Category: Voting Reform

Voting Rights for Irish Emigrants –One Citizen, One Vote

Remarks of Senator Billy Lawless
London, October 15, 2018
VICA Meeting

Athchóirigh an Phoblacht.

I am delighted to here in London and would very much like to thank Prof. Mary Hickman and VICA for their invitation.

VICA has been a persistent and tenacious champion of voting rights for many years. I would like thank the -Irish in Britain and the London Irish Centre – two of the many organizations that have done so much over the years to support Irish emigrants.

I would like to particularly acknowledge the London ARC for its massive accomplishment in mobilizing Irish emigrants all over Great Britain, during the recent Referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment. It was an enormous success and showed the power of the civic community, and the determination of Irish men and women to make a difference. We have much to learn from the London ARC, on how they helped the “Together for Yes” coalition, put all the pieces together to build a winning strategy.

Over two years ago, I co-founded Voting Rights.ie with my colleagues Noreen Bowden and Kevin Sullivan and I hope that we can all work together to win this upcoming referendum on Voting Rights for Irish Emigrants.

Tonight I want to talk to about three things. First, the Government’s plans for the Referendum next year. Second, how I came to agree with the late Rev. Ian Paisley, Sr. And third – how our fight for our civil rights can restore the nation to what it was always meant to be – a Republic where every citizen is equal.

So first the Government’s plan: last week I met with John Paul Phelan, Minister of State for Local Government and Elector Reform. Minister Phelan assured me that the Taoiseach and the Government, were fully committed to holding a national Referendum. The date proposed is May 24, 2019, the same day as local elections and elections for the European Parliament. So May 24th is our day. Work is being progressed at Department level to initiate the development of the appropriate Constitutional Amendment Bill

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney and Minister for the Diaspora, Ciaran Cannon are very committed to getting this referendum over the line. They will do everything he can to secure a YES vote. So we have the Government’s support.

But I want to be very clear in saying that we will have to fight for every vote and for the third time in four years look to all of you to organize and expand the #HometoVote movement.

We will have to reach every family in Ireland who has a family member overseas and have a very sophisticated social media presence.

This will not be an easy campaign. We will have to put together a modern 21st century political campaign to overcome an old fashion 19th century attitude about who has the right to vote. An opposition will rise up and say we left Ireland, we don’t pay taxes, we aren’t connected to Ireland and if we vote in large numbers we will swamp the home vote. These are real concerns, however invalid the argument and we must be ready to counter them.

In the next nine months I will be campaigning to remind my fellow citizens about what emigrants have done for Ireland since the founding of the Republic.
Emigrants were in the GPO in 1916. Our remittances sustained Irish families during the lean years of the Irish economy. Irish emigrants like Niall O’Dowd helped persuade Bill Clinton to get involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

And Irish emigrants here in London, led the way in helping to win the last two national referendums. You organized, you campaigned, and you went home to vote. Emigrants have always been in forefront in the fight for equality and democracy in Ireland and now it is our time. We have been denied the vote for far too long.

Our opponents always seem to forget that Thomas Clarke, who was the heart and soul of the Revolution, was a returned Irish emigrant and also an American citizen. And they also want to forget that the founders of the Republic called for a government “elected by the suffrages of all her men and women” — not just a government elected by a small group of taxpayers.

So our demand for our rightful equality – to have our vote counted – goes back to the founding democratic principles of this nation. We want to fulfill the promise of the Proclamation. We want to restore the Republic. One Citizen. One Vote. Saoránach amháin, Vóta amháin. Athchóirigh an Phoblacht

A few weeks ago, as many of you know, Derry celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights march, which most observers agree was the start of the Troubles. President Higgins gave a very eloquent speech at Guild Hall and he spoke with about the “historical inequalities” including gerrymandering and the denial of vote that “all conspired against the fundamental democratic principle of one person, one vote.”

President Higgins when on to recount in his speech the extraordinary interview that Eamon Mallie had with the late Rev. Ian Paisley and how Mallie asked Dr. Paisley whether he thought the historic denial of ‘one person, one vote’ in Northern Ireland was fair, to which Paisley replied: ‘No… but that’s the way it was. The whole system was wrong, it wasn’t one man, one vote. I mean, that’s no way to run any country, there should be absolute freedom and there should be absolute liberty.’ Never in my life did I think I would ever agree with anything that Ian Paisley said, but for once I can agree with him – it’s no way to run a country.

Why are we – fifty years after the Civil Rights march in Derry – asking the very same questions that the marchers in Derry asked. When will we get our civil rights? When will we be allowed to vote?

According to the Government’s Option Paper, released in 2017 on voting rights for Irish emigrants, there are 1.73 million Irish citizens who are now living outside the State, including 750,000 Irish-born citizens. The rest are citizens by descent, living overseas and Irish citizens and passport holders in Northern Ireland, a number that continues to increase because of Brexit.

Why are we not allowed to vote?

