Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1983: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

The purpose of this Bill is to grant to British citizens resident here the right to vote at Dáil elections, presidential elections and referenda on conditions identical to those applying in the case of Irish citizens. Under existing law, British citizens are already entitled to vote at local elections and at elections to the European Parliament.

Section 1 of the Bill proposes that a British citizen shall be entitled to be registered as a Dáil elector in a constituency if he has reached the age of 18 years and if, on the qualifying date, which is 15 September, he or she is ordinarily resident in that constituency. Once registered as a Dáil elector, he will will be entitled under section 26 of the Electoral Act, 1963, to vote at Dáil elections in that constituency. In accordance with sections 51 and 70 of the Electoral Act, 1963, he will also be entitled to vote at presidential elections and referenda.

The Bill is a short and simple one consisting of a single operative section. It is, however, a significant measure having important constitutional and political implications.

Taking first the constitutional question, Article 16.1.2º of the Constitution provides that:

Every citizen without distinction of sex who has reached the age of eighteen years who is not disqualified by law and complies with the provisions of the law relating to the election of members of Dáil Éireann, shall have the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann.

In the past, the view was sometimes taken that the grant of the right to vote in a Dáil election under this Article was exclusive to citizens and that it was not open to the Oireachtas to grant a similar right to others without first amending the Constitution.

Recent consideration of this matter has led to the view that where the Constitution guarantees certain rights to a particular category it does not necessarily follow that the Oireachtas is inhibited from granting similar rights by law to other categories. Two previous Attorneys General had advised the then Government that the Bill would not contravene the Constitution. Their advice was summarised by the then Taoiseach in the Dáil on 10 April 1981 — Official Report, Volume 328 Column 710 — as follows: "There is a fairly clearcut legal opinion which I am inclined to accept that the referendum would not be necessary".

We are proceeding on the basis that the appropriate legal advice available to the Government indicates that what is proposed in this Bill is compatible with the provisions of the Constitution. The present Attorney General has referred to the clear fact that there is no express restriction of the franchise conferred by Article 16.1 of the Constitution. However, he has also drawn attention, as have his predecessors, to the fact that this question of the exclusivity or otherwise of the rights granted to citizens by the Constitution has never been authoritatively decided by the Supreme Court so that it is not possible that any advice given in the absence of such a decision would be authoritative and completely conclusive. In such circumstances, should the President — in the exercise of his absolute discretion, of course, which I emphasise — see fit to refer this Bill to the Supreme Court, such a reference would have the very considerable advantage of removing all possibility of doubt from such a vital area as the validity of our electoral law.

The aim of this Bill is to give a further measure of practical expression to what has been referred to as the unique relationship which exists between this country and our nearest neighbour, and to acknowledge and reciprocate the voting rights enjoyed by Irish citizens in Britain. It is my hope that measures such as this, reflecting close ties between neighbouring peoples, will make their contribution to promoting peace and reconciliation throughout these islands.

This Bill, if enacted, will confer voting rights on every British citizen ordinarily resident here who has reached the age of 18 years. There is no official information as to the precise number who will benefit from the measure but it is estimated that it will be in the region of 10,000 to 12,000. In this connection, some British citizens already have voting rights by virtue of the fact that they hold both Irish and British citizenship.

A brief word about British citizenship may be appropriate. Formerly the expression used tended to be "British subject" which covered a very large number of people indeed. The British Nationality Act, 1981, distinguished three different classes of British citizenship — British Citizenship, British Dependent Territories Citizenship, and British Overseas Citizenship. The benefits of the present Bill will apply only to the first named category, that is, to British citizens. In effect, this means to citizens of the United Kingdom. There is no question of extending the franchise to nationals of Commonwealth countries or of British territories.

By conferring on British citizens living here a right which Irish citizens have enjoyed in Britain for a long time, this Bill will redress an imbalance in the voting entitlements as between the two countries. I believe that most people will consider that this is in itself a sufficient justification for the Bill. In addition it is to be hoped, as I have already mentioned, that this gesture by the Oireachtas on behalf of the Irish people will be seen as a worthwhile contribution towards improving relations and understanding between all the people of these islands.

I commend the Bill to the House.

At the outset I would like to say that the Fianna Fáil Party support the principle that British citizens resident in Ireland should have the legal right to vote in Dáil Éireann election. The House will recall that the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, Deputy Haughey then Taoiseach, informed the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, at their Summit meeting in 1980 that he would agree to reciprocate the voting rights enjoyed by Irish citizens in British parliamentary elections by the extension of the same rights to British citizens living in Ireland. The Fianna Fáil Party, therefore, welcome this Bill inasmuch as it fulfils the commitment of the leader of our party. We in Fianna Fáil recognise that the British citizens who have settled in Ireland have made a valuable contribution to the social and economic development of the State and believe that they should now enjoy the same voting rights as Irish citizens living in Britain.

However, in considering why and how it should be done and how it is being done, many questions arise. In considering why we should extend voting rights to British citizens, we might usefully look back at the background to the voting rights enjoyed by the Irish in Britain. It is not for any brotherly love of thy neighbour that the Irish are allowed to vote in British parliamentary elections to this day. In the United Kingdom, foreigners — or aliens as they are known in British law — have been debarred for centuries from voting in elections for the House of Commons or from sitting as members of the House. An alien is disqualified, both at common law and by statute. As far back as 1698, the unaminous vote of the House of Commons debarred aliens from voting in elections or sitting as members. This is the law to the present day, where their right to vote or sit as members of the House of Commons is debarred by statute.

Traditionally, the policy reasons for excluding foreigners, or aliens, from having voting rights in the United Kingdom is to restrict the influence of foreigners in their national affairs. Prior to 1922 no question could have arisen, as far as the British were concerned, as to whether an Irishman was a foreigner or an alien because of the colonial status of Ireland. Even after 1922, this question again could not arise because of the legal status of Ireland as one of His Majesty's dominions. Between 1922 and the passing of the Republic of Ireland Act, 1949, the State was, in British law, as much a part of British territory for the purpose of nationality law as the United Kingdom itself. Since 1949, citizens of Ireland are not, in British law, aliens or foreigners and Ireland is not a foreign country. The British Parliament in all relevant enactments has steadfastly refused to recognise, or avoided recognising the state of, as British statute law describes it, the Republic of Ireland as a foreign country. While the statute law in Britain recognises the citizens of the Republic of Ireland or citizens of Eire, as a distinct group or classification, they are still not aliens or foreigners for the purposes of British nationality law, or electoral law.

Have the Government considered these matters and the reasons for the decisions which they have taken with regard to them? I would also like to know if the position of Irish citizens born in the Republic and living in the Six Counties, Northern Ireland, is concerned here. At present they can vote in Westminister elections, in European and local elections but not in parliamentary Stormont or Assembly elections. Therefore, the situation in Northern Ireland is different from that in Britain, where there are no such restrictions. Have the Government had discussions with the British on these matters and if so, what has been the outcome?

