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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 19 Oct 1993

Presidential Elections Bill, 1993: Report Stage.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 are related and I suggest that we discuss them together.

I move amendment No. 1.

In page 6, to delete lines 6 and 7 and substitute the following:

" `elector', except where the context otherwise requires, means a presidential elector, or a person who was ordinarily resident in the State within the previous fifteen years and who would have qualified as a presidential elector if still resident within the State;".

We had an interesting Committee Stage debate on the question of permitting emigrants to vote in presidential elections. In response to an amendment I tabled on Committee Stage the Minister informed us that it is the Government's intention to bring forward a constitutional referendum and legislation and to have the administrative arrangements in place in time to enable emigrants to have some kind of a vote in the next election and some kid of representation arising out of it. I have tabled amendments on the same subject for Report Stage as I said I would, and I will give a number of reasons for that.

First, it will be useful to get from the Minister a bit more detail about Government plans in this area. Second, we should give some consideration to the question of which emigrants should be included if voting rights are extended. The purpose of my Committee Stage amendment was to establish the principle of voting rights for emigrants. Under that amendment an emigrant who would have been entitled to vote in the previous presidential election or who had been out of the country at that time would be entitled to vote in a subsequent election. The point was made forcibly to me before we discussed that amendment and since by emigrant groups that they consider it would be more appropriate to opt for a longer time span as the cut off point. In particular they drew my attention to the fact that one of the biggest waves of emigration occurred in the early eighties and they argued that it would be appropriate to include those who emigrated at that time if the entitlement to vote in elections is extended. For those reasons I suggest that we opt for a period of 15 years as the cut off point. Incidentally, this is the same cut off point proposed in the Private Members' Bill presented by the Labour Party. Therefore I presume it will have no difficulty supporting this amendment today since it seeks to achieve the same objective.

I would like the Minister of State to elucidate the point he took up on the previous occasion when dealing with the Constitution. He stated that it would be necessary to hold a constitutional referendum. As I indicated on Committee Stage, there are conflicting legal opinions on this point. A number of eminent lawyers have expressed the view that it would not be necessary to hold a constitutional referendum and that it would be possible under the Constitution to give voting rights to emigrants without holding a referendum. I am concerned that the Government appears to be hiding behind the Constitution on this issue. I would like the Minister of State to explain in greater detail why it is not possible to give voting rights to emigrants without first changing the Constitution.

I would also like the Minister of State to explain in more detail what the Government intends to do. I appreciate that the intention was that all the necessary measures, including the constitutional referendum, legislation and administrative arrangements would be in place before the next general election, but can he give us any indication when the Bill relating to the constitutional referendum will be published and if he has received the opinion of the Attorney General? It should not be very difficult to publish a Bill giving some indication of the constitutional changes that would have to be made and when it would be put to the people.

In his response on Committee Stage the Minister of State seemed to lean heavily towards the position adopted by Fine Gael, that is, that voting entitlements for emigrants should be confined to a number of seats in the Seanad. It would be useful to know if that is the case. The Minister of State should take the opportunity to deny that is the case, to clarify that it is the Government's intention to give emigrants the right to vote in general elections, and consequently presidential elections, the subject matter of the Bill before us, and that it is not its intention to put a red circle around emigrants and make special arrangements for them without letting them vote in general elections.

To use Deputy Gilmore's words, the purpose of this amendment is to establish the principle of voting rights for emigrants and to hear from the Minister of State in more detail the Government's view on this matter. In so far as that is the purpose of the amendment, I go along with Deputy Gilmore and would like the Minister of State to outline the Government's thinking on this area but I cannot accept the amendment as tabled. I take it, Sir, that we are discussing amendments Nos. 1 and 3 together——

That was agreed earlier, Deputy.

As matters stand, we do not allow non-citizens resident in this country to vote in presidential elections. Perhaps that is where we should start. Perhaps we should consider whether there is still justification for witholding voting rights from non-citizens resident in the country; at this time we cannot extend voting rights in presidential elections to our emigrants if those living in our country are not given this right.

There is no point shirking the issue or pretending it is not a problem; there is no doubt it would be a headache to establish a register of emigrants and to ensure that it would not be used improperly at election time. We have had bad experiences in the past when it comes to postal voting in local and general elections. On Committee Stage, reference was made to the 1979 local elections. It was mentioned that the officials who ran the election considered that the postal voting system was widely abused. It would be more difficult to establish who is a bona fide emigrant voter at election time than to establish who is resident in the Republic but is absent on polling day for various reasons. I am not pretending that this would be insurmountable or impossible but major difficulties would be encountered in establishing a bona fide register and ensuring that those who vote are the people named on the register. It would also be difficult, given that our emigrants are mobile, to ensure that they register annually at the local embassy or consulate or the location designated. In my view many logistical problems would be encountered.

The Fine Gael proposal contained in the Bill published some time ago would represent a realistic first step in allowing the Houses of the Oireachtas to hear the voice of our emigrants and allowing them not only to vote but to be represented in the Seanad where a number of seats would be reserved. The Minister and the Government should seriously consider something along the lines proposed by Fine Gael. I am not saying we got it right on the day but I am suggesting that the first step could be allowing our emigrants to be represented in the Seanad Chamber.

There is one similarity between Seanad and presidential elections and that is the election takes place over a longer period than a Dáil election. Dáil elections can, and often have, taken place within three or four weeks. Logistically this would cause major problems in collating emigrants' votes in time to include them in the count. However, presidential elections, like the Seanad elections, are held over a much longer period. Some may feel that the present system is correct but even if it was felt that the present system was anomalous in refusing votes to residents who are not citizens, I still think the Seanad is the place to initially invite representation from our emigrants so that we can not only make use of their voting strength but listen to their views on their country and the problems which led to their having to leave our shores.

I cannot accept Deputy Gilmore's amendment although I agree with the principle of giving voting rights to our emigrants. The Government might give serious consideration to allowing our emigrants voting and representation rights in the Seanad. Deputy Gilmore, if I remember rightly, said that the Fine Gael proposal would result in the corralling of our emigrants. I do not accept that. Our proposals would go much further to meet the demands of emigrants than just allowing them a vote from distant shores. I am suggesting that they actually have rights of representation in our House of Parliament. If the Government is not in a position to take on board the Fine Gael proposal, perhaps it would at least consider moving along those lines.

I would like the Minister to put on the record the Government's thinking on voting rights for emigrants. The Minister hinted strongly on Committee Stage that there would be voting rights for emigrants before the next general election. What sort of investigation is being done into this question? How far has the work proceeded? Is the Government considering extending voting rights to emigrants in Dáil elections, in Seanad and Dáil elections or in Seanad elections alone? Will the Government consider even taking Deputy Gilmore's proposal on board which I do not favour at this stage? I accept the Deputy's point that the amendment is basically to establish the principle of voting rights for emigrants, a principle to which Fine Gael is not opposed.

Whatever about the wording of the amendments I support the spirit of them. On Committee Stage we alluded to the fact that residents who are not citizens cannot vote in presidential elections. I found it mortifying, to say the least, when going to people's doors to ask them how they intended to vote, to be told that although they were long-standing residents of this country they could not vote in the election. That is something that should be examined. I realise this cannot be dealt with in the Bill. However, the point is valid because if long-standing residents cannot vote in a presidential or other election, it amounts to discrimination against people who pay their taxes here and who are very much part of the community.

On Committee Stage I wondered about the reluctance of the Government to even examine the area of voting rights for emigrants while hiding behind the Constitution. The Government is made up of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. Since the Labour Party espoused this cause and was particularly vocal about it before going into Government it is amazing that nothing has been done. It makes me wonder how serious the Labour Party is in other policy areas when something like this is ignored and they have to be practically beaten into doing anything about it.

I accept that there may be constitutional difficulties. I realise also that there are differences of opinion and, I suppose, if there are differences of opinion there is a problem, but I expect a pro-active approach now and hope that this will not be forgotten until the next general, election in three or three and a half year's time. I will not forget it and I am sure people on this side of the House will not forget it either. The Minister should require that this be put on the Government agenda and actively looked into. It is very disheartening for people who have an affinity with our country, who return here, whose roots are here, to feel that they are forgotten and ignored. If the signal goes out that they are not forgotten, that they have not been ignored, that would be a positive result of this debate.

I would like to know what exactly are the proposals and when the process will begin. So far we have seen no great fervour on the part of the Government to do anything about this, and particularly on the part of the Labour Party who seem to have forgotten many of the things they advocated during the election campaign. Much of that baggage has been left very firmly outside the Cabinet door.

