This is the section in the Schedule which proposes in two of its paragraphs to effect, if accepted by the people, a fundamental change in the electoral system we have known in this country for the past 36 years. It is proposed in this section to abolish the system of proportional representation as we know it and to abolish the multiple-member constituencies which are implicit in P.R., and instead of that system, which is purely Irish in its tradition, which is pertinent in every respect to our traditions and outlook over the past 36 years, it is proposed to introduce a system which is purely English in its tradition, historical association and its outlook.
We are asked in this section to undo the things done by successive leaders of Governments here in the past 36 years and in place of the system of P.R., to adopt a system which is current in England. Politics certainly make strange bed-fellows. It is pertinent, perhaps significant, that the Taoiseach is now doing what Craigavon did in the North some 25 years ago and doing it, I suggest, for precisely the same reason.
Does the House realise that, in 1922, Ireland, north and south, east and west, elected its public representatives under the system of P.R. freely adopted by our people? From 1922 on, the Parliament in the South of Ireland and the Parliament in the North also were to be elected by P.R. P.R. was scarcely tried in the North: a few years sufficed to convince the Unionist Party that it just would not do and steps were taken in the middle Twenties in the North to abolish P.R. and to adopt instead the British system. One of the first people to object to that was the Taoiseach and he was joined by every other leader of public opinion in the South. We said to the North—I think with sincerity, certainly with vehemence— that the abolition of P.R. there was an effort to establish dictatorship in that part of our country by a political junta. How well the charge has been proved in the years that have elapsed! The same political Party has remained in office in Stormont for the past 36 years, immutable, unchangeable, a fixture in the northern landscape. Do we say that kind of immutability is desirable? Are we now to eat bitter bread here and slavishly follow the example set for us by the northern leader a quarter of a century ago?
It has been said that this proposed change is in the interests of stability. I wonder when people use words like that, whether they realise what they say or attach any particular meaning to such words. Is stability to signify no change in Government or should it mean stability in the institutions of the State itself? There has been no change of Government in the North in the past 36 years, but I do not think we would regard the set-up in the North or the Government experience which they have had as being good. The change in the North has had the effect of enshrining in Government offices there the same Party, the same men, the same outlook and the same leaders. Were it not for other matters behind the Unionist Party, that kind of regimented rule would long since have led to disruption. Down here, if we are to have, with this change, the entrenchment of a political Party and the banishing from this House of legitimate political movements, then I fear that disruption will very quickly follow.
The Taoiseach has talked about stability. Even using that term in the same way as he does, let us remember that over 36 years here in the South, we have had only three Prime Ministers, Mr. W.T. Cosgrave, the present Taoiseach and the Leader of the Opposition. There is an experience of stability, if you like, in the Taoiseach's terminology, which certainly must make us the envy of other countries, notably Britain, where in the same period—I forget the exact figure—I think they have had some seven different leaders of Government. In fact, over the past 36 years P.R. has stood the test and has proved its worth, so far as we are concerned.
This proposal in this section of the Schedule is, in my view, a very dangerous one. We can understand that all of us may have differences in opinion or in views as to what is best for the country. That is understandable and legitimate in any democracy. No matter what differences we may have had in the past in this country, there was surely one thing that we all appeared to be agreed upon—that P.R. was the best system of election for this country. It was put in the 1922 Constitution freely by the Irish Constituent Assembly sitting to enact that Constitution. In 1937 it was put by the present Taoiseach into the present Constitution and proposed by him to the people and enacted by the people. Accordingly, in so far as that particular system was concerned, up to last August or September all sides of this House and all shades of political opinion were agreed that this was the best system for this country.
The first indication of a change came with the inspired leak in the Press last August, followed by the Taoiseach's Press interview. Many of us thought that that was just a bit of midsummer madness induced by the lack of sun at the time. But there it was, the first indication that any political personality here had very serious views challenging the system of P.R. Now, the Taoiseach was entitled to change his mind. It is one of the rights of all of us to do that and it is a right that the Taoiseach has frequently exercised. He was entitled to change his mind, and he was entitled to say that in 1937 he made a mistake and that he made a mistake in 1925 when he protested against the Unionists taking this step. I wonder can he be so certain now, when he proposes to the people in this Bill not only to remove P.R. from the Constitution but to put in its place the English system of election.
Could he not have salved his changed conscience by merely removing P.R. from the Constitution and leaving it to the Oireachtas, as representing the people, to define the manner in which its membership should be elected and to change its mind from time to time? Why should the Taoiseach, having proven that he wobbles on this issue, having demonstrated that he has held different views, suggest now that out of the Constitution should come P.R. and in its place should be put this English system?
Let us see what is involved in this. If this referendum is accepted by the people and if the British system is written into our Constitution, it will never be changed again, no matter how it works—and we do not know how it will work. No matter what the experience may be in the future, no Government elected on the single member constituency, on the English system, will change from that to P.R. Therefore, let us see what is involved in the Taoiseach's proposal, the proposal of a man who has had two views on this, a man who for all his political life up to this has fought and stood for P.R. That man is proposing now that, instead of the present system, we should enshrine something that he regarded as hateful up to this. I think that is going too far and that, as the Leader of the Opposition already described it, it is asking the people to take a leap in the dark. We have no means of knowing how the British system would work here. We have had experience of P.R., but no means of knowing how the alternative might work.
