I was born in Ireland, grew up in Ireland, love Ireland, and left Ireland. In this sequence, I am hardly alone. "Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop," President John F Kennedy said when he visited his ancestral homeland in June 1963, "but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people." So it has been since the 17th Century, and the rate today is 1,000 a week, amounting in 2012 to 50,000-plus emigrants from an island of 6.3 million – 4.58 million in the Republic, 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.
Like most who leave, I was forced to leave to make a living. Unlike the great majority who left in the past, many of those who emigrate these days are entrepreneurs who give back to Ireland, bringing new businesses and investments. I am among these. I live today in Atlanta, Georgia, where I am chairman of the global recruitment firm I founded. But I invest in Ireland, I have set up businesses in Ireland, I pay Irish taxes, and I employ local people. Some of my countrymen know me as an investor panelist on RTE's Dragons' Den. I am by birth, by law, and by desire an Irish citizen. Yet I do not have a vote in America or in Ireland.
As of 1998, Article 2 of the Irish Constitution declares, it is "the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation". Article 2 goes on to proclaim the nation's "special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage". Irish law essentially allows anyone with an Irish-born citizen grandparent to claim Irish citizenship. Great-grandchildren as well as descendants of Irish emigrants may also claim citizenship, provided the parent through whom they trace descent was registered in the Foreign Births Register before the descendant was born. Although the Irish diaspora is currently estimated at some 70 million, the number of those eligible to claim citizenship stands at about 3.1 million, of which at least 800,000 and possibly somewhat more than a million are Irish born.
No right of citizenship is more fundamental than the right to vote. Yet these three million-plus Irish citizens are denied that right. This puts Ireland in a shrinking minority among nations, some 115 of which (according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) give the vote to some or all of their external citizens.
Many of those who oppose Irish emigrant voting rights argue that emigrants neither deserve nor need the vote because they are not affected by decisions made in Ireland. On the contrary, they are profoundly affected in several ways. A 2012 Irish Times survey reported that, while most emigrants have prospered abroad, 72 per cent are eager to return to Ireland if and when economic circumstances permit. Without a vote, however, they have no voice in determining Irish economic policies, which may evolve to encourage, discourage, enable, or even prohibit their return. On such issues as spousal immigration laws and social welfare for returning emigrants, current emigrants are also without voice. While many of us pay taxes to Ireland (typically related to home ownership and rental income, as well as other business taxes), there are proposals afoot for emigrants to pay all taxes required of resident citizens under pain of losing their citizenship. Yet such proposals do not include any provision to extend the franchise and thus avoid "taxation without representation". Finally, many emigrants are entitled to contributory pensions, payable to them regardless of residence. Yet they have no voice in national policy decisions affecting them.
More basically, emigrants are given no voice in the most profound constitutional decisions that shape Ireland. For example, in the October referendum on the proposal to abolish the Seanad, millions of citizens will have no say.
Admittedly, there is another – more compelling – argument against extending the franchise to emigrants. It is the fear that the non-resident vote will swamp the resident vote. Is this fear justified? In 2011, a mock online election open to emigrants yielded results very similar to those officially returned in the emigrants' home constituencies. In fact, if the recent Mexican experience is any indication, Irish resident voters have little reason to be concerned. Mexicans fought very hard to get the right for Mexicans living in the US to vote in the Mexican presidential election, yet of the 12 million who live in the States, only 42,000 voted. While it may be true that many undocumented residents probably feared that if they showed up to vote they would be deported, we can expect that comparatively few Irish ex-pats would actually take advantage of the vote were it given to them.
On the basis of both history and the future, extending the franchise nevertheless becomes even more imperative. Historically, the Irish nation has been defined significantly by the millions of people it has given to the world, people who lived outside of Ireland, who raised families outside of Ireland, who made their mark outside of Ireland, but who never renounced their ties to the Irish nation. And thus Ireland, a small state, became a vast nation.
Ireland is and has long been a global "brand". In this, it has long anticipated the future, in which the defining technology of civilisation, the internet, is increasingly rendering physical and political borders transparent, porous, and even irrelevant. Nationhood is no longer strictly defined by territory, but by individual heritage, self-identification, and commitment. Nationhood has become portable. We carry it with us. The very technology that, even today, facilitates the globalisation of Ireland will make it easy for Irish votes to be securely cast online, no matter where on earth a citizen lives. Computers and cashpoint machines are everywhere!
Throughout this year, 'The Gathering Ireland' is welcoming the Irish diaspora back to Ireland to renew, in some cases, to create, links with family and country. A year is fleeting, and the Gathering must have an enduring and meaningful legacy. What legacy could be more enduring and meaningful than the right to vote? With that right comes a connection that makes Irish diaspora full stakeholders in Ireland's future, socially, politically, and economically. And this, in a most literal sense, means the world to Ireland.
Throughout its long history as an exporter of people, Ireland has been understandably but unfairly branded as a place to leave. Leaving is not a bad thing! It is actually a good thing. Travel broadens the mind and increases tolerance. It is keeping in touch and coming back that counts. This year we extended a sentimental invitation to "gather". The Government needs to send a real invitation to rejoin by giving us the right to vote. But, if they do not want us to have a vote, at least instruct the government-owed RTE to broadcast the All-Ireland final free around the world. It is free to the Irish in Ireland, it should be free to the Irish outside Ireland!