should be taxed, this is a totally separate issue to voting – no developed nation in the world links the two the way she would suggest. In fact, the US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its expats on foreign-earned income – and I suspect that if Ireland were to do so we’d find we get less money than the value of what we’re currently getting from global Irish business networking, FDI, venture capital assistance, expats opening new markets, tourism, and philanthropic giving. Right now, we’ve got a highly loyal diaspora that’s worth a lot of cash to us. Adding a layer of paperwork and an attitude of even greater entitlement to our diaspora relations probably won’t serve any of us well.


Noreen Bowden Irish emigrants deserve a vote

27 Jan

Irish-born journalist Peter Geoghegan has taken up the issue of emigrant voting rights in the Guardian Comment is Free site.

At about 1.40pm on Thursday afternoon, the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, reluctantly made the announcement the country has been waiting months to hear: Ireland’s next general election will take place on 11 March. Within seconds Twitter was abuzz with Irish expats’ excited chatter. “I’m booking my flight home right now,” chirped one youthful tweeter. “Can’t wait to go back to vote them [Fianna Fáil] out,” chimed another.

It is refreshing to see such enthusiasm for representative democracy – which only makes it doubly sad that few, if any, of these politically engaged emigrants will be legally allowed to vote if they do turn up at an Irish polling station in seven weeks’ time.

I get a few words in there as well:

As Noreen Bowden, editor of, has pointed out, denying emigrants their right to vote has long suited Irish political elites: “Ireland’s refusal to allow emigrants voting rights is a tremendous advantage for the insiders of the political establishment, ensuring that a big proportion of those most affected by the economic downturn won’t be around to cast their verdict.”

A lively discussion ensued on the comments page. Read the whole thing!

The same article was also printed in the Irish Times.

Guest post on IrishGirlAbroad

24 Jan

New York-based Irish journalist Frieda Klotz recently invited me to do a guest post on her blog. Frieda was running a series on what it was like to be watching the Irish economy implode from the inside. Frieda’s blog, “An Irish Girl Abroad – New York life through a European lens” is an insightful and perceptive examination of her experiences as an expat, so I was delighted to be invited to participate.

Here’s an excerpt, on the government’s response to the recent upsurge in emigration – read the rest on IrishGirlAbroad.

The governmental non-response has been striking. There has been no major speech by any minister discussing the exodus. On, government’s news service, a search for the word “emigration” turns up only two results. There have been almost no job stimulus programmes, and government politicians have expressed satisfaction with a drop in unemployment rates of a percentage point or two, despite the fact that the emigration of the jobless is surely responsible. One of the few government politicians to remark on emigration since the start of the crisis was Tánaiste Mary Coughlan: she was reviled for her statement that young people were emigrating ”to enjoy themselves. That’s what young people are entitled to do” – a tone-deaf response that was reminiscent of the most notorious statement of the1980s exodus, Brian Lenihan’s “we can’t all live on a small island“.

What has not been lacking, however, is faith in the diaspora to solve our problems. While emigrants – dispossessed and disenfranchised – are untouchables to the establishment, when the ruling class looks at the Irish diaspora they see investors, philanthropists, cultural-product consumers, ancestor-seekers, and tourists. Lauded by Brian Cowen as “our huge and willing resource“, the 70 million are presumed to be ready to share their wealth and know-how to pull us out of this crisis. Government strategies on the economy, higher education, tourism, and culture give them prominent roles. The diaspora is related to the phenomenon of emigration, sure, but in a sanitised, less-painful way: we’d like them to buy our certificates of Irishness and come “home” for visits, but we don’t expect anyone to shed tears at the airport when they leave. We do hope they’ll contribute 100 million euro to building our new children’s hospital, however.

Irish Echo (Aus): “Fresh calls for vote to be extended to Irish abroad”

12 Jan

The Irish Echo in Australia is the latest publication to report on the growing number of calls for Irish emigrant voting rights.

The article includes a summary of some of those who have called for emigrant voting rights in the past few weeks:

Trinity College politics lecturer Elaine Byrne used a discussion on RTÉ’s Marian Finucane show last month to call for Irish citizens abroad to be given votes in Seanad elections. December also saw anti-EU party the People’s Movement call for full voting rights for Irish citizens abroad.

“Votes for Irish emigrants in all national elections would present the opportunity to introduce real and radical alternatives to current political norms in Ireland,” said the movement’s spokesperson Mary Crotty in The Irish Times.

Economist David McWilliams said in a recent Irish Independent column that he would “extend the vote to everyone who is an Irish citizen no matter where they live” if he was Taoiseach.

It also gave a helpful rundown of the political parties’ positions:

Fine Gael and Labour published the policy document Reaching Out: Caring for The Irish Abroad in March 2006, in which the Seanad was mooted as a venue for emigrant voting.

Labour’s 2007 general election manifesto states that the party would support “emigrant representation in the Seanad for Irish communities abroad”. This will be reviewed before the next general election.

More recently, Fianna Fáil’s Programme For Government of October 2009 promised to establish an independent Electoral Commission. It was proposed that the commission could make recommendations on allowing Irish citizens abroad to vote in Presidential elections. Responsibility for this matter rested with the Department of Environment.

