Senators support plan for emigrant voting rights

Seanad members from all parties back proposals on extending the franchise

Senators voting rights

Senators attend a press conference on a plan to extend the franchise to emigrants. Photograph:

A broad coalition of Senators has called for voting rights to be extended to Irish citizens living abroad.

Senators representing all of the political parties in the Upper House have backed a 10-point plan that would see the franchise extended to emigrants and Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland.

The plan was unveiled at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon by Billy Lawless, an Independent Senator who lives in the US and is viewed as the Irish diaspora’s representative in the Seanad.

It was accompanied by a policy paper prepared by Irish emigrants group

The policy paper recognises that there would be challenges in defining Irish citizenship and selecting what elections would be open to Irish citizens living abroad.

There was broad consensus from the Senators at the event that the franchise should initially be extended for Presidential and Seanad elections.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has already committed to holding a referendum on allowing Irish citizens vote in future Presidential elections.

One of the specific recommendations of the plan is a recognition that voting by Northern Ireland-based Irish citizens in a Presidential election accords with the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.

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Another proposal is the extension in the short-term of the current maximum period of ordinary residence abroad for an eligible voter from 18 months to three years.

This would allow recent emigrants to chance to have their say in the forthcoming referendum on voting rights.

The six Senators who backed the 10-point reform plan are Mr Lawless, Catherine Noone of Fine Gael, Mark Daly of Fianna Fáil, Niall Ó Donnghaile of Sinn Féin, Ivana Bacik of Labour, and Independent Senator Michael McDowell.

Global Irish Civic Forum

The report was released ahead of the Global Irish Civic Forum, which is taking place in Dublin Castle on Thursday and Friday.

The forum will discuss the Government’s recently-published options paper on extending the franchise.

At Wednesday’s event, Mr McDowell said the concept of the State was no longer “a narrow, introverted thing” and it no longer depended on people living there all the time.

“Career development sends people all over the world to work wherever and we have to take account of the changing nature of Irish citizenship,” he said.

Ms Bacik said the UK had a much more developed system of postal voting, while Ms Noone said the diaspora was always engaged with politics at home.

Mr Daly pointed to the example of Mary McAleese, who became a presidential candidate while she was living in Co Down.

“Her neighbours could not vote for her,” he said.

Mr Ó Donnghaile also highlighted the fact that people in the North were excluded from voting in Southern elections.

The Senators were asked should there be an upper limit on the number of years a citizen had lived abroad and was still entitled to vote.

They were also asked about concerns that emigrants shouldn’t have a vote as they don’t pay tax in the State and don’t have to live with the consequences of a ballot.

Mr Lawless said he did not see the merit in any time limits.

“You make them into second-class citizens. If you are an Irish citizen, you are an Irish citizen. Those who want to vote will want to register,” he said.

The Irish Times, Harry McGee:

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