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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Mar 2015

Vol. 871 No. 2

Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Presidential Voting) Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]

Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill sets out to amend the Constitution to allow the voting age for presidential elections to be lowered to 16 and for the voting franchise in such elections to be extended to citizens in the North of Ireland and to the Irish diaspora throughout the world. These recommendations were put forward by the Constitutional Convention and should now be put before our citizens.

Approximately 70 million people around the world claim to be of Irish descent. The Irish influence abroad has been important right down through history. Perhaps the first important impact of Ireland on the world stage was when we sent our learned monks to educate those on the European Continent and further afield during the Dark Ages. Right across Europe, the Irish kept the flame of education and knowledge alive while feudal landlords on the Continent burned down places of learning. When Europeans began arriving on the American Continent, many of those who travelled were of Ulster Scots tradition. Those who made their way across the Atlantic did so to escape penal laws imposed by the British on Ireland which discriminated against dissenting religions such as Presbyterianism. Many of the founding fathers of the United States were of Ulster heritage and it is even believed that some spoke with a distinctive Ulster accent.

The next wave of migration from Ireland was spurred on by the disastrous effects of the potato Famine of 1848. From about 1850 onwards, over 1 million people fled Ireland and hunger to find new homes in the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain. Once the floodgates opened, more and more Irish began to leave and it became the cultural norm for all children of a family, except the child who was to inherit the farm, to leave Ireland as soon as they got the opportunity. At one stage New York was a predominantly Irish city, as was Boston and other cities across the United States. To this day, residents in parts of Newfoundland in Canada speak with a distinctly Irish accent. Since the Famine, emigration from Ireland has become part of the fabric of life in many ways. While the early years were dominated by the need to escape hunger and disease, later emigration offered the chance to earn a living and proper wages. Bustling industrial cities around the world were built by Irish labour. The later part of the 20th century saw Irish people emigrate because the opportunities for educated young people were practically non-existent in Ireland. When the economic crash occurred in 2008, the flow from the country returned once again and thousands of our young people have now set up home in Australia, Canada and even the Gulf States.

For all the millions of Irish who have emigrated from these shores in the past two centuries, there has never been political representation for them at home. The official policy of the State could be described as "out of sight, out of mind". While at several points throughout our history it has been money sent from abroad which has helped keep our economy afloat, those who were sending the money home were never represented here politically. This Bill offers us an opportunity to change that.

At the partition of Ireland, Irish voices north of the Border were silenced. Little opportunity was given to Irish people living in this country to have a voice in the institutions of this State just because they were living north of the Border. The former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, could not vote in her own election. The impact this had on both parts of this country has been profound. In the North, the Nationalist community was rampantly discriminated against by a Unionist ascendency. Nationalists could not get equal access to jobs or housing and were effectively ghettoised in their own country. The State south of the Border did little or nothing to help this situation. It effectively ignored those living only a few miles up the road and abandoned them to sectarian rule. The impact of northern voices being removed from the southern State has been damaging. The Protestant tradition in Ulster had a proud history of enlightenment, spawning important figures in science, engineering and revolutionary politics through the United Irishmen. The hegemonic State which took hold in Ireland post-1922 might not have happened if we had had the dissenting voices of Ulster properly represented in these Chambers. This Bill proposes to extend the voting franchise for the presidential election to the Six Counties. Some people will say that this is the thin end of the wedge and I would unashamedly say, "Yes, it is the thin end of a wedge". I and my party would argue that all Irish people should be represented in this Parliament and in Áras an Uachtaráin and representation in Áras an Uachtaráin is an important step on that journey.

We need to stop paying lip service to young people and start putting faith in them. The youth of today are very switched on to what is happening not just in their own country, but in the wider world. They have a level of access to information unlike that of any previous generation. Therefore, it is a progressive step to lower the voting age in presidential elections to 16. Voter turnout is something I am sure every politician in this Chamber is concerned about and, unfortunately, some of the lowest turnout levels are among young people. A positive step in encourage voting is to develop a pattern of voting among our young. We can get them registered to vote while they are still in school and this should tie into a wider programme of discussing politics and political activity in schools.

In the past three weeks, I received two questionnaires from two secondary schools in County Sligo. I do not know if other Deputies and Senators received those questionnaires but they were drawn up by the students. I met and spoke with the students in one of the schools last year and got a tremendous response from them. They showed a keenness to learn more about politics and the political system. In the questionnaire they sent to me, they asked very simple but quite profound questions. When I thought about it, I did not just fill in the answers to the questions or tick the boxes very quickly. The questions prompted me to question whether I had enough respect for those young people who sent me the questionnaire. It relates to whether we consider young people enough in this Parliament, whether we are really concerned about the younger generation, whether we welcome or fear the voices of younger people being put forward and whether we think young people should have a hand in the process of elections and politics in this country. If we were to answer "Yes" to those questions and if we truly respect those young secondary school students, we would have no hesitation in reducing the voting age to 16 initially for presidential elections and subsequently for general elections.

Tá mé sásta bheith ag caint ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. The representation of the diaspora and our citizens in the North is long overdue. The appropriateness of their right to vote in presidential elections has been mentioned and included in the programme for Government of Fine Gael and Labour who talk about being a reforming Government. When the Constitutional Convention was established, the Taoiseach described it as a significant historic event in the political and democratic life of this country which put the people in their proper place at the very heart of the process because it is to them that the Constitution of our country belongs.

I attended every session of the convention except for one. It was a very uplifting process even though the convention was set up by the Government and did not go as far as Sinn Féin proposed. It did propose serious constitutional changes, including this one, which is to extend voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens in the North and the diaspora and those aged 16. The Government then chose to ignore it. It broke the public commitment it made. Instead, it has chosen to put to citizens a referendum on an issue for which there is no public demand or urgency, namely, reducing the age of eligibility for candidates for the presidency to 21. There is no mad rush about doing that. We have a good President at the moment and long may he live healthily. We have a significant number of people scattered throughout the world and the convention proposed that they should be accorded the vote, as should people in the North.

The failure to extend voting rights to citizens in the North, where I am from, is the result of a deeply partitionist mindset. Many people there, some of whom spoke at the convention, will feel very let down at this Government's U-turn on this issue. President Michael D. Higgins and former Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese spoke and acted as Presidents of all of this island. It is not an accident that when Queen Elizabeth II visited the North, the President was there because he is the President of the island of Ireland, not just the Twenty-six Counties, as in some mindsets. That is how our Presidents are regarded by citizens there, even those from a Unionist background.

Is féidir le ball fóirne ó Thír Eoghain, Ard Mhacha nó an Dún imirt i gCluiche Ceannais na hÉireann, agus bualadh le hUachtarán na hÉireann, i bPáirc an Chrócaigh ach ní féidir leo vóta a chaitheamh don Uachtarán. Ní raibh muintir Thír Eoghain agus Ard Mhacha in ann vóta a chaitheamh do Mary McAleese nuair a shroich siad Páirc an Chrócaigh agus í ina Uachtarán. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil sé seo mícheart. If former President Mary McAleese had still been living in her native Belfast at the time of her election, she could not have voted for herself. Martin McGuinness could not have voted for himself. When Tyrone was playing Armagh in Croke Park, neither the President nor the players - All-Ireland competitors and All Stars - had a vote. They were as Irish as anyone in any part of the world. It is very irrational and illogical. Sinn Féin is not just looking for voting rights for republicans or Nationalists. If Unionists want to exercise that right and put forward a Unionist candidate for the presidency, they will also have the right to exercise that entitlement.

The decision of the Constitutional Convention to extend voting rights was really important emotionally because it recognised that this convention of citizens from this State recognised that people in the North were part of the nation. The nation is not the State. The nation is the nation. It is wider, bigger and arguably more important than any state. There is a unique historic opportunity to end this disenfranchisement of emigrants and to do something concrete about involving citizens in the North in the political life of this State. During the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and afterwards, I and others negotiated with the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to allow MPs to come in here to speak on dedicated issues. They could not, of course, vote or use anything other than speaking rights, but the Government of the day reneged on that as well.

The two biggest failures of successive Dublin Governments are bound up in the failure to deal with emigration and their willingness to embrace it as a policy option for Government and the failure to end partition or even to have a strategy for ending partition. When a strategy has been devised to end partition under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, we do not even have a Government that is happy to advance that strategy and build upon it. The embracing of emigration has long been the policy of successive Governments because it is a great safety valve. Some 500,000 people out of a tax base of 2.5 million people have been forced to emigrate in eight years; 500,000 potential taxpayers are out of the place. These are bright, committed and mostly young people with significant potential who could be a bulwark against the type of social change and inequality this Government has introduced so it is little wonder it is happy to see young people scattered throughout the world.

In 1987, the late Brian Lenihan senior said that we cannot all live on a small island. Why not? It is because Government policy does not allow us all to live on a small island. The argument put forward by successive Governments to account for their failure to deliver on voting rights that citizens abroad do not have sufficient connections with their home country is disgraceful and patently untrue. This is a Government that will say it supports this and the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention and that will travel to the four corners of the world to meet the diaspora to celebrate our national feast day.

Most of the people Ministers will meet would never have left these shores had it not been for the economic policies of this Government and those of the Administrations comprising Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party which preceded it.

If the Government were serious about bringing our emigrants home, it would give them a stake in the country in the first instance by giving them a vote. There is a new generation of emigrants fighting back. Organisations such as We're Coming Back are actively campaigning for voting rights for the Irish abroad. More than 120 other states have legislated to allow their citizens abroad to cast their votes in elections at home. Once again, we are out of line with the international trend. We all know people who have come here to live and work who vote in elections in their home countries at the appropriate time.

The Government launched its diaspora policy last week. Next week, Ministers will be highlighting it in various countries throughout the world. It must be noted, however, that they have completely abdicated any responsibility in respect of these crucial issues. When I previously challenged the Taoiseach to review his decisions, he arrogantly claimed that people would be put off - let us face it, the people are stupid - by too many referendums being held on the same day, that they would not understand what was being placed before them, that they would need more time and that, perhaps, they are not that interested in referendums at all. That is the Taoiseach's attitude to the citizens he is supposed to serve in this House.

