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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 May 1984

Vol. 350 No. 8

Local Elections (Specification of Local Election Year) Order, 1984: Allocation of Time Motion.

Dún Laoghaire): I move:

That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the proceedings on the motion in the name of the Minister for the Environment confirming the Local Elections (Specification of Local Election Year) Order, 1984, shall be brought to a conclusion at 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 23rd May, 1984, by putting from the Chair forthwith the Question necessary to bring them to a conclusion.

It is with reluctance that I move this motion. Unfortunately, it was not possible to get agreement to bring the debate on the postponement of the local elections motion to a conclusion. I would like to point out to the House that we have already spent ten hours 35 minutes debating this motion. That is not to say that the Opposition are not entitled to their right to debate a motion of this nature, but I feel that the extra time we are giving both today and tomorrow until 12.30 p.m. is adequate, bearing in mind the other scheduled business we have to deal with. It is with reluctance, therefore, that I am moving this motion. Unfortunately I have no option because of the failure to get agreement to bring the necessary motion to a conclusion.

I agree that we have spent ten hours on this, but you, Sir, will agree that it is not every day we cancel out local elections. The last time that happened it was debated for about four months in the House on and off, so I do not think the time has been excessive. It is a number of weeks since it has been debated and the Government have not been in any rush to bring it forward and we felt that perhaps they had changed their minds and were intending to have local elections after all.


Obviously they have changed their minds again. Because we will be going into the summer recess in about four weeks' time I will agree that we should not spend too long on it. I suppose the arrangements as put down are reasonable enough, but we hope that as an Opposition we will get at least a reasonable time, our share of time, in the next six or seven hours of the debate rather than what happened in the earlier part of the debate when the Government said that no time should be given and then put in speaker after speaker. We will take up the remainder of the time to debate both the guillotine motion and the local elections specification order.

We know the guillotine is working fine. You did a nice test on it last week.

We do not guillotine things. We debate all things at reasonable length.


Deputy Ahern, without interruption.

I am not used to such harassment. At my party meetings everyone is very orderly. If we can continue the debate until 7 o'clock this evening and tomorrow — we still have about 27 speakers — I am sure the Government Whip will allow our people to speak on this very undemocratic motion.


They are very disorderly today. If we are allowed to use our 27 speakers——

A Deputy

Will they all be on the one side?

If we are allowed to use our speakers in the five or six hours of debate we will not object but if the Government continue to put in speakers then we will look for more time.

Is the motion agreed?

No, it is not.

The Minister of State to reply.

(Dún Laoghaire): No, I am repeating a question. There may be need for clarification here. Am I to take it——

The Minister is either replying——

(Dún Laoghaire): I want to ask a simple question.

On a point of information——

There is no such point.

Can I raise a point of order? It arises from my lack of understanding as to what exactly the Opposition Whip is after. I understood from his few remarks that he was agreeing to the termination of the debate.

That is a matter for the Chair to tease out.

Could the Chair clarify it?

The Chair has clarified it and he is not agreeing to it.

(Dún Laoghaire): May we take it then that the Whips are debating motion No. 4?

(Dún Laoghaire): If the Opposition want to use the time we have no objection to them using the time to debate the local elections provided they agree to the motion. We can debate it until 12.30 p.m. tomorrow and we can come to an agreement with the Opposition that we will not put in speakers.

The Minister of State to reply.

If there is opposition to the guillotine then people will wish to offer to speak but if it is agreed, anyone opposite can speak on the Local Elections Bill.

If there are no more speakers I am asking the Minister of State to reply.

There is a desire to have the matter clarified for the benefit of the House. I think both sides are anxious to get this sorted out amicably.

Item 4 was proposed by the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach. Deputy B. Ahern spoke to it. It was not clear to the Chair whether Deputy Ahern was definitely opposing it. The Chair inquired whether he was opposing it and Deputy Ahern said he was. The Chair looked over and no other Deputies appeared to be offering. He called on the Minister of State to conclude the debate. That would have ended the matter.

From where I sit it seemed that Deputy Ahern introduced into this House an extraordinary potential principle.

Is the Minister for Labour speaking on the motion?

With all due respect to you, Sir, since questions are not being entertained in the interest of order, Deputy Ahern, perhaps attempting to avoid a division since his troops are occupied elsewhere, attempted to introduce something that was highly dangerous although perhaps understandable in the light of the last seven days' experience in his party. He said that he would agree to a debate provided one side of the House monopolised the time between now and the point at which the final decision will be taken. That goes against every principle that has brought about the establishment of this democratic Assembly in the first instance. The House should now decide whether it will take this motion and Deputy Ahern should not try to give agreement to this proposal on the basis that one side of the House monopolises the debate for the remaining period.

