Referendum on extending presidential vote ‘highly unlikely’ this year

Government sources say poll on giving vote to emigrants delayed amid Brexit turmoil

Ballot boxes in the 2018 presidential election at the Dublin city count centre. Photograph: NIck Bradshaw

Ballot boxes in the 2018 presidential election at the Dublin city count centre. Photograph: NIck Bradshaw

 

A referendum to give voting rights to Irish citizens living outside the State in presidential elections is now unlikely to take place until the new year.

The Bill to amend the Constitution was published last month, and a Referendum Commission established, but several Government sources said the referendum campaign would not go ahead while delicate Brexit negotiations were ongoing.

The referendum, which would, if passed, allow Irish citizens living abroad to vote in presidential elections from 2025, was originally earmarked for a polling date in May – at the same time as the local and European elections – but was then rescheduled for late October or early November.

That would have required the legislation to have been published before the summer recess to ensure a Referendum Commission was established sufficiently in advance of polling day.

However, in Cabinet meetings during July, several Ministers expressed reservations about the referendum going ahead in the autumn, arguing that it would divert public attention away from Brexit in the run-up to the October 31st deadline.

The referendum is likely to encounter a higher degree of opposition than the recent ones on divorce and on blasphemy. Some high-profile figures are expected to oppose allowing citizens who do not live in Ireland the right to vote in elections that might not have a direct impact on them.

Complex campaign

In February, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil the campaign could turn out to be be complex and if the Government was to succeed with it, it would need to put in a “good campaign”.

The 39th Amendment of the Constitution (Presidential Elections) Bill was published on September 16th by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

A fortnight ago the Tánaiste announced the establishment of the Referendum Commission chaired by High Court judge David Barniville.

Mr Coveney has said that with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, that process has been prioritised over choosing a specific date for the referendum.

The Bill to amend the Constitution is expected to come before the Dáil during this term. Once passed by parliament and enacted, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will make an order for polling. The referendum must take place 30-90 days after the making of the order.

The four by-elections to replace the four former TDs who were elected to the European parliament are scheduled to take place on November 29th. In order for the referendum to take place on that day, the order would need to be made by October 30th.

Several sources in Government said on Thursday they thought this highly unlikely and predicted a polling date in spring.