Online voting to be considered in referendum for Irish abroad

Campaign groups welcome announcement as 'important first step'

Minister for the Diaspora Joe McHugh has said an options paper containing a range of suggestions will be published. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Minister for the Diaspora Joe McHugh has said an options paper containing a range of suggestions will be published. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times


The Government will consider online voting as an option in the referendum granting voting rights for the Irish abroad, Minister for the Diaspora Joe McHugh has said.

Mr McHugh told RTÉ that an options paper containing a range of suggestions will be published.

“It will contain all the various permutations. Ultimately we hope to have a rational and informed debate to determine the best options.”

The decision to hold a referendum, which was taken by the Cabinet last week and announced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the US on Sunday, builds on the findings of the convention on the constitution in 2013 which recommended that the constitution be amended to provide for citizens resident outside the State, including Northern Ireland, to have the right to vote at presidential elections.

Mr McHugh said that quantifying the exact numbers of people who would be eligible would be difficult.

“This is a massive piece of work. It is going to be ground breaking.

“Especially at a time when other countries are becoming more isolationist. It is Ireland looking outward.”

Mr McHugh said that when he was appointed to the post of Minister for the Diaspora, Mr Kenny asked him to prioritise this issue.

‘First step’

Campaigners representing Irish emigrants have welcomed the proposed referendum as “an important first step”.

Mary Hickman, chair of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad group in London, said the presidency “carries great symbolic power in the diaspora and we anticipate this move will be widely welcomed”.

“We see the presidential vote as a first step,” she added.

“Our main goal is a vote for citizens who leave Ireland in general elections. This is what will really bring Ireland up-to-date with most of the EU and dozens of other countries around the world.”

Noreen Bowden, co-founder of, said many Irish emigrants are keen to have a say in referendums and national elections.

“People who live abroad, many of whom may expect to return, are affected by a range of policies made at home. Anyone hoping to return will be affected by the whole gamut of social policies, spousal immigration, social welfare, education policies and more.

“All emigrants can be affected by issues such as taxation on property or pensions at home, consular support, contributory pension levels, diaspora strategies, broadcasting policy, descendent citizenship and more. Not allowing emigrants a voice in the political process means that policy-makers and politicians deciding on these issues will remain unaccountable to a broad swath of citizens.”

Joey Kavanagh, whose Get the Boat 2 Vote campaign encouraged emigrants to return to Ireland to vote in the marriage equality referendum in 2015, said he had “mixed feelings” about the announcement.

While it “is great that there is finally some activity on the issue”, Mr Kavanagh said he questioned “whether legislative changes could be made without the need for a costly referendum?”

Former minister for diaspora affairs Jimmy Deenihan suggested at the Global Irish Civic Forum in 2015 that issues around votes for citizens living overseas could be addressed “without going to the people”.

“If the referendum goes ahead, I hope the Government will set out clear parameters under which an Irish citizen living overseas would be eligible to vote in presidential elections, choosing a voting model that will satisfy any concerns voters might have about how this will work in practice,” Mr Kavanagh added.

‘Historic recognition’

Speaking in Philadelphia on Sunday, Enda Kenny said the proposed change, will mark a “historic recognition of the strong and enduring links between Ireland and all our citizens, wherever they are in the world.”

“Today’s announcement is a profound recognition of the importance that Ireland attaches to all of our citizens, wherever they may be. It is an opportunity for us to make our country stronger by allowing all of our citizens resident outside the State, including our emigrants, to vote in future presidential elections,” the Taoiseach said.

He added that he was “especially pleased to be making this announcement as we prepare for our worldwide celebration of St Patrick’s Day and of all that is Irish.”

The Government will now publish a paper by the end of the month setting out a range of options on how to give effect to the recommendations of the convention. The issue will also be discussed at the Global Irish Civic Forum due to take place in Dublin in May, but it is unlikely that the changes, if passed in a referendum, would be implemented before the next presidential election due in 2018.