Referendum on voting rights could prove to be contentious issue

Move may be one of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s legacies after he steps down as leader

The move by the Government to hold a referendum on allowing Irish citizens abroad to vote in presidential elections marks a turning point in government policy towards the diaspora and a victory for those who have long campaigned for expatriate voting rights.

As evident from the thousands of Irish-Americans who lined the streets of Philadelphia on Sunday for the centuries-old St Patrick's Day parade, Ireland's ties with the diaspora run deep.

The country’s links with those claiming Irish heritage across the world – estimated to be as many as 70 million – is enshrined in article 2 of the Constitution. It states that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.

The declaration was part of the Belfast Agreement amendments to the Constitution and reflected a growing government focus on issues affecting the diaspora over the last two decades. The Irish Abroad unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs was established in the mid-2000s with the Global Irish Economic Forum and Global Irish Network being established later. In 2014 the first minister with responsibility for the diaspora was appointed.


Proposed change

Sunday’s announcement by Enda Kenny, delivered as he stood beside the memorial in Philadelphia to victims of the Famine, is likely to be one of his final major policy announcements as Taoiseach. It may also be one of his legacies when he steps down as leader of the country.

However, the issue is fraught with difficulty. While Ireland has been an outlier in terms of granting its expatriates the right to vote – more than 120 countries have some form of non-resident voting system for emigrants – the issue is highly complex.

Will the proposed change be limited to those who have left the country within a certain time limit? British citizens, for example, lose their rights to vote in British elections once they have lived outside the country for more than 15 years.

Should people who claim Irish citizenship through their grandparents be allowed to vote in Irish elections despite having never visited the country?

The prospect of citizens living abroad having the right to vote could also have political consequences. The logic of extending the vote to those living abroad raises the prospect of presidential campaign rallies taking place outside Ireland.

It could also favour certain candidates or parties that have a strong following among the expatriate community, particularly in the United States and Britain.

Legal implications

In terms of timing, any change will not take place before the next presidential election scheduled for next year. While the Taoiseach suggested that a referendum is possible later in 2018, a longer process is equally likely.

Speaking in Philadelphia on Sunday Minister of State Joe McHugh said it was important that the discussion did not cloud next year’s presidential election. He also said the time-scale was challenging.

“We’re going to have to look at our own electoral register, our own electoral Act. Realistically the legal and practical implications are complex. However, I will continue to press for a referendum as quickly as possible after the next presidential election,” he said.

While immigrant campaigners broadly welcomed the move, some reacted with caution. Ciaran Staunton, co-founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, noted the failure of successive governments to implement the outcomes of previous referendums, such as the 1979 vote to extend voting for Seanad elections to all university graduates.

As with previous referendums, the framing of the ballot question will be a crucial determiner of the outcome. The Taoiseach said there would be a long process of discussion to set out the terms of the referendum. That discussion will begin at the Global Irish Forum in May. After that, there could be a long road ahead.