The Bill, in its terms, does not simply seek to grant a right to British citizens to vote in Dáil elections but rather entitles them to be registered as Dáil electors in the constituency in which they reside. Therefore a British citizen who is registered as a Dáil elector will be entitled to vote in Dáil elections, in presidential elections and at referenda on amendments to the Irish Constitution. The Minister referred to the voting rights being granted on a reciprocal basis. However, the right to vote in the election of a Head of State is obviously not reciprocal because, of course, the electorate of Britain have no say in who becomes their Head of State. Similarly, while British citizens will have a right to vote on amendments to the basic law of the State at constitutional referenda, there is no corresponding right to Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. Therefore Irish citizens in the United Kingdom have no say, directly or indirectly, in the membership of their Upper House, the House of Lords.

Of course, the status of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom was never governed by any consideration of reciprocity since it stems directly from the colonial status of the country over centuries and even as part of His Majesty's dominions until 1948. Coupled with this political status, there were undoubtedly socio-economic considerations where, for example, Ireland was always considered part of the United Kingdom labour market and treated, indeed, as a source of cheap labour, which also helped to keep down the price of labour in the United Kingdom. The large number of settled Irish communities in the United Kingdom at the time when we pulled out of the Commonwealth made it impracticable as well as politically impossible for the United Kingdom Government to treat Irish citizens as foreigners or aliens for the purpose of the electoral law, or indeed otherwise. For these and many other reasons of self-interest, Irish citizens retain the right and have it to this day, not because the UK Government has given the right to foreigners, but, as pointed out, because it refuses to acknowledge Irish citizens as foreigners, or Ireland, indeed as a foreign country.

Because Ireland and its people have been considered, in British minds and British law, as a vassal state and its denizens accordingly allowed to vote, there is the danger that the proposed Bill will be seen as an acknowledgement on our part of that status by singling out British citizens only as being entitled to receive allegedly reciprocal rights under our electoral law.

Has the Minister given consideration to the extension of voting rights to all foreigners living here? Indeed, a case for granting foreigners resident here a right to vote could be approached in two ways, firstly on the ground that it would be just to do so in respect of foreigners who have been resident here for a specified number of years and paying taxes or, secondly, that we should grant reciprocal rights to the nationals of a foreign country in which Irish citizens have the same rights. Neither approach would justify the passing of a Bill confining the right to vote to British citizens by legislative enactment. Neither approach would justify in principle a singling out of Britain from all nations of the world as a country which should be given special status by legislation in this context. Certainly, one could justify confining such legislative reform so as to affect EEC countries and their nationals only. On the basis of the first approach, the legislative reform would involve simply giving voting rights to nationals of all EEC countries resident in Ireland for a minimum number of years or simply resident in the country without any such qualifications.

If voting rights are to be granted on a reciprocal basis, then such legislation should provide that citizens of any member state of the European Community may be granted reciprocal voting rights in parliamentary elections where Irish citizens have substantially corresponding rights to vote in the parliamentary elections of that State. The actual application of the Bill to the citizens of an individual State resident in Ireland could be left to ministerial order. Once the Minister was satisfied that Irish citizens had voting rights in parliamentary elections of a member state as referred to in the Act, he would be empowered to make an order applying the provisions of the Act to citizens of that State who are resident in Ireland so as to enable them to be registered as electors for Dáil Éireann elections only. Such an order would be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and come into effect within a specified time unless annulled by a resolution in one or both Houses.

Has the Minister given any consideration to these points, and, if so, would he explain to the House why they have been rejected? The House is entitled to know the Government's views on these matters before agreeing to the selective proposals contained in this Bill. Also we in Fianna Fáil are anxious to have a very firm assurance from the Minister on the constitutionality of the proposal before the House. The Minister stated in his opening address that he believes that the Bill is compatible with the Irish Constitution. There remains a very large question mark as to whether that belief will, in fact, stand up in law.

Article 16 of the Constitution provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 18 years and who is not disqualified by law and complies with the provisions of law relating to the election of Members of Dáil Éireann shall have the right to vote in an election for membership of Dáil Éireann. Article 16 further provides that "subject to the foregoing provisions of this Article" elections for membership of Dáil Éireann shall be regulated in accordance with law.

Article 12 of the Constitution provides that "Every citizen who has a right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President". The Article goes on further to provide that "Subject to the provisions of this Article elections for the Office of President shall be regulated by law".

Again, Article 47 provides that "Every citizen who has a right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann shall have the right to vote at a Referendum". The Article further provides that "subject to the aforesaid, the Referendum shall be regulated by law".

The question must arise as to whether the proposed Bill in granting, inter alia, voting rights would be considered invalid, having regard to the provisions of the Constitution.

It is not proposed to deal here at length with all the considerations that arise in connection with this issue. The net issue is whether the relevant provisions of the Constitution simply guarantee voting rights in question to citizens so as to prevent them being taken away or qualified by legislation while, at the same time, leaving it open to the Oireachtas to make provision by law for the granting of the same or similar voting rights to non-citizens, or whether the Constitution envisages that such voting rights are confined to citizens and citizens alone. That is the kernel of the issue to which the Minister has referred.

It certainly can be said that the relevant Articles of the Constitution recite the right of the citizen to vote and then go on to provide that, subject to the provision in question, the elections or voting shall be regulated by law. It is clear that in each case the only discretion given to the Legislature is to regulate elections or, in the case of a Referendum, to regulate it.

Regulating elections for the Dáil or the Presidency does not, in my view, mean regulating who may or who may not vote, but rather the manner in which votes are cast. The right to regulate is specifically subject to the preceding provisions of the relevant Article, including the provision creating the right of the citizen to vote. It certainly can be argued — and I think the Minister will agree — that if the Constitution intended that the Legislature should have the power to extend voting rights, there would have been specific provision for doing so, for example, providing that "subject to the foregoing provisions of this Article . . . the right to vote shall be determined by law". The Constitution did not say that.

In other Articles where specific rights or duties are created, there is provision for additional powers to be conferred by law, as for example, in the case of the President where Article 13.10 provides: "Subject to this Constitution, additional powers and functions may be conferred on the President by law". Again, while the right of pardon and the power of punishment is vested in the President, the Constitution specifically provides that the power of commutation or remission may, except in capital cases, also be conferred by law on other authorities.

Again, Article 33 which sets out the powers and duties of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, concludes by saying: "Subject to the foregoing, the terms and conditions of the office of Comptroller and Auditor-General shall be determined by law". The Attorney General has such duties as are conferred on him by the Constitution and by law. In short, where the Constitution envisaged that rights or duties could be extended, it specifically provided for this.

