That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to implement the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections and to indicate the time frame it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Aire Stáit as a bheith anseo linn don díospóireacht tábhachtach seo. Tá an díospóireacht seo thar a bheith stairiúil. An fáth go deirim go bhfuil sé suntasach agus stairiúil ná gurb é an chéad uair go bhfuil an seal againn a leithéid de chúrsaí a phlé anseo sa Seanad. Tá sé sin thar a bheith suntasach agus beidh a lán daoine ag leanúint na díospóireachta seo inniu. This is an important day in the history of the Seanad and for the Oireachtas as a whole. It is an important day for the people in the North and the Irish diaspora. Today Seanadórí are voting to support the Constitutional Convention's recommendation that the Government hold a referendum and extend the vote for President to the people of the North and the Irish diaspora. Today the doors of this Seanad are being opened to the citizens of the North and the diaspora to join the rest of the people of Ireland when voting for the next Irish President. Irish citizens in the North, in particular, have waited a long, long time for the message that will come out of today's debate. This can be a powerful message and it can be an inclusive message.
Yesterday we all stood in admiration of the passion and dedication of the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, and we clearly supported and endorsed her stand on behalf of the people of Scotland. We did that because, of course, it was the right thing to do. Eighteen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement enshrined in law the rights and entitlements of Irish citizens across all of Ireland's Thirty-two Counties. It did not seek to give partial citizenship or, indeed, second-class citizenship to the Irish citizens in the North; it gave full Irish citizenship as a birth right to them. Therefore, what is the reason for further delaying the granting of presidential voting rights? Why do we not stand in the best interests of all the people of Ireland, just like First Minister Sturgeon does for Scotland?
This motion is a call to action. It is an opportunity to send a clear message at a time when the political and social stability of our entire country is being jeopardised by a vote taken in England to remove part of Ireland from the EU against our will. No one, certainly not I, ever said this process concerning voting rights would be an easy one. In previous exchanges in this Chamber on the matter, the Government side told us it needed to work out technical issues. That is fair enough but, of course, we have had a very long time to work out those matters. In this regard, let me quote a letter from former Minister of State, Jimmy Deenihan, to the Taoiseach on 30 September 2014:
In his introduction to the Fifth Report of the Constitutional Convention the Chairman, Tom Arnold said that "a clear majority of Convention members favoured a change to the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections".
As Ireland's first Minister for Diaspora Affairs, I believe that if we are serious about Diaspora engagement, we should put this question to the people of Ireland. […] However, against this, and now that the conversation has begun, a decision by the Government not to take forward the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention would have a disproportionately negative impact.
The issue of voting rights is of enormous importance to many Irish citizens abroad. […] If I spend much of that time defending a Government decision not to respond positively to the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention, I will be working with one hand tied behind my back.
In terms of Diaspora policy, it is my strong view that it would be seen as a major step forward to put this issue to a referendum.
In more recent times, we have heard the current Minister of State responsible for the diaspora, Deputy McHugh, outline his desire to hold a referendum as early as the beginning of next year. We were stumped when we heard the Taoiseach say in the Dáil there was no likelihood of that happening. What exactly are the reasons for that? If now is not the time for the Government to be energised, galvanised and mobilised in respect of achieving and enshrining this right, I do not know when is. The passing of this motion, without amendment, will be welcomed with open arms by tens of thousands of people in the North and among the diaspora globally.
Today's decision is about nation building. It is about connecting the people of the North and the diaspora. It is about remedying the hurt caused by partition and about reconciling the people of this nation in a practical way with one another. Today, it is the Seanad's opportunity to lead the debate in this State on this fundamental question of equality and rights. I know the Government is listening to this important debate very carefully and I hope it acts on foot of what it hears. I urge the Taoiseach to respond positively. This is not a divisive issue. How could enfranchising Irish citizens in this most important centenary year ever be? Let us not make it a divisive one.
Mar fhocal scor, I want to finish with a quote from a letter written by a 17 year old Belfast lad, Peadar Thompson, just yesterday. He wrote a very eloquent and comprehensive letter to GAA President Aogáin Ó Fearghaíl in which he talks about his sense of Irishness and his place as a young Irishman in Belfast within this nation:
For us up North, the GAA is one of the only things we have that makes us equal citizens in our own country and what we can claim to be ours as Irish people. The GAA has no border and you might not understand, but to us, for Antrim, Down, Derry, Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh to compete in an All Ireland Championship and the National League mean a hell of a lot.
What a fantastic sentiment from that young man. What a wonderful reflection of what the GAA gives us. What a sad reflection on what the Government continues to deny us, that is, quite simply, our place. We have an opportunity today to change that and send a very clear message. In this instance, let us unite the nation on the most basic tenet of democracy, the right to vote.