10/03/15 Senator Daly Speaks to the Seanad and Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan on Ireland’s Diaspora Policy

Senator Daly: I welcome the Minister of State. I am delighted that he is the first person to be appointed to office under any Government in a role with specific responsibility for the diaspora. I was delighted, too, to be appointed by my party as the first spokesperson on the diaspora in either House and to play a part in producing, in July 2013, the first policy paper on the Irish overseas by any party. In October 2013 the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, indicated his view that a Minister of State should be appointed with special responsibility for the Irish abroad and the diaspora. In 2014 Sinn Féin produced its first policy document on the diaspora. The Minister of State, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, was appointed last July, his function being to co-ordinate all aspects of policy on to the Irish overseas and the diaspora.

As noted in our policy paper, the capacity to vote in democratic elections is the most fundamental issue when it comes to citizens’ rights. If one is a citizen of any state, one should be entitled to have a vote in that state. It is 186 years since Daniel O’Connell secured Catholic emancipation and almost 100 years since women were enfranchised in 1918. Some 46 years ago people marched in Derry to secure a vote. That we are disenfranchising millions of citizens simply because they do not reside in the State amounts to a fundamental failure of the nation and the political system. It is not beyond our capacity to remedy this and it should be done. The Constitutional Convention recommended that it be done in respect of presidential elections. My own view is that voting rights should also be extended to Seanad elections, but extending them to presidential elections in the first instance would be a good first step.

Our record in this regard is very poor when compared with the arrangements that prevail elsewhere. There are 196 countries in the world, 120 of which give voting rights to their citizens living outside the state. Of the 33 member countries of the Council of Europe, only four do not give voting rights to their citizens overseas, namely, Cyprus, Greece, Malta and, unfortunately, Ireland. As I said, the Constitutional Convention has proposed that we extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens living outside the State. Only nine countries limit voting rights for citizens overseas in presidential elections, but all nine of these presidencies involve executive roles similar to that of the American President. In Ireland’s case the President has important powers, but they are not as powerful as those assigned to the Presidents of other nations. In other words, we are proposing to extend to Irish citizens abroad the lowest form of expression of democratic franchise.

It will not, however, be done in the Government’s term. There is a proposal to lower the voting age to 16 years but no proposal to give voting rights to citizens living in the North, Britain and beyond. That is a failure not of the Government but of many Governments and the political system. The Minister of State has indicated that he is in favour of extending voting rights and hopes to see it done in his term. I am sure it is not for the want of trying on his part that this will not now happen. We have no difficulty in encouraging companies such as Google, Intel and Facebook to come to Ireland on the basis that we are problem solvers who can get things done. In the case of extending voting rights to citizens abroad, however, we are told there are legal and technical issues to be overcome. Of course, there are such issues; it is like saying we breathe in oxygen. It is a statement of fact. However, if 120 countries, six of them in the Pacific, 13 in Africa and a range of others in the Middle East and Asia, can overcome these problems, how is it that Ireland has failed to do so and will continue to fail to do so? The Minister of State spoke about extending scholarships and bringing people back in a similar way to how the birthright programme worked. There was reference to the great work being done by organisations such as Comhaltas Ceoiltóirí Éireann, in which my colleague, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, has been prominent for many years, and the GAA and through initiatives such as Ireland Reaching Out and ConnectIreland. All of this work is being done independently but with the assistance of the Government.

An issue I ask the Minister of State to take on board will probably present particular legal and technical issues and, most pressingly, will probably not find favour with the permanent government. It has to do with consular representation. Mexico, to give an example, has consulates in every one of the 50 states of the United States. In the case of Ireland, some of our consulates have to cover 13 states. Some 40% of the foreign direct investment we attract from the United States comes from the bay area of San Francisco, but there are only two officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade based there. As well as having ambassadors in every European country, we should have honorary consulates in every US state, all of the provinces of Canada and locations in Australia other than Sydney. This is necessary to assist Irish communities in these locations and offer a means of communicating with the Department. That network of consulates could bring the message to people about ConnectIreland, Ireland Reaching Out and all of the other great initiatives undertaken. We not only need our ambassadors in the capital but also people on the ground. That is one of the issues that I hope will be examined in future proposals.

Extending voting rights to citizens abroad is the fundamental expression of their rights and would show they were part of the nation. The failure of the political system to facilitate this is a disgrace.

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