Presidential Voting Rights: Motion

I move:

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.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Níl sé ag fáil mórán codlata na laethanta seo. We are keeping him busy these days.

The Minister of State is very welcome back, particularly on this important issue of voting rights. Tacaím go hiomlán leis an rún seo inniu a threisíonn an méid a cinntíodh ag an gCoinbhinsiún Bunreachtúil na blianta ó shin. Is cuimhin liom go maith siar in 2011 nuair a bunaíodh an coinbhinsiún go raibh an Rialtas ag caint go hoscailte agus go bródúil faoin mbealach urnua a bhí aige chun na daoine a chur i láthair an phróisis dhaonlathaigh. Ar bhealach, ní fiú tada na hiarrachtaí seo mara bhfuil an Rialtas sásta gníomhú ar na moltaí a thagann astu.

Le déanaí, dúirt Oifig na bPasanna go raibh 700,000 iarratas breise ar phasanna i mbliana. It was recently tweeted by the passport service that 700,000 passports had been issued so far this year. This is the greatest number issued so far, with increases in applications worldwide and especially in the Six Counties, as my colleague Senator Ó Donnghaile has mentioned. Despite this, this issue dates back as long as Irish citizens have emigrated. The argument has returned in waves as emigration has peaked at various periods, most recently with the mass emigration of the 1980s and the efforts that continued right up to the 1990s.

Diplomats and serving military are allowed to vote. I heard an tOllamh Piaras Mac Éinrí speak about this issue last week. He was one of the people who, when he worked for the diplomatic corps, wanted to make sure the diplomatic corps would be allowed to vote at that stage.

For 18 months after citizens have left this country they can vote in referenda. The issue lies in the fact that they must physically return to this island to vote.

Articles 1 and 2 now clearly define an Irish citizen. This means that in order for this motion to be realised, a legislative rather than a constitutional change is required.

In 1997 the Fianna Fáil manifesto promised to introduce emigrant voting rights by the year 2000. In the 1990s the then Fianna Fáil Government opposed a Private Members' motion that was narrowly defeated. It cited everything from principle to cost, taxation and conflict in the North. I can confidently say that most of the excuses offered in recent years were bogus or have been overcome. Increased communication capabilities mean that every Irish citizen is more than capable of informing himself or herself of the main issues involved from thousands of miles away.

I am Sinn Féin's spokesperson for the diaspora. When I have travelled to places like San Francisco, Toronto or Vancouver I have been amazed to discover that the Irish living in such places are more up to date with politics in Ireland. Some of them know more about what is going on at constituency level than many of the people who live in the constituencies. The first thing that some of these people who live abroad do in the morning is check the RTE news app and local media to see what is going on. To think that people who live thousands of miles away are not in tune with what happens here would be a huge mistake.

We seek to include all of the people in key decision-making. In 1990, during her presidential campaign, Mary Robinson put the following on the record: "The President is elected by the direct voice of the people and represents them. This includes the Irish who are forced to leave in order to get employment." In 1994 when South Africa, having emerged from apartheid, held its first free elections advertisements were placed in newspapers around the world asking South African citizens to register to vote wherever they were located. This election was a watershed one yet my party and I believe that every election is important enough for Irish citizens to have a voice.

The reasons given through the years not to act have been spurious and hide a self-interest. In the 1990s it was estimated that votes for citizens abroad would create between 350,000 and 400,000 extra voters in the US alone if a 20- year rule was imposed. This would have increased the valid poll in 1992 by 15%. It has been said that a tight local control could not be kept on these voters and they might vote on issues of national importance such as the prospect of Irish unity. Another worry was that American voters had a different view of the conflict due to living abroad. Of course they did because at that time they lived in a democracy where there was no State imposed censorship that banned news organisations reporting on the conflict in a way that might be seen to encourage sympathy or support for conflict resolution through unity. These people lived in an area that did not have a section 31 and control over what could be broadcast.

Last week the National Youth Council of Ireland held an interesting seminar in conjunction with UCC. Professor Theresa Reidy spoke at the event and made a number of valid points. For example, the idea that offering the vote to the diaspora abroad will somehow lead to Sinn Féin getting a massive boost in the polls is not borne out. The trends, patterns and percentage of votes cast would mirror what happens at home in a domestic scenario. If Fianna Fáil got 24% of a vote, Fine Gael 25%, Sinn Féin 14%, etc. domestically, studies conducted in the UK and US indicate that it would be the same result in an international vote. The idea that a party would boost its vote if voting rights were given to the diaspora does not stand up to scrutiny.

Another concern is that emigrants may be angry with the establishment and, therefore, may not vote for the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties. The solution is to create a society in which people can stay and gain employment, and make it attractive to those who want to return.

Faraor, thar na blianta d’fhógair Rialtais éagsúla gur fadhb a bhí ann. Níl a leithéid de thír a bhfuil an oiread céanna dá saoránaigh ag cur fúthú thar lear. Ach ní leor bheith ag glacadh leis go bhfuil fadhb ann. Caithfidh beart a bheith de réir briathair. Fadhb eile ná go mbíodh pairtithe áirithe níos glóraí ar an gceist seo agus iad sa bhfreasúra ná mar a bhí siad agus iad i gcumhacht. Cé go gcuirim fáilte roimh thacú Fhianna Fáil inniu agus tá súil agam go bhfuil siad ag tacú leis an rún, cuirim i gcuimhne dóibh go bhfuil muide i Sinn Féin an-dáiríre faoi seo agus go ndéanfaimid ár ndícheall é seo a chur i bhfeidhm chomh luath agus is féidir. Ní bolscaireacht seo ar chor ar bith. Is beart de réir ár mbriathar é agus is é seo an rud atáimid chun déanamh.

In purely democratic terms I would see it as a healthy development that those citizens with a knowledge of other political systems and other major political issues could bring that to their decision-making in an Irish election. I am sure that diplomats who serve in countries where democracy is weak or non-existent will say how much they value placing their vote abroad. We also know that hundreds of countries across the world afford their citizens votes in presidential elections, general elections and referenda. Such voting rights can be administered in a number of ways. It is not a question of whether this can be done. It is a question of how this can be done, what type of constituency needs to be established, etc. We have an example of how voting can be done in this House. A precedent has been set in the Seanad because the diaspora have voted for members who were elected to the university panels. It is just a matter of extending that principle to all of our citizens.

A lot of talk today has focused on the rights of Irish citizens, specifically those who hold Irish passports. As Sinn Féin's foreign affairs spokesperson in the Seanad I must comment on the abuse of the Irish passport by a foreign state.

l ask the Senator to conclude as he has run a minute over his time.

The use by Mossad of Irish passports to facilitate political murder must be condemned and opposed by all who profess ad nauseam to be upholders of Irish democracy. It is wrong and damages our reputation as a neutral country. It is disrespectful of a State that maintains an embassy in Ireland to treat our marker of citizenship as a weapon.

Tá súil agam go mbeidh an Rialtas in ann glacadh leis an rún seo agus tacú leis agus an leasú atá acu a tharraingt siar.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann” and substitute:

“, while recognising the complexities and challenges involved, calls on the Government to expedite its consideration of the recommendations in the Fifth Report of the Convention on the Constitution on giving the right to vote at Presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State.”.

I welcome this debate. I also welcome the Minister of State to the House for same. This evening we must also talk about structures.

The last speaker referred to the university elections. I agree with him that we have a system whereby university graduates who live outside of the State can be involved in the decision-making process to elect Senators. I think everyone will accept that the university registers are totally out of date. There is a vast difference between the number of people who vote and the number of people who are registered to vote. If we decide to set up a system then we need to debate how we set up the Seanad electoral system in various jurisdictions.

I agree with what earlier speakers said about Irish people abroad in terms of keeping up to date with events in Ireland. My sister lives in Kenya and has decided to return home. She works 45 miles south of Nairobi but sometimes she is more up to date on Irish events than I am as she keeps in close contact with events here. I am very familiar with people who live abroad but keep up to date with events in Ireland on a daily basis. Sometimes people abroad convey information to me about an event here that occurred a week earlier. I am in constant contact with people with whom I have worked previously who now work in New York or Boston. It is interesting to witness how up to date they are with national affairs and local parish events in Ireland. People definitely have a huge interest in what happens at home. Many Irish people who work abroad take a great interest in what happens here because they hope to return home.

The one great thing that has happened in this country over the past four years is we have grown the number of jobs. The number of people leaving the country has decreased and will continue to do so because the growth in jobs, hopefully, will continue. We need to look at the structures if we are speaking about people outside of Ireland having a vote in elections. An issue we need to look at is whether we accept the vote of a person outside the State is equal to that of someone at home. We might complain about the US system of an electoral college, but could we introduce an electoral college system that would allow people to have their say but at the same time the say of the taxpayers in the country is weighted? We need to look at structures if we are to introduce the system throughout the five continents. It is not just about the United States or the UK. A huge number of Irish people work in China, Indonesia and around the globe. The question is how we put all of this together.

The US has a mechanism whereby someone is appointed to monitor ten or 15 people in every class going through the college system to keep the university informed about where they work. Every university in the US is very much up to date on where their graduates are. It is unfortunate that in Ireland we do not have the same system because it would be powerful. Recently I spoke to someone who went to college in the US and wanted to get a new project up and running in Asia. All that person had to do was check with the university to find out what people from the same class or the university were working in the area who could immediately be contacted. It is something our universities should look at.

I welcome the debate but we need to speak more about the structure. We also need to speak about the cost implications. It is important that taxpayers are made aware of what it costs, how reasonable it is and the timeframe required to put together the registers and to set a target date. Until we have this debate we cannot go forward with a referendum because it is not just about having a referendum. In previous referendums there was acceptance the electorate would automatically vote in a particular way. The electorate is very educated now and wants all of the issues on the table. Not all of the issues are on the table with regard to the structures.

At the time of the divorce referendum, I remember asking about the proposed mechanism to be implemented if it was passed and I could not get an answer. The referendum was subsequently lost. If we are serious about this we must have each and every item on the table so the electorate is familiar with every issue. What happens in referendum campaigns is that two weeks or ten days before polling day a new issue arises for which we do not have answers. All of these need to be dealt with.

I welcome the debate. It is important that we have a discussion on it. The Law Reform Commission brought out a report in 2011 and I tabled legislation to deal with the matter five years later. We tend to park issues and it is something with which I do not agree. I welcome the debate and I hope we can move forward from here, but in a structured and carefully planned manner.

We have been having this debate since the 2013 Constitutional Convention. We have been discussing the issue regarding extending voting rights for Irish overseas and citizens outside the State for many a long decade. It is amazing we are so far from other changes to voting rights, from Catholic emancipation in 1829 to extending voting rights to women, and now we are still debating extending the right of a citizen to vote in a presidential or Seanad election so many years later.

The number of people we are trying to include in the proposal to extend voting rights to citizens outside the State is equal to the cities of Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Galway combined. This shows how much of a democratic deficit we have in the State. The most fundamental right of any citizen in any state is the right to vote. Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution declare many people living outside the borders of the State are Irish citizens and part of the Irish nation, but we do not extend the right of franchise, which is a fundamental expression of citizenship, to many of our citizens as defined by our Constitution.

It is three years or more since the Constitutional Convention had its meeting and produced its fifth report, yet the Government has not moved forward, other than to say there are issues of a technical and legal nature. To put it mildly, in the year of 2016 this is disgraceful. The fact it has also not come up with solutions but problems and does not have a real and practical roadmap is a failure of the Government to extend the rights of citizens in terms of the right to vote.

We are in poor company, in that of the 33 members of the Council of Europe only four do not extend voting rights to citizens outside their borders, with Cyprus, Malta and Greece being the other three and Ireland, regrettably, being part of the club of four. More than 120 of 196 countries give some form of expression to their citizens living outside their borders and they are allowed to vote. In France, 12 seats in the Senate are ring-fenced for the diaspora. In Portugal four out of 120 seats in Parliament are given over to the diaspora, which accounts for 20% of the electorate.

There are imaginative ways in which this can be done. Senator McDowell's Seanad Reform Bill is one of the imaginative reforms that would allow voting rights to be extended and ensure there is a voice for the diaspora in the House. The election of first citizen, the person who embodies the nation and its views on the world, is the very practical and real expression of how it should work fundamentally. What we are asking today is where is the roadmap and where is the vision.

We speak about our Proclamation, which was read in the four corners of the island throughout 2016, and it states it cherishes all the children of the nation equally. Where is the tangible proof we actually do this? Surely there is no more tangible proof the Government cherishes all the children of the nation equally than giving them the equal right to vote and the equal right to be heard, whether it be in the election of their President or extending voting rights to citizens living outside the State. Bear in mind, of course, that by happy accident we do extend voting rights to citizens who live outside the State, but one requires a university degree to vote for the six Seanad university seats.

However, a person without a university degree is excluded which, in a republic, is not satisfactory and needs to change.

The Government amendment to the motion basically suggests it will consider the recommendation. It has taken the Government three years to just consider it. Has nobody found the shelf on which the report has rested?

What were we doing before that?

Fianna Fáil was in government for 14 years.

If Government Members want to get agreement on its amendment, they will have to do it on their own.

There is one minute remaining. Senator Mark Daly, without interruption.

The Government has been unable to find the shelf where the report has been resting for three years. I can give Government Members a copy of it to consider. We might bring it before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence to see if we have a better answer. The fact that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, as the Minister responsible, is unable to be here, we just imagine-----

This motion is not for his Department.

It could be the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh. Responsibility for this issue rests in so many areas, that the report might be lost somewhere between the various Departments. One would imagine that in this year of all years, the Government could find the report and at least create a roadmap to implement its findings instead of making the very obvious statement of fact that there are technical and legal issues with extending the voting rights, which is like saying that when the sun shines it can be hot. That is not a reason for things not to happen, three years after the Convention on the Constitution.

We need to take some legal advice.

Senator Mark Daly without interruption for another 40 seconds.

We realise there is a requirement for a constitutional change, but the Government does not appear to have the impetus or will to do so. If we are considering extending the voting rights for elections to this House, we should include the presidential election which would be the same constituency. It appears that some legal obstacles can be overcome when it comes to voting rights for citizens overseas. I cannot understand why that cannot be utilised for the presidential election also.

I welcome the motion, which gives us the opportunity to consider citizens' rights regarding our institutions, especially citizens who do not live in the jurisdiction. Based on the terms of the Constitution, a referendum would be required. Although Senator Ó Clochartaigh expressed a doubt on that issue, to me it is very clear that the only people who can vote in a presidential election are people who are entitled to vote in Dáil elections. By definition the only people entitled to vote in Dáil elections are people who are members of constituencies among which the seats have been allocated by reference to the number of people living in those constituencies. That is the first point. Doing this would need constitutional change, which means having a referendum.