Well geography seems to be defining the issue of Irish democracy. We’re not on the island or we’re on the wrong part of the island. One foot over the Border and you can’t vote. There are 96,000 Irish born citizens living in greater London making London a larger Irish city than Limerick and my home town of Galway. But you can’t vote either, you’re too far away!!

I am sure that many of you have been following the Presidential campaign back home and the issues that appear to be dominating this important campaign.

My question to the candidates and the media is; when will they get serious and talk about giving every citizen the right to vote in future Presidential elections and national referendums?

The entire political landscape of Ireland is about to undergo a profound transformation in the next twenty years driven by five factors: Brexit. The possibility of a united Ireland referendum in the next 20 years. Rising immigration. An increasing population – up one million by 2040 – And our demand that Irish citizens living overseas and in Northern Ireland be given the right to vote.

These are the issues that should be front and center in this Presidential campaign and before the Irish people. Talk about the big issues, the important issues; focus on the future of Ireland and the health and well-being of our democracy. Surely the candidates must have a view on the lack of voting rights for so many Irish citizens?

I would very much like to hear the candidates opinion about the many recommendations put forward by the most recent Citizens Assembly, in January, 2018 on election reform, including a whopping 83% support rate for absentee or postal voting, for Irish emigrants.

Our dilemma is that everyone in the current political system is quite content with it. Two years ago, the people of Ireland stood a little taller when we celebrated the Centennial but the political class skipped over the line in the Proclamation about “cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” That would be us; the orphans of Irish democracy.

The Irish State has very well established national planning process – Ireland 2040 – which was announced with great fanfare last February by the Taoiseach. This planning process covers almost every aspect of the Irish nation from basic infrastructure to education, health, the environment, housing, etc. and provides a strategic road map for the allocation of 116 billion Euro, to meet these established goals by 2040.

However, this national planning process has one glaring omission – the lack of any planning regarding the future of Irish democracy, the integrity of the voting process and election reform. We can’t have a Republic with two types of citizens – a first class with the right to vote, and a second class with no rights at all.

Just last week the government announced its new budget but I did not see any allocation for voting rights. What about investing in democracy and election reform?

As a nation we liked to think that we punch above our weight. A little island in the Atlantic, with a global reach, a roaring economy, plus we have the O’Donovan brothers and Sanita Puspure, winning gold medals for us. But did you know that Ireland is ranked #137 in the world when it comes to the integrity of our voting system – according to the global Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) – right alongside Ethiopia, Kenya and Honduras.

Our voting rolls are inaccurate, there is no absentee ballot and millions of Irish emigrants are denied the vote. Although we have an exclusive group of Alumni, from Trinity College and the National University of Ireland colleges, who have a postal vote, from anywhere in the world for Seanad elections. We call ourselves a Global Island so why not become a global leader when it comes to voting rights.

Irish emigrants are Irish wherever we are. Tá na Gaeilge i ngach áit. We are very proud to be Irish, and we love Ireland, whether we are in London, Brussels, Sydney or Chicago.

Many emigrants are planning to come home and they want to come back as equal citizens. And there is a very good reason why: emigrants lose their right vote at the departure lounge at Dublin Airport and when they return they face a battery of exclusionary laws and policies on the most basic of issues – getting a driver license, car insurance, job credentials, the education of their children and third level education fees. I am working in the Seanad to address many of these issues, but why not give those most affected a say too?

By returning to vote in the last two national referendums, those of you who were part of the #Home to Vote movement demonstrated your commitment to Ireland. So when will Ireland embrace her children? That is the question. Right now about 130 nations and territories allow their citizens to vote no matter where in the world they live. Ireland is not one of them. Ireland is increasingly out-of-step with the rest of the EU and with global democratic norms.

In 2014 the E.U. Commission stated that citizens “exercising their right to free movement, should not be disenfranchised at national elections” and just a few weeks ago the European Parliament took up the issue of voting rights and once again Ireland was cited for its poor voting mechanisms. The European Union has demonstrated again and again that it has Ireland’s back when it comes to Brexit. Surely it is time for Ireland to catch up with rest of Europe when it comes to voting rights.

This is an incredibly important moment in Irish history. And our fight follows in a long tradition. The fight in the GPO in 1916, the march in Derry in 1968, and our push for equality in 2015 and 2018 are all connected. One builds on the other. Equality for all – One Citizen, One Vote.
So in the months ahead, just like the civil rights advocates who marched in Derry fifty years ago carrying signs reading “One Man, One Vote,” I will be appealing to my fellow Irish citizens – to their sense of fair play, decency and commitment to equality – to advance the democratic principle of “One Citizen, One Vote” to give all Irish citizens, including emigrants the right to vote.
So please come home to vote next year. Book your flights. And in doing so we can make Ireland the Republic we want it to be – a nation that cherishes all of her children equally.
Saoránach amháin, Vóta amháin. Athchóirigh an Phoblacht. Go raibh maith agat.