We favour a reserved Dáil constituency for citizens in the North and for members of the diaspora. Such an approach would allow the Government to deal with voting rights, with limited disruption to the current electoral system. The Government should now drop all of its lame excuses and deliver voting rights in presidential elections for Irish emigrants, citizens in the North and those citizens aged 16 and upwards, as recommended by the Constitutional Convention.

Tá an-áthas orm an Bille seo de chuid Shinn Féin a phlé sa Dáil. Léiríonn sé na gnéithe is fearr de chur chuige mo pháirtí. Is iad sin an dóchas, an oscailteacht agus an fháilte roimh shaoránaigh uile na tíre.

This Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill represents the very best of that for which the party stands, namely, representation for all citizens of Ireland and openness to and a valuing of our young people and those who have left Ireland in search of work across the globe. We aim to amend Article 2.2 of the Constitution to allow the voting age for presidential elections to be lowered to 16. We also want to introduce votes in presidential elections for citizens in the North and those living beyond the shores of Ireland.

In July 2012, the Government established the Constitutional Convention. In September 2013, the convention met to discuss presidential voting rights for citizens resident outside the State and all citizens in the North of Ireland. The result of the ballot vote at the end of the session was that a clear majority of Constitutional Convention members favoured a change to the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections, with 78% in favour, 21% against and 1% undecided. On voting rights being extended to citizens in the North, there was also a clear majority, with 73% in favour, 20% against and 7% undecided. Despite this clear support for an extension of voting rights, the Government has so far failed to bring any report forward to the Dáil and Seanad in this regard. I must admit that I am disappointed - not surprised perhaps - by the statement by An Taoiseach that he feels this issue is one with which the next Government should deal. If that is the case, I hope that he will not be a member of that Government and will thereby be prevented from further fudging the issue.

Regarding younger voters being welcomed into the electorate, this would increase voter turnout, particularly among those in the 18 to 24 age group. This would help make the Dáil more representative of our younger generation. There is also evidence that a reduction in voting age increases voter turnout in general. This must be viewed as a positive. Across the world there are 115 countries and territories that have varying systems to allow their emigrant citizens the right to vote. We should join this group that extends its franchise, widens its potential and allows all to take part in the democratic process. Many of those to whom I refer in the context of this country have been driven away by the failed policy of nationalising debt and pushing the burden onto all citizens which has been pursued by the current Government and that which preceded it.

During the past five years, various Governments, including the one currently in office, stood by while 240 people left the State each day. A total of 40,000 people emigrated in the past five years, which is a terrible scandal. We must do more to let them know that their skills, qualities, ambitions and spirit are valued and needed, now more than ever. We must invite them to take part in helping us to build a republic for all who know this island as home. Why would the Government oppose this? These are provisions that enjoy wide popular support and, as already stated, that are available in numerous jurisdictions. Why is the Government opposed to that? The answer is that it is afraid of giving rights to the Irish all across the world and concerned about the response they might receive if they give a voice to those citizens who were effectively exiled. The answer they might hear is that such people are no longer happy with the same old narrow definition of politics and no longer satisfied with the same old dance which, like that in the song "Lanigan's Ball", involves Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil stepping out while the other steps in again.

Ireland has changed. This Bill will help our democracy to change and grow. It will also allow the Irish across the globe to contribute to it. Sinn Féin urges the Government to accept the Bill and ensure its transition through the Houses of the Oireachtas in order that we might hold a referendum that would be of great importance to all the people of Ireland, not least those who have been obliged to leave this island through the years. Iarraim ar gach Teachta tacú leis an mBille seo.

I do not believe there is a single Deputy from a rural constituency who is not well acquainted with the position in respect of emigration or with the loss of our youngest and brightest people as a result of the economic circumstances that prevail. Despite Government spin about a so-called recovery, the available data shows that the number of people in employment in the south west fell by 5,000 last year and that, more significantly, emigration has resulted in a corresponding drop in the number of people available for work. The pain of emigration is not felt only by emigrants. There is a generation of parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews across this State who are grieving for those who have left these shores into find decent work. Wives and children have also been left behind by husbands who have been forced to go abroad in search of work. Not all of those who left were unemployed. However, many were without jobs and many more were involved on those schemes and scams that the Government likes to refer to as "employment" or else they were working in jobs for which they were over-qualified and were, perhaps, on zero-hour contracts. They left to search for work for which they are suitably qualified.

At my constituency office or when I attend local events, I often speak to the people who have been left behind and I can see that their loss is like a hidden bereavement. When their loved ones go across the sea, the people left behind grieve. The fact that we have been obliged to put up with emigration for generations does not make it any easier. The fact that we are not obliged to wait for the postman to bring a handwritten letter from our loved one across the sea and can see them on a computer screen or send them a text does not mean that we are not suffering their loss. The fervent wish of families left at home and of most of those who go away is that they will return. However, we all know that even with the best will in the world, people lose touch because of the thousands of miles separating them from home.

One of the factors that contributes to this separation is the fact that people who leave also become distant from the political process in their homeland. Citizens should be encouraged to remain in contact with all aspects of life at home.

Families who want their relatives to come home try to keep them in touch with the local GAA team and on how things are doing in the home place, partly to keep them engaged in the political process. One of the most popular ways of keeping people in touch is by means of local newspapers, which people send abroad to keep relatives in touch with events happening in their community at home.

Involvement is an important part of maintaining the relationship with home. Involvement in public life is good for emigrants and for those of us left at home without them. It is unfair that going abroad means automatic disenfranchisement. The Government has set about appointing a Minister with responsibility for the diaspora, but has not taken what would seem to be the natural step of upholding the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention, which recommended that Irish citizens would have the right to vote in presidential elections. That is surprising given that the convention is composed of members from all political parties, among others, and that it offered unanimous support to bring about such a measure. The extension of the franchise to Irish citizens abroad is a popular recommendation of the Constitutional Convention. On seeing that, a good Government would lead from the front and implement the recommendations, but as with many aspects of its work, the Government is being dragged forward by citizens at home and abroad who are now disappointed by the lack of willingness to restore their right to vote.

Extending the vote to all Irish citizens overseas and those living in the North will strengthen Irish democracy. As previous speakers have said, in recent years approximately 500,000 mostly young people have emigrated to Australia, the United States of America, across the water to the United Kingdom, and to many other areas. Let us compare the situation with rights afforded to emigrants from other countries. More than 120 nations have extended voting rights to their emigrants. They include 36 European countries, 21 African countries, 13 in the Americas and 15 Asian countries. When one contrasts that with what we have not done, it is an embarrassment for any Government.

Other countries seem to have no fear of keeping their emigrants close. Some countries even have created constituencies in their national parliaments for their citizens living abroad. Such constituencies then go on to represent the interests of the diaspora. All the representative organisations for emigrants are in favour of extending voting rights in presidential elections and people at home are in favour of it. It is time the Government responded to the call of the people to implement voting rights for our citizens in presidential elections.

The link between citizenship and political representation is one of the most fundamental principles of democracy. We see how Irish citizens in Britain - members of the Irish community - can vote in Britain but not in Ireland. British citizens living in Ireland can vote in Irish elections and are also entitled to register as overseas voters to participate in British elections. The law as it stands creates a second class of Irish citizenship for the Irish in Britain and in other parts of the world as well.

Prior to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, we had a constitutional claim to jurisdiction of the Six Counties, yet following the implementation of the Agreement - some aspects of it have yet to be implemented - there has been a denial of the right of people who live there to vote in presidential elections. As Deputy Adams said, we would like the Unionist tradition to field a candidate and for all those in the North to have such voting rights. It is part of what the Good Friday Agreement is all about, namely, creating harmonisation within the island of Ireland and also giving equal rights to everybody.

One must also take into account the more than half a million people who have left this country since the beginning of the recession. While the State failed citizens miserably for a considerable time, it continues to fail them by denying them the right to vote in elections on this island. In the 1930s, Peadar O'Donnell said more than half a million people had left in similar circumstances because of the economic situation in the country. Most of those people hardly ever returned. They left behind a lot of pain and suffering, yet they had no political connection to the State. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Gerald Nash, will take on board what has been said. If he does not wish to listen to Sinn Féin, at least he should listen to the Constitutional Convention, some of whose members are members of his party, which has made the same recommendation. The motion offers an opportunity to the Government. It would be a tremendous statement to those people whom the Government and previous Governments have failed by creating an economic collapse that has forced so many to leave this country. I hope the Minister of State will take on board everything that has been said. I commend the Sinn Féin Party on tabling the motion. I welcome the support of everybody in this House to bring about what we seek.

On the weekend of 28 and 29 September 2013, the Constitutional Convention held its sixth plenary meeting to discuss presidential voting rights for citizens resident outside the State at Irish embassies or otherwise. The convention considered a huge volume of submissions from members of the public and heard presentations from experienced academic and legal experts. Advocacy groups of the Irish communities in Australia, Germany, France, Canada and the United States of America also participated and contributed. The session on the North of Ireland also heard a number of detailed insights from convention members from the Stormont Assembly, including Martin McGuinness and other contributors from across the North. The result of the ballot vote at the end of the meeting was that a clear majority of 78% of convention members favoured a change to the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections.

On voting rights being extended to citizens in the North, a clear majority of 73% was in favour. Indeed, even President Michael D. Higgins stated during his own election campaign that voting rights should be extended to those living abroad. In a speech at the London Irish Centre, he said members of the diaspora had made "a central contribution to the development of our country", and that their voices should be heard at the polls. He suggested that people already on the electoral register should be able to vote in "some or all of our elections" for five or ten years after leaving Ireland.