The second point is this. When I was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, one of the things the Government of which I was a member did - I was particularly keen on this - was to end the idea of citizenship for sale and passports for sale. There was a time when people could by brandishing £500,000 come into this country, get a passport and be made citizens under a scheme administered largely by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Taoiseach. This flew in the face of Article 9.3 of the Constitution, which states: "Fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State are fundamental political duties of all citizens." It is not for sale and cannot be for sale. It cannot be conferred on people who do not owe their fidelity to the nation or loyalty to the State.

When suggesting conferring the right to vote on citizens outside Ireland, that right can only be extended to people who owe this State a loyalty. With one exception, to which I will return, that seems to apply to people who hold dual citizenship. Does a person, who is loyal to the People's Republic of China or to the United States of America, owe a duty of loyalty to the Irish State? Who resolves conflicts in that loyalty? Where do such a person's loyalties lie? There is something to be said for the proposition that if we are extending this right to people outside the jurisdiction who hold Irish citizenship in the form of a passport, it should be to people who owe this country a duty of loyalty and not to people who owe other countries a duty of loyalty.

It is also relevant that whereas we extend the right to vote in Dáil elections to British citizens in Ireland, they may not vote in presidential elections precisely because they are not citizens and the Constitution prohibits them from doing so.

The exception to which I said I would return is the Good Friday Agreement, which now has constitutional status here. In that Agreement, the State acknowledges that it is the right of anybody in Northern Ireland to consider themselves Irish or British, or, interestingly, both. From that point of view, that somebody in Belfast might have an Irish and British passport does not necessarily mean and cannot be taken to imply that he or she cannot owe a duty of loyalty to the Irish State. That is an exception and the general rule must be that in order to be eligible to vote in Irish presidential elections, if we extend the right outside the country by referendum, it should be confined to people who, I think, are citizens in the sense of owing a duty of loyalty to our State.

The next point to remember is that the President is not just some disembodied citizen living in the Phoenix Park, making pronouncements on the demise of Fidel Castro and things like that. The President is more than that; the President is part of our Parliament. It is to the Irish Parliament that the right of making laws for this State is exclusively given under the Constitution. Therefore, the President is not just some figurehead or some symbol; the President has constitutional and parliamentary duties and rights, which must be remembered. Therefore, we are not simply giving people a free vote in a kind of popularity contest - the X Factor. If we are contemplating this step we will be giving certain citizens, who live abroad, the right to vote on who should be a Member of our Parliament at presidential level. That is an important matter to bear in mind.

I think the Government's amendment is purely procrastination. These issues could be addressed in a fortnight of solid thinking if anybody bothered to do that thinking. Are we in favour of it or not? No more consideration is required. On what classes of citizens do we wish to confer this right? On whom do we not want to confer this right? Is it to be passport holders? Is it to be current passport holders? Are they an identifiable group of people? Will they need to register voluntarily? They probably would. Who will arrange all of that?

I say this in respect of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in particular. The Minister of State, Deputy English, came into the House to respond to my Seanad Bill and gave me every reason a Department with limited resources, which does not like having extra work imposed on it, saw difficulties with giving people outside this country a vote. In the National University of Ireland constituency for this House, I got more first preference votes than six Deputies who hold seats in Dáil Éireann.

The Senator should be in the Dáil.

It is not a tiny place. It is administered by a handful of people. While there are problems with the register, it can be done if there is a will to do it.

I am glad the Minister is present as he was not here for any of the debates on the Seanad Bill and I want him to hear this.

No, he was not. He sent in the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English.

The Senator is wrong. The Minister was here.

I was here for four hours, which is much longer than the Senator spent in the Chamber on the Bill.

Sorry, I remember the Minister was here.

Even Homer nods.

I ask Senator McDowell to conclude.

The time has come for Fine Gael to make up its mind on Seanad reform and reform of presidential voting rights. This requires leadership from the top of the party, which must decide in this House whether it supports the programme for Government on the issue of Seanad reform. It also requires unambiguous and unambivalent courage and for someone to say the party either supports or does not support the programme for Government. The time has come for the party to stop speaking out of both corners of its mouth at the same time.

On this issue, the idea we are discussing is either good or bad. If the Fine Gael parliamentary party cannot meet and give two hours to deciding whether it is for or against this, there is something wrong. If the Department of the environment - or whatever it calls itself now - cannot come to a conclusion on whether it is capable of putting together an amended register for passport holders abroad, who qualify under certain criteria, on which they could add their names to be sent a postal vote, let us hear that. As for the idea that this weak, wheelchair Government should kick every can down the road at every point - I say this with the greatest respect for people with disabilities - the time has come for the Government to state where it stands on these issues. If it continues to procrastinate, there are simple ways of making the House unworkable. When the Government does not have a majority in the House it cannot get things through.

The Senator is almost two minutes over time.

The time has come for the Government to be honest with us in this Chamber. It must face up to these issues, stop speaking out of both corners of its mouth and stop talking about establishing groups and having consultations and further contemplations. The Fine Gael Party asked to be in government; it did not fall into government by accident. It assumed the responsibility of government and if it cannot govern, it knows what options are available. If it wants to remain in government, for heaven's sake, it should face up to this simple proposition by deciding whether it is in favour of it or against it.

The Minister should return to the House within a fortnight or three weeks, having discussed the matter at a parliamentary party level, and tell us where he stands on the issue in order that we do not have futile debate after futile debate in this Chamber on these kinds of issues.

I would be grateful if speakers could stick to the time provided for contributions. I was lenient with the previous speaker who completely ignored me.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. He is probably one of the most accessible of all Ministers and to be fair to him, he comes to the Seanad for debates, notwithstanding the comments made by other Senators. I thank and commend Senator Mark Daly who has championed the idea of extending the franchise in presidential elections. He has done considerable work on this issue in the United States. To be fair to the Senator, it is important that we get this issue right. While he and I may disagree on the roadmap to achieving our objectives, I give him credit for his work on the issue.

Listening to Senator McDowell, I felt as if I was in the Forum in Rome. I wonder at times whether he was in government because he should know better than most that one does not get much done around here in two weeks. That was also the case during his time in government when he was cracking the whip.

How long has the Government been sitting on this issue?

We were not in government for 14 years. The Government that preceded us put the-----

Fine Gael has been in government for six years.

Sinn Féin will not go into government.

We have not been invited.

That is part of the problem. The only party that wanted to go into government after the election was Fine Gael.

The Senator should stick to the point.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh is a great man for opposing everything and supporting nothing. He speaks on everything.

I will revert to Senator McDowell's point on the Seanad Bill. The issue of presidential voting rights is not black and white. I was a member of the Constitutional Convention, which gave a strong endorsement to extending the franchise.

Senator Buttimer did not object.

Please allow Senator Buttimer to continue without interruption.

The convention voted on the issue. It had a very good discussion on the topic before reaching a conclusion.

The important point is that it is critical to prepare in advance. Senator McDowell spoke about fidelity and loyalty to the State and the right to vote. How is it proposed to allow the 700,000 people who acquired an Irish passport this year, whoever they may be, the right to vote if they live outside the State? How does one change this? If a person registers to vote and does not vote for a certain period, should the franchise be removed from him or her after a number of years? Ultimately, this matter will be decided in a referendum. As the Senator knows from his time as a Minister and the successful campaign he waged on the retention of the Seanad-----

We would not be here otherwise.

-----little quibbles get in the way and change the discourse in a referendum campaign.

