That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs entitled ‘Voting Rights of Irish Citizens Abroad’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 12th November, 2014.
I welcome this timely debate on a very important topic that is very relevant to us. Before I outline the findings of the committee and the recommendations included in the report, I thank, on behalf of other members of the committee, the various witnesses who came before us and gave of their time to discuss this issue. Their engagement helped the committee and gave us very valuable information and insight.
The background of the report is worth an explanation and will contextualise today's debate. In January 2014 the European Commission published a communication which focused on addressing the consequences of the disenfranchisement of Union citizens who exercise their right to free movement across the Union. This was published in the context of EU citizens exercising their right to free movement between one country and another within the EU, which is a core freedom for citizens.
It is an interesting perspective because whereas we tend to think of our rights as Irish citizens, in this case, the European Commission, as the guardian of the treaties, has addressed a distinctly national competency in the context of the wider concept of EU citizenship. The Commission has expressed concern that member states are failing to give voting rights in government elections to their citizens who live in other member states. It is worried that this failure might impinge on citizens' freedom of movement. It has cited Ireland and four other member states for failing to provide rights to their citizens who live abroad.
Although the European Commission policy document exists simply to provide guidance to member states and does not have any legal effect, the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs could not ignore its findings and decided it would be worthwhile for it to consider the issue. That was the impetus for the work of the committee, which explored the issue by holding meetings with EU officials to explore the Commission's rationale for its view. We also heard from representatives of other EU member states, including academics and ambassadors, to find out what approaches they are taking. The committee's work was timely because the Constitutional Convention was also considering this issue at the time. It had reported to the Government in November 2013. Deputies might recall that the convention recommended at that time that voting rights for Irish citizens abroad should be extended to Presidential elections.
I will set out what has happened since that time. In March of this year, the Government launched a new diaspora policy document, in which the issue of voting rights in Irish elections was addressed. The document acknowledges that the introduction of such rights is challenging because a range of issues would need to be addressed and managed in the context of any extension of the franchise. In particular, it mentions that the number of Irish citizens living outside this State is huge. I do not think this should be a reason for not granting the right to vote to our citizens who live abroad. If anything, it should have the opposite effect. Following on from the publication of Ireland's diaspora policy document, and in line with the response of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, to the joint committee's report, the Minister has undertaken to analyse the various issues associated with the possibility of extending voting rights to Irish citizens who live abroad. I think we are all very glad that this welcome development is taking place.
This debate is long overdue. In an increasingly globalised world, where more and more countries are granting voting rights to their citizens abroad, Ireland is out of step with many of its European partners. In that context, it would be remiss of us not to debate this issue, particularly in view of the recent wave of Irish emigration. We have seen various waves of emigration over the decades, but I think we all recognise and appreciate that several hundred thousand people have left this country in the past ten years. There must be a way to balance the rights of Irish citizens who live abroad with the rights of Irish citizens at home.
Many people will wonder how engaged with Irish affairs are Irish citizens who live abroad and will question whether those who live elsewhere are really interested in the issues affecting this country on a daily basis. If we ever wanted to see how engaged our diaspora can be, the referendum on marriage equality last May provided a fine example. Thousands of Irish emigrants returned home to vote. They came from as far afield as Africa to cast their votes in the referendum. More than 70,000 people retweeted #hometovote on Twitter over a 24-hour period. It is clear that many Irish people living abroad want to have an ongoing link in Irish elections. That they are living abroad now does not mean they will never return to our shores. The example of the marriage equality referendum shows that people living abroad still want to participate in the democratic process.
This is not just a question of rights; it is also about the emotive nature of the issue. While we were producing our report, we spoke to various groups representing Irish people who live abroad, including Irish in Britain and Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad. They explained why it matters to them to be involved. As an ex-emigrant who lived abroad for 17 years, I appreciate how important it is to the members of the diaspora that they do not feel neglected by their home country. It is clear from talking to many members of diaspora groups that they feel somewhat rebuffed by the failure to extend the right to vote to them, especially given that other EU member states have given their emigrants the right to vote in national elections. Deputies will be aware that UK citizens living in Ireland have the right to vote not only in Irish general elections, but also in UK general elections if they have not been living abroad for more than 15 years. Many people are aware of the rights that exist in other member states and want them to be extended to Irish citizens.
