Private Members' Business. - Referendum (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 1992: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

One of the great strengths of our Constitution is its powerful democratic base. The Constitution acknowledges that all powers of Government derive from the people whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy. At the refenda on 3 December the people will exercise this prerogative in relation to the three vital issues which this House has been debating. The purpose of this Bill is to contribute in a modest way towards ensuring that the decision of the people will be informed and effective.

The Bill proposes to assist voters at the referenda on the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution by making available to them a statement relating to the proposals which are the subject of the referenda and by providing for headings on the ballot papers in order to help distinguish between them.

The explanatory memorandum sets out the purpose and contents of the Bill. Briefly, section 1 provides that a special polling card, containing the statement set out in the Appendix to that section, will be sent to every elector. There will be a single polling card relating to all three referenda. A copy of the statement will also be sent to each postal and special voter. The statement will be displayed in and in the precincts of polling stations. Presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out this statement to them, where necessary, and marking the ballot papers in accordance with the voters' instructions.

The statement for the information of voters which is contained in the Appendix to section 1 of the Bill sets out, in terms which are as clear, simple and direct as possible, the proposals which are the subject of the referenda. The statement, in Irish and in English, simply quotes the words which the three Constitution Bills propose to insert in the Constitution with the minimum of associated wording. I am sure the House will agree that this is the correct approach and that it would be inappropriate to attempt to paraphrase or interpret the proposed constitutional amendments.

The arrangements proposed in section 1 are the same as those made in relation to the referendum in June of this year and, indeed, at all previous referenda.

A further step to aid voters in distinguishing between the ballot papers at the forthcoming referenda is proposed at section 3 of the Bill. This section provides that a heading be printed on each ballot paper indicating the proposal to which the ballot paper relates.

Experience has shown that where two or more polls are taken on the same day, the proportion of spoilt ballot papers tends to increase sharply. One of the reasons for this is probably that some electors may have difficulty in distinguishing between the separate proposals. In a single nationwide poll the proportion of rejected papers is normally somewhat less than 1 per cent.

Where two or more ballot papers are involved the proportion tends to increase quite substantially to 2 or 3 per cent or even higher. This is particularly so in the case of referenda where there is nothing other than the short title of the relevant Constitution Bill together with the colour of the paper to distinguish one ballot paper from another.

On this occasion there will be three separate ballot papers. In order to reduce the risk of a high number of spoilt papers the Government decided that a further distinguishing feature should be included on the ballot papers. I am sure the House will agree that it is proper to do so and that the inclusion of a descriptive heading on each paper, as proposed by section 3, is the most appropriate arrangement.

I would have to say that this is not a novel proposal. In 1979 when two proposals to amend the Constitution were put to the people on the same day provision was made for the inclusion of distinguishing headings on the ballot papers. In section 3 we are following this precedent.

The provision, along with the measures I have already mentioned, will help electors distinguish between the three separate proposals and should ensure that the number of spoilt ballot papers will be kept to the minimum.

The purpose of the headings is to distinguish between the ballot papers and to provide a signpost to the subject matter to which each relates. I believe the headings proposed fulfil this purpose. The headings have no significance other than as an aid to electors in distinguishing between the three ballot papers. The actual questions on which the electors will be invited to vote are the proposals contained in the Constitution Bills as passed by both Houses.

Section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, provided that a statement for the information of voters at a referendum may be prescribed by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The statement prescribed in section 1 of this Bill could, therefore, be so prescribed. However, it was considered appropriate to include it in this Bill, which is required in any event in order to provide for the descriptive headings on the ballot papers. Section 2 of the Bill, therefore, provides that section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, shall not apply in relation to these referenda.

The Bill is a brief technical measure, following the general pattern of corresponding measures at previous referenda. It fulfils a useful function in providing the electorate with objective, factual information which will assist them in making a rational and informed decision on these important questions. It further assists them by providing for clear, easily understood headings and labels on the ballot papers in order to distinguish between them. I commend the Bill to the House.

