Belfast Telegraph

Unionists unfazed by plan to extend Irish presidential vote to Northern Ireland

By Allan Preston

Plans to hold a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens outside the Republic are of little relevance to unionists, they say.

The referendum, announced by outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, could happen as soon as next year. If approved, Irish citizens living outside the State would be eligible to vote, including those in Northern Ireland.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he was not overly concerned.

"Well, I'm not an Irish citizen so I wouldn't be taking up that offer. In the end I think we've enough to be doing with elections in the United Kingdom," he said.

"Anything that affects our constitutional position is obviously contentious, but there are citizens of the Irish Republic who live in Northern Ireland and I see no reason why it wouldn't be appropriate for them to have a vote."

UUP MP Tom Elliott is of a similar view.

"If the Irish Government wants to give voting rights to Irish passport holders living outside the Republic, that's entirely up to them.

"However, there should be no subsequent consequences for Northern Ireland. They shouldn't be expecting to be awarded any broadcasting airtime here or in any other part of the United Kingdom."

By contrast, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams embraced the announcement.

Mr Eastwood called it "an important step in recognising the immense contribution that Irish citizens and communities across the world make to our island".

He said: "It would be a significant endorsement of the principle of self-determination that secured support for peace in the North if our Irish citizens were given the right to choose our President. The time is right to move on this issue."

Mr Adams commented: "The Taoiseach's announcement today is very welcome, but the Government needs to quickly clarify what this means in practice and when the referendum will be held," he said.

Mr Kenny said holding the referendum in 2018 was a "realistic" possibility.

Speaking at the Irish Famine Memorial in Philidelphia during his annual visit to the United States for St Patrick's Day, he said it was likely citizens abroad could vote online.

"If you take a welder in Alaska or a farm worker in Queensland, Australia, they may not be in a position to travel to an individual centre, so we will have to explore all of the opportunities that exist here," he said.

The Taoiseach said that the memorial on Philadelphia's waterside was an apt setting to announcing a move aimed at allowing Ireland's wide diaspora to play a more active role in their homeland.

"I do think it will be something that Irish emigrants or their descendants will be very happy to be associated with and to have the option, and hopefully the opportunity, to cast their votes for whoever the candidates are in the presidential election in 2025 or afterwards," he added.

"I hope this will be well received by Irish people all over the world."

The potential change was suggested by the Convention On the Constitution in 2013, which brings together Irish citizens and parliamentarians to debate potential changes to the State's legal framework.

Previously the forum recommended the introduction of gay marriage - which was endorsed in a historic referendum.

Earlier, Mr Kenny took part in a colourful St Patrick's parade in Philadelphia. The Taoiseach is on his final major foreign tour before he is due to announce his retirement plans.

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