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    Submission to DFAT’s Foreign Policy Review

    By Noreen Bowden | February 17, 2014

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently conducting a Foreign Policy Review, including a review of diaspora strategy. I submitted the following to the Review earlier this month, stressing the need for democratic engagement of Ireland’s citizens abroad and the effects of disenfranchisement on overseas citizens.


    While Ireland seeks to be a leader in terms of its diaspora strategy, the issue of democratic  representation is one in which Ireland lags – and with increasing numbers of states giving its expats votes, Ireland’s omission in this regard is all the more glaring. Irish and international attention to this deficit is likely to continue to grow, particularly with the recent EU Commission’s recommendations to the five member states, Ireland included, that restrict the voting rights of nationals who leave the country to live, work and/or study abroad.

    Ireland’s overseas citizens are tied to the state in ways that can have powerful effects on their lives. There is insufficient attention paid to policies that affect emigrants – and this is both a cause and a consequence of Ireland’s refusal to allow emigrants a role in the apolitical process. Citizens can frequently be affected by policy decision in ways that can be life-altering, and there is far too little recognition of these effects by politicians, policy-makers and the wider public.

    With no representatives to speak for them, the interests of overseas citizens remain uncrystallised and unarticulated, and the population of citizens at home has little awareness of and no reason to respond to them. Paradoxically, while opponents of emigrant voting declare that giving emigrants the vote would give overseas citizens the right to make decisions that do not affect them, the effects of at-home political decisions on overseas citizens are almost never discussed.

    The policies that affect citizens overseas are numerous.  For those who are planning to return, these include, but are not limited to:

    • Economic policies – The rates of emigration and return migration tend to correlate with unemployment levels. A well-functioning economy, with relatively low unemployment rates, will be a necessity to enable the large-scale return that many of today’s emigrants are hoping for.
    • Social welfare policies – Emigrants have been adversely affected by the way in which the Habitual Residence Condition has been implemented. Despite pre-implementation assurances that returning emigrants would not be adversely affected by the condition, thousands of emigrants have been prevented from obtaining assistance such as job-seekers’ and carers’ allowances.
    • Education policies – Returning emigrants are affected by residency policies that determine pricing for third-level education, as well as placement in schools at younger ages.
    • Spousal immigration legislation – Emigrants are affected by legislation that will affect their ability to return with their spouses or civil partners and families.

    Policies that may affect emigrants whether they plan to return or not include:

    • Taxation – Irish people who leave the country may be subject to several forms of tax. Anyone who is a homeowner must pay the relevant taxes, and people who retain money in Irish banks or pension funds are also subject to tax.
    • Emigrant support budget – This budget provides funding for organisations working with Irish communities abroad, particularly the vulnerable and elderly among them.
    • Broadcasting policy – Broadcasting policy affects whether emigrants have access to national stations from abroad. This is a particular issue for the Irish in the UK, who have been adversely affected by decisions made in recent years regarding both television and radio broadcasting.
    • Contributory pension levels – Many overseas citizens are entitled to the contributory pension based on payments they made while working in Ireland. They are affected by adjustments in the level of payment and eligibility requirements.
    • Consular service levels – Overseas citizens will at times require the protection of Ireland in the form of consular services. They may be adversely and disproportionately affected by cutbacks in consular staffing and embassy closure, or otherwise affected by decisions made concerning the level of support given both generally to citizens overseas and in individual cases. Consular protection levels can affect the convenience of citizens seeking to avail of everyday services like passport renewal, the welfare of those in legal trouble abroad, and the  safety of overseas citizens in times of crisis in their host countries.
    • Descendent and spousal citizenship – Changes have been made to limit the right for overseas citizens to pass on citizenship to descendants or gain citizenship through marriage, and those citizens most affected by this decision have had no say.
    • Diaspora strategy – Irish people living abroad are strongly affected by policies regarding diaspora outreach and communications; funding of cultural and networking organisations abroad; economic engagement and other matters.

    Currently, Irish citizens living abroad have no right to representation on any of these issues, and this has potentially detrimental effects on those living abroad. These issues and any ensuing detrimental effects will be unrecognized as long as they have no voice in the political system.

    Current structures that allow for dialogue between Ireland and the diaspora tend to privilege the most successful among the diaspora. Initiatives such as the Global Irish Network and the Global Irish Economic Forum have an important role to play in engaging successful overseas citizens to work on behalf of Ireland – but one of the great strengths of the Irish community overseas has always been in the loyalty present at the grass-roots level, and by the way people at all socio-economic levels have engaged in developing the relationship between Ireland and the diaspora. There is a need for a broader, two-way communication that can only be provided through democratic channels, where the voices and concerns of all citizens can be heard and addressed.

    While there have been many proposals for votes for emigrants in Presidential elections and the Seanad (and these are important and welcome), it is clear that Dáil votes are necessary to adequately address the issues affecting Irish emigrants. Dedicated representatives for overseas constituencies in the Dáil would be the most effective way of ensuring the democratic rights of all Irish citizens abroad. Because all Irish citizens are bound by the constitution, votes in referenda are also essential. To ensure proper representation at European level, Ireland also needs to facilitate the vote of Irish citizens living abroad for MEPs.

    With the renewal of large-scale emigration, an increasing desire on Ireland’s part to engage its communities abroad economically, a well-connected citizenry, and a changing international climate in which democratic participation of overseas citizens is the norm, there is clearly a need for the Irish government to reexamine the laws that disenfranchise its citizens on the day they emigrate.

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