I welcome the positive response from committee members. Senator Grace O'Sullivan put it well when she described the proposal as part of the modernisation of Ireland.
As I stated, this is a focused Bill. Other legitimate and important issues arise, some of which Teachtaí have raised. However, this Bill deals with a proposal made by the Convention on the Constitution by seeking to remove the residency restriction imposed on people who would otherwise have the right to vote in presidential elections. This is a simple, straightforward and focused proposal. We also propose to reduce the voting age to 16 years.
Most of the issues raised by previous speakers are a matter for other legislation. There are many examples of good international practice in this area. Some 120 states already provide voting rights for emigrants in domestic elections. There is no reason we cannot learn from their experience. The issue of people who have been resident and paid tax here for a long time being unable to vote in elections is a legitimate one which deserves positive consideration. It is not, however, the business of this Bill but a matter to be addressed in other legislation.
On the issue of the North, particularly in regard to unionists, British citizens resident here have the right to vote in elections to the Dáil. There may be, as part of the consultation process, some way of taking into consideration the broad principle by which unionists wish to claim British status, although it would not be citizenship. We should be quite flexible in trying to encourage or bring about their right to vote in presidential elections.
The issue was raised as to whether the proposed measure would cause tension in the North. Ten or 15 years ago, at a time when Irish Governments had a focused involvement in the North, we learned a salutary lesson during a crisis in the process that involved loyalists. Who did the loyalists seek to speak to during that crisis? It was not the British Prime Minister or Secretary of State but the Taoiseach at the time, Mr. Bertie Ahern, who subsequently met them at Hillsborough.
The President is always welcome in the North. When people from unionist neighbourhoods visit Áras an Uachtarán, it is always a big day out, perhaps because they like big house politics. A great deal of this type of work is being done on an ongoing basis.
Brexit is the big train coming down the tracks and it will affect everyone on the island. Thinking unionists know this and those who have legitimately and rightly benefited most from the cross-Border work that has been done in recent decades, namely, those in the dairy and agriculture industries and enterprising business, are very nervous about Brexit because they value the all-island approach that is increasingly being taken. One of the consequences of Brexit is that more and more unionists in the North are applying for Irish passports. The largest number of applications for Irish passports did not come from a republican stronghold but from a small unionist community whose name I forget. It may have been Newtownabbey.
I do not want to exaggerate any of this but it will not have any detrimental effect on either community relationships or the ongoing process of trying to reconcile and reach harmony and equality. To actually vote, one has to make an active decision to do so and then go about doing that. If one does not want to vote, one simply does not do it. There was a sizeable campaign in Newry when the issue of rights for Northerners, particularly in presidential elections, was being discussed at the Constitutional Convention. By complete coincidence, the people of Latvia resident in Newry had a polling station in one of the local supermarkets. Quite a lot of people remarked on the fact that without even a whisper, these Latvian citizens just went and voted in Newry while people in Newry could not vote in elections just down the road.
There will be a need for a good, sound legislative process and a need for the Oireachtas to get this right. I particularly welcome the remarks to the effect that there needs to be more urgency about this. I am from the North, and Dana said, very accurately, during a previous presidential election campaign that people in the North always look South but that people in the South rarely look North. For someone to come to the Constitutional Convention from Ballymurphy, Ballymoney or Ballymena or for someone to make the case by video or social media link from Chicago, Brisbane, Frankfurt, London or elsewhere and for the convention to agree to it, gave Northerners and emigrants a very positive sense of being part of the nation, the Gaeldom and part of an island people. However, four or five years later, the fact that it has still not happened has become a source of frustration. In that context, I particularly welcome the notion that we must deal with this more urgently than we have thus far and that is the purpose of this Bill.