The purpose of the Bill is to enable the people to decide in a referendum whether the Constitution should be amended to enable the right to vote at Dáil elections to be extended to persons other than citizens by legislation enacted by the Oireachtas.
As Senators are aware, the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1983, proposed to confer on British citizens resident in this country the right to vote at Dáil and Presidential elections and referenda on conditions identical with those applying to Irish citizens. The President referred the Bill to the Supreme Court and the Court ruled that the Bill was repugnant to the Constitution. Following that decision I announced that the Government had decided to bring forward a Bill to amend the Constitution to enable the right to vote to be determined by legislation.
The right to vote at Dáil elections is conferred on citizens of Ireland by Article 16.1.2 d of the Constitution. The Bill proposes to replace this provision by a new subsection. The new provision, while retaining the citizens' right to vote, will make it possible to extend this right to such other persons in the State as may be determined by law.
If the amendment is approved by the people, the Oireachtas will be empowered to enact legislation granting the right to vote at Dáil elections to such categories of non-citizens in the State as it may decide. The selection of categories will be a matter for the Oireachtas which may extend the categories concerned from time to time by fresh legislation. It will be open to the Oireachtas to take account of special circumstances. It could for example, decide to grant the right to vote at Dáil elections to citizens of any country which granted reciprocal rights to Irish citizens living in that country. At the present time, Irish citizens resident in Britain have full voting rights at parliamentary and other elections. None of the other EEC member states grants the right to vote to Irish citizens at parliamentary or local elections but this position may, of course, change in the future.
The constitutional constraints which apply in relation to the grant of the Dáil vote to Irish citizens will apply also in relation to non-citizens. In other words, a minimum age of 18 years will apply; there can be no discrimination on grounds of sex; the persons concerned must be free from legal disqualifications in relation to voting and they must comply with the provisions of the electoral law.
A definite connection with this country will be an essential condition of the grant of the Dáil vote to non-citizens. It is considered appropriate that this should be a constitutional requirement and should not be left to statute. For this reason, the proposed amendment prescribes that the vote may be extended only to those non-citizens actually in the State. Non-citizens will, of course, be required to comply with the normal statutory provisions relating to voting and to registration as electors, including the requirement to be ordinarily resident in a particular constituency on the qualifying date for registration.
The amendment to the Constitution proposed in the Bill does not extend to granting voting rights to non-citizens at Presidential elections and referenda. The import of the advice available following the Supreme Court decision on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1983, is that the basic concept of a Constitution is that of a fundamental law given by citizens to themselves. To give non-citizens the right in the Constitution to change the fundamental law enshrined in it would be contrary to this basic concept. To do so would be inappropriate and could constitute an in-built contradiction in the Constitution itself. Similar considerations apply as regards Presidential elections. The right to vote at such an election, which is a special election of the Head of State under the Constitution, is a right appropriately reserved to the people who gave themselves the Constitution.
I feel sure that Senators will welcome the proposal contained in this Bill. The principle of extending the right to vote at Dáil elections to persons other than Irish citizens has already been endorsed by the Seanad in approving the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1983. That measure applied to British citizens only. Now that it is clear that an amendment of the Constitution is required, I am sure Senators agree that the amendment should be couched in such terms as will allow the Oireachtas to extend the vote to such categories as it may consider appropriate from time to time.
If this Bill is approved by the Seanad, I would propose that the referendum be held on 14 June which is polling day for the European Assembly elections. The Referendum (Amendment) Bill, 1984, which will also come before the Seanad will enable steps to be taken to assist voters in their understanding of the issues involved as is customary in the case of constitutional referenda.