The comments I made are made in passing at this stage. The Fianna Fáil Party are anxious that full consideration should be given to the serious implications contained in the Bill before we move on to Committee Stage. I am putting forward these points for general discussion and consideration before final decisions are made by the Dáil on the adoption of the Bill. As I said at the outset, we favour in principle this extension, but we question whether it is being done in the correct manner by the Government. There is a strong possibility that it might be challenged.

For the present it is sufficient to say that, in my view, there is a serious and substantial doubt as to the validity of the Bill if it is passed. It is likely to attract constitutional challenge from any one of a number of quarters, even if it is accepted by all the major political parties in the Dáil. Such proceedings obviously could be launched at any time after the Bill has become law. This could occur in sufficient proximity to a general election so that there could be widespread uncertainty before, during and in the aftermath of a general election as to the validity of the election, with all the consequences that would have.

While one cannot say with certainty that the Bill would be held to be unconstitutional, one can certainly argue that it is a strong possibility. It is one, therefore, which if not withdrawn should at the very least be referred by the President under Article 26 to the Supreme Court. The Minister made reference to that, and we would support reference to the President to have the Bill tested on constitutionality grounds. We feel very strongly about this.

It will be recalled that an amendment to the Constitution was introduced and passed in order to give votes to citizens from the age of 18 years instead of the previous provision of 21 years. Any argument that can be advanced to say that the Electoral Bill does not conflict with the Constitution could have equally applied to a Bill extending voting rights to persons of 18 years and upwards, and thus have rendered unnecessary the holding of a Constitutional Referendum. I was Minister at that time, and the view was expressed by some individuals that an amendment of the Constitution at that time was not necessary, since the right of 18 year olds to vote could be introduced by legislation. We did not act on that view and we proceeded to hold a Referendum to alter the Constitution with regard to the voting age.

I was Minister for Local Government at the time and I well recall the debate and consideration given. We took the course which we thought was the correct one, that it was necessary to have a Referendum to change the Constitution to do what we did. It is not that we do not wish to agree with this Bill or what is in it, but we are concerned that somebody may decide to take a constitutional case and bring the Bill to nought and cause havoc at the time of a general election. The whole thing could be over and then declared null and void. Neither side in this House wants to see that happening. It is essential that we tread very warily and very carefully about putting this Bill on the Statute Book.

Finally, I should like to query the reference in section 1 to a British statute and also the reference to a British citizen which is a designation defined in British law. I may have more to say about this on Committee Stage. I do not want to delay the House on it now. Would it not be better to extend voting rights to citizens of the United Kingdom? More about that on Committee Stage. We should not give special statutory definition to the term "British citizen" by reference to a British statute which may be altered. I understand that at the last general election in Britain the SDP, the Liberal Party and Labour Party all had it in their election manifestos that they wanted to alter the Nationality Act in Britain. If it is altered in the future I should like to pose the question: What will happen to the Irish legislation? Will we have to introduce further legislation to amend this Electoral Bill which makes reference to that statute?

Our main concern is the constitutionality of the Bill, and I am asking the Minister to give the House very definite assurances before we proceed to Committee Stage.

It is with some reservations that I welcome this Bill. I agree in principle that we should give British citizens resident in Ireland the reciprocal vote. I find it hard to believe that we are not defining what resident in Ireland means. If you arrive tomorrow and intend to stay six months, are you immediately resident? Are you resident if you are here for three years or five years? What is the definition of resident? Is it somebody who has been here long enough to be included on the register of electors? I should like to have this clarified, because it is important.

There is another area of reservation which was referred to by Deputy Molloy concerning the constitutionality of the Bill before us. My peers have insisted that all is well and all augurs well, but I have my doubts. Whether it is in line with the letter of Article 16 of the Constitution is one thing, but I feel it is not in accord with the spirit of our Constitution which evolved after years of asserting ourselves to expel an alien party. I am glad to say we live in harmony and accord with them now and many of them have contributed immeasurably to the social and economic well-being of our country in recent years.

I am delighted to extend the franchise to British residents, but I appeal to the Minister to go further. Let us lead the way in Europe by extending the franchise to all our European colleagues resident in Ireland. There is little we can lead in when it comes to European matters. We always appear to have the hand out. The reasons for that are obvious. I do not need to document them. If we give our jealously guarded franchise to anyone, let us give it to all our European brothers and sisters who are residents in Ireland. If they are living here, contributing to the economy, married to an Irishman or woman, rearing Irish children, they are entitled to have a say in our affairs, provided they are well and truly rooted here and making Ireland their home for the foreseeable future.

I appeal to the Minister to consider this. It is most important. I do not think there is any danger of losing any political advantage by amending the Bill. Let us leave the British in the Bill but include the rest of Europe in an amendment. Let us show Europe that we can lead and contribute. I do not even demand reciprocity from Europe. At the moment we have not got a vote in any European country except Britain. If they want to reciprocate, well and good. If not, let us lead in this field.

It is interesting to note, and history tells its own story, that while we are discussing extending the franchise to non-nationals today not so long ago in most countries — even in what were considered democratic countries — women did not even have a vote, negroes and coloured people could not vote, illiterates were not allowed to vote and people without property or land were not allowed to vote. How fortunate we are that we can argue about small details like who in the non-national arena should get a vote here. Our problems in this area are minimal compared to many other nations.

Another point to reflect on is that Canada removed the right of British subjects to vote from 1975 onwards, even though Canadian citizens, who are still subjects of the Commonwealth, voted in Britain after that date.

My two main fears are on the constitutional issue. In my view this is not in the spirit of the Constitution and the Supreme Court will be the final arbiter. If it is not even in the spirit of the Constitution should our people be given the say as to whether we should proceed in this manner? I worry a little about this because I do not have a definitive answer. Why give this right to the British alone, even though they have always given it to us? We must reciprocate, but let us lead in this area and give this right to all our European colleagues. Admittedly, we will have an opportunity to consider this point later, but let us show Europe what we can do and how we are truly European at this stage of our development.

As far as Fianna Fáil are concerned we agree with the principle enshrined in this Bill. We agree with the idea of giving British residents the right to vote here, but we should also look at the suggestion made by Deputy Doyle to extend this right to residents of other EEC countries who are making a very real contribution to Irish life.

We live within the framework of our Constitution, a very valuable instrument safeguarding our personal rights, enshrining our institutions, providing our system of election and guaranteeing fundamental rights. The emphasis in the Constitution from the Preamble to almost the last section is placed on the people, the citizens. In other words, it is a democratic Constitution.

Article 16.1.1º says:

Every citizen without distinction of sex who has reached the age of eighteen years who is not disqualified by law and complies with the provision of the law relating to the election of members of Dáil Éireann, shall have the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann.

