Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000: Committee Stage.


I move amendment No. 1:

In page 6, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following new subsection:

"(9) The Údarás na Gaeltachta Acts, 1979 to 1999 and this Act in so far as they relate to Údarás elections may be cited together as the Údarás na Gaeltachta Elections Acts, 1979 to 2001 and shall be read together as one."

This a straightforward, self-explanatory amendment. It is designed to ensure that Údarás elections are covered by this legislation and its provisions and that the Údarás na Gaeltachta Acts, 1979 to 1999, and this Act be cited together and should be read together as one.

This amendment seeks to include a reference to the Údarás na Gaeltachta Acts, 1979 to 1999, in section 1, which provides for collective citations. There is a number of references in the Bill to Údarás na Gaeltachta elections but none of the Údarás Acts is to be amended in this case. The Údarás na Gaeltachta Acts form a separate legislative code and while they are referred to in the Electoral Act, 1992, a citation is not included in that Act.

This is not a matter over which we should fall out. If the Senator agrees to withdraw this amendment, I will raise the matter again with the parliamentary counsel to be absolutely certain and, if necessary, I will bring forward an amendment on Report Stage. The advice I have received is that the amendment is not necessary as we are not amending the Údarás na Gaeltachta Acts.

I should explain the situation concerning the number of official amendments to the Bill. They fall broadly into three categories. There are normal drafting amendments which are to improve or to clarify the text. There are 53 amendments to Part 3, which has to do with electronic voting etc. These are mostly very minor drafting amendments. There is a large number because the Bill was drafted before the tendering procedures were finalised in relation to the electronic voting system and before the preferred supplier was chosen. The type of system chosen gives rise to changes and modifications in some sections of the Bill. There are also amendments to Part 4 of the Bill dealing with new limits on political donations and related matters. I hope to circulate these latter amendments early next week. We will discuss them in detail when we get to Part 4 of the Bill in two weeks' time.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

With regard to the new technology and the related Government amendments, would the Government's hands be tied if there were further changes in electronic voting technology? Would the Minister have to introduce more amendments or draft a new Bill later if the technology were to change?

These amendments will be discussed when we reach them.

Such a situation could arise. I cannot foresee how the technology will change, although I am sure it will change over coming years. We have to change the Electoral Acts frequently. It is done practically once every Dáil term. Things change and legislation is adapted. I am sure this Bill will be no different.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 2 agreed to.

Amendment No. 3 is an alternative to amendment No. 2 and they may be discussed together, by agreement.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 6, before section 3, but in Part 1 of the Bill, to insert the following new section:

"3. A political party, the President, a member of either House of the Oireachtas, of the European Parliament, of a local authority or of Údarás na Gaeltachta, or a candidate for any of the said offices, shall not directly or indirectly accept a donation for political (including electoral) purposes from any person (including a body corporate) other than a Dáil elector.".

The Minister has explained the grouping of his amendments and I must comment on the manner in which we are dealing with Committee Stage and the amendments. It is appropriate to do so in the context of amendments Nos. 2 and 3 as they refer to the issue of political donations.

The Minister referred to Part 4 of the Bill and particularly to the issue of new limits on political donations. That is at the heart of this legislation. It is not right for us to split Committee Stage of the Bill as we are doing. My complaint is not about time factors, it is that we do not have the full list of what are substantial amendments on a major section of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 would probably be grouped with amendments in Part 4 of the Bill if we had those amendments. We are to have a debate now on political donations, but we will have to return to the same matter after the Government has published its amendments.

This is not the right way to deal with legislation. We should see the Bill as a whole and debate it in that fashion. A Committee Stage with a large number of amendments can lead to a fractured debate. Members on this side of the House are blind to the views of the Government on this central issue. We cannot have a proper, comprehensive debate on this issue without reference to the thinking of the Government.

There has been agreement on approaching Committee Stage in this way but I have reservations about it. I do not think this is the right way to proceed. However, at this stage, I will confine my remarks to the issue of political donations and to the amendment which the Labour Senators have tabled.

The whole issue of corporate donations to political parties, and to individuals in parties, is one which currently dominates political discourse. I do not have to point out that it has done so for the past couple of years. Revelations have come to us by way of the tribunals. This week further revelations point out to us as politicians what we clearly know, that the issue of corporate donations to individuals and political parties must be dealt with. Unresolved, the issue hangs like a black cloud over politics. It continues to undermine public confidence in politics and politicians.

The Labour Party, having received its strongest ever mandate, entered government in 1992 and brought with it a programme of reform. The programme was supported by our partners in Government, Fianna Fáil and in the latter part of that Administration by Fine Gael and Democratic Left. The elements of the programme sought to reform Irish politics and to bring about a degree of modernisation. It also sought to bring to the fore the very important issue of the separation of business and politics. Thus, the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995, was enacted, despite much resistance. I was working as a political adviser at the time and I remember that some individuals, now no longer Members of the Oireachtas, had particular difficulty with the idea of the public having access to and knowledge of a politician's business affairs. To some extent, and although thinking has changed considerably on this matter, one could understand where that came from. The thinking was that politicians could separate their business and political lives and that the public could see that separation. That was based on a high degree of trust, not only in the individual but also in the party they represented and that party's other members. As we know, that trust is broken. It has been blown apart by the activities of a small number of politicians.

It is well established that the need to separate business and politics is of paramount importance. It has been done in other democracies and it is being done here. We are still going through the process, the first element of which was the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. Other elements have been electoral Acts, agreed by all parties in previous Administrations. It has led to not only the register of Members' interests but also to a declaration of spending at elections and, for the first time, a limit on the amount which can be spent in general or by-elections. We have come to the point of accepting that in principle. The issue of corporate donations to political parties remains to be dealt with.

I have referred to the fact that trust has been broken. There is no need to recite the long list of reasons that is the case. The acceptance of donations by a small number of politicians and the perception in the public mind that that was inevitably and potentially linked to decisions made by them must be tackled. I will comment no further on that because I believe it is quite rightly in the realm of the tribunals. The tribunals have asked the media not to make judgments before they have fully reported and we should also adhere to that. In the public mind there have been occasions in political life where money bought influence. As well as taking that into account we must also act on it.

