British referendum question on keeping EU membership


From a constitutional perspective, can someone please explain why the Irish are allowed to vote in a British referendum? Does this apply to all Irish, North(UK) and South(Republic). Can the British also vote in Irish referenda? I look forward to your feedback.
“British, Irish, and citizens from the Commonwealth who are over 18 and who live in the U.K. can vote, as can U.K. nationals who have lived outside the country for less than 15 years.”

Most people in Northern Ireland are UK citizens, and as such can vote in UK elections and (when they have them) referenda like any other UK citizen.

Citizens of the Republic of Ireland are not regarded as “Commonwealth citizens” in the UK, and have not been so regarded since 1949, when the Republic finally left the British Commonwealth. Nevertheless they are also not regarded as “foreign citizens”; legally, they enjoy an intermediate status between Commonwealth citizens (e.g. from Australia or New Zealand) and foreign citizens (e.g. from the United States).

One feature of this intermediate status is that citizens of the Republic of Ireland who reside in the UK can (like Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK) both stand and vote in UK elections.

There are no fixed rules about eligibility to vote in referendums in the UK since they are never legally or constitutionally required, but are held only as political exigence dictates. They are rare events - there have only been two nationwide referenda, ever; this will be the third. I suspect it’s partly because referenda are so rare that Irish citizens get to vote; it makes no sense to prepare separate, and slightly different, registers of voters for referenda and for parliamentary elections.

The situation in the Republic of Ireland is that the right to vote is extended to Irish residents who are citizens of other EU countries if, and to the extent that, those other EU countries extend the right to vote to Irish citizens. The only EU country which does so is the UK; therefore the only EU citizens who get to vote in the Republic of Ireland are UK citizens.

But they only get to vote in Ireland if Irish citizens get to vote in analogous situations in the UK. UK citizens in Ireland don’t get to vote in presidential elections because Irish citizens don’t get to vote in UK presidential elections, since the UK doesn’t elect it’s head of state. And UK citizens in Ireland don’t get to vote in referenda to amend the Irish constitution for the same reasons - Irish citizens don’t have a similar right in the UK, since the UK doesn’t hold referenda to amend the constitution.

The current UK referendum isn’t a vote to amend the UK constitution. Even if you regard UK membership of the EU as a constitutional matter, the referendum itself won’t change that - it’s a purely consultative or advisory referendum. It will be up to the UK Parliament to decide what (if anything) to do in response to the referendum and, until Parliament acts, nothing will change.

If the Republic of Ireland held similar consultative referenda, UK citizens could presumably vote in them. But it never has done.

**UDS **has given a very complete answer to the OP. I guess the question ought to be “Why does Britain allow Commonwealth and Irish citizens to vote in ANY national elections, not just the EU referendum?” I have no real answer other than a hangover from empire and a reluctance to change existing arrangements…

That’s pretty much it. There was originally a uniform status of “British subject” applying to anyone born in British possessions throughout the world so that someone borne in, say, New Zealand and then coming to Britain for the first time at the age of 50 had exactly the same legal status in the UK as someone who was borne in Britain and had never left.

As the Imperial dominions moved towards practical and formal sovereignty this became untenable, and after the Second World War they moved to a two-tier system; there was be an overarching status of British subject/Commonwealth citizen (the two terms were interchangeable) plus a series of distinct citizenships - Canadian, Australian, etc. Only the fully self-governing dominions had their own citizenships; the residual citizenship category was the snappily-named “Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”, which for obvious reasons was commonly abbreviated to CUKC.

There was no desire to deprive the new Canadian, Australian etc citizens of the rights they had always enjoyed in the UK, so they didn’t lose the right to vote in the UK. I hesitate to suggest that racist sensibilities were involved in a reluctance to see mostly white Canadians, etc in the UK lose their voting rights while mostly black West Indians, etc, retained theirs, so I won’t suggest anything of the kind.

There have been a few further changes along the way. The terms “British subject” and “Commonwealth citizen” are no longer interchangeable. The overarching category is now just “Commonwealth citizen”, with the status of “British subject” being reserved for a diminishing pool of people who haven’t become entitled to the national citizenship of any Commonwealth country. (Ironically, the surviving “British subjects” are mostly Irish citizens.) The CUKC status no longer exists, having been further divided and subdivided into British Citizen, British Overseas Citizen, British Dependent Territories Citizen, etc. But the core idea of an overarching Commonwealth citizen status which carries (among other things) voting rights in the UK remains.

That’s not a reciprocal arrangement, incidentally. Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK are entitled to vote in UK elections, but British citizens resident in other Commonwealth countries are not necessarily entitled to vote in elections in those countries.

A fine post but to clarify, EU citizens from other countries do get to vote in Ireland but only in European and local elections.

BTW Commonwealth & Irish citizens living in the UK don’t just have the right to vote; they can also hold public office and even serve in Parliament.

Until the 1970s that was normal was well, but since then Commonwealth countries have moved to limit suffrage to their own citizens. New Zealand however went in the opposite direct and now allows all permanent residents to vote regardless of citizenship (only Kiwis can stand for Parliament though).

This varies. India, for example, limited voting to citizens of India in 1950; Pakistan did the same from 1956. Australia cut off the rights of British citizens to vote in 1984, but “grandfathered in” any British citizens already on the electoral register. (That’s obviously a shrinking cohort, but still a significant one.) And Jamaica and several other countries in the Caribbean still allow resident British citizens (and other Commonwealth citizens) to vote.

