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President Michael D Higgins during a ceremony to mark the Battle of the Somme Centenary at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin. Brian Lawless

Debate Room Should the Irish abroad be allowed vote in presidential elections?

A referendum will be held on whether to allow Irish citizens living abroad vote in future presidential elections.

If this referendum is passed, the numbers entitled to vote would increase by hundreds of thousands and quite possibly millions.

Speaking last week in Philadelphia, The Taoiseach 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.

Should the diaspora have a say in Irish presidential elections? We asked two commentators to tell us what they think.

YES. IRELAND’S MARRIAGE REFERENDUM in 2015 was a feel-good story for many reasons, and one of its enduring images will be the #HomeToVote campaign, where thousands of Irish living abroad made the journey back to Ireland so that their voices could be heard on that historic day.

There is clearly a desire in Ireland’s recent emigrant community to stay engaged and help drive Ireland’s future. The government should recognise that fact and not make the right to vote dependent on whether its citizens can afford a plane ticket.

That’s why I welcome the Taoiseach’s announcement to hold a referendum to allow Irish citizens living abroad to vote in presidential elections. It’s been a while coming. For one thing, it follows the 2013 recommendation of the Constitutional Convention, where members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the same motion that will now be put to a referendum.

Many other democracies allow their citizens vote

For another, it begins Ireland on the path to joining its fellow democracies who have allowed their citizens overseas to vote for decades.

America is one obvious example, but even closer to home, our British neighbours have allowed their citizens to vote abroad since the 1980s.

Romania – a country with a diaspora rivalling Ireland’s in size and proportion – guarantees its citizens abroad the right to vote, leading to thousands lining the streets in cities across the world whenever an election is held.

23 out of the 28 member states in the European Union allow voting for citizens overseas. Ireland clearly has some catching up to do.

The issue of implementation will no doubt be debated

There we should learn the lessons of other countries in how to do so transparently and efficiently, including a consideration of the parameters of eligibility. What’s more, Ireland already has some of the infrastructure already in place.

Irish military and diplomatic personnel (as well as their spouses) have had the right to vote overseas since 1992. The fact is Irish citizens are already voting in Irish elections from abroad, the question is now about scale.

Allowing emigrants a presidential vote is a first step. It shouldn’t be the last. Giving citizens abroad a vote for a largely symbolic office won’t do enough to address the obvious desire for engagement, especially from Ireland’s recent emigrants.

The #HomeToVote campaign in 2015’s marriage referendum was a stirring spectacle, but it shouldn’t be the only way for an Irish citizen to exercise their rights. Ireland should think even bigger on how to address this reality. Croatia, Italy and Portugal have even allocated seats in their respective parliaments that are elected solely by their overseas citizens.

Colm Quinn is an Irish citizen living in Washington DC. He emigrated to the United States in 2011 and works for CSIS, a foreign policy research institution. The views expressed above are his own.

NO. THE IRISH DIASPORA has swelled even further since the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad. And in our time of networks and soft power, this is a very sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and wealthy one too.

But I’m not convinced they should get a say in who becomes president here. On the surface it might sound kind of reasonable. Let people have a say in the country they were forced to emigrate from. But think about it.

Do we really want masses of emigrants being able to have their say in the running of the country without paying taxes here in Ireland or living here themselves.

The numbers

Joe McHugh, minister for the diaspora, has been fairly vague on what is being proposed by the Taoiseach but he has confirmed that around 1.8 million Irish citizens living abroad and 1.87 million people living in Northern Ireland, would be eligible to vote if the referendum was passed.

Putting ballot papers into all of their hands is an unworkable proposition. In fact there are real dangers inherent in allowing non-residents to vote because they will never have to live with the consequences of that vote.

Faraway hills can cloud judgements

Just think about how it would be for yourself. Would you in say 10 or 20 years outside of Ireland be voting in the same way as if you were actually living here in Ireland? Probably not. Faraway hills and all that.

Then there’s the fear of the media exerting far too much of an influence on the views of those living overseas and the fact that people who might not be fully informed of Irish politics and politicians get to cast a vote.

Now the stakes are not all that high in presidential elections but it is still about selecting our head of state. Do you remember the Boaty McBoatface result?

I definitely don’t think they had the public’s humour in mind when The National Environment Research Council invited people to suggest boat names in an online vote. Do we want that sense of humour to put Nathan Carter in the Áras?

The cost

The government has said that probably only a small fraction of those eligible will actually vote. However, it’s estimated holding the initial referendum will cost around €19.4m after establishing a register of electors.

Each subsequent vote for the presidency with the expanded electorate would then cost up to €21m. I can think of better uses of that cash.

But ultimately, the bottom line here is that those who vote have to consider the personal consequences of that vote. Living here means you have to live with your decision. Nobody should have a say when they don’t have to live with the impact of their vote.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist.

What do you think? Should Irish abroad have the chance to select future presidents? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

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