This is a short and significant Bill. It is significant for citizens resident inside and outside the State. There are few more important matters than the right to vote. It goes to the core of our democratic system and society. Debating this Bill tonight is timely as it follows on from the Government's recent announcements on diaspora policy. The debate allows us all - Government and Opposition Deputies - the opportunity to address fundamental issues.
The Government recognises the importance of voting rights for our diaspora. The Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, spoke about this issue when he launched the new diaspora policy last week and discussed it again in the Seanad yesterday evening. While the Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage, before progressing it through further Stages of the legislative process, the full range of practical and policy issues that will arise in extending the franchise, as proposed in the Bill, must be analysed. The analysis required will be undertaken by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs.
What are the issues to be analysed and evaluated before a Bill proposing such a significant amendment to the Constitution should be passed in the Oireachtas and put to the people for decision? It would be useful to outline these issues in order that there is a good understanding of the work that has to be undertaken. They come under two broad headings, namely, the minimum age for voting and the extension of the franchise in presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State.
The Bill provides for a lowering of the voting age in presidential elections to 16 years and provides for all citizens resident outside the State to have the right to vote in a presidential election. The existing position is that all citizens over the age of 18 years who are registered to vote and residing in the State may vote at a presidential election. The age requirement of 18 years applies across the board to all other elections and referendums.
Let us first reflect on the proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 years. Last month, Deputies had an opportunity to debate a Bill introduced by Deputy Brian Stanley which proposed that the voting age in general should be reduced to 16 years. The Government did not oppose the Bill on its Second Stage reading because we had agreed in 2013 that a referendum should be held on the proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 years. However, for the reasons outlined by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, during the debate on the Bill, it would be premature to proceed with a referendum on the voting age in May of this year. Essentially, the impact of lowering the voting age across the policy spectrum requires further consideration before the proposal is put to the people in a referendum. The issues arising and potential impacts were discussed and considered by many of the contributors to the debate on 6 February last.
It is useful to remind the House of some of the main points made by the Government side in the debate on Deputy Stanley's Bill. While made in the context of the voting age generally, they clearly also apply to the proposal in the presidential voting Bill to lower the voting age to 16 years for presidential elections. First, a careful examination of the implications of lowering the voting age is needed. The Government indicated that this examination would be undertaken in preparing the relevant legislation. This work is under way but has not yet been completed.
The age of majority, the age at which a person is recognised as being an adult, is 18 years. The work we are doing is focused on the possible issues that could arise for other legislation or age-related schemes or initiatives. International experience and available research on lowering the voting age to 16 years is also being examined.
Questions have been raised about the wisdom of setting the voting age at 16 years when the age of majority is 18 years. We need to weigh up the argument that a change in the voting age could lead to a demand for a lowering of the age threshold in other areas. Legislation in the spheres of most direct influence on the affairs of the younger population, namely, the areas of education and children and youth affairs, defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years. A number of examples of the dichotomy this presents were noted in the debate last month. For example, parents or guardians would continue to have specific rights and responsibilities for their children aged under 18 years in the education system, while the same young persons could vote at 16 years. Other examples can be found in the social welfare system, where the minimum age for entitlement and access to most social welfare schemes is 18 years. Sales of tobacco and alcohol are also linked to a requirement that the purchaser be 18 years. Clearly, these matters need to be thought through thoroughly before progressing any referendum on lowering the voting age.
It is also interesting to note from the debate last month the different international experiences in countries where the voting age was reduced to 16 years. Many of the points aired in this respect emerged from the consideration given to this matter by the Convention on the Constitution established by the Government. Only one country in the European Union, Austria, provides for voting by 16 year olds in national elections. Other European countries allow 16 years olds to vote in sub-national elections at local or regional level. Not surprisingly, much of the research in this area was undertaken in Austria where a positive link was found between lowering the voting age and participation rates. The Austrian research also found that schools were particularly important in influencing political interest. On the other hand, studies in the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia came to different conclusions.
While there is no international consensus on the impact of lowering the voting age, an important dimension of any decision to do so would involve the education system. Education can play an important role in generating the interest and maturity required among younger people that would be necessary to make a success of a decision to lower the voting age. This was borne out in the recent Scottish referendum where the voting age was lowered to 16 years. Research subsequently undertaken in Scotland revealed that the level of interest among young people was equivalent to those of adults. The decisive factor, however, was the link to education.
The second dimension to the Bill is the proposal that all Irish citizens, irrespective of their place of residence, be given the right to vote at presidential elections. This is a matter to which the Government has given consideration in the context of our diaspora policy, Global Irish - Ireland's Diaspora Policy, launched by the Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade just last week. This is the first ever statement of policy on diaspora issues. The connection to our global family remains central to Government policy. Representation was a key theme running through the submissions that were received as part of the consultation process for this new policy. The appointment last July of a Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs goes some way towards recognising this demand.
In launching the policy last week, the Minister of State outlined the Government's position on voting rights for the diaspora. He acknowledged that the issue of voting rights is of enormous importance to many citizens abroad and noted that the topic was frequently raised with him in his direct engagement with the Irish diaspora over many years, as well as more recently in his role as Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs.
As Deputies will be aware, the issue of voting rights for citizens resident outside the State was also considered by the Convention on the Constitution. The convention, in its fifth report, recommended that citizens resident outside the State should have the right to vote in presidential elections. The Government has recently considered this recommendation and has decided that it is necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise in any significant extension of the franchise before any decision could be made on the holding of a referendum. This is the responsible approach to take.
