Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 15 Apr 1943

Vol. 89 No. 16

Committee on Finance. - Electoral (Duration of Dáil Eireann) Bill, 1943—Second Stage.

I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. There is not, I think, any doubt in the minds of those concerned with these matters that public opinion has been disturbed at the prospect of a general election while the present European conflict continues and, in fact, the suggestion has been made that the legal life of the present Parliament should be prolonged in order to avoid an election.

I thought the present was going to be the last war.

I am not expressing any opinion on that matter. The House has already shown that it appreciates the very weighty, fundamental and, in most cases, insuperable objections there are to a particular Parliament prolonging its own legal existence. If the period for which the Dáil is elected is to be extended it is very desirable— it is in fact, I think, essential—that the legislation by which this is effected should not apply to the Oireachtas which passes it and should only become effective after a general election has been held subsequent to the enactment of the new law.

We are living in a time when this question of the duration of the Dáil is of almost capital importance. We do not know what the future may bring, and most of us, I am sure, will not prognosticate as to how long the present critical conditions will obtain. But I am sure we are all agreed that in the interests of the State, and of the nation, the law should not be such as might compel us to hold another general election while the present emergency continues, or, indeed, during its immediate aftermath. The purpose of this Bill is to give a wider discretion and a more liberal margin in that regard in the hope that it will enable the Oireachtas and the State to weather the storm without a further general election than that which the general provisions of the electoral law enforce upon us. Article 16 of the Constitution requires that the same Dáil Eireann shall not continue for a longer period than seven years from the date of its first meeting and permits a shorter period to be fixed by law. Under the present Electoral Act the period is fixed as five years. This Bill in Section 1 proposes a maximum duration of six years instead. In accordance with what I have already said, it is not proposed that the provisions of the Bill should be applied to the present Dáil. Provision is made therefore, in Section 2 that the Bill is to come into operation immediately after the dissolution.

I have said that we are anxious in present conditions that a general elec should be avoided so long as the law permits us to do so. Therefore, there is strong justification for this Bill, but I think that our experience of the past four years would indicate that we tied the hands of the Oireachtas too tightly when we fixed the limit of five years, apart altogether from the particular consideration I have mentioned. I think we can all be trusted to ensure that if the maximum duration is extended to six years, that power of the Oireachtas will not be abused. We do not exist here merely of our own volition. We exist by the will of the people, and I have no doubt that if a Government were in office which manfestly had not the confidence or support of the people, it could not continue to exist, notwithstanding the fact that the legal duration of the Dáil were six years and not five years. The mainstay of the Dáil and the lifeblood of all Governments is that the confidence of the people should manifestly repose in them. If there were extreme disaffection outside, I have no doubt that it would be reflected in the Party alignments in the House and that these alignments would speedily bring down the Government and, if necessary, force an appeal to the people well within the period.

The Dáil normally under the electoral law can remain in existence for five years, but the history of this State shows that in fact the average life of the Parliament is very much less than that, and the only point is whether we have allowed ourselves sufficient margin to meet what all the practical vicissitudes which the State has to face. I think the experience of the past four years, as I have already said, shows that we drew the line too stringently and too tightly, and that it would be advisable, having regard to what the future may bring, to allow a little more margin in that regard. For that purpose, this Bill is not brought in merely as an emergency measure, though it is true that the need for it has been brought home to us by the emergency; it is brought in as a permanent amendment of the law.

The case made for this Bill has not convinced me of its advisability. We are operating here under a Constitution which has been amended within the last few years, and so amended that although we have an Oireachtas, that is, the President and two Houses, in essence, we really might as well have only one House, because the system which has been devised is one which almost copper-fastens the second House as a reflection of the first. That is a departure from what is called the bicameral system in practically every other country of which we know anything at all. For the best part of 20 years, if not for even a longer period, the Parliament's life has been limited to five years by legislation, and when we were considering this matter on the amendment of the Constitution to which I have referred, in 1936 or 1937, that five years period was left in and at that time we were not operating in a crisis. There was no immediate likelihood of an emergency arising, and during all that period the opinion of the Ministry was that no extension of the period of five years ought to be made in the ordinary law.

