Will work for change?
NEW YORK — New York today, Septemer 12, is grey and grim. I’m just back, and though it’s marginally warmer here than it was in Ireland, I’m huddled in my room, listening to the rain dripping through holes in the ceiling of my converted-factory abode in Brooklyn. Having spent a month in Europe, I fear I may have missed out on the end of a glorious, heat-wavy New York summer.
I’ve been surprised at the notice Ireland has been getting in the US press. The New York Times has had at least two dramatic articles about it — one, on Anglo, asks, with brilliant succinctness, ‘can a bank bring down a country?’ The other is about the country’s rising unemployment and economic pain.
The atmosphere in Dublin is dark, but some people are trying to look on the bright side. When I was home I attended a conference in remote Ballyhoura in County Limerick, run by a group called Tangible Ireland (set up by one Raymond Sexton). The idea was to bring together people who were interested in looking to the country’s future. An eclectic bunch turned up — a consultant doctor from the health service; a unionist political activist; the CEO of the Dublin Civic Trust; a lobbyist for voting reform; a representative from a new networking site called Rendezvous353. A woman called Carol Conway who described herself as a ‘freelance catalyst’ did a great job of reining us in when we started to gripe and complain too much. If that’s all we were going to do, she pointed out, we might as well sit in a pub backroom, lamenting fate and nursing our Guinness pints.
I learnt a lot from the various conference-goers — that cities like Limerick and Dublin routinely neglect or destroy their beautiful Georgian architecture; that Ireland’s minister for health, Mary Harney, made all HSE management jobs open only to internal applications in 2004, thus eliminating anyone with international experience; that changing the labels in Northern Irish politics may lead to a shift in voting patterns. Perhaps my most surprising discovery was that as an Irish person living abroad, I have no vote.
Noreen Bowden is an Irish-American activist based in Galway. She explained that no postal vote exists for non-resident Irish citizens. Not only that: anyone who travels home to vote is committing voter fraud and liable to two years in jail (this threat, I’m sure, is never applied). The number of Irish-born citizens living outside the country is large in relation to Ireland’s small population: just over one million out of a population of about 4.5 million. Politicians would be right to fear that external votes could sway an election. I, for one, have already been looking forward to voting for months — and I hadn’t especially planned on supporting the status quo.
Bowden made the excellent point that Ireland has historically relied on its emigrants for money and remittances sent home; now more than ever, with its outreach to the diaspora, the government is looking for help and handouts. Plus, 120,000 people are slated to leave the country within the next year, due to growing the unemployment rate, which in turn has origins in government policy errors, and their lack of say in who gets to govern next seems worryingly unfair.
I’ve finally finished Fintan O’Toole’s ‘Ship of Fools.’ I don’t agree with all of his arguments, but many of them make sense. He ends with the question of whether the Irish ‘have enough constructive anger to kick away a system that has failed them and make a new one for themselves.’
To me, from afar, Irish politics often seems stagnant and depressing. But now the news of my disenfranchisement got me thinking. Emigration has been a norm, with ebbs and flows, since the 1840s. Imagine if Barack Obama hadn’t had the youth vote in American in 2008. Think about all those young Irish emigrants who never had a chance to contribute to politics at home.
Would US-Irish voters swing the country towards Sinn Fein? Would non-resident citizens distort the electoral outcome or destabilize government? Such are the nightmare scenarios. But how likely are they, really?