Referendum to be held on granting Irish abroad voting rights

The proposed changes will allow people living outside the State to vote in presidential elections

A referendum on granting Irish citizens abroad the right to vote in Irish presidential elections is to be held the Taoiseach has announced.

Speaking in Philadelphia, Enda Kenny said the proposed change, which will also apply to those living in Northern Ireland, 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 decision to hold a referendum, which was taken by the cabinet last week, 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.

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.

Ireland has long been an outlier in terms of voting rights for expatriates. More than 120 countries have systems in place that allow those living abroad to take part in the electoral process.

Though a victory for campaigners who have long argued that Irish people living abroad should have the right to participate in the electoral process, the proposed change applies only to presidential elections, and not to general or local elections.

In a speech delivered at the Irish Memorial in Philadelphia, Mr Kenny said that, if passed, the referendum will involve significant work to determine new eligibility rules, to draw up legislation and to implement a new electoral register and new voting procedures.

He said that Philadelphia, a place “where the Irish have made such a mark over the centuries,” was the appropriate place to announce the referendum.

“There is no more fitting time or place, as we look forward to our worldwide celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and of all that is Irish,” he said.

Earlier, Mr Kenny marched in the Philadelphia St Patrick's Day Parade, the second-oldest in the United States.

The first Irish parade took place in the city in 1771, five years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Thousands of people lined Market Street in downtown Philadelphia to watch the parade.

On Saturday night, Mr Kenny also confirmed that he would seek the legalisation of undocumented Irish citizens living in the United States when he meets US president Donald Trump and vice president Mike Pence later this week.

Addressing a dinner hosted by the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, one of the oldest Irish associations in the United States, Mr Kenny said he would “renew the strong case on behalf of the hard-working, tax-paying Irish people in the United States who for too long now have been living in the shadows, and want nothing more than to continue making their contribution to this great country.”

While conceding that immigration reform was a “politically sensitive issue” he said that a US immigration system that addressed the needs of the undocumented Irish would be of “huge benefit” to America.

Mr Kenny, who arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, was the guest of honour at the private dinner which was held just outside the city.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent