Tuesday, 24 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as a bheith linn agus tá mé i gcónaí sásta an t-ábhar seo a phlé. We know that the bulk of parties in the State, as their stated party policy, support the extension of the franchise in presidential elections to citizens who are resident outside the State. In September 2013 the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposal to extend that vote. In March 2017, the then Taoiseach, at an announcement in Philadelphia over the course of St. Patrick's Day celebrations, said that the Government would move forward with plans to hold this referendum. A number of dates announced by the Government in the last Oireachtas term, which were much welcomed by campaign groups in the North and overseas, had to be moved around. We were told this was because of Brexit. While there was much disappointment around that, in the heat of the climate we were in at the time, people understood and were prepared to give the Government that space and latitude. That cannot be an excuse, however, and I use that term carefully, in perpetuity.
The draft referendum Bill was published towards the end of the last Oireachtas term and a significant amount of work and research has been done by Department officials, and indeed by the Government, in preparing for this referendum. Given that it is included as a commitment in the programme for Government, at this point the onus is on the Government to actually firm up a date and to settle on a date that we can work to. We understand that we have a load of work to do to build a positive and inclusive representative campaign that celebrates our citizenship, that includes those of us who are citizens in the North, and that seeks to affirm Article 2 of the Constitution in order that we connect with, celebrate and appreciate the international community of Irish citizens around the world, many of whom are now more connected in the modern age with home and with what happens here than ever. I look forward to hopefully a positive update from the Minister of State, and more importantly again I look forward to working with all colleagues across these Houses and outside to ensure that when we get this referendum it is won and won decisively.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the position in relation to the commitment in the programme for Government to hold a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens resident outside the State. I appreciate that in his contribution, the Senator mentioned some of the main timeline points, to which I also will allude.
The fifth report of the Convention on the Constitution, of November 2013, supported an extension of the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State, including those resident in Northern Ireland, and recommended that a referendum be held to amend the Constitution. The recent programme for Government reaffirmed the commitment of the Government to submit this proposal to referendum. The office of the President is representative of all Irish people, and the extension of the vote to Irish citizens outside the State would provide the President with a truly inclusive mandate as the democratic choice of all our citizens.
My Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have been working closely to analyse the various policy, legal and practical issues that would arise in a proposed extension of voting rights.
As the Senator noted, the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Presidential Elections) Bill 2019 was initiated on 16 September 2019 by the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.While the Bill itself is relatively short, it is a significant piece of legislation that aims to extend voting rights at presidential elections to Irish citizens resident outside the State, in line with the next scheduled presidential election in 2025.
A referendum commission was also established by order of the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on 26 September 2019 to inform the electorate about the subject matter of the Bill, subject to it passing both Houses of the Oireachtas. In broad terms, the Bill provides for the replacement of the existing Articles 12.2.2° and 12.3.3° of the Constitution as well as for the insertion of a new Article 12A in the Constitution. These amendments would extend the right to vote for the office of President to all citizens, not solely to those who are ordinarily resident in the State as is currently the case, for elections held on or after 1 January 2025, which would be the beginning of the year in which the next scheduled election for the Office of President would fall due.
Implementing legislation, by way of amendments to the Electoral Acts, will be required to give practical effect to an extension of the franchise if the proposal to amend the Constitution is approved at a referendum. While the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Thirty-second Dáil, the Government has recently restored the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Presidential Elections) Bill 2019 to the Dáil Order Paper. The date for the holding of the referendum will be decided once the legislation has been approved by the Oireachtas.
While I thank the Minister of State for the review of where this issue has come from and its journey to date, I am disappointed. I appreciate that he is relatively new in his post. This is something that he may wish to take some time to navigate through. I appreciate that we are in a serious period with the double threat to society of Brexit and Covid-19 looming large. This issue may not be at the very top of the political agenda now but, as the Minister of State has acknowledged, it is one of deep political and societal significance, not least for those who live in the North but also for those living overseas who want to affirm their connection with home, many of whom have been forced to emigrate as a result of political and economic decisions taken in this State over a long time. While I welcome the reintroduction of the Bill, when can we expect the Government to table it? As it is a Government Bill, the Minister of State, who is responsible for the diaspora, should encourage the Government to ensure it goes before the Oireachtas. I am sure people will be keen to debate it and strengthen it, where required. This campaign has been going on for decades. If we are serious about the programme for Government commitment and about telling citizens outside the State that they are valued and we want them to be enfranchised, we need to get this referendum done.
We are very serious about our programme for Government commitment. As the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, I am very much committed to this. In recent days I launched our new diaspora strategy, a centrepiece of which is this extension of the franchise to Irish citizens. Since I became Minister of State, I have worked extensively on this area to ensure it remains a political priority, as it is for me. I believe the proposed extension would be an incredibly strong and strengthening part of how we recognise the role of the President and its inclusivity. It matters greatly. I have had an opportunity to engage with many organisations that represent the Irish diaspora and Irish citizens outside our State who really feel a very strong desire and attachment to seeing this happen. The will is there on the part of the Government. I will put down the marker that we must be cognisant that we are progressing legislation with a view to a referendum, and we must do so in the context of the safety of people during a pandemic. We must conduct that referendum when we can best do so to allow for the fullest possible participation. My commitment as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora is to the Government's commitment, as set out in the programme for Government.