That the Ceann Comhairle direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue his Writ for the election of a member to fill the vacancy which has occurred in the membership of the present Dáil consequent on the resignation of Deputy John O'Connell, a member for the Constituency of Dublin South-Central.
A year ago today the Fianna Fáil/Labour Coalition Government introduced its first budget but 24 February 1993 was significant for another event. Late on budget night the Ceann Comhairle came into the House and, to the surprise of most Members, announced that Deputy John O'Connell was resigning his membership of Dáil Éireann. When the initial surprise had died down inevitably politicians' attention turned to speculation about a by-election, when it would be held, the candidates and, obviously, who would win.
Few people would have believed that, 12 months on, Dr. O'Connell's seat would remain unfilled, that there would still be no firm commitment on when the relevant by-election would take place. Of course, Dublin South-Central does not represent the longest outstanding vacancy. Almost two months earlier, on 1 January 1993, former Deputy Pádraig Flynn announced his resignation as a Member for Mayo West to take up his post as a member of the European Commission.
I regard the refusal of the Government to hold by-elections for vacancies which remain outstanding for 12 and 14 months respectively as a matter of the utmost gravity which strikes at the heart of our democratic system. When a Government with the largest majority in the history of the State adopts such a cavalier attitude to the holding of elections, when it considers that constituencies can be left under-represented for such a long period, the alarm bells should start ringing.
Details of the gap between the occurrence of casual vacancies and the holding of subsequent by-elections are difficult to come by but one would have to go back virtually to the Second World War to find vacancies which had been left unfilled for so long. I challenge the Minister for the Environment to tell us just how long it has been since we had two simultaneous vacancies in Dáil Éireann for over 12 months, and the circumstances which led to their not being filled for so long. Is there any other modern democracy in which seats in the National Parliament can be left vacant for so long? In the case of our nearest neighbour, Britain, by-elections are held regularly, within a matter of weeks, even when they occur in the most politically embarrassing circumstances for the Government. No justification has been offered by either of the parties in Government for this unprecedented refusal to hold these by-elections. While there have been reports that the by-elections may be held in June, in conjunction with the European Elections, the Government has not been prepared to give a firm commitment to that effect.
Regrettably, under existing legislation, there is no requirement that by-elections must be held within a specified period. In theory at least there is nothing to prevent the Government from voting down this attempt to move the relevant writs, from voting down any subsequent attempts, and leaving the relevant seats vacant until the next general election. This is a serious loophole in our electoral legislation which needs to be addressed.
Democratic Left has a Private Members' Bill on the Order Paper aimed at closing this gap. Under the provisions of our Bill — the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1993 — the Ceann Comhairle would automatically direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ for a by-election 90 days after the vacancy occurred unless the Dáil had passed a motion directing that the writ be issued at an earlier date. Surely this is a reasonable proposition since the enactment of that Bill, or a similar one, would prevent any Government from abusing its majority in the way it has done in the case of these two vacancies and, in so doing, dodge the people's verdict.
The principle of equality of representation is clearly enshrined in the Constitution. The refusal of the Government to hold these by-elections is a breach of the spirit, possibly the letter, of the Constitution. Article 16.2.2 of the Constitution reads:
The number of members shall from time to time be fixed by law, but the total number of members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population.
Article 16.2.3 of the Constitution reads:
The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country.
These figures are distorted as a result of the vacancies in Dublin South-Central and Mayo West. The people of Dublin South-Central have particular reason to feel aggrieved. Until the 1992 general election the constituency had five Deputies. As a result of the recommendations of the constituency review committee the number of seats was reduced to four and now the constituency has been left for more than a year with three Deputies.
The refusal of Fianna Fáil and Labour to agree to the by-elections being held is in stark contrast to the position adopted by both parties when vacancies arose while they were in Opposition. There are repeated instances of them demanding that by-elections be held. When Deputy Ciaran Doherty died on 4 August, 1981 Fianna Fáil moved a writ on 21 October. In 1983, following the death of Deputy George Colley on 17 September, they moved the writ on 2 November and the following year they waited only five weeks before moving the writ following the death of Deputy B. Cowen.
This Government came to power on the basis of lavish promises of political reform. Those most generous with their promises were the Labour Party. This is a Government which agreed a programme "to restore confidence in the democratic process by encouraging openness and participation at all levels, by ensuring public accountability, transparency and trust and the highest standards in public life". How those fine words contrast with the seedy reality of the Government's record. Will Deputy Spring tell us how denying the people of Dublin South-Central and Mayo West their full representation in the Dáil is compatible with his promise to ensure the highest standards in public life? Will the Taoiseach explain how leaving by-elections outstanding for the longest period in 50 years contributes to public accountability, transparency and trust?
The refusal of the Government to hold the by-elections might be understandable if the outcome was likely to plunge the Government into a minority. That is not the case. The Government has the largest majority in the history of the State and even if the Opposition win both by-elections it will not seriously impact on the Government's majority though clearly it will dent its credibility. The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn is that, despite the size of its majority, the Government fear the wrath of the people and is so lacking in confidence in its record that it is afraid to put it before them. Irrespective of the size of a Government's majority or its performance in office, there is a right to have vacancies filled within a reasonable time. As the Government parties have failed so spectacularly to live up to their promises there is a particular obligation to allow the people express their views when the occasion arises.
Those most reluctant to allow the people of Dublin South-Central have their say are the Labour Party. The party is in serious difficulties in that constituency and local polls show that the impressive vote it received at the last general election has disappeared like yesterday's snow. On the other hand, Democratic Left has a particular interest in the holding of this by-election. Eric Byrne, who was an outstanding representative, lost his seat by just four votes after the marathon re-count in the general election. We want to see him back in the Dáil as do many people in Dublin South-Central.
The Government can run but it cannot hide from the people. It will have to face the people of these constituencies at some time and when it does the local polls indicate that it will be Fianna Fáil and Democratic Left who will battle it out with Labour relegated to the position of also ran.
For the past year the Government has been allowed to get away with an outrageous abuse of our democratic system by refusing to hold these by-elections. Last April, Democratic Left moved the writs for the by-elections and the motion was cynically voted down by the Government. It has been allowed off the hook and I find the indifference of the media pundits and commentators, columnists and leader writers to this abuse of democracy astonishing.
I urge the Government to seriously consider the message that is being conveyed to the public by its refusal to hold these elections. The message is that democracy, politics, membership of the Dáil or the views of the electorate are not important. There is an alarming degree of cynicism among the public and the Government's attitude will only feed this and do further damage to our democratic system.
Those of us who value and want to defend the principles of democracy insist on these by-elections being held without further delay. We urge the Dáil to support the motion by Democratic Left for the by-election to be held in Dublin South-Central.
I wish to share some of my time with Deputy Gilmore. The reaction of the public to the budget will be foremost in the minds of Government Deputies when they go through the lobbies on this motion. No matter how long they put off the proposal for a by-election in Mayo West and Dublin South-Central the people will not forget that the budget resulted in the taxation of unemployment benefit, continues the taxation of disability benefit and, but for the outcry, widows pensions would have been means-tested. The unemployed and sick now pay more tax than the farming community. If Labour has any regard for the principles it claims to stand for, it would vote for the motion despite the fact that it is unlikely to win the by-election in Dublin South-Central. It is unacceptable that the House would, for a second time, vote down a motion to give those people their democratic right to full representation.