Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Bill 2017: Committee and Remaining Stages

Sections 1 to 5, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, between lines 7 and 8, to insert the following:

"Amendment of section 6(3) of Electoral Act 1997

6. Section 6(3) of the Electoral Act 1997 is amended by the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraphs (b) and (c):

"(b) There will be one national constituency for the Republic of Ireland in the election of representatives to the European Parliament.".".

My amendment is simple but significant. With Brexit approaching, the make-up of the European Parliament is due a shake-up, with the UK's 73 seats up for redistribution, either as extra seats for the other member states, or as transnational seats to be elected across the EU. Either way, change is coming, and we need to be ready for it. Last week, President Macron of France indicated that he would scrap France's regional approach to European elections and create a single national constituency. This would bring France in line with 22 of the 28 EU member states that have a simple national constituency. This leaves just Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Poland as the only member states that do not approach these elections with a single constituency.

Part 3 of the Electoral Act 1997 established the existing constituency commission and extends its oversight to reviewing the DáiI and European Parliament constituency boundaries after every census. Currently, Ireland has three constituencies for the election of members of the European Parliament, MEPs, the three seater of Dublin and two four seaters of south and north west. These constituencies are the smallest of any in the entire EU, apart from the national constituencies of Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus, and the small German speaking region of Belgium. They make little sense as regions, with Bray and Bantry sharing the South Constituency, for example.

The existing regional constituencies in large member states, such as France and Italy, are all larger than the entire combined population of Ireland. We are very far outside the mainstream on this issue already. This matters, for several reasons. First, the current constituencies lower the fairness and proportionality of our European election results. In the last election, for example, Fine Gael got 22.3% of the first preference vote, and 3 MEPs. Fianna Fáil got 22.3% of the vote, but merely one MEP, the Minister of State might be glad of that.

Worse again. That reinforces the Senator's argument.

It does, absolutely. Far be it for me to be arguing for the electoral fortunes of Fianna Fáil but this outcome is clearly not proportional or fair. In our elections, all votes should matter, and proportional representation with a single transferable vote, PR-STV, is a system that we are rightly proud of but it can only work when constituencies are fair, and that is not possible under our current constraints.

The Green Party has repeatedly made submissions to the constituency commission as it reviews the European boundaries but the suggestion of a national constituency can never be accepted as it is outside the terms of reference, which are set by the existing Electoral Act 1997. I noted with interest that in the last constituency review, no less than a former Minister of State with responsibility for Europe, Lucinda Creighton, agreed with us. She pointed out that our small constituencies are unfair and outside the norm. We might not agree with her on much but we can agree on that. Second, a single national constituency will allow us to participate in a changing European Parliament as the UK leaves and a new reforming French presidency joins Germany in driving greater modernisation of the Union.

If this includes a transnational slate of candidates, I do not see how that can work with our current system. How can such candidates participate in a PR-STV election across multiple regional constituencies?

I cannot see any way for them to do so. We are going to have to face up to this issue sooner or later.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a single national constituency would change the nature of these elections in a fundamental way. Political scientists all agree that European elections in Ireland are too often "second-order" elections that are used to punish the Government of the day and focus on local issues. This is not what elections to the European Parliament are meant to be. In a turbulent world, a strong European democracy is more important than ever before. Since the Lisbon treaty, the European Parliament has never been so important to the healthy functioning of the EU. The day on which our MEPs are elected should be serious and focused in a way whereby we, as a nation, come together to decide the future we want to see for the EU. A national election in one national constituency will go very far to changing the nature of these elections and ensure that policy, and not personality, will be the determining factor in voters' decision-making. It is a simple and smart change that would Brexit-proof Ireland for the future.

This amendment needs careful consideration. The importance of Europe is coming home to the Irish electorate. More than ever before, the forthcoming European elections will see a fantastic and renewed engagement with such elections. There will be a really informed decision in those elections. Many of the groups that have come from Ireland - some of which have been part of fringe groups - and the amount of influence they have in Brussels and Strasbourg are really marginal. In the months since the Brexit vote, the contacts and engagement we have had with our sister parties across Europe has helped Ireland greatly in its negotiations and has built friendships across the Union.

I am not sure that I buy into the single constituency idea. There is merit in having a real conversation. That is why I said earlier that if we take it out of the cycle and have a real and in-depth discussion about terms of reference relating to the boundaries, that is the place to have it. It might mean that we miss out on the next European elections but there is probably a strong case for two constituencies for the island of Ireland. We would have to talk about that and expand on it because we are going to have a small number of MEPs in Brussels and they will have to, pardon the phrase, punch way above their weight. We must, therefore, start taking this matter seriously. We need to get our structures right. In respect of the idea of having a maximum urban-rural vote, there may be a strong argument for drawing a line between north and south with regard to how we elect our MEPs. Would the Senator consider withdrawing her amendment if the Minister of State gave a commitment to come in early in the new year and have that conversation on the terms of reference? Coming so soon after the conclusion of the census, matters are slightly rushed because the Minister issues the terms of reference and - bang - we are in the middle of the process. In the context of most of the issues that have been raised, we really need that interrogation of the terms of reference. We cannot blame the people who are doing the job. They do a good job with the terms of reference they are given.

Something is drastically wrong with our register of electors. I have been out and about recently and have found that the number of people not registered is between 20% and 25%. I do not know what happened. I have the new register. These people are not new to their areas. They have been living there for between eight and 12 years and seem to be quite surprised when I inform them that they are on the register. The turnout in Dublin Bay South was approximately 50% but that figure does not reflect the register. Something has gone askew in recent years. I may come back to the Minister of State at another stage as I delve further into it and ask other colleagues whether they are experiencing the same thing. I know this is an aside but I just wanted to put it on the record.

I have reservations in an Irish context. I will explain why. First, if we go for a single national constituency, there is a likelihood that - in terms of the shift of population to which Senator O'Mahony referred earlier and using a PR system - candidates would be elected from the major centres of population. There might be large swathes of Ireland with no representation. All politics is local. In that context, if someone based in Dublin is contacted by a person here or an individual in Limerick, whose call will he or she take first? That is the first point.

Second, it would probably mean that we would then be looking at a list system as well. I would have reservations about such a system. For all its imperfections, our system is fair. It is a PR system and members of the public get to have their say. The public has the electoral system it likes. It likes having its public representatives close at hand. It likes to know them and to keep them grounded and informed. It probably makes us better legislators. If we move to a list system, there would be a perception among the public that it had become an elitist system. We must look at whether our electoral system encourages people with a range of talents to come forward and run. In particular, does it encourage women to run? I argue that it does not. We need to look at how we can create an environment where women can run, which extends into the workplace as well. We must think outside the box and we are not doing so in Ireland. It is not just about gender. It is about creating an environment where people will look to run for public office and where women can have families if they want. It is about finding that methodology.

Ireland is a country on the periphery of Europe. If it was based purely on our population, we would not figure. We box way above our weight. One of the reasons for this is because our MEPs are so conversant with the constituencies they represent whether the matter concerns fisheries in the northern region, agriculture in Munster, urban tourism in Dublin or matters relating to Leinster. I would be of the same view as Senator Humphreys that it is worthwhile putting into the lexicon in terms of having it as part of a debate. I am not sure that this country would gain from such a system in terms of representation at European level and, more particularly, what the public likes.

This has been tried on many occasions. The Minister of State made reference to his great political opponent being in his own party. If we are being honest, that is the nature of our multi-seat system. Two referendums on having single-seat PR have been held since the foundation of the State. I think they were both brought forward by Éamon de Valera. On both occasions, they were resoundingly defeated by the public. We have all gone before the public. The public is sacrosanct. Its members have more common sense than any politician. They like the system that is in place, despite all its imperfections.

I hope that we can move forward, while still reflecting the independence of the commission. The amendment is worthwhile and I welcome the fact that the Senator tabled it. However, I cannot support it.

I also see the merits of the amendment but I must agree with Senator Kieran O'Donnell. As a rural representative, I would have the terrible fear that all our representatives would be urban.