Clearly, an extension of voting rights to citizens resident outside of the State would be welcomed by many in the diaspora. It would allow them to deepen their engagement with Ireland and to play a more active role in Irish society. It would further the wider goal of enhancing diaspora engagement. However, it would be challenging to introduce and manage. I am keen to share with Deputies some of the issues that need to be considered before the Bill could progress through the further stages of the legislative process.
An amendment of the Constitution would be required to enable citizens who are not resident in the State to vote at presidential elections. Deputy Adams proposes that all such citizens should be given this right, as did the Constitutional Convention. However, having regard to the sheer potential numbers involved, this requires careful consideration and analysis.
It will be necessary to consider which citizens resident outside the State should be entitled to vote in presidential elections. It is not uncommon for countries to set limits, usually time limits, on the right to vote of citizens resident outside the State. The following questions arise for us to consider. Should all citizens resident outside the State have the right, as proposed in this Bill? Should it be passport holders? Should it be citizens who are absent from the State for a period? If so, what period would be appropriate? Would it be five, ten or 20 years, for example? Should it be for citizens born on the island of Ireland or confined to citizens previously registered to vote in the State? This is not an exhaustive list of questions that arise when considering this issue but we must consider the numbers involved when making decisions.
The wider Irish diaspora is estimated to stand at 70 million people. This must be a particular consideration in any decision to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections. While those persons who are part of the Irish diaspora only through heritage and cultural connections would not be entitled to Irish citizenship, all others would. The number of those among the 70 million who are entitled to Irish citizenship is simply unknown. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has estimated conservatively that 1.65 million Irish citizens, inclusive of those born in Ireland and abroad, are resident abroad. The number could be far greater. Many who would be entitled to citizenship but have not taken up that entitlement are not included in that figure. Adding the conservative 1.65 million figure to Northern Ireland's population of 1.8 million gives an estimated potential 3.5 million citizens resident outside the State.
I have adverted already to the diaspora policy and to voting rights in that context. However, any consideration of extending the presidential election franchise to Irish citizens overseas would have to include people resident in Northern Ireland. This Bill and the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention embrace all citizens resident outside the State. The implications for Northern Ireland would differ from other parts of the world where the numbers of Irish persons potentially eligible to vote in a presidential election would only be a small percentage of the total population of the host country. By contrast, in Northern Ireland the potential electorate would be sizeable given Northern Ireland's current population of approximately 1.8 million and an electorate of more than 1.24 million, the vast majority of whom have a birthright to Irish citizenship. Evidently, this would present significant practical challenges.
It remains the case that in the House of Lords at Westminster there are hereditary peers whose titles and seats are derived from places in this jurisdiction. For many, this is a sensitive issue. In addition, Ireland and Northern Ireland have a unique constitutional relationship since the Good Friday Agreement and any examination of the franchise would need to be considered fully in that context. This would include considering the political sensitivities there may be about legislating for the electorate in the North to vote in an election in this jurisdiction as well as the need to ensure that any proposal is fully consistent with the State's recognition of the current constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
More generally, extending the franchise at presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State will give rise to a range of practical operational matters to be considered. Arrangements made for voting by citizens resident outside the State must be workable. Let us reflect on some of the issues arising and take a closer look at the registration of new voters as well as the methods of voting that might be made available to citizens resident outside the State. Voter registration in Ireland is undertaken on an annual basis by local authorities, acting as registration authorities, for eligible persons who are ordinarily resident in their administrative areas. New arrangements would have to be put in place for the registration of citizens resident outside the State. Such arrangements would have to be robust to ensure the integrity of the ballot. Options would need to be explored. For example, one option might be to allow for registration in the area in which the citizen last resided in the State or the area where the citizen or his parent or grandparent was born. However, this would not be feasible for Northern Ireland Irish citizens. New and separate arrangements for their registration as voters at an election in the State would need to be put in place.
Many countries provide for registration of out-of-country voters at the embassy or consulate in their country of residence. Whether this option would be appropriate would depend on the method of voting put in place for citizens resident outside the State. There is no escaping the fact, however, that compiling and maintaining voter registers at diplomatic missions could have resource implications, in particular, in countries with significant Irish populations.
There are of course many ways of facilitating voting by citizens resident outside the State. These include voting in person at diplomatic missions or other designated places, postal voting or e-voting. Voting in person at embassies or consular offices or in other designated places is common throughout the world. This approach would have an attraction where there is a large concentration of citizens living in the vicinity of the mission. However, it makes no allowance whatsoever for countries where Ireland has no embassy or for countries where citizens might have to travel long distances to cast a vote.
Postal voting is another option. Voting by post is not considered to be as secure as voting in person at a diplomatic mission in the presence of state officials. However, if postal services are reliable, the method, while still incurring significant costs for the State, may not be as costly as setting up polling stations in other jurisdictions. Moreover, it has the potential to ensure a wider coverage of voters than in-person voting. Careful consideration would need to be given to any e-voting options given the relatively recent Irish experience with electronic voting.
I will conclude by referring briefly to our diaspora policy. The Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, will speak on the matter presently but suffice it for me to say that some of the commentary has tended to overlook the great strides that have been taken in advancing our diaspora policy. Significant measures are being taken to recognise the importance of our diaspora and we should not overlook these in the debate.
The focus of the Bill is extending the franchise in presidential elections to Irish citizens resident outside the State, and the Government is not opposing the Bill. However, we firmly believe that a proposal to amend the Constitution should be accompanied by a full and considered analysis of the implementation proposals. The potential consequences of the amendment and the estimated costs arising need to be fully analysed and considered in a responsible way as well. This work will be undertaken before the Bill progresses through the further stages of the legislative process.