I would add to that the the Programme for Government pledged that those recommendations on overseas voting in presidential elections would be published by October 2010. That hasn’t happened, and I’ve written to the Department of the Environment to follow it up and am still awaiting a response.

Read the whole article at:

Fresh calls for vote to be extended to Irish abroad  | Irish Echo.


“We need help. Send cash and shut up.”

10 Jan

There was an interesting debate over on the Telegraph’s Expat blog over whether Irish emigrants should be allowed to vote. I’d just like to highlight one of the comments, which I think was an important summary of one aspect of the issue.

Some of the discussion was over the level of help that Irish officials are seeking from the diaspora. I said this:

As for playing a role in the life of the nation, we are talking about our citizens here – according to our constitution, they ARE the nation. And they’re also the “unofficial ambassadors” lauded by President McAleese, and the “huge and willing resource” praised by the Taoiseach as he launched the Smart Economy strategy. If you read that strategy and most of the other strategies coming out of various government departments these days, you’ll realise that our emigrants and the diaspora are being asked to play a very big part in Ireland’s economic future. Their economic participation is welcome – in fact, the Irish government has been studying international models of economic engagement and has a goal of being the best in the world at this kind of diaspora engagement.

But political engagement is taboo, and Ireland is nearly alone in the EU on this – every other country in the EU (bar Greece, which lost a court case and will presumably be changing its policy) [allows their emigrants to vote]. The current situation is not balanced – Irish people living abroad should have some say in their own government.

Kevin Lyda summed it up much better than I did:

Current official Ireland attitude towards emigrants: we need help, send cash and shut up.

The suggested alternative: we need help, please participate fully in fixing our country.

One of those seems better…

If we’re serious about the diaspora being one of our greatest assets – and we should be – we need to focus on developing this relationship to its maximum potential. We need the collective wisdom of our entire global citizenry now: we’re only hurting ourselves by closing our emigrants out of political debate.

David McWilliams calls for voting rights for all Irish citizens

10 Jan

Economist and broadcaster David McWilliams has called for the extension of the right to vote to all Irish citizens abroad.

In an article entitled, “If I was Taoiseach. . . what I would do to save Ireland “, McWilliams outlines a series of 10 steps aimed at fixing the economy and healing society. His ninth step:

Extend the vote to everyone who is an Irish citizen no matter where they live. The Irish diaspora is one of our greatest assets and those of the tribe who are now living abroad should never be cut off from the nation. By allowing them to vote, we bring our policy into line with the rest of Europe and tie these people to home, making it more likely that they come back with their skills and experiences and contribute to the country.

McWilliams makes an important point here: one of the reasons why we should allow our emigrants to vote is that the vote serves as a vital link with home. We value the loyalty of our emigrants; allowing them a vote will reinforce that.

And we need all the help we can get: our message to our expats should be that we welcome their experience in the political realm as much as in the economic realm.

Irish Post calls for weekend election to facilitate recent emigrants

7 Jan

The London-based Irish Post has called for the upcoming general elections to be held on a weekend, to enable recent Irish emigrants to go home to vote.

The editorial first points out that there is no postal vote option for emigrants. Postal votes are reserved for the following:

  • Irish diplomats posted abroad
  • Members of the Garda Síochána
  • Full-time members of the Defence Forces,

and those who cannot get to a polling station because they

  • have a physical illness or disability
  • are studying full-time in Ireland away from home
  • are unable to vote at your polling station because of occupation
  • are unable to vote at your polling station due to imprisonment as a result of an order of a court.

As the Post says,

In other words, for practically all the newly-arrived emigrants from Ireland – tough luck.

These are desperate times for Ireland and our community must make it clear that all those forced to leave through the Government’s incompetence deserve a say in what happens next.

At the very minimum, the imminent General Election should be held at the weekend so that at least some of the newly arrived emigrants have a chance of returning home to vote.

My first thought was that this would be unsuitable anyway, since you need to be ordinarily resident to vote, but it is the case that you retain your resident status (and thus your vote) for 18 months if you have the intention to return to Ireland within that time. So a small number of emigrants would, in fact, be eligible to vote under such circumstances.

Read the article on the Irish Post website.

“Calls grow for election votes for Irish abroad”, says

7 Jan

The website picks up a Daily Mail article that appeared today. The Daily Mail article isn’t online, but the gives a good summary:

THE GOVERNMENT has faced fresh calls to allow Irish expatriates register to vote in the forthcoming general election, after it emerged that it shelved an official report recommending that Irish citizens be allowed to vote regardless of where they live.

Today’s Irish Daily Mail says that a report from the Oireachtas committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, commissioned in 2009 and which advocated that non-resident Irish citizens be given a vote in general elections, has been ‘mothballed’ by the state.

The article includes a few words from my quotes in the article:

Noreen Bowden of, which advocates voting rights for expatriates, said successive government hadn’t “seen it as a good thing to be able for people to be able to give their verdict on how the economy has been handled.”

Read the whole article on the website.