In the 1997 general election, when I stood for the first time as a Labour Party candidate, I proposed that the party should support a complete ban on political donations and advocate the idea of State funding for political parties, that we should support the entire separation of business and politics. At that time the idea was considered to be radical and unlikely to gain public support. Since then the public, and most members of political parties, have gradually and inevitably come around to the view that it is necessary to end the practice of corporate donations and address the issue of State funding for parties. While there is a suggestion that a donation made to a candidate, politician or party could be seen to have bought influence, public trust cannot be restored.

We must go as far as we can to ensure that there is a full separation of business and politics. The only way to do that is to end the practice of corporate donations, to severely limit the practice of personal donations and to have full transparency and accountability on spending by parties and candidates. In addition, the limits on election time spending should be relatively low. The Labour Party is anxious that this legislation specifically incorporates our views on this issue. This amendment is the first of several on political donations which we shall table.

This debate is being held, in effect, in a vacuum. We do not know the Government's thinking on this. Presumably the Minister will tell me that he will publish amendments next week. I have no way of responding to that and therefore we cannot have the full Committee Stage debate – unless, that is, the Minister gives us an indication today what Government thinking is on this matter. If he does, I will very much welcome it. We cannot move forward without a full view of the Government's thinking.

There is a little bit of history as to why we are here this afternoon. Last Friday I discovered there were in the region of 90 Government amendments to this Bill. I objected to the proposal to discuss the Bill on Tuesday without giving the Opposition an opportunity to look at the amendments. At that stage I thought we would be looking at the entire Bill, not three-quarters of it. The debate was changed to today to allow time to look at those amendments. I thought we would be dealing with all the amendments. Since that is not the case, my colleagues in the Labour Party and I availed of the opportunity to focus on the highlight of the Bill, namely, the part to which members of the public will pay most attention. While the concept of electronic voting and tallying is attractive to the public and the media, the reality is that people are more interested in considering political donations as a form of undue influence. That is the pivotal point of the Bill. It is a pity we do not have the opportunity today to consider all aspects of this matter and to discover the Minister's thinking in respect of it.

My amendment No. 3 is not structured in nature. It could not be structured because it cannot respond unless there is something in place to which it can respond. Like Senator O'Meara, I hope that by next week, if he does not inform us about it today, we will have a good indication of the nature of the Minister's thinking. By the following week we will, at least, be able to table amendments or adjust those put down. We may not have to table amendments if the Minister comes around to our way of thinking, which, we believe, is the right way.

Senator O'Meara referred to the American system in which recognised professional lobby groups operate. In the US House of Representatives and Senate, there are Congressmen and Senators who represent particular companies or industries. For example, some of these representatives are strong supporters of the tobacco industry and arms manufacturers. One might say that surely this practice should be condemned, but it is somewhat more honest because people know exactly what and whom these individuals represent. I am not saying that is good practice, but it is more honest than not knowing the origin of donations or the purposes, political or personal, for which they will be used.

We know the current position in respect of this matter and Senator O'Meara outlined how we have reached this point. Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party and, subsequently, Fine Gael and the Labour Party made moves towards ensuring that the public's view of politics would change. As this was happening, further revelations emerged. These revelations have had such an impact that there is a great deal of fear in local government circles about making amendments to zonings etc. because people do not want to be accused of being on the take. I recently attended a local authority meeting at which a member of one party pointed at a group of other politicians and said, "I know why you are recommending those changes, I know what is in it for you." If members of the public do not believe anything to be amiss, they will certainly change their minds when politicians make accusations against each other. It is sad it has come to that.

As a trade or profession, politics has not been held in high regard throughout history. Considering what has happened in recent years, however, I did not know its stock would fall so low. We are responsible for bringing it down to its current level. The attachment to big business is part of the problem. The sooner we detach ourselves from big business the better things will be for everyone because the accusations will cease. I accept it is impossible to legislate for all matters, but it should be possible to legislate to prevent political donations of the type to which I refer. Such donations may be made behind closed doors and there is nothing we can do about that other than to hope that those involved will be caught.

We must enshrine in legislation that those involved in big business, large corporations with their own agendas and viewpoints, builders or developers do not run the country and are not responsible for the decisions taken by these Houses or by any local authority throughout the country. The representatives of the people are responsible for doing so and they are guided in their judgment by what they believe to be right. It is for that reason I tabled my amendment, which is being taken in conjunction with the Labour Party's amendment. It is sad that these amendments are being taken now, out of context. Will the Minister provide an indication of his thinking in respect of donations from corporate bodies or any large group seeking to exercise undue influence? Will he also indicate whether he agrees with the two amendments that have been tabled and state whether he will support them? If he does so, we will know what we must do next week with regard to the most substantial aspect of the Bill.

The motivation behind the amendments and the stated objective of both Senators is to try to see if politics can be restored to a higher level of regard. Democracy in general is a tender flower and requires to be constantly nourished. Where it has failed or been replaced by some other form of Government, the unfortunate consequences have been all too apparent. Everyone in the Chamber shares the Senators' objective.

The two amendments deal specifically with how the political system should be funded in the future. There is a number of issues which arise in respect of this important matter. Both amendments seem to make a distinction between corporate donations and individual donations. I have great difficulty comprehending what is that distinction. In general, corporate Ireland is governed by the boards and shareholders of companies, many of them private. Regardless of whether a company or a director makes a contribution, it is difficult to separate or make a distinction between the two. There was a recent example at one of the tribunals regarding individual donations. I believe that all the parties in this House received contributions from Denis O'Brien. It does not matter whether the donation was made by him or one of his companies.

There is only one party—

In that regard, there is a danger that we can make political footballs out of issues of this nature. That is regrettable because this is an issue in respect of which we must work together to find a solution. I do not believe it applies to Members of this House, but some of the party leaders in the Dáil have tended to try to engage in a purely political campaign in respect of this matter. It would be better if people engaged in a process to reach a consensus on what is best practice.

We are inclined to attribute a great deal of the public's disenchantment with politics to what is emerging from the tribunals. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the western hemisphere. For example, people's reaction to the general election campaign and politicians in Britain is no different from what is happening here. This debate boils down to whether taxpayers should fund the entire political system or whether the base should be broadened beyond that. It would not be good, either for the system or taxpayers, if we found ourselves in the former scenario. Taxpayers have suffered enough and have had to pick up the tab for many things. I do not necessarily deny that they should, through the Exchequer, make some contribution to the political system, but the level of that contribution should not be 100%.

Corporate Ireland has been doing exceptionally well as a result of the enlightened economic policies that have been followed for the past 14 or 15 years. I see nothing wrong with corporate Ireland engaging in some form of pay-back to the political system.

