The Government action in regard to this matter seems to be based on the fact that more than 90 days have elapsed without the Bill having been considered by Dáil Éireann. The only basis for assuming that the Bill has automatically lapsed is that the words "within the stated period" qualify "passed by Seanad Éireann" as well as the words "with amendments to which Dáil Éireann does not agree". It seems to me that Article 23 of the Constitution must be construed as providing that all cases that could arise should be dealt with and that a construction, which would mean an omission, should not be favoured.
The relevant sub-section of Article 23 is sub-section (1) and that sub-section deals with, I think, three cases (a) Bill rejected by the Seanad within the stated period, (b) Bill amended by the Seanad within the stated period in a manner of which the Dáil later disapproves, and (c) Bill in respect of which the Seanad takes no conclusive action—a Bill which is neither passed nor rejected within the stated period. Surely the Bill which we are now considering falls within that category. It seems to me that the Dáil is competent to consider a Bill which has come back from the Seanad and to determine whether it is going to agree or disagree with the Seanad in the amendments which have been inserted in the Bill in the other House. That, it seems to me, would be a more reasonable way to approach this matter.
This Bill went through Dáil Éireann practically without opposition. I think there was only a minor amendment introduced on the Committee Stage, or rather on the Report Stage, to meet a point which had been raised by Deputy Alfred Byrne on the Committee Stage. The Bill received the unanimous approval of the last Dáil. In the Seanad the principle of the measure was not challenged. Two minor amendments were inserted there, neither of them of any substance, amendments which, because they were not of any great substance, did not touch on the principle of the Bill and amendments which it seemed reasonable to accept. These amendments have now come back to Dáil Éireann. I think it is implicit in the constitutional relationship which exists between the two Houses that a Bill which was passed by this House, and amended in good faith by the Seanad, should be considered by this House in the light of the amendments which have been made by the Seanad. What is proposed here is to overthrow the whole principle of the Bill, to repeal the Bill really by a sidewind. The measure is a continuing measure and is still in existence and this House is competent to consider it. The amendments are not of substance. The principle of the Bill has been approved by the two Houses of the Oireachtas.
The motion of the Taoiseach is not, of course, ultra rires, but I am submitting that it is quite outside the general spirit of the Constitution and is not, if I might put it that way, in the temper in which a matter of this sort should be considered by the House. We have had virtual unanimity in both Houses in regard to the Bill. Why, then, is the Government proposing to kill the Bill in the manner in which it has been suggested we should kill it to-day? When the Taoiseach was on the Opposition Benches he did not oppose the principle of the measure. None of his Party voted against it. It was acceptable to them then. What is the reason for the change?
In view of the fact that there is a motion now to the effect that the Order should be discharged, I think I am competent and within the limits of order in discussing the principles of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill was to secure better representation of the people on local authorities, to ensure a closer connection between the representatives of the ratepayers and the districts which they represented. If the Bill becomes law, as I submit it should, it will adjust the electoral areas, upon which local representation is based, to the resources of the ordinary ratepayer who is ambitious to represent the interests of himself and his neighbours on the local authority. It proposes to replace the existing system—under which representation on the local authorities is based upon constituencies, some of them even larger than many of the constituencies upon which representation in this House is based—by areas more suited to the resources of the ordinary individual who seeks election. Under the existing system it is quite clear that very few people could hope to represent their constituencies on their local authorities unless they are backed by large, powerful and wealthy organisations, or are themselves wealthy men who can undertake the expense of contesting a local election over areas covering in some cases as much as 2,000 square miles of territory. It is because these electoral areas are much too large, it is because the demands which are now being made upon local representatives are much too exacting that we have witnessed a decline in the standard of representation upon the local authorities, that we have experienced a grave diminution of interest in the activities of these local authorities, and, particularly, a grave diminution of desire to participate in the work of these local authorities and to secure election to them.
We all of us have had experience here in this House and we have heard it stated from time to time that local government is not what it was. I believe that one of the reasons why it is not what it was is that unless a person is prepared to devote virtually the whole of his time to looking after the large scattered electoral areas upon which local representation is based to-day, you will not get a representative ratepayer to sit on or to seek election to these local authorities. If you do, as it was proposed to do in the Bill which is now before the House for consideration again, if you reduce the electoral areas so that they would be convenient in size, so that the man of standing in any particular neighbourhood will not be called upon to devote his special attention to much more than the concerns of his immediate neighbours, while, of course, having regard to the concerns of the county as a whole, then I think you will get a better type of representative in general. I am not saying that about them all, but you would get a better type of representative in general and a much livelier interest in the affairs of the county council. Moreover, the people who are ratepayers in the several districts would have a feeling that there was one man who was elected to represent that district to whom they could have resort if they wanted to have the particular interest and concerns of the district attended to and to whom they could appeal and hold responsible for making representations in relation to the particular district in which they reside. Under the present system, you have five, six, seven, and, in some cases, as many as nine people representing very large areas. Very often you find that these local representatives are concentrated in one particular portion of the area which they represent and that there are people living 20, 30, 40 and, in some cases, even as many as 50 miles away from the nearest county councillor. How can you expect to have any active or intense interest in the election of a local authority so long as that position exists?
This was the condition of affairs which the Local Elections Bill of 1947 was intended to remedy. I am not going to say we had found a perfect remedy, but I believe that in the proposals in the Bill we had something which at least was worth a trial. We have endured and suffered the other system here since 1918, I think—almost 30 years— and it has not produced any improvement in the existing local representatives. This Bill was an attempt to deal with that situation. I put it to the House that, after 30 years of disappointing results under the existing system of election, it would be worth while giving this a trial. That is all that was involved. That seemed to be the view of virtually every Party in this House prior to the year 1948. It was the view of virtually every Party in this House when the Bill, which it is now proposed to drop, was before this House and, as I mentioned, there was only one minor amendment proposed. That was an amendment proposed by me in response to representations made by Deputy Alfred Byrne. But upon the large principle of the Bill there appeared to be no difference of opinion. There was no difference of opinion in the Seanad either in relation to the principle of the Bill.
What, therefore, is the explanation for the change? What is the reason why this Bill is not allowed to pursue what would be the usual course? When a Bill has been enacted by Dáil Éireann and goes to Seanad Éireann, if it is amended there this House has always done the Seanad the courtesy at least of considering the amendments, either accepting or rejecting them. When the principle of a Bill has been accepted in both Houses, by the Seanad as well as by this House, never before has it happened that the Second House of the Oireachtas has been so rebuffed as is proposed in this case. In every case we have said: "The Seanad has concurred with Dáil Éireann in the principle of the Bill, the Seanad has accepted the principle of the Bill, and we will do the Seanad at least the courtesy of considering its amendments and asking Dáil Éireann either to accept or reject them."
The Taoiseach has taken an unprecedented course in relation to this Bill, a course which I think is contrary to the public interest, a course which I do not believe, bearing in mind the previous history of this Bill in this House, has been willingly adopted by him or by those who support him as members of his own Party. I do not believe that that course has been willingly adopted by many of the members of the other Parties in this House who support this Government. Before we proceed to accept the motion which the Taoiseach has proposed to the House I think we are entitled to have from him a categorical justification for the course which he is asking the House to adopt. As I have said, I think it is contrary to precedent. I am certain it is contrary to the public interest and I will draw this deduction from the previous history of the Bill in this House: that the Taoiseach and those who are associated with him in the Fine Gael Party are taking this course under coercion.