should be given
a political voice
Anita Toolan in Dublin
Entire college classes emigrating upon graduation, tearful post-Christmas airport departures, west of Ireland communities devastated by the loss of their young people…
Headline-grabbing stories from Ireland's last recession in the 1980s, and a time when the only opportunity for many to carve out a living for themselves existed outside of our shores. A time when up to 50,000 people left annually and throughout the whole decade we haemorrhaged almost 10% of our total population. It was also a time that was well and truly behind us – or so we were told by politicians during the booming Celtic Tiger years.
Yet, three decades on from the last recession, we are once again faced with the prospect of many of our young people leaving in search of a new life abroad. The generation that we were assured would not be forced to emigrate are now following in the footsteps of older siblings, aunts and uncles and leaving to work in London, New York, Sydney and the host of other locations which have become magnets for Irish emigrants. An estimated 40,000
left in the year up to April 2011 and it is expected that this number will rise over the coming years.
Somehow it seems our policy-makers and politicians are remarkably accepting about such a loss of so many – the people that it invested so heavily in educating, in training, and who should be so vital to re-building our broken economy. Of course, they can argue that their leaving is part of the process of a global brain circulation and a consequence of living in an increasingly globalised world. They can console themselves in the knowledge that many will embrace the opportunity to live in another culture; that they will build their economic capital and hopefully some day return.
But perhaps the reality of this acceptance is a little less benign – perhaps, because the state has never extended the vote to our emigrant population, the state has never been accountable to them. Our emigrants have never had the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction or otherwise with their situation and the forces behind their 'decision' to leave. Indeed, it could be argued that their emigration has lessened the degree of social unrest in society and has allowed job creation to slip down the political agenda.
However, as the country faces yet another wave of emigration, we can no longer justify the disenfranchisement of our emigrant population from the political process. The economic contribution of emigrants to Ireland continues to be huge – in terms of tourism, business links and investments. Ireland was only too quick to call on the power of the diaspora when it convened the Global Economic Forum in September 2009 to try to come up with solutions to the current economic crisis – a call which many successful Irish were only too happy to respond to.
We know from the experience of other countries that it is possible to organise the registration and polling of votes through consulates and embassies around the world.
Politically, emigrants and their descendants have played an important role in building political and business networks and made a contribution so great in bringing peace to our island that our constitution was changed in recognition of their role. If we have learned anything from our last recession, it is that returning emigrants could have a vital role to play in rebuilding our international reputation and restoring our economic growth.
Arguments used in the past against extending the franchise relating to logistical issues, cost or a misinformed electorate no longer hold weight. The current wave of emigrants are far more connected to Ireland than previous times – through the internet, Skype and social media. And although emigration has only increased substantially in the last three years, already a group of individuals have organised on the ballotbox.ie website calling for the extension of the vote. In a symbolic vote organised on the website at the time of the presidential election, the winner was the same as that chosen by the electorate at home – Michael D Higgins.
We know from the experience of other countries that it is possible to organise the registration and polling of votes through consulates and embassies around the world. Although a far from ideal solution, it would at least serve emigrants in areas where there are large concentrations of Irish abroad.
Exactly who the vote could be extended to would be a very topical issue given that over one million persons born in Ireland live abroad. At a minimum, we should grant the vote to those citizens who had been habitually resident in Ireland before emigrating. However, given that emigrants are less likely to have a direct connection with local and national issues after a number of years and are less likely to return home the longer they stay abroad, the right to vote should be time-limited. The United Kingdom extends the vote to its emigrants for 15 years and this would also be a reasonable time limit in the Irish case.
The extension of the vote would be an acknowledgement of emigrants' contribution and assistance to the state.
It would be a means of giving our emigrants a voice in political decision- making. It would also encourage a sense of connection with those whole college classes which once again are emigrating and which we hope will some day come back. But perhaps more than that – it would serve as a warning to our politicians that although they may have left, our emigrants cannot be forgotten.
Anita Toolan delivered this award-winning paper at the recent Young UK and Ireland Programme final organised by the Scottish Review team. She works for the the Department of Justice and Equality, Ireland.