Out of sight, out of mind; Irish emigrants have no election voice

Rowan Gillespie's famine and emigration memorial in Dublin. Photo: Andrea_F on flickr

Many Irish citizens, freshly edged out of Ireland by the economic downturn, will be denied a vote in next week’s elections.

To vote in an Irish election you must be legally resident in Ireland. There is no facility for ex-pats to vote from abroad. Only emigrants who can prove they will return to Ireland permanently, within 18 months, retain the legal right to vote, and the only way to do so is by traveling home. The cost, both financial and in terms of time, is often prohibitive.

One such emigrant who will be returning is Oisin Merrins, a 22-year-old Dubliner who came to London last September. “It really bothers me,” he admits, “In a way it suggests that by emigrating you are renouncing any kind of say in how Ireland is governed – that it’s no longer your business; it no longer concerns you.”

In 110 countries around the world, emigrating citizens don’t have to forsake the  right to vote but arguments against reform still hold sway in Ireland. Many believe the size of the Irish Diaspora would lead to alarming misrepresentation, but the most common argument against emigrant voting is that they don’t actually have to live under the government they may help to elect.

Noreen Bowden, a campaigner for migrant voting rights, disagrees. She points out that it is poor governance that has forced many Irish people to leave Ireland in search of employment and security. Perversely, it is precisely this exile that denies them the voice to redress the political establishment that has forced them from their home shores.

“The notion that overseas citizens are not affected by governmental decisions at home is false,” she says. “Irish people living abroad will be affected by economic decisions that may affect the possibility of their return in the future, particularly the current generation of emigrants, who hope to only be away for a short time. They should be able to keep a stake in their future, and to retain a vote in decisions that may affect it.”

“It’s a very naïve notion to suggest that simply leaving the country cuts all ties. These decisions can have devastating effects on people’s lives.” In particular, she refers to the ‘habitual residence’ conditions for claiming welfare. A term that is not defined in Irish or European law. Its vagaries and application have left many returning emigrants out in the cold when they most needed support.

Somhairle Ó Meachair. a 28-year-old Co. Down native recently returned to Dublin after 6 months in London, spent gaining a qualification and work experience in London. After multiple job applications and only one unsuccessful interview, Ó Meachair applied for Jobseekers Support, in a process complicated by his time in London.

“I was told the residence forms are mainly for foreign nationals and to help combat fraudsters, however I am an Irish citizen. Three months later I am still waiting for an answer, and I’ve been told it could take a further three months to process my application. That’s six months waiting for help.”

Having no income has meant sleep loss and occasions when he hasn’t had enough money to buy food, or pay rent. An application for emergency support was again met with Habitual Residence forms, which delayed payment by a week.

Ó Meachair has already decided to return to England in the coming weeks, where he will join fellow emigrants growing increasingly wary of the ‘official’ Irish welcome should they too decide to return.

For those who don’t leave, the mantra: “I’m staying” has taken on an important relevance, boosting both the morale and sense of community in a nation that has been torn apart by emigration in the past. However it also sometimes blossoms into accusations of fair-weather citizenship, aimed at those who leave to find security and return on polling day.

From a root sentiment that hopes to bind communities together, a divide appears. While often ignoring the very material reasons many young people have had to emigrate, it also exacerbates a growing disenfranchisement.

Merrins definitely feels this sense of disenfranchisement: “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the government expects a great deal of people to emigrate in order to alleviate some of the pressure on the state’s resources. The projected figures for emigration are positioned alongside austerity measures in statements from the Dept of Finance, as remedies to the budget deficit.”

Those figures were recently updated by the Economic and Social Research Institute, now suggesting 50,000 people will emigrate in 2011, with a projected further 50,000 leaving the following year. As things stand, their relationship to their homeland will possibly be a troubled one, with Merrins for one, suspecting a pattern of begrudgery towards the “fair-weather citizens, who hadn’t toughed it out like the rest.”

Fond memories of home are still strong for new emigrants, but Bowden warns against relying on this nostalgia for the revenue that the Irish abroad drive back into Ireland, typically through family remittances or far reaching business networks. “We need to stop thinking of our diaspora as a resource that can be harnessed to work for us and exploited as we please.” she insists.

“Realistically, Ireland can’t expect the same level of loyalty from expats in the future if we refuse to give them any say. In the modern world, expats expect to keep their votes when they go. We can’t keep asking for financial help and then tell them they needn’t concern themselves with us at election time.”

There’s little doubt that Irish emigrants miss their homes, their families, friends and the comfort of their own culture. When it comes down to it though, does Ireland miss her emigrants?

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