The right to vote in presidential elections should be extended to general elections as well. More than 106 other states, including Italy, Australia, the USA, the Dominican Republic and Ghana, allow their citizens an overseas vote. Britain actively encourages its citizens to vote from overseas. These states not only correctly realise political engagement is essential if they intend to benefit economically from their diaspora, but also recognise that emigrants continue to be citizens of their nations and deserve to have a say in the directions taken. Our Government, in contrast, seems to distrust emigrants. There is no impetus or willingness to give citizens voting rights in general elections either. Could that be because the Government fears the huge numbers forced to emigrate from our shores might not vote favourably for those implementing the very policies that forced them to leave? Something will have to give sooner or later. Today's Irish abroad, especially the younger generation, are too politically aware to continue accepting that their voices remain unheard while most other EU nations are allowed theirs.

The reality is that emigrant voting is now an international democratic norm. The Government must face up to this reality and facilitate political participation for all citizens. Despite the convention recommending that the Government would legislate and hold a referendum on presidential voting rights for all citizens resident outside the State, the Government has failed to bring any report to the Dáil and Seanad in this regard. It is not good enough for the Taoiseach to say now that the issue of presidential voting rights is for the next Government to address.

It is ludicrous that the system does not allow for citizens in the North to participate in presidential elections. As a former holder of the Office of President, Ms Mary McAleese was eligible to stand for election as President to represent all the people of Ireland, yet remains unable to vote in any presidential election since leaving office. This is a monumental contradiction which requires constitutional change. On 3 March last, following public consultation, the Government launched a new global diaspora policy, which fails to address the issue of presidential voting rights in a substantive manner and does not instil confidence that the issue will be addressed.

Jennie McShannon of Irish in Britain, which represents more than 100 Irish community and voluntary organisations across the United Kingdom, stated that not allowing emigrants who had moved abroad to look for work to vote amounted to "disenfranchisement which ought to end." Ms McShannon added:

We want to play our part, make a difference. So many have such a real stake, including houses and families here at home. If citizenship means anything in a democracy, it means the right for all adults to vote.

The chairwoman of the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad campaign, Mary Hickman, speaking to the Constitutional Convention in 2013, stated that while a vote for Irish citizens abroad in presidential elections would be welcome, emigrant citizens should also be given a say in Dáil elections. She added:

This issue of emigrant citizens voting in general elections isn't going to go away. It is the avenue, the gateway, for a far better balanced relationship between the Irish nation and its diaspora.

It is time the Government moved forward on both issues.

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.

While the focus tonight is on the Bill before the House and while this is of course an important issue, some of the commentary has tended to overlook the great strides that have been taken in advancing our diaspora policy. As the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, said, it is only a week since our first statement of policy on diaspora issues was published. I am pleased to have the document before me. It has been widely received in a positive way by countries throughout the world and by all the interested parties in Ireland as well. The document outlines some significant measures that are being taken to recognise the importance of our diaspora and these should not be overlooked in the debate about extending the franchise.

For example, communications was a key theme running through the submissions received during the consultation process for the diaspora policy. To help Irish people abroad stay in touch with home and their heritage, a new resource in the form of an online portal on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website was launched in conjunction with the policy. The portal provides signposts for Irish people and people of Irish descent and affinity to information that might be helpful to them in their lives overseas or for those thinking of coming home. The portal and a new Irish newsletter, which users can sign up for on the portal, are the first steps in improving our communications with the diaspora.

In addition, RTE recently launched a video-on-demand service for the Irish diaspora, RTE Player International. This online service will offer over 500 hours of indigenous Irish content. Users can access over 100 hours of free content, refreshed daily, and the full content offering of 500 hours will be accessible through a small monthly subscription. RTE Player International is RTE's second dedicated Irish diaspora service, following the very successful launch of GAAGO last year.

Emigration has always been a feature of the Irish experience. However, the nature of that experience has changed over the years. While previous generations departed in the knowledge that they might never see their homes or families again, today we have other means of keeping in touch. Despite this, the challenges involved in starting life in a new country are daunting and are faced by many Irish every day. We are very conscious of these challenges and are committed to keeping welfare at the heart of the Government's engagement with the diaspora. As part of the diaspora policy, a Global Irish Civic Forum will be convened in Dublin to bring together diverse organisations from around the world that are facing similar challenges but are not yet connected to each other. It will also provide a valuable opportunity to hear perspectives from the ordinary Irish emigrant. This forum will take place on 3 and 4 June of this year.

The Government is in a position to assist many of these groups through emigrant support programme funding. In 2014, almost €12 million was provided to organisations supporting Irish emigrants in making the best lives possible in their countries of residence. This brings support to emigrants through the emigrant support programme to over €125 million since the programme was established in 2004.

There is also tremendous support provided from within the community to those Irish who find themselves in difficult situations, or at times of illness or bereavement. A powerful spirit of community and solidarity can be witnessed in Irish communities across the world, and our network of embassies and consulates around the world works with and alongside these communities.

The diaspora are not a homogenous group, and our new diaspora policy acknowledges this, with a range of new initiatives to help us connect with as many of the diaspora as possible. We are finalising the details of a new global media fund to support media coverage of diaspora and emigration-related experience, which will broaden our engagement with the diaspora and increase awareness of the Irish people overseas. We will build better and stronger links with alumni from Irish institutions, both Irish graduates overseas and international students who have studied here, as they have enormous potential for the institutions and for Ireland as a whole. In 2015 we will launch an alumni challenge fund to provide seed funding to new collaborative initiatives by Irish institutions to target their Irish and non-Irish graduates working internationally. We are also open to receiving proposals on how to connect with new diaspora communities to help the Irish there retain their identity. This policy will evolve. Our Global Irish portal will evolve to meet the needs of our emigrant population and the entire policy will be reviewed after two years.

Earlier today I held the first meeting of the interdepartmental group, which brings together stakeholders across the public system to ensure that our policy on the diaspora represents a joined-up, whole-of-government approach, taking account of all of the issues facing emigrants before they leave, while they are away and when they return. I am delighted that we have in place, for the first time, a comprehensive statement of our policy that is relevant to all who make up our diverse diaspora around the world - the global Irish.

The Minister of State, Deputy Nash, referred to the motion in depth. The Constitutional Convention was very strong on this issue. The Cabinet considered it and I issued a statement last week in conjunction with the publication of the diaspora policy. The line Minister is Deputy Alan Kelly. He, with the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and myself will meet immediately to discuss how we can advance the proposal. We have to look at the logistics, who is eligible to vote, where they will vote and how they will vote, which was all dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, in his contribution. In order to get to the next stage, we have to make that consideration. We have learned with two recent referendums that if we put a referendum to the people the mechanics of which we cannot explain fully, as happened with the referendums on the Seanad and on compellability of witnesses in Dáil investigations, or if there is a doubt about it, it will be rejected by the people. We want to go to the people with what we propose being very clear.

I would also remind the House that the next presidential election is in 2018, so there is plenty of opportunity to prepare properly for it before we go to a referendum. I am on record in the House as saying I am very much in favour of extending the franchise to our citizens overseas in whatever form. However, we have to approach it very carefully and properly. As well as that, our President is a very important person. It is not just a ceremonial function. The President is head of our armed forces, for example, and signs into law all the Bills that come through this House. The President is recognised all over the world as our Head of State. When President Higgins went to the UK, for example, we saw the recognition he got. In the past, Taoisigh may have visited the UK, but a President is different and is received in a different way all over the world as our Head of State. It is a very important position, and that is something we have to consider very seriously when we are moving to a referendum of the people. The people would want to know for sure who would vote, who is on the register of electors, how that is decided on and where will they vote. That is all very important.

I welcome this opportunity to address the matter. As the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, said, the Government is not opposing this motion, which will give us an opportunity to consider not only the issue of voting but also other issues. I am open to further consideration of the diaspora policy, which, as I said, is an evolving policy. It is a work in progress and is building on the work already done by previous Governments. For example, the emigrant support programme and the Irish abroad unit, which were set up under Deputy Cowen's brother back in 2004 when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs, have proven very successful.

There are several issues apart from the voting issue, but this has obviously exercised people's minds. Among the people I have come in contact with around the world, it is an issue for some but not for all. Nonetheless, it is a very important issue for some. I can see how this would connect people back to Ireland and give them a feeling that they had a say in what was happening in Ireland. Apart from a vote in presidential elections, which requires a constitutional referendum, there is also the proposal to provide three seats in the Seanad to members of our diaspora, something I have supported in the past in this House, with one seat for the Americas, one for Europe and one for Australia and the rest of the world. There is a very strong proposal from the Irish in Britain that was sent in to the Chairman of the committee set up to look at Seanad reform, the former Senator Maurice Manning. That is a real and important consideration and, under the next Government, this could probably be done by nomination if we do not have a process in place for electing Senators directly.

In conclusion, I thank Sinn Féin for tabling the motion, which gives us all an opportunity to reflect on diaspora policy. I sincerely hope the Opposition will acknowledge that this is the first comprehensive policy that has ever been produced. I hope they would be magnanimous enough to do that and then to move on to the other challenges we have to deal with regarding our diaspora and how we communicate and connect with them.

Fianna Fáil supports the proposal of the Constitutional Convention to extend voting rights to Irish citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland for presidential elections. We must acknowledge the appointment of a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, and I belatedly congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment and wish him well in his role. I want to further acknowledge that since he has taken up that role, like many Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Trade before him, he has engaged and consulted widely with the diaspora, various stakeholders, immigrant support groups and successful entities, bodies and companies which have Irish backgrounds and are very committed to Irish projects in terms of the assistance they can provide.

It is, as he said, the next step, following the initiatives of predecessors since 2004 and the various support groups put in place to help stakeholders and those who assisted the Irish abroad in various locations throughout the world. There is much to be welcomed in the policy. It is important that it was formulated in the manner in which it has been - that is, a statement of intent by Government to initiate the various issues that have been brought to its attention not only in the recent past but over many years. It probably does not go far enough. However, I accept the good faith and intentions of those who helped to bring it to this stage, insofar as they can now consult the rest of the Government and its various agencies and Departments with a view to addressing the issues that various representative groups of the Irish diaspora throughout the world have cited.

There was a call for another consultative report on extending the vote, citing complexities from legal and administrative perspectives. That may be construed by many to be disingenuous to the very group it seeks to assist. The Government has to instill more confidence in the House and, by association, the general public of its intent in this regard.