We could have understood the Taoiseach saying that it was a mistake in 1937 and in 1922 to fetter and tie our hands in relation to our electoral system; and if he merely suggested removing fetters, taking P.R. out of the Constitution and letting the people, by the manner in which they elect a Government decide through the legislation passed by the Dáil the manner in which the electoral laws should be framed, that would have been an understandable case to make. Instead of that, we are asked to enshrine something in the Constitution about which we know nothing. We are asked to do so while we on this side of the House have the gravest misgivings with regard to the possible results.
It is not sufficient for the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance or the Tánaiste or others who have said soft words about this proposal, to assure us that they intend others no harm. That is just not good enough. We know that this change, since it is proposed by the Leader of a political Party, must be intended by him to benefit his political Party. We know well that if this proposed change had operated in the last election or the previous election or recent elections, this Dáil would be composed now almost entirely of Fianna Fáil Deputies. We know that no one can control the future and we know well that future contests have yet to be decided. If the last election ur previous elections were fought on this system, here in this Dáil, those looking down from the gallery would think they were at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil Party.
The misgiving we have in relation to a system which could produce that kind of result is the effect it may have on the country itself and on the people outside. This is Ireland, with all its faults, all its weaknesses and all its magic. It is not England or America or France or anywhere else. We have no large concentrated centres of population. There are very few areas in the country that historically stand for any political side of the House. Generally, what the people are thinking in Donegal they are also thinking in Cork and if the political wind is blowing in a particular way in Dublin it is also blowing in the same direction across in the West. Accordingly, under the British system, a win by a political Party in this country is likely to be a clean sweep everywhere. Now, that does not happen in England, because British history, British geographical features and distribution of population ensure otherwise.
Ever since the days of the Wars of the Roses in England there have been clearly defined areas where the Whig and the Liberal—now the Labour— outlooks are enshrined. The same remarks can apply to well defined Tory —now Conservative—areas in Britain. The result is that in British general elections, although a strong tide may be flowing in favour of the Labour or Conservative Parties, the defeated Party has a minimum representation of some 150 members in Parliament. It is because of that peculiarly British circumstance that this kind of system grew up in Britain. It is English, dyed in the wool, red, white and blue, nothing else. We are asked to mix the colours and run the green, white and gold into the red, white and blue. It cannot be done. To apply it to this country may set a spark to a fuse, and the explosion may harm more than the Taoiseach's political opponents.
I should like to ask the Taoiseach, even at this eleventh hour, not to go ahead with this final step, to have second thoughts about it, to realise that if this Dáil were ever composed of some 90 per cent. of one politcial Party, outside the Dáil there would be an angry tumult, growing gradually. Decent minded people, representing decent sections of opinion, who are denied admittance into Dáil Éireann, people whom we should encourage to regard this House as the centre of their political existence, decent movements of this kind denied admittance into the Dáil, will be driven underground to the detriment of the nation.
Reference has already been made to the trade union movement, represented in this House to a large extent by the Irish Labour Party. The Irish Labour Party was in this House before Fianna Fáil. It played its part in the formation of this State and was at one time the constitutional Opposition here, helping in dangerous days to build this Dáil and the institutions of this State. The Irish Labour Party have had their leaders in the past speaking on behalf of the workers of Ireland. There is no need to mention great names, but the names of their leaders are enshrined in the reports of this House—leaders fighting here the fight they believed in and the cause they worked for.
I want the Taoiseach to consider what the position might have been in the formative years of the '20s if we had a system which banged the gates of Leinster House on "Big Jim" Larkin and all the other fine leaders of the Irish Labour Party. If they had been denied admission here and forced by our electoral laws to disregard the Irish Parliament, does the Taoiseach believe that this House would now be accepted as it is by those who at that time were arrayed against it? What could have happened then can happen in the future if this disastrous step is taken. If now, some 36 years later, at the instance of a man who admits he was wrong in the past, at the instance of a man who produces this as his own idea, the country were to adopt a system known only elsewhere, the effect of which might be to deny adequate representation to legitimate political movements in this country, then I feel our own institutions would very rapidly be endangered.
Political stability does not merely mean a saneness in Government. Political stability means, as Edmund Burke defined it once, change in continuity and continuity in change, the Deputies over there taking their place in due course on this side of the House and the Deputies here going over there— orderly change, fashioned in accordance with the wishes of the electorate, but the same institutions and organs of the State continue. That is proper political stability and that is the kind of stability we have had in the last 36 years. If an electoral system is so designed to produce the same team, the same Government, the same political oligarchy in charge, then disruption and explosion will occur. I would suggest to the Taoiseach in the interests of the country that, if he does not have any regard to the past 36 years, let him think of the future. This Dáil must continue and those who serve it must continue to work for it. The Taoiseach should have regard to the years that lie ahead. I would urge him now not to take a step which is potentially disastrous for the people of this country.