There is not an amendment to the motion before the House.

I do not know why——

Deputy Ahern has spoken once.

Half the Cabinet have spoken also.

No, they have not. The Minister for Labour has spoken once. He will not be allowed to reply. Deputy Ahern has spoken once and if I were to allow him to speak again I would lose control of the debate.

I will solve it. I was waiting to hear what the Government Whip would say. We now wish to debate the motion on the guillotine.

The Minister of State at the Department of Labour.

On the guillotine motion, that is all that is before the House.

I support the motion moved by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, in the belief that the approach taken by the Government on this occasion is a reasonable one to which a responsible Opposition could have no serious objection. That somewhat confused response from the Opposition indicates how half-hearted is their opposition. The Government have brought forward a ministerial order pursuant to the powers vested in them under local government legislation. That order has been debated here on three occasions. A very large number of Members have taken the opportunity of contributing to the discussion. Indeed, it is worth recalling what happened on each of the three occasions so that we may consider whether the Government are acting reasonably in moving this guillotine motion and in taking the view that the matter will have been debated adequately when the time set by the guillotine motion expires tomorrow afternoon.

The matter came before the House first for discussion on 29 February last when it was debated from 4.35 p.m. to 7 p.m., a total of two hours 55 minutes. There has been a suggestion from the Opposition that during these debates the time was monopolised by the Government. I wish to establish to the satisfaction of the House that there is no truth in any such suggestion. On that first occasion the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, spoke for 15 minutes during which time he, having moved the motion, explained the legislative background to it and the procedures under which the Minister was exercising his powers. The Minister of State addressed himself specifically to the motion. He spoke of the need to postpone the local elections for a stated purpose, that being the Government's intention to fulfil their commitment in the Programme for Government to introduce a package of local government reform. The Minister of State was followed by Deputy Fitzsimons who spoke for 25 minutes and who did not regard himself obviously as being bound as strictly by the terms of the motion as was the Minister of State. Deputy Fitzsimons considered himself free to comment on the general performance of the Government in considering the response of the electorate would be if the elections were proceeded with.

Deputy Fitzsimons was followed by Deputy Mervyn Taylor who addressed himself to the specific issue of the appropriateness or otherwise of proceeding with the local elections this year and raised the question of whether the case or indeed the need for local government reform was such as to justify the postponement of the elections. He placed particular emphasis on the fact that the structure of local government in Dublin has remained unreformed for a century or more and he pointed out that because of growing urbanisation, because of the population increase in Dublin and the drift to Dublin, the structures which might have been adequate once are now hopelessly inadequate. Deputy Taylor pointed out, for example, that he and his colleagues as councillors representing the sprawling new town of Tallaght are expected to represent an area as large as and as numerous in terms of population as constituencies represented by many Dáil Deputies. While Deputy Taylor is a professional politician his area will be represented in many cases by part-time councillors who are elected to represent local opinion and to stay in touch with the views of people on the ground.

Deputy Power intervened then in his inimitable fashion. He was followed by his constituency colleague, Deputy Durkan. Deputy Seán Walsh spoke then. He was followed by Deputies Kenny, Pat Gallagher and Lyons. Therefore, on that first occasion on which the matter was debated nine speakers contributed, five of whom were from the Opposition benches including their spokesman, Deputy Fitzsimons, who is replying to the motion in the absence of Deputy Molloy.

The matter was taken up again on 7 March last when it was debated between 10.45 a.m. and 1.30 p.m., a total of two hours and 44 minutes. Later that afternoon it was debated for three-and-a-half hours from 3.30 p.m. until 7 p.m. In other words, on that occasion a total of six hours and 15 minutes was devoted to debate on the issue. On that occasion we heard again from Deputy Lyons. We heard also from Deputy Cosgrave while the view of The Workers' Party was put by Deputy De Rossa. Deputy Allen spoke also on that occasion as did Deputies Kirk, Gay Mitchell, Michael Barrett, Owen, Gene Fitzgerald, McEllistrim, Hilliard, Jackie Fahey and Tunney. Again, I turn to the accusation that the Government were seeking to monopolise the time and to deny Opposition Deputies the opportunity to contribute to this debate. On that second occasion five Opposition Deputies spoke one after the other. Then we had an intervention from the Government side but it was only of ten minutes duration and was from Deputy Harte. He was followed by Deputies Lemass, Wallace, Niall Andrews and Connolly. It would seem that on that occasion we went very close to achieving Deputy Ahern's desire that the debate would proceed in an unusual fashion with contributions from one side of the House only.

