Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan.Photocall Ireland

Ireland’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs has announced that the Irish Government is considering extending the voting rights of emigrants, for three years after they leave the country. This step could be made without holding a referendum.

Under current electoral legislation Irish emigrants are entitled to vote for 18 months after they leave, if they intend on returning home to live in Ireland with in that period. Minister Jimmy Deenihan said there is a possibility that this could be extended to 36 months “without going to the people.”

Deenihan made the announcement at the first Global Irish Civic Forum, at Dublin Castle, on Monday. The forum brings together representatives of over 140 organizations to discuss their work and share ideas. Over 175 delegates from 17 countries are attending from organizations which provide welfare and support to vulnerable emigrants, those which promote Irish culture abroad, Irish-focused business networks and campaign groups for emigrants.

Minister Deenihan said the “Home to Vote” movement, which saw hundreds of emigrants return from around the world to vote on the Marriage Equality referendum in May, captured the “hearts and minds” of the people of Ireland. The movement was so popular that it made Twitter history and its hashtag, #HometoVote was used 110,000 times over three days. He said that due to the success of this movement extending the voting rights of emigrants has become a “very live issue.

He told the forum “I have never seen young people so exercised about voting in my political career, and the fact that so many people came back made a major statement that us politicians will have to take not of and respond to.”

The Irish Government ruled out a referendum on the matter before the end of its current term. However, the Global Irish Diaspora Policy, published this March, made a commitment to “analyze the policy, legal and practical issues” of who should be able to vote, how and for how long after they leave Ireland.

In 2013 the European Commission criticized Ireland for “disenfranchising” its emigrants. Over 120 countries (out of 196 countries worldwide) have some provision to allow emigrants to vote.

The organization, We’re Coming Back, is campaigning for full voting rights for Irish emigrants. David Burns, cofounder of the group, told the Irish Times that emigrants are considered as “ongoing ordinary residents” for tax purposes for three years after they leave. He said there’s no reason why this should not be the same when it comes to voting rights.

Burns said “There have been a number of attempts to have constitutional amendments on emigrant voting rights, but every time there has been a lack of political will to carry it through.

“After 30 years of discussion and consideration, and zero reform, I think legislative reform is the only way to get the ball rolling on this issue. It is a first step.”

Burns said the massive turn out of emigrants for the recent May 21 referendum shows that voting rights is “no longer a minority issue.”

“There is clear evidence that there is a desire, especially in the young emigrant population, to continue to vote after they leave Ireland.”

The Global Irish Civic Forum is the first of its kind. Speaking in advance of the forum Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan said “The event is particularly timely as we are starting to see the tide of emigration turning in response to steady economic recovery. Our focus is now shifting to facilitating those emigrants abroad who wish to return.

The forum will be held over two days at Dublin Castle. Flanagan said “Panelists will examine topics such as the challenges facing new Irish emigrants; reaching out to members of the Irish diaspora; how to support the mental well-being of our diaspora and how to assist Irish emigrants to return to Ireland. Workshops on governance, fundraising and communications will also be held to support emigrant organizations."

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