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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Oct 2015

Vol. 894 No. 1

Electoral (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

I join the Ceann Comhairle in welcoming our guests and I hope they enjoy their stay. It is interesting that they arrived in the middle of a debate on an important electoral Bill.

As I stated, it is important to get more young people involved in the political system. We need to encourage the many new faces and voices in broader society to become more involved in politics and make them more inclusive.

Section 3 substitutes section 15(1A) of the Electoral Act 1992. The new section includes a new provision that a person may apply for entry in the supplement to the register of electors if he or she was not a citizen of Ireland on the qualifying date - 1 September each year - for a register of electors and subsequently became a citizen of Ireland. This is an important measure.

I welcome the legislation. We have much more to do to reform and bring fresh ideas into the political system. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for providing me with an opportunity to speak on the Bill.

I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak on the issue of electoral amendment. However, I am surprised that the three changes proposed are so minimal in the context of what needs to be done to make the electoral system more representative and democratic. The Bill deals with three matters in respect of the upcoming Dáil and Seanad general elections. A minor change is proposed in respect of the nominating body for the Seanad. A minor change is also proposed on free postage for candidates for university constituencies in the Seanad elections. Reform of the supplementary register for the Dáil is the third proposal. The main issue with the Bill is what is not in it but could be given the significant issues discussed in the environment committee on an electoral commission. Over the course of many meetings, a number of issues were brought up at the committee which require serious reform if we are to have the maximum number of people voting.

I voted to abolish the Seanad but the Government failed in its mission to have it abolished. It is not democratic and the massive cost to the State to represent the 16% of the population who have a university degree is outrageous. Graduates of DIT and other third level institutions are not even represented. There is a hierarchy and a discrimination there. It is farcical that there will be a by-election for the Seanad in a few weeks in which only Oireachtas Members will have a vote. Every office will unnecessarily receive registered envelopes for that at a cost of €2,000 to €3,000. We could easily have a different voting system for those who want to vote. Notwithstanding all of the issues that came up during the Seanad referendum campaign, there has been no broadening of the electorate. There are a couple of minor tweaks in relation to free postage and nominating bodies. It will annoy immensely those people who gave their position on it and wanted the Seanad reformed.

Regarding the supplementary register and Dáil elections, only two categories of persons can go on the supplementary register. They are those who have turned 18 since 15 February and new residents in an area. New citizens are not allowed to update their citizenship status as matters stand. I represent a constituency in which one in four people was born outside Ireland. It is at least twice the national average. Nationally, in any event, at least 500,000 people in the State were not born in Ireland. Many of them are excluded from having a vote. In the case of Dublin West and other parts of the country which had an influx of migration during the economic boom, there is a host of people living and working here, some for 15 years, who have no say in who is in their national Parliament. They are completely disenfranchised unless they become Irish citizens, which costs €1,000. Even if they do, they have only climbed one hurdle. I am amazed to discover on a daily basis that many of the people in my area who have become Irish citizens have not had their vote upgraded to vote in Dáil elections.

The Department of Justice and Equality is organising fantastic naturalisation ceremonies, some of which I have attended with people I know, but it does not have someone present to register people for Dáil elections. People walk away from the ceremony thinking they are Irish citizens with the right to vote, but they do not have the right unless they go and upgrade their vote themselves. Most of them are oblivious of having to do that. I cannot understand how so much is being put in by the State to speed up the naturalisation process, which I welcome, yet it does not inform people about this there and then and have someone present. I was at a citizenship ceremony recently at which the Garda band was playing music. All that was needed was a garda there to register people. I do not understand how that is not happening.

This issue is hitting large swathes of people in Dublin West, the constituency with which I am most familiar. In one area of the constituency, 51% of people there are not Irish. When one walks around that area with the electoral register, one finds that hardly anyone is on it notwithstanding the fact that many of those people are Irish citizens. I deplore the fact that local authorities are making no effort to mass register people in the way that is required. We need a proactive campaign to register all kinds of people, not just new citizens. Councils should be engaging with immigrant and community groups to promote registration and make it easier. I am beginning to ask if the Government is happy that people are not registering to vote in the numbers that are needed. We know that is the case in urban areas and working class communities.