In the light of the experience on that occasion perhaps his suggestion that they were prepared to accept the motion on the basis that all speakers would be saying the same thing was not as extraordinary or as preposterous as it might otherwise have been. I do not wish to be unfair to Deputy Ahern. All of us bring to the Chamber our own experiences, our knowledge of procedures and of the practices we adopt in conducting our own meetings. I know that Deputy Ahern is Whip to a party who adopt a novel and distinctive approach to internal party debate. I realise he is the Whip of a party who take the view that matters are best decided on the basis of one leader, one voice. In the event of anyone being unsure as to the meaning of una duce, una voce, the party press officer, a constituent of mine and sometime Senator, P.J. Mara, was available to interpret. He explained that the phrase so far as Fianna Fáil were concerned meant that no one was to nibble at his Leader's bum.

Perhaps the Minister would confine his remarks to the subject matter before the House.

He has nothing to say.


Acting Chairman

There must be no further interruptions. The Chair would ask the Minister of State to desist from inviting interruptions.

You will appreciate too, a Chathaoirligh, that the Opposition Whip suggested that the debate should proceed in a particular manner, that being that all the contributions would come from his side of the House and that presumably all the speakers would say the same thing. I am trying to analyse how Deputy Ahern could have put forward such a proposition and I am suggesting that perhaps his attitude is understandable given the background he has experienced in his parliamentary party. However, that is only a passing reference.

The matter of the postponement of the local government elections was debated again on 13 March last when debate continued for one hour and 55 minutes.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

I have been attempting to establish that this matter has been adequately debated. The issue was considered by 32 Members of the House who addressed themselves to the question. What is the question? The issue to which Members are asked to address themselves is: is there need for local government reform? Members will be unanimous on that and an examination of the contributions to date will indicate how frustrated Members felt as members of local authorities and how clumsy and ineffective are the structures of local government, particularly in the greater Dublin area where they are unresponsive to the needs of the people.

Almost without exception, Dublin Deputies pointed out how absurd were the boundaries that dissected the Ballymun estate and gave rise to Dublin Corporation building more houses within the jurisdiction of Dublin County Council than in their own area. The result was that although people were tenants of Dublin Corporation they were within the jurisdiction of Dublin County Council.

The case for local government reform is clear. The question we must ask is whether we are prepared to pay the price in terms of postponing local elections for one year. On that, we have been subjected to a tirade of rage and indignation notwithstanding the fact that it has been put on the record that on no less than 13 occasions in the history of the State local elections have been postponed. The two most recent ones were postponed by Fianna Fáil Governments. That is the net issue to be decided. Are members committed to local government reform and prepared to pay the price in terms of postponing the election? The House does not have to answer that question yet. All it has to say is whether, on the basis of the contributions of 32 speakers, it has been given an adequate opportunity to debate the issue. All Members have to decide is whether, on the basis of the three day debate we have had, the debate today and tomorrow, they will have had an opportunity to make up their minds on the issue. Are they prepared to pay the price in order to secure meaningful local government that will give people an opportunity to influence the structures which are now so remote from them?

Everyone knows we have had an adequate opportunity to debate the issue. That is why Deputy Ahern was prepared to accept the motion, with the qualification that there would only be speakers from one side of the House. We are prepared to proceed with the debate and ensure the Opposition get an adequate opportunity to contribute in the time available. The great bulk of contributors so far has been from the Opposition benches. However, we have reservations about being expected to be excluded from the debate in total. Are the Government being unreasonable in suggesting that we bring our consideration of this matter to a conclusion tomorrow? I have no doubt that we are being reasonable and I do not believe anyone has any serious doubts about that. I support the motion which has been moved by my colleague.

I have not yet contributed to this debate but I welcome the opportunity to do so. It is fair to say that if we were in Government and doing what the Government are doing now, they would be saying roughly what we are saying and we would be saying what they are saying. That is the game of politics and that is how it is played.

Any party in opposition want to test electoral support as quickly as possible. If we seem over-eager for this contest to take place, mature people will understand why. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed by Deputy Kelly when he said that politicians looked forward to elections like turkeys looked forward to Christmas. No politician looks forward to an election not just because he might not be re-elected but because of the darned inconvenience of interference with his work. That may not be very democratic but it does interfere with one's work if one is a very hard-working politician.