The basic principle enshrined in this section is that every citizen over the age of 18 years shall have the right to vote at an election. In my view that subsection will be given a literal interpretation by the courts. In a judgement of the Supreme Court in the case of Aherne 1982Irish Reports Mr. Justice Walsh said that in the construction of our Constitution words which in their ordinary meaning import inclusion or exclusion cannot be given a meaning other than their ordinary literal meaning, save where the authority for so doing can be found within the Constitution itself. There is no authority in the Constitution to support departing from the principle.

Nowhere in the Constitution is there any attempt to take from the concept of citizenship, to define the word "citizen" or to imply that the word "citizen" can be interpreted in another way. In the absence of any insertion in the Constitution that the word "citizen" can be interpreted in another way, according to Mr. Justice Walsh the ordinary literal meaning of the word "citizen" must be taken, save where the authority for doing otherwise can be found within the Constitution itself.

Section 16 confers the right on a citizen over 18 years to exercise the right to vote at an election. The Preamble starts with "We, the people of Eire" and Article 6 states:

All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.

Here all the emphasis is placed on the democratic Constitution vesting power in the people.

Section 12.2 reads:

1º The President shall be elected by direct vote of the people.

2º Every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President.

The power is vested in the people and the people use their power to vote for the President, thus transferring their power to the President. The same applies to the elections to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Article 15.3.1º says:

The Oireachtas may provide for the establishment or recognition of functional or vocational councils representing branches of the social and economic life of the people.

Again, there is the emphasis on people. With regard to the referendum process there is provision to refer Bills to the people under Article 27 which is entitled, "Reference of Bills to the People". Article 40, the fundamental rights section, states that all citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law. With regard to the referendum process the Constitution states that every proposal for an amendment to the Constitution shall be submitted by referendum for the decision of the people.

The Constitution states that every legislative and executive act, whether it is the election of the President, Members of Dáil Éireann or the election of functional councils by the Dáil, the exercising of fundamental rights or the referendum process, rely fundamentally on Article 6. That Article states that all powers of Government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive under God from the people. There is a basic chain running through our Constitution which declares that the power of the people is transmitted under Article 6 to the legislative, executive and judicial institutions.

In emphasising that this matter was for the President to decide the Minister indicated that the President in the exercise of his absolute discretion can see fit to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court, and such a reference would have the considerable advantage of removing all possibility of doubt as to the validity of our electoral law. I agree with the Minister and welcome that indication. If the step he has suggested is not taken we may be treading on dangerous ground. If this measure is not accepted by the Supreme Court as appropriate constitutional legislation there is a real possibility of an election being held up or, possibly, being rescinded. If this matter is not resolved quickly we could drift into a severe constitutional crisis.

I am certain that the Council of State, the initiating authority, will examine the debate in the House before consulting the President. This is an urgent matter because a difficulty may arise in a by-election. I am not anticipating a general election as a matter of urgency, but the same principles I mentioned in the case of a person challenging the result of a general election obtain in the case of a by-election. If it is stated that residency does not qualify a person who is not an Irish citizen to vote and the validity of an election is challenged an election result could be upset. I suggest that the matter is urgent and should be submitted to the Supreme Court through the channels I mentioned.

It is important that we act in accordance with the document of rights which exists here. There is a duty on us as legislators to do so. The Constitution states that we are precluded from passing any legislation that is repugnant to the Constitution, and for that reason there is a duty on us to consider the seriousness of this matter. Without making a definitive judgment I believe that a prima facie case can be made that this is unconstitutional. That argument may be rebutted, but the place to hear such arguments is the Supreme Court. The responsible thing for us to do is to pass this measure because we all subscribe to the principle of it, and permit the appropriate steps to be taken to ensure the legislation is considered by the Supreme Court.

This is not in any sense a question of conscience, and even though one might disagree with one's side on a question which is not one of conscience one is bound by the majority wisdom. The majority wisdom transmitted by the Government from their law advisers is to the effect that the Bill is constitutional. The Minister has said that the Government, not being in an arrogant way certain of their own correctness, will be happy if the President should decide in his discretion to refer it to the Supreme Court. However, as Deputy Lenihan has said, we are obliged not to enact legislation which is repugnant to the Constitution. It puts an onus on every party and on every Deputy, even though he may defer to the majority wisdom of his side, to voice reservations if he entertains them on that score. I should like to do so as briefly as I can by way of adding to the reflections which Deputy Lenihan has put before us and with which I agree in the broad sense.

It might be no harm if I began with a point on which I disagree with Deputy Lenihan. I do not think this is the right way to do the job. There is a good deal to be said for allowing resident aliens of whatever nationality who live here, who obey our laws, who pay our taxes and contribute with their skills to our economy to exercise the franchise in order to provide the government of the country. It is a strong case although it is not recognised in many states. I would have preferred it if the Government had promoted instead an amendment of Article 16 which would have added to the existing section 1 of Article 16 another subsection reading roughly as follows: "the Oireachtas may by law extend the Dáil franchise to appropriate categories of resident non-citizens," perhaps on the basis of reciprocity — by this I mean non-citizens who are nationals of a country in which Irish citizens resident there would also have a parliamentary franchise. Even without that condition, I think a strong case could be made for according the Dáil franchise to bona fide resident aliens or at least for giving the Oireachtas discretion to accord that franchise by legislation even without reciprocity. It should not matter to us that other countries are not able to see the logic of letting resident aliens participate in the government-building process. If they are not able to see it, that is too bad. If we can see it, the fact that our citizens do not get fair play over there should not worry us.

I should have preferred a section like that to be promoted by this or any Government by referendum to amend the Constitution. If the matter came before the Dáil then, on the whole, I would be disposed to accord in the first instance the Dáil franchise to all resident nationals of EEC member states, without prejudice to whatever other categories may have a claim. The major number of residents of EEC countries are the British but I can see no reason why a resident German, Frenchman or Italian should not be accorded the Dáil franchise. There are hundreds of such people in my constituency, although there may not be so many in other constituencies. These people can be numbered as substantial minorities, with their wives and families, throughout the country. I cannot see any reason why a resident German, Frenchman, Italian or other nationality should not have the same rights as the British, apart from the admittedly powerful argument that the British do not exclude resident Irish people in Britain from voting. I know that is a powerful argument and I give it due weight, in saying that if the Oireachtas were to have a constitutional power to extend the Dáil franchise by ordinary legislation I would not think it would be unreasonable — personally, I would not be eager to do it — but it would not be unreasonable to limit it to people whose own countries afford the same right on a reciprocal basis.

In that context it would have been possible for us to enact a simple law admitting British residents or other European residents — I am not aware of any other countries which allow our nationals to vote when living there — by the same Act. That would have been a method. Presumably that principle would be politically non-contentious and would have the support of all. It would not be a red-hot urgent matter as was the referendum about adoption in 1979. At that time many families looked like being at risk of being disturbed in their arrangements through what appeared to be a gap in the law. We could have passed all Stages of the Bill in this House and all Stages but one in the Seanad. We could have let the final Stage in the Seanad rest on the Order Paper until such time as a new national poll for a local election was pending and then have a referendum at no extra cost except for the green voting papers. That would have been as inexpensive as it is possible for a constitutional amendment to be, it would have been rational and non-invidious.