There should be a push by the Department of Justice and Equality when it is naturalising people to inform them of the registration issue at the ceremony itself. We need an electoral commission that will consistently apply the law. It could have a remit on central information to be used to update citizenship status. Everyone who has lived and worked in the country for more than four years should be entitled to have a vote on what goes on in the country. One should not have to be a citizen to vote. It is not a requirement in other countries that one must change one's citizenship in order to get a vote. If one is paying tax and living here and wants to vote, one should have a right to vote. In many cases, people are married. We had an ironic situation in the marriage equality referendum. I know EU citizens who do not have a right to vote in Dáil general elections but who have lived and worked here for years and are in relationships and have families. They were campaigning for a "Yes" vote but they did not have the vote themselves. We should change and look at that in the electoral commission. I hope that will be considered seriously.

My office is currently writing to hundreds of constituents to update their registration details, but I see nothing being done by the local authorities in areas with new, broad, heterogenous, multi-ethnic populations to have a register that is reflective of the local population. I wonder why. Obviously, resources are an issue. Our local authority is being resourced to do that. There are communities in which mass registration could be done. Many of us attended the briefings by the USI recently. It pointed out that in the marriage equality referendum, it mass registered tens of thousands of students to vote for the first time. That was a very positive development. If the USI can be facilitated to do that, what efforts is the Minister of State and her Department making to ensure this happens in other areas not just among students, but among working class communities, migrant communities and so on? It is shameful that we have taken in people and society has changed, but we do not seem to be concerned that they have a right to vote.

I am extremely disappointed that three technical measures are being proposed in the Dáil and taking up hours of time when much more serious reforms could have been introduced on the electoral register and voting which would have encouraged people to vote. Many people are going to be very disappointed to find that they are disenfranchised when they roll up to vote, hopefully against the Government, in February.

I refer to the provision for local voters who become naturalised. Deputy Coppinger just raised the issue.

My constituency, or at least part of it, has a similar profile. Recently, I made inquiries with my local authority about this matter. Consequently, I tabled a parliamentary question this week because I wanted to find out the Department's position. Although the council had a process, it was very much its own and ad hoc. When I rang the council, I was told that if people appeared with their passports, photocopies would be taken at reception and passed to the office that updated the council's electoral register. Something that came to light was that people could fall through the cracks. For example, a Dublin council is updating people's records on the draft register, which is to be published next February. Were an election called in the meantime, though, where would those people stand? They would need to be included in the supplementary register. If we move from the local authorities' relatively ad hoc procedure to the more formal one that is outlined in the Bill, I am concerned that some people will fall through the cracks when the information collected is not followed through on. People might believe that they have registered, but because they did not do so under the new procedure, that might not actually be the case. The Department needs to be mindful of this issue and liaise with local authorities so as to ensure that whatever they have been doing joins up with the new procedure. It is an urgent issue, as there could have been an election in November according to newspaper reports, although it does not look like that now. It is important that this matter be advertised and made known publicly. For example, where does someone who has already provided a passport to a local authority stand?

The story should be clear and there should be an advertising campaign using, for example, media organs like the old Metro Herald, the Evening Herald and local and national newspapers as well as online fora. In the lead up to the election, will the Department consider a campaign to educate voters? I mean this in a general sense. We have a sophisticated electorate but PR-STV, which I support as the best electoral system, is complex. Some voters whom I have encountered have lived in Ireland for all of their lives yet still ask me why I am not on local election ballot papers, what happens if they vote beyond No. 1 and so on. Some members of the general population do not fully understand how the system works.

There is a particular issue with people from other countries. I noticed something about a large number of ballot papers at a local election. It just so happened that they would have been for the Labour Party had they been valid, which is why I noticed them. It seems that people who wanted to vote for Labour where we had, for example, two candidates only put a tick beside each candidate's name. Their votes were spoiled. I do not know for sure, but I figure that some of those voters were newcomers to Ireland, were used to their own countries' systems and were not familiar with ours. I am sure that other political parties and independent candidates were also affected. As we have so many new voters, we need voter education. Television adverts informing people on voting methods are common in, for example, Pakistan. Going online and using YouTube or so on would be cheaper, but there should be as much voter education as possible and the Department should consider what other countries have done. Voter education campaigns should also take into accounts literacy issues stemming from language difficulties and poverty.

While I commend the work of local groups that have provided voter education, I would not leave it just to them. Unfortunately, there can be a political bias. As politicians, we will educate people as best we can, but it would be good to have an independent body. Ideally, an electoral commission would organise this work. In the interim, though, the Department should consider doing it. If money is an issue, there are many ways to educate voters cheaply, for example, via local and social media, YouTube and so on. The communities in question should be targeted. People from different countries have varying levels of understanding where our voting system is concerned. Those who have been in Ireland for longer have grown used to our system.

This is an important issue and I hope that the Minister of State, the Department and the official who is present with the Minister of State today and is experienced in this regard, having been the national Returning Officer at elections, take my comments on board.

Tá áthas orm bheith in ann labhairt ar an mBille seo. It is amazing how time flies. The Minister of State has been nearly five years in government, yet there has been virtually no electoral reform. Even the small matters have been overlooked. After the last election, there was a general consensus that the establishment of an electoral commission would be a good idea. I happened to be the environment Minister at that election, but my only involvement in it beyond signing the order was trying to ensure that as many unemployed people as possible were given jobs at polling stations, which is an initiative that we should continue.

The idea of an electoral commission that is not only independent but is seen to be independent in the operation of elections is a good one. It should have general oversight to ensure uniform implementation across the country. Approaches to polling stations often vary. Our use of community halls or schools should be uniform throughout the country. We must also ensure that every building used is accessible and has all necessary facilities.

There has been a great deal of discussion of the Seanad, and rightly so, because all that we are getting is a provision on envelopes. Sometimes, we wait for so long to tackle the big reforms that we end up making none. There has been no reason in the past four and a half years not at least to open the university franchise to graduates of all universities in the State. It is farcical that we are still tied to the NUI-TCD model.

Many people who are critical of the Seanad actually do not know why there are university seats in that House at all. The reason, of course, is that up to 1937, including under British law and, amazingly, under the Free State Constitution, there were university seats in the House of Commons and then in the Dáil. Quite rightly, when the new Constitution was being introduced in 1937, it was decided to abolish university seats in Dáil Éireann and make it a House of popular franchise such that every Member would be elected directly by the people. One might ask why university seats were not simply abolished. The argument against that at the time was quite valid. I believe there were two seats in the Dáil for the National University of Ireland and two for Trinity College at the time. In those days, the majority of graduates of Trinity College belonged to the Unionist minority. It was felt that, by transferring those seats into the Seanad and increasing the representation to three, it would ensure the minority voice would be heard in Leinster House. The Protestant Unionist population tended to be so scattered around the Twenty-six Counties at the time that it would not have been able to ensure election in any one constituency. That was then and this is now and circumstances have changed dramatically, but it is important for people to understand that the historical reason for the arrangement was very valid. It is time, or thar a bheith in am, that we changed the law. That could have happened quite simply here.

The second point that is interesting about this is that the State recognised what I would call dispersed minorities. I refer to a community within a community that is so dispersed that it cannot, in any democratic election, elect its own representatives. We seem to have lost that concept. It is one that could be revived in the context of the Seanad.

There has been considerable disquiet among all fair-minded people in the past two weeks over the horrendous deaths in the fires in Carrickmines. Those of us who work continuously with the Traveller community have had first-hand experience of how it is discriminated against. From interviews in a very detailed work produced by the eminent sociologist Dr. Mícheál Mac Gréil over 30 or 35 years, the most recent version of which was launched in the past few years, it was found that 18% of the people of this State believe Travellers should not be given Irish citizenship. Travellers are people of this soil and of this land. They comprise the most disliked group in our society, not because of anything they do but because of who they are.

One very dramatic and positive step that could be taken on Committee Stage would be the introduction of an amendment to ensure Traveller representation in Seanad Éireann. We often hear about emigrant representation. That is a little more tricky for a number of logistical reasons but the proposal on Travellers would be quite simple. Alternatively, one could even introduce an amendment that would make Traveller groups, such as Pavee Point, nominating bodies for the Seanad. That would be even easier on Committee Stage. It would ensure Traveller representation in the Oireachtas. This would begin to change perceptions of the Traveller community.

Let me outline an interesting point in Fr. Mac Gréil's study, which considered every kind of group, both national and non-national. The study found that the main in-group in Irish society comprises Irish language speakers. One might ask why not, but one should think about the status of Irish language speakers in 1890, for example. They were part of a small, peripheral, poor community on the west coast comprising small farmers and fishermen, who are not normally considered the greatest in-group in society. One should consider how social engineering over a hundred years, perhaps not for the purpose of bringing the group in but to promote the Irish language, had the interesting sociological effect of bringing the group in from the margin such that, when measured against all comers, it became the main in-group in Irish society. Therefore, there is a way of bringing about change by creating status. It is time that we created status for Travellers.

I hope the Minister of State will do the job I propose but if she does not, we will do it. On 7 May 2014, I published the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014. Bhí cúis an-simplí leis an mBille sin. Is é sin, i láthair na huaire, faoi na dlithe toghcháin, is féidir toghchán a reachtáil ar na hoileáin amach ón gcósta i dTír Chonaill, Maigh Eo, Gaillimh agus Corcaigh lá nó dhó roimh lá an olltoghcháin, toghchán uachtaránachta nó reifreann agus mar sin de. An chéad toradh a bhíonn ar sin ná nach mbíonn an díospóireacht thart nuair a chaitheas na hoileánaigh vótáil, más sin a shocraíonn an ceann comhairimh. Mar shampla, anois is féidir leis na meáin a bheith ag plé leis an toghchán go meán lae lá roimh an toghchán, ach i gcásanna, bíonn an toghchán thart do na hoileánaigh dhá lá roimh ré. Freisin, i láthair na huaire sa dlí, fágtar é seo faoin gceann comhairimh i ngach dáilcheantar.

An dara rud ná go hiondúil bíonn toghchán ar an Aoine. An fáth go mbíonn sé ar siúl ar an Aoine ná gur féidir le daoine ón tuath filleadh abhaile don toghchán tráthnóna Dé hAoine agus vótáil. Ní gá dóibh lá saoire a thógáil ón obair le vótáil. Má bhíonn an toghchán ar na hoileáin lá nó dhó roimh ré, bíonn orthu lá saoire nó go deimhin dhá lá saoire a thógáil, ceann le dul isteach agus ceann le dul amach, le gur féidir leo vótáil. Bhí an fhoráil seo ann ar chúis mhaith blianta ó shin, nuair nach raibh rochtain éasca chuig na hoileáin. Ach níl oileán ar bith anois amach ón gcósta nach bhfuil seirbhís báid laethúil ann agus is corruair ariamh go dteipeann ar an mbád teacht isteach. An cineál stoirme a theastódh le nach bhféadfaidís seoladh, is ar éigean go bhféadfaí feidhmiú ar an mórthír ach oiread. Ar ndóigh, sa chás go dtarlódh an rud uair sa 1,000 nó sa 10,000, is go raibh stoirm ollmhór ann, táimid in ann an jab a dhéanamh le héileacaptar. Murar féidir le bád ná héileacaptar seoladh, ní bheadh muid in ann daoine a thabhairt isteach ar an mórthír ach oiread.

Tá an rud a tharlaíonn i gCorcaigh spéisiúil. I gCorcaigh le blianta fada bhí an toghchán ar na hoileáin ar an lá céanna leis an mórthír agus ní raibh aon fhadhb leis sin, agus tá Oileán Chléire chomh fada amach sa bhfarraige le haon oileán eile. Más féidir seo a dhéanamh i gCorcaigh, cén fáth nach féidir é a dhéanamh i nGaillimh, áit nach bhfuil i gceist ach ceithre oileán, na hOiléain Árainn - tá go leor cainte déanta faoi rochtain chucu sin le gairid - agus Inis Bó Finne? Níl ach ceithre oileán freisin i gceist i gContae Mhaigh Eo, Inis Bigil agus trí oileán eile, agus sílim go mbíonn vótáil ar cheithre nó cúig oileán i gContae Thír Chonaill, Gabhla, Inis Fraoigh, Árainn Mhór agus Oileán Thoraí.

Go deimhin, ar na hoileáin bheaga, ceadaítear lá gairid vótála. Ar Inis Fraoigh agus Gabhla, ní bhíonn ann ach ceithre nó cúig huaire a chloig le vótáil ar lá na vótála. Mar sin, beidh muid ag cur síos leasuithe ar Chéim an Choiste le leasadh a dhéanamh leis an ndiscréid a bhaint de na cinn comhairimh sa cheist seo, le go gcaithfidh an toghchán a bheith ar an lá céanna leis an gcuid eile den tír.

As I have said in Irish, we will be proposing an amendment on Committee Stage of this Bill to have the islands and mainland vote on the same day.

Early-day voting is a relic of the past which, thankfully, is now gone. I believe I played my part in terms of providing reliable ferry services on piers and islands to ensure that it is a thing of the past. The argument made was that the ballot boxes might not be got in on time for the count, but that is a redundant argument. If the Minister checked the number of days the ferries do not sail from the islands at the appointed times, she would find they were few and far between. It would take a hell of a storm to stop them. If that extreme case were to happen, we always have the fall-back of the helicopter services available around the coast that can travel in every kind of weather. In fact, we have often argued that it is quicker to get a patient in from the island than it would be from certain more rural parts of my constituency and, therefore, the argument for previous-day voting is gone.

One might ask why this is such a big issue. The reason we now hold elections commonly on a Friday is to allow people from the country who are working or studying away to get home and vote, and not to force them to get involved in postal votes, which people inevitably forget to do. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but we must remember there is an even bigger proportion of the island population that have to go the mainland to work or study. They commonly go home every weekend, but having the voting on a Wednesday or a Thursday means they have to take a day or a day and a half off work to go home, vote and then come back again, whereas if voting was on a Friday they could go out to the islands. As I said, the logistics of bringing the boxes back are not huge. It is really simple, because there are fantastic boat and ferry services now to all the islands.

We propose that the provision allowing the returning officers to choose an early date be deleted. If the Minister wants a practical example as to whether that will cause great commotion in the country, I would put this point to her. For years now, the Cork islands have had same-day voting. Most of Cork's islands are inshore, with one exception - Cape Clear, which is as far out to sea, when one considers the boat quality they would have, as any of the other islands one might argue about, namely, Clare Island, Inishturk, Inisbofin, the three Aran Islands, and Tory Island, because Aranmore, Gola and Inishfree are near the coast. As the Minister knows, Aran is already blessed with both an air service - long may it last - and a boat service. It is fantastic in this day and age that those living on the Aran Islands, which have on them half of the voting population, have to vote a day earlier than everybody else. They also complain bitterly that they miss out on the last days of the campaign. They have voted by the time the campaign winds up. Whether it is we or the Minister who put down the amendments, I hope that this relic of times gone by - and it was a legitimate relic, although the original reason for it was the Seanad - will go. It is very important in politics that we do not continue to do things just because there was a valid reason in the past.

That reminds me of a story I was told by a Secretary General when I was a Minister in which he illustrated this point about things continuing to happen in the system long after the good reason for doing them had disappeared. He told me that when the group of people called Fianna Fáil came into power in 1932, they found out that a copy of every Cabinet memo was sent to Whitehall. Being very strong Republicans, they ordered that no more memos were to be sent to Whitehall. Civil servants were always very obedient and, apparently, the civil servants said, "We had better do what the Government has told us to do. No memo is to go to Whitehall. But this crowd won't last any time whatsoever - they are only a temporary measure - so we will put each memo aside, and when they are gone out of office, we will send them all over to Whitehall." That was in 1932. The Minister knows what happened. Fianna Fáil won the elections in 1933, 1937, 1938, 1943 and 1944, all in a row, and they were still in power right up to 1948. Some time in the late 1940s, a junior civil servant who had never known anything about this asked why they always put one extra memo aside. Whoever they asked said they did not know but would find out. After a while, they came back and said that the reason the memos were being put aside was that they were eventually to be sent to Whitehall. In the meantime, there was a new Constitution, and the question of Whitehall being involved in our affairs was long gone, but they were still putting the memo aside. This island voting issue is in the same realm, and the Minister will be given 100 reasons not to do it.

The Minister of State has responsibility for rural development. She knows the attitudes that pervade. Where it seems so difficult to provide rural or island communities with simple things, this would be a nice legacy. I know she has not been in that position for the four years, but this would be a nice legacy for her to leave behind - to put this one right. It would make her colleagues a lot more popular on the islands if she grabbed the bull by the horns and said that, technologically, there is no problem now getting the ballot papers in. It is just not an issue. Let us get on with it and give them the same franchise as the people on the mainland.

We must not forget that more islanders have to live off-island during the week for work or for fishing. So many of them are out fishing all week, and they come back on a Friday evening to their families. It is very interesting because every time I look at the island boxes I see that the turnout is low. That is not because they are not interested in politics; they surely are interested. It is because it is a huge sacrifice for them, that they should not be asked to make, to get to vote, particularly at busy times of the year.

A number of issues were raised this afternoon. I thank the Deputies on all sides for their contributions to the debate. I would very much like to thank Deputy Ó Cuív as well for his history lesson and for encouraging me to agree to his amendment. We have not agreed it yet but I encourage the Deputy to put down the amendment so that it can be debated. I would like to see how that debate develops. I am not sure whether that makes the Deputy happy-----

It makes me very happy.

-----but I will certainly consider the debate and see what happens at the end of it.

I want to respond to some of the issues raised. All of the Deputies supported the measures in the Bill. The Bill deals with three specific issues that will bring about real and meaningful change. The Bill adapts electoral law to changing circumstances. Its purpose is to modernise electoral law to meet the changing circumstances we see in Ireland. I believe that was the thrust of Deputy Ó Cuív's contribution.

Significant savings can be realised in the cost of running the next general election with the change in the Freepost arrangements for Dáil elections. Deputy Coppinger said they were meagre savings. I am not sure what world Deputy Coppinger lives in, but in my world a saving of €3.6 million is significant. I take this opportunity to advise Deputies that it is also the Minister's intention to commence the household distribution provision for presidential elections. That, too, will have a potential saving.

Our new citizens who meet the age and residency requirements will be entitled to apply for entry in the supplementary register for all elections and referendums once they acquire Irish citizenship.

The amendment on the format of the ballot paper for use in Dáil elections that the Minister will bring forward on Committee Stage should help voters to avoid misplacing voting preferences. It should also be more user-friendly for voters with visual and literacy difficulties.

Numerous points were raised on the electoral commission. In his remarks on electoral administration, Deputy Cowen neglected to refer to the consultation paper on the establishment of an electoral commission. This was published in January by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly. The joint Oireachtas committee of which the Deputy is a member has done good work this year in engaging with a wide range of interested parties on the paper. The Minister now awaits the report and the recommendations of the committee. This will further inform the development of the electoral commission Bill. Contrary to what Deputy Cowen suggested, this Government has a proud record of electoral reform. We have overseen significant enhancement of our political funding regulatory system, effective banning of corporate donations, the reduction of donation limits, as well as greater transparency, including through the publication of party accounts. I hope the candidate gender balance provisions will change the face of the next Dáil, but that is a matter for the electorate. In any event, at least we will now be giving the electorate a choice.

Deputy Stanley spoke at length on Seanad reform. That is a matter for another day or, perhaps, many other days. However, it is important that we debate the issue further.

Deputies referred to the electoral register. I doubt if there has ever been a discussion in this House on electoral matters in which difficulties relating to the electoral register were not raised. People who have come up through the local authority system know that this is a constant source of angst between the executive and elected members. As we move into the future, technology is going begin to play a major role in ensuring that the way to register to vote will be far simpler.

Deputy Ó Cuív has campaigned for many years on voting on the islands. I would encourage him to bring forward his amendment. Let us see where that amendment will take us.

Deputy Tuffy remarked on new citizen registration. When the Bill is passed the Department will be engaging with the local authorities, the Department of Justice and Equality and other bodies representing our new citizens in respect of new provisions to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from the change in this law.

I believe I have addressed most of the issues. I thank the Deputies for their interesting contributions.

Question put and agreed to.