A "referendum day" could be held next year when the electorate will be asked to vote on whether to repeal the eighth amendment, and to extend the franchise to citizens overseas in presidential elections, Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has said.
Speaking to reporters at the Global Irish Civic Forum in Dublin Castle on Friday, Mr Coveney said "we will have a referendum next year that will have multiple questions".
“Some of them will be very fundamental, and controversial and quite divisive issues that will need the Irish people to make a judgement call on,” he said.
At a panel discussion on voting rights in presidential elections, Mr Coveney said Ireland is out of step with the majority of its European Union neighbours, and the 130 other democracies around the world that allow their citizens overseas to vote.
The current electoral system which excludes emigrants is “not an appropriate way of electing an Irish President any longer”, he added.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced during his St Patrick’s Day visit to the US that a referendum would be held on granting the Irish abroad a vote for the President.
Summarising the options paper published by Government in March on the referendum question, Dr Iseult Honohan of University College Dublin told forum delegates that the principle issue is "the size of the external electorate": if the vote should be extended to all Irish citizens, only those who have lived here, or whether time limits should be in place after they emigrate.
“It is seen as problematic if people eligible outside the State lack a genuine connection, or if the votes of the citizens outside the state overwhelm or swamp the domestic vote,” she said.
Mary Hickman, chair of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad in London, said most campaigners want all citizens to be allowed to vote for the president, with no restriction on the time they have been abroad or whether they have lived here.
“This will firm up the bond with the diaspora,” she said.
Sally Mulready, who has worked with the older Irish community in London for three decades, said a vote for president would be particularly significant for that generation.
“Sadly, for a lot of them it is not going to happen in their lifetime, but that won’t stop them campaigning for future generations.”
Minister Coveney said he would like to see all Irish citizens living abroad given the option to register to vote.
“I don’t think we will be swamped,” he said, adding that only those with a connection and care for Ireland “will bother”.
Senator Billy Lawless, who is based in Chicago, called on the diaspora organisations present to mobilise the Irish emigrant community to "use their connections back home to win the vote".
“We need a worldwide grassroots campaign. We need emigrants calling home and coming home in their thousands to help us win this referendum.”
While the majority of the 220 delegates attending the forum support the Government’s plan for a referendum, some said they do not think it goes far enough.
Denis J Buckley of the Irish in Europe Association in Brussels said it should be viewed only "a stepping stone" towards a vote for the Dáil and in referendums .
Cara Sanquest of the London Irish Abortion Rights campaign said that while the Government's commitment to extend the vote for Presidential elections is welcome, it "doesn't speak to the needs of the young Irish diaspora".
“We want to vote on constitutional questions concerning social justice and social change in Ireland,” she said.
“We saw recent Irish emigrants return to Ireland in their thousands to vote for marriage equality, and now, even before a date for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment has been set, the diaspora are coming together to build an international movement for repeal.
Many emigrants plan on returning to Ireland at some point to live and work. Surely, we should have a say in the kind of country we come back to.”