Oh dear.

It is pay-back time.

Corporations make contributions to all political parties and I see nothing wrong with that. To distinguish between contributions made by wealthy directors or shareholders of companies and those made by the companies themselves is nothing more than creating a smokescreen.

It can limit both.

The legislation in place requires individuals and parties to make annual declarations. Companies are also obliged to make declarations of any contributions made. That ultimately is the real safeguard. Perhaps there is a need to place a limit on individual and corporate donations, of which I argue strongly in favour. The amendment in the name of Senator Coogan excludes trade unions to which I have no doubt Senator O'Meara would strongly object.

She would not. She agrees with it. However the Labour Party has objected to it until now and its leader is on record as doing so. The issue should be examined on the basis of full transparency, something I believe to be in place.

I would make one distinction where corporate donations are concerned, that is, that it is an entitlement of members of the public, be they individual or corporate, to make a contribution where they believe the general policies being pursued are good practice and create the culture and climate for business to succeed and prosper. There is nothing wrong with this. It generates employment and creates jobs. We have a good record in Ireland of doing this.

Our economy is the role model for many emerging east European democracies to develop their economies. Much of this is to the credit of those in Government who ensured various incentives and policies encouraged investment and job creation to the point where we have reached the position of full employment and a labour shortage. The opposite was the case 15 or 16 years ago. In such a climate there is nothing wrong with allowing people who are of a mind to do so to make contributions to the political system on an individual or corporate basis. Perhaps the limits should be examined before they are put in place.

I support the amendments. Senator Walsh made the case for supporting them. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If we are into pay back time, what will the public say about this? If the corporations which have benefited from the successful economy in Ireland are to pay back for the economic climate which has developed in the past 14 years, could they not make donations to teachers, for example? Some say the corporations made their money because of the education their employees received. What about their paying teachers?

Who implemented the education policies?

The teachers think differently. They say it was due to their hard work.

No, it was due to the policies.

Senator Henry to continue without interruption.

It is a flawed argument that we must run our democracy by shaping it to suit the better-off.

I, above all others, could do with donations from organisations but, alas, none has ever approached me with any. This proves that donations are only given to those who are seen to have political power and not to those who merely criticise. Donations are made to those who are in a position to do something for the donor by changing legislation, introducing regulations or allowing certain tax exemptions.

I do not know if other Senators have attended the Moriarty or Flood tribunals but I attended them last year. The public galleries for both tribunals were packed with ordinary citizens who had grim faces because they were not pleased with what was being exposed. What has been shown to have happened in the various revelations made before both tribunals in the interim must make them look even more cross.

All countries are trying to clean up their act in order that there will be a definite division between the promotion of political agendas and the business community. There is no such thing as a free lunch and there is always a pay back time, as Senator Walsh said. It appears to be constantly pay back time in Ireland as we discover that huge amounts were given to politicians by persons and corporations. I would love to know if the shareholders of those corporations knew this was happening and, if they did, what they thought about it. Now is the time to strike a blow for democracy and, for example, insist that much more limited amounts be spent on elections.

I do not know if the Minister has ever had it said to him but I have had it frequently said to me by Americans, both politicians and members of the public, that we should try not to let matters go the way of American elections where the richest person wins. That is deplorable. They even have elections for the local dog catcher. It has reached the stage of financially run elections rather than elections on the policies put forward. I hope the Minister accepts one or other of the amendments.

The two amendments propose to ban political donations to parties, public representatives and candidates at elections. There is nothing in them to ban political donations to other groups which might decide they want to influence elections, referendums or other matters. That is one serious flaw in the amendments.

We are all involved in politics and believe in it as an important public service. In the regrettable times in which we live given the revelations coming from tribunals, it is always important to try to maintain a balance in how we deal with what has happened. I am sure no one would disagree with me in the context of what is happening and what has been revealed by the tribunals that we are talking about individuals within the political system who have abused their position of trust. No one has yet levelled an accusation, other than for political reasons, that the political system is corrupt. This is an important distinction. The revelations coming from the tribunals horrify the public, as Senator Henry said, and people are not happy. However I am sure the Senator would agree with me when I say that the looks on the faces of people in both Houses of the Oireachtas as these revelations came out were even more shocked than those on the faces of members of the public. It is important we maintain a sense of proportion.

I agree with Senator Walsh that all of us in public life should try to ensure any wrongdoing is revealed and that people are punished for this but that we should not feed the group which wants to tar every politician and all politics with the same brush. That would be unfair to the vast majority of Members of both Houses. It is not a political point to say – it would be the case if the political boot switched foot – that unfortunately we tend to try to make political capital from these revelations and in so doing lose sight of the damage we do to the political system and people on all sides of both Houses who do not condone the type of activity which took place.

The subject matter of the amendments will be discussed in conjunction with Part 4 of the Bill. They deal with amendments to the Electoral Act, 1997. I have made my views on the issue known on a number of occasions, including the occasion of the debate on Second Stage in this House. When the Bill was published in December 2000 I promised new controls on political donations and provision for the opening of special donations accounts by public representatives. I will be publishing amendments to give effect to this commitment in the course of the next week.

Senators O'Meara and Coogan have asked me to give the House information on these amendments. Some Senators may be aware that discussions have taken place between political leaders on this question. These discussions are continuing and I do not wish to give absolute details regarding them. They refer to a limit on the size of corporate and all other donations. Amendments will require every public representative to deposit donations received for political purposes in a special donations account. If, five or ten years later, a public representative claims that money received was a political donation, that money will have been declared when it was received. It will be an offence not to have declared such a donation.

The requirement of having a special donations account will apply to political parties at all levels and campaign groups which accept donations for political purposes. If political parties are to be restricted in their expenditure, it is important that campaign groups and those who involve themselves in the political system be limited in their expenditure also. That is only fair, from a constitutional point of view. Public representatives, political parties and campaign groups will have to certify on an annual basis that all donations were lodged in the special donations accounts and there will be a limit on those donations.

This afternoon's discussion concerns the distinction between corporate and non-corporate donations. Most of the arguments regarding this question have been made many times. I have invited many people to come up with a definition of a corporate donation but no one has done so. Does it mean that anyone who is associated with a company should be precluded from making a donation to a political party? I do not think that is what the amendment says. If a company filters money through its ten directors and they make political donations, would these be corporate or individual donations? The definition of corporate and individual donations is a difficult matter. It is much more effective to limit all donations to a level which would not be perceived by the public as placing undue influence on a political party or individual politician. Senator Henry made this point, if I understood her correctly.