They are?

I remember hearing about people from North Ireland who win their elections and show up at Parliament, but are not allowed to actually take their seat. As I understand it, these are from the Catholic parts of the country, and are from the Catholic political party.

What kind of discrimination is that?

Thank you UDS for that exhaustive explanation. Very helpful indeed!

You have this the wrong way around. It used to be the policy of Sinn Fein to stand for election (to demonstrate popular support and secure a mandate) but then refuse to take their seats (to demonstrate their objections to the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland, and also because taking their seats would have required the making of an oath of allegiance to the British crown).

Sinn Fein has abandoned this policy of abstentionism with respect to Northern Ireland’s political institutions but they still pursue it with respect to the UK Parliament - i.e. they’ll stand for election but, if elected, don’t take their seats. But that’s their chosen policy, not a requirement imposed on them by others (unless you consider the requirement to take an oath of allegiance to the crown which they find offensive amounts to de facto exclusion from taking their seats).

UDS has explained this pretty well. There’s no bar at all on Sinn Fein MPs sitting in the House of Commons - they recuse themselves voluntarily in protest against British rule in Northern Ireland.

Similarly, British subjects could vote in Saskatchewan provincial elections up until 1971. Any British subject who was on the voters list for the 1971 provincial election is still eligible to vote.

As you say, a shrinking cohort, since anyone who qualified had to be 21 or older at that time, so now would be at least 76 years old.

Sorry - at least 66 years old.

Although they have to have a resident visa of some kind first. I don’t believe say Australians in the UK on a tourist visa can vote in UK elections. It’s actually quite difficult for most commonwealth people to get a visa to live and work in the UK unless they qualify under an ancestry visa (which is available to non commonwealth people as well). Commonwealth people can get working holiday visas for one or two years in the UK but apart from that I think they have to apply to immigrate with a points system like any other nationality.

That’s true for Commonwealth citizens (except for Malta and Cyprus since they joined the EU) but not Irish citizens who have never been subject to immigration restrictions.

To vote in the UK, you have to be registered to vote, and you can only register at a place where you live. Thus you have to give an address (in the UK) and assert that you live there. In practice, you also have to give a UK National Insurance number, or a plausible reason for not having one. These requirements are largely effective to prevent Commonwealth citizens temporarily in the UK as, say, tourists from registering and voting.

But as far as I can see a Commonwealth citizen who has come to the UK, say, for several months or a year to study and who has a UK address, but who is not settled in the UK and does not expect to remain long term, can register to vote and can vote, if there is an election while they are still in the UK.

Such a person might or might not need a visa to come to the UK, depending on their circumstances. As already pointed out, Irish citizens, Maltese citizens and Cypriot citizens don’t need visas to enter and remain in the UK. Citizens of other Commonwealth countries have no general right to enter or settle in the UK, but many of them have what is known as a “right of abode” in the UK, based either on having a parent born in the UK, or being married to someone who themselves has right of abode. Anyone with a right of abode does not need a visa. A visiting student (to continue with the same example) who doesn’t have a right of abode would need a visa. But eligibility to register doesn’t depend on whether they have, or need, a visa and in fact the registration process doesn’t ask that question.

This doesn’t sound right to me. Children with one British citizen parent are themselves British citizens, so of course they don’t need a visa. If they’re married to a UK citizen then they have to apply for a “family of a settled person visa”.

Ah, but I didn’t say "child of a British citizen; I said “child of someone born in the UK”. Nowadays these are pretty much the same thing, but it wasn’t always so.

Suppose you were born in Jamaica in 1960 to parents who were also born in Jamaica. At the date of your birth you and your parents would all have been Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies . However on Jamaican independence in 1962 you all ceased to be CUKCs, and became Citizens of Jamaica instead. And further suppose you are still a Citizen of Jamaica today.

In that scenario, you don’t have a right of abode in the UK, even though you were born to CUKCs, and were yourself a CUKC at birth. But if one of your parents had been born in the UK, you would still have lost your CUKC status in 1962 but you would now have a right of abode in the UK.

It may be splitting hairs, but if you are claiming a right of abode on the basis of marriage to someone with a right of abode, you don’t apply for a visa of any kind. You apply for a “certificate of entitlement to the right of abode”. And the consequence of having a certificate is that you won’t need a visa.

(Note that only a Commonwealth citizen can acquire a right of abode by marriage. So it may well be that in circumstances where (say) a Jamaican citizen would apply for a certificate of entitlement to the right of abode, a (say) US citizen would apply for a family of settled person visa.)

This is more than just a difference in terminology. You can only apply for a family of settled person visa on the basis of marriage to someone who is actually settled in the UK. But those who can claim a right of abode by marriage do so on the basis of marriage to someone with the right of abode in the UK - i.e. they don’t actually have to be settled in the UK; it’s enough that they have the right to settle. And there may be other differences - from memory, if you get a “family of settled person” visa you need to use it within a certain time, before it expires. But once you have a right of abode, it doesn’t normally expire.

There edge cases which invalidate that. My nephew was born abroad, so, while he is a U.K. citizen, if he has a non-British partner and they have children, the children will not be British unless born inside the U.K.

Right but Right of Abode will eventually disappear, from what I can tell it only applies to people born before 1982. After about 2070, there will be no one left alive with right of abode.