Politicians use the electoral register, which is clearly in rag order. If one looks at how it is compiled in many places, one finds that the names and addresses often do not match up. I visited New York to observe the recent presidential election. I was struck by the fact that the US and Irish electoral registers were not different in some areas. The US has an absentee ballot system. How would we introduce this type of voting for a presidential election? Senator Colm Burke referred to an electoral college system and having a balanced distribution of voting weights. Is this option being considered or would one have a straight vote?

It is not possible to do this in two weeks. For this reason, it is important-----

According to the Constitution, the President must be elected by a direct vote of the people.

That is my point. If one extends the franchise, one must arrive at a decision as to whom it should be given, apart from those who live in the country. Would we extend it to all those who hold a passport? For how long can they have been living outside the country? Must they visit the country every six months or must they stay abroad? This is not a black and white issue.

The President is not only a figurehead. The officeholder is subject to strong constitutional requirements in terms of how he or she interacts with the Houses of the Oireachtas, both in respect of legislative duties and as a custodian. This issue must also be discussed. In framing the discussion, the Government amendment, which was moved by Senator Colm Burke and which I support, provides that we approach this matter in a considered way. We cannot click and move because this will take time. As a former Minister, Senator McDowell should know that better than most.

I tried in my time.

At times, the Senator did not do too well in that regard in his former incarnation. I suppose he will welcome Bertie Ahern back today. I presume that would be another good move for the country.

It is sometimes lost on Members that it is the prerogative of the Government to accept or reject the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention. The right to vote is a precious and cherished right. What will happen if people do not vote in elections? Should we consider this issue in the context of changes to the franchise? Should we make voting compulsory, as is the case in Australia? That would create a different dynamic.

To respond to Senator McDowell's goading, I am in favour of extending the franchise.

My fundamental concern centres around the registration process, who one allows to vote, the criteria and the cut-off point. Linked to that is the fundamental question of whether the person voting understands the importance of the office of President. It is not simply about going around meeting civic and community groups and it is not just about opening the Ploughing Championships. It is not about meeting the teams at the Aviva Stadium or Croke Park. It is much more substantial than that.

I will spend my final minute on Seanad reform. The Taoiseach has outlined the Government position. As Leader of the House, I note that we have had the debate on Second Stage of the relevant Bill. The Taoiseach has spoken to Senator McDowell about it and is putting in place a process and a consultation team to move it forward. He has written to the leaders of the other parties to move that forward. How we arrive at the end of Seanad reform is a matter we all have to discuss. Senator McDowell has a constituency to appease while Members with a different point of view must look at their constituencies. We all agree that Seanad reform is necessary. New politics does not necessarily mean, however, that those who oppose Government all the time should continue to do so. In fairness, that is not an issue for Senator McDowell, but it requires a new way of doing politics and of doing business. One of the legacies of new politics is that pre-legislative scrutiny will play a bigger and more important role in future Parliaments, which is welcome. As someone who chaired a committee of the last Oireachtas, I thought it served us well.

There will be a cost to the State in any extension of the franchise. How much will it be and where will the money come from? Will it mean depriving services of resources further down the road? That has to be teased out. The overarching policy, which we accept, is to extend the franchise. With that, I note to Senator McDowell that I am glad the Minister is here.

He is very welcome.

He has been a very welcome visitor to the House. He attends often at very short notice and is willing to engage and discuss with Members, as I am sure Senator Ó Clochartaigh will-----

With respect, that is his job.

Senator Mac Lochlainn should look at his own members in Stormont who do not interact on many issues. The mirror should be looked at as well.

Senator Kelleher has eight minutes.

Senator Kelleher has the floor.

Senator Buttimer could not name them. He does not know who they are.

What is their response to marriage equality in the North, for example?

Go on, name them.

Sinn Féin has a poor record of advancement there.

We have brought forward the last four motions on marriage equality and our Finance Minister is bringing forward a Bill.

I ask the Senators to have some respect for the Senator who is on her feet.

Talk to the people up there.

I ask Senators to have respect for the Senator who is on her feet waiting to speak.

I apologise. I am sure you will ask the same of the Leader.

Take it outside if you want to have that kind of conversation.

I am sharing time with Senator Frances Black.

I feel like a múinteoir waiting for silence here, but anyway.

There is no choice, unfortunately.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I support Sinn Féin's motion today. I speak as a former member of the diaspora who lived in England for 17 years and as somebody who always considered herself part and parcel of this country during that time in London. I also speak as the mother of a son who lives in France. He was born in London and is an Irish passport holder. He went to primary school in London, secondary school in Cork and university abroad. He is also somebody who is fully a member of the country and would sign up to what Senator McDowell outlined in terms of supporting the State.

I support the motion because of the urgency of the situation. This matter has been around for a number of years. It has been three years since the publication of the fifth report of the Constitutional Convention recommending an amendment of the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections at Irish embassies or otherwise. The Constitutional Convention was established by the Houses in good faith to examine a number of important issues. It was expected that the Government would consider the decisions of the Convention and respond in due course. The Government has done the Convention and the Houses a disservice by not adequately responding to this report or holding the agreed referendum. A year and a half ago, on 10 March 2015, the then Minister of State, Jimmy Deenihan, in an address to the Seanad on the subject of Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy said:

Since my appointment, I have travelled extensively, and the message from our citizens overseas is the same the world over. They want to deepen their engagement with and connection to Ireland and play a more active role in Irish society and they feel that voting would give expression to that desired connection ... The Government has asked Minister Kelly in co-operation with Minister Flanagan and myself to analyse these issues and report back to Government and that is what we will do.

Three months later in the DáiI, the Taoiseach said:

Deputies will be aware that the Government made the point in its recent diaspora strategy that it is necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise from any significant extension of the franchise before any decision could be made on the holding of a referendum. The analysis is being undertaken by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora.

Six months later on 14 January 2016, the then-Minister of State, Ann Phelan, said:

The Government asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for diaspora affairs, to analyse these issues and to report back to the Government in due course.

It has been three years since the report and almost two years since the Government said this issue would be examined. We are now at the end of what has been termed "due course". There are important issues to address but they are not beyond the wit of clever civil servants, of whom we have many, and other wise heads, including in the universities. Let us not undermine the great work that was done by the Convention and the innovative thinking of the last Oireachtas. The approach taken has been praised internationally. The author David Van Reybrouck noted the following in an open letter published this week:

Look at Ireland, the most innovative democracy in Europe. A few weeks ago, a random sample of one hundred Irish citizens, drafted by lot, was brought together into a Citizens’ Assembly. This is a country that trusts its citizens, instead of fearing them.

We should continue to trust our citizenry and extend that trust to our diaspora by bringing forward the measures recommended by the Constitutional Convention. We must be given that crucial timeframe, which is why I am supporting the motion.

I welcome the Minister to the Seanad. I support the motion. Ireland lacks a modern absentee ballot process and lags behind nearly every nation in the EU when it comes to giving its emigrant citizens the right to vote. Indeed, the Republic lags behind the vast majority of nations in the world, some 125 of which have already established an absentee ballot process for citizens. Emigrants immediately become second-class citizens the moment they leave the departure lounge at any Irish airport or port. A European Commission report of 2014 criticised Ireland for disenfranchising those citizens who live abroad. The Taoiseach must fulfil his Constitutional Convention promise and hold a referendum to give Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote for the next President of Ireland in 2019.