Wexford): The legal advice to the Government is that under the relevant provisions of the Constitution it would not be possible to extend voting rights to people who are not part of the population of the State. Deputy Gilmore suggested that the legal advice to the Government be made available. It is not the practice to publish such legal advice.

The Programme for a Partnership Government accepts in principle that there should be constitutional change to give voting rights to emigrants. It is a matter for the Minister for the Environment whose examination will be comprehensive, and all the options will be fully considered, including the option of Seanad representation which is favoured by Fine Gael, including Deputy Doyle.

The options outlined by Deputies Gilmore and Keogh are also being given consideration within the Department. The detailed technical arrangements which would be required to give effect to each option and the nature of the constitutional amendment which might be required in relation to each will be explored. On completion of the examination the Minister will invite the Government to decide on the options that may be put forward.

The debates on the last day and today will ensure that emigrants will not be forgotten. I expect that Deputies on the far side will maintain a watching brief on this matter. For my part, I hope we will continue to pursue the matter taking into consideration the views of the emigrants themselves. Both Deputy Doyle and I have been very involved with the voice of the emigrants from the United States but it is fair to say that there is a desire among all parties that there be an appropriate link between emigrants and the Oireachtas. There is also a sober realisation of the very fundamental questions that must be addressed in considering the establishment of such a link.

Whatever arrangements are decided, we must recognise the essential difference in status between those who are resident in the State and those who are not. We must provide adequate safeguards in relation to the secrecy and security of the ballot. Above all, the arrangements must be fair and must be seen to be so to both emigrants and the resident population. This would be essential in order to ensure that the necessary constitutional amendment is carried by the people in a referendum when that arises. These complex issues are being examined in the Department at present with the aim of having the matter brought to a conclusion within the timeframe envisaged in the Programme for Government.

It is not a question of hiding behind the Constitution, as was pointed out on Committee Stage and again today. Serious thought must be given to whatever proposals are put forward by the Government, and the Oireachtas and the people will also have a say in the matter. I assure Deputies that the issue will not be put on the backburner and there will be no hiding behind the Constitution. The suggestions put forward by Deputy Gilmore the last day and again today as well as the proposal by Fine Gael Party will be considered by the Minister and the Department who are at present examining the matter. All options are on the table and will be given serious consideration. Deputy Gilmore accused me of leaning towards Deputy Doyle's suggestion. That is one option that deserves serious merit and Deputy Gilmore's option will also be considered. At the end of the day we will have to decide what is the best option and put it to this House and to the people for decision.

It has to be acknowledged that we have made some progress since the evening we debated the Private Members' Bill tabled by the Labour Party to which the then Minister for the Environment responded that he was opposing it for reasons of principle and practicality. Whatever about the practicality, at least the principle of giving voting rights to emigrants seems to be established, but what format it takes remains to be seen.

I am concerned about some of the small print in the Minister's response, for example, his reference to the difference in status between those resident in the country and those not resident here. There is an issue of principle involved here — I have no doubt we will come back to this matter in the course of this debate — that is, that the right to vote is a democratic right and you either have that right or you do not. If a citizen of this country has been forced to go abroad because he cannot get work here he should not be deprived of the fundamental right to vote. Other states give to their emigrants that right. I caution the Minister and the Government, when considering this question, not to create two categories of citizens of this State: those who will have a full right to vote and those who will not. Emigrants should have a democratic right to vote and participate in the political life of this country, and that is why I have tabled amendments to this Bill.

I am disappointed that the Minister is not making available to us the opinion of the Attorney General. It is not good enough at this stage of the debate that we are simply told that the Attorney General has advised the Government that "it is not constitutionally possible", and there the matter must rest. The basis for that advice should be spelled out to us. This is not an area of national security where the Attorney General's advice is so confidential that it cannot be made available to us.

This Government has made great play, at least on paper, of the idea of extending democracy, open Government and so on. Therefore, the opinion of the Attorney General on a matter such as this should be made available to Members so that we can debate the issue in a meaningful way. It is not good enough to simply come into the House and say "the Attorney General has said", and that must be the end of the matter. We know from painful experience that very often when the Attorney General has said something it is far from the end of the matter. It would be helpful if the Attorney General's advice was available to us.