We have reservations about the proposal in the Bill to extend the vote for presidential elections to all citizens who are 16 years of age. Given that only citizens over 18 years of age can currently vote for the President, the question of the rights of citizens abroad or in Northern Ireland is separate and deserving of consideration on its own terms, without being muddled with the question of the voting age. While there is merit in reducing the voting age, it should be done for elections in Ireland before it is tried abroad.

At the establishment of the Constitutional Convention, the Government committed to respond to its various reports by way of ministerial statements to the Dáil within four months of the receipt of a report. In this case, that deadline has been missed and no Dáil debate has taken place. Instead, we have been told in the Government's new report that:

An extension of voting rights to Irish citizens outside the State would be challenging to introduce and manage. A range of issues will arise in this context, including policy, legal and practical issues. For example, a key policy issue is the precise eligibility for any extended franchise. Ireland has a large number of citizens resident outside the State and generous conditions for passing that citizenship down through the generations, including to those who have never visited or engaged with Ireland. There are also significant practical issues which must be given due consideration. The Government has decided, therefore, that the matter is to be given to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, in cooperation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Diaspora Affairs to analyse the policy, legal and practical issues arising and to report back to Government.

Yet again it could be construed that the Government is ignoring the demands of Irish citizens abroad and in Northern Ireland for recognition from the Irish State. It could well be construed that the report is patronising towards many of these citizens.

Elements that are absent from the policy document published this week are the setting of targets or deadlines for reporting back so that the document's contents can be analysed and seen to be working or not. In many other reports, no matter how much we might disagree with them across various areas or Departments, there has been a commitment to adjudicate on progress at regular intervals, determine what achievements have been met and set targets. That is lacking in this report, and I ask the Minister of State to consider an extension in order to set targets, deadlines and timeframes by which some results could be analysed.

There is a review after two years.

Maybe that could be divided into three different reviews of the various elements.

With regard to the call for another consultative report with reference to issues of complexity, this is something we have had ample time to analyse and consider, and I am sure it was debated during the period of negotiation, consultation and engagement with the diaspora and its representatives abroad since the Minister of State came into office.

When the economic crisis began to pinch, we were quick to look to the diaspora for a helping hand through The Gathering and the Global Irish Economic Forum, which was of major benefit to all concerned, including the tourist, industrial and scientific sectors and many others. We are happy, as usual, to wear the green and shuffle up to Irish communities around the world on St. Patrick's Day for the access it gives us to political and business leaders around the world. We acknowledge and pay tribute to that, and we milk it for all it is worth, to the envy of many of our competitors throughout the world.

We have tried to engage more with Irish abroad by creating a new role for the Minister of State, that of responsibility for the diaspora, which has to be seen as more than an optical illusion. In order to gain the trust, support and commitment of the Irish diaspora, there must be a better effort to allow for those who wish to be eligible to vote in a presidential election to be facilitated. I acknowledge that the Government does not oppose the Bill, which leads one to believe that there is an intention to follow through on the commitments it made in this regard. It is important that concrete measures be put in place to adjudicate on that commitment.

In his first trip to New York last November in his current role, the Minister of State told an Irish-American audience that the right to vote in presidential elections would be confirmed by the start of 2015. He said he saw no reason the vote could not be extended to Seanad elections and that the diaspora might eventually be allowed to vote in Dáil elections.

I said there would be a decision on a referendum by the Cabinet before Christmas. It has made that decision.

Will we have a referendum?

We have made the decision.

The Minister of State is trying to qualify a statement made with the best of intentions and in good faith. I do not hold him responsible for it; far be it from me to do such a thing. The audience on that occasion was led to believe that the Government was really committed to honouring the commitments of others in the past.

We are still going to do that.

I know that.

I see what is in the report and, as I stated, I acknowledge that the Government is not opposing this. There is no means by which we can measure success and progress.

We are closer now than ever before.

May I come in and out like that too?

That must be emphasised. It was mentioned that the Government is examining the French model, where seats are reserved in parliament for nationals living abroad, with the promise that Irish citizens living abroad would be given a vote very shortly. We acknowledge the commitment is progressing, no matter how slowly it may be doing so.

It is over a year since the Constitutional Convention recommended that a referendum be held on extending voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and Irish emigrants. Despite the Oireachtas resolution establishing the convention and the four-month timeframe in which the Government had to respond to the recommendations, it has not happened in this case. That is despite the fact that were it not for the putting down of this Bill by the Sinn Féin Party, we would not be talking about the issue tonight. Reports of the Constitutional Convention are particularly important as it was made up of 66 ordinary citizens who gave their time for no personal reward and engaged, in good faith, with politicians in a process of deliberation. We owe it to them at least to allow a Dáil debate on the merits of the recommendations, as has been promised by the Government, as opposed to me or anybody on this side of the House. Why have they not been given the courtesy of that hearing, having conducted some hard work deliberating on the matter? It should be discussed in the national Parliament as promised.

The final report indicates that the convention made several constitutional recommendations in important areas, such as giving voting rights to citizens abroad. Instead, we are going to use the opportunity of a referendum to discuss leadership qualities and debate whether a 21 year old can be President of Ireland. The Government took the easy option by dealing with only one tricky topic at a time. The marriage equality issue must be answered, as we acknowledge, but the decision on the minimum age for a President is only an illusion, as I stated earlier. If we are serious about making politics and the presidency more relevant, engaging the multitude of young Irish who have emigrated in Irish politics by giving them a stake in who is elected to the office should surely be of higher priority than reducing the minimum age for presidential candidates.

In an international context, it is important to read into the record the position in many other countries throughout the world. A 2006 study from the Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance of countries that allowed emigrants to vote included the findings that 21 African nations do so, as well as 13 North American and South American countries, 15 Asian countries, six Pacific countries and 36 European countries. Of these countries, 65 allow external votes for everybody, while approximately 25 place restrictions based on factors such as whether a person intends to return permanently or how long people have been away. Citizens from the US can vote no matter how long they stay away, whereas citizens of Britain are disqualified after 15 years away. There is form and a wide range of experience that can be drawn on from those countries which have engaged successfully in the practice.

With regard to the limitations in voting ages, my concern is that given Irish citizens must currently be 18 to vote for a President, we do not support extending the right to vote to all 16 year olds. As I stated earlier, there is merit in reducing the voting age but it should be done in Irish elections before it is trialled abroad in the first instance. A number of other limitations could be considered to address the fears expressed about the disruptive impact in the short term on presidential elections, including limiting the number of expatriates to those who were born in Ireland. That would reduce the potential disruptive impact on expanded voting rights. Expatriates should vote in the Irish Embassy of a country in order to limit numbers and there should be a time limit related to the last point at which the person resided in Ireland. For example, it could be as it is in the UK at 15 years.

I thank the proposers for putting forward this Bill, which is timely, considering the Minister produced his own policy document in the area this week. Although it did not contain the commitment to extend voting rights, it demonstrates a willingness to do so. The exact weight of the willingness can only be measured in time. I hope the Government will use more stringent timeframes and measures to analyse what progress, if any, is being made in the area. Only then can we begin to properly criticise the Government for inaction in the area. There are many other issues within diaspora policy that one would welcome. As I indicated, it is a natural progression from the extension of the emigrant support programme established in 2004, as the Minister of State alluded to. I hope this can be expanded and more funding can be allowed by the Government to assist these people. I also hope every effort will be made to encourage many of those who I hope will be successful in returning to the country to partake in its recovery over time.

I wish to share time with Deputies Thomas Pringle, Finian McGrath and Michael Fitzmaurice.

The right to vote is one of the most fundamental political rights of citizens. It is part of the fabric of democracy and when people are disenfranchised of that right in other countries that are not democratic, we are up in arms. Nevertheless, we disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of our citizens around the world. Very many of those lost the right to vote through no fault of their own because they had to leave the country in which they were born. Some Irish have no voting rights despite the fact that approximately 150 countries have systems in place to allow emigrants to vote. It is interesting that even countries with high rates of emigration, like Italy and Mexico, have recently allowed expatriates to vote. I am speaking in broader terms, and I support the motion, but Irish citizens should have the right to vote in all elections.

It is interesting that in 2006, a study of countries that allowed emigrants to vote included 21 African countries, 13 North American and South American countries, 15 Asian countries and 36 European countries. Astoundingly, we are not in that group of countries and we have not even considered over the past number of years the rights of citizens. I was recently in London on behalf of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, which is chaired by Deputy Dominic Hannigan. We met representatives of an organisation that was the voice of Irish people seeking the right to vote. They made very compelling reasons and it was astounding how up to date they were on politics in Ireland. They explained that many people, particularly those who are relatively young - perhaps aged from 18 to 30 years or 35 to 40 years - had no choice about leaving the country but still wanted a say in how the country is run. They do not have that say, which is regrettable.

The European Commission had indicated that citizens should not lose their right to vote in national elections when they move to another state. It is inevitable that there will have to be a debate in the Oireachtas on the rights of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Irish citizens who want to have a say in the politics of their country. When we were in London, the point was made that we have elections in Ireland where sometimes 40% of people do not bother to vote. The percentage of people who do not vote is certainly in the region of 30% when there is a low turnout. There are highly educated people whose families lived in the country for generations and they want a say; they are willing to vote but cannot have their say, which is appalling.

I most certainly support this Bill and would like to have more time to speak on it but I need to allow other speakers contribute. I am glad the Government is not opposing it because it is worthwhile and very well put together. It is inevitable that we will come back to the fact that the European Commission has said it is wrong not to allow our citizens who have left the country to vote in all elections.

I am pleased to speak in support of this legislation which proposes to extend the franchise in the presidential election to all Irish citizens, regardless of where they live, and to lower the voting age to 16 for all citizens in the presidential election. The Convention on the Constitution has debated extending the franchise to all citizens for the presidential election. The convention teased it out and voted in favour of it and gave it to the Government to consider. I am amazed by the difficulties in its implementation the Minister outlined in his speech. It is amazing that 150 countries allow non-resident citizens vote if it is so difficult and there are so many considerations prior to doing so. It seems the Government wants to accept this Bill in order to let it die whenever this Dáil ends and that sometime in the term of the next Dáil, or maybe never, it will be revisited. That, unfortunately, seems to be the rationale.

