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A slim majority in favour of giving citizens in Northern Ireland and abroad a vote in presidential elections

The Minister of State for Electoral Reform has said that a “stand alone” referendum on the issue would be his preference.

Tellers counting the ballot papers and votes in the Presidential election.
Tellers counting the ballot papers and votes in the Presidential election.

THE MINISTER OF State for electoral reform has said that its his preference to hold a “stand-alone” referendum on extending the right to vote in presidential elections to Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland and abroad.

It comes as a poll has indicated that there is a slim majority in favour of extending that right to Irish-passport holders in Northern Ireland and the UK, and an even slimmer majority in favour of extending it for all Irish-passport holders living abroad.

The government has committed to holding a referendum on extending voting rights in presidential elections to all Irish citizens before 2025. The next presidential election will be held in the autumn of 2025. 

At a major event about the voting rights Irish citizens should have, Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan said that the plan would be to hold the referendum on the diaspora’s right to vote in late 2022 or early 2023.

Noonan said he was aiming to set up an independent Electoral Commission before the end of the year that would examine these issues, as well as other electoral reform issues such as regulating political ads and modernising the Electoral Register.

The minister said that he would “certainly” explore lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, “at least for local elections”, while admitting that there appeared to be a “strong majority” against that move.

“We look at the Fridays for Future – young people want to have a say in their electoral processes,” he told the online event. “I would love for the Commission to explore that possibility for the 2024 local elections.” 

A poll released today by Ireland Thinks, and carried out on behalf of the campaigning group VotingRights.ie and the UCD Clinton Institute, found that a slim majority of 56% of people support extending the vote to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK with 39% against, while 52% of people support extending the vote to all Irish citizens abroad.

A significant majority believed that the voting age shouldn’t be lowered to 16 (66%).

Poll Ireland Thinks Source: Ireland Thinks/Voting Rights.ie and the UCD Clinton Institute

The poll was conducted by Ireland Thinks between 20-24 February with a sample of 1,131 people drawn from a nationally representative panel and weighted according to age, gender, past vote, educational attainment, housing tenure and political interest. 

Respondents were also asked about whether there should be designated seats in the Seanad to represent people in Northern Ireland or those living abroad, and about the timeframe after which their voting rights should be retained (it’s currently 18 months).

Analysis of the poll results indicate that younger voters are more likely to support extending voting rights to the diaspora, while older voters are more likely to be against it.

The results indicated an overall majority in favour of extending the length Irish emigrants keep their right to vote.

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Ireland Thinks graph Source: Ireland Thinks

Minister of State Noonan said that although the Commission being set up was the main objective, it also needed an “ambitious agenda” of reforms to carry out.  

Holding a referendum on the right to housing and a referendum on water, as well as a referendum on extending the right to vote in presidential elections, are in the Programme for Government.

When asked about whether another referendum question would be asked along with the voting rights for the diaspora, Noonan said that he wasn’t “terribly keen” on that idea.

“My preference would be to hold a stand alone referendum on this, you could muddy the waters, and could end up having a significant emphasis on one referendum over another, which, given where the figures are at present I don’t think that’s going to be good for the outcome of this referendum. I want it to be a standalone referendum.”

Despite the majority of countries offering their passport-holders abroad a right to vote, Ireland has limited its rights to its passport holders both in Northern Ireland and abroad.

Among the concerns that there may be with extending the right to vote to the Irish diaspora is how it would influence the outcome of elections – despite diasporas of other countries having small turnouts during their elections.

Senator Michael McDowell said at the event that the polling released today confirmed that an “awful lot of campaigning needed to be done” to confirm a Yes vote. “It’s not a shoo-in as a proposal, and would need a lot of political salesmanship,” he said.

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