Michael D Higgins is my president too – so why am I denied a vote? – David McCann

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

President Michael D Higgins has claimed he flew to Belfast from Dublin earlier this year because he could not be picked up at the border by the PSNI
No-one living outside the Republic of Ireland was able to vote for President Michael D Higgins

On March 8, voters in the Republic will head to the polls to give their view on two constitutional amendments.

As the respective campaigns get underway, it made me think that there is a glaring omission in this set of referenda. One that has been promised and committed to, but not yet delivered, and that is a referendum on presidential voting rights.

The referendum on this has been pledged and then delayed for various reasons. It is now the case that even if a referendum is successful, citizens living outside the state would only get to vote for the president by 2032 at the very earliest.

With a general election on the horizon, it is unlikely that we will see this referendum in 2024 or even 2025. The drift and delay on this issue highlight the lack of urgency in getting this reform in place. No, it will not change the world or radically alter the makeup of the Irish state, but it is a proposal whose time has come. As President Higgins enters his final two years in office, now is the right time to look at this important position and think about how it can better reflect the wider Irish nation that exists outside of the 26 counties.

President Michael D Higgins is an Irish language scholar while his predecessor Mary McAleese learned to speak Irish after she was elected president. Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins with his northern-born predecessor Mary McAleese. People in the north cannot vote in presidential elections despite having the right to Irish citizenship

Reform is long overdue. Contrary to popular belief that this proposal would be a huge departure, Ireland is one of the few countries that do not extend this right to those citizens who are living outside of the state. More than 100 countries around the world have this provision for their citizens living abroad. This is one of the reasons why in France, you will see presidential candidates’ campaign in places such as the UK for votes. These systems work – citizens outside of the state vote and their government does not come to a shuddering halt.

Some are sceptical about any proposed change to the presidential franchise. The arguments that Ireland will get nothing but Sinn Féin presidents for the foreseeable future if a change is made are wrong and take a very simplistic view about the diverse nature of politics not only in Northern Ireland but also for citizens who live abroad.

The Frontline presidential debate. From left, Dana Rosemary Scallon, Gay Mitchell, Michael D Higgins, Mary Davis, David Norris, Martin McGuinness and Sean Gallagher
Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, second from right, contested the presidential election against Dana Rosemary Scallon, Gay Mitchell, Michael D Higgins, Mary Davis, David Norris and Sean Gallagher

Those who argue for this change do not simply exist within Sinn Fein; they are from across the political spectrum and motivated by the simple cause that the President of Ireland is a representative of the entire nation, not just the state. This is something that is widely recognised and accepted by those who have held this office in the past.

The arguments for change are compelling and can win a referendum. Reimagining the role of the president can breathe new life into this important position and help build a stronger bridge, not only across the island of Ireland but also with those who have left these shores for other opportunities.

Ireland is more than the state that was founded in 1922. It is time that we progress this reform to a referendum with a hopeful case for a Yes vote.

Two referendums will be held in March (PA)
On March 8, referenda will be held in the Republic on the concept of family in the constitution and recognition of care provided by family members to each other

The next Irish government should move with urgency to hold and win such a referendum. Many people from across Irish society are ready to make the arguments and bat back some of the criticisms made by those who want to see no change at all.

It is now the case that even if a referendum is successful, citizens living outside the state would only get to vote for the president by 2032 at the very earliest

We need to have this issue moved forward and not delayed further. It is time that we have this serious debate and a date set for a referendum for both sides of the argument to work towards.

Voters in the Republic have shown before that when an optimistic case is put forward, they will respond positively.

Micheal D Higgins is my president too – the chance to have a say in those who follow him, is all we ask.