I could envisage that having an all-Irish constituency could lead to most, if not all, of the representatives coming from the more densely populated areas. I would be very fearful of that.

The biggest problem with the European election is that it is held at the same time as the local elections. The foot soldiers, of all political parties and none, are the people who canvass in elections. Human nature being what it is, however, on that particular day and for the three or four weeks to that election, they are out canvassing for their own bacon. It undermines the ethos of the European election terribly. The people on whom we all depend, be it for a general election or a referendum, are the councillors and their foot soldiers, the people who are at the coal face. They are out canvassing for their own futures, and one can understand why they are not too bothered about handing out the literature that they are given for the European election. That dilutes, undermines and demeans the process more than the constituency set-up.

Looking around, I am the only one in the Chamber at the moment who has ever stood in a European Parliament election.

Senator O'Sullivan did. I apologise. I think at the same time I was probably canvassing with her sister in the local elections.

That is really pulling it from the bottom drawer.

The Minister of State should withdraw that.

Do I take it that the Minister of State will accept the amendment?

As Senator Humphreys pointed out, I think we should have a discussion on it. There has never been an amendment accepted on a constituency commission Bill to the best of my knowledge, and I am not in a position to accept amendments today, but it is worth having the discussion.

Irish people are wedded to the single transferable vote and the multi-seat electoral system, but that is not to say we cannot or should not look at it in the future, for other elections. I am perfectly open to having that discussion. A Senator spoke about Ireland being outside the mainstream. We are outside the mainstream in the system that elects people to our Lower House, and the system that elects people to this House is completely outside of every mainstream. That is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. I understand the motives behind what the Senator is suggesting, but I wonder if the public would be prepared to go that far. A Member mentioned the word "elites".

Yes, it was Senator O'Donnell. A sense that the men in grey suits who run the political parties would effectively choose the MEPs would be a very potent argument in any national referendum or campaign against a change in the current system. A point that Senator Humphreys raised earlier concerned the electoral commission. He went on to speak about the register of electors. The drafting of legislation to establish an electoral commission is ongoing. It is a slow and huge piece of work that is continuously going on in the background in the Department when referendums and other pieces of legislation, like the requirement to act promptly, come into play. It tends to get shoved to one side, but it has not gone off the radar. I want to reassure the House that it is still on every list of legislation that is being prepared, at every meeting that we have within the Department. I will certainly bring up the issue of the register of electors as well.

I appreciate what the Minister of State says. The issue does merit a discussion in the House as part of discussions of general reform, with regard to Brexit, the development of Europe and our position within it. I absolutely appreciate what colleagues have said about the Irish context. However, it is sometimes good to expand on who we are and where we are going, and look a little towards the long term. I agree that there is a chance that there would be more options in areas of high demographic density, but that would not necessarily be the case. That is why the discussion would be welcome. On that basis, I will not press the amendment. I will leave it to the Minister of State to come back with a date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 6 and 7 agreed to.
SCHEDULE

I move amendment No. 2:

"2. In page 14, to delete line 32 and substitute the following:

Louth and East Meath

The county of Louth;

Five

"

Thank you very much, a Chathaoirligh. I thought for a moment that you might have forgotten about me, Heaven forbid. The Minister of State said in his response that it is the convention, custom and practice for the Government not to accept any amendments that might be suggested to propose changes to legislation giving effect to a constituency commission report. I understand that convention and practice, but I am obliged to ask the Minister of State to change his mind. I request that he accept the merits of my argument for changing the name of the Louth Dáil constituency to reflect the fact that it includes a very large proportion of County Meath, as has been the case since the 2007 boundary review.

Members have spoken very eloquently about the place of identity, county affiliations and townland affiliations in this country. We have heard of its importance to our sense of ourselves and our sense of place, which is, if not uniquely Irish, certainly an extremely important sense of community.

