Posted by: geoffoconnor | September 5, 2011

How Do We Keep the Diaspora Interested? A Discussion

The Outpost will be operating this week in conjunction with the upcoming conference ‘Diaspora Strategies: Encouragement, Evolution and Engagement’. Consequently we will be dealing with all things Diaspora. This post will hopefully open a discussion on a contentious issue, diaspora voting rights.

This is an issue which was raised in Colum Kenny’s opinion piece ‘A mean farewell to our lost generation’ published in the Sunday Independent. In the piece Colum touches on a subject close to many Irish people’s hearts, emigration. He suggests that the government and business are doing little to help connect Irish emigrants with their home country and that often their final memories of the island are bitter (due in part to baggage charges). In the piece Colum calls on mobile phone companies to make small concessions on roaming costs and for Airlines to make an exception in relation to excess baggage charges for people who are emigrating. Colum also claims that the closure of the Irish Post in Britain is a ‘sad reminder’ of how the diaspora is being neglected.

Both suggestions seem reasonable however; the issue of roaming charges is avoidable thanks to Skype. The suggestion, on the part of Colum, that the closing of the Irish Post in Britain is somehow reflective of a lack of support for the diaspora in the UK fails to recognise the universal decline of print media and the growth of new media as the primary source of communication globally. For example the website, a social media website, provides a point of contact inside and outside the diaspora.

However, all these suggestions are only supportive to Colum’s primary recommendation, that the Irish diaspora be given a vote abroad. Colum is not alone in proposing a vote for the Irish diaspora this is an issue which has received widespread support. Unfortunately, the disadvantages of such a policy outweigh the advantages.

Colum cites the United States as an example of a country where this policy is implemented. Although it is true that American citizens abroad can vote, America’s situation differs greatly to Ireland’s. The numbers of citizens who live abroad as opposed to the within US boarders is fractional. The ratio of Irish citizens abroad to those at home is not comparable. The people who actually live in the country could have their voices significantly diluted.

But perhaps this is not what Colum is suggesting; perhaps what he is calling for is for Irish citizens abroad to have the vote and not those who have looser ties to the nation. However, this is also problematic because now we have to define who is Irish enough to receive a vote and who isn’t. This could potentially damage the diaspora as whole. At the moment a person who emigrates from Ireland and arrives in New York is part of the same diaspora as the Irish-American who claims his heritage from a great-grandparent. If we began to define levels of Irishness this could disillusion many people who claim membership and do irreparable damage to the wider diaspora.

While I commend Colum for engaging with a timely issue and making real suggestions, voting rights for the diaspora is not the answer. So what is the answer?  How best can we support and develop the Irish Diaspora? That is the purpose of the upcoming conference, real policies and strategies. I will have a full answer for you next week. To be continued



  1. As one of the conference delegates, I do hope that this post doesn’t imply that the topic of votes for citizens abroad will be ruled out of order for discussion this weekend! While I take the point about the possible creation of intra-diaspora tensions between those entitled to a vote, and those who are not, I think that any possible damage that this might potentially cause would prove minimal compared to the ongoing damage that turning a blind eye to the democratic right of citizens abroad for representation is causing in terms of nationstate-diaspora solidarity. While votes for citizens abroad is not a panacea, it is a necessary part of a multifaceted and nuanced approach to diaspora engagement.

    Also, while I appreciate the sentiment inherent in the claim that “a person who emigrates from Ireland and arrives in New York is part of the same diaspora as the Irish-American who claims his heritage from a great-grandparent”, I’m slightly concerned that this perpetuates an illusion within Irish policy-making that the diaspora can be treated as a single, homogenous “70 million strong” group of people. Diaspora fundamentally implies heterogeneity, and is as much a process of identification as it is an imagined community of people. As such engagement requires multiple strategies, rather than a “one size fits all” approach. Democratic engagement with those Irish citizens who maintain transnational political orientations, alongside other strategies to engage those who may identify with the nation, but not the polity, would demonstrate that Ireland is, at last, beginning to understand what ‘diaspora’ actually is.

  2. The notion that we need to keep disenfranchising our citizens in order to avert intradiasporal friction is a most curious one! I appreciate its novelty, but I agree with Marc’s points wholeheartedly. I’ve never heard a single fourth-generation Irish-American seeking the right to vote in an Irish election, but I know plenty of Irish emigrants who feel aggrieved that they have no say in policies that can affect them in many ways.

    Most people don’t consider how emigrants are affected by political decisions made at home, but you only need look at the thousands of returning emigrants denied social welfare under the habitual residence condition to know that Irish people living abroad are disadvantaged through having no vote. Irish people abroad who want to return are affected by decisions around the economy, social welfare, pensions, spousal immigration, and every thing else that will affect the future lives of people in this country. Irish citizens who intend to stay abroad can be affected by decisions on consular representation, diaspora policy, taxation, and foreign policy. As a voter in Ireland, it’s not likely you think about how your decisions affect citizens overseas; that doesn’t mean your actions have no consequences for them.

    As for the idea that it would be problematic to “define who is Irish enough to receive a vote and who isn’t”, that’s already been done, and the answer has left us with just about the most exclusive voting system in the developed world. Nearly half of Ireland’s own citizens are not “Irish enough” to receive a vote.

    I think a more nuanced understanding of the diaspora is needed overall, as illustrated by your point about the Irish Post. I’m no expert on the Irish Post, but it seems likely that a disproportionate number of its readers are from an older generation, the type of people who will not be using social media for their news. It’s a community fixture that serves a generation to whom much is owed. Blithe comments that they can turn to (a good website that has itself been in decline for most of the last decade) will do them no good.

