FACT SHEET #3: The Presidency of Ireland

Every modern President of Ireland has spoken about their desire to represent all the people of the Irish Nation, particularly emigrants overseas and the broader Irish diaspora. The Office of the Presidency has limited power but is highly symbolic and the current occupant Michael D. Higgins and his immediate predecessors Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese are held in high esteem by the Irish people. Mary Robinson’s commitment to lightening a candle in the Áras an Uachtaráin to remember emigrants and the Irish diaspora was a notable symbolic gesture. 

But gestures do not translate into voting rights; the fact remains that emigrants and Irish citizens living just over the Border in Derry and Belfast are currently denied the right to vote for an Irish President. The Irish State embraces its emigrant population yet keeps them at a distance politically. We are cherished but denied the vote.  Put simply, there is a democratic deficit at the heart of Irish democracy. 

Somehow you are less Irish and lose your privilege to vote simply because you live in London, Liverpool or Derry. There is an established hierarchy of “Irishness “defined by a fierce localism that reduces emigrants and citizens living just over the Border to second class status.  The reality is that Ireland is an inward looking and parochial democracy that has no ambition to meet modern democratic standards that are the norm around the world. Consider these facts.  

  • According to the most recent IDEA global democracy report ( January, 2021) a total of 125 states and territories allow people living abroad to participate in legislative elections, 88 allow participation in presidential elections and 73 countries and territories allow citizens overseas to participate in referendums. Ireland is not one of them.  
  • Of the 14 EU Member States that hold direct Presidential elections, only Ireland, Slovakia and Cyprus deprive their overseas citizens of the vote. 
  • Ireland is the only EU Member State which does not allow their nationals living in another EU Member State to vote in European elections. This restriction is in direct violation of EU freedom of movement principle which allows citizens to vote in their home country 

As Prof. Liam Kennedy from University College Dublin noted in this essay in the Citizenship   Papers collection    

Ireland’s evolving diaspora policy has by and large sidestepped issues of enfranchisement while talking up “engagement”, “pluralism” and “inclusion”. In the diaspora policy document the “role of government” vis-à-vis the diaspora is said to “support”, “connect”, “facilitate” and “recognise” – all relatively passive terms common in the policy discourse of many governments as they seek to “engage” without being seen to direct state-diaspora relations.” 

Kennedy’s essay then gets to the central issue that currently defines government’s attitude towards its going emigrant population  

“At the heart of state-diaspora relations is an unresolvable tension about the meanings of the nation and of citizenship. Heartfelt rhetoric about belonging and inclusivity can founder on the reality of legal and economic exclusivity. When we think of Irish citizens abroad as a resource, a form of “human capital” in policy speak, we begin to lose sight of citizenship as a public good.

In 1995, addressing the Houses of the Oireachtas, then president Mary Robinson stated: “Our relation with the diaspora beyond our shores is one which can instruct our society in the values of diversity, tolerance, and fair-mindedness.” This proved a prescient observation ten years later as the referendum on same-sex marriage was charged by emigrant involvement.”

We take the position that the gap between the warm and solicitous words of the current Irish President Michael D. Higgins and his predecessors and the reality that over a million Irish citizens are denied their basic right as citizens to vote must come to an end 


My primary role as President will be to represent this State.  But the State is not the only model of community with which Irish people can and do identify.  Beyond our State there is a vast community of Irish emigrants extending not only across our neighbouring island – which has provided a home away from home for several Irish generations – but also throughout the continents of North America, Australia and of course Europe itself.  There are over 70 million people living on this globe who claim Irish descent.  I will be proud to represent them.  And I would like to see Áras and Uachtaráin serve – on something of an annual basis – as a place where our emigrant communities could send representatives for a get together of the extended Irish family abroad.

Inauguration Address by President Mary Mcaleese 

11th November 1997, Dublin Castle.

“Among those who are also owed an enormous debt of thanks are the countless emigrants whose letters home with dollars and pound notes, earned in grinding loneliness thousands of miles from home, bridged the gap between the Ireland they left and the Ireland which greets them today when they return as tourists or return to stay.  They are a crucial part of our global Irish family.  In every continent they have put their ingenuity and hard work at the service of new homelands.  They have kept their love of Ireland, its traditions and its culture deep in their hearts so that wherever we travel in the world there is always a part of Ireland of which we can be proud and which in turn takes pride in us. I hope over the next seven years there will be many opportunities for me to celebrate with them.”

President Michael D. Higgins Inaugural Address, 

11 November 2011

“It is my wish to be a President for all of the Irish at home and abroad. We Irish have been a diasporic people for a great part of our history. The circumstances that have impelled – and that continue to impel – many citizens to seek employment and a better life elsewhere, are not ordained by some mysterious hand of fate. They challenge our capacity to create a sustainable and prosperous economy and an inspiring model of the good society. We, in our time, must address the real circumstances that generate involuntary emigration, and resolve that in the years ahead we will strive with all our energy and intellect, with mind and heart to create an Ireland which our young people do not feel they have to leave and to which our emigrants, or their children, may wish, in time, to return to work and live in dignity and prosperity. I invite all of the Irish, wherever they may be across the world, to become involved with us in that task of remaking our economy and society.”

Inclusive Citizenship 

“The demands and the rewards of building a real and inclusive Republic in its fullest sense remains as a challenge for us all, but it is one we should embrace together.”