As regards local authority elections one is secure for five years. They do not have sudden elections. One can plan. New councillors can find out what is going on. As everyone who has served on a local authority knows, about half of new councillors speak a load of rubbish at first because they do not understand how the system works. It takes at least a year and a half before they understand the process and what it is possible to do. Local government is a great training ground for people. I have been a member of Dublin Corporation since 1967. My father served on it also.

The Deputy should confine himself to the allocation of time motion.

I am discussing——

We are not discussing them together.

Are we not discussing the motion?

(Dún Laoghaire): We have to debate the motion.

Surely we must discuss the terms of the motion to which this relates?

The Deputy may refer to it but not in detail.

He was a member from 1930 until 1967. Between us we have a fair amount of continuous service. The longer one serves on a local authority the quieter one becomes. The newcomers have plenty to say. I welcome the reform of local government, which is very much needed. In a city like Dublin there are huge areas like Tallaght and Kimmage/Crumlin which should have their own local authorities. I welcome the move to set up the town commissioners in Greystones. This was a very progressive move because more and more people want to have a say in their own affairs. But one must take into account that this can cost a lot of money. Local government is fine as long as it does not cost people extra money, but when you try to raise tax locally, all hell breaks loose. At public meetings people will take you to task and complain——

Back to the subject matter please, Deputy.

We have a very hard-working Clerk of the Dáil, a very expert gentleman, and I have great respect for his knowledge. I am supposed to be discussing this guillotine motion. Is that so?

Acting Chairman

That is right.

At last, after ten minutes I know what I am talking about. The feeling of frustration when the guillotine motion is brought in affects all parties. When in Government, Fianna Fáil also introduced guillotine motions. The present Government, then the Opposition, considered that the 36 hours we had provided were not enough. Guillotine motions are part and parcel of the democratic system. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, referred to only one side speaking. It does not do us any good to have to put up speaker after speaker, nor does it do the Government any good, because it is up to the Government to keep the business of the House going. Therefore, from their point of view a motion of this kind is inconvenient.

The Minister of State, Deputy George Birmingham, spoke at length. The Chief Whip will know from experience that it is not very difficult to get Members here to filibuster. I hate filibustering. I am sorry I am not talking about the motion dealing with local government reform.

Acting Chairman

The Deputy will be entitled to speak on the motion in due course.

In due course, as soon as we finish this——

(Dún Laoghaire): The sooner the Deputy finishes the sooner we will be discussing the local elections.

This is very frustrating for me because I did not speak on the main motion earlier, and most of our people have already contributed, but if I can walk the tightrope of order — that is a nice expression, I hope it is carefully put into the notes — I would like to make these comments. Speakers like myself whose business it was to round up other speakers tended to leave ourselves last, and we feel very frustrated when we find ourselves in this situation. I welcome the reform of local government but regret that the Government have had to postpone the local elections because of the frustration felt by young people who are champing at the bit to wet their feet in local elections prior to getting involved in the national scene. I can understand people of all parties feeling this sense of frustration.

In my view the job of reforming government will take longer than a year and it is likely that we may have a similar debate this time next year asking for the postponement of the local elections for yet a further year. If this guillotine motion is concluded and we get back on the main motion, I will look forward to going deeper into the main issues, such as the setting up of town commissioners but the possibility is that I will not have this opportunity. I would like my views to be on the record so that the Government can look at them when they are preparing to reform local government. Perhaps they will issue papers on their thinking in this area so that we can all contribute. Irrespective of what we say to each other inside this Chamber, outside we are in the same business of trying to improve the lives of the people and to help the people we represent.

We have a great contribution to make but we could make an even better contribution if discussion papers were issued rather than a Bill with a certain amount of time allocated to discuss it, because there is a danger that this legislation will be rushed through the House with the result that the Government will not get the collective wisdom and experience of so many Members. Perhaps the Government will bear this in mind because in my view it will take longer than one year to reform government.

The Government's Bill will have to be discussed and there is a possibility that we will be accused of delaying the elections for another year. On the other hand, we may not have a long discussion on it; we may decide to give the Bill and have the elections. It is very important that we have local government reform and elections as soon as possible. I am a great democrat. When I say "a great democrat" I do not mean I am great personally, but I am a great believer in democracy.

Acting Chairman

You may discuss that later.