I will turn now to the report of the joint committee, which received a number of submissions during its hearings. We heard that Ireland is among a minority of member states that have not extended voting rights to citizens living abroad. Although electoral systems remain a national competence, there is a consensus in the academic literature that a case might very well be taken against the Irish Government at the European Court of Justice to challenge the restriction on voting rights and thereby force the State to act. This is something that could be coming down the line in the near future. That is another reason we need to address this matter. It is being addressed in other large and small European countries, many of which have been able to design systems that allow their residents who live abroad to vote. Countries like Italy and France have given emigrants the right to vote in specific reserved constituencies like the North America constituency or the northern Europe constituency. Citizens of countries like France and Spain who live in various parts of the world have the right to vote for specific candidates to represent them in their national assemblies and parliaments.
We heard from ambassadors about the various voting systems that other countries have come up with. Emigrants might have to go to their countries' embassies or, in the case of countries such as Estonia, are able to vote online. These secure systems are used by countries to give their diasporas the right to vote and to ensure people can mark their ballot papers validly. One of the recommendations we have made is that the various systems that are already in place in other countries should be compared to see what can be learned from them. There is no doubt that we have a very large diaspora. If we are to give voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad, we need to examine carefully issues like the definition of "citizenship", the time limits that might apply to the right to vote and the creation of reserved constituencies, as I outlined earlier. We believe voting systems can be designed without having a disproportionate effect on the outcome of national polls.
Wide support has been expressed for the Constitutional Convention's report on voting rights in Presidential elections for Irish citizens who live abroad. We believe a debate on the extension of voting rights to parliamentary elections is the next step that should be taken. In reaching a consensus on this issue, we also considered the issue of the large diaspora, the concept of citizenship and the possible disenfranchisement of Irish citizens. We made it clear that there is a need to accept it is not possible to separate the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens living in the EU from the issue of voting rights for Irish citizens living elsewhere. The committee made a few significant recommendations. First, it recommended that the Government should accept the principle that voting rights should be extended to Irish citizens living abroad. Second, it proposed that a system that would be workable in an Irish context should be designed. Third, it recommended that an electoral commission should be established to implement the first two recommendations.
We sent our report to the Departments of the Taoiseach and the Environment, Community and Local Government. I note from the reply received from the Minister, Deputy Kelly, that work on the establishment of an electoral commission has begun, with the Department recently concluding a process of public consultation. It is hoped that hearings on the draft consultation paper on the establishment of an electoral commission in Ireland will get under way shortly. I understand that this body will publish a report on this issue and I look forward to reading it. We must remember that Ireland is not unique in considering these issues. Many member states have already addressed these matters, so it can be done. I know that the large size of our diaspora is a concern for many people, but I remind them that other countries with high rates of emigration, such as Italy and Mexico, have dealt with this issue in their own way and given their expats the right to vote. The UK allows its citizens who are living abroad to vote for the first 15 years after they leave that country.
Italy reserves seats in its parliament for those abroad. There are numerous solutions and I have no doubt we can arrive at one that would work in an Irish context. All we have to do is sit down and work one out.
It is worthwhile to reflect on the fact that we have one of the youngest populations in the European Union. Our young people travel and live abroad and many return having spent several years gaining experience. We all expect and want those people to feel as if they belong to this country and that they have a link with it. We cannot afford to neglect them or ignore the fact that their rights are being diminished because we cannot put a system in place or we have not tried to put a system in place to include their votes in our franchise.
We can do this. Other countries have led the way. If we do not do something, the danger is that we will be brought to court. It is time to act. I encourage the Government to do so, to take on board the recommendations of the committee and to extend the right to vote to Irish citizens living abroad.