If a piece of dead fish could ever pass into history this speech would be it. The Minister's speech on this Bill shows not the slightest sensitivity to the issues which underlie it or the slightest notion of the significance of the Bill. I am appalled to have to say that but never during my 11 years in this House have I heard a speech that was so much beside the point. That is an awful thing to have to say to the Minister. I think it is the first time I have debated an issue with him in person across the Floor of the House. All I can do is congratulate him that on this occasion he has not had the gall to send in his Minister of State, Deputy Harney, to do the work for him. I do not think even this Government would have the nerve to go that far. It is outrageous that a Minister should come in and present such a pedestrian dead speech on the issues before us.

This Bill basically provides for statements to be published on polling cards and other material to assist and guide voters in the forthcoming referenda and to provide for descriptive headings on the ballot papers also for the guidance of voters. In essence, that is a very sensible provision, but the application of the provision proposed in the Bill in regard to the proposed Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution can only be described as utterly perverse. I will come back to that point in a moment.

There is another part of this Bill which is very significant and I would like to make an observation on it. Neither the Bill before us, the explanatory memorandum circulated with it nor the Minister's speech make any attempt to explain why section 2 of the Bill provides that section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, shall not apply to the referenda referred to in this Bill.

Earlier this year we went to the trouble of enacting the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992. Section 2 of that Act provides that at a constitutional referendum, other than a referendum relating to the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution, which was to do with the Maastricht Treaty, a statement in relation to the proposal which is the subject of the referendum may be prescribed for the information of the voters by resolution of each House of the Oireachtas. We solemnly enacted that provision this year. There were good reasons for providing that it should not apply to the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution, but it was to apply to every other constitutional referendum. On the first occasion when we have a constitutional referendum after the passing of that Act, the Government want to set aside a principal provision of it. I have to ask why. The Minister has not touched on this. He has given no explanation, nor is an explanation given in the explanatory memorandum. I have to ask why the Minister is coming before us with a Bill which specifically sets aside a provision of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992. I have to suspect that the Government have some ulterior motive which they do not want to discuss with the House. Looking at the provisions in the Appendix to section 1 and at the provisions of section 3, I suspect that the Government's motives in setting aside that provision are fear and a desire to mislead the public.

The title which the Government propose in this Bill to put on the statements to be included in polling cards for the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution and the descriptive title to be put on the ballot paper are designed to be deliberately misleading. They are designed to mislead voters as to the substance of what is proposed in the Twelfth Amendment. That and only that is the purpose of calling this Twelfth Amendment by the title which appears in this Bill — Right to Life, Ceart chun Beatha. That is nothing less than a very underhand and base attempt by the Government to influence the outcome of this referendum. It is the act of a Government who are anti-woman, spineless, hypocritical, inept and confused. This attempt at deception by the Government is nothing less than an insult to the women of this country and to the voters in general.

The proposed Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution is about the termination of pregnancy. The proposed amendment states:

It shall be unlawful to terminate the life of an unborn unless such termination is necessary to save the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother where there is an illness or disorder of the mother giving rise to a real and substantial risk to her life, not being a risk of self-destruction.

I would be out of order to go into my views on that. I had to suffer under the Chair's lash earlier.

I do not think the Deputy is really serious. He never suffers. He is only reminded of Standing Orders.

If I may be subjective for a moment, I suffered. I know you do not but I do. I will not go into it. That proposed amendment to the Constitution——

The Chair would not suffer much longer what is not relevant to Second Stage of this Bill.

I am speaking of the matter which is the subject of the proposed amendment which this Bill is designed to regulate. I have quoted the terms of that amendment. The proposed Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution is about the termination of pregnancy. It deals with the circumstances in which it shall not be unlawful to terminate a pregnancy if the amendment is passed. It is not about anything else. It has been demonstrated in this House and elsewhere in the past weeks that the Government are confused about what would and would not be lawful if this amendment were to be passed, but the Government's ineptitude, confusion and downright dishonesty on this issue cannot be an excuse for an attempt to mislead the voters.

Neither is it an excuse to say that the Government are divided on this referendum, with at least half the Progressive Democrats Deputies, Deputies O'Malley, Harney and Quill, who have spoken on the issue being fundamentally opposed to the spirit and the approach proposed by this Government of which they are members or supporters. I do not know the views of the other half of the Progressive Democrat Deputies. We have not heard from the Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, nor have we heard from Deputies Clohessy and Wyse. That division is no excuse for the Government trying to mislead the voters in a mean, underhanded fashion.

The Government find themselves totally at sea on this issue and they therefore resort to a further attempt at confusion and obfuscation of the issue. That kind of conduct, as we know from long experience, is par for the course for Fianna Fáil. They have always been a party who consider words more important than actions, perceptions more important than reality and concerns more important than performance. Given the opportunity, they would rather verbalise than act and in a tight corner they will run for the cover of the nearest platitude. They will throw up a smoke screen of verbiage and express concern about all the respectable issues, but they will not do anything, unless they absolutely have to, that might actually deal with the problem. If they are pushed to it, as in this case, they will look for the way out that requires the least thought, without counting the cost or damage to people who will be affected. In this case that is women.

I know it will not help your humour if I tell you that you have been in possession for ten minutes.

I will finish in just a moment.

Although that is par for the course for Fianna Fáil, it is not what we would expect of this absent, policy-driven party of the Progressive Democrats. The title the Government propose to put on the ballot paper and in the advice to voters has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. I will be proposing on Committee Stage that we replace the title the Government are proposing and call this proposed amendment what it is, by giving it the title Termination of Pregnancy. That is the only clear and honest description that should be put before the people, either on their polling cards or on their ballot papers. What the Government are attempting to do in this Bill is nothing more than perpetrate a deception.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ferris.

Is that satisfactory? Agreed.

I have to support the comments made by Deputy Dukes so far as the wording on page four of the Bill is concerned regarding the white ballot paper. I have some doubts as to whether the inclusion of that misleading description, Right to Life, is a constitutional wording. It must throw some doubt on the constitutionality of this Bill. The essence of the Constitution is that there should be a fair description given and put before the people in this referendum. I take the view that the referendum is not necessary but we are to have it. The Constitution could well be interpreted as requiring a description and a choice put before the people that would represent the intent of the Bill. This has not happened so far as the white ballot paper is concerned.

One could use strong terminology to describe the intent and purport of the Government in doing this. To describe it as totally misleading is apt. The purpose of the Government is to put into the minds of people the idea that in supporting this referendum they will be doing something towards the generality of the right to life. That is not so. If one was to take an analogy, for example, the green ballot paper dealing with travel, the description there ought to be "right to travel" but it is just the single word "travel". If there was to be equality in the two positions it would say "right to travel" and the other ballot paper also would say, "right to information" not just "information". To put in there "right to life" is a fraud and a misdescription. It suggests that the Twelfth Amendment Bill is about the right to life whereas, as Deputy Dukes said, it is a measure which defines the circumstances under which a termination of pregnancy may lawfully take place in this State.

In the debate on the Twelfth Amendment Bill it was pointed out to the Minister for Justice that the Bill authorised abortions to take place here albeit in all too limited circumstances. The Bill reaffirms the position of the Supreme Court authorising termination of pregnancy where the life of the mother is at risk, but it rolls back the Supreme Court decision authorising it in the case of threatened suicide. To describe that as a right to life is confusing. Many people will think they are voting for something else. Why are we doing that? The Government, and the Minister, know what they are about here. It is not an accident. The parliamentary draftsman did not casually throw it in. It is much more invidious than that. This was a deliberate ploy to try to secure votes for this measure on the basis that it is a grant of a right to life position, which it clearly is not. The House should defeat this matter or at least amend that position so that it reflects fairly what the Twelfth Amendment Bill seeks to enact.

