A referendum, planned for early next year, on Ireland's election law could lead to the country's 800,000 passport holders who live outside the state getting the right to vote in Irish presidential elections.
Currently there are 800,000 Irish people with Irish passports living outside the state in 120 countries around the world. They currently do not have the right to vote on matters in Ireland. The proposed referendum, if passed, would see this law change.
The referendum is part of a package of measures being addressed by the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs including matching job skills of returning emigrants with needs of employers in Ireland. The package is currently being examined by a high-level interdepartmental government committee.
McHugh told the Irish Independent that the priority was to give Irish emigrants the right to vote in presidential elections.
He said “the French diaspora get to vote for three or four seats in the French parliament and this is something that could happen in Ireland too, but we must get the presidential vote over the line first.”
Definite proposals will be presented to the Global Civic Forum, in February 2017, with a view to holding the referendum vote shortly thereafter.
The referendum was discussed at an interdepartmental working group on the Diaspora Affairs, which McHugh chairs, he told the Independent.
“We received a presentation last Wednesday from officials. We still need to figure out a proper time frame as to how this works, but my aim is to have a vote next year,” he said.
“We are driving the issue hard and the Taoiseach is very interested in it. There is an impatience on his part and his view is even to have to wait six months from now is too long. The Civic Forum in February is a place where we will have something real and tangible to present which will then go to cabinet.”
In September McHugh will meet with Irish companies experiencing skill shortages in a bid to determine what can be done to match those shortages with Irish emigrants who wish to return home. He has also had discussions with Google, Facebook and LinkedIn about developing a digital communications campaign to share information with the Irish Diaspora on the skills needed by companies in Ireland.
He highlighted the fact that most of the Irish emigrants who have left in recent years are highly educated and skilled.
“They do not all want to come home, but those who do should be asked what their skills and needs are,” said McHugh.
Fianna Fáil Senator and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Trade and the Diaspora Mark Daly spoke to Newstalk about the possible upcoming referendum. “The most fundamental right of any citizen is the right [to vote] and we must stop denying that right to so many millions of our citizens," said Daly.
Daly said the plans have been welcomed by all parties. He added that there are logistical concerns over "how to make it happen and whether or not it will happen for the next presidential election as it would require a vote and a change to the constitution."
Other issues surround extending the rights to other elections and time limits for those who live away. Daly said if there’s a limit of seven years during which a citizen living outside the state can vote that there would be a very high possibility that they would never be able to vote in a presidential election. This is due to the fact that Ireland’s presidents serve seven year terms and are often returned unopposed for the second term.
On Tuesday morning Sinn Fein President and member of the Irish parliament Gerry Adams released a statement saying, “Any referendum on votes for Irish citizens living outside the state must include people in the North.”