Ten years ago, the 2007 Constituency Commission report was introduced and reflected in legislation, making the new extended Louth Dáil constituency, which included areas like Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington, a reality. There was some considerable resistance, understandably, from a significant number of residents in that area, who were used to voting in the unitary Meath constituency, for want of a better description. Meath was then broken up into Meath West and Meath East. A significant part of what we colloquially refer to as "east Meath" is now in the Louth Dáil constituency. That includes, Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington, Donacarney, Julianstown and other areas that would be known as "Drogheda, County Meath", leading to all kinds of confusion.

I think we accept that if there is no radical reform of our electoral system, county boundaries are going to have to be breached to allow us to satisfy the constitutional requirements for the design of constituencies and the allocation of numbers of seats proportionate to population. We are now approaching the third election where we will have this very significant part of County Meath in the Louth Dáil constituency. Interestingly, back in 2007 the Constituency Commission said that it was including the Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington area and other parts of east Meath into the Louth Dáil constituency because of the area's very clear affiliation and connection with Drogheda, Ireland's largest town that is not a city, or at least, not yet.

When we speak of identity and the description and definition of Dáil constituencies, we are kidding ourselves if we do not look seriously at meaningful local government and electoral reform. While there has been an interesting debate in this Chamber this afternoon, it is not the type of debate that we should be having at the tail-end of a Dáil session in the run-up to Christmas. We are all democrats and committed parliamentarians, many having served a number of functions in these Houses over the years, and as such we really need to have a much more serious debate about electoral reform in this country. I would support the Leader if he does propose to have such a debate in the House in the new year.

It is exceptionally important. I would ask that the concerns of the people of east Meath, whom I have represented since 2011, around the description of the constituency be addressed.

There is nothing preventing us accepting an amendment of this nature here today because this has nothing to do with the structure or the substantive issues that the Constituency Commission is generally asked to consider. It has fulfilled its constitutional role that we have asked it to fulfil within the terms of reference it was provided with by the Minister and these Houses. There is nothing preventing the name of a constituency being changed. If there is, I would like to know. Nobody has told me that there is anything preventing this amendment from being accepted and this change being reflected in this legislation.

It is something that would be appreciated. It is something that would be valued. If we are to have situations, as I stated, where county boundaries will continue to be breached, then we must ensure that the geographic reality of the area that is covered by a Dáil constituency is reflected in the title of that constituency. If we are serious about county affiliations and if we are serious about identity, we should take that on board and take action to reflect that.

I second the amendment. It is something I feel strongly about. Names matter because with the names comes the sense of place. Dublin South-East was changed to Dublin Bay South following the previous census and when the commission. "I come from the bay area," sounds like a person is from somewhere like San Francisco. All the submissions at that time to the commission were about bringing Terenure back into Dublin South-East.

And Harold's Cross.

That was a small piece, but all of the submissions were for Terenure to be reunited as a town as part of Dublin South-East. The people of Dublin South-East still associate with it. They still call it that. If I knock on a door and say I am canvassing in Dublin Bay South, people ask: "Where is that? Are we in the States? Are we in America? Are we in San Francisco?"

There is a sense of place because Dublin South-East has historical connections, such as with Garret FitzGerald and Noel Browne, and those connections really matter to people.

Kevin Humphreys.

It is to be hoped, in future years. It really matters to people that there is a real history, and that is not given in the terms of reference to constituency names. We should be careful about how we name constituencies. People can build up an affinity with them and have the sense of history of who represented those areas. If they want to look at the history, they look at the names and connections.

When we change it to something such as Dublin Bay South, it should be remembered that it is not possible to see the bay from Terenure or Harold's Cross either. It should mean something. We should keep that sense of history. It would be like taking the name of Cork out of a constituency in Cork or taking away the name of Limerick. People make associations. Dublin South-East was made up of the villages of Ringsend, Sandymount, Terenure, Rathmines and Harold's Cross. They knew where it was. They knew where their place was. They knew the name of their constituency. Then, on the last occasion, it changed.

I very much support Senator Nash. I will not labour the point. It is something we should examine. Otherwise there will be a disconnect with the people and that is not good for democracy.

Senators Buttimer and O'Mahony have indicated.

I am actually in very good form. This is an important matter. Let us be honest about it. I know we cannot support the amendment that Senator Nash is putting forward-----

I did not realise that this business is due to be completed by 4.35 p.m. at the very latest.

There are three or four others who want to speak.

The important point, as Senator Humphreys stated, is it is a pity we did not have this debate before we had the review back.

Are we seriously saying that the constituency of Cork North-Central is adequately or properly named when one looks at the southside parts of it that are included, such as Bishopstown, Gilabbey, Glasheen-----

That is south-side.

----- and the Mardyke? For those of us who have a sporting GAA background, Watergrasshill is east Cork, Dripsey is mid-Cork, and Matehy is Muskerry division.

Matehy. If I move north-central, I can do the placenames as well.

Senator Buttimer is sitting on the fence nicely.

Mourneabbey is in Avondhu-----

It is in north-central.

-----but it is in north-central. I missed a few, such as Barrack Street, the Middle Parish, the Marsh and the inner city. What happened to the river in Cork city being the dividing line?

It got flooded.

It did, and it is this Government that will put in the flood defence system.

It is a serious point.

It is. There is another point that Senator Nash did not reference and which may not apply. Why is it that we always, in the case of Cork, go north-west rather that south-east and we affect the same communities all the time? It is not Carrigaline or Monkstown that are affected but rather Bishopstown, Glasheen, Barrack Street, Gratton Street and the Middle Parish. It makes no sense at all.

The argument put forward by Senator Nash gives testimony to the fact that this report is flawed. In fact, we should tear it up and start again. It makes no sense. Why did we dilute the voice of the people? The people, for example, in Bishopstown, did not know on the previous occasion who some of the candidates were. They never heard of some of them. We are continuing that.

I would like to know why the river is not used as the divide. Why are we always going north-west rather than south-east and why do we not change the names in Cork? I am aware that the commission looked at different issues in Cork, and I accept that. However, it came back with zero change when the variances are profound. Then we could not change the names.

On a poignant note, given that Senator Humphreys mentioned San Francisco in America, I pay tribute to and sympathise with the people of San Francisco on the death of Mayor Lee, who was a great friend of Cork and whom I had the pleasure of meeting on his last visit to Cork as part of the UNESCO learning cities event.

Could somebody in the Department, if there are nine or ten staff, look at this? I accept the officials are independent and are doing a great job, but it is called Cork North-Central when some of the places are no more in Cork North-Central than the Minister of State is in-----

-----Waterford. Exactly.

They certainly will not allow that.

There are seven minutes and then I must pull the string.

I agree with Senator Nash's amendment. Identity of one's area is crucial and there is massive confusion. I am here today thanking the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, and delighted that we have Clonmore, Hacketstown and Rathvilly back into Carlow. There has been so much confusion there over the years with their identity. When canvassers went to the doors, whether it was councillors, Deputies or Senators, they did not know who they were voting for because they were in the Wicklow constituency and yet every service they wanted was from Carlow. This is about the people knowing that they can go to their local councillors, their Deputies and their Senators to represent them. That is what it is all about.

While we are on the subject, the Minister has set up a committee on town councils. I am a firm believer in town councils. I believe funding in my own area of Carlow has stopped since we lost the town council. The municipal districts are not getting funding. They have to go back to local authorities if they have to make any big decisions. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that this is about people. We are here to represent the people. I am here to represent my constituency, Carlow-Kilkenny, and I want to get the best I can for the constituents.

Senator Murnane O'Connor is not. She is a Senator.

Senator O'Mahony has five minutes and he will be asking why he did not get in.

I support the thrust of what Senator Nash has put so articulately. Surely it is no insult to the commission if the name of the constituency is changed. I am gobsmacked. The Minister of State's former constituency colleague, the then Minister and now European Commissioner, refused to include the name Galway west-south Mayo for the previous election.

We are accused of not being flexible or not having common sense in politics. Here is an example of how we could very easily show flexibility at the stroke of a pen and it would not cost anything, yet there is some reason it should not be done. We argued about the population situation and about how boundaries had to be moved and so on, but we should at least throw out some fig leaf to suggest that we recognise the people in the areas being brought into a new constituency.

Senator Kieran O'Donnell may come in if he is brief. I am sorry, but I did not set the goalposts.

The Limerick City constituency crosses county boundaries and goes into County Tipperary. It is very unfair that people in Newport, whose children wear Tipperary GAA jerseys, have to vote in a constituency named Limerick City. Something practical should be done. The Minister of State should ask the Minister to see if there was some way to ensure that the names of constituencies incorporate all the areas they include, particularly when they spread into other counties. The constituency of Limerick City includes a good portion of the south western part of north Tipperary - Newport, Birdhill and Ballinahinch. The people of that area are Tipperary in name and nature and they want to retain that identity. At the very least that should be reflected in the name of their constituency.

I believe Deputy O'Dea is well familiar with that situation already.

He is not the only one.

I totally agree that it is all about identity, but on a lighter note, part of Westmeath is in the Meath West constituency. A little thought needs to be put into that name because a name like Meath west-east Westmeath would be a bit confusing.

The Minister of State has three minutes to wrap up.

On the point Senator Daly has made, I understand where the amendment comes from. I am not in a position to accept it because the commission's reports have been implemented in full since 1980.

They should not be.

There is a lot to be said for implementing the report of an independent commission in full. I understand that that the terms of reference can be changed, as we spoke about earlier, but, to be perfectly honest, I do not think it is the place of this House to decide willy-nilly to implement certain parts of an independent commission's report on electing people to the other House. The naming has been the responsibility of the commission but there is nothing to prevent us changing the legislation in the future to ensure that the name is more reflective of the areas covered.

The problem is as Senator Paul Daly said, because of the amount of county boundary breaches, Meath west-east Westmeath would be the logical name for that constituency. Cavan-Monaghan-north Meath would be another example. That would probably be the biggest example, in terms of population, of a constituency which has not had a name change but equally I am very familiar with the Sligo-Leitrim constituency. There is a huge chunk of Donegal in that constituency and now there will be a big chunk of Roscommon. Should we call it Sligo-Leitrim-south Donegal-north Roscommon? This is a question better suited to the fuller discussion on electoral reform which we should have and which would set out the parameters. I am not in a position to accept the amendment.

Will the Minister of State answer my question as to why, in the case of Cork, it is always in one direction rather than the other?

I cannot because it is a matter for the independent commission which does its own work. It accepts submissions. I am sure the Senator made such a submission.

In my opinion, the submissions are not read at all.

It seems to have accepted a submission in the case of Carlow. The best example was the previous time in Leitrim. There was a big effort to get Leitrim back together to get a Deputy elected for the county and it worked. Most submissions this time were from Carlow and it got a response. Senator Buttimer should get writing.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Schedule agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

We were bang up against the clock. I thank the Minister of State and his staff. I also thank our own staff here, the very hardworking Martin and our assistant from Kerry. The time is out but I am-----

I thank the Minister of State.

I thank all my colleagues for their patience and indulgence with me, including Brigid Doody. Before we adjourn the House I will allow the Leader to say a cúpla focal.

I thank the Minister of State. This is the first legislation he has had passed in his office. I congratulate him on that and lest people think that I was being critical of the commission in my remarks, I was not being personal. I was being generic in my remarks. It is important that, in passing this Bill, we take note of the fact that in the case of Cork submissions were put in from sporting and community groups, independent of all of us, on the basis of sense of place and community. Notice must be taken of that.

I congratulate the Minister of State. He has done a sterling job in his first few months as Minister of State. He has brought the boundary review in Cork to a successful conclusion and is working hard on behalf of the councillors to improve their lot. I wish him well in his term. Mar fhocal scoir, I wish everybody a very prosperous and happy Christmas.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. I really would like to have a broader discussion on these issues because I am interested in the area of political reform and I am glad to be responsible for it. I thank the Cathaoirleach, the staff of the Houses, my two officials, the ushers and everybody else. I wish everybody a happy, holy and peaceful Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Wednesday, 17 January at 2.30 p.m.

Have a lovely Christmas.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 17 January 2018.