THE IRISH abroad must be given a say in Presidential elections at home, a powerful forum has told the Irish Government.
More than three quarters of delegates at the Constitutional Convention backed the call for reform this weekend following passionate pleas from Irish people around the world.
The Convention also gave overwhelming support to letting Irish citizens in the North of Ireland vote for the Irish President, with 73 per cent backing the proposal and only 20 per cent opposing it.
They reached that verdict despite claims it would create a “dangerous situation” in the North, with nationalists recognising the President as their Head of State and unionists recognising the Queen.
Hailing the “powerful” weekend, Convention chair Tom Arnold said he was “astounded” by the contributions to the debate made by Irish people worldwide.
“This is an incredibly important issue that is hugely relevant to thousands of Irish citizens living all over the world and this was very clear throughout the entire process,” he added
Advocates of reform began the weekend in a confident mood, as recent polling showed huge support for letting the Irish abroad have a say in elections at home.
But the Convention’s 100 members were soon alerted to the potentially serious implications of the move by Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson.
Referring to the constitutional position of the North following the Good Friday Agreement, he said: “Extending the franchise for Presidential elections to people in Northern Ireland could have the potential to upset what is a very delicate balance.
“We could have a situation where citizens in Northern Ireland would see the President of Ireland as their Head of State, perhaps just Catholics and nationalists, and we would have unionists and Protestants seeing the Queen as their Head of State.”
The East Antrim MLA added: “That would be a very difficult, and I predict very dangerous, situation for us to get into.”
Responding to Mr Dickson’s claims, SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said he thought the move could help to heal the “broken-ness” between the North and the Republic.
Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness also rejected Mr Dickson’s claims, saying unionists would vote in the elections, even if only to prevent Sinn Fein candidates from winning.
Mr Adams said letting people in the North vote for the Irish President would be a “natural extension” of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Imagine if the people Munster were told ‘You cannot elect the President’, or the people of Dublin were told or the people of Carlow were told or people with red hair were told ‘you have no vote in this’,” the Louth TD added.
As well as the issue of votes for Irish people living outside the State, the Convention considered which citizens should be given voting rights.
The most popular option was letting all citizens outside Ireland vote for its President. But most rejected giving second and third generation Irish a say in Presidential elections.
Just over a third (36pc) said the right should be given to all Irish citizens living abroad. But 26pc and 27pc respectively said only those who have lived in Ireland at some point or those who lived in Ireland as adults should benefit from the reform.
Delegates were also asked about the possibility of putting a time limit on votes for emigrants.
If only those who lived in Ireland were allowed to vote in Presidential elections from abroad, four-in-10 said they should keep that right for life.
But, similarly to the issue of which citizens should vote, a divided majority said there should be time limits.
The five, 10, 15, 20 and 25-year limits received backing of 14pc, 17pc, 20pc, 6pc and 4pc respectively
The Constitutional Convention, a 100-strong body of 66 Irish citizens, 33 politicians and a chairman, has been tasked with recommending changes to Ireland’s 75-year-old Constitution.
It will now complete a report on the issue of votes for the Irish abroad that will be sent to the Irish Government, which is obliged to consider its proposals. If the Government agrees that reform should be considered, it will arrange for a referendum on the issue in Ireland.