In an announcement timed to coincide with the run-up to St Patrick’s Day, a referendum is to be held on whether to allow Irish citizens living abroad or in the North of Ireland to vote in Presidential elections.
The move, if passed, will see the numbers entitled to vote in Presidential elections increase by hundreds of thousands. Anyone with an Irish-born parent, or under additional conditions an Irish-born grandparent, is entitled to Irish citizenship.
However, Irish Presidents play the role of figureheads in Irish society, with symbolic powers relative to their counterparts in other republics. There are no plans to extend the right to vote in parliamentary elections to citizens living outside the 26 Counties.
While a date has not being set for the referendum, Taoiseach Enda Kenny confirmed the Cabinet has formally decided to hold one.
Speaking in Philadelphia, Mr Kenny said: “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.”
President Michael D Higgins’s seven year term ends next year, with an election likely in October or November 2018, and it is unclear if he will run again or be opposed if he chooses to run.
Mr Kenny told an audience at the Irish Famine Memorial in Philadelphia that changing the voting system will involve significant work to determine new eligibility rules, to draw up legislation and to implement a new electoral register and new voting procedures.
“It is appropriate that this announcement is being made here in Philadelphia, where the Irish have made such a mark over the centuries. 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.
There is a general consensus that the referendum will pass if put to a public vote, and government officials are said to be ready to work on updating the voter registration process.
The London-based campaign group Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) welcomed the announcement.
“In 2013 the Constitutional Convention overwhelmingly recommended that Irish citizens living outside of the State should be given the right to vote in presidential elections,” said Mary Hickman, Chair of VICA.
The ‘Home to Vote’ movement during the 2015 marriage equality referendum also reflected the huge appetite there was for such a measure, she added.
“The vast majority of democratic countries around the world allow their citizens living abroad to vote, and there is no reason why Ireland cannot find a way to make this work.”
Gerry Adams also welcomed the announcement. “Sinn Fein has been pressing the Irish government since the Good Friday Agreement to allow for citizens in the North and in the diaspora to have the vote in Presidential elections,” he said.
“The Taoiseach’s announcement today is very welcome, but the government needs to quickly clarify what this means in practice and when the referendum will be held.
“Last November, the Taoiseach, in a reply to me in the Dail, ruled out a referendum this year or next. This would mean that the vote would not be available for citizens in the North or the diaspora before 2025.
“Sinn Fein believes that Irish citizens living and working outside of the state and, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, those living in the North should be able to vote in Presidential elections.”