October 24, 2007
Last Sunday afternoon, a white van advertising a painting and decorating firm called the ‘Emerald and the Eagle’ pulled up in Ailesbury Road.
There’s nothing unusual about this. Given our obsession with extending our kitchens to the size of airport hangers, many of the nation’s less salubrious roads have foreign tradesmen coming and going. Nor is it that strange that the company would be called the ‘Emerald and the Eagle’ — the Emerald representing Ireland and the Eagle being the official crest of Poland. What is interesting is that these lads were coming to vote.
The Polish government set up three Irish voting stations — in Dublin, Cork and Limerick — to extend Polish democracy to some 25,000 Polish ex-pats who the Polish state believe are as entitled to vote as those Poles living in Poland. As far as the Polish government is concerned, Polish citizenship is the guarantor of a democratic voice. The same goes for French, Germans and practically all EU citizens.
In America, the overseas vote is a crucial bell weather in presidential elections. The American idea of the global US citizen, dovetails with its view of taxation. Americans, no matter where they live, are taxed on what is called their “worldwide” income. This means if you are an American citizen and wish to exercise your right to vote and have a say in the running of America, you must pay tax. (This is not to say there are not very well-organised tax avoidance schemes for the rich and famous.) However, the principle goes back to the revolutionary slogan of “no taxation without representation”.
The root of the American Revolution was that the colonists believed they were being taxed unfairly without having the right to send representatives to the parliament in London. The famous Boston Tea Party was the culmination of the campaign to avoid taxes being paid in the US to finance the British crown. It was the spark which ignited the Revolution. If American democracy was founded on the principal of “no taxation without representation”, it is sustained on the basis of “no representation without taxation”.
Now, let’s look at Ireland. The immigrants who live here and pay taxes are not allowed to vote in the general election, but the Irish emigrants who live abroad are not allowed to vote either. So, we have neither the Polish system nor the American system. Why is this? We don’t allow the half a million foreign immigrants who live here and contribute to our economy to vote, despite their tax input to us. We let them vote in local and European elections, but in the Dail election — where the real power is — they are barred.
But even this second-rate suffrage is better than what our own citizens living abroad are afforded. We don’t allow the one million Irish citizens who live outside the country to vote here, despite their citizenship.
The latter can be explained by the fact that if Polish people here want to vote they can become citizens of Ireland, if they want to go through the process. However, the treatment of our own Irish citizens goes against all the norms in the rest of Europe. Bizarre as it must sound to an outsider, the Irish, the country with the longest tradition of emigration in Europe, bans its own people from having a say in the affairs of the country. This is an extraordinarily narrow view of the State and its relationship with the Irish people. Why don’t we follow the Polish model, or French or German?
We claim to be a globalised country. We are always hearing guff about how Ireland is the one of the most globalised countries in the world. Yet, we don’t even recognise the legitimate voice of Irish citizens who live in this new globalised world. Why is this?
Maybe the reason is our political class do not want people rocking the boat, particularly people who are not beholden to them. A nice little cosy system has been constructed where favours, strokes and backhanders are the currency of political power. Any opening up of this clique would devalue the currency and undermine the power base that preserves the status quo.
The Irish emigrants, who in any other country would be entitled to vote, might disrupt things. They would have little or no local loyalty. They might even vote on long-term issues. They might, God forbid, bring new ideas to bear on the election — ideas that they picked up abroad which our political elite could not vet. They would be maverick and maybe uncontrollable. The Irish abroad might not tolerate the state of the country and might have something to say about the failures of the Irish state in areas which they can compare with the facilities in the countries they have emigrated to.
Maybe an Irish medical worker — one of the many thousands of whom have left this country over the years — might have something to say about the health system. Likewise, citizens abroad who have learnt best practice in transport, law and order or the construction sector may dissent from the present status quo.
Is this what we are afraid of? Is the reason we prevent one million Irish who live abroad from voting because the political system believes that it would be disruptive? If Poland, a country 70 places below us on the world rich list, can organise polling booths for its people all around the world, why can’t we? If we really want to embrace the world, we first have to embrace our own citizens around the world. If the way forward is to “think globally, act locally” then giving Irish emigrants who live abroad the vote immediately is the best way to start.
These citizens think globally because they live out there, coming into contact with other people, other systems and other ways of doing things. We could, with their help, act locally, by melding their views with ours. This is clearly what the Polish government is thinking.
As Ireland moves into a different economic phase with growth slowing, house prices falling and tax revenues ebbing away, we need to tap the brains of all our citizens to ensure that this State does the right thing. It must gall people to think that our immigrants, supposedly coming here from countries that are less developed, can exercise their democratic rights and have a say in the affairs of the homeland. Yet Ireland, the country that defined itself by emigration up until recently, gives its exiles the cold shoulder.