There is a question as to the constitutionality of this Bill. We could not ask the President to do anything about the Bills to amend the Constitution but this legislation setting up the procedure to be followed in amending the Constitution is questionable. It contradicts what the Taoiseach said quite recently to the effect that he, and his Ministers, knew what they were about and that the people would make their decision.

The Minister in his speech today said the statement in Irish and English simply quoted the words which the three constitutional Bills proposed to insert into the Constitution with a minimum of wording. He said he was sure the House would agree that this was the correct approach and that it would be inappropriate to paraphrase or interpret the proposed constitutional amendments. That is exactly what the heading on the white ballot paper will do. People will feel that if they vote No they will be voting against the right to life. This is the first time in the history of the State that we are proposing a constitutional provision to permit an abortion in certain circumstances. That is not the right to life. Let us be honest about it. We should tell the people exactly what we are doing. The heading on the ballot paper will cause confusion and it contradicts everything the Taoiseach said. It contradicts also the Minister's Second Stage speech. That is an insult to the intelligence of the people and to our integrity as legislators. We will oppose this when we have the opportunity on Committee Stage.

Deputy De Rossa must now demonstrate that he can do in five minutes what other leaders can do.

I hope I can live up to the Chair's expectations. The Minister in his contribution today indicated that the purpose of having titles on the ballot papers is so that people can make an informed decision, that it is simply a technical device to avoid an increased number of spoiled votes. He said there was no significance in the titles other than to distinguish between ballot papers. The decision of the Government to head one of the ballot papers for the forthcoming referendum with the term right to life, may well be in conflict with the provisions of the legislation governing the holding of a referendum here. I would refer the Minister to the 1942 Act which was quite explicit and stated in section 15 (5):

The proposal which is the subject thereof shall be stated on the ballot paper in the same terms as nearly as may be as such proposal is stated in the Bill containing such proposal passed or deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The clear intention of the legislators was that there would be no confusion. The decision by the Government to misleadingly label the amendment "right to life" is an underhanded attempt to influence voters in supporting the amendment. The other two ballot papers simply designate "travel" and "information", not "right to travel" or "right to information".

What is striking about them is that these words are taken directly from the proposed amendments whereas "right to life" is not taken from the amendment on pregnancy termination. The words "right to life" do not appear in the amendment proposed by the Government. It is an emotive simplistic slogan which has been hi-jacked by one side in the current controversy and it has been used in such a way as to suggest that anyone who opposes their narrow view of the abortion issue is in some way anti life. It is astonishing that the Government should now have decided to put this label on the ballot paper. Those who are contemplating "No" may be misled into believing that if they do so they are voting against the right to life when the reality is that if one votes "No" to the Government amendment one is voting to increase a woman's right to life, not diminish it. It is deplorable that the Government should seek to mislead in this way.

Nowhere in the legislation governing the holding of a referendum is it envisaged that such a blatantly partisan heading could be used on a ballot paper. There can be no justification for the use of such a false and misleading term. I acknowledge that at the end of the day a small number of people may be misled by it but it is quite conceivable that a small number of people may well be the deciding factor in this issue.

I have heard much agonising by the Progressive Democrats during the week about how they have had no choice but to support the Government wording of the abortion referendum in order to avoid a general election. Surely they do not have to go along with this charade. I invite them to support our amendment which is similar to the Fine Gael amendment and seeks to replace "right to life" with "pregnancy termination". Even the Taoiseach could not justify going to the country on the basis that the Dáil had made a democratic decision to replace the wording at the head of a ballot paper.

While the Minister spoke, certain words literally jumped out at me. I could not believe that what he was saying related to what we are discussing. The Minister began by saying that one of the great strengths of our Constitution is its powerful democratic base. Ideally that is the case, but there is nothing democratic about the Government's handling of this whole affair. Their approach is not designed to contribute in a modest way towards ensuring that the decision of the people will be informed and effective, as the Minister says.