It appears to me that the events of the last few years have upset to some extent the mental balance of the Ministry in this situation. For the best part of the period, the speeches we listened to from one end of the Ministerial Bench to the other were after the manner and style of the prophet Jeremiah. We were always approaching some terrible catastrophe and barely escaping it, and that we did escape it was entirely due to the efficiency of the Administration. They have solved everything except our problems and it appears to me that an extension of the period through which the Dáil can run just now, when nerves on that side appear to have become a little frayed, does not appeal to me. The period ought not to be spread out from five to six years, unless one were well satisfied that popular opinion—and I am not interpreting certain editorials in certain newspapers as expressing popular opinion; I am taking the measure of support behind the policy or behind the Government, as the case may be, during the period—was behind the proposal. Unless that support were there, it would look as if an effort were being made to snatch something from the public which it was not the intention or the will of the public that the Government should have.

In those cases in which Parliaments have lasted beyond the period allotted, one of two things has usually happened: either there is an extraordinary change in the representation or some one body, political party or otherwise, manages to get an overwhelming majority, representing a mass vote, a mob vote. I do not think that is wise. It is not advisable that there should be a remarkable change in a parliament—I am speaking now of such a change as would affect the personnel to the extent of 50 per cent. A change of 33 1-3 per cent. is about as much as is wise, and, looking over the history of parliaments in which the pendulum has swung to the extent of 50 per cent. or more, we find that conditions have been less stable than in those cases in which there was a gradual alteration of representation, that is, less and less rather than more and more, and effecting, perhaps by reason of the fact that it is less and less, much greater reform and much better results than would be the case where you had such a state of affairs as existed in the period just prior to the French Revolution.

Here in this State, having the history we have during the past 20 years, Parliament as well as the people is on trial. Parliament is very much on its trial because whatever transpires here and whatever work we do here is judged, partly as a result of the violence of political thought in this country, cynically and with a certain amount of bias. It is all the more advisable that for that reason there should not be an extension of the life of the Parliament which might give rise to the view outside that you had got a lease of power and proposed to keep it. That would be inadvisable, and I should much prefer if there were an election, say, every two years and the representation changed to the extent of 20 or 25 per cent., up to 60 per cent., over three such elections. It would be far better in that form than an immediate change of 50 per cent. in a particular Parliament. For that reason, I think that until there develops a greater respect for the Parliamentary institutions of the State than exists at present, or than is growing at present, it is highly desirable that Parliament ought to last for no longer a period than five years and perhaps for even a shorter period than five years. For those reasons I would suggest very strongly to the Minister that the Government ought not to persist in this Bill.

I entirely agree with Deputy Cosgrave that there is no real justification for this measure. I must confess that I was extremely surprised at the reasons advanced by the Minister in support of the measure. The first indication that was given to the public or to this House that there was any idea in the minds of the Government to increase the statutory life of Parliament was given, I think, in the speech of the Taoiseach on the motion that there should be no general election during the present emergency. In the course of his observations in the debate on that motion, from my recollection—and speaking purely from recollection—the impression made on me while listening to him was that he stated that he was inclined to think that a period of five years for the life of Parliament was insufficient. According to my recollection, the reason he gave for that was that a period of five years did not give sufficient time to enable Government policy to be adequately tried out. That, certainly, was the impression left on my mind—that he was speaking of a permanent measure, a measure dealing with the length of a Parliament's life, apart altogether from any question of emergency war conditions.

My impression was that in his view a period of six years would be better, and that the proposal had nothing whatever to do with emergency or war conditions. Now, however, we have the Minister coming along and telling us, for reasons that we can guess at and, I think, guess at accurately, that this matter of extending the life of Parliament to six years is bound up with the present emergency. Now, I hold that it has no relation whatever to it—at least, I hope not, because I do not think anybody would care to envisage the fact that the present emergency or war will last for the next six years and that, on that account, we must make provision for prolonging the life of Parliament for six years. That is not the reason at all but, of course, as I understand it, that is the reason given by the Minister.