I am sorry to say that the Government I am glad to support have, in their collective wisdom, taken a different view and I want to say briefly why I think they are wrong. I have explained what I think would have been preferable but I think they are wrong on a few points. First, a parliamentary franchise is a privilege. Self-government means the right of the Irish people themselves to decide for themselves about all matters affecting their welfare. Necessarily and by implication it excludes the right of any other national to do it for them. Our nationality is founded on an historic rejection of the right of British people to decide anything for us. In the context in which I am speaking that is not relevant and a resident British person should be naturally entitled to take part in electing a Government if they are bona fide residents here, paying their taxes, obeying the laws and helping our economy.

A parliamentary franchise is a privilege. It has latent in it an element of excluding everyone else. When the Constitution says that every citizen, without distinction of sex and so on, on reaching the age of 18 years and who is not disqualified by law shall have the right to vote, it means that is a privilege. It is a privilege given to us here because we were born of Irish parents but because of weak human nature we may tend to exclude others from that privilege. Deputy Lenihan spoke about the Constitution and I will not add to his effective expressions. A person is entitled to rely on that and to take for granted that nobody who is not sovereign—the only sovereign here is the Irish people—can dilute that privilege by extending something which the citizen values, regards and esteems because he shares it only with a visible, limited number of people or extend it arbitrarily to many people whose numbers he cannot estimate, whose immigration he cannot control. Perhaps I am putting in exaggerated terms the matter we are dealing with here. I know we are only dealing with 10,000 or 12,000 people and I do not mean to inflate the matter. I have said already that I accept fully that these people should have votes here and also all other resident aliens, and certainly EEC nationals. However, a franchise is basically a privilege and one has to bear that in mind in interpreting Article 16.

Deputy Lenihan was right in saying that the Oireachtas cannot extend this constitutional category by itself. He is modestly keeping open the possibility that he might be wrong and I suppose I had better do that also but I think it would have been safer to make sure of being right by going the referendum route. If the argument that one can arbitrarily extend the franchise to other national categories is correct, equally it must be correct that this House by an ordinary Act could extend the vote to people under the age of 18 years. If it is possible by an Act to add in a new category, namely, non-nationals, albeit resident British people if it is possible to do that, why cannot we say that, in addition to the people given the vote by Article 16, section 1, the Dáil and Seanad will give it also to 16 year olds and, if 16 year olds, why not 14 year olds? Surely the logic of one position is as strong or as weak as the logic involved in the other. That section seems to me too plain to labour. I apologise to the House for spending really any time on it at all.

In addition to the judicial precedent mentioned by Deputy Lenihan, the very recent case of The State (Aherne) v. Cotter, I would like to read into the report of the House one about 20 years old, a judgment of Mr. Justice Kenny in a case called Deaton v. Attorney General, 1953 Irish Reports, page 170. It was a case about the usurpation, as it seemed to the Supreme Court, of a judicial function by the Revenue Commissioners in a context I need not go into. As it happened, on the ultimate issue the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of Mr. Justice Kenny, who was then a member of the High Court, and it is not on the issue that divided the two courts I want to comment, but on a dictum of Mr. Justice Kenny which is on all fours—in fact, it goes a great deal further, and is more explicit and it accords with what was always my understanding of the law—with the one cited by Deputy Lenihan from Mr. Justice Walsh. He said at page 174 in regard to Article 34, section 1: “Justice shall be administered in courts established by law by judges appointed in the manner provided by this Constitution” and he says: “If justice is to be administered in courts established by law by judges appointed in the manner provided by this Constitution the corollary is that justice is not to be administered by persons who are not judges appointed in the manner provided by the Constitution”. That I always thought was beyond argument and it is as clear as daylight.

I would have thought it needless to argue that point or even explain it except to a class of absolute beginners. I may have been wrong all these years—that is not intended to arouse ironic laughter at the ridiculous idea that I could be wrong; I could easily be wrong—but I will be surprised if I am wrong about this. Deputy Lenihan, who is also a lawyer, would also be surprised. I will not labour the point if it is going to be laboured in the courts, but let me remind the House of the pretty considerable expense, because the gentlemen of the profession to which both Deputy Lenihan and I belong will not do a case like this in the Supreme Court for anything under four figures a day and, depending on the number of days the discussion of this theme will take in the Supreme Court, the plain people will find that the straws added to their burden as the stoop doubled along the path of life under the load of taxation, are not a few. I would be surprised if the net cost, counting overheads—heating, the salaries of messengers and runners of all kinds, the members of the Bar—by the time this thing is argued out, disposed of and judgment taken, again with counsel turning up in order respectfully to listen to the court, the cost will be anything under six figures, not much, I think you will agree, under six figures. Deputy Lenihan's face is a study over there—anxious to keep everybody happy with all corners of it, a kind of octagonal demonstration of variable goodwill. At any rate this will be an expensive process, very well meaning no doubt, but I think it would be cheaper in the end to do what I began by suggesting.

I want to conclude by saying—a very subsidiary point and really very unimportant compared with what we have been taking about so far—I am not aware that there is any precedent for an Irish statutory term—because "a British citizen" in subsection (1) (a) paragraph (a) (2) of this operative part will now be an Irish statutory term. I am not aware of any Irish statutory term defined by reference to a current British statute. That may seem a small, niggling lawyer's point. We do not know whether it is or not yet. It could turn out to be a very tricky point. I do not know what volume of litigation exists in Britain over their British Nationality Act, 1981. Neither Deputy Lenihan nor I am qualified to lecture on the subject. For all I know it may be a most controversial piece of legislation but I think it is a curious thing and absolutely unprecedented, subject to correction, that an Irish court should be asked, and not only asked but peremptorily directed, to interpret what is now an Irish statutory term, namely, "British citizen", not by reference to any criteria we ourselves have erected as to British citizenship, but as to criteria the British themselves have erected and are interpreting under a different legal system, similar no doubt, one with the same rules as our own, but for the last 60 years one receding from us, diverging from us with every passing day. I do not think there is a precedent for that.

I do not think it is a very important point, but it is a point which adds another dimension of regrettability to this measure. If it passes into law—I want to point this out as yet another problem even if the Supreme Court do not advert to this—it will entitle a British subject to be registered as a Dáil elector. But unless the Supreme Court plainly say so in terms it may not necessarily give him the vote because it does not actually say that he shall be entitled to vote. It only says he shall be entitled to be "registered as an elector". The Constitution does not mention the electoral register. Plenty of people are on the register who should not be on it, and many more are not on it who should be on it. It is again a niggling point and I am sure nothing will ever arise on it or could ever arise on it, but I mention it as another instance of the general infelicity of this Bill and of this way of doing what I would have thought a fairly simple job which might have been done in a much more comprehensive and satisfactory way, and a much more straightforward way. Naturally, if it comes to a division, I shall vote for this Bill because I bow to the majority wisdom of my party but I must register my belief that this is a mistake.