The Government has accepted only one or two proposals put forward by the Convention on the Constitution on which to vote, which makes one wonder what was the point of the convention. It was a very positive exercise and contribution, which the Government should have taken more fully on board. The real fear from a Government point of view is that it cannot control how these people and 16 year olds will vote. Emigrants would probably not vote for the establishment parties that have been in power in this State for so many years. That is the main reason it will not seriously consider extending the franchise.

It is amazing too how many difficulties and issues have to be teased out, thought about, discussed and considered before extending the vote to 16 year olds can be put to the people. The most pressing point in this proposal is that the earlier we get people to engage and participate in the electoral system, the better our chance of having a dynamic system that represents everybody. It is constantly said that 18 to 25 year olds do not vote or not in such big numbers as other cohorts. That is because at that age one does not think politics influences one’s life. Only when one thinks about settling down, buying a house or starting a family does one realise that politics has an influence. It is then that those people start to vote. If people vote at 16, they are more likely to continue to vote and if we provide a vote for emigrants, they will be able to vote when they have to emigrate. It will be of great benefit to them and to our society to allow this to happen. Unfortunately, this Bill will die with the Government and will not see the light of day again.

I commend Sinn Féin on this Bill. I acknowledge that the Government has appointed a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and Deputy Deenihan has forged links with groups in different countries.

We should give people in these countries the choice of casting a vote because they are there through no fault of their own. Many of them keep up an interest in, and are as up to date as anybody else on, what is going on in Ireland. It is their home and they have a genuine passion for being involved in their country. I understand that there are issues to be teased out but we should try to get around the obstacles.

One way to show we are interested in doing this is, at the election next year, to put out the hand and have, as Taoiseach’s appointees to the Seanad, people in those countries to represent them. We need to show we are interested in doing this rather than kicking the can down the road for a few more years. All youngsters in secondary school study politics and many know a great deal about it. People might wonder if at the age of 16 they are fit to vote, but because they are learning about it, they know a fair bit about it. One has to commend the system on that. I understand the constitutional difficulties but our first step should be to give people outside the country the opportunity to vote and we can try it with the 16 year olds.

We can overcome the problems because there is unanimity in the House, which is good to see, that we need to look outside the box and give our youngsters a chance. We should be like the 150 countries that give their people who have moved to other places the opportunity to cast a vote. It gives people the feeling of being included, which is very important because some day many of these people will come home. Some countries have different stipulations for people who have been gone for five or ten years. Those are matters we can work on constructively with the diaspora.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I commend Deputy Seán Crowe and Sinn Féin on bringing the legislation before the House. I welcome the debate as I feel very strongly that Irish citizens resident overseas have a great contribution to make to Irish life. This debate is part of that process. We all need to open our minds to the huge positive potential of this process and in particular the great potential of the Irish abroad. I also commend those in America and other countries who were very supportive of the start of the Northern Ireland peace process. They led and delivered by supporting the talks at that time. We should never forget that in this House, even though at times many do.

I would like to see an end to the disenfranchisement of recent migrants, a facilitation of a diaspora vote in the presidential election, provision for their representation in the Oireachtas and Ministers dealing with these issues. Votes for people in the Six Counties is an important issue. This island is small enough that they should be allowed to vote in all elections, particularly the presidential election. If we are serious about honouring the men and women of 1916 we would all in this House agree on that. These are sensible proposals and should be supported.

There is consensus across the political and ideological spectrum that Irish well-being and economic recovery depend on our openness and global reach.

We all know the Irish diaspora is a vast living resource not just in terms of trading Irish products for Irish consumers but in the fact that they have another vision. They know about new markets, fresh ideas and products, branding, investment opportunities for growth and for Irish enterprise and they have professional networks. Many of them do very well in foreign countries. The Irish around the world believe strongly in being Irish and in supporting Ireland and that is a resource we do not tap into enough.

From life-saving remittances in times of hardship to The Gathering in 2013, Irish migrants have displayed a profound generosity to all their families and to the people and the places they left behind. On a daily basis, hundreds of thousands of Irish migrants volunteer and willingly assist as ambassadors for the arts, sports and culture right across the island. The Irish abroad contribute economically, boost Ireland's influence and enrich Irish culture. The Irish Government should recognise that it is in its interest to engage and sustain the diaspora.

It is very important that we give strong consideration to this proposal. The Central Statistics Office reports that Ireland has lost some 300,000 citizens in the past four years, mostly adults. An estimated 420 were arriving in England each week in the highest level of migration in 22 years. Among the recent Irish emigrants aged between 25 and 34, more than 60% were graduates. Education and training, paid for by the Irish taxpayer, are in danger of being lost to the country. These are all the positives of what is behind the debate on this legislation. We need to open our minds and support this Bill. I urge all Deputies to do so and I welcome that the Government is not opposing the Bill at this point.

I wish to share time with a number of Deputies. Tá áthas orm bheith anseo anocht chun an t-ábhar seo a phlé. I am delighted to speak on this proposal to extend voting rights in presidential elections to our diaspora. The matter was discussed in detail during the fifth report of the Constitutional Convention. Three quarters of the membership of the convention recommended that we extend the franchise to citizens resident in Northern Ireland and overseas. The Government has been far too slow to move on this. Not opposing the Bill is the minimum we should do. Across Europe, 40 countries provide voting rights to their citizens who live overseas. Last year the European Commission criticised our Government for not allowing citizens who are resident in other EU member states to vote in our national elections and it claimed this might impinge on the freedom of movement of people.

The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, which I chair and of which Deputy Crowe is a member, examined this issue. We held a number of meetings with academics, political parties, ambassadors from other member states resident in Ireland and representatives of the Irish diaspora overseas. We published a report in which we recommended that the Government extend voting rights. Last week our committee visited London in the context of the "Should we stay or should we go?" discussion they are having vis-à-vis the European Union, or "Brexit versus Bremain" as it has also been referred to. We met with a number of people, including Jennie McShannon of the Irish in Britain organisation, and Dean Duke and others from Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad. They impressed upon us that they felt their citizenship was being impaired due to their inability to vote. As somebody who was a member of the Irish diaspora for 17 years, I know exactly how they feel. I share their views and I believe it is time we righted this wrong.

Last week, the Government, in the form of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for the diaspora, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, published a paper outlining the issues to be faced in order to proceed with extending the franchise. He posed a number of questions. First, he asked how we would determine the electorate for presidential elections. A full implementation of the recommendations of the constitutional convention would include all citizens resident in the State and citizens resident outside the State, equating to 4.5 million voters within the State and 3.5 million outside the State. That would mean some 43% of the electorate would be living outside the State. That is an issue for some people, who see 43% as high. When my committee published our report several non-committee members of the Oireachtas approached me accusing the committee of handing over the presidency to another political party. I will not pull any punches here - they felt that giving people outside Ireland the right to vote would mean the Sinn Féin candidate had an advantage. As an ex-member of the diaspora I find that view point patronising in the extreme. As someone who spent almost two decades living outside this country I was still able to maintain my knowledge of what was going on at home and my judgment about who and what was right and wrong for our country. As far as I am concerned, a chameleon is a chameleon whether one is looking at it from one mile away or from 1,000 miles away. Our President represents our country and people decide on their votes wisely. They do not waste their votes, as we saw with the election of President Michael D. Higgins. I know what our diaspora looks like and I know what makes them tick. I trust them with their votes.

The Minister also raised practical issues such as the costs involved in organising voting for people resident outside the State. We can be clever here. There are many systems now in place worldwide which allow for secure Internet voting and I have had discussions with providers who do this in many different countries. Granted, we have had a poor experience with electronic voting but time has moved on, technology has improved and acceptance has increased. The next presidential election should allow Internet voting at home and abroad.

The Minister of State with special responsibility for the diaspora, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, also mentioned the potential legislative and constitutional changes that would be needed. I do not think these issues will be contentious as all our citizens would support them. No family is without relations who live overseas, many of whom want to return and all of whom treasure their Irish identity. I have no illusion about whether we will see progress on this before the next election. Sadly, I do not think the Government will push this as a priority but I hope that in the absence of progress in the next year this will form part of the election manifestos of the main parties in the country. Within the Labour Party I will work to ensure it forms part of ours.

I commend my constituency colleague on introducing the debate on this issue but otherwise we will swim in different directions. The existing Constitution is almost 80 years old and this would be the 34th amendment. The Constitution itself has only 50 articles. The existing Constitution has no kinship with what life was like in 1937. This country has changed utterly, some of it for the better and some of it not so. We should have a Constitution that reflects modern Ireland and not one that belongs to another age, although that is a question for another day.

Two suggestions have been made. First every citizen of Ireland would be able to vote, irrespective of where he or she lives, be it in Australia, in Canada or elsewhere. I am not aware of any other country that has implemented a scheme that would allow the franchise to be extended to every part of the world. From the experience of someone who had to get up and leave during a particular time in his own life and live under the Queen, I can tell Deputies that those of us among the working Irish in London spent very little time thinking about whether we had a vote back here. That is not to say it was not referred to. It was referred to and it was part of an ongoing political debate. However, among those who leave the country, especially those who establish themselves in Australia, Canada or England and can retain a connection with this country through their families or the GAA, I do not think there is a yearning or a burning ambition to have a say in the election of a President in a country in which they do not live.

References have been made to the connection with Northern Ireland, but if one were to talk to Ulster Protestants about extending the franchise to them to vote for a President down here, they would say it was none of their business. Many nationalists in Northern Ireland, being practical Ulster people, would not get too excited about whether they had a vote in a presidential election here. We have to have a Presidency under the Constitution, but the office has never had power, although it has some influence, which is important in politics; I am not dismissing that. Some of the best speeches in modern Ireland were made by Presidents, irrespective of what their politics might have been. We are not living in France, so the Presidency does not have that sort of influence in this country's political life. I do not like using the word "token", but the Presidency is pretty limited; it has influence but no power.

