600,000 French expats voted for their president. Why can’t I do the same?

The French election showed how Ireland could do emigrant voting, writes Barry Dunning in Sydney

The lines snaked out the door and out into the autumn sun at the Lycée Condorcet in Sydney's eastern suburbs last Sunday, as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen lined up to cast their votes in a momentous presidential election. Centrist Emmanuel Macron won a resounding victory and will shortly be sworn in as the next president of the Republic of France, comprehensively defeating the queen of the far right, Marine Le Pen.

Globally, about 600,000 expatriate French voted in the election, with Macron receiving almost 90 per cent of these expat votes, according to official statistics.

While there was much celebration over the comprehensive defeat of Le Pen, simply being able to vote while living in another country would be a cause for celebration for this Irish emigrant in Australia.

I remember with pride the #hometovote campaign and celebrations in 2015 for the marriage equality referendum, which demonstrated how so many of those who had left still cared deeply about their home and its future. It was a profound statement, both of civic engagement and the extent to which modern emigration is different from that of the past.


Connected to home

Hundreds of thousands of us left, flying to all corners of the globe, after the 2008 crash. Through Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and the proliferation of other communication technologies, we have been able to stay intimately connected to home.

We get the photos and videos sent in real time of the weddings, the nights out and the Christmas tree lights. We can stream Mass or the local GAA live. We can stay engaged in everyday Ireland in a way that simply wasn't available to previous generations.

But while Ireland now has a Minister for the Diaspora, and last week’s Global Irish Civic Forum in Dublin brought emigrant organisations together to discuss current issues and concerns, little has been achieved by official Ireland for “generation emigration”.

France is by no means an outlier when it comes to voting rights for emigrants. As a dual Irish-Australian citizen, I can vote in Australian elections for up to six years while living outside the country. Even the United States, which has developed a reputation for repressive voter ID laws in some States, allows its citizens to vote while living abroad.

More than 130 nations around the world now have similar provisions. But not Ireland – we are an exception to the global norm.

Love for diaspora

The Ireland I grew up in during the 1980s and 1990s talked a good game about its love for the global diaspora, particularly the Irish men and women who’d made homes in the US over many generations. But this rarely extended beyond an invitation to come spend your tourist dollars in the town where your family emigrated from, or to raise a toast to the old country on St Patrick’s Day.

Fast forward to 2017 and you could be forgiven for thinking little has changed.

There was welcome news from Simon Coveney at the Global Irish Civic Forum last week that the Government is considering a "referendum day" in 2018, when proposed amendments to the constitution around emigrant voting and repeal of the eighth amendment could be decided on.

But the vote that is potentially on offer to emigrants, should the referendum pass, is far from the full franchise enjoyed by French or American expats, who can vote in parliamentary elections also; Irish emigrants would be entitled to vote only for the president.

Even if this modest referendum is put to a vote, I and many other emigrants will still be denied a say; having lived outside the country for more than 18 months, we can’t legally cast a ballot in a referendum. Once again we’ll be cheering from the sidelines, encouraging people via social media and text to use their vote.

Special relationship

Politicians from all sides love to talk a good game about the special relationship Ireland shares with the overseas Irish; never more so than while on St Patrick's Day jaunts in Sydney, New York or Rio de Janeiro. But the reality has never matched the rhetoric.

When Chicago-based Billy Lawless was appointed to the Seanad last year, he became spokesman for arguably the largest constituency of all: the diaspora. But he was not elected by the diaspora itself.

Properly enfranchising Irish citizens across the world and giving them political representation would send a powerful message about how the Irish State values its diaspora. The idea that the electorate would be “swamped” by emigrant votes ignores the experience of all those other countries globally that have enfranchised their overseas citizens.

The full franchise could be time limited in some way, like the six years after leaving offered by Australia, or even the 15 years proposed by former Labour TD Gerry O’Sullivan all the way back in 1991. There are plenty of solutions available to a Government willing to be brave.

It’s time we looked to the French example of how to provide “égalité” to Irish citizens abroad, by extending us the right to vote no matter where we are living on election day. Now that would be something we could toast with a glass of French champagne.