I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill. It is long overdue. British citizens resident here will breathe a sigh of relief when this Bill passes into law. Because these citizens were not accorded full voting rights since 1927 they were prevented from voting in 21 general elections, four Presidential elections, and seven referenda. That right was denied to them on 32 occasions. I am very happy that we are now endeavouring to rectify this anomaly. The British Act gave voting rights to Irish people residing in Britain. It is difficult to ascertain the number of Irish nationals residing there but it is said to be approximately one million. Surely it is wrong to deprive 40,000 British citizens of voting rights here. Giving them such rights does not alter the spirit of democracy. I believe the Minister should go even further and give European nationals voting rights here. The United Nations has stated that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. In election after election I have found it utterly embarrassing and frustrating meeting British citizens and being told by them they cannot vote and I have to tell them once again they did not have the right to vote according to our laws. Speakers on the other side of the House have cast doubt on the constitutionality of this Bill. That makes me very cynical because two previous Attorneys General have said it would not contravene the Constitution. Their own leader stated on 1 April 1981, in Volume 328 of the Official Report, column 710, as follows:

There is a fairly clearcut legal opinion which I am inclined to accept that the referendum would not be necessary.

I call that opposition for opposition's sake. I hope the Bill will get the full support of the House and that we can continue to use the democratic process to the full. After all, there are only 28 true democracies in the world, and we are lucky not to be part of the 172 dictatorships who oppress civil rights and liberties.

I would like to make a brief contribution on this Bill. There are approximately, with the new boundary, 120,000 people in my constituency and there are a few hundred people involved in this Bill. Not all of them are British citizens. In one particular case there is the daughter of an Irish mother and British father who was born in London but who came back here as a child and grew up here. She had been denied a vote. She has never known any other way of life but the Irish way of life. There are a number of examples in my constituency. I know of a Scots couple who have lived here for the past 30 years, who pay taxes and abide by the laws here, but they have no say in electing the people who raise those taxes and make the laws. That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I welcome any change in that situation, although I do not think this particular change goes far enough. There is a certain strategy behind bringing in this Bill to extend the vote to British citizens in the first instance, since there has been a suggestion across the water that Irish citizens who have been voting there would be denied the vote if there was not a reciprocal arrangement. From a political point of view it is probably wise to bring in the vote here for British subjects on their own in the first instance to indicate that we are reciprocating. I hope it will not be too long before we extend that to other European citizens, particularly on a reciprocal basis. I do not see why we could not have a reciprocal arrangement with the Belgian Government that Belgians living here would have the right to vote. The same should apply on a reciprocal basis to Italians or citizens of any other country living here. While I would like to see this extended, I accept there is a certain strategy involved in the British-Irish situation. That should be acknowledged. I do not believe it was referred to in the Minister's speech.

With regard to the constitutionality of the legislation, I recall speaking sometime ago to a close relative of a former Attorney General of a Government of some years back and he said that the Attorney General of that Government advised the then Government that much legislation going through the House would be unconstitutional. The legislation went through and has never been challenged. Even if it had been challenged, there is no knowing how it would have been interpreted. If we looked at every Bill going through here on the basis of whether it was constitutional, I do not believe we would enact half the legislation we are enacting. The constitutionality of the Bill should not be a great worry. If it is, the President can always be encouraged to refer it to the Supreme Court before he signs it.

Deputy Kelly made the point in a very colourful and objective way that if at a later stage this Bill was to be contested in the courts it could cost legal fees going into six figures. If we do not pass this Bill, what will it cost in terms of Irish-British relations? It may be cheap for us to let it be contested in the Supreme Court. It may be cheap for us to pay a six figure sum to lawyers, messenger boys and all the other people Deputy Kelly referred to. If the outcome of our not passing this Bill, because of the fear of it being found unconstitutional, was that Irish people living in England were deprived of voting there, that would be a very big price to pay. When we are looking at Bills of this nature we should not look at the price as much as at the value. The value is there. If anybody wishes to challenge the constitutionality of the Bill let him do so and we will have to deal with that when the time comes.

The Minister referred to the opinion of two former Attorneys General. That must count for something. We should not get bogged down on every possible Bill brought before the House being contested on the grounds of constitutionality. The Minister should follow this up fairly speedily with legislation to extend votes to other Europeans who live here and to people from other parts of the world who are living here. A person who is allowed to reside in the country for a number of years should have a say in how the affairs of the country are determined.

The Minister towards the end of his speech referred to the British Nationality Act, 1981, and said it distinguished three different classes of British citizenship. He then went on to say he was only extending it to the first class. What about a Pakistani or an Indian living here who falls into one of the other classes? Why should such a person not be allowed to vote if that person is allowed to live here? I know the Minister is not a racist and I would not like to give any indication that I am suggesting that is the case. I do not believe we should get bogged down in relation to any legislation they have in Britain. If there are three categories of nationality in Britain I do not see why that should concern us or why we should get into a definition of it.

We should be very broad in our interpretation of this Bill. People who are living here for a considerable time, who observe the laws and pay their taxes, should be given the vote, particularly if they have British nationality of one or other of the categories to which the Minister referred. The Minister should arrange to get those people on the very next election register. This is complied every year. The Bill is going through in October so there should be plenty of time to get them on the draft register for January. I suggest — it would not be a very big exercise — that the Minister through his Department or through local authorities write to all persons on the register who have "L" or "LE" after their names to point out to them that the legislation has been extended to British citizens and that he is considering extending it to other persons on the register to ensure that when the next election comes such people will not be excluded from voting and will be entitled to vote. This Bill is a good day's work. I understand the strategy behind what the Minister is trying to do and I hope he will soon follow it up with legislation extending it further.

Like previous speakers, I welcome the intent behind the Bill which the Minister has brought before the House. Quite a number of people in this country have been awaiting this, people who will benefit by obtaining a vote at Dáil elections with the passage of this Bill. It is also welcomed by those of us who go around to houses at election time trying to explain to persons who have "L" or "LE" after their names on the register what the situation is and that while we had the intention of doing something about this for a number of years, we had not quite got around to doing it. I congratulate the Minister on being the person who at last has brought this overdue measure before the House.

The intent behind it is quite clear. British citizens who are ordinarily resident in this country will have a vote at all elections here. Any election affects directly or indirectly all the people living in the country. People who have been here for a certain length of time and have in most cases been paying taxes and contributing to the life of the country should have a say in how their affairs are run. The Minister mentioned that about 10,000 to 12,000 people may benefit by this measure. That number may be even higher, but that is only a matter of detail. Quite a number of people in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire will welcome the measure.