I have no difficulty with lowering the voting age to 16. I went to the young scientists exhibition in January and saw a stand operated by teachers from a secondary school that both Deputy Crowe and I are familiar with. Their project was on 16 year olds voting. The greater proportion of those interviewed by the school students - I think it was 73% - either said they did not care or would not vote. People may say things in polls, but I am not saying that would apply if they had the opportunity to vote.

Those of us who are involved in politics, from all sides of the House, are aware of a big change taking place in this country. The issue is no longer the turnout but the fact that more and more people do not vote. That is a real issue for all of us. I will use my own constituency of Dublin South-West as an example. In last year's local elections almost 68% of voters stayed at home. In a by-election in the same constituency, 65% of people stayed at home. We keep talking about turnout, but that is no longer the problem for us as politicians; it is the fact that more and more people do not vote. While I have no difficulty with lowering the voting age to 16, we must all face up to some truths about the nature of Irish politics and address the fact that so many people do not vote. That says something about everyone here, and, irrespective of whether we think we know what is happening, that is the reality on the ground. In last year's European Parliament election for the Dublin constituency, 56% of people did not bother to vote. Ireland has done pretty well out of the EU, but the majority did not even go out to vote for it. I find it extraordinary because the trend is only going in one direction.

I have no difficulty with the principle of giving 16 year olds the opportunity to vote. However, while we say we will lower the age to allow younger people to vote in presidential elections, at the same time in the Constitution we tell 16 year olds that they must be 34 before they can be a presidential candidate. That is a complete contradiction. If we think it is good enough for 16 year olds to choose TDs, MEPs or the President, why can 16 year olds not be presidential candidates? I think we have to look at that.

I understand Deputy Jonathan O'Brien is sharing time with other speakers.

I welcome the debate on this important initiative to extend the franchise to a wider section of society. There are many restrictions on voting rights and, as the Minister of State is aware, not all Irish citizens have those rights. For instance, those under 18 do not have the right to vote. Most migrants have limited voting rights in this State. In addition, those who are forced to emigrate, mainly as a result of the infliction of austerity on them and their families, have no real capacity to influence the political process within this State. They cannot bring about a situation in which they feel comfortable enough to come home and secure a living here. It is unfair, so as legislators we have a responsibility to rectify this matter.

I fully support extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. Those aged 16 are deemed competent enough to consent to medical treatment or opt out of it, and I do not have an issue with that. However, it is odd that while they are deemed competent to make life-and-death decisions on personal health and safety, the State does not view them as competent to decide who they believe should make health policies.

I know the Bill will be supported tonight and will go to Committee Stage, but some people, both here and in our broader society, say it is too radical a step to allow 16 year olds to vote. They say such an age cohort are children and could not possibly have the competency to vote in any type of election. None the less, governments are happy enough to acknowledge the maturity and capacity of 16 and 17 year olds and consider them as adults when it suits them. For instance, the Children Act ensures that the age of criminal responsibility in this jurisdiction is 12 years. It is hard, therefore, to comprehend why children are judged to be mature and responsible enough when it comes to committing a crime, but not to cast a vote.

As Sinn Féin's education spokesperson, I have met many students under the age of 18. In my dealings with them I have been presented with no credible argument as to why 16 and 17 year olds should not be allowed to vote. I do not believe that if we gave them the vote they would make a wrong decision. There is no right or wrong decision when one casts a vote. That is a person's right.

People may also argue that those aged under 18 have no experience of engaging with political structures.

I know from dealing with many cases in my own constituency involving people under 18, whether it was to do with SUSI grants, access to education, trying to secure a reader for children with special educational needs sitting the leaving certificate or cuts in funding to local organisations they may be a part of, that they have a wide engagement with the political spectrum. All of the political parties have a youth structure. We have a vibrant growing youth structure in our party, and thousands of people aged 16 to 18 are engaged in political activity every day.

There is also research to suggest that allowing 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote will establish a lifelong habit of voting and as mentioned by the previous speaker, if we are genuine about trying to engage young people and get them into the habit of voting, and reversing those trends in the numbers of people who are not engaging in the electoral process, it makes sense, given the research, to reduce the voting age to 16 and 17 year olds. In that way we can address some of those issues.

Schools are teaching civil, social and political education, CSPE, and there is even greater scope for a broader teaching of politics within our education system. I am confident that our young people can engage with these subjects in a positive way. To put it simply, they understand what they are dealing with when they are given the knowledge within schools.

I am confident that 16 and 17 year olds can exercise the right to vote, and the sky will not fall in. It is clear that the fear of giving them the vote stems from a major underestimation of their capabilities and capacities. Young people played a very important part in the recent Scottish referendum, and it is clear that young people will engage in the political system if given the opportunity.

There was a time when it was considered appropriate that only people over the age of 21 should vote. We lowered that age because we recognised that people between the ages of 18 and 21 should be allowed to vote. It is now time for further recognition of people between the ages of 16 and 18, and we should make that change accordingly. We should follow in the footsteps of many of our European counterparts on the issue of the voting age. For instance, in Austria, in seven of the 16 states in Germany, and in parts of Switzerland people aged between 16 and 18 have the ability to vote.

On the broader issue of voting rights for Irish citizens in presidential elections, I remind the Government Members that they established the Constitutional Convention and asked it to examine this very issue. It gave an overwhelming response to the issue, with 78% voting in favour of extending voting rights to citizens within the Six Counties. That was generally accepted by the Constitutional Convention, and its make-up would reflect broader society. That indicates a desire to change the law accordingly. However, despite the Constitutional Convention's recommendation that the Government should legislate and hold a referendum on presidential voting rights for citizens resident outside the State, the Government has failed even to bring the report before the Chamber for it to be debated, never mind give a commitment on holding any such referendum. The Taoiseach has publicly stated that he believes this is an issue for the next Government to deal with. I have asked him on the Order of Business when we will have that debate but we have yet to be given a timeline.

While I welcome that this issue will be allowed go to committee, it is important that we do not allow it to be set aside. There is much scope and merit for it to be expanded on. I listened to the contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, earlier in which he highlighted some of the difficulties he envisages in terms of this legislation. That is something we can deal with in committee.

I agree with the previous speaker on the disengagement of some people from politics. There are many reasons for that, and we all have to bear some responsibility in that regard, but one of the key ways of reversing that is to develop a lifelong habit of voting and the earlier we give people the opportunity to cast that vote, the more likely they are to continue that trend. For that reason alone, we should consider supporting the Bill and having a referendum not only on extending voting rights in presidential elections but also lowering the voting age to 16.

Tá ár gcóras polaitiúil ag teip ar na daoine is laige. Tá sé le feiceáil go bhfuil sé ag seasamh ar thaobh na ndaoine is saibhre inár sochaí. Feileann eisimirce an córas seo agus sin an fáth nach bhfuil an Rialtas toilteanach vóta a thabhairt d'aon duine lasmuigh den tír i dtoghchán uachtaráin. Tá sé scanallach nach bhfuil Éireannaigh thar sáile ábalta vótáil le haghaidh uachtaráin. Freisin, an rud is mó a chuireann náire orainn ná nach bhfuil ár ndaoine sna Sé Chontae ábalta vótáil inár dtír.

Tá an ceart ag gach duine inár sochaí páirt a ghlacadh in aon phróiseas vótála atá ar siúl sa tír agus tá an chumhacht acu rialtas a vótáil isteach nó amach más mian leo. Gan amhras, thaisteal muid bóthar fada, ach níl ár dturas críochnaithe. Tá daoine soiniciúil i dtaobh na polaitíochta agus braon de na bréaga a gcloiseann siad nuair atá toghchán ar siúl, agus ina dhiaidh. Féach, mar shampla, ar Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre agus an damáiste atá déanta mar thoradh ar na gealltanais a thug sé chun an toghchán deireanach a bhuachan.

Tá sé tábhachtach don daonlathas go nglacann daoine páirt i ngach gné den tsochaí in ionad a bheith ag tarraingt siar ó institiúdí an Stáit. Tá dream mór den daonra, go háirithe i gceantair bhochta ag diúltiú vótála mar nach bhfeiceann siad aon tairbhe ann dóibh. Ní fheiceann siad aon rud i ndán dóibh sa saol seachtas streachailt agus bochtanas. Tuigeann siad go bhfuil gach duine agus gach páirtí mar an gcéanna. Tá polasaithe déine ag cur isteach ar dhaoine, go háirithe daoine ar phá íseal nó meán agus daoine ar shochar leasa shóisialta. Níl aon stair againn sa tír seo airgead a lorg ó na daoine is saibhre. Níl aon fhís ag an Rialtas ach cumhacht agus uaillmhian.

Séard atá á iarradh ag an mBille seo ná ceart ag gach duine ceangailte don tír seo páirt a ghlacadh i reifreann. Tá ár saoránaigh ag feitheamh; tabhair seans dóibh. Tá Oifig an Uachtaráin siombalach seachas tábhachtach, ach tá sé raidiceach sa tslí go dtugann sé guth do dhaoine nach bhfuil guth acu. Ó 2007 go dtí an lá atá inniu ann, d'fhág beagnach 500,000 saoránaigh an tír seo. Tá siad scaipthe ar fud an domhain. I ndeireadh na dála, d'fhág daoine an tír seo go drogallach. Tá croíthe an chuid is mó acu sa tír seo. Tabhair seans dóibh vótáil lena gcroíthe sin. Tá vótáil le haghaidh uachtaráin tuillte acu. Is céim mhór í seo. Tabhair tacaíocht dúinn agus don Bhille seo.

Is Bille rí-thábhachtach é an Bille seo atá os ár gcomhair. Ní hé seo an chéim dheireanach, ach an chéad chéim má tá sé i gceist againn dul ar aghaidh agus leanúint leis na cinntí seo. Ní hamháin go mbeidh muid ag lorg vóta i dtoghcháin uachtaránachta, beidh muid ag lorg vótaí i reifrinn ghinearálta chomh maith. Más saoránach duine, is saoránach i gcónaí é, cuma más sa tír seo é nó thar lear.

