For the last nine years I have had the privilege of being the chairman of the Washington Ireland Program (WIP), a well-established leadership programme that brings 30 young future leaders from the Republic and Northern Ireland to Washington, DC every summer for two months. More than 300 Irish university students annually apply to the WIP programme. The selection process is fair but rigorous and only one in 10 applicants makes the cut. Every year there are several gay students on the programme. These young people are idealistic, patriotic, full of spark and intellectual curiosity – just the type of leaders that Ireland will need in the coming decade. They are passionate about equality and are working hard to turn out a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum with their many straight friends. In London, Lorcan O Cathain, a WIP graduate, has organised “Change Ireland”, which is raising money to help Irish voters get back to Ireland in time to vote on the 22nd. What a valiant effort to get around Ireland restrictive voting laws.
So who won’t vote in the upcoming referendum? The answer is simple enough – the exiled children of Ireland – the one million Irish citizens living abroad including the many recent emigrants, mostly young and well educated, who left Ireland because of the economic downturn. Ireland lags behind almost all of its EU neighbours when it comes to voting rights for its citizens living abroad.
Should the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage fail, one of the principal reasons for its failure will because Ireland has not modernised its voting laws. The 228,000 young, well-educated Irish citizens who left Ireland in the past five years grew up in a more tolerant and diverse Ireland. They are a natural Yes vote but the vast majority of them will be unable to return to Ireland to vote despite Lorcan O Cathain’s best efforts.