Our great fear is that what will be put before the people on 3 December, if the Government get their way, is a wording that will confuse and raise concerns and fears. That was bad enough but now we reach the nadir with this Bill not alone using its rightful title but introducing language that is not even part of the substantive issue. It says here that the Bill proposes to assist voters at the referendum. The description "right to life" which we know is the slogan, the propaganda blatantly used by the pro-life campaigners and which has a certain colour because of that and implies a certain insult to the rest of us who according to that definition are anti-life, is the last wording that should ever be used particularly as the Minister suggests that he wishes to have the words and the terms as clear, simple and direct as possible.

I put it to you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, that those words are certainly simple and direct and will strike a resonant chord among those who wish to whip up the kind of campaign we had in 1983. I really find it hard to believe in the Minister's total naivety when he says the headings have no significance other than as an aid to electors. Is it the hidden agenda that they will be an aid to electors not just subliminally but outwardly. We would all be worried about subliminal persuasion, but this is so outrightly crude that it does beg the question whether or not it is constitutional. That raises a very big question over this Bill.

I concur with the points made by all my colleagues, particularly those raised by Deputy Alan Dukes regarding the question of whether this fits within the confines of another Bill, the Electoral Bill. Let me conclude by saying that we have advertising standards in this country as they do in most other countries, which do not allow misleading descriptions or claims about any consumer product. If this was referred to the advertising standards of Ireland it would be found not just to be misleading but confusing to the extent that it would have to be banned. I rest my case.

I would like to join with my colleagues in being very critical of this Bill, particularly in relation to the title on the ballot paper which will be so misleading and distorted. I hate crediting people with ulterior motives; I do not normally do it. However, I really believe that some sort of sinister thinking went into the planning of this wording.

There is nothing in this debate about the right to life, and really very little was said in this House about the right to life. This legislation is about information, about the right to travel and about the termination of pregnancies. The equal right to life of the mother and the unborn are already enshrined in the Constitution. This title will cause nothing but confusion.

There is considerable confusion already. A woman came up to me in the supermarket last Saturday in a state of considerable agitation wanting to know what she should do on 3 December. She said that she had telephoned the Attorney General's office, the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach's office and that nobody could tell her. I suggest that there is great confusion and there will be even more confusion when people see how this ballot will be presented to them. I can see absolute disaster at the polling stations with presiding officers being asked questions by people who are illiterate, who do not understnd, who are blind, etc. This is not something that can be solved by a Yes or No answer. I can see great rows and great difficulties at polling stations over the whole presentation of this.

I think that maybe it would be a good idea for some of us to say that this is not about the right to life but about termination of pregnancies. People who are going to vote should be told that if they do not understand it, if they are confused about it they should vote No. They should not put anything into the Constitution about which they are confused or which they feel is not clear. I believe this heading on the ballot paper is anything but clear. It is regrettable that, despite the fact that there are amendments down and that Deputies on this side of the House have made the case for giving it a realistic title, once again the Government are intransigent. That is going to create great difficulty.

When the Government announced their proposals to hold a referendum on the questions to be put to the Irish people on 3 December some two weeks ago, they indicated that they were prepared to embark upon a process of discussion and consultation with the other parties in this House with a view to achieving consensus. It has become evident in the last few days that this commitment to consensus-forming was a very shallow one indeed. At a time when the Government were inviting us to meet with them, at least at leadership level, they were drafting and finalising their various legislative measures and in the midst of it all was this particular proposal, the aspect of this legislation that we are now debating that is most contentious and is entirely dismissive of any other view of this debate, that is the suggestion that the substantive question should be titled "right to life".

It is also evident that the Minister for Justice has a very consistent view in this throughout, that the Government proposals is a "right to life" proposal and that any questioning of that or any debate or analysis of what is included is a demand for abortion on a widespread basis. Coupled with that view, the Government decided on this phrase to guide the vote on the day of the referendum as to how they should address the so-called substantive issue. It is grossly misleading.

