I thank the Chair and members for the invitation to appear before the committee today. Perhaps it would help if I began by telling the committee something about who we are. I am the professor of human rights law in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. My colleague, Mark Bassett, is a barrister at law in Northern Ireland. We have been working on this particular issue for a number of years and doing quite a bit of research on it. I spoke on the issue at the Constitutional Convention in 2013. Mr. Bassett and I have delivered a number of presentations on this particular issue.
The main point we would like to make today, and which I have hopefully made clear in the opening statement, is that we think that this is a reasonable constitutional step to take. All the evidence at which we have looked and all the work which we have undertaken has led us to the conclusion that it is a reasonable step to take constitutionally. Obviously, I will not stop there, I will say a bit more, but we think that voting rights are fundamental civil and political rights. They are fundamental to the democratic system. The Constitutional Convention, as members of the committee will know, made its recommendation in 2013 and, having looked comparatively around the world and at what the Constitutional Convention came up with, I welcome that conclusion and recognise that it is a relatively modest initiative and step to take.
We also welcome the announcement of support for this initiative by the Government and also the very helpful and detailed options paper which was delivered in March. We welcome that but, like many people, we have noted that there tends to be general support for the idea and the principle in debates but that one of the endemic problems has been actually moving it forward, in the sense of naming a date for the referendum and when it will actually happen in practice. Our sense is that is largely the situation at the moment. In terms of the Irish system, Ireland has a comparatively restrictive system with regard to citizen's rights, which is largely residence based. That is very notable when one looks at the international experience.
In a sense, we have concluded that this is really an emergent international trend around Europe. Many states are doing this. Certainly one can see that from the 1980s and 1990s onwards many states have taken the decision to grant external voting rights to their citizens. In taking that step there is a recognition of equal citizenship, but also a recognition that it can actually be done. If one looks at the recent French presidential election, one can see examples of people outside of France voting in those elections in Ireland and Britain. There are examples of people who are living in Northern Ireland voting in presidential elections elsewhere. I could give example from Romania, Poland, etc. This is happening. People are doing it. What we have seen from the evidence is that it can actually be done. The options paper gives many examples of that.
It is important to underline, and we really want to underline it today, that this debate should, and must, transcend party politics.
It is a debate about equal citizenship, and I think it should remain at that level. Without question the hard questions should be asked about how to make this happen; in practice it is a fundamental principle of equal citizenship that does and should transcend party politics.
In conclusion, I will outline three principles. First, there is an argument about equal citizenship. There is an argument that in relation to fundamental civil and political rights, like voting rights, that all citizens wherever they happen to reside should be treated equally.
Second, it seems clear to me that the criteria of using residence as a basis for excluding citizens from voting rights is increasingly being questioned as a matter of basic civil and political rights. The worry would be that people will increasingly start asking hard questions about Ireland's current nearly blanket exclusion of citizens on that question of basic civil and political rights. Third, questions are increasingly being raised about European Union law in the sense that people by exercising their EU free movement rights may, oddly, end up becoming disenfranchised when they move elsewhere in their country of origin.
For a number of principles, on equality citizenship, on civil and political rights grounds and, increasingly, with questions of European law, profound questions are being raised about Ireland's near-blanket exclusion of citizens who are resident outside of the State in this context.
I attended the Constitutional Convention in 2013. Although I am speaking today with my academic hat on, I am also somebody who is personally affected by this matter. For somebody like me it is not an academic matter, and this matter affects my children as well. I was not going to say the following but I have decided to do so. This morning, as I got ready to leave my house, my daughter asked me what I was doing today. I told her that I was going to the Oireachtas to talk to a committee. She asked me to do a better job explaining that than I had done, which she often says to me. I responded, although not in such grand words, by telling her that she had a right to vote in her own country in the future, and she is nine years old at present. For me, there is an academic argument but there is also a principles argument. It is not just an academic matter for somebody like me. In a sense, the evidence exists to support this but there are also personal perspectives. The question on my mind, which I am keen to explore with the committee today, is when a date will be announced for a referendum on voting rights. We rather optimistically, as the committee will see from our opening statement, expected a referendum to take place last year. We probably should have said "may happen" but that is our sense of where the debate might have reached.
My colleague, Mr. Mark Bassett, will continue our presentation.
Mr. Mark Bassett: I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. I will begin by speaking about the Presidency and how it is an ideal institution to open up voting rights for non-resident citizens.
The Presidency, at its heart, is a symbolic office. It represents, which is largely accepted, the citizenry as a whole rather than just the State. I recall the inaugural address made by President Higgins. He said that part of his hope was to represent all citizens. The Presidency is an office that is largely insulated from controversial political choices. It is an institution that best represents nationality and citizenship. We would advocate a system of election that matches that situation.
Although our focus is on presidential elections, the types of election where external voting may apply can vary too. For example, the Legislature, presidential elections, referendums and sub-national elections. The committee can see from our opening statement that there are a number of different electoral franchises in Ireland. They all have a separate legal basis and a distinct character. They seek to achieve different objectives. None of those franchises aligns completely or neatly with any of the predominant principles of granting political rights in a democracy. They do not seem to be based on all contributing or all subjected principles since those resident in the State but who do not hold Irish or British citizenship can be excluded.
Our focus is on the voting rights of Irish citizens wherever they are located. We have a particular interest in the Northern Ireland context. It seems to us the exclusion of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland from voting in presidential elections should not be sustained. There is nothing in the Irish Constitution or the proposed amendments that should be a source of anxiety for those who do not wish to avail of their entitlement to Irish citizenship in the North or who do not wish to participate in an Irish presidential election. The Good Friday Agreement is a constitutional bridge between Ireland and Britain. On previously contested issues of sovereignty and identity the two states are in agreement.
A very important aspect of the Good Friday Agreement was the clear right to Irish citizenship for those who wish to avail of that right in the jurisdiction. At the core of that is the entitlement to Irish citizenship. It is our argument that that right must allow for some participation. It is not meant as a token acknowledgement or placebo or just limited to the availability of a passport. It should involve some level of contribution or participation because without that citizenship is devalued.
Professor Harvey has explained that there are good human rights reasons to extend the franchise. He has said that there is a possibility that the current restrictions are at least suspect, having regard to European Union law.
The best argument for an extended franchise is to consider the principles and values contained in the Irish Constitution. Every constitution tells a story. It is more than just law. It is part-philosophy, part-sociology, part-history and outlines hopes for the future. The Irish Constitution specifically recognises partition, citizenship and the diaspora. The Irish Constitution speaks of the diaspora and citizens beyond the State's borders in very warm terms but they need to be recognised. There needs to be a way in which those citizens can contribute to and participate in the political life of Ireland.
The Presidency is a very good example of the breadth of Irish citizenry. Irish Presidents have come from Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, Munster, London and, most famously, from New York. A franchise that reflects that breadth of citizenry can only be a good thing and should not be feared.