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Northerners could vote for president of Ireland

Taoiseach Enda Kenny (centre) takes part in the annual St Patrick's Day parade in Philadelphia. Picture by Niall Carson/Press Association

A REFERENDUM is to be held on whether Irish citizens living outside the Republic - including in the north - can vote in presidential elections.

The long-awaited referendum was finally announced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Sunday as he spoke at an event at the Famine Memorial in Philadelphia ahead of his trip to Washington to mark St Patrick's Day.

Mr Kenny said the decision, taken at a cabinet meeting last week, showed Ireland valued all its citizens.

Around 3.5 million Irish citizens, including those in the north, live outside the state.

A move to extend voting rights could work in Sinn Féin's favour. Former deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, came third in the 2011 presidential elections, claiming 13.7 per cent of first preference votes. However Sinn Féin's strong base in the north could hold the balance of power in future elections.

The referendum announcement was welcomed by the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood 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".

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said his party "has been pressing the Irish Government since the Good Friday Agreement to allow for citizens in the north and in the diaspora to have the vote in presidential elections".

A Constitutional Convention voted in favour of extending voting rights to all Irish citizens in September 2013.

Mr Kenny, who earlier had taken part in a St Patrick's parade in Philadelphia, said he was pleased to make the announcement in time for St Patrick's Day.

"Today's announcement is a profound recognition of the importance that Ireland attaches to all of our citizens, wherever they may be," he said.

"It is an opportunity for us to make our country stronger by allowing all of our citizens resident outside the State, including our emigrants, to vote in future presidential elections.

"I am especially pleased to be making this announcement as we prepare for our worldwide celebration of St Patrick's Day and of all that is Irish."

He did not say when a referendum will be held, however he suggested it could happen next year, meaning that any changes would not be in place for the 2018 presidential election.

Extending a vote in the elections to Irish citizens outside the state will raise several legal and practical issues, including how to register voters and how votes will be cast and collected.

Mr Kenny said overseas citizens may be able to 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 added.

A spokeswoman for the Taoiseach's office said the voter registration process will need to be updated.

"The Government has agreed that important work will now commence on modernisation of the voter registration process to effect improvements in the registration of voters," she said.

The Irish government will publish a detailed paper later this month setting out the options available.

And the Global Irish Civic Forum will discuss the paper at a meeting in Dublin in May.

A referendum on extending voting rights in the Irish presidential elections has been discussed for several years.

Last year, Minister for the Diaspora Joe McHugh said the government remained committed to a referendum.

However, Mr Kenny told Dáil in November that officials were still looking at who should be included in a vote and the cost implications.

Ireland's ambassador in London, Daniel Mulhall, tweeted on Sunday night: "This will be welcomed by our community in Britain. Voting rights is a subject often raised with me here."

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