The people living in the South of Ireland have been promised a referendum on voting rights in Irish Presidential elections for Irish citizens not living in the 26 County state. The vote was initially to be held in May. However, in February Leo Varadkar postponed the referendum on the basis that “We want to win it”, and Brexit, then due to happen at the end of March, would get in the way of the governmental attention it needed. 

The Voting Rights referendum was now expected to be in the autumn on October 28th or on November 1st. In June Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Minister Eoghan Murphy were directed by the cabinet to take forward the Bill that would enable a referendum to take place in the autumn. 

The full Bill and amending legislation was anticipated to be published by the end of July. It was not. The referendum commission was to be established. It has not. That is a shame and doesn’t rhyme with the commitment given to Mary Lou McDonald on the floor of Leinster House by Leo Varadkar only a few short weeks ago.

Of course deadlines slip, but given that Simon Coveney has been in Belfast virtually every day over the past number of months trying to cajole the creation of a devolution friendly environment and given that these promises have been happening simultaneously this slippage looks deliberate.

It looks all the more deliberate given the new Brexit deadline of 31st October. If the Brexit deadline of March made the May referendum seem too difficult, holding a referendum this Halloween might look positively frightful.

Except Brexit is not an excuse at all. The Irish government planning, as they should and as they have promised, to extend the voting rights of Irish citizens who live beyond the state, but particularly in the north, would be a clear, cool headed demonstration of leadership exactly when it is needed.

The crisis that faces this island as a result of our neighbours’-vote to leave the EU needs to be met with the Irish government doing what it can, within its own remit, to deliver demonstrable protection for Irish citizens living in the north of Ireland. They should of course be allowed to vote for a President in their own country. Being eligible to be a President and not being allowed to vote for a President is the most ludicrous denial of rights, yet is in the power of the 26 counties to remedy this winter. 

Presidential voting rights would give us all, no matter how we view the constitutional contest, a stake in who becomes Irish President. A future Irish president would walk the world stage with the franchise of the entire island. They would not only reach out the hand of friendship to sections of the community on our island, they would be elected by them and truly represent them. It would be the single most important building block of peace building on this island since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Leo Varadkar’s government has promised this referendum in the midst of a crisis, they need to stop putting it on the long finger, and recognise it as the contributor to peace it really can be. A win in this referendum will be a win for citizenship, and a win for peace building.

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