The special commercial franchise and separate representation of commercial electors on the Dublin Corporation which this Bill proposes to discontinue was introduced as part of the Local Government (Dublin) Bill, 1930. The attitude of Fianna Fáil was clearly disclosed on the Second Reading of that Bill. It was then said that the Bill was evidence of the fear of the common people by those who said they only wanted the will of the people to be put into execution; that it was a vicious effort to restore the old ascendancy on the necks of the Dublin citizens, and was a return to the autocracy that was fought for centuries. It was pointed out that the principle of giving a man votes according to the size of his bank balance—for that is what it amounted to—was bad, and one that no democratic institution ought to stand over, and that the proposed new franchise was an insult to the common people because it was an effort to render their representatives on the council impotent. Introducing the Bill, the then Ministers asked to have it explained whether there were wanted on the Council of our municipalities men who are highly skilled but who are so very much immersed in commerce and business that they will not turn to the task of facing the ordinary electorate for local government election purposes. The answer is in two parts, the first is we want competent representatives, and the second we do not want men who will not do what are the ordinary duties of every citizen unless they have a special franchise and rights.
One might infer that but for the commercial franchise, business interests would have been unrepresented on the City Council, but that did not prove to be the case. The ordinary members of the Dublin Corporation are drawn from a wide variety of businesses, professions and classes.
Assuming this commercial franchise had all the merits ascribed to it, the electors enfranchised thereby might reasonably be expected to make some use of it. During the period between the passing of the Act of 1930 and the Corporation elections there was not sufficient time available to permit the making of a house to house inquiry to find out particulars of all electors entitled to the commercial franchise. Instead, wide publicity was given and electors were invited to send in claims —and that involved a minimum of trouble in return for the right of entry into this privileged coterie. Notwithstanding the drive made, only 1,048 entries appeared on the commercial register whereas a complete register would have contained over 2,500 entries. It may be truly said that the best comment on the franchise was supplied by the people the Bill sought to enfranchise, for more than half either did not want it, or were too indifferent or apathetic to claim it.
From any survey of the growth of democratic institutions there emerges one salient feature and that is the gradual widening of the basis of popular franchise. The historical gradation seems to be: (1) Aristocracy, (2) Plutocracy, and (3) Democracy. The provisions contained in the Commercial Franchise Act was a futile attempt to revert in time to a system of Government that is now outworn. I am aware that it was contended that the objects of the legislative provisions embodied in that Bill was to give representation to business people possessing offices or commercial concerns in the city, but disqualified on the grounds of residence outside the municipal area. But the Bill itself, as it came before the Dáil and passed into law, effected far more than this trivial modification of the law. It created within a democratically elected assembly a reservation based entirely on wealth, access to which was restricted to a particular class and it set up a most dangerous precedent for the perpetuation of class conflict. It provided emphatic and unanswerable argument for those who would contend that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. In short, it was the nucleus of a scheme which, if generally adopted, would necessitate a fresh agitation for franchise reform such as most people thought was settled a century ago. It will, however, be observed that this daring and reactionary experiment was not attempted outside Dublin; seemingly some slight political insight remained and the municipal constitution of Dublin was the only one to be stigmatised with this inexcusable reversion to the discredited principles of plutocracy. The object of the Bill now before the House is to remove that stigma and to restore to the ordinary local government electors of Dublin County Borough the complete control of their municipal franchise.
So far as any claim may be preferred by non-resident business people, it may be noted that the wide periphery of the new city area has included most suburban claimants to municipal franchise. Accordingly, I move the Second Reading of the Bill to discontinue this system. The total membership of the Corporation is not proposed to be reduced on the passing of this Bill and the Borough Electoral Area Order of 1930 will be amended so as to distribute over the existing borough electoral areas the five seats at present reserved to commercial members.