Coveney plays down any overseas Sinn Féin bounce

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has talked down the chances of Sinn Féin dominating future presidential elections, should overseas Irish people be allowed to vote.

Fears have been expressed that by extending the vote to people living in Northern Ireland and North America, the vote would swing in favour of a Sinn Féin candidate.

Sinn Féin has fared poorly in the past two presidential elections, with Liadh Ní Riada winning just 6% of the vote in 2018, and the late Martin McGuinness winning 14% of the vote in 2011, but the party has demanded the vote be extended to the North, and elsewhere, in a bid to boost its chances.

Mr Coveney, who is also the minister for foreign affairs, said the decision to extend the vote is greater than simple party politics.

He also said experience would suggest the numbers in those foreign countries who would bother to vote would be small.

“In truth, I think quite a small percentage of Irish citizens outside of the island of Ireland — Northern Ireland is different — will actually go to the trouble of voting. 

"That’s not just me giving a gut feeling, that’s looking at the statistics of other countries that allow citizens abroad to vote.

“A very small percentage end up doing it, because only a small percentage end up following politics to the extent that they would want to take a role in the election,” he said.

Mr Coveney said himself and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are both “very committed to extending the vote”. 

He said the Cabinet will meet this month to finalise the question, which will be put to the people by way of referendum.

“We will be having another conversation on this in January, as a cabinet, to finalise decisions and we want to put this to a referendum of the people in 2019,” he said.

There are different views across the political spectrum, in relation to this issue, but don’t forget the groundwork has been laid for this.

“It was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly and it was supported in an Oireachtas committee by all parties and there have been debates on this, particularly in the Seanad, that are consistent with the approach the Government wants to take,” he said.

Mr Coveney said the proposal is consistent with Ireland looking outwards and taking our citizens abroad seriously, in terms of their connection with Ireland, their interest in Ireland.

“I have said, for many years, that Irish people abroad should be able to vote in presidential elections. 

"I believe the president should represent Irish people at home and abroad. We are very unusual, as a country and a people.”

In many ways, we are a global tribe that has a presence right across the world. Often, the focus is on Australia and the US, but we have big numbers of the diaspora in other parts of the world.

“I don’t think we should be making decisions here on the basis of party political interests. 

"I think we should make the decision on the basis of reaching out to Irish citizens all over the world and saying to them, ‘you matter, we want to hear what you have to say, we want you to feel represented by the president too’,” he said.

“So, I think this is the right thing to do and I hope the Irish people will support it, when we bring it to them in a referendum. 

"Most importantly, I want to send out to Irish people all over the world that you don’t have to wait for St Patrick’s Day to see how connected Irish people are to Ireland.

“I think this is a great way of re-enforcing that connection in a way that is very valuable. It will change the nature of the presidency I think, but in a good way and I’m very supportive of it,” he said.

Following Ms Ni Riada’s disastrous run for the Áras, Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said the party stands “absolutely” over its decision to contest the presidential election.

Ms McDonald said she was disappointed with the result and wished they had polled more strongly, but said: “I stand absolutely over our decision”.

Mr Coveney has also revealed details of a €4.8m increase in the budget for embassy expansion across the globe this year.

The Government is ramping up its diplomatic footprint across the globe as Brexit looms.

Mr Coveney announced the opening of more than a dozen new missions in locations as diverse as Latin America, India, Africa, the Middle East, and New Zealand.

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