 “In implementing the mandate you have given me, I will seek to achieve an inclusive citizenship where every citizen participates and everyone is treated with respect. I will highlight and support initiatives for inclusion across Ireland and also make it a priority to visit and to support the participation of the most excluded in our society, including those in institutional care.”

“We must seek to build together an active, inclusive citizenship; based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms. A confident people is our hope, a people at ease with itself, a people that grasps the deep meaning of the proverb ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’ – our strength lies in our common weal – our social solidarity.”

A Shared Future

“In promoting inclusion and creativity, I will be inviting all citizens, of all ages, to make their own imaginative and practical contribution to the shaping of our shared future.  A common shared future built on the spirit of co-operation, the collective will and real participation in every aspect of the public world is achievable and I believe we can achieve it together. In our rich heritage some of our richest moments have been those that turned towards the future and a sense of what might be possible. It is that which brought us to independence. It is that which has enabled us to overcome adversity and it is that which will enable us to transcend our present difficulties and celebrate the real Republic which is ours for the making.

Every age, after all, must have its own Aisling and dream of a better, kinder, happier, shared world.”

50th Anniversary of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, October 2018 Derry 

“That need was met by the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, whose leadership came from a diverse and broad cross-section of backgrounds: both Catholics and Protestants, nationalists, socialists, unionists, republicans, Northern Ireland Labour Party members, liberals, communists, and trade unionists. 

Though diverse in their backgrounds, all were united in their determination to combat the deep inequalities which scarred Northern Ireland – inequalities in housing, voting, and policing – and their early campaigns focused not only on discrimination against the Catholic community, but also the Travelling community. The Association demanded the principle of ‘one person, one vote’, an end to gerrymandering, elimination of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs and housing, the repeal of the Special Powers Act, and the disbandment of the Ulster Special Constabulary. With all the distance in time, these demands now seem, not radical, but modest, constituting no more than, as one of the slogans of the day put it, ‘British Rights for British Citizens’.

Although rooted in the soil of the North and summoned to confront the structural inequalities within the society of Northern Ireland, the Civil Rights Movement was part of a global struggle for human rights – a vision of human rights that extended beyond personal or individual rights, a demand that stretched to collective rights, to shared rights. 

Four years ago, the BBC broadcast a series of interviews that Eamon Mallie conducted with Ian Paisley, which were, in their way, quite remarkable. At one point, Eamon Mallie asked Ian Paisley whether he thought the historic denial of ‘one person, one vote’ in Northern Ireland was fair, to he replied: ‘No… but that’s the way it was. The whole system was wrong, it wasn’t one man, one vote. I mean, that’s no way to run any country, there should be absolute freedom and there should be absolute liberty.’ 

That such an unlikely source ultimately recognised, if ever so retrospectively, the innate justice of the aims of the Civil Rights Movement – even while maintaining some reservations – is a vindication, though I recognise that it is not without its irony. That such a statement was even possible is also a testament to the success of the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement, possibilities of the Ireland we inhabit today.


Address on the 100th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil Éireann 

The Mansion House, Dublin, 21 January 2019

The First Dáil drew its support not only from the will of the people of Ireland, but from Irish people across the world. We are, and we must never forget, a migratory and diasporic people. Indeed, at the turn of the last century, there were more Irish-born people living abroad than in Ireland. Throughout our War of Independence, Irishmen and Irishwomen in the United States of America would demonstrate, time and time again, their solidarity and support for the cause of Irish freedom, even if they differed as to the means by which it was to be achieved.

Remarks at the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish abroad 

Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 21 November 2019

To so many of our diaspora, whether first generation Irish or of Irish descent, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude for their generous connection that they worked to preserve with us through the generations. Their support and encouragement, offered in so many ways, and throughout so many changing circumstances for this country, has helped to shape and craft the possibilities of the Ireland we inhabit today. A Thánaiste,

In celebrating migratory achievements we must never forget those many lives which failed to thrive in foreign soil, where migratory experience was defined by loneliness and exclusion, and as our song and musical tradition attests, a relentless longing for home. We must not forget ever that those people, were and remain, part of Ireland’s wider family. However, there were also so many for whom a new beginning gave birth to lives which grew and flourished, making a lasting impact on their new communities as they worked, raised and educated their children and lived fulfilling lives in their adopted countries while remaining loyal to and proud of their rich Irish heritage.

Tá muid go mór faoi chomaoin diaspóra na hÉireann, iad a chuaigh thar tír amach; imircigh den chéad ghlúin agus sliocht na ndaoine sin atá lonnaithe ar fud an domhain.

To so many of our diaspora, whether first generation Irish or of Irish descent, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude for their generous connection that they worked to preserve with us through the generations. Their support and encouragement, offered in so many ways, and throughout so many changing circumstances for this country, has helped to shape and craft the 

Saint Patrick’s Day message 2021

In 1901, of all the Irish born on the island of Ireland, a majority lived outside of the island of Ireland. Saint Patrick’s Day, then, must always be a special day for recalling our migrant history and learning from it, be a source of our ethics and of our policy at home and abroad. 

When in so many places, in so many different circumstances, voices of invocation by Irish people sing out on Saint Patrick’s Day, they are placing their invocation alongside the invocations and prayers of migrant communities everywhere who have, over generations, sought to collectively transcend present circumstances.  


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