Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Tallaght has been mentioned a few times in different debates, especially by me, in the past five years. I am conscious that this may be the last occasion when I will have an opportunity to speak in this Dáil term so I will mention Tallaght a couple of times.

That is a record; the Deputy got it in first.

I am delighted to see the Minister because I am always reminded he was kind enough all those years ago to move from Tallaght and make a happy life for himself in Wicklow. Clearly, that has helped my political development and I am most grateful.

Send him to the Plaza Hotel for a month.

I wish to share time with Deputies Devins and Finneran.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I acknowledge the presence of Deputy O'Dowd. I hope he does not mind me cracking the same joke again but I said on a previous occasion that the perception is that he and I are under a little pressure from Fine Gael candidates. I am pleased he is coping as well as I appear to be. I wish Deputy O'Dowd well in that regard.

This is important business and I am pleased we have an opportunity to discuss it this close to the general election. Members may have noted that in the past I often referred to how long it was to the general election. First it was so many thousand days, then hundreds and recently the numbers have become much lower. I am not sure whether the election will be in 22 days, 29 days, 35 days or otherwise. I have no idea.

Twenty two hours.

As far as I am concerned, I am quite focused on what I am doing and I have never allowed the general election to distract me. I have always said I am not looking for a job, that I have a job and I will let the people of Dublin South-West judge me. I am quite happy about that. Whenever the election day will be, bring it on. I have great confidence the Taoiseach will deal with the matter as he would wish.

I will deal with the Bill before the House in due course but I wish to make an appeal about citizenship. Like many colleagues I have always been brave enough to make the point, certainly in my community in Tallaght, that it is even more important that we encourage people to vote because otherwise none of us will get their votes. We are all competing for votes and I am comfortable with that. I am pleased a number of organisations in my constituency have taken a particularly proactive view in that regard. I got an invitation during the week from the Tallaght Partnership to attend a "meet the candidates night". I welcome the progress made by An Cosán in Jobstown in Tallaght west in recent years. This group has also highlighted the importance of citizenship.

It is important to cross the party lines. In Dublin South-West, Deputies Crowe, Lenihan, Rabbitte and Senator Brian Hayes and I have encouraged that attitude. I am not being more brave than I have to be; if people do not come out to vote, they will not vote for us anyway. This is something we should encourage. Whatever else emerges from tonight's debate, I hope we will hear a positive message about voter participation. Regardless of the party political issues and points that will be made in the next hour and a half, we must send a positive message to encourage people to vote. I hope people will do that.

I recall all those years ago when I was approaching the first occasion on which I voted — I hope this does not sound too sad but I was quite excited about it. If those present do not tell anybody, I will tell them that the first time I voted, I did not vote for the party I now represent, only because I voted for a neighbour. I hope all my neighbours in Tallaght will vote for me too.

I voted for myself.

I am sure my parish priest will not mind me telling this story. He was listening to some people saying I was a good man and one lady said I would not get any votes in the area and the parish priest said I would, that I would vote for myself. That is what we do.

In reply to what my colleagues across the floor have said about the election day, my view is that it does not matter what day one picks, it will be right for some and wrong for others. That is fair enough. If the Taoiseach had indicated it would be any other day, there would still have been an argument about it. The Taoiseach has made the valid point that until the election is announced, we will not know on what day it is to be held.

It is important to note that voting in this country to date has taken place on every day of the week except Sunday and Monday. We are aware that the second referendum on the Nice treaty in 2002 was held on a Saturday, as was the Tipperary South by-election in the previous year. Arguments can be made for or against the choice of any particular day. That is fair enough in a democracy. The Minister made the point that in attempting to accommodate one group of voters by choosing a particular polling day, another group may be inconvenienced. There will be advantages and disadvantages no matter what day is chosen. I have great respect for Deputy O'Dowd and the points he made but I think he would accept that is true.

I understand there is little evidence to suggest the choice of a particular day of the week has a significant impact on voter turnout or that, for example, voting on a Friday produces a higher turnout. I will be going around Dublin South-West over the next three, four or however many weeks before the election — as I always do, I am not just waiting for the election to be called — and I will go to every street in Tallaght, Firhouse, Greenhills, Templeogue, Brittas, and every farm in Bohernabreena. My first message will be that people should come out to vote because it is important for democracy. It is important there is a choice of candidates and that there would be stable government. I hope people will listen to this message.

It is also important that we make the point to Government that polling stations should be open for as long as possible. Some people think it is a good idea to have polling stations open from 7 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. while other people do not hold that view. I think it is a good idea. I will only be voting once but I intend to be up and about at 7 a.m. on the morning of the election. I will go out to vote and I hope lots of people will do that also.

I wish to take the opportunity to talk about my constituency for a moment. One of my concerns relates to the new communities that have developed there in the five years since the last general election. I am not clear how these people will be catered for in terms of polling stations. I have appealed to the sheriff and the council to ensure they take account of the needs of voters in these new communities. It is important that people can vote in locations convenient to where they live. Tallaght, Firhouse and Ballycullen in the constituency of Dublin South-West are no different from anywhere else in the country. I am sure this problem also arises in County Louth, County Cork and County Sligo. Issues arise in this regard in my constituency and I hope the list the sheriff gave me this morning will be improved on and that new polling stations will be set up where possible.

This is a challenge in every single constituency because of the absence of new buildings, community centres and schools in certain communities. There is room for improvement in this regard. Election day presents particular challenges. I am sure this is not just an issue for me in Dublin South-West; I suspect it is also an issue in the new communities in Limerick as much as anywhere else. Local sheriffs will have to take account of the needs of the population to ensure polling stations are properly marked and people can gain access to them.

I welcome the opportunity provided to us by Deputy O'Dowd and the Fine Gael Party to debate this issue. He has heard my views and he would be somewhat surprised if I agreed fully with him. I will listen carefully when he concludes the debate later and I hope he will join with me in making an appeal to all voters, whatever their political affiliations, to show they care about our democracy at a time when we hear stories from all over the world about democracy being challenged. It is good that we use our vote. I look forward to election day. As I may not have another opportunity, I wish all my colleagues well and I hope they wish me well also.

The Deputy will top the poll.

I will not. As long as I get one of the four seats, I will be quite comfortable.

I will tell Deputy Conor Lenihan.

I look forward to seeing the Deputy back in the House.

There is no doubt about that. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill and I pay tribute to Deputy O'Dowd for introducing it. It is a great tribute to him that his name is attached to a Bill rather than just a motion. He distinguished himself during the lifetime of this Dáil, particularly in his work on nursing homes. Like Deputy O'Connor, I wish all the Members present the very best in the forthcoming election.

Before discussing the Bill, it is important to consider what it proposes to change. In this regard, section 96 of the Electoral Act 1992 states quite clearly that a poll at a Dáil election shall take place on any day of the week, provided it "is not earlier than the seventeenth day or later than the twenty-fifth day next following the day on which the writ or writs for the election is or are issued." The Bill before us proposes that the poll should be on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. This is somewhat regressive because it is removing the right to hold the election on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. In that regard, it is worth noting that voter participation is perhaps the key element of our democracy, as has been mentioned by all the previous speakers. If there is no voter participation, we will surely have lost what our democracy is all about.

We are ultimately discussing how personal opinions stand up regarding this issue but it is worth considering some of the facts and figures pertaining to previous elections and referenda. The past two general elections, in 1997 and 2002, were held on a Friday. The 2002 election turnout was 62.6% and that in 1997 was turnout of65.9%. The general election prior to that, held in 1992, was held on a Wednesday and the turnout was 68.5%. The 1989 election, also held on a Wednesday, had a turnout of 68.5%. It is interesting to note the 1987 election was held on a Tuesday with a turnout of 73%. If we consider these figures purely from a statistical perspective, we will note a drop in turnout of almost 10% as the elections were moved closer to the weekend, from a Wednesday in 1987 to a Friday in 2002. If we were to take this argument to its logical conclusion, we could assume the turnout at a weekend would be much lower. Statistics are very much open to individual interpretation and can be used for different purposes. However, we are all agreed that voter participation is the key, as Deputy O'Connor stated.

An interesting point made to me repeatedly concerns the hours for which polling stations open. I note the legislation states they must be open for not less than 12 hours. I urge the Minister, when signing the relevant legislation, to allow the stations to open between 7 a.m. and 10.30 p.m., that is, for 15.5 hours. I hope this will allow as many people as possible to vote. Thanks to the wonderful economy the Government has maintained for the past ten years, an enormous number of people are at work. The employment level is the highest ever in the State and it is important that those working late in the day can be facilitated by the 7 a.m. opening and those working earlier in the day can be facilitated by the 10.30 p.m. closure.

It is interesting that the Government set up an electoral commission to encourage people to vote. This was achieved under the auspices of the Taskforce on Active Citizenship, which was established in April 2006 and which reported in March 2007. Its very interesting report contains a section that deals specifically with political issues. I am very much in agreement with many of the recommendations of the taskforce, one of which was to establish a totally independent electoral commission to deal with all aspects of elections, including the determination of the dates on which they should be held, how best to encourage people to engage in the electoral process and how voting can occur. In this regard, it was interesting that there was a debate this morning between the Taoiseach and some leaders of the Opposition on electronic voting. This is an issue that the electoral commission might be able to examine when it is established. It can remove the political hot air from the debate and consider the matter purely from an objective viewpoint.

It is also worth noting that, despite the decline in voter turnout, we do not know how many young people are voting. Hearsay would indicate that an increasing number of young people are not voting but I note from experience that if they are afforded the opportunity and encouraged, they will do so. In this regard, I commend all the Members of this House who spend time visiting secondary schools to talk to children in transition year or those who are about to turn 18 to explain to them how the Dáil and political process work.

Last Monday, I spent an hour visiting a class in Summerhill College in Sligo and I was astounded by the interaction that occurred. The students were very keen on the electoral process and knew much more than I expected. We engaged in a question and answer session which unfortunately had to end after an hour because of time constraints, but I have no doubt that it could have proceeded for much longer. I was really encouraged by the wide range of political opinions expressed by the students. Some of their questions were of a very searching and intelligent nature and, in this regard, it is encouraging to realise they will become engaged in the political process. I was delighted to encourage as many of them as possible to join the Fianna Fáil Party, which is obviously very progressive in its thinking on a wide range of issues.

As a Member from a constituency some considerable distance from Dublin, namely, Sligo-North Leitrim, I stress that many students attending college in Galway, Limerick or Dublin would like to return home to vote at the weekend. However, it is important that the House send out the message that the existing legislation provides that students attending full-time education away from their place of residence are entitled to apply for a postal vote. It is important to encourage as many students as possible to do so.

I thank those who acted as Chairman in the House over the past five years and wish them well in the forthcoming election. The main message from tonight's debate is that we must encourage as many people as possible to vote. It is important that the diverse range of candidates be supported by as many voters as possible. I will not support the Bill for the reasons I have outlined but I will support the ministerial amendment.

I wish to share time with Deputies McHugh, Connolly, Boyle, Finian McGrath and Ó Caoláin.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

When I was 17 or 18, I went on holidays to Scotland. In saying this I am not trying to kill time as I have a genuine point. Ireland was a Monday to Friday country at the time. We travelled out on Saturday evening and arrived in Liverpool at 7 a.m. on Sunday. The number of people going about their business on a Sunday morning took us by surprise. They were working in great numbers. Ireland is no longer a Monday to Friday country and over the past three decades has become a 24/7 country. We market ourselves in terms of flexibility. It is a key word and a quality that people seek. The Government argues that flexibility is needed in the health services to make full use of technical equipment and quality facilities where they exist. However, Ireland is still a Monday to Friday country in terms of elections. There is a total lack of flexibility.

Some decades ago, only wealthy people went to college. We have made progress in the meantime but we pay lip service to our young people if we do not accommodate them in the manner in which they want to be accommodated in respect of elections. We expect flexibility from them and they expect the same from us. Thursday is not a good day for students and Friday is not a good day for workers. To avoid traffic jams those in my constituency must leave too early in the morning to vote. Friday is not a good day for young workers who may wish to remain in the city centre after work.

There was a particularly low turnout in the by-election in Kildare in which I was elected two years ago. People who wanted to vote were critical because they could not vote. They did not return from the city centre in time to vote and it is a big deal to ask them to disrupt their social life. This had an impact, although it may not have been significant. The people to whom I refer are flexible and are contributing to our society and economy. They pay taxes, of which we have no problem relieving them. These people should be accommodated on a Saturday or Sunday, the days I favour. If we truly embrace democracy we must make it possible for people to vote and the weekend is a better time. On Sunday 85% of people voted in the French election.

We must stop the nonsense about when an election will be called. I cannot believe how much of a rumour factory the Dáil is in respect of the date of the election. Anyone who asks about the election is concerned about when it will happen. We must go beyond one party suiting itself and create some certainty about it. There should be a predetermined formula for setting an election date. We should not take a healthy democracy for granted. We must work at it and permitting people to vote at weekends is important. That is why I support this Bill.

This Bill is important because its aim is to give the opportunity to vote to the maximum number of people. It needs no elaboration that midweek elections do not suit many categories of people. One such category is students who study at colleges away from their homes. Students are mainly young people, many of whom are sceptical of politics and politicians. Members should do everything in our power to ensure this scepticism is minimised. The Taoiseach has a similar responsibility but his recent comments suggest he has no intention of acting to facilitate as many people as possible to vote with the minimum of difficulty.

The uncertainty about the date of the general election is unfair to students, particularly those doing exams. Some 650,000 people are aged between 19 and 28, many of whom are students. Every effort should be made to accommodate them. Those studying away from home do not know whether they will be finished their exams when polling takes place. They are faced with the impossible task of applying for a postal vote within two days of the dissolution of the Dáil if they are sitting an exam on election day. In those two days they must have the application form stamped by the college and submitted to the local authority. It is impossible, impractical and unfair to young people.

The Taoiseach has a duty to the students to ensure they are accommodated. The election should be held during the weekend. The Taoiseach should name the day of the election and allow Members to get on with it. We should stop the shadow boxing and the phoney war taking place at present. Members are fed up with this. I wish we had legislation to define the date of the election so that Members would know when the following election would take place. The current situation is absolute rubbish.

I agree with the sentiments expressed by Deputy McHugh. A vote is a basic democratic right. Many people like to have it but a number of people do not want to use it. That is a tragedy. Examining the history of how people won the vote might bring people back to their senses. Some 50% of the population, women, did not have the vote at one stage. At another stage one had to be a property owner or 21 years of age to vote. When one considers how much those in Africa had to fight for the right to vote and the effort these people go to in casting their vote it shows the true value of a vote. If people examined how dictatorships controlled people it would wake them up. I encourage people to cast their vote in a way that uses the full proportional representation potential of the vote. Many people do not realise the value of the proportional representation and the value of going through the whole card. I encourage people to do so.

Some believe we have too many Deputies but I would like to have one more to facilitate the position of Ceann Comhairle. The party from whose ranks the Ceann Comhairle is selected has a strategic advantage in the following election. Cavan-Monaghan was a five seat constituency but it has been reduced to four seats for this election and that is wrong. A seat should be reserved for the Ceann Comhairle but the people of the constituency should not be disenfranchised. There have been constitutional rows about the numbers of people in constituencies. This is a real issue and will affect whoever is in the constituency of the present and next Ceann Comhairle. It is entirely wrong and unconstitutional.

Students have been written out of the electoral equation by proposing to hold the election on a Thursday and that is completely wrong. Also, to avoid voter fraud people should use their PRSI number so they could only vote once.

I do not know why Fianna Fáil fears young people so much but it has a history of disenfranchising them in various elections. When the Constitution was changed in 1972 to allow 18 year olds to vote, the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch held the 1973 election before the legislation passed on foot of the constitutional referendum took effect, thereby disenfranchising thousands of new voters.

That attitude is maintained to this day. Those who crunch numbers on behalf of Fianna Fáil have realised that growing numbers of younger people are less inclined to vote for Fianna Fáil. Twice in its history, Fianna Fáil achieved 50% of the vote and regularly in the 1980s it achieved levels of 48%. The Fianna Fáil component of this Government was elected with 41% of the vote and the likelihood is that after this election the figure will be somewhere in the 30% bracket.

We will be kind and give the party 37% but history is slowly eating away at the core Fianna Fáil vote. Each generation is less likely to go with the old ways.

What bet would the Deputy like to have on that figure?

We will give the party 39%. It will certainly be under 40%.

The figure is going up. From 30% to 37% to 39%.

It is guaranteed to poll less than 40%.

It will have 40 TDs.

We could certainly go for that. The reality, however, is that whatever the figure, it will be less than at the last general election and historically low by Fianna Fáil standards. That will be part of a trend that is now irreversible and in succeeding elections that proportion will decrease even further. Younger people in successive generations are making their minds up in growing numbers about the future.

I will hold on to the transcript of the Deputy's speech.

The Minister of State can do that because I am an amateur psephologist and I have looked at these things. The trend is marked and irreversible. Fianna Fáil is a dying breed and it is nothing to do with climate change. It may take 50 years but the dominance of majority Fianna Fáil has gone and its dominance in two party Government will slowly disappear because it is just another party. It is the last party in Europe that has any degree of dominance in the 30% range. There is nothing unusual about political parties in Europe not getting anything like Fianna Fáil's present vote so the trend is for it to get smaller and smaller votes. I am sorry about that. Actually, I am not really sorry about that, I look forward to the day it becomes a fringe party.

The Deputy had us go from 30% to 37% to 39% so he is contradicting himself.

The argument is still the same.

The Deputy should bet on 37%.

The Minister of State is demeaning the House by introducing gambling. I know it is the habit of this Government to play loose and fast with the public finances but I will not resort to such economics. The people of this country have had enough of that. We can debate the figures in the coming weeks.

Young people are less and less likely to vote for Fianna Fáil. It may hold the dominant position in Irish politics but it is becoming less dominant and the party knows that. Every opportunity it can get, therefore, to distort the electorate and give fewer people the opportunity to vote is being taken. It is a sleight of hand that may not be illegal but ethically and morally it is dubious. A date should be picked that is most opportune for the maximum number of citizens to participate in an election.

The philosophy behind the Bill is unarguable but I would go further. It is now time to change the Constitution to allow for fixed term parliaments. This will be the second Dáil that has run for a full five years. We should know on leaving this Dáil when the election for the 31st Dáil will take place so that all the nonsense the Taoiseach has put us through for the last six months will be history. Any new Government should make that a priority in the 30th Dáil.

Sinn Féin broadly welcomes this Bill that, if passed, would allow a general election to be held on a weekend day rather than on a Thursday. I would also point out at the outset that we would have preferred for this Bill to have gone further and allow for elections to be held either on a Saturday or over two days as is the case in many of the continental elections. Our European counterparts have proven this can and does work. Such an approach would ensure the maximum turnout possible.

Electoral politics must be accessible to everyone but the current arrangement, and that signalled for the upcoming general election, simply does not accommodate that requirement. If a one day election must still be held, Sinn Féin would prefer it to be held on a Saturday to accommodate the many students, young people and those who work away from home who will not be able to make it back to their home constituencies on Thursday to vote.

This Government has disproved its own arguments about having elections or voting on a Saturday when it decided that the electorate got it wrong in the first Nice treaty vote and held the second vote on a Saturday. A Saturday vote would avoid disruption of the leaving certificate examinations, as happened in the 2004 local and European elections, and would also ensure that most third level students would not be disenfranchised as a result of the election being held on an examination day. What possible benefit is there for the Government to disenfranchise so many?

Can I clarify a general misconception? A student can have a postal vote to his home address if he is away in college on the date of the election.

There is no misconception about it.

There are only two days on which a student can get a postal vote.

He can have it.

There are only two days on which he can apply for it and that is it. With the uncertainty about the date of the election, students do not know if they will be sitting an exam that day.

My time is being taken up, the Minister of State should allow me to finish.

This is an important point.

Maybe the Minister of State will make the point in his summation instead of using up my time.

Any student can apply for a postal vote now.

They can do that but they must do it within two days, knowing when the election will take place.

I would like to ask, with the co-operation of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, if the Minister of State or, preferably, someone who knows why, such as the Taoiseach, would explain to us in detail why what was good enough five years ago is not good enough today. That is the critical point and the statistical information exists to support the arguments made by the Opposition. The CSO survey on voting attitudes in 2002 proved that a weekend election is preferable, an undoubted fact. The European elections in 1999 were held on a Thursday with a turnout of 50.21%. When the 2004 European and local elections were switched to a Friday, turnout rose dramatically to 58.8%. Logic would indicate that if elections were switched to a Saturday, turnout would increase even more.

This Government has a moral responsibility to make voting as democratic and accessible as possible instead of putting ridiculous barriers in the way by holding the vote on a weekday. No amount of peddling the notion that access to a postal vote will necessarily cater for all and sundry will suffice. Many young people and others who do not know where they may be still prefer to return to their home constituencies to vote with their families and friends. Whatever the reasons the Government has for insisting on a Thursday vote on this or any other occasion, students in Dublin and elsewhere, young people working away from home and those who will find themselves unable to get to their constituency must be accommodated while we look for a real and permanent change in the conduct of all elections and referenda into the future.

I therefore record my support for the Bill as presented by the Fine Gael Members, last evening and again tonight.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. I realise the Government will oppose it, as with so many other issues, for the sake of opposition. I think back on some of the proposals brought forward by Fine Gael in the past five years, which we were assured would be replaced by Government Bills, and this never happened. I recall the Bill to attach fines to social welfare or to employment. We were guaranteed that would be brought in and it never happened. The same thing happened with so many other Bills.

It is clear the Taoiseach has not too much respect for young people, especially. He wants to force them to stay in Dublin city, if at all possible, to vote, hopefully, for him and his party. It is obviously a last ditch effort to maintain his vote and that of his party in that area. I spoke recently to a young group in Castleblayney college, as did Deputy Ó Caoláin and others. Those students showed tremendous interest in the whole political system. Anyone who thinks young people do not have an interest in the political system, if given a chance, is not being fair to them. Why does Fianna Fáil, especially, fear allowing young people home to vote on, say, a Friday or Saturday? Thursday is impossible for them for many reasons. It was interesting to see that the Minister was so sure of himself as regards the voting rights of students. Many taoisigh have made efforts over the years to try to solve the Northern Ireland problems. Yet there are students from my constituency, Cavan-Monaghan, Donegal and from around the Border, mainly, who go to college in Northern Ireland and who, in effect, are being refused a vote. They are being refused a vote, although they live on this island. Is that fair or realistic?

If they go from this jurisdiction to Queen's University, St. Mary's, Jordanstown, Coleraine or Magee, they are not allowed to vote. People in Northern Ireland have a right to an Irish passport but they have not a right to a vote here even though born, reared and still domiciled in this State. I ask the Minister, even at this late stage to reconsider the situation. He possibly has a few days left for legislation and perhaps a Bill could be rushed through the Oireachtas to give students from the Border counties the same rights as any other student here. Students living across the Irish Sea, who for different reasons might have had to study in Britain, should also have that right. This Government has totally failed to provide jobs for young people, especially graduates, in areas such as Cavan-Monaghan or Donegal for that matter. They have been forced to go to work in Dublin or elsewhere and at least they should be given the opportunity to come home on either a Friday or Saturday and vote for the people they want to elect in their own constituencies.

This is a very important debate. Since 1981 voter turnout has moved downwards, culminating in a low of 63% in 2002. The trend is 13% lower now than it was in 1981. Average turnout in Ireland over the three decades since the 1970s has been lower than in any of the other countries of the European Union — the rate of decline has been well above average. We have the lowest average voter participation in the European Union for general elections over the past 30 years. This is very serious. A major debate is needed on this issue when the election is over. An electoral commission needs to be set up to look into it. Polling hours have been extended and the polling day has been changed to the weekend. While these recent initiatives have not increased turnout, their real impact, according to political scientists Drs. Richard Sinnott and Pat Lyons, who have done much work in this area, may have been to stem the decline. Many Members have put forward statistics in the House on this issue. By moving to weekend voting we have stemmed the decline. Otherwise, the figures would have been even lower. This is extremely serious.

In Quebec, Canada, the province with the highest turnout, the election day is a public holiday. I am not saying we should have a special holiday in Ireland, since we have many as it is. However, it just makes the point. In its recent submission the Union of Students in Ireland recommended that all State elections be held at weekends to facilitate more than 540,000 students who are eligible to vote in exercising their constitutional right. That is quite important. In 2002, Ógra Fianna Fáil called for Saturday polling for the forthcoming general election that year, to increase voter turnout and to facilitate young people in particular. If Saturday polling was impossible, they wanted it on a Friday. However, the Taoiseach wants it on a Thursday, although he has not explained why.

The 86 countries labelled "democratic" by Freedom House in 1996 hold their elections on one single day. Almost half held their most recent elections on a Sunday, it was reported internationally. Saturday and Sunday were the second most frequent days around the world. Ireland is therefore out of step, across the world, in holding elections on a Thursday. I notice that the Fianna Fáil Dáil candidate, Mr. Jim O'Callaghan, has also called for weekend voting.

The Taoiseach made big play of establishing the task force on active citizenship. The task force said in its report that it wants to encourage everyone who is eligible to register and vote in elections through organisation, with particular reference to the timing of voting. Everyone is saying it is better to hold elections at the weekend. Another study, Democratic Freedom: Reinventing Political Activism, published by Cambridge University Press, says that holding elections on a rest day such as a Saturday, Sunday or bank holiday can boost turnout by about 6%. When one bears in mind that we have had a steady decline in turnout over the decade the statistics being quoted in the House mask the decline. Holding elections on a Friday arrested the decline, somewhat. I notice that the task force has also come to similar conclusions.

This is very serious. I have a personal interest in that my son is in college in Dublin and he may not be able to come home to vote. The Minister talks about postal voting. Students find it difficult enough to organise themselves, to get postal votes. It is not an easy thing to do. It is difficult and challenging for them. Many of them do not know about it. It is far better if they could travel home to vote. They will have a choice, then, to either vote at home, or——

On a point of clarification——

The Minister of State will have a chance to speak in two seconds, and should sit down. I have the floor.

I was not aware that students could apply now for a postal vote.

If the Minister of State did not know, how would the students know?

The point the Deputy has highlighted is very significant.

If he does not know, they do not know.

It is a great opportunity for students who are away from home to apply now for a postal vote.

Deputy McCormack has the floor.

I am glad the Taoiseach has given us the opportunity to have this debate — by holding back and not calling the election at least until this debate was over. I do not believe the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey is convinced. However, I hope we may be able to convince the Taoiseach as a result of the debate that the election should be held on a weekend. I regret the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, is leaving the Chamber because I wanted to highlight some statistics on the electoral register for the Galway West constituency. The September 2006 census recorded 52,000 people over the age of 18 years in the constituency. The electoral register, published in February, contained only 40,000 people. This means there are 12,000 voters in Galway West who are not registered. The majority are students attending one of the several third level institutions in Galway. From knocking on doors for the past week, I noted most of these students are registered in their home constituencies where they wish to vote. With study and examinations, they will not be able to go home to vote if the election is held on a Thursday. By having the election on a weekday, the Taoiseach simply does not want these young people to have the opportunity to vote because they are independent-minded and most likely will not vote for the Government.

The aforementioned figure represents a sizeable proportion of the electorate. Reflecting the national average turnout, 60% of those voters could easily represent an electoral quota. It is interfering with the democratic process to deny them their vote. Many seats will be won by 100 votes or less, sometimes even by six votes. These 12,000 voters do not want to cast their votes for me or Deputy Fahey but for the representatives they know in their constituencies. I cannot understand why the Taoiseach is hinting the election will be held on a Thursday. The word has probably come back to him of the Fine Gael Party's strength of support among young people. The Fine Gael branch of the NUI Galway has more than 200 young members. Young people want to be involved in the democratic process but they are being denied the opportunity to vote.

When are the colleges closing for holidays?

I do not know when the election will be held.

Are they closed already?

Questions are not in order.

I do not know. The Minister of State might as he is the Taoiseach's brother.

The examinations are on.

My children are still at college.

If the election was called for 18 May, most students would be in Galway. I appeal to the Minister of State and brother of the Taoiseach, Deputy Noel Ahern, to tell him not to disenfranchise the 12,000 people who want to vote. Those from Dublin North-East may even wish to vote for the Minister of State. I do not care who they vote for but they are entitled to an opportunity to vote.

As the Taoiseach's brother, the Minister of State, is in the Chamber, maybe he will give us an idea of how to understand the mind of the great master, as most of us cannot.

The Deputy should try harder.

What is the Government's problem in giving people the opportunity to vote in the forthcoming election? I would not be surprised if the Taoiseach decides to hold it on a Saturday. It is causing great confusion among people.

Democracy is about involving the people, yet day in and day out Dáil Éireann is becoming less of a democracy. We are heading towards a dictatorship. It must be our duty to give people the best chance to vote. Which provides the better opportunity to vote — a weekday or a weekend day? The answer is obvious, a weekend day. Although I am aware of the constitutional implications, I support the calls for a two-day election process. People are losing interest in politics and politicians for many reasons. They are not, however, losing interest in the issues, particularly the young. They do not feel they are involved in the process and the best time to address this is during an election. Instead, the Taoiseach is giving them the message that we do not want them to be involved in their democracy by shutting down their opportunity to vote. The Taoiseach would rather people do not vote. It might suit him better but it is not about him.

Patterns of life have changed considerably and elections should be formulated around these. The Government may make life difficult enough for people but it is its duty to make life easy for them when it comes to voting. Elections should be based around people's daily lives. Many people do shift work lasting up to 15 hours. Many travel up to three hours to work. The Taoiseach is still living in the Dark Ages because he does not realise what is going on around him. People already have enough stress but holding the election on a weekday will only put more stress on them. People will be forced to drive home late at night in horrendous road conditions, and we all know what that could lead to. That will be on the Taoiseach's conscience because he has not given a valid reason the election should be on a weekday. The only reason for this is that it simply suits him. This is not about him but about our democracy and getting people involved in it.

This side of the House welcomes the opportunity provided for by the Bill to consider the important issues of participation in our democracy, including what is the ideal day of the week to hold an election. Last night, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, set out the pros and cons of choosing different days of the week for polling day. Polls have been held on five of the seven days of the week. One can argue for any particular day of the week but none has worked in achieving higher turnout.

Weekend voting could be beneficial to students and others who are away from their primary residence. It would also eliminate the need for primary school closures but I wonder if that would make us popular with primary school students. Weekend voting could equally reduce turnout because of clashes with holidays, sporting events and festivals. Society has changed. In three weeks many of the third level colleges will be shut.

That is not the case.

It shows how out of touch the Minister of State really is.

From my experience with my own children, many Dublin students returning from colleges outside the county do not come home as such. I never know when I will see my children.

I only see mine when they are looking for a few bob.

They certainly would not come home at 8 o'clock in the evening to vote. They do not come home at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. on a Friday night to vote. Many Dublin people seem to go down the country for the weekend or do something else. They are not at home and are not dedicated enough to go out to vote even if we open the polls at 7 a.m. The notion of holding the poll on a Friday seems great from one point of view but it has not delivered. If the Taoiseach has expressed reservations, it is from that point of view. It looked like a good idea and it was when we did not have a shilling in our pockets and had nothing else to do except go out to vote. However, in recent years people have become mobile and have weekend and holiday homes. Even the people who remain in Dublin are otherwise engaged. While one group is facilitated by the choosing of a particular day of the week, another group may at best be inconvenienced or even disenfranchised.

There is no clear evidence, nor has any been provided by the Deputies opposite, supporting a direct link between weekend voting and increased voter participation. The House has been given detailed turnout data in regard to Irish elections and international perspectives in this regard. What is clear is that our current legislation, which provides for the holding of a Dáil election on any day of the week, allows all relevant factors to be taken into account at any given time. Limiting the holding of elections to a particular day, or to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, as proposed in this Bill, would be a backward step from the flexibility provided under the current legislation. That is why we cannot support the Bill.

Elections have been held on five of the seven week days. Perhaps we should try Sundays and Mondays because many of the other days have not worked. If we have the flexibility to hold an election on any of the seven days, why restrict ourselves to only two or three days? There is a bank holiday coming up and perhaps that would suit everybody. People have different ideas on this.

Levels of voter turnout are important in a democratic society. We have witnessed declining rates of political participation in recent years. Weekend voting, however, is not the panacea for problems of low participation and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. While it might suit some, it might work or militate against others. The solution lies in working at a much more fundamental level towards having an electorate who are well informed, interested, engaged and willing to play their rightful role as active citizens. It is in everyone's interest that voters are motivated to play their part and there is a great onus on all of us to achieve this.

There have been advances in this area in recent times. For example, at each referendum, the Referendum Commission now has a mandate to prepare and disseminate information on proposed constitutional amendments, to promote public awareness of the referendum and to encourage the electorate to vote at the poll. I am glad the Deputies opposite have acknowledged the improvements to the accuracy of the register which have been achieved over the past year.

It is 12,000 short in Galway.

These improvements, which were assisted by a major awareness campaign last autumn, will result in many more people being able to exercise their right at the coming election.

The Minister has already set out the important work of the task force for active citizenship which reported in March and the arrangements for implementation of the recommendations. No matter who forms the next Government, the challenge of engaging our citizens more fully in the democratic process through awareness, education and other measures is a continuing one and must be high on the agenda. In the meantime, we must all work to encourage people to consider the important issues which will be put before them in the coming election, to examine the alternatives available and to get them out on polling day.

I already referred to the notion that this would be marvellous for students and that it would increase the overall vote. One will find that by the time polling day comes, most third level colleges will be on holidays and the students will be gone.

What planet is the Minister of State on?

Students do not go to college for ten months of the year. It is not that long since the Deputy was there.

They are not gone until the end of May or June.

The election will not be for another three to five weeks. We still have time. By the time it comes, one will find that most students are gone on holiday. There is nothing in this Bill other than suggesting particular days. There is no doubt that a particular day would benefit some but upset others. There is no agreement on the day.

Does the Minister of State believe a Thursday or a Saturday is better? Which day gives voters the most opportunity? It is obvious that it is a Saturday.

Half the Dubs go to Meath and other places.

This is not only about Dubs.

It depends on who the Deputy is talking about. I would nearly have a go at bank holiday Monday.

People who go away for the weekend have a choice but people who have to work do not have one. This is all about giving people a choice.

This could be my last speaking slot, certainly in the life of this Dáil or even in this House. I suppose one should savour and take full advantage of it.

Does the Deputy have a running mate?

I have. We will all know about our running mates when the election is over, including the Minister of State.

I support the Bill brought forward by my colleague. Anything we can do to encourage voter participation and to include the public in the whole democratic process should be done. What is most likely to encourage voter participation is for the political establishment to be honest and fair with the electorate. If it makes promises, it should keep them. Nothing disenchants young people, in particular, as much as a firm undertaking given at election time being completely ignored thereafter. The Government needs to be careful about the number of young people who will have their say at the forthcoming general election. Regardless of what day of the week the election is held, those people will remember the things the Government has ignored since the 2002 general election. They will also remember the electronic voting machines and the fact they are paying for their storage.

The Minister of State said we were interested in voting when we had no money in our pockets. I am not so sure about that.

We went to Manchester as well.

He wondered to where the Dublin voters had gone. The Dublin voters have been driven out and have gone down the country because they could not afford to buy a house in this city. If this Government continues for much longer, there will be no Dublin people left in this city. I am surprised the Minister of State erased that issue.

I said they left at weekends to enjoy the fruits of the Celtic tiger.

The Minister of State may have solved the problem in his constituency but the country is larger than that. In the counties adjoining Dublin, one will find scores of Dublin people who are renting houses because they cannot afford to buy. They are, in effect, paying a mortgage each month. They will remember that on election day. The Minister of State can hold the election on a Monday but they will still remember.

Unlike everybody else, I believe there will be a massive turnout at the next general election. It will be the highest we have seen since the early or late 1970s. The turnout in the early 1970s was probably the highest in living memory. The Government does not want a massive turnout.

There is nothing the Government can do to dissuade the public from turning out. The public is fed up with pretence and nonsense and it is looking for revenge and retribution. I assure the Minister of State that they will get it when the time comes. One well known Minister in the Government said "We survived — didn't we?", but that means survival for the time being. When the day comes, it will be a question of for whom the bell tolls.

Is this a debate on a finance Bill?

I am talking about voter participation, the need for voter interest and the need for the political establishment to be fair and honest with the voting public.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has been a Member of this House for longer than anyone here. I know he cannot agree with me and applaud what I am saying but he knows in his heart and soul that what has been done to the unfortunate electorate is appalling. They were hoodwinked and trapped, bought and paid for and sold down the river when it was all over. The Government can dress it up any way it likes; have the election on any day of the week it wishes; pick the time it thinks the least number of people are likely to be accommodated by coming out to vote but I think they will still come out to vote. They will pay back. Many young people will decide it is now payback time.

Some of the ceremony associated with elections in the past has gone. I remember being told by a Minister for the Environment from that side of the House some years ago that the people outside the polling stations were a nuisance and were impeding voter participation. As soon as the people were removed from outside the polling stations voter participation dropped simply because it was part of the ceremony and the ritual. It was what we grew up with and it was part of our tradition.

I know of members of families who did not speak to each other before they went to vote and went to vote separately because they were on opposite sides of the house yet when the voting was over they were the best of friends. That was the tradition which this country grew up with since the foundation of the State.

We all know of Fine Gael people and Fianna Fáil people living side by side. They were the best of pals and went to hurling, football, rugby and soccer matches together. When the heat generated by the election took over, they sulked and avoided each other. They manned the polling station the day before and hurled abuse and all kinds of catcalls at each other and derived much enjoyment from it. It was amazing that no offence was ever taken because they had forgotten about it at the count and they were the best of pals again. They were participating in the ritual that was born at the foundation of the State and in which they contested and competed vigorously in the selection of their public representatives.

It was a wrong decision to remove that ritual as the interest in the voting process dropped dramatically as a result. I have an example from my own constituency. People stopped to ask me directions to the polling station and this was a question never asked before because it was always recognisable from the flags flying. Politicians stood outside the polling stations to greet the people on their way in. The system has been depersonalised and I am certain this was a diminution of the public interest in the democratic process. The election should be held on whatever day is most convenient for the greater number of people.

The Deputy is speaking against his own Bill.

The Minister of State is proposing the day that will be most advantageous to the Government parties but that is a different story. The Government can hang on and hope but no help will come and its cries in the wilderness will be heard long after the election has taken place. I am not sorry even though I hate to see anyone lose his or her seat and I would never wish it on anyone, particularly myself. If those in the political establishment give an undertaking to the public they then have a moral duty to deliver. I do not care what the consequences are because once they make that promise they should stand over it. This is the reason our leader, Deputy Kenny, has entered into an electoral pact with the public. He has given an undertaking and entered into a contract in order to give some integrity to what is happening in the political process and to restore public confidence in the process and in democracy. Everybody can make promises and some people do not even know when to stop making promises.

I refer to the cynicism generated by the electronic voting. This system was neither wanted nor requested by the public. People questioned the Government's expenditure of €60 million on something nobody either wanted or asked for. I have been holding clinics for many years but nobody ever suggested a system of electronic voting or led a deputation on the subject. The Government ignored what the public said and it ignored what the experts said. On close questioning the Government said it could not have a paper trail lest it gave a different result. This was a most extraordinary admission because it clearly indicated what was going on.

The time has come for the accounts to be levelled and for the public to come out and they are willing to come out. I ask the Minister of State to take on board this motion and accept it and have the election at the time that suits the general public. The Government has done little else to suit the general public in the past five years and it has ignored the wishes of the public. Everything the public thought and said was ignored by the Government.

I would like to continue my contribution and bring many other anecdotes to the attention of the Minister of State as to the reasons he should agree to the Second Stage reading. I ask the Government to come on side for once in its life and not divide the House on this issue.

This motion proposes an amendment to the Constitution to allow for voting on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. A general election is always a big occasion for the country. I agree with Deputy Durkan's point that the next election will see a large number of people who wish to vote.

Last night I canvassed 100 households in my constituency of Tipperary South. I noted in excess of 20 of those houses where people expressed the wish for the election to be held on a Friday evening or a Saturday. This is rural Ireland, rural County Tipperary. People are working in Cork and in Dublin on building sites. There is no third-level college in our constituency so all students must leave and the Government is disenfranchising them. This is one practical reason a Friday or a Saturday should be chosen.

The by-election which led to my becoming a Member of the House was held on a Saturday. Since 2000, there have been two by-elections in south Tipperary — one was held mid-week and the other on a Saturday — and local elections were also held. These elections all took place within a short period and there was a higher turnout at the by-election held on the Saturday. It is unfair of Government representatives to state that the turnout at elections held on weekdays is higher. I plead with the Government to listen to the people who are stating that they want the election to be held on a Friday or a Saturday.

As already stated, many people work in Dublin or on building sites throughout the country and they only return home at weekends. People in Ireland have a major interest in both politics and the outcome of the forthcoming election. There are issues in respect of which they will engage in debate with one on the doorstep and with regard to which they wish to make decisions. There are people who want to vote for the Government because they believe it has brought about a great deal of prosperity. Likewise, there are those who want to vote for parties on this side of the House because they believe that this Administration has made a mess of things.

Everyone in this country should be given an opportunity to vote. It is five years since a general election was held and, following the impending poll, it will probably be a further five years before another is held. In a ten-year period, therefore, people will have few opportunities to vote. It is disingenuous of Government spokespersons to state that the Administration will facilitate the electorate by holding the election on a weekday.

As already stated, the by-election which led to my becoming a Member of the Dáil was held on a Saturday. Many people returned home to the constituency from Dublin and elsewhere for the weekend, voted on the Saturday and attended the Munster final involving Tipperary and Limerick on the Sunday.

I implore the Government to give way on this issue and provide people with the opportunity to vote in the election by holding it on a Saturday.

I thank everyone who contributed to the debate, particularly Members on this side of the House. Those on the Government benches did not take up all the time allocated to them to make contributions.

This Bill is about the future, not the past. We are living in an Ireland of change. The country has changed radically in many ways. The emphasis of the contributions on this side of the House has been on the future of the country and, in particular, the role of young people and their organisations. All Members, including the Minister of State, were e-mailed by those organisations and informed that they want the opportunity to exercise their franchise to the maximum extent. In their e-mails, they indicated that they do not support Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or the Green Party. They merely seeking inclusivity and an opportunity to participate in the election. The Union of Students in Ireland indicated that it wants the election to take place at a weekend.

The Government represents the forces of reaction to change. It does not want change, it merely wants to batten down the hatches and make it as difficult as possible for the electorate to participate fully in the forthcoming election. Therefore, it represents the past, the forces that do not want to change, the Thursday voting syndrome and the those who want to keep as many people as possible away from the polls. The Government wants to forget about third level students or to make it as difficult as possible for them to vote. It is aware, as are we, that they represent the swing vote. Those students want change and they want to exercise their franchise in full. It is not practical for many thousands of them to travel long distances on a Thursday in order to vote and then return that night or on the Friday in order to either continue to prepare for or sit their exams.

The Minister of State is correct to state that many students' lectures have concluded. However, they are preparing to sit their exams and it is a difficult time for them in terms of making grades or doing well enough to obtain their degrees. Not allowing them to vote on a Friday or a Saturday, days on which they would normally return home, is a retrograde step on the part of this reactionary Government.

Another group about which I am concerned is that which is comprised of commuters. Thousands of people get up early each morning in order to travel to work — the roads in my constituency are usually extremely busy by 6 a.m. — and return home late at night. It is almost 8.30 p.m. and many people who live in counties Louth, Meath, Wicklow, etc., will only now be arriving home. These individuals know that on Thursday evening when they return home they must prepare to go to work again the next morning. Holding the election on a Thursday represents another reaction on the part of the Government to commuters who, as Deputy Durkan stated, are paying additional mortgage costs as a result of increases in interest rates and who are obliged to spend extra hours commuting by road and so on. Those people want to vote the Government out of office and they are being denied the opportunity to do so.

Those of us on this side of the House represent change. We want commuters and young people to be able to vote at the most opportune time. The natural work cycle for the many thousands of people who work away from home ends on Friday. They return home on that day and begin to engage with their families again. They are not obliged to get up on Saturday in order to commute to work and they, therefore, have the time to vote either on Friday or Saturday.

Evidence relating to weekend voting in many of the modern vibrant democracies across Europe was provided last night. The Taoiseach himself referred to the elections in France, where there was a turnout of 85% on Sunday last. The position was similar in past elections held in Greece and elsewhere at weekends.

As it votes down this Bill, the Government is really saying that it does not want young people and commuters to participate, to the fullest extent possible, in our democracy. As times change, so governments change. We are of the view that there will be a change following the election that is almost upon us.

This debate has engaged young people and the organisations that represent them. We want a modern, new democracy, we want change and we want to give people the greatest possible opportunity to vote, one way or the other. We believe that weekend voting represents the way forward.

This simple Bill before the House states that the election ought to be held on a Friday, a Saturday or a Sunday. That makes sense. The Bill is a practical and focused measure to allow those who, because of their working or educational arrangements, find it most difficult to vote mid-week. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 43; Níl, 61.

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Connolly, Paudge.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Enright, Olwyn.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Padraic.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • McHugh, Paddy.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Morgan, Arthur.
  • Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Shea, Brian.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Pattison, Seamus.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Sherlock, Joe.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Wall, Jack.

Níl

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Callanan, Joe.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Curran, John.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • Dennehy, John.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Lenihan, Conor.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Mulcahy, Michael.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Dea, Willie.
  • O’Donnell, Liz.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Keeffe, Ned.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Malley, Tim.
  • Parlon, Tom.
  • Power, Peter.
  • Roche, Dick.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Dan.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • Wilkinson, Ollie.
  • Woods, Michael.
  • Wright, G.V.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kehoe and Stagg; Níl, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher.
Question declared lost.