Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has reiterated the Government’s commitment to holding a referendum to extend voting rights in future presidential elections to Irish citizens living outside the State.
The minister said Ireland would be stronger for the inclusion of emigrants in presidential elections, and that the Government would work to provide the electorate with as much information as possible before casting their vote.
He made the comments at a digital conference by VotingRights.ie on Monday discussing Irish citizenship, emigrants and voting rights post-Brexit.
Mr Coveney said: “This Government is committed to holding a referendum to extend the rights of our citizens outside the state to vote in future presidential elections.”
He told the conference the office of the president represents all Irish citizens.
“Our presidents have been a distinguished voice for the Irish nation, and for an inclusive vision of Irishness, embracing all Irish citizens, including our diaspora,” he added.
“Giving our citizens around the world a voice to the highest office in the State will strengthen the bond between all Irish citizens irrespective of distance or location.
“I understand the importance of this to so many Irish citizens around the world.
“The decision to extend this right to the diaspora will of course be a decision for the Irish people.
"We will work to provide the electorate, with as much certainty and clarity as possible in reaching their decision, but I look forward to making that case to the Irish people.”
A recent poll of more than 1,000 people in Ireland found 52% of people were in favour of all Irish citizens with valid passports living abroad being allowed to vote in future presidential elections.
The poll also found that 56% were in favour of extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
There are now more than 830,000 Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland.
Independent Ulster Unionist Claire Sugden said she subscribes to the idea that she is both British and Irish and that she is keen to explore what this means.
But she said if she was asked to vote for an Irish president tomorrow she would not know much about the process or the candidates.
“I wouldn’t know who the candidates are and I wouldn’t know what they represent,” Ms Sugden said.
“I think that’s the really interesting dynamic we have in Northern Ireland. The only candidate from the 2018 Irish presidential election that I’d be somewhat familiar with is Sinn Féin. That gives rise to its own interesting conversations.
“I would have my concerns about it for a number of reasons because in theory, why not? But with everything to do with Ireland and Northern Ireland, it’s complicated. It’s complicated with a past and it’s all those things we have to take into account.”
Former president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and former member of the Irish Seanad Ian Marshall said voting rights for people in Northern Ireland was about bringing Ireland in line with other countries which give rights to its citizens abroad.
Mr Marshall questioned whether British passport holders in Northern Ireland would be able to vote in presidential elections if they did not have an Irish passport.
“I think that raises a question that everyone should be entitled to vote,” he said.
“There are those who will not want to exercise that right and that’s understandable, but I think it raises a question of: is this only passport holders?”
Sinn Féin senator Niall O Donnghaile said he was “encouraged” by results of the poll on presidential voting being extended to those in Northern Ireland, but added he wants an even bigger victory when it comes to the vote.
He said the Irish Government now has the opportunity to prepare for a referendum and to channel away “any negativity or ignorance out there” about the matter.
“It’s about rights,” Mr O Donnghaile said.
“It’s about enfranchising citizens. It’s about a step forward. It’s not taking anything away from anyone. It’s not denying anyone their rights or entitlements.
“It’s also doing what is in the Constitution in terms of Article 2 which says it is our birth right to be part of the Irish nation.
“So what does being part of the Irish nation actually mean? Surely to god that has to mean a right to a vote.”