My father was born in the Six Counties but always considered himself as Irish as anyone else on the island. He was sad that he was unable to vote while living in the North but could vote when he settled in Dublin. Voting rights must be extended to Irish citizens in the North as soon as possible. I support fully the right of all Irish citizens of voting age to vote for the Irish President regardless of where they live. It is ironic that someone from the North can become President of Ireland but cannot vote in the election. Irish citizens living in the Six Counties cannot do so. The Good Friday Agreement states that the Government recognises the right of all people born in the North to identify as Irish citizens if they so wish. We should not treat those people as second-class citizens. We should encourage people from all political backgrounds on the island to engage in the political process. In this way, we will build an island on which everybody is equal. We must ask why there is such reluctance to extend voting rights to Irish citizens living in the Six Counties. All political parties should establish a presence in the North, which would help to eradicate the partitionist nature of our politics and show our citizens in the North that we consider them worthy of equal treatment and equal representation.

In September 2013, 78% of the members of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of giving citizens resident abroad a vote in presidential elections. The Convention members voted 73% in favour of giving such a vote to Irish citizens resident in the North. We need to end the practice of depriving Irish people of the right to influence their destinies and ours.

Do we fear Irish citizens who live abroad or in the North? Northern nationalists are philosophically and emotionally part of the Irish nation. It is in their DNA. They deeply resent partition and constantly seek practical ways in which their national identity is affirmed. What better way to affirm it than by being able to vote for the President? It would also be good to see Northern Unionists, who are reportedly applying for Irish citizenship in ever-greater numbers after the Brexit vote, exercising their right to vote for an Irish President. The decision of the Constitutional Convention is a clear indication that the people of the South support people from the North voting in presidential elections. The extension of voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens living in the North must be done as soon as possible.

I welcome the Minister and commend our Sinn Féin colleagues on tabling the motion which I am happy to support on behalf of the Labour Party. We will oppose the Government amendment. I have three personal reasons before coming to the broader reasons for why I think the House should support the motion. I was a member of the diaspora briefly myself. Like Senator Kelleher, I lived in London and recall remaining deeply interested in Irish politics and Irish affairs for the few years I was abroad.

Like Senator McDowell, I am also elected by members of the diaspora, among others. I am happy to say that of the 50,000 plus voters on the Trinity College electoral register a large number are resident overseas in places as far flung as the Pacific islands and all across the world. I know from e-mails and communications with those voters just how engaged they are. We should not forget that six Members of this House are elected, at least in part, by Members of the diaspora.

I was proud to lead the Labour Party delegation in the Constitutional Convention which voted, as we know by a 78% majority in 2013, in support of the principle of extension of voter rights in presidential elections. Like Senator Buttimer, we all found the experience profoundly moving. I recall, in particular that weekend, there were not only very helpful presentations from academics such as Dr. Theresa Reidy of UCC and groups such as the Irish in Britain emigrant group, which I have met, but we also heard very powerful testimony by video link from Irish citizens resident abroad seeking the right to vote. They made very direct personal appeals to us and to the 100 members of the convention. I found that very moving.

I wish to deal briefly with the Government amendment which, as Senator McDowell said, seeks to procrastinate or delay further consideration despite the fact that it has been three years since the recommendation of the convention. It could be done in a much more straightforward manner. Article 12.2.1° of the Constitution provides that the President shall be elected by direct vote of the people. Article 12.2.2° goes on to say that every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for Members of Dáil Éireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President. It would be very straightforward for a Government committed to the principle adopted by the convention to seek to put an amendment before the people. It would require a constitutional referendum to provide in a facilitative way for the Oireachtas to prescribe that eligibility to vote at an election for President could be extended to certain categories of Irish citizen resident outside the jurisdiction. In other words, it would leave the detail of the limitations or restrictions on voting rights to legislation, as is currently done. When one looks at Article 12 it is apparent that legislation must set out in detail the mechanism of presidential elections and it is set out in very broad brush terms currently in the Constitution. The reference is to the "direct vote of the people" and then it goes on to say citizens have the right to vote for the Dáil. There is nothing to stop us seeking to amend the Constitution in broad brush terms to extend diaspora voting rights without needing to prescribe within the Constitution exactly the nature of those voting rights.

I will turn briefly to how voting rights could be dealt with in practice because, again, the objections from the Government side have been largely practical and logistical. Dr. Theresa Reidy told us in 2013 that the International Foundation for Electoral Systems reported in 2012 that the cost of in-country voting is about $1 to $2 per person, using American measures, but for out-of-country voting costs rise to between $5 and $20 per person. The way the costs are addressed differ depending on the nature of the voting rights extended but based on a 2012 report they can be as low as $5 per person.

Other speakers have referred to the limitations placed, for example, to require that a citizen resident abroad would hold only an Irish passport. In Canada a citizen can only have been resident abroad for up to five years and must declare an intention to return. In the United Kingdom that is extended to a 15-year period and in Germany to 25 years. We know that 45 European countries and 125 countries worldwide have some form of emigrant rights, but usually limited in some way, for example, temporal limitation such as that I have mentioned in terms of timing. When we spoke with the Irish in Britain and the Federation of Irish Societies group they were very supportive of the idea that there might be, for example, a ten-year or 15-year limit on voting rights.

Presidents such as President Mary Robinson have spoken powerfully about the need to recognise and acknowledge the diaspora. They have spoken of the 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish descent. In fact, when one looks at the passport holders resident abroad the number is greatly reduced to approximately 3 million but that does not mean one would have 3 million extra people voting. In the United Kingdom there are 27 million people resident abroad holding British passports who are eligible to vote but in 2013 only 23,000 of those had registered to vote in the British general election and only a proportion of that number cast their vote. The numbers will fall when one considers the requirement to register. That is an important point.

There are also other practical points about how one can keep costs down in terms of how one operates the vote. It could be done by post. We have seen other systems used, for example, where people have to vote in person at their national embassy. Relatively recently I was very moved one Sunday when I passed by an embassy in Dublin which had a long queue outside. From recollection it was the Romanian embassy. The people were Romanians resident in this country who still held their own passports and they were queuing up to be able to exercise their right to vote. All of us have friends resident in Ireland who are American citizens and who are able to exercise their right to vote despite living here in Ireland. There are very active groups in Ireland such as Democrats Abroad which organised events to ensure that people resident here holding an American passport would still be engaged in the US election process.

The logistical and practical arguments against the extension of voting rights can be easily overcome. Political will is what is required to declare an intention to endorse this motion. I am disappointed the Government has tabled an amendment because it would have been nice for the Seanad to be able to come together and support a motion in broad brush terms to support the idea that we would extend voting rights to the diaspora while recognising that there have to be restrictions and limitations placed on that, but that could be done through legislation. All that is required is a facilitative amendment to the Constitution to enable the Oireachtas to pass the legislation. President Michael D. Higgins, former President Mary Robinson and others have reminded us just how important it is that we recognise and acknowledge the diaspora and this gives us a meaningful way in which to do that.

There seems to be an assumption because we have tabled an alternative motion that I, Fine Gael and the Government are somehow against extending voting rights to Irish citizens living outside of Ireland. I have direct and extended family living in Washington, the UK, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and other places. Lots of other people in this House could say the same. There are many Irish people who consider themselves just as Irish as we do who are living in different parts of the world. It is almost an Irish tribe spread across every continent, whether they are working on the missions, running a business or something in between.

I have long advocated that we should find a way to extend voting rights for presidential elections beyond these shores and I am still committed to that. When Fine Gael was in opposition I produced a very detailed paper on the issue. From what I can remember, it was put together by the Brussels branch of Fine Gael which had a vested interest in the issue. We are going to do this and as the Minister with direct responsibility for the issue, I am personally committed to doing it but I cannot and will not agree to a motion which is pinning us down on some of the issues that need and deserve consideration.

