Tom Brady Security Editor PRISONERS will have the right to vote in the next general election.
The Government has given the go-ahead to legislation granting a postal vote to all prisoners who were resident in the State before they ended up behind bars.
They will be able to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice in the constituency in which they are registered.
The proposed bill has been brought before the Cabinet and will now be introduced in the Dail for debate and approval.
One section of the bill allows prisoners to vote in presidential and general elections as well as referenda while separate provisions cover European and local elections.
Normal postal voting procedures, as used by groups such as Irish peacekeeping troops who are serving overseas, will be applied to the prisoners and the vast majority of the average jail population of around 3,300 will be able to take advantage of the right.
The cost of implementing the move is regarded by the Environment Minister Dick Roche as insignificant.
The need for legislation arises from a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights last October.
In a case taken by a British prisoner, it ruled there had been a breach of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms as the convicted man had been denied his vote.
The court decided that the right to vote was not a privilege and in the 21st century the presumption of a democratic State must be in favour of inclusion.
In this country a person in custody may be registered as an elector but there are no arrangements to allow him/her exercise the franchise while in prison. However, a prisoner on temporary release may vote.
The Supreme Court in 2001 noted in a case brought by a prisoner that while there were no statutory provisions banning a convicted prisoner from voting, the State was under no constitutional obligation to facilitate prisoners in exercising that franchise.
This followed an earlier decision by the High Court against the State. In between the two rulings the Government authorised the drafting of a bill which provided for postal voting only by prisoners on remand or serving a sentence of six months or less.
But after the favourable Supreme Court decision, the bill was dropped.
Mr Roche's proposals do not include any of the restrictions suggested in the 2001 draft bill. But prisoners who have no connection with the State apart from being in detention here will not be given a vote.
Other measures in the new bill aim at giving maximum assistance in local and Presidential elections to candidates to save their deposits by reaching more than a quarter of a quota. These will prohibit multiple exclusion of candidates and present opportunities to candidates to stay in the race as long as possible.