    With the announcement of its closure I have been wondering myself about the irony that while Ireland continues to appeal to its diaspora for help, when it’s the diaspora that needs assistance, Ireland can be pretty slow to reply. (Notwithstanding the strides that were made in the last decade, as Ireland stepped up to the plate with additional funding for welfare agencies abroad to recognise its debt to our emigrants – I feel like we should stick the words of the Task Force on Emigration, “We owe much to our emigrants” up on a big bronze plaque in every city and town in Ireland as a reminder!) But there are many ways in which the old model still holds true: when Ireland is in need, it holds its hands out to the diaspora. Now it’s all about sophisticated economic engagement, with business networking, tourism promotion, foreign direct investment, etc, but it comes down to the same thing. We need help, and we know the Irish abroad will not be found wanting.

    A friend of mine once described Ireland’s attitude to the diaspora most succinctly: “Send money and shut up”. I believe this is only part of the story, and I do think that there are plenty of people who genuinely want to engage with the diaspora in a way that will be of real mutual benefit, but I think we need to realise that disenfranchisement isn’t good enough any more. All over the world, nations are granting political rights to their overseas citizens; the number of nations who don’t allow their overseas citizens to vote is shrinking by the month. Today’s emigrants are more aware than ever before that Ireland’s policies on emigrant voting rights are more restrictive than almost any other developed nation. How much longer can we test their loyalty by asking them to tolerate this?

    I find it curious that someone who seeks economic engagement with the diaspora sees no virtue whatsoever in political engagement. What is your motivation for this engagement?

  3. Thank you both for you contributions. As you have rightly pointed out voting rights for citizens abroad is a complicated issue and goes far beyond the short discussion which I posted. I was hoping this post would spark a discussion and it certainly has.

    The debate needs to be developed further. The extension of voting rights, whilst a particular strong form of diaspora engagement through representation, is one of mutliple options. This remains a key distinction in the debate; what we are talking about is diaspora engagement through representation not representation through engagement. They are two very different processes with different motivations (a key issue in formulating strategy as pointed to by Noreen), expectations, and outputs for all involved. In defining what the terms of engagement [sounds very militaristic!] are, then you can leverage which option(s) of engagement is most suitable. Voting rights, may or may not be, part of that process in terms of representation. What we can say is that they are obviously an option but there are very hard questions that need to be asked by both government and diaspora alike before any programme can be implemented. This is true for Ireland, and elsewhere. Finally, one must never lose sight as Marc correctly asserts, there is no one size fits all model This is certainly a very interesting topic one which people feel very passionately about.

    Marc I know you will be attending the conference and I am looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts. Noreen I hope you will be able to make it, you can find all the details on from link above.

  4. Hi Geoff, I would absolutely love to be there but I’ve come to Boston for a year to do an MPA at Harvard. I think the conference looks great though and I’m really sorry I can’t make it! Will you be showing it on the web?

    As for the debate on voting rights, it’s really well under way. Every political parties paid at least lip service to the issue in the last election, with several making promises on the issue. (I wrote about it at the time- And just today Michael D. Higgins was over in London saying that he believed emigrant voting rights in presidential elections for a limited time should be considered. (He said he was being non-prescriptive due to the nature of the presidency). Fine Gael had promised to experiment with emigrant voting rights in presidential elections, but seems to have forgotten that upon taking office, although Simon Coveney has suggested we’ll be seeing a referendum on the issue in 2012.

    I’ve been advocating emigrant voting rights for quite some time (and am committed to continue doing so), and I’m actually very eager to look at the hard questions. I think the future of our relationship with this generation of emigrants really depends on it. Few of the old arguments hold any weight any more: in the past, emigrant voting was often dismissed by the establishment as a radical concept, while today it’s clearly an emerging democratic norm. People used to be able to make the argument that it was difficult to stay informed, and that’s clearly not true anymore. People still try to argue that emigrants are unaffected by decisions made at home, but I think that there’s no better refutation of that than the thousands of returning emigrants I’ve already mentioned who have been refused social welfare under the Habitual Residence Condition (along with the other policies I also highlighted above). And finally, the bogeyman of the North has receded, and with it the fear (unfounded, according to the two mock elections that were held in the 1990s and in the last election) that the overseas vote would be dominated by radical elements.

    I think the key is in working out the balance between the rights of resident and non-resident citizens. Currently, the situation is imbalanced: we want to place responsibility on our emigrants to help us out economically, while refusing them any political rights. And we ignore the effect that our laws have on our overseas citizens. They need a voice, and in a political system based on democratic principles, there is no voice without a vote.

    I would like to see a debate on whether the vote should be based on constituency of last residence or on some kind of geographic constituency based on current residence. We also need to debate whether the vote should be time-limited or whether it should be based on the principle of citizenship (I oppose time limits, as I believe the vote should be based on the principle of citizenship – and, secondarily, to exclude older generations from voting would be a slap in the face to those to whom we owe a tremendous debt.) We should also debate which elections (local, general, presidential, European, referenda) our overseas citizens should be allowed vote in. I’m totally up for tough questions.

    Because for me, the overriding question is this: Can we seriously talk about a relationship with our overseas citizens in the 21st century and try to leave voting rights off the table? This is just not reasonable to me – and this situation is headed in just one direction. Emigrant voting has rapidly become the global norm, our own emigrants’ awareness of this fact will only grow in the future, and we won’t be able to maximise our economic relationship with the Irish abroad if we keep trying to stamp down their political aspirations.

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