Voting rights off the agenda at first Global Irish Civic Forum
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Voting rights off the agenda at first Global Irish Civic Forum

THE issue of votes for the Irish abroad was the elephant in the room at the first Global Irish Civic Forum.

While experiences of culture, identity, heritage and emigration were at the forefront of the agenda for the 200 representatives who attended the two-day event at Dublin Castle, the issue of representation was notably absent from the schedule.

“There are a number of ways the Irish Government could reach out to emigrants abroad, and one is to end their long-term disenfranchisement,” Mary Hickman, Professor of Irish Studies at St Mary’s University in London, claimed after attending the event held on June 3 and 4.

“Reading the agenda for the forum, it was immediately obvious there was one very large issue that was not given space for a proper discussion, namely votes for Irish citizens abroad,” she added.

Her thoughts were echoed by Irish in Britain CEO Jennie McShannon, who chaired a panel discussion on Reaching out to Irish Citizens Abroad at the Forum.

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“The Forum was very positive” she told The Irish Post this week, “but I think there were some questions left unanswered, mainly on the representation issue.”

“Diaspora Minister Jimmy Deenihan referred to it a lot, but there wasn’t a particular panel on that,” she explained “and while he made positive noises about it there was certainly some urgency for people there around that. They were looking for something concrete, which didn’t come.”

That said, Ms McShannon did feel there was much gained from the conference, which followed a commitment set out in Ireland’s Global Ireland Diaspora Policy to host a gathering, for the first time, of the groups working with the Irish diaspora worldwide.

“Diaspora representation was really good [at the Forum],” Ms McShannon confirmed.

“You could really feel the enthusiasm for it from Irish diaspora organisations worldwide and also individuals involved in civil society who attended.”

The 200 delegates who attended came from 17 countries, representing 140 organisations working with Irish communities worldwide, with a significant contingent from Britain, Australia and the US.

“There were scores of people there that I hadn’t met before,” Ms McShannon added, “which meant you really got a better understanding of what we are all providing in our respective jurisdictions – an understanding of the shared experiences amongst us and the issues we all face around topics like leadership, identity, heritage, engagement and diversity.”

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With the next instalment of the Forum due to take place in two years, the delegates who attended will now hope to build on the contacts made and information gained via the Dublin engagement.

“For me the Forum was about sharing best practice, finding common ground amongst ourselves, getting ideas, inspiration and innovation between the delegates – and there was definitely a lot of that going on, but there was also a feeding in about the role and relevance of Irish citizens abroad to each other and to Ireland,” Ms McShannon explained.

“There was a real willingness to share amongst ourselves,” she added, “but the lynchpin of all of this is the Global Irish Strategy and the Forum is important because civil society is at the heart of the interface between the Irish at home and abroad and the Irish government and the Irish abroad.

“Now the onus is on us to maintain those connections made and to raise the game in terms of how we engage globally - and the onus is on the Irish government to keep us engaged and facilitate that.”