European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019: Committee Stage

Section 1 agreed to.
SECTION 2

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 17, after “amended” to insert “, as respects European elections held after 25th May 2019,”.

Both of these amendments seek to address the concerns of those UK citizens currently entitled to vote in European elections in this State. The amendments take different approaches to ensuring UK citizens will have the opportunity to continue to vote. Amendment No. 1 simply seeks to ensure that the measure removing the rights of UK citizens to vote in European elections in Ireland shall not apply to those UK citizens who are currently on the electoral register and the said measure shall not apply to the elections taking place on 25 May 2019. These elections are of particular import.

Will Senators Mac Lochlainn and Ó Donnghaile resume their seats, please?

The right to vote in European elections allows many UK citizens who are pro-European and passionate about Europe to use their voices and contribute to European debate at a time when they may have been disenfranchised by their own country's choice to disenfranchise its citizens. Ireland should send a signal of inclusion through the European elections, even if a hard Brexit has not taken place beforehand. That matter is addressed in amendment No. 1.

Amendment No. 2 is even more clear and specific. It reflects the approach taken in the principal Act of 1997 referred to in this legislation. Provision was made in that Act for those on the 1994 register to be exempted from the preclusions put in place by the 1997 Act. Section 6(1) of the 1997 Act states that a person shall not be entitled to register as a European elector except in a number of circumstances. Section 6(3) makes it clear that subsection (1) did not apply to those on the 1994 register.

I have sought to mirror that provision in a new subsection which simply states: "Subsection (1) shall not apply in relation to any person who was registered as a European elector in a constituency in a register of electors which came into force prior to the enactment of the European Parliaments Elections (Amendment) Act 2019, or a supplement thereof, provided that person continues to be a resident of the State." It provides that those who are currently on the register and entitled to vote today will still be entitled to vote in the European elections in May. We do not know the numbers on the electoral register but we know there are approximately 100,000 UK citizens living in Ireland. They should be able to make their voice heard on collective issues.

I have referred to the ruling of the European Court of Justice in the case of Kingdom of Spain v. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Minister of State indicated the ruling largely relates to the issue of Commonwealth citizens. I have the specific decision of the European Court of Justice here and the ruling does not rely on the Commonwealth argument that the Minister of State mentioned. It makes clear that neither Articles 189 or 190 of the treaty establishing the European Community concerning the elections of representatives by direct universal suffrage expressly states who is to be entitled to the right to vote. Moreover, the articles refer to the principle of non-discrimination. The concern is that citizens of other member states should not be discriminated against. The meaning of those articles is not to preclude but to include.

I also note that the same ruling of the European Court of Justice is explicit in its use of the term "peoples". That term is not defined and can have different meanings in different member states and languages. No principle can be derived from the relevant articles that citizens of the European Union are the only persons entitled to citizenship under all the other provisions of the treaty.

I ask Senators Craughwell and Marshall to continue their conversation outside or to be silent please.

The European Court of Justice is clear in this regard. The Minister of State acknowledged in the Dáil that what I am proposing is possible. I am asking him to take these steps and support the amendments. He should embrace this opportunity to send a signal of inclusion to many people who face the prospect, under Brexit, of their families becoming divided and the connections between the state in which they were born and the state in which they live becoming fraught and more difficult.

The Minister of State stated that we allow different levels of inclusion at local elections because a resident in any ward or district has skin in the game as regards footpaths, lights, etc. We know that European Union investment funds can be routed towards local infrastructure. Surely people who live here should have a say in those matters. On a more negative level, we know that the EU-Singapore deal, for example, includes certain provisions on procurement that may constrain local authorities. There is a deep connection between the local, national and European in this regard. When we talk about a Europe of cities I would like us to be true to that spirit.

I am asking the Minister of State to reconsider his position and accept this amendment. This does not set the course for the future. It is modest and only relates to those who are already on the electoral register. While a path needs to be charted for the future but, in a later amendment, I propose to give the Minister of State the prerogative of charting that path. I ask him to protect the rights of those on the register. I have spoken about franchise. It is not simply a privilege; it is a service that each citizen pays to each other by voting collectively. It does not do any of us, or the common good, a service to leave a large cohort of the adult population of the State, who have lived here for many decades, without the same voice and vote as others. We want these people to feel a part of the decisions we make together.

I do not propose to accept these amendments. Section 2 of the Bill does not remove the right of British citizens resident in the State to vote at elections to the European Parliament. Those rights are contingent on their continued citizenship of the European Union as set out in the treaties.

I must confess that I got my European judgments mixed up. The judgment we are referencing in this debate, Kingdom of Spain v. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was made at a time when the language in the treaty, as Senator Higgins mentioned, referred to the peoples of the European Union. The Lisbon treaty changed that language, subtly but comprehensively, by introducing the term "citizens of the [European] Union". The issue in respect of Commonwealth citizens related to another judgment.

I am told there are approximately 50,000 UK citizens on the electoral register in Ireland at present.

If the UK legally withdraws from the Union, then British citizens will no longer have a right to vote in elections to the European Parliament from the date of withdrawal and will no longer be included on the register of European electors, although they will still be on our register of electors with the letter D preceding their name. If the UK remains in the Union, then British citizens resident in the State will be treated in the same manner as citizens from other member states in the context of the register of European electors. This section seeks to remove the current difference of treatment that exists between British citizens and citizens of other EU member states under Irish electoral law.

Furthermore, the register of electors has already been compiled for 2019-2020 under the current law and that register entered into force on 15 February last. It is not proposed to amend the register until the next formal review commences for the 2020-2021 electoral register.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify that the electoral register, as it stands, including the right to vote in the European elections, will remain the same in respect of the May election. Is that what he is suggesting?

No. It will remain the same if Britain remains within the European Union. However, even if Britain is not benefiting from that classification, the classification will still remain the same.

Therefore, if Britain were to leave, those residents here would lose their right to vote in the European elections. I have put forward this argument. I somewhat regret that Ireland is not fighting to try to make a special case. As we said earlier, we know the case was made in respect of "close ties" by the UK in regard to the Commonwealth. I think the close ties we have with the UK are very clear, and all of us in this House and all Ministers have spoken about those close ties. It is regrettable we do not put substance to that by seeking to maintain those ties. I recognise that we want to ensure a wider consideration of non-EU citizens, which is why I will be pressing an amendment at a later Stage on the wider issue of non-EU citizens who may be long-term residents in the State and their voice. It is very sad to see anybody losing a right to vote in this day and age, when we know we need to expand and deepen democracy at every opportunity. Again, I regret we are not able to agree on this point but I thank the Minister of State for his engagement.

I regret it as well.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:

“(2) Section 6 of the Principal Act is amended by the insertion of the following new subsection after subsection (4):

“(5) Subsection (1) shall not apply in relation to any person who was registered as a European elector in a constituency in a register of electors which came into force prior to the enactment of the European Parliaments Elections (Amendment) Act 2019, or a supplement thereof, provided that person continues to be a resident of the State.”.”.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 8; Níl, 25.

  • Black, Frances.
  • Devine, Máire.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Kelleher, Colette.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • Marshall, Ian.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Alice-Mary Higgins and Fintan Warfield; Níl, Senators Gabrielle McFadden and John O'Mahony..
Amendment declared lost.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.