Referendum to give emigrants a vote for president 'only a first step'

Minister for Diaspora announces referendum will be held on issue in 2017

More than 125 countries worldwide have some provision to allow emigrants to vote from overseas, but currently, Ireland has no system in place. Image: iStock

More than 125 countries worldwide have some provision to allow emigrants to vote from overseas, but currently, Ireland has no system in place. Image: iStock

 

Organisations representing Irish citizens overseas have welcomed the announcement that a referendum will be held early next year on the right of emigrants to vote in Presidential elections.

Plans for a referendum were discussed last week at an interdepartmental group on diaspora affairs, chaired by Minister for the Diaspora Joe McHugh.

Proposals will be brought to the Global Irish Civic Forum, a meeting of organisations and individuals working with Irish communities around the world, in Dublin next February. It is the second time such a meeting will take place; almost 200 people attended the first forum in June 2015.

A recent poll of 350 Irish people who emigrated since 2008, carried out by Ipsos MRBI for The Irish Times, found 62 per cent would like a vote for the president.Sixty-three per cent wanted a say in general elections, 61 per cent in referendums, and 53 per cent in Seanad elections. The remainder of those surveyed were fairly evenly split between those who had no opinion on the issue, or who didn’t think they should have a right to vote.

Young people were more likely to have strong views, with 76 per cent of people under 25 saying they were in favour of a vote in general elections, compared with just 58 per cent of over-35s.

Marie-Claire McAleer, head of research at the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI), said the referendum on the right to vote for the president would help to “foster greater connections” between Ireland and citizens overseas, and support efforts to attract young Irish emigrants to return to live here in the future.

Generation Emigration Survey 2016

“Allowing Irish citizens abroad to vote in Irish presidential elections would go some way towards including them in Irish society, and would also help to maintain their engagement and connection with Ireland,” she said.

Noreen Bowden, co-founder of VotingRights.ie, a “global coalition” of groups campaigning on the issue, said that while the referendum is welcome, it was “only a first step”.

“Irish citizens who live abroad are affected by policies made at home. Some of these decisions - such as those regarding the economy, social welfare for returning emigrants, and education policy - could even determine whether they would be able to return home at all,” she said.

“All Irish citizens need adequate representation in the legislative process as well. Presidential voting rights will mean a lot to Irish citizens abroad, but the movement for emigrant voting rights won’t stop once that has been achieved.”

Under existing electoral legislation, Irish citizens are currently entitled to vote for just 18 months after they leave the country, if they intend to return to live in Ireland within that timeframe.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in May that Mr McHugh would be prioritising the issue of emigrant voting in presidential elections during his time in office.

The interdepartmental group on diaspora affairs is currently assessing the legal and practical issues involved, following a report from the European Commission in 2014 which criticised Ireland for “disenfranchising” its citizens living abroad.

More than 125 countries worldwide have some provision to allow emigrants to vote from overseas.

Speaking in the Seanad on Wednesday, Sinn Féin Senator Niall O’Donnghaile said that while a referendum on voting rights for citizens overseas was welcome, the franchise “must also be extended to Irish citizens in the North as soon as possible”.

“The office of Uachtarain is a hugely symbolic one and it defies logic that someone from the North can become Uachtarainn but not be entitled to vote for themselves. If the Government are serious, as co-guarantors, about realising the values and aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement, then this is something they must live up to delivering,” he said.

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