Issue of Writs: Dublin South and Dublin Central.

I move:

That the Ceann Comhairle direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue his Writ for the election of a member to fill the vacancy which has occurred in the membership of the present Dáil consequent on the death of Deputy Séamus Brennan, a Member for the constituency of Dublin South.

That the Ceann Comhairle direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue his Writ for the election of a member to fill the vacancy which has occurred in the membership of the present Dáil consequent on the death of Deputy Tony Gregory, a Member for the constituency of Dublin South.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Shatter and Mitchell.

Deputy Séamus Brennan passed away on 9 July last year, almost one year ago, and Deputy Tony Gregory passed away on 2 January of this year, four months ago. The country will go to the polls on 5 June next. We live in very difficult times and we see politics back at centre stage and political issues being debated in a robust, forthright and very direct manner.

No more than the citizens of any other constituency, the people of Dublin South and Dublin Central are constitutionally entitled to full representation in this House. One need only look at the achievements of the late Deputies Séamus Brennan and Tony Gregory in representing their constituencies and their people to see what can be achieved by individual Deputies.

Article 16.4.7 of Bunreacht na hÉireann outlines the process by which vacancies in the House may be filled. In an era of restricted public expenditure, it would be ludicrous not to hold these by-elections on 5 June when both constituencies will go to the polls. The Ceann Comhairle has outlined his clarification in respect of the repeat ruling. The procedure that follows a Dáil motion is that the Clerk of the Dáil, if the motion is passed, informs the returning officer in the relevant constituency or constituencies. Under electoral law, the returning officer must apply that law, unless it is amended, to hold the by-election or by-elections not less than 18 days and not more than 25 days following his or her being in receipt of the writ having been sent by the Clerk of the Dáil. That would exclude Sundays and bank holidays which, according to electoral law, could leave the by-election on 19 May or 26 May. That could be amended to 5 June with the consent of the House.

The ruling in 1964 to which the Ceann Comhairle referred was again endorsed in 1981 when the late John Wilson attempted to move a by-election writ during the time of the hunger strikers and following the decision of the Dáil on 3 February this year.

The Dáil is entitled to pass a motion directing the Ceann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue a writ to fill any casual vacancy which may or may not occur. Standing Order 55(2)(c) states, “a motion directing the Ceann Comhairle to direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue his or her Writ for the election of a Member to fill any vacancy that may occur from time to time”. If the House votes down these writs and the Ceann Comhairle decides they cannot be moved again for ten weeks or a two and a half month period, the Government and the Dáil are entitled to set aside the Standing Order and the decision of the Ceann Comhairle and his predecessors in this matter and issue a motion directing the Ceann Comhairle to instruct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue the writ to the returning officer for the constituency or constituencies referred to.

This is a test of courage for the Government. The Opposition parties cannot remove the numbers from the seats opposite because they are welded together. This is a case of their way or no way. The people have not had the chance to voice their opinion, in an Oireachtas sense, on this Government. They will have an opportunity to vote in the local and European elections, which the Government cannot prevent. It will suffer the consequences. However, in the case of the by-elections to fill the seats of the late Séamus Brennan and Tony Gregory, it is the filling of Oireachtas vacancies where the people of Dublin South and Dublin Central can have an opportunity to vent their opinion on the way this Government has handled and mishandled their affairs.

From that perspective, I would like the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the Chief Whip to confirm that these two by-elections will be held on 5 June. Let the people have their say, voice their opinion and pass judgment on a Government which has been already convicted.

The premature and tragic deaths of my constituency colleague, Séamus Brennan, and Tony Gregory have created the vacancies in the Dublin South and Dublin Central constituencies. In the context of the time that has elapsed, it is only reasonable, right and proper that the electorate in those constituencies has the opportunity to have full representation in this House and use the by-elections, which need to take place, as an opportunity to express their view on the competence of the Government and the manner in which it is handling the economic crisis and its responsibility for the extent of the economic crisis it has inflicted on this country.

If this were a Government with any sense of courage and which recognised the importance of political accountability, we would not be having two by-elections on 5 June but a general election because the country is calling out for one and is demanding that this Government go. It is clear that the Government, which substantially contributed to the crisis in which we find ourselves, is not the Government which can get us out of that crisis.

All the hand-wringing in the world from the Green Party disclaiming responsibility for where we now find ourselves lacks any shred of credibility. The Green Party has been part and parcel of this incompetent Administration for almost two years. It was party to the profligate budget of December 2007, the failed financial initiatives taken in July 2008 and the appallingly incompetent and foolish decision to enter a new social partnership agreement in August 2008. This Government composed of Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the remnants of the Progressive Democrats shares responsibility for our disastrous economic plight and the growing lines of the unemployed.

In recent weeks there have been mutterings from the Government that these two by-elections will not take place on 5 June. There have been mutterings to the media, unattributable to anyone in particular, suggesting they will be postponed until October. If this motion does nothing other than force the Government into recognising the essential constitutional obligation to move the writs to enable these two by-elections to be held, it will at least have achieved something. This Government should recognise the need to give the electorate an opportunity to voice its view on its performance and to give the people in Dublin South and Dublin Central an opportunity to have full representation in this House.

Séamus Brennan was a much respected Deputy in Dublin South and it was right, both out of respect to him and to his family, that a reasonable period of time was left before a by-election was held to replace him. However, that time has passed, and nobody more than Séamus would want an election to take place and the people of Dublin South to be properly represented. The people want that and are entitled to representation. Whatever the Constitution may say — it seems to be silent on this matter — the spirit of the Constitution is that people should have full representation.

I also believe there are other reasons to have a by-election at this time. Local and European issues will be discussed during the local and European election campaigns. The holding of the two by-elections would represent an opportunity to meet the huge need for a general election-type debate. Since this House returned from its summer recess last September, Deputies have discussed the financial crisis, the Exchequer finances and the jobs crisis, but we have not discussed the human consequences of the recession to any great extent. We are dealing with certain aspects of the recession, but we are not dealing with its human consequences. We need to debate the myriad of such issues, all of which are reflected in my constituency. Now that we are all out canvassing, we are meeting old people whose savings and pensions have been eroded and whose homes have been completely devalued. The plans of those who have spent their lives saving and making sacrifices have gone to nothing. They had great hopes for the Fair Deal, which seems to have disappeared. What will happen to the Fair Deal?

When we talk about the property crisis, we only refer to its effects on developers. What about young people who cannot get out of fixed-rate mortgages? What about those who are living in half-built apartment blocks that will probably never be finished? When young people who live in half-inhabited apartment blocks go home each evening, they worry that squatters will have moved in next door to them. What will happen to all of those people? These issues have to be dealt with. They cannot wait while we work ourselves out of the recession. In my constituency, some 17 schools are waiting interminably for funding to enable them to replace their prefabs. The debate on these issues, which need to be thrashed out and discussed, cannot be postponed until the recession is over. For that reason alone, I support the motion proposing that the by-elections be held immediately.

I propose to share time with Deputies Costello and Ó Snodaigh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the comments made by the Ceann Comhairle before this debate started. The remarks that he clearly put on the record will guide future Cinn Comhairlí. On behalf of the Labour Party, I thank him for making the position clear. I do not doubt that other Members of the House share my gratitude.

It is always a sad occasion when one is forced to move the writ for a by-election. It is even more difficult, in some respects, to support a motion calling for the writ to be moved following the death of someone who was not a member of one's party. As Deputy Mitchell said, almost nine months have elapsed since the death of Séamus Brennan and almost four months have elapsed since Tony Gregory passed away. The other House lost Tony Kett last week, of course. When a similar motion, relating solely to Dublin South, was moved in the House on 3 February last, the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Pat Carey, who is in the Chamber at present, said "I would like to confirm that the Government intends to run the by-election for Dublin South on the same day" as the European and local elections — 5 June 2009. I hope the rumours that have been circulating in Dublin South and, particularly, Dublin Central, over recent weeks are not true. The clear and honourable commitment that was given by the Minister of State in this House almost three months ago should not be overturned.

This country needs a new Government with a new mandate. I understand that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who is present in the Chamber, has said it does not matter who is in government, as the same problems would confront any Government and the same decisions would have to be made. While I agree that a new Government would face the same set of problems, I do not agree that it does not matter who is in government. If my party were in government, it would deal with these problems far differently. If the opportunity presented itself, we would get a mandate to address the various issues in a more effective, creative and courageous manner. As recently as this afternoon, the Taoiseach said during Leaders' Questions that the Government has been dealing with these problems for the last 12 months, but that is simply not the case. As recently as last June, the Government asked what the problem was. It told people to wake up and smell the coffee, rather than continuing to talk down the Irish economy. In August of last year, Ministers disappeared to play golf, go birdwatching or do whatever else they were doing in those days. When they came back, they announced in a mood of shock and horror that a budget was needed. We said at the time that such a stunt would backfire in its face. Every move the Government has taken has been confronted and contested. Its measures have not worked or have not worked effectively. The one great thing that has happened is that this Government, by means of its blundering and its incompetence, has taken away the hope of the Irish people. As Deputy McGuinness has said, it is simply not up to the job.

I thank Deputy Quinn for sharing time with me. The legislation setting out the present practices in respect of by-elections is totally unsatisfactory. The Ceann Comhairle opened this debate by making it clear that he was using his discretion to allow the by-election writs to be moved again after a ten-week period. His remarks indicate that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to by-elections, which is a pity. The Electoral Act 1992 empowers Dáil Éireann to initiate the process of filling any vacancy that might arise during the term of a Dáil. The procedure is controlled by the Government of the day, which can vote down every attempt by the Opposition to move a motion providing for the filling of a vacancy. It is particularly unsatisfactory that the political representation of the people of a constituency, which is an important issue, can become a political football. That should not be happening.

In February of this year, the Labour Party moved a motion in this House to seek to have the vacancy in the Dublin South constituency filled. It was reasonable to do so at that time, as six months had passed since the death of Séamus Brennan. The motion provided for a generous period of respect for the deceased, as a former Minister and much-admired Member of this House over many years. At the same time, it reflected the need to fill the vacancy and to ensure that the people of Dublin South were not left without their full quota of public representation for an unduly long period of time. The death of Tony Gregory, who represented my constituency of Dublin Central, occurred in January of this year, which is almost four months ago. Mr. Gregory was also a highly respected Member of this House. While the timescale is not nearly so great in this instance, it is worth pointing out that by 5 June, Dublin Central will have been under-represented in this House for almost five months. As Tony Gregory was an Independent Member, no political party in the Dáil can express the wishes of his supporters about the timing of the by-election at which his successor will be chosen. As his supporters have chosen a candidate to contest the by-election, however, it may be deduced that they believe a reasonable period of time has elapsed and it is time to choose a new Deputy in the constituency.

The Government of the day should acknowledge the wishes of Mr. Gregory's supporters in this regard. I suggest that there should be a legislative or constitutional imperative to hold a by-election within a certain specified period of time after a casual vacancy arises. It should not matter that such a vacancy has arisen as a result of a Deputy's death, retirement or resignation. Such a system would be the only way to remove the uncertainty that exists at present, to ensure that the memory of the former Member of the Oireachtas is respected and to ensure that the citizens of the relevant constituency maintain the proper political representation to which they are entitled.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Pairtí an Lucht Oibre as ucht ama a roinnt liom. I urge the Government to accept these motions and to move the writs triggering by-elections in Dublin South and Dublin Central. Furthermore, I call on the Government to prepare legislation or, if appropriate, a constitutional amendment to provide that future by-elections are triggered within three months of the death of a Deputy. We should not end up in this situation time and time again. It would be appropriate to provide for a three-month timeframe, thereby reassuring people that their constituencies will be represented by a full quota of Deputies in the future.