That is the only issue I have with the motion which proposes the implementation of the recommendation by the Constitutional Convention to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in a presidential election, which is pretty definitive, and that we would indicate the timeframe envisaged for holding any such referendum. We do not even know how it is going to work yet. I can only answer for my own tenure in this Department and I can tell the Senators that the section of the Department dealing with this issue now is not a lazy section of my Department. It will have an options paper ready for me before the end of the year and we are going to make decisions on this early in the new year. If the Seanad or the Dáil is going to make a statement that we are going to extend the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens who live outside Ireland, then we need to make damn sure we have answers for them when they ask how it will work, where they will register, whether they qualify, what is the distinction between who should and who should not qualify, whether there are thresholds, whether they must have lived in Ireland, whether there is a time limit with regard to when they left Ireland, whether they vote by post or show up at an embassy and what is to happen in countries where there is no Irish embassy. These are valid questions. Until I have the answers to these questions I would be foolish to announce that we are going to proceed with this in 2019. We would be leading some people up the garden path and as Minister I am not willing to do that. I am committed in principle to extending the franchise of the presidential elections but before we confirm that by voting in the Oireachtas, and are therefore committed to achieving it, I would like to know how we are going to do it and how long it would take us to put in place a proper, robust system we can trust to make sure we deal any with issues of voter fraud or mistakes that may genuinely be made. We need to know the potential costs and the resources required in embassies to deal with these issues. That is what our amendment is about. We are calling on the Government to expedite its consideration of the recommendations of the report of the Constitutional Convention giving the right to vote in presidential elections to citizens who are resident outside the State. We are committed to progressing this issue. I am committed to doing it, along with a whole load of other things going on in my Department at the moment. It is being prioritised along with the other issues. I would say that we will be in a position, within the next quarter or so, to actually have a much more detailed proposal for decision and consideration. That is where we are coming from.

There are some issues that are party political and some issues that are driven by ideology, but we need to understand the complexity of the issue to make decisions and to come to a consensus so we can all agree on a way forward to extend the franchise. It is the most fundamental thing one can do in a democracy. We ask for a little time. If Senators come back to me at the end of the first quarter of next year and we do not have something then they would have fair cause for concern and criticism. This is the first time I have spoken on this issue in either House. I give a commitment that we are going to progress it as a priority but I need a little bit of time, regardless of what has happened to date. I was in Government and I accept responsibility for previous Government decisions, but with regard to this Department and the prioritisation of this issue I can only take responsibility for my own tenure.

I have a speech here, some of which might be helpful to read into the record, but I would rather talk straight on this issue rather than giving a long dissertation on what the Constitutional Convention said or did. On our commitment to progressing it, the Taoiseach has also made a number of statements or commitments in that regard. I know the Taoiseach is taking it seriously because he has asked for a briefing. He has set a timeframe around my delivery of an options paper to him and to Government. This issue is moving forward. I am not yet ready to support the motion put down by Senators which commits to a timeframe and to implementing the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention as is. We may bring forward a variant of that, having done some of the work the Constitutional Convention may not have been able to do. For example, it is my understanding that the Constitutional Convention recommended that we should extend voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens outside the State, but it also recommended that in order to qualify people would have had to have resided in the State at some point. That is my memory of what the convention said. We need to understand that and tease it out. Obviously, there is a special relationship and situation in the context of citizenship in Northern Ireland. This also needs to be teased out and understood to respect the people who have Irish citizenship, and who want Irish citizenship, and their qualification rights around extending the franchise.

I have sensed the impatience here and I can understand some of that. Some people are operating under the motto that, "We need to be radical or redundant". Radical is one thing, but one must have an implementation plan in order to be credible. We do not have that now. For us to pretend that we have the answers and to give a commitment on which we cannot supply details would, in my view, be irresponsible. That is why we propose the alternative motion.

I ask Senators to give us a little time to come forward with some of the practical arrangements needed to turn an idea and a commitment into reality, along with the timeframe for doing it. If I am honest, it is very difficult to envisage this being done for 2019. This is the information I am getting back from our team in the Department. It does not mean it cannot be committed to long before then, with a view to getting it right the first time the franchise is extended after 2019. I will have a lot more detail on it and the evidence to back it up, which is the important thing, in the not too distant future. That is the basis of the approach on which we hope to get agreement from a majority in the House when the vote takes place later on.

I thank the Minister. Senators Gavan and Mac Lochlainn have both indicated to speak. I do not mind in what order. They are each entitled to eight minutes and then Senator Ó Donnghaile will conclude.

The Minister is welcome, as always, to the House. Where do I start at this point in time? I will start by welcoming the support from the Labour Party, from the Civil Engagement group and even Senator McDowell. I will address the points the Minister has just made. He is committing to come back to us by the end of the first quarter of 2017, clearly with something substantial and not just with vague wording or a vague idea of what he is going to do, in which case, there is absolutely nothing in our motion that prevents him from supporting it. I will read it out for the Minister just to be clear: "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". The Minister has already told us he is committed to that so there is nothing there to prevent him from supporting the motion. The motion goes on to state "...and to indicate the time frame it envisages for the holding of any related referendum". The Minister can do that, and nothing would stop him from doing that in terms of this motion. This is hugely disappointing. It is really disappointing that the message will go out to our emigrants across the world, and from my accent the Minister can tell that I am one of them, that once again the Government is going to kick the can down the road on this issue. To be frank, I believe that the Department is entirely opposed to this idea and that the Minister knows this. We need to have a frank and honest conversation. The Minister is a nice guy, and in fairness, there is a bit of toing and froing now and again but he needs to have a bit more of an honest conversation around what is happening here.

We know what is happening here. We know the Minister is kicking the can down the road and that he has no intention - and I am putting this on the record - of going further. I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

The Senator sees a conspiracy around every corner.

It is not a conspiracy; it is just a political position.

There is a process in train. We just need to get it going.

There is no sign of the train at the minute. I also want to put on the record that I received a phone call on Friday evening from our colleague, Senator Billy Lawless. I was really appreciative of the call. He rang me from the United States, on Thanksgiving weekend, to ask me to state in the Chamber today that he supports our motion and he calls on all his colleagues here to support the motion.

I hope Billy is watching this debate today but I cannot imagine how he feels right now. It is hugely disappointing. The Taoiseach appointed Senator Lawless to deal with this and the Minister has let him down today. It is a huge, huge disappointment. I am also struck by the fact that - with regard to Senator McDowell - Seanad reform is dead and gone. The pretence is up on that also. Seanad reform is going nowhere. We suspected as much but now it is absolutely clear. The wording in the amendments is weak and only offers further consideration. Senator Daly put it very well. This brings me to Fianna Fáil's position, which is the most disappointing of all. I had an e-mail back from Senator Daly last week telling me that he would be delighted to support the motion today yet I regret to say that we seem to be getting indications, and maybe Senator Gallagher will dissuade me of this, that Fianna Fáil will not be supporting our motion on emigrant voting rights. What a sad day that is. If Fianna Fáil is not going to support the motion when it is in so-called opposition, then there is absolutely no chance of it doing anything on it in government.