The Minister spoke of the shock of a general election to the people. There is no question of any shock to the people as a result of a general election. They will take it with complete calm. There is no reason why there should not be a general election, and the desire for it was expressed by this House, but whether there is or is not a reason for the holding of a general election, there is certainly no public demand for or any adequate reason why we should increase the life of Parliament from five to six years. In that connection, I might point out that the whole tendency of parliamentary institutions in Great Britain, from which we largely derive our own parliamentary institutions, has been to reduce the life of Parliament. In 1912, in Great Britain, the period of the life of Parliament was reduced from seven years to five years. What is the necessity for a six-year period for our Parliament now? I am absolutely satisfied that not one single reason given by the Minister for this proposal is the real reason. I do not know of any justification for it. There might be something to be said for the Taoiseach's contention that a five-year period did not give a Government sufficient time to have its policy tried out, but, if that is so, this present Government never gave their alleged policy a chance of having it tried out. They first came into power in 1932, and, inside a year, they had another general election. There was no talk at that time to the effect that five years was not enough to try out their policy. Twelve months, or even 11 months, was not sufficient for them and, in 1933, they had another general election. Four years after that, in 1937, they had another election, and they were not content with having two general elections in the one year formerly but, inside 12 months after the election in 1937, they had another election, and I think if there had not been a war on we would have had another general election long before this.

But who is responsible for that?

At any rate, I fail to comprehend the reason for this. It has been the established practice in Great Britain for a long time now to have a five-year period, and that has been shown to be adequate. It must be remembered that at the end of a period of six years people will be voting who were only 15 years of age at the time Parliament was first elected, and if the Parliament lasts that time, it may be that it will have lost the confidence of the people, but wants to hang on to power, which is contrary to all democratic principles. I can see no justification for this, as I have said. It has no relation to emergency or war conditions. In my opinion, this Bill is being introduced as a permanent measure, irrespective of the emergency, but the Minister now tries to tie it up to conditions which have no existence whatever.

The Minister spoke of there being adequate grounds for this Bill. Well, I can congratulate him for keeping secrets very well, because he certainly has not given one single ground for the Bill. In addition to what Deputy Costello said, I should like to point out that, apart from Great Britain, there are and were Parliaments in various countries in the world where an effort is made to secure real, democratic control of Parliament. I think the Minister will find out that in many of these countries there is a method of partial general election— sometimes once or twice a year, and sometimes every two years. For instance, in the United States of America he will find that some of the members of the House of Representatives go out every two years. I think that that would be more or less in keeping with the point put forward by Deputy Cosgrave: that is that you would have a gradual instead of a quick change. I think that if the Minister would look at the example of Parliaments in other countries, apart from England, he would find that it is by no means an infrequent practice to have a certain number of members of Parliament retiring each year, so that you would have what one might call a partial election.

Surely, in dealing with that, the Deputy cannot overlook the peculiar position in which the American Executive is vis-a-vis Parliament?

I suggest that the Minister should consider the history of Parliaments in the various countries during the 19th century. The Taoiseach, in his mathematical way, thought of five or seven years, and now it is a question—striking the mathematical mean—of six years. And, really, that is as good a reason as any that the Minister has brought forward, and it is probably much sounder than any one he has brought forward.

Before moving the adjournment of the debate, may I ask the Minister, if he finds that he gets no support from any Deputies in the House excepting the members of his own Party, will he withdraw this measure?

The arguments which I have heard so far have failed to convince me that this Bill should not be proceeded with. I hope that the Deputy, if he can reinforce what his colleagues have said in regard to the measure, will do so. I promise to consider what he may add to their arguments.

Did not the Prime Minister say, on Deputy Cogan's motion, that he would introduce this Bill if he got general agreement from all Parties? He never consulted any Party before the introduction of this measure.

I move the adjournment of the debate.

Debate adjourned accordingly.