Fianna Fáil has been suggesting that the reason for the delay in arranging the Dublin Central by-election is the need to show respect for the late Tony Gregory. I do not agree that a by-election in the constituency in the near future would be too soon after Mr. Gregory's death. My former teacher would be rolling over in his grave if he could hear that. Tony Gregory would be the first person to demand that the seat be contested as soon as possible to ensure that the people of his area are not under-represented. Now is the time to move the writ. Fianna Fáil should be ashamed of itself for abusing Tony Gregory's name in this way. If it really cared about honouring his memory, it would call a by-election in Dublin Central immediately. This is a time of severe economic depression and it is essential that all of the people are properly represented in full in the Dáil. Thousands of families in each of these constituencies face an uncertain future of unemployment or negative equity or are on social housing lists. Many of those who have been recently made unemployed have waited months to get their social welfare payments and some are incurring massive debts while waiting. Meanwhile, this Government has done nothing to stimulate jobs which would help people in crisis. The views of those people need to be reflected fully in this Chamber. That is as true of Dublin South and Dublin Central as of every other constituency but is not the case in the two constituencies under discussion here because they do not have their full quota of Members in the House. I appeal to the Government to ensure it moves the writs for these by-elections at the earliest possible time and holds the elections. It has been given the opportunity to do this here today. The public already has an opportunity to go to the polls on 5 June. Rather than have two stand-alone by-elections which would cost the taxpayer a fortune, the Government has an opportunity to do the logical thing and hold both by-elections on the same day as council and European elections. Fianna Fáil's current popularity problems should not be taken into account. It is appropriate that these by-elections be held now. The time has lapsed for the writs to be moved.

The timing of the European Parliament elections is determined by the EU Council of Ministers by reference to the period corresponding to the first direct elections in 1979. Accordingly, they are held within a specified four day period in June every five years subsequent to 1979. The Council announced that the 2009 European Parliament elections would take place between Thursday 4 and Sunday 7 June 2009. In the context of this timeframe and having considered various factors, the Government decided to hold the European Parliament poll on Friday 5 June. I intend to make a polling day order to this effect very shortly and I will also appoint the chief returning officer.

Polling at local elections has been held in conjunction with the European Parliament elections since 1994 to facilitate voter turnout and to minimise disruption to the voting public and to others affected, such as schools etc. In line with this established practice, I made a polling day order on 31 March which fixed Friday 5 June as the polling day for the local elections. The order was made at this early stage solely to implement the new local election spending limits. To allow as many people as possible an opportunity to vote, and taking account of commuting patterns etc., the polls will be open for 15 hours between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. I hope this will accommodate all voters.

I wish now to address specifically the motion before the House whereby Fine Gael seeks to move the writ for the holding of by-elections in Dublin South and Dublin Central. Electoral law does not specify a period for the holding of a by-election. The Dáil decides the timing. Section 39(2) of the Electoral Act 1992 provides for the issue of a writ by the Clerk of the Dáil to the returning officer on direction of the Dáil. The motion for the issue of a by-election writ is traditionally moved by the party to which the previous holder of the seat belonged. The writ is usually moved by way of motion requiring four days' notice. Once the writ has been issued, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government makes an order appointing the day and hours of polling.

Section 96 of the Electoral Act 1992 provides that a poll will be taken on a day appointed by the Minister, by order, being a day which is not earlier than the 18th day or not later than the 25th day following the day on which the writ for the by-election is issued. Therefore, if the writs were moved now, the two by-elections in question would, in accordance with the law, have to be held just a week or two before the European and local elections. However, if the Opposition intended that the by-elections be held in conjunction with the European and local elections on 5 June, the writs should be moved between 6 and 14 May.

If we had not moved this now the Minister would have postponed the whole thing.

Moving the writ now makes no sense in terms of electoral efficiency or administration. It takes no account of costs and the state of the public finances or of the disruption and inconvenience to voters. There is no real logic behind the Fine Gael motion and I fundamentally disagree with its timing on this occasion.

The Minister should skip to the back page.

The Minister will get to it on the third paragraph on the next page.

The Minister will understand the logic——

I do not know if Fine Gael really wants to hold by-elections at least a week ahead of the local and European elections. I find it difficult to believe it wants to expose the taxpayer to the extra expense and disruption involved in holding the polls on two separate days within such a short period of time.

What about the thousands of voting machines——

The motion put down by the Fine Gael Party states that they should be held on 5 June to accommodate any amendment to the Act on that basis.

The most charitable interpretation is that Fine Gael was simply ignorant of the legislation in this regard, although I take it from Deputy Kenny's earlier comments that it has since been enlightened.

The Minister just wants to stay there until he gets his pension.

The Government will get its answer on 5 June when the people turn on it.

The party now finds itself in the unusual position of proposing a motion it must desperately hope will not be passed.

The Green shoots are withering.

A Deputy

The Minister is being childish.

He will grow up one day.

In February the Labour Party sought to move the writ in respect of the Dublin South by-election. Obviously its proposal at that time was to have that poll well in advance of the local and European elections. In responding to the motion, however, the Chief Whip confirmed to the House that the Government intends to run the by-election for Dublin South on 5 June, the same day as the European and local polls.

That is the purpose of our motion.

At the time the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, said, "On a day such as this, when stark economic decisions have had to be taken, Deputies from all sides will understand the sense in minimising the cost to the Exchequer in running elections. The Government believes this is the prudent approach."

Deputy Carey did not refer to the Dublin Central by-election on that occasion, as it was not relevant to the motion proposed. The same logic applies, however, and I can inform the House that the Government intends that both by elections be held in conjunction with the European and local elections on 5 June.

The Taoiseach will move the writs on a suitable day within the appropriate period. For clarity, I should point out that the by-elections will be held on the basis of the constituency boundaries that operated for the 2007 general election.

The Minister has been forced into the light.

Therefore, there will be a total of 264 polls held on 5 June, comprising four polls to elect 12 members to the European Parliament, 258 polls to elect 1,627 councillors in 114 local authorities and two polls to elect two Dáil Deputies.

Why does the Minister not go the whole way and hold a general election?

There will be four European constituency returning officers for the North West, Dublin, East and South constituencies. The 28 European local returning officers will be the county registrars and in the case of Dublin and Cork, the city and county sheriffs. There also will be separate local authority returning officers for the local elections. Dublin South and Dublin Central will each have a Dáil returning officer responsible for the by-election polls. The duties and responsibilities of each cohort of returning officers and the necessary interaction between them will be underpinned in regulations which I will make before polling day. These will sort out the practical arrangements for the combined polls and avoid unnecessary duplication or overlap.

I wish to join with the other Deputies who have paid tribute to the late Séamus Brennan and Tony Gregory.

Finally, I take this opportunity to briefly remind the House of the legislative change I introduced earlier this year, which clarified the period during which election posters may be erected. Candidates in the local and European elections may erect posters only from 30 days before the polling date of 5 June, and this requirement will apply equally to candidates in any by-elections. This means posters for any election held on 5 June may not be erected earlier than 6 May. The requirement for candidates to remove all posters within seven days of the poll still remains and all posters must be down by 12 June. I trust all candidates and all parties will abide by these rules.

I hope the Green Party abides by them.

Failure to do so would constitute an offence under the Litter Acts, and local authorities are entitled to issue on-the-spot fines for posters which breach the time limits.

The Minister is more concerned about litter than about the economy.

Having compelled the Government reluctantly to confirm that the by-elections will be held on 5 June, it is not necessary to have a vote on the motion before the House. The Government has confirmed the intent of the writ that the by-elections be held on 5 June. I welcome that and have no doubt the Government will get its answer.

Game, set and match.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The family and supporters of the late Deputy Tony Gregory will be very satisfied with that decision.

Is it agreed that the motions be withdrawn? Agreed.