The other side of this argument, which is not being sufficiently addressed, is the effect on the political system of a total ban on funding from private sources. Senator O'Meara said she perceives a public acceptance of full taxpayers' funding of the political system which did not exist when she first made the suggestion three or four years ago. The last opinion poll I saw on this issue showed that approximately 75% of those surveyed thought the taxpayer should not pay for the political system. That is not a reason for not doing so.


I am not saying that. I merely say that there is not a public acceptance of State funding for political parties. This is probably a reflection of the public's perception of politics.

If we adopt a system of public funding of the political system, we will soon hear members of the public objecting to the spending of money on posters, literature and other campaign costs. There will then be repeated calls for reductions in the amount spent on political campaigns. We will eventually have a political system in which we will be unable to make our views known to the public.

That is how I am now.

We will have a full separation of business from politics, trade unions from politics, farmers from politics and eventually, people from politics.

We must address this issue. The McKenna judgment forbids State funding of electoral campaigns. If corporate and individual donations are banned, no money will be available for election campaigns. My party has erected posters calling for a yes vote in the forthcoming referendum. I have seen Fine Gael posters showing the name of each of its public representatives, although I am not sure if the posters are saying yes to the Nice treaty or the public representatives.

The posters will probably be useful during the general election campaign. The political system is subject to expenditure limits. Corporate donations have certainly dried up in the last two or three years and political parties are facing into a general election, yet groups which appear with post office box numbers seem to be able to put up more posters than every single political party. Is this the kind of democracy with which we want to finish up? We have to maintain a sense of balance.

If we ban private donations, we must also consider the effect this will have on new political parties entering the system. Most of the funding currently made available for political parties is made available on the basis of the previous election. If donations are banned and people are barred from contributing to the political system and parties, one is saying in effect that there shall be no new political parties. The alternative is to say that anybody who can get 300 people together at any one time, draft a constitution and hold an annual general meeting will be entitled to State funding at the same level as a political party which has 20, 30, 40, 60 or 70 Members in the Dáil. These issues have to be addressed. The mantras of "ban corporate donations" and "ban people's right to subscribe to the political system" are not as simple as some are trying to make out and that realisation is dawning on people at this stage.

I agree with the principle of putting in place a system whereby there can be no reasonable perception that business has any more influence over politics or politicians than social welfare recipients, the unemployed, the poor or anybody else. An objective examination of the history of this State, looking at where we came from and taking into account the establishment of our health and social welfare systems, would conclude that while there have been aberrations in the past, the system, by and large, has served us pretty well.

I will not be accepting the amendments but I certainly think this matter is worthy of being teased out in greater detail. My only concern is that we have limited time in which to go through many technical amendments. If we spend the remainder of the time discussing this issue in a vacuum, without my amendments being brought forward, we will not serve our purposes very well. I would like to spend as much time as possible the next day on these and associated issues that have to be addressed as a result of the limits we propose to put on corporate funding and private funding generally.

I hope the Minister will agree that I am being reasonable. I am being very balanced and reasonable on this matter and appreciate that the Minister is also given his position. Nevertheless I have some fundamental disagreements with him and wish to respond to a number of points he mentioned. It is not my intention to hold up the moving of technical amendments.

Very well.

I am a strong supporter of electronic voting and was hoping the Minister would have had it in place for the by-election. I certainly hope he will have it in place in time for the general election. He might start by putting it into operation in the constituency of Tipperary North. It is not my intention to delay the technical amendments. I appreciate that this legislation is important and there is much in it with which we want to deal. This issue is not only at the heart of the legislation but also at the heart of politics.

The Minister referred to discussions between political parties in which there has been a failure to reach agreement so far. There have been a number of problems, specifically with the fact that we in the Labour Party cannot reach agreement with the Government parties on this matter. I am not sure that such an agreement will be reached between now and next week.

The Minister referred to campaign groups which, strictly speaking, are not political parties but which could easily become involved in a general election, a referendum campaign or other issues. The Minister has a legitimate point and I agree with him. A framework could be constructed for limiting political donations, thus causing individuals in political parties to be hamstrung, while, on the other hand, campaign groups – outside but parallel to the political process – which have no such limits on their donations could have a huge impact. I agree with the Minister that any position that is arrived at will have to incorporate this eventuality. It will also have to incorporate donations from outside the State and foreign groups seeking to influence our elec tions and referenda. I would support the Minister in that regard.

The Minister has not told us his view on what the limit should be, although the Tánaiste has spoken about a limit of £4,000. In the same interview the Tánaiste also talked about the right that businesses should have to make contributions or donations to political parties. That phrase has stuck in my mind ever since because I fundamentally disagree with the position. Similarly, I disagree with the comment by Senator Walsh that because we now have economic prosperity and businesses are doing well they have some obligation to pay back the political parties. That is so utterly wrong and designed to undermine confidence in our political system. Political parties have absolutely no right to expect a pay-back from businesses and neither should businesses expect to have to make a contribution to political parties. It is so important to make the separation between the two, otherwise allegations of wrongdoing, corruption and influence – the kind of things we are currently surrounded by – will arise immediately.

The Minister says we can set a limit which is not perceived by the public to be an undue influence on an individual or political party but I do not know what that limit is. The sum of £150 might be a considerable amount for a candidate in a tight corner running a strictly budgeted campaign, yet for another candidate £100,000 may not be a huge amount. I do not know how the public will make that distinction or how we can read the public mind in that regard.

In recent times large figures have been bandied about in the media and by tribunals. As to some extent our tolerance has been dulled, I really do not know where the limit can be set. Nor do I know what the limit is beyond which a reasonable member of the public would take the view that somebody had been unduly influenced. We should also look at it from the other point of view. The point is constantly being made that only a very small number of politicians are involved but unfortunately the fact of the matter is that we are all tainted. The vast majority of politicians and others in public service are honest, decent, right-thinking people who want to do the correct thing. However, whether we like it, we are all tainted because this business has gone on for so long and we have not tackled it sufficiently. It is similar to the planning issue as people openly say they are sure brown envelopes were used, even though there is no evidence to support this. Unfortunately that is the position in which we find ourselves.

There must be State funding but I disagree with the Minister that the public does not support such funding as the issue has not been properly debated. As Senator Henry said, he or she who pays the piper calls the tune and in that context the ordinary voter should call the tune. Corporations and wealthy individuals should not do so. The Labour Party's proposed framework provides that the definition of "private donors" is those who are on the register of electors. The voter should be seen to be the only person who calls the tune and that is the reason the issue comes down to State funding.

If the taxpayer funds politics, he or she calls the tune. That is right and the public wants such a system because it provides complete accountability. This may be considered an extreme position but inevitably we will have to move towards that position. The taxpayer already funds politics to a considerable extent. For instance, a legislative decision was taken, supported by all parties, that election candidates who achieve a certain percentage of the vote will retain their deposits and get back £5,000. That effectively amounts to State funding.

My only resource as a full-time politician is my salary and expenses from the State and I also run a part-time office. The taxpayer funds my political and public service. I do not have a difficulty with this and do not know of anyone who does. I do not seek outside support other than the small amounts I receive from time to time for my party for elections and so on. At the end of the day the public would not have a problem with this if the choice is between complete accountability and the taxpayer supporting the political system or a system which is still open to potential influence by the corporate sector, big businessmen or others.

We must go further than is necessary to restore confidence in the political system, of which we have many reasons to be proud, including the economic prosperity we are enjoying. The vast majority are working and Ireland is turning into a modern economy. Good political leadership by successive Governments, Ministers, able public servants and full-time public representatives is one of the primary reasons for this. However the primary issue being discussed by the public is how tainted is politics. It is time to restore confidence in politics and to do something for the majority of politicians who are honest by restoring good politics to the heart of public discourse and getting on with the job.

The Minster has not said anything new on this issue. We must wait until next week to discover what is his thinking in regard to the limit on donations. That is the critical point. Given the Minister's appeal the issue will be discussed again. We should move on and discuss it again when his amendments are before us.

The Minister touched on a number of issues which are extremely sensitive and difficult to resolve. One is the concept of a group which is formed to fight a single issue such as a road development and disappears immediately afterwards but is not a political party. That is a straightforward concept but he referred to groups which sustain themselves and perhaps change their names but are run by the same individuals and involved in politics. He wondered how these groups are funded, how they could be compared to political parties and how they would declare from where their funding came. The answer may lie in the registration of political parties. If a group decides to erect posters, it should automatically be required to obtain a licence to do so and pay whatever fee is due and then provide details of its members and from where it has obtained its funding. This could resolve some issues raised by the Minister.

It is not possible to resolve all the issues and the Minister will not be able to tie everything down. However it is easier to draw the distinction between corporate and private donations than the Minister and Senator Walsh pretend. If an individual makes a donation out of his or her own bank account, that is his or her private business. There is a possibility that a businessman could give himself a raise of £4,000 in any given year and put this through his personal account before making a donation. It is not possible to tie the issue down but the inability to make watertight laws should not mean that we do not make any law.

Senator Walsh referred to pay-back. Corporate Ireland benefits from growth in the economy, whether by virtue of a good education system or proper political structures, and its purpose is not to pay back politicians. Businesses pay back through taxes. The more they benefit, the more taxes they pay and the better the Government does as a result. The concept of a business paying back because it does well under a particular Government or certain Ministers is terrible. I am sure Senator Walsh will reflect on that comment and say that is not what he meant. "Pay-back" was a terrible term to use.

Both the Minister and Senator Walsh stated the issue was being turned into a political football. At no stage in my earlier contribution did I refer to a political party or individual party members. I referred to the principle behind the amendments which is the concept of the relationship between corporate bodies funding a Government in such a way that it has undue influence. We want to remove such influence or reduce it so substantially that it would be almost insignificant. If individuals believe strongly enough in the principles enunciated by a political party, I have no doubt they will subscribe to them and help the party to operate as a political entity.

The Minister stated he was meeting various groups and could not outline what his amendments would contain next week until a decision had been made. However he said the groups wanted to limit corporate donations. Fine Gael has stated it wants a ban on corporate donations. Has there been a change about which I have not heard? My party has not changed its position. Perhaps the Minister will explain that comment.

The amendment has been tabled because we believe it is worth discussing now. It is important and pivotal to the good name of politics. If the Minister wishes to put a value on politics where the public perception of politicians is that they are not on the make, he must distinguish between corporate donations and influence and the voting structure.

I ask the Minister to take our views into account when he introduces his amendments next week. That would mean there would be cross-party agreement about the way forward. This is the way to clean up the act and put politics back on a podium. It is also the way to make politics a career choice for people rather than one from which they must run away. It is becoming more difficult to get young people involved in politics. Much cynicism is generated by what is going on around us.

Reference was made to the tribunals but accusations have not yet been made. Money trails have been found but no one has yet been accused of wrongdoing. What they will lead to is someone else's business. However it would be unfair if this Chamber gave the impression that we have already condemned people.

I welcome the Minister's contribution, particularly his undertaking that future contributions will be placed in special donation accounts. That is part of the transparency I mentioned. The Opposition parties have turned the debate into a battle between corporate and private donations. It is disingenuous to suggest there is a difference between them. Corporations are run by individuals and the beneficiaries of those companies will make contributions on an individual basis. It is the same thing whether they make such contributions from a corporate or an individual pot. The public perception is that there is a difference but that is not valid.

The question arises as to whether we should ban all private sourced funding to political parties. Revelations at the tribunals related to secret payments, not to payments in the public domain, of which people were aware and which were revealed through the activities of the tribunal or other sources which led to the tribunals. It is a complex issue which this debate highlights. If we ban all contributions, there is a danger that secret payments will be made. If we ban contributions, it does not mean they will not be made, even if it is illegal and wrong to do so. However it is healthier to make it above board and declarable. According to the Minister, if secret payments are made and not declared, an annual certification must be done by the parties or individuals. It will be an offence not to do so and I presume commensurate penalties will be imposed.

Senator O'Meara or Senator Henry made an analogy with the United States. However it does not fully stand up because the system of government in the United States which is based on the presidency and governors of state means that executive power is vested in an elected individual. We have a corporate approach to government.

Constitutionally, it is individuals.

Because there are many members of a council or Cabinet and many are involved in a party it is not possible to attach the same level of influence to a payment as one could in a system which elects one decision-maker who has more power. The potential to unduly and wrongly influence people is not as great in our system.

Much comment was made by Opposition Senators about my suggestion that because corporate Ireland is doing well it is time to pay back some of the profits to the political system. Perhaps it was wrong to suggest that it was pay-back time. However I am sure Senators understood what I was saying, namely, that contributions could be made from the profits. I am involved in a number of corporations which only make payments when they are making profits. They will not make unnecessary payments out of their corporate accounts if they are making a loss. Because companies are doing better they are making contributions to charities, health research and local community activities, sporting clubs and groups. I make no bones about the fact that there is a moral obligation on corporations to make contributions in their communities. The political system and the political parties make a tremendous contribution to the fabric of society both locally and nationally. The system will be good, healthy and strong if the level of the contribution is declared by the recipient, whether that is a politician or a political party. There is nothing wrong with this.

I do not agree with asking taxpayers to provide 100% funding because that means they will subscribe to the full limit of what is allowed to be spent at election time. If we do not go to the limit, people who are wealthy will be able to use their own resources which will give them an unfair advantage, which is wrong. We must have a system such as we have at present. People organise all types of fund-raisers in politics such as golf classics with which there is nothing wrong.

SIPTU made a contribution of £27,000 to the Labour Party in 1998. I have no difficulty with the principle of such an action, although the amount is too high. The limit should not be that high. The same should apply to corporations.

I thank Senator O'Meara for her support for the concept of applying the same limits to campaign groups as will apply to political parties in the next election. The electoral Acts do not allow for this at present. This is part of the reform we mentioned. The Senator is probably aware that the only stipulation for any group which participates in a general election and spends money is that it must register with the Public Offices Commission. However it can spend as much as it likes. One could see a situation arising where in the last weekend of an election campaign a group which took a dislike to an individual candidate or party could spend huge sums of money if it so wished to try to counteract a campaign. Because of the limits we are putting on political parties the politician would not be in a position to respond. If this went to court, a serious problem could arise. I welcome the support for this and we will deal with it during the passage of the Bill.

The Tánaiste spoke about a right to contribute to support the political system, to which Senator O'Meara adverted. The right to free speech and the right to free association are in the Constitution. We can talk about corporate or individual donations but if we ban individual donations to political parties, we will encroach on constitutional issues. It is not as simple and straightforward as it might seem.

Senator O'Meara is right in so far as we all consider that no limit should apply in that no matter how much we receive we would not be influenced in what we do. This may not be the perception outside the House. We must try to gauge opinion but I doubt if we will get agreement.

Unfortunately we have all to an extent been tainted by what happened in the past. How much was our own fault, even if it was not because of things we did?

Things we did not do.

If we do not remind people that the vast majority of Members are here because of a sense of public service and not for private gain, including supporting one another across party lines, we will be tainted. Senator Walsh referred to political footballs. I was not referring to this debate but a political football has been made of this issue elsewhere.

Mention of corporate and individual donations and the Labour Party proposal on electors would run into constitutional difficulties because not all citizens are on the register of electors. Unfortunately the trend in some areas is that increasing numbers are not going on the register for a variety of reasons. Confining eligibility for making contributions to electors only would not be possible. All citizens would have to be included and not only citizens resident in Ireland.

Senators O'Meara and Coogan referred to State funding. There should be more State funding for which I will be providing in the Bill as a quid pro quo for restrictions on donations and so on. There is a constitutional difficulty, based on the McKenna judgment etc., about confining the funding of elections to taxpayers. Limiting expenditure on elections helps in so far as we are all limited to what we can spend.

It is unfortunate that the background of the tribunals has generated a huge amount of heat and not enough light. If political parties are restricted in what they can spend, they will not get their message across directly to the public and hand over to the media the role of deciding who to support. This will enhance the influence of the media which tend to consider my party to be paranoid. Prior to the last general election we had good reason to be concerned. Other parties cannot complain about favouritism towards Fianna Fáil in the media. It may be argued that the media are fair and unbiased, although nobody said this about one newspaper group after the last general election. While RTÉ has a remit to be fair and balanced, as a member of the Fianna Fáil Party, which generally secures 40% of public support, I could argue for 40% of RTÉ's coverage. However RTÉ has legal advice on the matter and I do not question its decision to allow three people from the Opposition to appear on programmes for the sake of balance.

I am not overly critical of the media but all political parties have the right, duty and obligation to get their message directly to the public between and during elections and not have it mediated by anybody else. This will happen if we are restricted too much. It would be a danger to democracy. This is a philosophical issue. I asked Senator O'Meara to withdraw these amendments to enable us discuss the technical amendments.

Senator Walsh referred more than once to trade union funding of the Labour Party, including a payment of £28,000 by SIPTU. This is far less than a single contribution by Denis O'Brien to the Fianna Fáil Party. I rest my case.

I did not dispute that.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Senator O'Meara to continue without interruption.

I am responding to a political point made by Senator Walsh and entitled to defend my political party.

I said I had no difficulty with the principle of the payment.

Contributions by SIPTU and trade unions to the Labour Party amount to a political fund by them to the political party closest to their ideological position. With a ban on corporate funding I would have no difficulty with the ending of trade union support for the Labour Party because I believe in a level playing pitch. At present the playing pitch is not level in relation to the different political parties.

It is no accident that the vast majority of corporate donations have gone to what would be perceived to be pro-business parties, the large parties in the State. This is because the predominant ideological position in the country would be that what is good for business is good for politics is good for the country. The Progressive Democrats, a pro-business party, never had difficulty in getting corporate donations. That is the context in which we are operating.

I will not stretch the Leas-Chathaoirleach's patience.

This is the context in which we are dealing with these important issues but it is time to move the debate forward.

I was a journalist and also have close connections with a journalist. However I do not accept that we should ever allow the media to mediate our message. We have direct contact with the people on the doorstep, particularly at election time. There is no more direct contact with people than that, although I do not underestimate the power of television or the media in general. I agree they are becoming more powerful by the day, probably because of the undermining of the influence of others which had been centres of authority, including the church and politicians. However there is no more direct contact with the people than politicians on doorsteps in an election campaign. We should not allow a situation where the media mediate our message because communication skills are attached to our work.

I point out to the Minister that technology is now available that gives us direct contact with the people through e-mail. We should use these broadband technologies that are relatively cheap to the best possible extent. I do not accept the Minister's argument that political parties need funding between elections to ensure their message gets across. I could argue this point at great length but will resist the temptation. We have considered the issue in detail and I look forward to the Minister's announcement next week regarding his amendments and a low limit on corporate donations.

I agree with the Senator's point about direct contact on the doorsteps during elections. However that is only possible because everything else is abandoned. The House is in recess and Ministers tend to clear their diaries to enable them to campaign on the doorsteps. This is not possible on a daily basis and in between elections the media can have a huge influence. Corporations would not spend such huge sums of money on advertising if they did not think it had some effect.

It is apparent that the Minister will not change his mind on this issue. We hoped he might have come on board with us but it will be a case of déjà vu next week. I will not labour the point but it is unfortunate that the Minister does not share the view of my party and the Labour Party that the relationship between big business and politics must be broken. It is that simple.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 3 not moved.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, before section 3, but in Part I of the Bill, to insert the following new section:

"3.–(1)The Referendum Commission is hereby renamed An Coimisiún Toghcháin or in the English language the Electoral Commission.

(2) The Minister may by order assign to the said commission such of his or her functions under the Electoral Acts, 1992 to 2001 as he or she considers fit.".

The first part of the amendment is self-evident. It gives prominence to the Irish version of the name of the electoral commission, An Coimisiún Toghcháin. This is consistent with the approach adopted in other legislation and I am sure the Minister is not surprised by the amendment. The Irish version of the name of a board, agency or similar body established under legislation is usually favoured. The second part of the amendment is technical.

The amendment proposes to change the name of the Referendum Commission to the electoral commission and that the Minister would assign functions under the Electoral Act to it. While I agree with the concept of an electoral commission – we are rapidly reaching the stage where we should have one – the amendment is not appropriate to the Bill. The provisions in relation to the Referendum Commission are set out in the Referendum Act, 1998, and any changes would be more appropriately made to that Act.

I also agree with the Senator's desire to ensure the names of bodies or institutions are in Irish. I will consider the matter again for Report Stage. However the issue raised in the amendment is very broad and we do not have sufficient time to give to it now. The Referendum Commission is not a full-time body but we are rapidly reaching the stage where an electoral commission is necessary to deal with some of the points mentioned by the Senator and others issues.

I accept the Minister's comments. There is a need for a thorough examination of the question of the establishment of an electoral commission. There is also a need to examine the Referendum Commission, although they might be merged to form one body.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 3 agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.

Government amendment No. 5:
In page 7, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
"(2) An edited register published by the registration authority under subsection (1) shall be deemed, for the purposes of section 20, to be part of the register of electors.".

Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 8 will clarify in case in doubt how the edited register and the national register and the preparation and maintenance of the register of electors by a body other than a registration authority will be financed. In the case of the edited register, the cost will be part of the cost of preparing the register. The additional cost should not be as large as the computer programme for the register of electors will be amended to print out the edited register automatically.

An elector's preference for non-disclosure of information will have to be noted on the computer record from the form used by the elector. However the authorities will have three years to cover their functional areas. The extra cost of compiling a national register will be approximately £50,000. It is necessary to enable individual registers to be updated on line which will increase efficiency in updating the register. It will also facilitate Internet or telephone voting if such voting methods were introduced.

The third amendment concerns the cost of compiling a register of electors by a body other than a registration authority. In such cases the registration authority for each area will be responsible for the cost which is already met by it from existing funds.

The keeping of a register of electors both locally and nationally is an important issue and I welcome the general principle in the legislation in that regard. There is a need to ensure the register is maintained at all times because not enough attention is given to updating it at present. I undertook a small exercise recently when I asked my 17 year old son to ask his 18 year old friends how many of them are on the register. Within two days I learned that 25 of them were not on the register. If this exercise was repeated in every leaving certificate class in the constituency, a substantial number would be involved. We must work harder at maintaining the register and ensuring it is an accurate representation of the voting list. We cannot have a person discovering he or she is not on the electoral list on voting day. The use of electronic media is critical for gaining access to the register for those who are entitled to do so.

Since tenders have been invited, the Minister has already selected the system. Could the details pertaining to it be circulated to Members? I want to know how it will operate.

Like Senator O'Meara, I am concerned about the number of people missing from the electoral register. Some of the representatives whose job it is to put people on the register say that some do not want to appear on it. It is not a huge percentage. They may have personal reasons for not wanting to be registered. Apart from this problem, the level of inaccuracy on the register is unacceptable.


This amendment will empower a Minister to issue more directions and consider some body other than the local authority to compile the register. That would open up the possibility of organisations who have regular contact with households, like ESB and An Post, compiling the register for the registration authority. We are trying to achieve this. What was Senator Coogan's question?

It concerned the particular system the Minister is using.

When the new electronic voting system was demonstrated by the officials, not all the Members were present. If there is a group of Senators who want another demonstration, I will arrange it.

When the system is being put in place, a high level of awareness will be required beforehand. Once the final tests over the summer are deemed successful, the system will then be used on a pilot basis in a number of constituencies during an election.

Not next week?

Unfortunately, we will not have it ready next week. Senator Coogan can contact my office if he and others require a demonstration.

I thank the Minister. I have not seen it.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 6:
In page 8, line 5, after "order" to insert ", including a condition providing that the cost of preparing, maintaining and publishing the register referred to in subsection (1) shall be met by the registration authorities or otherwise".
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 7 not moved.
Government amendment No. 8:
In page 8, between lines 43 and 44, to insert the following:
"(3) An order under subsection (1) may provide that the cost of preparing and publishing the registers referred to in that subsection shall be met by the registration authorities to whose registration areas those registers relate.".
Amendment agreed to.
Section 4, as amended, agreed to.
Sections 5 and 6 agreed to.
Government amendment No. 9:
In page 11, to delete lines 10 to 13 and substitute the following:
"referred to in section 14(c) as if the reference in section 12 to qualifying date were a reference to the latest date for receipt of an application under subsection (4) and as if in subsection (3) of that section ‘, not later than the date specified for that purpose in the Second Schedule,' were deleted.”.

This amendment is of a textual nature. The original section 12 is applied in a modified form to enable diplomats and their spouses to apply for entry in the supplement of a postal vote. The qualifying date used in section 12 is not relevant to an application for entry in the supplement, which can be made at any time during the year.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 7, as amended, agreed to.
Sections 8 and 9 agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are cognate and may be discussed together, by agreement.

Government amendment No. 10:
In page 13, line 12, after "date" to insert "or otherwise".

Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are textual amendments because an application for entry on the electoral list will not be confined to the dates for entry on the register of electors, i.e. list A in the case of the electors list. Applications for entry on list B or deletions from list C will be made throughout the year and the amendment is providing for that.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 11:
In page 13, line 22, after "date" to insert "or otherwise".
Amendment agreed to.
Section 10, as amended, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 12.

In page 14, before section 11, to insert the following new section:

"11.–Section 21 of the Principal Act is hereby amended by the addition of the following subsection:

‘(6)No order for costs may be made against an applicant in an application pursuant to this section.'."

The purpose of the amendment is self-evident and I would like to hear the Minister's response to it.

Amendment No. 12 proposes that no order for costs may be made against an applicant in relation to proceedings under section 21 of the Electoral Act, 1992. Section 21 provides for the right to appeal to the Circuit Court against any decision of a county registrar in a claim relating to the register of electors. Provision is made for an appeal to the Supreme Court against the decision of the Circuit Court on a point of law. It is a normal part of legal procedure in court that a person initiating an action or lodging an appeal against a court decision may be awarded costs or have costs awarded against him or her. I do not see why an exception should be made in the case of appeals to the Circuit Court or the Supreme Court regarding a revision court decision.

A claimant for entry on the register who decides to appeal to the Circuit Court and possibly the Supreme Court should, if the claim succeeds, be eligible to have his or her costs paid by the respondent to the proceedings. Similarly, it is reasonable that a person who, having gone through the full procedure laid down in the electoral Acts for the registration of electors, fails to establish his entitlement to be registered should be liable to have costs incurred by other parties to the proceedings awarded against him. This should apply particularly where the original claim is been frivolous.

It is a matter for the courts to decide in any case whether an order for costs should be made, and it is reasonable to assume that the courts should have regard to all relevant facts in considering each case. The same applies to other parties to the proceedings. The courts are always anxious to ensure a person whose case is genuine will not be deterred from pursuing it on account of costs. When a private citizen takes action to establish a constitutional or other right, and the case has some reasonable base, the courts will often allow the costs, even if the judgment goes against the citizen.

I am not able to accept this amendment and I ask the Senator to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 15, to delete lines 22 to 30.

Lines 22 to 30 are part of a description of a political party or party organised within the State. The section to be deleted describes a party as having:

. . . not less than 300 recorded members or, in the case of a party applying for registration as a party organised to contest elections in part of the State or local elections or Údarás na Gaeltachta elections only, 100 recorded members, each of whom (in any of the foregoing cases) has reached the age of 18 years . . . .

That section is not necessary in the context of the section in the legislation.

The electoral Acts and the funding arrangements that are in place have brought us into a new era. This Bill will bring about further advances. In this section we are providing for a number of new requirements with regard to the registration of political parties. A number of the amendments has been suggested to us by the registrar of political parties. I do not believe it is unduly onerous to ask political parties, or those aspiring to that status, to meet these requirements. The requirements under subsection (4)(b) mirror the requirement under the Referendum Act, 1998, where a body is seeking approved status under that Act.

The remaining requirements are sufficiently flexible to allow a body to demonstrate its bona fides in applying for registration. They will only apply to the registration of parties post this Bill – those which are already registered will retain their registration. It is necessary to introduce this kind of legislation to clarify the position. Given that political parties are to get increased State funding, the limit that applies currently and that we intend to stick with is 2% of first preference votes. Based on the last election, this would work out at about 18,000 votes. It is necessary that we have this stipulation with regard to membership, particularly registered members.

In general I agree with the Minister. We are constantly adding to the framework which we have begun to build. Unlike members of the public, we are almost full-time practitioners of politics and understand the system from the inside out. We are involved in political parties and that may colour our view. There is no doubt that politics is changing and in ten or 15 years' time, or even less, the structure and type of political parties may be very different. We could have a plethora of small parties – larger parties might not like that, but it could well happen. I do not think we should put anything in the way of that happening, neither should we create the perception that we, the existing political parties, particularly the larger political parties of the Govern ment, want to prevent the evolution of smaller parties. For instance, there could be a Munster-based, environmental-style party or—

A north Kerry party is registered.

The Minister could see a situation for giving his position—

We do not have a monster raving loony party.

I do not think it is registered yet.

There is the potential for amalgamation of the various anti-dump campaigns around the country, for the purpose of a general election. A decision could be made to stand candidates in five, six or seven different constituencies. The limit of 18,000 votes would not be an unrealistic or unattainable figure to reach, given the number of candidates who could run, although individually they might not gain a large number of votes. We should not be seen to be unnecessarily restrictive in our approach to the evolution of political parties, nor should we be seen to be afraid of change or diversity. In the Constitution we recognise the importance of smaller political parties in particular, and the use of proportional representation was designed to ensure that the voice of minorities is heard.

Given the rate of change which we are experiencing, minorities could be of a very different colour in the future, potentially even skin colour, depending on how our economy, immigration and the labour force evolves. We should try to be as flexible as possible because we do not know what is coming down the line. The perception of the legislation as we pass it is of paramount importance. I welcome in general the framework the Minister is proposing and I entirely accept his point about the advice coming from the registrar of political parties, but I ask him to be as flexible as possible in his approach.

Speaking as a member of a smaller party—

I was thinking about Senator Dardis too.

—and also personally, it has always been my belief that democracy should be as participative as possible – I have said that in all debates on electoral Bills. If one wants to set up the monster raving loony party, as gaeilge, and go forward on the basis of a very modest cost in terms of running in the election, one should be able to do that, but there is a separate issue involved here. It is reasonable to have a standard, and I do not think the standard is a very onerous one, even for a smaller party.

People should have to prove their bona fides in terms of their determination to organise and be an active political force, and for that reason the figure of 300 members is a reasonable one. It could be argued that the requirement to have one member in the Dáil is a more onerous one.

I agree with what Senators Dardis and O'Meara have said. We should not discourage anybody from standing for election, but what we are talking about here is registered political parties. We should not demean the registration process so much that a registered political party means little or nothing. It is necessary to strike a balance and that is what we are trying to do.

For the information of the House, the party I referred to earlier is the South Kerry Independent Alliance, but I do not think it has members in the House. There is also a Donegal Progressive Party.

In response to the comments of Senator Dardis, I agree we must have a standard. It would not be difficult to go out and get 300 people to sign up to a cause or whatever to register as a political party. It can work both ways, but in general I accept the point the Minister makes.

I want to give an indication of how easy it is to collect 300 names. I am aware of an instance where students got over 2,000 names with two lines that nobody could read on the top of the sheet. They just asked people to sign and there was absolutely nothing there.

Was there a fee involved for signing?

No, nor a grant.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
The Seanad adjourned at 4 p.m. sine die.