We have called out, again, the two conservative parties in power, Fine Gael being deeply conservative. They are not going to move the motion forward. I particularly welcome Senator McDowell's comment because, let us be honest, we do not agree too often. Today he put it very well. We know what is going on here. It is pretence. I think of the emigrant families and I think of my own family in the US and in Britain - and all of us can say this - are going to be hugely disappointed with what has gone on here today. It is pretence and it is a game and to borrow the words of St. Augustine, "give me emigrant voting, but not yet", let us push it out and kick the can down the road. It marks so much of this Government. As the Minister knows, Sinn Féin is committed to supporting emigrant voting rights in presidential elections. It can be done. There are 28 countries in Africa, 16 countries in the Americas, 41 countries in Europe, ten countries in Oceania and 20 countries in Asia that have voting rights. There are no practical impediments. Of course a structure must be worked out but we can do that. I am putting on the record that it is quite evident that the political will is not here. Some 300,000 people have had to leave our shores in the last number of years.

It was more than that. More than 220,000 people were aged under 24.

The parties have turned their backs on those people. I believe I am correct in saying that all bar two decades since our Independence have been marked by mass emigration. It has been said that we have all been marked by that. To not stand up is a betrayal of those people. The answer by our Leader, that just because the Constitutional Convention has suggested that we can do this does not mean we have to, says we are not bothered. This issue will be reported on much more abroad, I suspect, than at home. What a sad message to be sent out to our own people. I am hugely disappointed in Fianna Fáil. It makes a great play when it is in opposition but has never done anything about it while in government - and this was also a valid criticism made by the Leader. Fianna Fáil has never done anything about it while in government but when it has an opportunity to support even a simple motion it will not even do that. Fianna Fáil knows how this is going to resonate, particularly in the Six Counties. What a poor show. When our colleagues in the Labour Party, the Civil Engagement group and the Independents can support this motion there is no reason given in what the Minister has said to us, and I have pointed this out to him, why he could not support this motion, apart from the fact that he and his Department are absolutely terrified of having to actually commit to doing anything on this issue. It is a sad day.

A lifetime ago I, like many other Irish people, headed off to Chicago. I was not even 21 years of age and I was very excited. I thought I was a bit of a trailblazer setting foot in Chicago. Within a few days I saw the reality of life. I went to a bar and almost everyone in the bar was not just from Donegal but from the Inishowen Peninsula. Everyone. You could have taken a bar in my home town of Buncrana or anywhere on the Inishowen Peninsula and planted it there in southside Chicago. People had just followed the trail for work. Ireland is the only country in the world where our population is lower today than it was in the 1800s. It is the history of emigration. There was a book by Raymond Crotty in the mid-1980s called Ireland in Crisis. In the book he said that since the foundation of the State, up until that point in the mid-1980s which was about 65 years, half of the children who had survived childhood - not just those who had been born - had been forced to emigrate. That is the history and the Minister knows it. He refers to his own family living in various parts of the world.

Gabriel Byrne, the actor, nailed this issue a few years ago when we set up the Global Irish initiative in response to the crisis. We once again reached out to the diaspora to act as agents and facilitators for investment into the State to help us through the crisis. Gabriel Byrne said that the Irish people overseas were tired of the hat being passed around for the old sod. They need to see more than the pats on the back, the shamrocks and the St. Patrick's Day visits to march down the road and do walkabouts. They need something tangible and they need to have a real relationship with the country that they love. The Minister knows this. He has been abroad and he has met the Irish abroad. They have a closer sense of their Irishness than many of us here because they do not take it for granted. They hold onto their music, their song and their identity with a passion that is inspirational. We can see this in Canada, Australia, the United States, Europe, Britain and everywhere the Irish are. There is a huge connection. Today we are talking about the vote in the presidential election. I agree with Senator McDowell in his assessment of the role of the President within the Constitution. The President certainly does not have all of the executive powers. The vote is not for a Government or TDs; the vote would be for a President who articulates the views of the Irish. Consider Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson or Michael D. Higgins. I am proud of all three, they have done our State proud and they have been real ambassadors for our nation. Imagine if we had a president who was directly elected. Imagine the connection with the diaspora who love their country and who have passed the hat around for the old sod again and again. I was trying to pull my thoughts together and Gabriel Byrne's words were burned into my mind. I looked back to my young self at the age of 21 in Chicago among all of those Irish people. My first encounter was with the people from Inishowen and the west of Ireland.

In recent times the emigration train has set off again. We know from the CSO figures that Donegal was one of only three counties in which the population actually declined over the last period. There are villages and towns all over my county like this. It is heartbreaking. People are on Skype talking to their children and their grandchildren. In many cases they will not see each other for years. This motion offers a practical opportunity. I am not going to get into the fight with the Minister today. I agree with Senator Gavan that the Minister is a good man who sets out to do things. So do it and grapple with the situation.

We are going to do it.

Do it.

The Minister should not say he does not think we can do this by 2019. He should gather his departmental officials around him and say that we need to sort this out for the reasons he outlined at the start of today's debate. This is a priority. This was agreed by the Constitutional Convention. It is the desire of the people. I have no doubt the overwhelming majority of Irish people across the State want it.

I accept there are issues that need to be sorted out. Senator McDowell in his expert analysis outlined some of them and the Minister has outlined others. I accept what they say, but there is no reason to vote against the motion. If that happens and we get an amended motion would the Minister please go to his officials and say that while he appreciates they have a lot on their plate with water and housing that this should be as important a priority? That is the case in terms of the real connectivity, value and signal it will send to Irish people throughout the world.

I thank the Minister for being present. I will not use any of my notes. I left Mayo at a very young age when I was forced to emigrate. I know what it is like to be one of the diaspora. I apologise for not being present earlier for the debate but I had to attend a very tragic funeral in Bray. I know what it was like to be forced to leave home in the first place and then what it was like to be told that one’s opinion did not matter and that one had no say whatsoever in the running of one’s country. That was in the 1980s when everything was happening here. I was an Irish citizen abroad without a vote or a voice and I had to make my own way, which I did.

I go abroad quite a lot. I go to England and America and I hear the same story over and over again. People want to have a say. They do not want to be patted on the back or told that people care about the diaspora. Not everybody wants to have a say but there are many who do. I come from a family of nine and my brother who spent time in America but came home could vote in the recent US presidential election, but somebody from Ireland living abroad cannot vote here. There is no longer any excuse for people abroad not to be given a vote. If the motion is defeated I do not know how the message that would go out today from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could be explained to the diaspora. I do not know how after all those years they could say to those people that they must wait another while before they have a say in the running of their country. I appeal to both parties to see sense on the issue and to do something once and for all to show that we really respect Irish citizens who are part of the diaspora no matter where they live.

I apologise also as I was not present for the earlier part of the debate but I listened to much of it. There is no family that is not touched by emigration in this country and no party or politician for that matter has a monopoly on the views of the diaspora. We should give credit where it is due. The Taoiseach appointed a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora who is working extremely hard and reaching out to emigrants not only in the United States but all over the world as well. However, he went further than that; he gave the diaspora a voice in the House of Parliament for the first time ever through Senator Billy Lawless. To be fair, that has been acknowledged. They are major steps in Irish parliamentary appointments by An Taoiseach and at the very least it should be acknowledged. It is incorrect to say that the diaspora has no say, as has just been said in the previous contribution because it has been recognised at the highest level of the Government through the appointment of a Minister to represent and engage with the diaspora all over the world. Senator Billy Lawless is someone who resides in the United States of America, who has championed emigrants’ rights for many years, and who continues to work with all of us to try to advance their rights, be they voting rights or residency rights in the United States or other rights. We must give credit where it is due.

I have often heard criticism and condemnation of Ministers who travel around the world on St. Patrick’s weekend. I was one of those Ministers of State. In 2015 I fulfilled 70 engagements over three days with the diaspora in two cities in the United States. I was working from morning until night reaching out to the diaspora. At the same time I was aware of criticism expressed in some media back in Ireland. It was not an easy trip. It was packed with real engagement with the diaspora all over the world. I reject the criticism that the Government is giving the diaspora no say because the actions of An Taoiseach and those of Ministers and other representatives to date reflects a different picture.

