Extending voting rights to Irish citizens abroad for presidential elections speech

Speech by Senator Billy Lawless at Global Civic Forum 

Good morning. I am honoured to represent the Global Irish. We have a world-wide constituency of 1.73 million citizens.

First, by allowing emigrants to vote, we have the possibility of creating a third historic opportunity to expand the franchise. The first expansion of the franchise came in the 19th Century, when Daniel O’Connell ensured Catholics got the vote. The second expansion came in 1916.

At the core of the 1916 Rising was a demand for equal rights and equal citizenship. And as a result of the revolution everyone over the age of 21 – both men and women –got to vote by 1923 – 1.7 million citizens voted. So the revolution was a success; politically we had become a more equal society.

But in the intervening decades, Ireland has lost its way and has become a less equal society. We now have a three tier system of citizenship.

Voters in the Republic are first class citizens, who get to vote. Citizens living off the island are second class citizens, and cannot vote. And then there are – of course – the Irish citizens in the North of Ireland, several hundred thousand, just over the border who have Irish passports, but they are not allowed to vote either. They represent the third class.

As a result of this 3 tier voting system, Ireland is now out of step with the majority of it’s EU neighbours, and 130 other democracies around the world, that already allow their emigrants to vote.

In my opinion, our voting laws and regulations are no longer fit for purpose. Emigration has vastly changed. The relationship between Irish emigrants and Ireland has also changed dramatically. Emigrants come and go, and they are totally tuned into what is happening here in Ireland.

I believe this current 3 tier system of citizenship is undemocratic, unequal and does not meet the inclusive principles of equality that define the Irish Constitution.

And the ultimate problem with this 3 tier system is this, – if you don’t vote – you don’t count – and if you don’t count, you have no influence on the policies that have a direct impact, on the millions of emigrants living overseas, including those that create real roadblocks for those who want to come home.

In my opinion if you’re a citizen, you’re a citizen.

So I was very pleased when the Constitutional Convention recommended, that all Irish citizens be allowed to vote in the future, for the President of Ireland. And I was very pleased, that the Taoiseach took the next step, and called for a Constitutional referendum.

So now we have to give our best advice to the government on the wording of the Constitution.

I believe very strongly, that we need to put forward a Constitutional Amendment that is inclusive, and reflects recommendations of the Constitutional Convention.

In my opinion Option 2.2.1 is the best option – it reflects my opinion, that if you’re a citizen – you’re a citizen. You’re not a half citizen, a second class citizen or a third class citizen. And the most basic right and duty of a citizen, is to vote and that’s what we want to do.

Now, this is not going to be easy. We only have one shot at getting this across the line, to get the support of Irish voters. There is no guarantee. Referendums are historically a dicey thing here in Ireland.

We need to reassure and bring Irish public opinion along, and I will need your help to do that. You have to mobilize the Irish emigrant community, to use all of their connections back home, to win the vote.

We need to build on the work of groups around the world, like VICA and #Gettheboat2vote, that have worked so hard to secure the vote over the last few years.

The 1.73 million emigrants overseas all have families and friends here at home, and who need to vote YES on Referendum Day.

So we need a world-wide grass roots campaign. We need emigrants calling home, and emigrants coming home by the thousands, to help us WIN this referendum. We can make this happen with your help.

I am also greatly concerned, that 240,000 young Irish citizens that left Ireland because of the recession, are becoming another lost generation of voters. Let’s get these young people back, and let’s get them voting.

It’s time for Ireland to catch up with our E.U. neighbours, and the rest of the world’s democracies, and modernize our voting system. It’s time to give us the vote.

Next year will be the centenary of women getting the right to vote in 1918 – for expanding the franchise. I look forward to celebrating that centenary but let’s also celebrate winning this referendum as well.

Last night we saw a wonderful video on Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The video ended stating “Ireland is ready for the World”.

So my question is this – Is Ireland ready for us emigrant citizens?

So let me conclude. I listen to all my colleagues in the Dáil and the Seanad, and I always hear them complaining about the apathy of voters when they go door to door.

Well, my constituents – all l.73 million of them – are Irish, where ever they are, and they are passionate about gaining the vote. They care about Ireland. They love Ireland. They want the best for Ireland’s future, just like all of you.

So to the emigrants of Ireland, whether you’re in London, New York or off in Australia, now is the time to come together and get organized.

Now is the time, to at long last become first class citizens by winning this referendum.
And to the people of Ireland we say;

Tabhair dúinn an vóta – Give us the Vote.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh.