Thursday, 13 June 2019

Questions (5)

Jack Chambers

Question:

5. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if all Defence Forces personnel entitled to postal votes in the recent European and local elections received ballot papers in time to cast their vote; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24687/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Defence)

Could the Minister of State tell me whether all Defence Forces personnel entitled to postal votes in the recent European and local elections received ballot papers in time to cast their vote? This was the most alarming development in the past number of weeks. Multiple members of the Defence Forces said they were unable to exercise their basic democratic and constitutional right. We know they are treated poorly in terms of pay and conditions but to actually deprive them of their democratic right to vote is very worrying and we need an explanation of the matter.

The Electoral Act 1992 establishes a postal voters list and those who qualify to be entered in the list. The Act provides that a whole-time member of the Defence Forces shall be entered in the list. Having regard to the nature of military life, this entitlement ensures the right to vote for members of the Permanent Defence Force.

The Department of Defence provides a link between the franchise section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the military authorities. This is to ensure that appropriate timelines for postal voting are agreed. Responsibility for the distribution of postal votes rests with the military authorities. The responsibility for returning the vote by post rests with the individual except in the case of personnel overseas where the military authorities arrange for the votes to be returned. The register of electors is prepared annually by the registration authorities, who prepare the postal voters list. The Defence Forces, through the enlisted personnel management office, liaise with the registration authorities to ensure the list is up to date and correct.

The Defence Forces place a very high level of importance on ensuring that all personnel are provided with the opportunity to register for and receive a postal vote. To that end, personnel are provided with access to registration forms through the chain of command. The commanding officers inform all ranks of the availability of the registration forms. A significant operation then takes place to ensure that those who are registered to vote, at home or overseas, are provided with postal votes to enable them to exercise their right to vote.

Postal votes for Defence Forces personnel were processed and administered by the military authorities in the normal way for the 2019 local and European elections. I am informed that a number of personnel have expressed concern that they did not receive a postal vote. These concerns are being examined by the military authorities in the context of a review of the operation of the postal voting system with a view to ensuring that processes and procedures are optimised. The review is expected to conclude shortly.

I expect the military authorities to take any necessary action on foot of their review to ensure the right of military personnel to exercise their right to vote.

This is another glorious administrative blunder. We saw the two flights that were delayed in the past number of months but the fact that members of the Defence Forces received their postal votes the day before the elections meant they could not exercise their right to vote. Some members who were overseas could not vote. I know that some wives and partners of members of the Defence Forces mentioned that at the count centre, photographs of boxes of ballot boxes were taken on Monday after the elections and were not sent. As the Minister of State is aware, members of the Defence Forces were unable to take part in many of the protests and are not allowed to join a union or strike but one thing they value is their right to democratic accountability in respect of their local and European election candidate. The fact that there is a review, there has been a probable breach of the Electoral Act and the democratic system and people who wanted to exercise their democratic right to vote were prevented from doing so is an alarming development that needs very serious examination by the Minister of State and his Department. It is another blow to morale under the Minister of State's watch in the context of the overall exodus from our Defence Forces.

That statement clearly indicates that the Deputy does not listen. I said that the Department of Defence only provides the link between the franchise section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the military authorities. This is to ensure that timelines for voting are processed. Neither the Department of Defence nor my office have anything to do with sending out and collecting postal votes. It is up to the military authorities to give postal votes to members of the Defence Forces and it is then up to the members to post the ballots themselves. If a person is overseas, the military authorities look after the process of that in getting the postal vote to him or her and getting the postal vote back to the specific constituencies. The Department of Defence has no role to play whatsoever. If the Deputy listened to my original reply, he would not have asked the question he asked.

I will make the link because during the Minister of State's tenure, we are seeing the implosion and destruction of our Defence Forces - the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps. Does the Minister of State not see the link? Can he not connect the dots? The exodus of personnel means that administration, organisation, capacity and capability are all being fatally undermined. We now see the electoral system being undermined because of the ongoing difficulty regarding the effective strength of our Defence Forces. If the Minister of State cannot create the link, he is just defending his mandarins and Department. The Department was created very easily. There are more layers within its structures with more assistant secretaries general and more appointments but when we see the exodus from our Defence Forces, the Minister of State should create the link in terms of the implosion, destruction and demoralisation that are there. They are the net effects, which are now creeping into our democratic system. People who have such morale could not even vote on the Minister of State's watch.

The Deputy is wrong. Managing this issue is the responsibility of the military authorities. I know the Deputy wants to broaden this out to encompass other areas but I am content that the postal voting system is a matter for the military authorities. The Department of Defence only liaises with the franchise section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to give the dates on which members of the Defence Forces will get their postal votes and the date by which such votes must be returned. I understand that a review of this matter is being carried out by the military authorities but this is the responsibility of the military authorities.