I welcome what the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has put on the record of the House today. He has given a real commitment that he wants to extend the franchise to emigrants around the world but he has been very frank and honest in saying that one cannot do so unless one has the proper mechanisms in place. There are legitimate questions on qualification, registration, how the voting process would happen and how votes are counted among other issues. That is the case with any electoral process and we must work through it to ensure that it stands up to scrutiny, that it is constitutional and that we can provide for it in every technical and legal aspect. What the Minister is asking for is time to bring forward proposals that have been thought through so that when the measure is announced we can answer the questions of emigrants all over the world on where they can register, how they qualify and how and where they can vote. They are the very basics of any system of franchise.

I repeat - no politician or political party has a monopoly on the aspirations of the diaspora because they belong to all of us. Members of all of our families have emigrated throughout the years. Emigration is an unfortunate aspect of the history of this island nation that has experienced hard times over many generations but while some go, the good news is that others come back and as the economy recovers more are coming back, as shown by the CSO statistics. I support what the Minister put on the record today. He has appealed to Senators to give him more time. He has committed on the record to doing what has been sought. He proposes to introduce strong detailed proposals by the end of the first quarter of next year. I am willing to give him the space to do that and I urge others to do the same.

I wish to put to bed the contradiction in what Senator Coffey said. He mentioned Senator Billy Lawless, who is the Taoiseach’s nominee, but Senator Lawless has pleaded with this House for cross-party support of the motion without the dilution of an amendment. That is all that needs to be said about Senator Coffey’s contribution and others.

Many of us have lived as emigrants. Possibly up to 50% of Members of this House emigrated at some stage in their lives. The majority of us were all members of the diaspora. We followed the arguments at home when we were abroad. We heard the promises that we would be allowed to be involved and to have a say in this country while we were abroad to seek employment and opportunities we could not find in this country. The improvement in communications in the 1980s allowed the Irish community to keep informed of events at home. In the 1990s the British Government led by John Major confirmed to the Government that Irish citizens would not lose their vote in Britain if they were to receive a vote in Irish elections. There were promises, reports and then an acceptance that the issue would have to be solved but nothing ever happened.

At one stage 22 Fianna Fáil Deputies backed the campaign of Glór an Deoraí who tried to apply political pressure on the issue in this country but the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, kicked it to touch with a remark that a vote for emigrants just did not seem practical. Practical for whom? There are suspicions that the establishment does not want votes for citizens abroad as it would upset the status quo of the two dominant parties, but that is well on its way to being dismantled anyway. The other concern expressed is that it might give voice to subversive elements. The vital role played by the diaspora in the success of the peace process shows what nonsense that concern is. In the darkest days of the conflict there were those such as Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn, who along with Irish emigrant groups in Britain worked to forge the peace process.

British citizens can vote in Ireland for up to 30 years after being non-resident. In the current climate I believe it is more important that Irish citizens in Britain have a vote in their home country. We are a member of the European Union. We have all the knowledge and reviews, but it is time to stop all the delaying tactics and put the knowledge and the reviews into action. I call for action on this motion today. Go raibh maith agat.

As no other Senators are offering, I ask Senator Ó Donnghaile to conclude. The Senator has five minutes.

I take this opportunity to thank all the Members who have contributed to the debate and I thank the Minister for coming to the House for this important discussion.

I will not be able to reflect all of the contributions but I welcome the broad and comprehensive contributions, which have been very personal, given the nature of the debate. It is equally personal for me. I am not an immigrant. I live in Ireland's second city and I am glad the Minister acknowledged the unique and special status that exists for the North in this regard. If people think they have been waiting a long time from the time of the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention, then we have been waiting even longer, given the Good Friday Agreement 18 years ago conferred Irish citizenship as a birthright on people like me. That is not partial citizenship or second-class citizenship but full Irish citizenship. I should be entitled to the same rights and qualifications as everybody else in Ireland in that regard.

I regret that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, missed my opening remarks because I was very conscious that I did not want this to be a divisive issue, I did not want to go back and forward. I respect the Minister being present in the Chamber and making a contribution. Of course, I take issue with some of the Minister's remarks.

In his opening statement the Minister stated that he was committed to doing this and that he would do it. He then told us that he could not support the motion because it is too definitive in asking simply for it to be done. All we are asking for is a timeframe. We are asking that the Minister will make a commitment as Minister that he will not allow this not to be done by a date in the future because people should not have to wait to enjoy the equality, rights and entitlements of Irish citizens. Nobody is denying that logistical problems will arise for the Minister and his departmental officials. We appreciate that and what we want to try to do is to light a fire under people's negligence in regard to this matter thus far.

I wish to refer again to a quotation from the former Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, who wrote to the Taoiseach:

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.

So much like the former Minister of State, Jimmy Deenihan, indicated to the Taoiseach, we are merely asking to give people their say. They had their say in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and they voted overwhelmingly in favour of recognising the rights and entitlements as fellow Irish citizens in that regard.

I am not reflecting on all aspects of the contributions. I took heart from much of what fellow Senators said. We have had issues around the Constitutional Convention. In fact, the Leader of the Seanad told me a few weeks ago that this matter was not binding; that the Executive did not have to do anything, that it was just a recommendation. I do not know that politicians would take such a definitive approach to such a broad recommendation from the Constitutional Convention which overwhelmingly supported extending the franchise to all Irish citizens. I do not think it would take that approach to the issue of marriage equality. Of course, the Constitutional Convention paved the way for that and rightly so because we all recognise that was an issue of equality, rights and entitlement. We certainly did not take it or delay it in relation to the abolition of the Seanad and a referendum on that matter went to the public very quickly. There was no such long fingering, or need to tease it out. It is almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and this issue has not been rectified.

The Minister made a point on ideology. My ideology is Irish republican and Irish republicanism is about extending rights and equality to people. This is not a party political argument, this is an argument which stretches as the Constitutional Convention identified right across the political spectrum, particularly in the North and when parties go overseas to the diaspora, as Senator Coffey outlined, they tell them that they will stand up for the diaspora and wrap the green flag around them because we have their backs. However, when they have the opportunity to do something for the diaspora, they fall at the first hurdle.

At least the Fine Gael Party has outlined its position. It has stated its position and we must respect it. I am immeasurably disappointed at the decision from the Fianna Fáil Party not to support this motion because it is 100% in line with Fianna Fáil Party policy. I need to get it clear in my head just what exactly the trajectory here has been. I will offer an imaginative one, did the Minister phone Deputy Barry Cowen, did Deputy Cowen then phone Deputy Michael Martin and did Deputy Martin then phone the Seanad team and tell them not to vote for this Sinn Féin motion? If that is not making party politics out of this issue, I do not know what is.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 23; Níl, 14.

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Davitt, Aidan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Swanick, Keith.


  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Black, Frances.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Kelleher, Colette.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace
  • Ruane, Lynn.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paudie. Coffey and Gabrielle. McFadden; Níl, Senators Paul. Gavan and Niall. Ó Donnghaile.
Amendment declared carried.
Question, "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to", put and declared carried.

On a point of order, I would like to have it recorded in the official record that the Sinn Féin Members abstained from this vote because we do not agree with the procedure coming from the Government.

Unfortunately there is no procedure for recording abstentions.

Sitting suspended at 2.55 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.