Is trua liom an meon atá á léiriú ag roinnt de na Teachtaí ar thaobh an Rialtais maidir leis an mBille seo. Tá cineál choimeádachais i gceist i measc na bpáirtithe bunaidh i leith saoránach.

Tá eagla orthu céim chun tosaigh a ghlacadh. Ní sin amháin ach tá an cuma ar an scéal go bhfuil siad ag féachaint ar shaoránaigh nach bhfuil sa Stát seo mar shaoránaigh den tarna grád agus is rud scanallach é sin. Ní gá ach féachaint ar an méid a bhí le rá ag an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Nash, agus é ag caint faoin mBille seo níos luaithe. Dúirt sé that we must decide which citizens should be entitled to vote. Is saoránach saoránach agus ba chóir go mbeadh na cearta céanna acu. Dúirt an tAire Stáit chomh maith gur 70 milliún duine atá i gceist agus sinn ag caint faoi diaspora na hÉireann. Dúirt sé go mbeadh fadhbanna praiticiúla ann. Ní 70 milliún an líon saoránach atá thar lear mar ní shaoránach gach duine acusan. B'fhéidir go mbeadh siad i dteideal saorántacht but b'fhéidir nach bhfuil sé sin á lorg acu agus nach bhfuil pas eisithe dóibh go fóill. Tá súil agam, amach anseo, go mbeadh siad. Ansan ba léir don domhan cé chomh láidir is atá Éire agus na daoine seo thar lear.

Ní raibh mé ag súil le haon rud eile ó Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre nó na páirtithe eile. Is iadsan na páirtithe a dhíbir saoránaigh na hÉireann thar lear agus ar imirce. I gcás Fhine Gael, nuair Cumann na nGaedhael a bhí ann, dhíbir siad daoine toisc gur poblachtánaigh iad. Dhein siad neamhaird dóibh thar na blianta. Ó bunaíodh an Stát, dhein siad neamhaird do shaoránaigh Éireannacha sna Sé Chontae ach go háirithe. Dá mbeadh an meon atá acu athruithe, thuigfeadh siad go bhfuil tairbhe le baint as saoránaigh atá thar lear. Dá mbeadh meas acu orthu, thuigfeadh siad, idir ghlas agus oráiste, gur saoránaigh iad. Bheadh siad tar éis eagrú sna Sé Chontae, ach ba chuma sa tsioc leo. Níl spéis ar bith acu i saoránaigh sna Sé Chontae ach amháin nuair a shíleann siad gur féidir leo iad a úsáid i gcoinne mo pháirtí. Sin atá á dhéanamh acu le blianta anuas.

Ba léir ó na hóráidí a rinne na hAirí Stáit, an Teachta Nash agus an Teachta Deenihan, gur cuma leo a lán de. Bhí siad ag teacht suas le constaicí maidir le cén fáth nach bhfuil siad sásta bogadh ar aghaidh. Ní raibh ach ceisteanna acu. Bliain go leith nó breis is bliain go leith atá ann ó chuir an coinbhinsiún tuairisc fénár mbráid. Dúradh go raibh 78% dóibh siúd a bhí ag an gcoinbhinsiún i bhfábhar leathadh an vóta do shaoránaigh lasmuigh d'Éirinn agus 73% dóibh i gcás saoránaigh sna Sé Chontae. Tá tacaíocht dó sin le feiceáil sna pobalbhreitheanna a bhí ann roimhe sin agus ina dhiaidh. Cén fáth nach bhfuil an Rialtas ag obair de réir an chinneadh a ghlac an coinbhinsiún nó ag obair de réir na bpobalbhreitheanna? Cén fáth nach bhfuil an Rialtas ag cur chun cinn an méid dúirt seisean agus páirtithe eile ina gcláir thoghcáin, ní amháin an toghchán seo ach roimhe sin. Is é an fáth ná, i slí amháin, gur cuma sa tsioc leo. Is féidir leo na ráitis a dhéanamh agus ansin ní gá dóibh aon obair a dhéanamh maidir leo.

Tá muideanna ag rá gur gá ní amháin an Bille seo a rith ach gur gá an obair eile ar fad a bheith déanta ag an am céanna. Níl muidne ag tnúth go mbeidh toghchán ann ar maidin agus go mbeidh gach rud ceart sa ghairdín. Caithfimid cinnte phraiticiúla a dhéanamh. Ba chóir go mbeadh an díospóireacht sin ag tarlú. Ní amháin sin ach ba chóir go mbeadh sé tairlithe. Ní chóir dúinn bheith ag tosnú leis agus an díospóireacht seo agus í á húsáid mar constaic i gcoinne na reachtaíochta seo a rith chomh tapaidh agus is féidir. Tá deis againn i mí na Bealtaine, más mian leis an Rialtas é a dhéanamh. Measaim féin nach mian leis an Rialtas é. Cuirfear ar athló é. Fanfaidh sé sa choiste go dtí pé am a chríochnaíonn an Dáil seo agus fágfar é, mar is spéis leis an Taoiseach é, don chéad Rialtas eile. Is trua í sin mar tá an deis ann. Tá tacaíocht ann sa Teach seo, sa Seanad, go bhfios dom, agus i measc an phobail, i gcoitinne, chun bogadh ar aghaidh leis an gceist seo. Maidir leis na ceisteanna phraicticiúla a luadh, chuaigh gach uile Stát eile a bhfuil vóta thar lear dá shaoránaigh i ngleic leis na ceisteanna phraicticiúla seo. Tá 150 tír timpeall an domhain a thugann vóta dá saoránaigh atá thar lear trí bhealach amháin nó bealach eile. Tá roinnt de na tíortha seo níos mó ná Éire agus tá roinnt eile acu níos lú. Aontaím go mbeidh ceisteanna maoine ann. Ach ní hí sin an cheist is mó. Consnaíonn daonflathas airgead. Má táthar sásta tacú leis an daonfhlathas, caithfear an t-airgead a chur ar leathtaobh chun vóta a thabairt agus an deis vótála a thabhairt do saoránaigh uilig an náisiúin. Is trua í nach bhfuilimid ach ag caint faoi sin faoi láthair.

Fáiltím go bhfuil an Rialtas tar éis glacadh le seo ach impím air bogadh ar aghaidh gan meon an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Nash. Ní chóir don Rialtas bheith cóiméadach. Ní chóir don Rialtas bheith ag lorg fáil amach constaicí eile chun cur i gcoinne é seo.

Caithfimid féachaint ar an méid a bhí le rá ag an Aire Stáit maidir le vótaí sna Sé Chontae. An leithscéal a d'úsáid sé maidir le sin ná the vote in the Six Counties presents significant practical challenges. Tá sé seo scanallach. Dúirt sé that for many it would be a sensitive issue agus nach chóir aon rud a dhéanamh because of political sensitivities. Is Éireannaigh iad. Is saoránaigh iad. Tá sé de cheart acu, agus ba chóir go mbeadh sé de cheart acu, vóta a chaitheamh, ar a laghad i dtoghchán uachtarántachta. Tá súil agam nach bhfuil an Rialtas ag glacadh le seo just toisc go mbeadh náire air thar lear agus go mbeadh sé ag dul ar chamchuairt timpeall an domhain an tseachtain seo agus an tseachtain seo chugainn agus é tar éis vóta a chaitheamh i gcoinne é seo. Tá súil agam go bhfuilim mí-cheart maidir le sin agus go bhfuil sé dáiríre faoin gcinneadh a ghlac sé agus go bhfuil sé chun leanúint agus bogadh ar aghaidh leis an gcinneadh os ár gcomhair anseo. Dúirt urlabhraithe na bpáirtithe ar fad go raibh siadsan sásta é seo a bhogadh ar aghaidh, agus ní anuraidh agus ní ag an gCoinbhinsiún Bhunreachtúil ach le linn an toghchán deiridh a dúradh é seo.

Ba chóir don Rialtas seaseamh leis an ngeallúint a thug sé do phobal na tíre in 2011. Ba chóir don Rialtas beart a dhéanamh de réir a bhriathar. Is é seo an beart. Ní amháin ligean dó dul go dtí an coiste. Ba chóir go mbeadh sé á phlé sa choiste chomh tapaidh agus is féidir. Then déileáil leis na ceisteanna phraicticiúla. Tá daoine eile tar éis déileáil leo cheana agus tá moltaí ag daoine tar éis achainí a chur isteach os comhair na bpáirtithe difriúla thar na blianta. Is féidir é a dhéanamh agus is féidir é a dhéanamh cuíosach gasta. Tá ambasáid againn timpeall an domhain agus áiteanna nach bhfuil, bíonn muid ag roinnt seirbhísí ambasadóireachta. Fiú, níl an córas poist chomh dona sin. Ní leithscéal é sin. Nuair a smaoinítear air, nuair atá vóta ann don Seanad, cad a tharlaíonn? Bíonn vóta poist ar fáil. Mas céimí duine in Argentina, Malawi, nó pé áit eile ar domhan ina bhfuil an duine sin gafa, tá sé ceart go leor. Níl fadhb ar bith. Is féidir leis an duine sin vóta a chaitheamh don Seanad. Níl aon fhadhb ann maidir le seo fé láthair. Tá vótaí ar fáil do shaoránaigh Éireannacha áirithe atá thar lear cheana féin. Níl sé ann don ghnáthphobail agus don ghnáthshaoránach. Impím ar an Rialtas, mar sin, bogadh ar aghaidh. Ba chóir don Rialtas beart de réir a bhriathar a dhéanamh. Ní chóir don Rialtas bheith diúltach faoi seo mar a bhí na hAirí Stáit, na Teachtaí Nash agus Deenihan, níos luaithe. Ba chóir don Rialtas a bheith fuinniúil agus é seo á chur chun cinn.

The Government is not opposed this Bill. We firmly believe, however, that before processing the Bill through the further stages of the legislative process, the full range of practical and policy issues that will arise in expanding the franchise as proposed in the Bill must be analysed.

