Speaking at the London Irish Center to representatives from the Irish business, social and cultural community last week, Labour Party presidential hopeful Michael D. Higgins stressed the enduring importance of the Irish Diaspora, saying he wishes to give at least a conditional voting voice to the Irish outside of Ireland.
Voting rights for Irish citizens living both abroad and in Northern Ireland has become a hot issue of late, as Ireland prepares for its October 27 presidential election, in which Higgins is seen by many as the frontrunner. His speech comes a month after activists from Ógra Shinn Féin protested outside Leinster House, wearing GAA jerseys from the six northern counties and holding gags in their mouths to symbolize the lack of a voting voice for Irish citizens of Northern Ireland.
“One issue which has been raised both on this trip and before, relates to proposals around electoral enfranchisement for the Irish abroad,” Higgins said in London.
“One formula that I believe is worthy of consideration is that those who were on the electoral register, or would be entitled to be on it, should be able to retain the right to vote in some or all of our elections for a specified period, perhaps five to ten years.”
A referendum on Diaspora voting rights had been suggested with the 2018 presidential election in mind, but Sinn Fein say there is no reason one can’t be held earlier. Under the current voting rules, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams recently noted on Newstalk Radio, President Mary McAleese, a Belfast native, would not be able to vote for herself were she living in her hometown.
Irish citizens living abroad fall into the same category as those living in Northern Ireland. Ballotbox.ie, a website which gave the Irish Diaspora an outlet to express its hypothetical opinion on February’s general election, says there are about 3.1 million Irish passport holders living abroad, with around 800,000 of them having been born in Ireland. Ireland is one of only two countries in the European Union which does not allow its citizens who live abroad to vote, the other being Greece.