Let me put the following question to the Minister: how does he think the voter will address the proposal in the amendment which provides for abortion in limited circumstances in light of the headline "right to life"? The Minister will have to reconsider this matter. I hope on Committee Stage he will see that our proposal is reasonable.

Since my appointment as Minister for the Environment I have become used to systematic attacks from Fine Gael whenever I made a calm and reasoned contribution in the House. I had thought that the appointment of Deputy Dukes, who tends to adopt a reasonably enlightened approach, to the Fine Gael Front Bench would have led to the end of these systematic attacks. If the Fine Gael Front Bench want to drive down that cul-desac on every debate in this House, so be it.

Deputy Dukes' contribution this evening indicated a great degree of confusion. He accused me of having a hidden agenda in relation to section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992. Let me repeat what I said in my Second Stage contribution for his benefit:

Section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992 provided that a statement for the information of voters at a referendum may be prescribed by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The statement prescribed in section 1 of this Bill could, therefore, be so prescribed. However, it was considered appropriate to include it in this Bill, which is required in any event in order to provide for the descriptive headings on the ballot papers. Section 2 of the Bill, therefore, provides that section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992 shall not apply in relation to these referenda.

Why pass the Bill then?

Deputy Dukes has been a Member of this House long enough to understand that it does not matter whether a statement is prescribed in an Act or a resolution. What he tried to do, mischievously, was muddy the waters so what we would not have a clear picture this evening. Once again, he trotted out the reference that women are the target. At the same time he tried to convey the view that the referendum on the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution is an abortion referendum but nothing could be further from the truth.

It is about the termination of pregnancy; the Minister should read the terms of the proposed amendment.

I am aware that Opposition Deputies would like to see a referendum on abortion held or, as they describe it, the termination of pregnancy.

That is what the Minister, Deputy Flynn, says it is about.

Over the past week or so this matter has been discussed at great length. The House has made its decision and the debate must not be reopened at this stage. The Bill, as passed by this House, is emphatically not about abortion or the termination of pregnancy. If we were to use either of those terms as headings we would seriously mislead the electors as to the content——

The Minister should read the amendment on the substantive issue.

The Minister should read the proposal in the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution.

I did not interrupt the Deputy while he was making his contribution; at least——

Would the Minister read the proposal in the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution?

Deputy Dukes must accept that when the Minister is replying he should not be interrupted.

On a point of order, can the Minister come into the House and pretend that black is white——

That is not a point of order, Deputy Dukes.

——and that the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution which the Government are proposing has nothing to do with the termination of pregnancy? Can the man read?

I will explain it to the Deputy.

Deputy Dukes will have to accept that he cannot insulate his mind against the views of other people. The Minister is replying, and he is entitled to do, and if Deputy Dukes continues to interrupt him I will have to take some other measure to guarantee silence for the Minister while he is replying. I do not want any more interruptions.

There are standards which should be applied in this House.

Each Deputy has his or her own standards.

You are the one who is supposed to apply them.

The words "right to life" appear twice in the existing Article 40.3.3º——

They are not in the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution.

——while the word "life" is used three times in the proposed Twelfth Amendment. There is no more appropriate heading; it is brief, clear and relevant. The Bill, as passed, deals with the right to life of the unborn and the right to life of the mother. It recognises that in particular exceptional circumstances these two rights may be incompatible. In that event the right to life of the mother prevails. The Bill is about the right to life of the unborn and the mother and the right of a woman to receive whatever medical and surgical treatment is appropriate to her condition. Therefore no matter how often Members of the Opposition parties want to muddy the waters in relation to these essential characteristics it will not maker any difference. The problem will also arise when there is a conflict; where the two lives are threatened because of the pregnant mother's medical condition.

The Supreme Court decided that; that will not be decided in the referendum.

Question put and declared carried.