The practical arrangements have been referred to. Much has been said about the postal vote. I cannot understand why, when there is a postal voting arrangement in the State for university graduates to vote in Seanad elections, we cannot extent postal rights to, for example, the disabled and other categories. I do not understand the logic that people who hold a parchment from one of our universities are somehow more honest than those who do not hold such a document. The best way to introduce voting rights for emigrants would be establish polling stations in embassies, consulates or trade missions. In that way, people would be able to vote in general elections. I appreciate the argument that a three week election campaign could be involved, but if people are on the electoral register and if within each constituency, for example, there is a supplementary register of emigrant voters or they are marked in a particular way, it should be possible to arrange polling stations where these people can vote.

I am going to ask you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, to put the amendment formally to the House but I will not call a division, not because I do not wish to embarrass Deputies who may feel constrained to vote for it and, under Whip, would have to vote against it——

The Deputy should not hold his breath.

——I think Deputies are beyond embarrassment — but because we will have ample opportunity to come back to the question of voting rights for emigrants when the European election Bill will be discussed later in the week. I assure the Minister that, at every opportunity in advance of the Government bringing in the legislation to which he referred, which no doubt will be satisfactory to all, I will put this question before the House. If the Government is dragging its feet on this matter and the legislation is not being brought forward there will be ample opportunity for people to go through the lobbies and show where they stand on the issue.

Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 14, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:

"(2) A special meeting of a Council e.g. a county or a corporation of a county borough shall be convened to consider nomination of a candidate at a presidential election.".

I was very disappointed at the reaction to this amendment which I tabled on Committee Stage, particularly from some of my colleagues in the Labour Party.

(Wexford): That did not stop the Deputy from coming back with an amendment on Report Stage.

I took the opportunity to resubmit the amendment on Report Stage in the hope that the Minister might look on it a little more kindly this time. The amendment seeks to widen the scope of the nomination process for presidential elections. As the Minister is aware, I tabled some amendments on Committee Stage which both he and I knew would not be acceptable because of constitutional constraints. Nevertheless, I thought it was very necessary to make these valid points. Those amendments proposed that a fewer number of Oireachtas Members would be required to nominate a candidate and that a person nominated by 30,000 people should be eligible to stand as a candidate in the election. I think the point that the post of President should be depoliticised is accepted. I believe a large number of the public accept that point.

Does the Deputy think that county councils will become depoliticised?

I thought those amendments would be helpful. It is fair to say that county councils have the power to nominate candidates. While I do not think such nominations would be nonpolitical, a person who wished to secure a nomination but who could not avail of the facility of being nominated by Members of the Oireachtas or of procuring 30,000 signatures should at the very least be able to put his or her case to the county councils where the issue would be discussed by members from all parties, including independent members. At present county councils do not have to do this. This amendment proposes that county councils shall convene a meeting to consider a nomination, thus giving a potential candidate some sort of chance. At present such a person has no chance whatever of being nominated as a candidate. This would represent a small improvement in this area. The system proposed in this amendment is not as good as the systems proposed in my two Committee Stage amendments. Nevertheless, it would be a step in the right direction.

One of our colleagues described what takes place at county council meetings as the "dialogue of the deaf". As he is a member of my county council, I was somewhat distressed by that description. If one looks at the debates which take place at county council level one can see that excellent motions are often discussed by county councils.


Relevant and topical issues can be discussed at county council level and I believe members listen to each other. Unfortunately, genuine and reasoned debate does not always take place. However, that is not my problem; it is their problem.

The acceptance of this amendment would go some way towards widening the scope of the nomination process for presidential elections. As I said, it is not as good as my two Committee Stage amendments but it would be a step in the right direction. I ask the Minister to reconsider this amendment. I will not press the amendment to a vote but I should like to hear the Minister's views on how the nomination process could be improved.

I support this amendment in the sense that it is intended to broaden the nomination process for presidential elections. I am not so sure that this amendment would take politics out of the process——

I am sure it would not.

On Committee Stage we referred to an arrangement whereby a certain number of citizens could sign the nomination paper of a candidate for the Presidency.

A "Carmencita" amendment.

I recall that Deputy Doyle had an interest in the Presidency or, should I say, an alleged interest in it.

The Deputy should choose his words carefully.

The Deputy thought better of it and in retrospect she was probably right.

The question is: did I think about it at all?

Consideration should be given to getting rid of our crude political nomination system for presidential elections. There should be an arrangement whereby citizens could come together and nominate a person for the Presidency. The idea of the Presidency being above politics has much to recommend it. It is clear that the general public want a President who is a unifying force. Sometimes it is possible to get such a President from the world of politics. However, this is understandably more difficult as a person engaged in day-to-day politics will be involved in a certain amount of conflict, will have to take up positions, etc.

