Convention supports voting rights for Irish emigrants

Members vote for allowing Irish citizens living outside the State to cast ballot in presidential polls

The Constitutional Convention is being chaired by Tom Arnold in Malahide, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Proposals to extend voting rights to Irish people overseas in presidential elections will be recommended to Government following a meeting of the Constitutional Convention this weekend.

At the end of a two-day session in Malahide in north Dublin, members voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing Irish citizens resident outsite the State, including those living in Northern Ireland, to cast a ballot.

Closing the meeting this afternoon, chairman of the Convention Tom Arnold said it had been a “powerful weekend”.

“This is an incredibly important issue that is hugely relevant to thousands of Irish citizens living all over the world,” he said.


Of the Convention’s 100 members, 78 voted in favour of extending the franchise to the Irish abroad, while 73 per cent agreed with giving Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland a vote.

Some 38 per cent were against imposing a time limit on how long citizens would hold onto their vote after they moved abroad.

More than 120 countries around the world have provisions for their citizens abroad to cast a ballot, but Ireland does not currently allow emigrants to vote in presidential or Dáil elections.

Jennie McShannon of Irish in Britain, which represents over 100 Irish community and voluntary organisations across the UK, said not allowing emigrants who had moved abroad to look for work amounted to “disenfranchisement which ought to end”.

“We want to play our part, make a difference. So many have such a real stake, including houses and families here at home,” she said. “If citizenship means anything in a democracy, it means the right for all adults to vote.”

Chairwoman of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad campaign Mary Hickman told the Convention that while a vote for Irish citizens abroad in presidential elections was welcome, emigrant citizens should also be given a say in Dáil elections.

“This issue of emigrant citizens voting in general elections isn’t going to go away. It is the avenue, the gateway, for a far better balanced relationship between the Irish nation and its diaspora,” she said.

Dr Theresa Reidy of University College Cork and Dr Iseult Honahan of UCD gave an overview of the issue of emigrant voting rights and provided international comparisons, while Declan Smyth of the Central Statistics Office and Dr Piaras MacÉinrí of UCC made presentations on current emigration statistics and trends.

Dr Paul Connors outlined arguments commonly made against granting non-resident citizens a vote, including whether it was right that people would have a say in how the country is run without paying taxes there, or whether emigrants would be sufficiently engaged with the issues to cast an informed vote.

"Social media, Skype, has improved the flow of information, and the fact you can now read The Irish Times online in Australia or America certainly helps. However, in reality how closely to people follow current affairs in Ireland to know the issues or the candidates?" he asked.

The views of almost 2,500 Irish people living abroad who recently completed an online questionnaire on the issue were also shared, with 85 per cent agreeing they should have a vote in presidential elections.

Representatives of Irish communities in Australia, Canada, the UK, France, Germany and the US joined the discussion via video link, which Mr Arnold said "offered a unique and powerful insight into the views of the diaspora".

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who participated in a panel discussion at the Convention, described the result as a “constructive contribution to the peace process”.

“The fact that Irish citizens living across the border cannot vote for the President of Ireland is another anomaly of partition, but it is also a form of discrimination against citizens of this Sate,” he said.

“President Michael D Higgins and before him, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, spoke and acted as presidents of all of this island. This is how they are regarded in the north too.”

The convention’s recommendations will be brought to Government, who will decide within four months whether to hold a referendum on the issue.

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine