Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 8 Oct 2008

Vol. 663 No. 1

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Before the break I was discussing the terms of reference the commission had been given and made the point that these had been set by the previous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition Government. When we had statements on the matter in the summer, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who was appointed, obviously, by the Taoiseach said that precedent should not be broken. That point has been made today by other speakers. The commission was set up in the late 1970s and there has not been a change since. We have had a succession of statements in the intervening period taking the exact opposite position, calling for an end to precedent and the seeking of greater consensus. I shall deal shortly with how it might be changed. The point should be made, however, that while some of us might be particularly affected, we should not necessarily have the power to change constituency boundaries because obviously we might proceed in our own interests rather than the greater democratic good. There was talk at the time that matters could be changed if all parties agreed. I believe one Fianna Fáil Deputy put this argument in a letter to people in his constituency and the issue was raised in the House at the time. At no point were any solutions or changes on offer. At no point did Fine Gael receive any basis for discussing this proposal or working on it. That is the reality. Some county councillors, in particular, are disappointed at the lack of progress in this regard, but no realistic attempt was ever made to do anything about it. Like it or not, what happens here tends to boil down to the numbers game. If people on the other side of the House feel that strongly about particular issues, they have the numbers and the power to make the changes, regardless of whether the Opposition likes it.

Deputy Cregan made a point that the effect of such changes could ruin the careers of individuals and said we did not have to accept the report. If I understood him correctly, he was saying that if we changed it, it would not mean all others had to be altered — he cited health and so on as examples. Health and other reports that come before us can actually affect people's lives, not just their careers. If we want to break precedent, there are plenty of other reports at which we could look. Many speakers on all sides of the House would be willing to see some reports on other areas that have been proposed and not implemented — at least not in their totality — changed.

I want to make a point as regards my constituency, especially the area of south Offaly. There is no doubt that the people of that area want to vote in the constituency in which they have always voted, Laois-Offaly. No doubt, I want them to continue to vote there also. It must be emphasised that this proposal represents a breach of a provincial boundary. Effectively, people from County Offaly are being asked to vote in Munster, in a constituency that will be called North Tipperary, which bears no reference to the name of their own county. This will be alien to many, a point that needs to be made. Deputy Cregan stated he would have to shift his tent to a different area. I will not have to do so but I am unhappy to lose the portion of my constituency I have lost.

The area affected comprises Shinrone, Moneygall, Dunkerrin, Coolderry and Barna and it is even more disturbing that a village such as Coolderry is being divided. As a consequence, some people in the parish will vote in north Tipperary or Munster and the remainder will vote in the Laois-Offaly constituency. This will create significant confusion. While general elections in recent years have always been held on separate dates to local and European elections because the House has not fallen, a general election could be held on the same date as local and European elections. If that happens, I am not sure which polling booths voters in Coolderry, for example, should attend. Will officials from North Tipperary and Offaly County Councils operate from the same polling booth to ensure votes are cast in all three elections? These issues have not been adequately teased out and they will cause confusion.

People's resolve in this regard should not be underestimated. When the constituency review was published, I received negative feedback in the area because people do not feel any affinity with their new constituency and they feel less inclined to vote. The one saving grace is the legislation will take account of the Clarke judgment and preliminary census figures can be used in future to redraw constituencies. Government Members and councillors in the south Offaly area who are concerned about the recent change can take heart from the fact that the person who has the power to name the date of the next general election and to wait until the preliminary census figures are published is the Taoiseach. He may give consideration to the wishes of the people of south Offaly if the census highlights a population change in the area.

Deputy Varadkar referred to the operation of electoral commissions in other countries, which produce interim reports for consultation. The Constituency Commission will argue consultation was facilitated and people could have made submissions, but no one in south Offaly ever envisaged that a portion of the constituency, which had never been touched in the history of the State, would be transferred to Munster. They, therefore, did not feel the need to make submissions. Should they have made submissions seeking the status quo or should they have made submissions stating other towns and villages should be hived elsewhere? That is not realistic. If the Constituency Commission had reported and people could have had a debate on the report and made submissions on its recommendations, difficulties such as that in south Offaly could have been ironed out. When the preliminary figures for the next census are published, the Government should give consideration to doing this because it is important.

Spending limits for both local and general elections will be examined and proposed local government legislation will provide us with an opportunity to discuss the issue. There is a great deal of merit to examining how such limits are decided and to include the period in the lead up to the calling of elections and not only the period from when the election is called. However, I issue a word of caution. A candidate can submit his or her name on the day nominations close having spent significant sums prior to that, which is not reckonable. This is of particular concern to us as sitting Members. It is generally accepted all of us will run in a general election whereas it will not be as clear where other candidates are concerned. The amount spent must be examined and a fairer system needs to be introduced. Deputy Varadkar suggests spending limits should be set on the basis of population but I have a different perspective coming from a rural constituency. I could do a leaflet drop with constituency workers in Tullamore in a night, despite it being a large town, but it could take a month to do a similar drop in the town's hinterland. Other more expensive methods must be considered as a result. Cognisance, therefore, must be taken of the urban-rural divide.

I reiterate the need to change how boundary reviews are conducted in future. I am proud to serve south Offaly and I will continue to serve the constituency of Laois-Offaly because the people elected me to do so for the lifetime of the Dáil. Unlike Deputy Cregan, I will not have to shift my tent but I will have to shift somebody else's to replace the votes I have lost. The Constituency Commission members are decent people but they need to be more cognisant of the strength of feeling in particular areas. Everyone cannot intimately know the Deputies who represent them but parish and provincial boundaries need to remain intact for the sake of the people and the practicalities involved.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this legislation, which provides for the enactment of the revisions of the Dáil and European Parliament constituencies in accordance with the recommendations of the Constituency Commission's report, published approximately a year ago. When Dáil constituencies are revised, there are always issues about boundary lines and the rationale behind changes. Reference was made to submissions by the public on the constituency reviews. A high percentage of submissions to the Constituency Commission related to County Leitrim but it was divided and, therefore, I am not sure whether they are being take into account. In 1977, an independent commission was set up redraw constituencies to reflect population change and it is vitally important to ensure such a commission remains sacrosanct. Prior to the establishment of a new commission, both Houses should debate constituency revisions to boundaries for all elections before changes are proposed.

Over the past number of years, we have experienced significant population growth, which has required many changes to constituencies. Significant population loss has occurred in inner cities and rural areas while the commuter belts around our major cities have expanded dramatically.

The Bill is now before the House. The commission was established under the Electoral Act 1997. On 26 April 2007, it was constituted to make a report on the constituencies for the election of Members of Dáil Éireann and the European Parliament. The commission's report and its recommendations was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 23 October 2007 and we are now processing the legislation. In the past 12 months, there was much debate on where to draw the boundaries. In the first weeks and months, there was concern about whether the recommendations would be implemented. However, we are putting into law the commission's exact recommendations.

While we must follow this important precedent, we should examine the reports before their completion. The constitutional position is that the number of Deputies must be fixed from time to time and that the constituencies from which they are elected must be determined by law. Thus, the final determination of the constituencies of Dáil Éireann is a matter for the Oireachtas via legislation. The commission's role is advisory, but it is important that it be respected.

In recent years, different constituencies have experienced significant changes. Many people have considered the merits of dividing towns, parishes and so forth. We must accept the commission's reports, but we should have greater input before their completion. Since the establishment of the independent commission in the late 1970s, it has been established practice that the Government accepts the recommendations in the report. The Bill provides accordingly. The final determination of constituencies is a matter for the Oireachtas to prescribe in legislation.

Over the years, various Bills have made it somewhat easier for people to get on election tickets. It is vital that Members of Dáil Éireann ensure that the respect of the people for our democracy is absolute. It has often been stated that many people fought hard and went through difficult times to ensure a free and Irish democracy. Some countries do not have democracy. Our difficulty lies in the fluctuations in our population. It rose before the last general election but, for one reason or another, there is a steady decline in the numbers participating in the democratic process.

Before discussing the electoral register, I point out that voting is mandatory in some countries. I am unsure as to whether this infringes on someone's democratic right to make a decision, but it is important that the process starts at a young age. There are CSPE classes in post-primary schools, but there should be some in primary schools to encourage people to become involved in the democratic process. As I have often told young people — all public representatives meet various classes — politics is not just about elected Members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann, Members of the European Parliament or councillors. Rather, it is a mirror of what is occurring in one's local community and life. Politics, whether it is party politics, at the level of elected representatives, in a GAA club or in a community development association, is concerned with life and it is important that we encourage people into it.

I am unsure about mandatory voting, but it is vital that we make young people believe that, when they vote, they will give effect to what they believe should occur in their society and community. It is not just a matter of elected Members far from their communities. As a famous Speaker of the House of Representatives stated, all politics is local, but it is concerned with people participating in the democratic process. Over the years, people's opinion of politics and politicians has diminished, but it behoves every Deputy to uphold what exists in our community and country.

In the past two revisions, my constituency has witnessed considerable changes, including the entrance of a large urban area. Cork North-West is one of the few constituencies that mirrors almost all aspects of society, ranging from a large urban centre to a rural setting. Deputy Stanton is thinking about east Cork in this regard. Other constituencies are predominantly rural or urban, but Cork North-West contains every facet and its elected Members must try to represent every aspect.

In this revision, the parish of Kilshannig will move from Cork North-West into Cork North-Central. Like other speakers, I wonder about the wisdom of aligning my constituency with the city constituency of Cork North-Central almost as far as Mallow. Perhaps the constituencies should be completely revamped. However, the legislation will give effect to the commission's report and I am strongly of the opinion that its recommendations be implemented. Any deviation would not be good for politics because it would be a return to the old days.

Before the commission makes a future report on any revised forum, it is important that we have an opportunity to debate it and to make an input irrespective of whether our input is taken on board. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution on this important Bill. When we debate electoral Bills, we are discussing our democracy and the democratic process. In this Bill, we could address the matter of encouraging people to vote, the reasons they do not vote and how to make it easier for them to vote. I wish to discuss these issues later.

On the Constituency Commission's report, it used to be the case that the Minister made the decisions. Thankfully, the situation has changed and there is an independent commission consisting of five eminent persons. I will make a suggestion for the Minister of State's consideration of the Bill. While there is a provision for people to make submissions, experienced former politicians from all sides should sit as an advisory group to the commission because their input could be invaluable. Were they able to work in a reflective way and were the commission to consult them rather than be dictated to by them, it would help the commission's work significantly.

Many colleagues have commented on the fact that, for various reasons, natural boundaries and geographical areas have been breached by the commission, county boundaries in particular. Counties Kerry, Limerick and others come to mind. It might be the case that the input of eminent former politicians might inform the commission that this might not be the best way to go for the sake of the confused people on the ground, not for the sake of politicians.

I note the attempt to link local electoral areas with Dáil electoral areas. It is important that, if possible, local election areas be contained within Dáil areas because people get confused. If a Deputy is representing people in the Dáil and a councillor at local authority area it can be confusing. It is best if local and Dáil electoral areas are linked.

We should examine ways to make the work of the commission more public and transparent. The commission could hold public hearings because this would involve the public in the process, much like the Forum for Europe. Deputy Terence Flanagan referred to the fact there were only eight public submissions on the European Parliament constituency boundaries. We should include the public more by holding meetings in public around the country. People might attend and get involved with the work of the commission.

Making the work of the Dáil more accessible will be helped by the Oireachtas television channel. Everything we do is in public but a television channel will help. The idea is to involve the people even more.

Other speakers have referred to the need to reform the electoral register. Many are registered to vote in a number of locations and others are not registered to vote. This is always a major issue. Polling cards are often issued to the deceased. I wonder why franchise officers cannot keep an eye on the death notices in newspapers. It is not easy but if that was done, the names of deceased people could be removed from the electoral register. This could also be done by contacting undertakers. It is disconcerting for people to get polling cards for those who are deceased and it can be upsetting.

I note that in the referendum on the Lisbon treaty the deadline for voter registration was quite short. Many people lost out, especially in respect of postal voting. Many of us have come across people who wanted to vote but could not. The next election will be the local and European elections on 11 June. Many people go on holidays at this time of the year and therefore will be disenfranchised. I suggested a mechanism whereby those who go on holidays can register for a postal vote prior to leaving, provided they show an airline ticket or another document proving they are going on holidays. Many people want to vote but cannot because of this issue. Recently, our elections have been held in June, when older people go on holidays to take advantage of the fact that schools are not on holidays.

This is important legislation. It is a pity that natural and county boundaries are breached. I ask that the issue of postal votes for those going on holidays be examined. The voting systems for those with disabilities or in hospital could be streamlined to make it easier for them to obtain postal votes. It is quite a cumbersome method at the moment.

I thank Deputies on all sides for their contributions. Comments focussed on the Bill and on the electoral agenda generally. It is not possible to comment on all points but I will respond to some of the issues raised. We can examine matters relating to the Bill in greater detail on Committee Stage.

I welcome the comments of Deputies Terence Flanagan, Ciarán Lynch and Cuffe, who acknowledged the integrity and independence of the Constituency Commission. I express thanks to the members of the Constituency Commission. I welcome the cross-party consensus evident in the debate in support of the commission process, particularly in respect of implementing the constituency revisions provided for in the Bill. It is vital that we work together on electoral matters as they are central to the functioning of democracy in this country.

Some Deputies have difficulties with specific recommendations of the commission and we understand these concerns. We must bear in mind that constituency formation is not a perfect science and people do not live in areas that allow for constituencies to be drawn up that meet with general approval. The overriding constitutional requirement of equality of representation means breaches of obvious boundaries are unavoidable in certain cases.

In examining the commission's recommendations the Minister is in the same position as every other Member. I do not have any information beyond what is set out in the report. Somebody's interest must be affected in the revision process. This is the price we must pay for our democratic system. We agree that the job should be entrusted to a commission. The commission has done the job that seemed best to it. Difficult choices had to be made, the available options were marshalled and the commission made informed and reasoned recommendations. I or other Members may have made a different choice but we cannot fault the commission for that. Deputy Stanton referred to consultation with eminent former politicians. The commission carried out its task in compliance with the guidelines issued to it. I ask the House to accept the report as framed in the Bill.

The debate showed the strong attachment to county boundaries. While this is understandable, the terms of reference of the commission are subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions, which do not refer to counties. In O'Donovan v The Attorney General, Justice Budd stated:

although a system in the main based on counties has in fact been adopted, there is nothing in the Constitution about constituencies being based on counties. The Constitution does not say that in forming the constituencies according to the required ratio, that shall be done so far as is practicable having regard to county boundaries.

Deputy Enright also referred to provincial boundaries. There is no absolute prohibition on the breach of county boundaries. At times the constitutional provisions require such action, difficult though it may be. The 2007 commission report is no different in this regard. Deputies Ciarán Lynch, Varadkar, Cregan and others referred to the procedures to be followed by the Constituency Commission in carrying out its report. As the Minister said in his opening statement, the Bill provides for updated and improved constitutional arrangements, including a minimum of three months for the making of submissions to the commission. These are important new measures that retain the essential framework that has allowed the commission to operate effectively over many years.

I urge people to engage with the submission process to the maximum extent rather than waiting until after the commission has reported to express their views. I have no doubt we will be engaging with these matters further in the course of our consideration of the Bill.

Deputies referred to local authority constituencies. On 16 June 2008 the Minister received the reports of the two boundary committees established in January to review local electoral areas. The reports were published on 17 June 2008 and the Minister announced that he was accepting the recommendations contained in both of them. The necessary statutory orders giving effect to the recommendations of the committee, which are a key element of the legislative framework governing the forthcoming elections, are currently being prepared in the Department and will be finalised over the coming weeks. I expect the process to be completed by early November.

Deputies Lynch, Clune and Bannon referred to the need for the establishment of an electoral commission. The House will be aware that the programme for Government contains a commitment regarding the establishment of an independent electoral commission which will take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight, implement modern and efficient electoral practices, revise constituency boundaries, take charge of compiling a new national rolling electoral register, take over the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission that relate to election spending and examine the issue of financing the political system.

The establishment of an electoral commission will be a major body of work. Issues arising for consideration will include international best practice, the commission's structure and functions, to whom it reports, its relationship with other bodies currently involved, and the approach to be followed regarding the extensive legislation required. My Department has appointed consultants to research the issues arising in respect of the establishment of the commission and to make recommendations on the way forward. The consultants' work is well under way and will be completed shortly. This will be an important input to future Government decisions in this area.

A number of Deputies referred to the register of electors. In law, the preparation of the register is a matter for each local registration authority whose duty it is to ensure as far as possible, and with the co-operation of the public, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. In working to compile the register for 2007-2008 local authorities undertook and completed, with assistance from my Department, the most extensive registration campaign in decades. On the basis of the work undertaken, I am satisfied that local authorities achieved a significant improvement in the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register, compared to previous years. The task now for local authorities regarding the register for 2009-2010 is to maintain and build on the progress made to date. My Department will bring in an advertising campaign to encourage people to check that they are on the register. This will start in the coming weeks. The draft register for 2009-2010 will be available from 1 November for checking and follow-up action. Individuals who are not on the register can, of course, avail of the supplement to the register until 15 days before the next polling day.

Beyond the immediate future, I welcome the recent report of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the future of the electoral register in Ireland, and related matters. The report is consistent with the commitment contained in the programme for Government to establish an electoral commission with responsibilities to include the compilation of a new national rolling electoral register to which I have already referred.

A number of Deputies commented positively on the proposals in the Bill regarding nominations. Regulating access to the electoral process is a common feature in most parliamentary democracies and is widely seen as necessary to discourage too large a number from contesting an election. The proposals in the Bill strike the right balance between providing for a reasonable test of the bona fidesof a prospective candidate and not setting that test so high as to unduly restrict people from seeking election. Candidates standing who are not in possession of a certificate of political affiliation will now be able to choose which option best suits their own circumstances. This may require the completion of statutory declarations at a centre in the constituency which may be witnessed by a commissioner of oaths, peace commissioner, a notary public, a garda or a local authority official, or it may require the lodgement of a deposit with the returning officer before the deadline for receiving nominations. This represents a significant improvement on the previous arrangements and I am satisfied it fully meets the constitutional requirements.

I stress again the Government's and my own view that the Constituency Commission's recommendations are a package which must be accepted or rejected in the entirety. The Government has decided to follow the established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of the independent commission. This is the best way forward.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions and I look forward to further debate on these important issues when we return to the Bill on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.