I hope that the Minister will consider at a future date extending the franchise to other non-nationals, residents from other EEC countries, and, as previous speakers have said, even from countries outside the EEC who are ordinarily resident here and who are involved in the workings of the community and contributing to the country. Foreign businesses come in here. People connected with those firms and everyone else who comes in should have a say in the affairs of the country, whether through local elections, general elections, Presidential elections or referenda.

Much has been said in relation to possible constitutional difficulties in regard to this matter. While we want to make sure that what we are putting through is proper law and will stand up, there is, as the Minister indicated, the option that the President can at his discretion refer the Bill to the Supreme Court. That is one way to get around the matter. The Minister indicated that there is no hard and fast principle to guarantee that this legislation will stand up, but there is every liklihood that it will do so.

I hope the Minister will indicate, when replying, whether further extension is planned and if he will give consideration to extending the franchise to people from other countries in the future. The point that Irish citizens resident in Britain have a vote there and that we are correcting the imbalance is a reason in itself for bringing in this legislation. Anything we can do to improve and harmonise relations between North and South and between this island and the island next door is to be applauded. People who live and work in this country and contribute to it in various ways by investment, business or other forms of work should have the franchise.

Again, I congratulate the Minister on introducing this measure. I welcome it. It is long overdue. Perhaps he will keep my comments in mind when replying.

I want to express my support for the measure before the House and to commend the Minister for taking this action as quickly as he has done. I have been struck by the strength of the arguments on both sides even from the constitutional point of view and by the willingness of people to give the franchise to non-nationals. I had hoped that the Bill would be extended to non-nationals. In my constituency a substantial number of non-nationals have contributed vastly to the economy of the mid-western region, particularly to Shannon in County Clare. These people have paid their taxes and have helped the community in their efforts to form what is now a new town. Many of them are aggrieved that in national elections they have not the right to vote whereas Irish citizens who go to London or other industrial towns in Britian have the right to vote there. I am glad that this measure has been brought before the House and, with Deputy Mitchell, I believe that it will stand the test of time and that the people for whom it is intended will benefit, as will the country itself.

I have been struck in this debate by the lack of animosity in bringing forward this measure. Across the water Paddy-bashing, as it is referred to, would probably be indulged in and I am glad that this House did not indulge in any Brit-bashing today.

Other measures might have been contained in an Electoral (Amendment) Bill, such as details of compiling registers, whether we should have compulsory or voluntary voting and whether voting should take place on Sundays only. The State should consider the best time to vote and also electoral preparations aimed at bringing about a proper Oireachtas and local government.

Like other speakers, I welcome this Bill the purpose of which is to grant to British citizens resident here the right to vote in Dáil elections, presidential elections and referenda under conditions identical to those applying in the case of Irish citizens. However, like many other speakers here, one must ask oneself if the Bill has gone far enough. It would have been good to have extended the franchise to all European citizens living in this country. We would welcome such a provision very much and some speakers have made a very strong argument for it here this evening. We are members of the European Community and look to Europe in many ways. It would be nice to be able to extend the hand of friendship and to have these people included in this Bill. Members of the House who are involved on the legal side made very strong arguments for and against the Bill. It has been said that it may possibly be contested — perhaps prior to a general election. That is possible, but I would hope that that would not occur. Although I regret that the Bill has not gone further, I welcome it.

I welcome the support and unanimity that the House has shown to this measure. Anybody reading this debate should bear this in mind. If doubts have been expressed about the route which we are proposing to travel, there are no doubts about the principle involved but simply about the methodology and the constitutionality of the Bill.

I would refer very briefly to some of the points raised. Deputy Molloy, in a wide-ranging speech, raised a number of points and I shall try to deal with them as quickly as possible, remembering that it would be the intention and the spirit of the House to try to take all Stages of the Bill this evening. The question of a British resident and the British Act was referred to, because the definition of British citizenship is itself a complex and complicated matter. We can provide for any subsequent changes in any law in the United Kingdom. However, upon mature consideration it was found necessary to be specific in relation to this matter, largely because of the itinerant activities of British people over the last 300 years across the globe, something which we share with them. The question of constitutionality was raised by Deputy Molloy and also by Deputies Lenihan, Kelly and Doyle. I want to reassert, as stated in my opening speech, that considered advice to the Government is that this measure is constitutional and that therefore we are in compliance with Article 13, to which Deputy Lenihan referred, when he said it behoved the House not to attempt to pass legislation which it might take or believe to be repugnant to the Constitution. As some speakers have already said, this is also the advice of two previous Attorneys-General. We recognise that some doubt has been expressed here tonight and previously. The President, using his own discretion under the Constitution, may see fit when he and the Council of State read the deliberations in this and possibly the other House, to take whatever action he deems necessary and which is procedurally open to him under our Constitution. If the President should so choose, he could refer the matter to the Supreme Court to remove any doubts and consequently to remove any subsequent problems which may arise in relation to the validity of any specific election.

Deputy Kelly attempted to suggest that the cost of such a referral would be astronomical. I would point out that the cost of a referendum, even combined with the forthcoming local and European elections, would be in the region of approximately £½ million, none of which would come back to the Exchequer by way of income tax returns which no doubt Deputies Lenihan's and Kelly's colleagues pay with the degree of responsibility which they display to the courts. The net cost of a referral to the Supreme Court would be far less than the gross cost referred to by Deputy Kelly.

On the question of our not extending the voting right to other categories resident in this island, the Fíanna Fáil Party and the Deputy Leader of that Party now in the House will recognise that there is a political dimension to this initiative. It arose following the parliamentary meeting between the then Taoiseach, Leader of the Fíanna Fáil Party, Mr. Haughey, with the British Prime Minister. In the "totality of the relationships" coined by Deputy Lenihan, it was felt important that we as a nation should reciprocate on the existing situation in Britain and extend to United Kingdom citizens resident here the full franchise in relation to all elections which take place here. That is the political motivation for this action, which has the support of the political parties on all sides of this House. Because we want to highlight and uniquely define it at this point in time, we are not disposed to consider any other category of resident, including EEC citizens. I would point out to the House that our legislation in relation to the franchise for local or European elections and indeed Dáil elections, but particularly for local and European ones, is by far the most liberal of all of our European colleagues. We have already given the lead to which Deputy Doyle referred. I share the view with many Deputies that the best way to bring forward the extension of the franchise in the European framework would be in unison with other countries. We cannot go much further than we already have.

From the contributions made by the various Deputies, the House has fairly consistently expressed the desire that the franchise could and should be extended. I shall convey that feeling of the House to the Minister for the Environment and to the Government. We will thus ensure that this matter is looked at.