The Government recognises the importance of voting rights for the diaspora. Following the launch of the diaspora policy last week, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for diaspora affairs, Deputy Deenihan, released a statement detailing the range of issues that require further consideration. He also spoke in this debate about the diaspora policy.

The Bill gives rise to two broad issues for consideration, namely, the minimum age requirement to vote in elections and referendums and the extension of the franchise in presidential elections to citizens resident outside of the State. While supportive of a referendum on the proposal to reduce the voting age to 16, the Government indicated during the debate on Deputy Stanley's Private Members' Bill on 6 February last that there were outstanding issues requiring further analysis before an amendment to the Constitution would be recommended to the people. These include the wisdom of setting the voting age at 16 when the age of majority is 18. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Nash, outlined in his contribution to this debate some specific examples of areas where further analysis is required.

I accept that an extension of voting rights to citizens resident outside the State would be welcomed by many in the diaspora. I also know, however, that it would be challenging to introduce and manage. For example, while citizens resident outside the State should be entitled to vote in presidential elections, the wider Irish diaspora is estimated by some at 70 million people and the number of those who are entitled to Irish citizenship is not known. Any consideration of extending the presidential election franchise to Irish citizens overseas would need to include consideration of people resident in Northern Ireland. The implications for Northern Ireland would differ from other parts of the world. Voter registration options to accommodate voters resident outside the State would need to be explored. We would also need to consider the ways in which voting might be undertaken. References were made to voting at diplomatic missions, for example, and to postal voting options.

The diaspora debate is wider than the franchise issue. It was only last week that our first ever policy statement on diaspora issues was published. The policy document outlines the significant measures that are being taken to recognise the importance of our diaspora. We should not overlook these in this debate. I repeat that the Government is not opposing this Bill. Any proposals to amend the Constitution should, however, be accompanied by a full and considered analysis of the implementation of the proposals, the potential consequences of the amendment and the estimated costs arising. There is a job of work to be done on this and it will be undertaken before this Bill proceeds through the further stages of the legislative process. We will not oppose the Bill, which has given us the opportunity to have a very worthwhile debate.

Tá áthas orm nach bhfuil an Rialtas in aghaidh an Bhille seo. I am very pleased that the Government is not opposing this Bill. That is positive, as is the launch of the diaspora policy to which the Minister of State referred. If I am correct, this is the first concrete, positive response from the Government in respect of the decision of the Constitutional Convention. We have waited some time for this. Indeed, I and some of my colleagues questioned An Taoiseach very consistently to try to establish the Government's view on the proposal from the convention that the franchise for the presidential election be extended to citizens resident outside the State, but the Taoiseach fairly resolutely refused to give an on the record position or view on that recommendation. I hope we can take it from the decision not to oppose this Bill that the Government views that recommendation in a very positive light, and that is welcome.

It is very unfortunate, however, that the Government did not move on this matter itself in response to the Constitutional Convention. It a great pity that these matters will not be put to the people by way of referendum during the lifetime of this Government. I regard that as truly a wasted opportunity. I do not say that to be adversarial for the sake of it but because I believe that the diaspora, the global Irish community, is a huge asset to this country. In the course of this debate I heard several Deputies articulate the drawbacks and the technical and practical difficulties the Government envisages in allowing an extension of the franchise. I hope people do not take a myopic view or become blinded by what they perceive as challenges and miss the bigger picture. I am sure the Minister of State will remember the summit that was held a number of years ago at Farmleigh House. Some of the big hitters from around the world were invited, not least from the United States of America. Our message to them at that stage was that we were in deep economic trouble and we needed their solidarity and assistance. That was fair enough but it cannot always be one-way traffic. It strikes me that if we were thoughtful, inclusive and a bit smarter in terms of our global community, it could only prove to be a huge positive for this country, socially, culturally and economically. There are massive dividends that can be realised.

The Minister of State is absolutely right that the franchise issue is not the only diaspora issue. She is correct in that, and issues of welfare, for instance, for the Irish in Britain and further afield, still loom very large and could do with greater resources. The franchise issue is not the only issue but it is a very big one. Anyone who travels to Britain, the USA or Australia and talks to members of the diaspora, whether they are recent emigrants or families who have lived outside the home country for generations, will be left in no doubt that the franchise is a very big issue. Needless to say, for Irish citizens living in Ireland, the extension of the franchise is critical. The Good Friday Agreement recognises identity in its fullness, in an inclusive manner, as Irish, British or both, which is the case for some. The extension of the right to vote in presidential elections would be a further development of and building on the peace agreement and a recognition of the whole of the nation by giving all Irish citizens living in Ireland a stake in a key democratic institution and constitutional office.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí ar fad a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht tábhachtach seo. Chuir Sinn Féin an Bille seo chun tosaigh mar go bhfuilimid ag iarraidh deireadh a chur leis an gcaoi ina bhfuil imircigh agus Éireannaigh sna Sé Chontae in aicme eile.

Sinn Féin firmly believes in the core republican principle of equal citizenship and we therefore support the right of all Irish citizens of voting age to vote for the Irish President regardless of their place of residence. We also seek to reduce the voting age to 16 to energise and mobilise young people to engage with the political system. Some speakers asked earlier why we would want to do that and I would point them to the example of the recent Scottish referendum and the energy that young people in Scotland brought to that campaign.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an scéal nach mbeidh an Rialtas ag cur i gcoinne an Bhille seo. However, the Rialtas needs to work urgently and actively towards ending the disenfranchisement of Irish citizens. Many speakers spoke positively about the Constitutional Convention, which was warmly welcomed by Members of this House and by the majority of Irish citizens. However, the Government missed deadlines in issuing responses to recommendations from the convention, refused to hold referendums on many of its recommendations and held a referendum on the future of the Seanad without the support of the convention.

Many felt it treated the convention as a talking shop. We know that in January 2013, the first ballot of the members of the convention saw delegates vote in favour of lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. In September 2013, 78% of members of the convention voted in favour of giving citizens resident abroad a vote in Presidential elections, and 73% voted in favour of giving Irish citizens resident in the North a Presidential vote. The Government should have faced up to the democratic demands of that convention to end this disenfranchisement. We still believe there is a need for those referendums. While I welcome the Government's acceptance of this Bill, the onus is on it to move it forward and not bury it on Committee Stage, as it has done with other Opposition Bills. The Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, spoke earlier on. To use football parlance, he has the ball. What decision will the Government take? Will the Minister of State stay in his own half or will he move the ball forward? People want us to move this issue forward.

Speakers mentioned the difficulties relating to this. Yes, there are challenges, but challenges can be overcome. This is the approach I would like to see the Government adopt. It is done all over the world. I do not see why it cannot be done in Ireland.

Last month, I spoke here in support of a Bill introduced by Deputy Stanley to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. Again, this issue has been ignored, and it does not seem to be going anywhere. In July 2013, the Government gave a commitment to do this. The then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, said that the Government committed to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 on a proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16. I suppose it is relevant to ask what has happened since then. Clearly, the Government has reneged on its promise. Again, while the Government supports the Bill today, I am calling on it not to renege on this commitment.

The Good Friday Agreement states that this Government recognises the right of all people born in the North to identify as Irish citizens if they want. We should not be treating them as second-class Irish citizens but as full Irish citizens with full voting rights. Again, it was voted for by the Irish people. We are talking about an inclusive Ireland rather than an exclusive one. It is reaching out to everyone, including Unionists. Some speakers say that people would not use the franchise. We must ask them and we must give it to them. There is a similar proposal in Cyprus. The Cypriot Government will give the opportunity to vote to people on the northern, Turkish side. It is about reconciliation.

Many citizens in the diaspora actively contribute to the economic, social and cultural life of Ireland from afar in the form of remittances or investment, active support of the peace process or participation in and promotion of Irish heritage and culture through philanthropic, community and voluntary activities, language, arts and sporting organisations. The diaspora is a fundamentally important part of the Irish nation in both historical and contemporary terms. Extending voting rights and allowing the Irish diaspora to express their democratic voice is one of the inclusive actions that the Government can take to help improve and strengthen its relationship with the diaspora. It is not a one-way street. Many people would say that Governments in the past have seen the diaspora as just a cash cow. It is a matter of pulling those people in and embracing them.

A total of 115 countries have systems in place to allow their emigrants to vote, so we are not reinventing the wheel. It has happened in other countries. Deputy Hannigan spoke about how the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs had heard from representatives of other Governments and how it is learning from them. Again, I ask that we move this forward.

I also call on the Government to do more in its efforts to get legalisation for the undocumented Irish. This comes on the back of a video conference that many of us were involved in today with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, ILIR. People ask what that has to do with this country. It concerns the diaspora and is probably the big issue in respect of those 60,000 to 70,000 people living in the US. The message that came across was that the Government lacks a plan or a worked-out strategy relating to the undocumented Irish. The ILIR has sent a letter to the US ambassador to Ireland requesting that he adopt a more flexible approach and waive the three- and ten-year unlawful presence bars for undocumented people in the US, not just the undocumented Irish. US embassies in Mexico, Venezuela and many South American countries have adopted this flexible, proactive and inclusive approach to those presenting in the embassies. Given that we are approaching St. Patrick's Day, we ask that this be part of our strategy, and that we formally ask the embassy to adopt this position. We ask that when Irish Ministers travel around the US they deal with this issue and lobby formally rather than just patting people on the back. The ILIR thought a formal submission had been made, but only recently learned that this was not the case. Again, the ILIR argues that this is long overdue. We all know the story of Irish people who are trapped in the US and cannot come home for important events such as funerals, deaths and marriages - all the happy and sad times. It is something positive that the Irish Government could do coming up to the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. It is not about problems; it is about problem solving. Clearly, if we approach these issues in that manner, we can resolve the issue of the diaspora and how we embrace its members and involve them more in politics and Irish life. That is what we all want to see. The argument used against giving the vote to 16 year olds could have been used against giving women the vote. Women would not know anything about politics or economics. The same argument is being put forward in respect of 16 year olds, who in many cases are probably more clued in than many of us older people.

Cuireadh agus aontaíodh an cheist.
Question put and agreed to.