The notion of a President of all the people and the Presidency being the people's office should be recognised. As I understand it — the Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong — such a move would require a change in our Constitution. Consideration should definitely be given to such a move so that nominations for the Presidency would be left in the hands of the people rather than invariably being a gift from the largest political parties. I made the point on Committee Stage that the present incumbent of the office did not have much to spare in terms of the 20 Members of the Oireachtas required to sign the nomination paper. I do not think the office of President should be a gift from the largest political paries. Up until the last presidential election there was no presidential election since, I think, 1973 — the two largest political parties merely agreed the candidate and decided not to contest the election. That is a very unhealthy situation. People should be given a choice and that choice should be extended to the choice of nominee for the presidential election.

(Wexford): On Committee Stage Deputy Keogh put down amendments dealing with the nomination process for candidates in presidential elections which she later withdrew. While I sympathised with her views to some extent, I could not accept the amendments due to constitutional implications. As a former member of a county council, I have to say that the county council forum is probably the most political one——

The Minister of State had a few things to say about the President at the time when he was a member of the county council. He was concerned about what would happen in Aras an Uachtaráin.

(Wexford): This amendment would not add anything to the nomination process for the Presidency. All it would do is enable 32 local authorities to convene a special meeting even though they may have no nominee to put forward. There is no need for such a requirement. County councils have the discretion to call a meeting at any time and the point is adequately covered by this discretion. This amendment would do nothing to open-up nomination process for the Presidency. At a time when we are talking about giving more powers to local authorities, it is necessary to put further requirements on them.

Presidential elections take place only once every seven years.

(Wexford): I ask Deputy Keogh not to press this amendment as local authorities already have the power to call special meetings if they so wish.

I forgot to say that I was delighted at the Minister of State's speedy recovery from his indisposition of last night. Indeed, at the rate at which his apologies were being given at an IFA meeting in Rathangan I almost stopped to buy a Mass card on my way to the Chamber this morning.

(Wexford): The Deputy should have bought one.

I am afraid the cynic in me suggested that the rapparees were probably getting more attention than the IFA but I am delighted that the Minister is well and fit to be with us.

The irony of this particular Minister of State steering this Bill through its final stages, given his widely publicised views on how our President would use Aras an Uachtaráin, has not been lost on me and that point should be put on the record of the House. I suggest that if the Minister does not consider it necessary to go the whole way, as suggested by Deputy Keogh, perhaps councils might be required to have a specific item on an agenda once an election is in the offing so that councillors would be reminded of their role and, perhaps, duty in this area. The law permits them to call a meeting, if so necessary. That might be a compromise between Deputy Keogh's amendment and the present position. The issue could be brought to the fore if it was automatically put on the agenda of the next statutory meeting of the council once an election is in the offing or has been called.

I am disappointed that the Minister continues to maintain a negative attitude towards this amendment, which is relatively inoffensive. I hope his sympathy towards my other amendments, which unfortunately could not be taken on Committee Stage, will be turned into action when we see constitutional change in relation to elections. If the Minister is considering constitutional change in regard to voting rights for emigrants, perhaps he will include some changes in the nominating procedure for selection of presidential candidates. I will wait and see how sympathetic the Minister of State will be at that stage.

To talk about county councils in a rather dismissive manner and to say that having a meeting to examine the right to nominate a particular candidate would be in some way highly political is wrong. That is not sending out the proper signal about politics and politicians here and it is a serious point which should be made. I do not know what type of people the general public expect to see on county councils. I am a member of a county council and I take my public duties very seriously. It is not a laughing matter to say that the county councils would not give the issue due consideration. Serious politicians on county councils should be given scope and told to examine these issues. To call a special meeting once every seven years will not slow down the process of local government to any extent. It is not too much to expect the Minister of State to accept an amendment such as this as a gesture towards the nominating procedure, considering that we could not debate the other amendments.

I will not be pressing this amendment but I would like the Minister of State to reconsider the nominating procedures for presidential elections as well as voting rights for emigrants. Unless we on this side of the House follow through on statements made by the Minister they will be forgotten. I appreciate that he said he will not leave matters on the back burner but I look forward to seeing some development on this issue before the next general election.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 3 not moved.