On the question of a resident, quite clearly what we mean is that someone would qualify to go on the electoral register in the normal manner. I do not have to spell that out to Members of this House. They are quite familiar with the procedure of getting on to the register for any election. Ensuring that one stays on the register remains the problem. The accuracy with which the registers are maintained by various local authorities unfortunately results in some people who legally had the franchise in year one finding themselves not entitled to it in year two or subsequent elections.

The problems which we have already debated in this House on the working committee's report on the franchise and the difficulties which have been experienced by political parties and political activists in the last referendum will be ones at which we will be looking. Deputy Mitchell will be familiar with the workings of that committee and will recognise, as a member of a local authority, that it is the local authorities who have responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of the register.

For the benefit of anybody reading this debate who may not have the political understanding that Members of this House have, the register here is compiled on the basis of people who are ordinarily resident on 15 September of any one year. The draft register is compiled from the residence established at that time and it is open to correction and available, usually in the public libraries or Garda stations, or alternatively with the local authority. Provision is made in the subsequent new year for amendments, changes or corrections and the final register is concluded and confirmed on 15 April in any given year. In theory, it is possible for a United Kingdom citizen as defined for the purposes of this legislation coming to this country in the month of August and establishing residence on 15 September in a particular place to be entitled to vote in any election fought on the register which becomes valid after 15 April in any year. There is no residence requirement in the legal sense of two to three years as suggested by Deputy Doyle.

The whole thinking behind this is to attempt to cement the particular relationship we have with the people of the United Kingdom, and to ensure that the attempts at reconciliation by successive administrations will be reinforced by the actions we take here tonight. Recently I had an opportunity to visit the United Kingdom in connection with matters related to local government. The comments made to me by a large number of people I met there centred around the recent debate in the British House of Commons on the franchise. The question of voting rights for Irish citizens was hotly debated, particularly by Tory Members of the House of Commons.

There was a strong element of opinion in some sections of the British body politic that the franchise should not be retained by people of Irish descent or Irish citizens in Britain. In the final analysis the House of Commons decided to let the present situation stand, and Irish people still have the vote in the United Kingdom. John Biggs Davidson, a noted Tory backbencher, made the case that the argument by British MPs in favour of allowing Irish citizens in the UK to retain the vote would be strengthened considerably if the Irish Parliament were to reciprocate and extend the vote to United Kingdom citizens resident in Ireland.

We are not just amending the law in this House this evening. We are implementing a political commitment given by this Government and the previous Government. Obviously from the contributions tonight there is still clear political support from the major Opposition party, Fianna Fáil. It is right and proper that the House should emphasise the unanimity with which we support the principle that the UK citizen resident here, as defined for purposes of legality by the UK Citizens Act of 1981, should have the vote in all elections in this State.

In doing that, we recognise a problem which it is sometimes very difficult for British citizens to understand — the constraints which a written Constitution provides. Deputy Lenihan and Deputy Kelly indicated that a formal written Constitution is the absolute guarantor of people's rights. Deputy Kelly said it is the people who are sovereign in this State and not the Crown as in the case of the United Kingdom. Any alteration to the Constitution requires a referendum. Legislation cannot be enacted by the House if the House believes it to be unconstitutional. The Government have been very careful about the way in which they have sought advice and in their deliberations before bringing the Bill before the House.

As I said in my introductory statement, this is a short Bill but nonetheless a Bill of considerable importance. Under it British citizens resident here will have the same voting rights as Irish citizens at Dáil and Presidential elections and referenda, in addition to the rights they already have in relation to voting at local elections and European Assembly elections. The Bill reciprocates the voting rights Irish citizens have enjoyed in Britain over the years. As the House is aware, the fact that our citizens resident in Britain possess these rights arises from the historical relationship between the two countries. It is proper that we should acknowledge these rights by providing similar rights for British citizens living here.

Over and above this, it is important that we should lose no opportunity to seek to heal any differences which may exist between the peoples of the two countries and particularly between people resident in this island. The problems which face us today transcend national frontiers, problems of ensuring peace and security, reasonable standards and jobs for our people, the protection and improvement of the environment. These problems do not stop at the national boundaries and must be tackled on a European and world basis.

As I believe in the concept of a common European citizenship I personally support the work we are doing in the EEC and in the Council of Europe to advance this ideal. In the recent discussions on the introduction of a uniform electoral system for elections to the European Parliament we strongly urged that the right to vote should be based on residence rather than on the concept of nationality or citizenship. I am glad to say this view which has been argued by the Government representing the people of this country has found clear support on both sides of the House in the debate this evening.

Strengthened by that belief, we will now continue to press this view. In our own legislation we have already given all EEC citizens resident here the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament. I look forward to the day, which I think is not too distant, when we will be amending our own electoral law to enable EEC citizens to vote at elections at every level. In every EEC country at present except Britain, the parliamentary vote is restricted to nationals. Our role should be to work for a general liberalisation. I do not think Deputy Molloy was in the House when I said that by comparison with our EEC colleagues our present franchise law is most liberal.

Deputy Doyle suggested that we should give a lead in unilaterally extending voting rights to every EEC citizen. Deputy Kelly went somewhat further and suggested that we should extend it to anyone and everyone who lives in this island who is properly registered and is making a contribution to our society. We have already given a lead in this area, and any further unilateral action would not necessarily have the desired reciprocal effect on a multilateral basis. Consequently it might be more effective for us to press for the extension of the franchise on a uniform basis within the ten countries within the EEC and soon to be 12.

I should like to return to the central theme of the debate and the political background. Following the initiatives taken by previous Governments and commitments made by previous Governments, the Government are anxious to ensure that British citizens resident in Ireland will benefit to the full by having the full franchise for all elections. That will be the effect of this Bill. The Government have sought and obtained legal advice which puts beyond all reasonable doubt, in the words of Deputy Haughey, the question of whether this Bill can be considered to be constitutional.

I want to refer again to the point I made in my opening speech regarding the role of the President and the autonomy and the discretion of the President in relation to any Bill which, in his opinion, may not be constitutional and should be referred to the Supreme Court. That position stands. This is a necessary Bill. It is constitutional, but in view of the arguments which have been made in a constructive manner, we would like to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to remove any doubt about the constitutionality of the measure to avoid some of the consequences alluded to by Deputy Molloy.

Does the Minister accept that there are legitimate doubts?

I do. There is a legal opinion on this. Legal opinions have been expressed on both sides.

It is 8.30 p.m. Will the Minister move the adjournment?

On that basis we are satisfied that this measure meets all the requirements necessary to implement legislation in this House.

I recommend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take the Committee Stage?

Subject to the agreement of the Whips——

In about three weeks?

I have no instructions as to when the Committee Stage will be taken. May I suggest that, subject to the agreement of the Whips, the Committee Stage be ordered for Wednesday, 14 November 1983?

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 14 November 1983.