I understand. None of us should fear going before the people. This guillotine motion can be interpreted by the people as a reluctance on the part of the Government to face the people because they had to introduce very tough measures to right the economy. From the Government's point of view, practical people will realise——

Acting Chairman

I do not wish to interrupt the Deputy but you may only briefly touch on that.

Ultimately the people will form their judgement as to the lack of wisdom in not holding these local government elections. Possibly the outcome of the European elections will demonstrate whether there has been any protest on the part of the electorate in relation to their postponement. If the electorate have strong feelings about their postponement probably they may well show them on the occasion of the European elections.

It is very difficult to debate this motion in that one is restricted to the guillotine motion itself. While we all understand what is entailed in the guillotining of any business I should have thought that a certain amount of latitude should be allowed contributors to discuss even in a brief fashion the reasons we believe this matter should be discussed and should not be so guillotined. I hope the Acting Chairman will allow me some latitude in expressing my views as to why this motion should be accepted by the House or the local government elections postponed.

The decision of the Government to postpone the local elections is an extremely serious blow to democracy, worsened by the fact that they have now guillotined debate on this motion. Indeed, the Minister of State present, he alone representing the Government in the House at this time, must find this most unpalatable and distasteful. Any democrat must find this guillotine totally nauseating.

There has been discussion on the postponement of local government elections in the course of the past few weeks. The Minister of State at the Department of Labour, Deputy G. Birmingham, read from the Official Report a list of speakers who had contributed in that time. In fact he went on with a lot of waffle and used some of the content of those speeches, which is completely outside the realm of this guillotine motion and should not have been allowed.

Local authorities are in a most depressed and serious state at present. In the interests of their survival it is only right that a debate on the postponement of local government elections should be allowed to continue until all Members wishing to contribute had had an opportunity of doing so. Members' knowledge of the business of local authorities probably is much deeper than that on any other topic. I find it personally depressing that Members should not be allowed to debate the postponement of these elections for as long as they consider necessary. It must be remembered that we are here dealing with the democratic right of people to decide who should govern them not alone at national but at local government level. The postponement of local government elections is a serious blow to democracy, a subject which should be fully aired in this House. Indeed, this smacks somewhat of the jackboot tactic being employed here in order to stifle debate, a most unhealthy sign. Even in their present desperate plight I did not think the Government would stoop to that type of tactic. Obviously, with Government numbers in the House they will vote this motion through, when there will then be a very limited time only available to discuss the postponement of local elections.

Local authorities' mandate covers a very wide spectrum of responsibility affecting our everyday lives, probably having a much deeper impact on citizens than that at national government level. I have spoken to a lot of people outside the House about this matter when I discovered they felt they had been cheated of expressing their point of view on Government performance at this time. The fact that their representatives equally are being cheated of any opportunity to debate the matter will infuriate them even more. I believe the wrath of the electorate with the present Government will be shown very clearly on the occasion of the European elections. They have themselves to blame; they brought it on their own heads. Democracy is most valuable, was dearly fought for and it should never be denied anybody inside or outside this House.

There have been other occasions when the guillotine has been applied in this House, but for very good reasons — for example, when there was a lot of filibustering preventing certain measures being passed by the House. But this is a different ballgame altogether. There is now no indication being given when local government elections will be held.

I accept fully that local government structures should be reformed, perhaps more so in the greater Dublin area than anywhere else, because many county councillors have experienced the difficulties and drawbacks of the present system. While we all accept that such reformation is necessary it should not be advanced as an excuse for postponing local government elections. There has been no indication to date that such reform has even commenced. Yet it was one of the Coalition's promises prior to the last general election and the Government have been in office now since 1982. Only in the past six to eight weeks, when we came close to holding local government elections, have we heard anything at all from the Government about such reform.

I believe this guillotine motion has been imposed by a desperate Government who will seek any avenue to escape proper democratic criticism. Even at this stage I hope the Minister of State present would be sufficiently strong in convincing his colleagues that this debate should continue as long as there are Members wishing to contribute. As Deputy Briscoe said, we have all had vast experience of local government work and it is wrong and unfair that this guillotine motion should be imposed to stifle this debate.

Dún Laoghaire): In replying to the debate I thank Deputies who contributed. It is better that we should have dealt with it now because it is obvious the Opposition want to debate Motion No. 12, and finishing the debate on this motion means there will be more time for the Local Elections Order motion. I should point out that the reason why we had to stop the debate on Motion No. 12 is that the Department of the Environment, before 25 May, need to make arrangements not to hold the local elections this year.

Question put and declared carried.