Tá áthas orm bheith in ann labhairt ar an mBille seo. It is amazing how time flies. The Minister of State has been nearly five years in government, yet there has been virtually no electoral reform. Even the small matters have been overlooked. After the last election, there was a general consensus that the establishment of an electoral commission would be a good idea. I happened to be the environment Minister at that election, but my only involvement in it beyond signing the order was trying to ensure that as many unemployed people as possible were given jobs at polling stations, which is an initiative that we should continue.
The idea of an electoral commission that is not only independent but is seen to be independent in the operation of elections is a good one. It should have general oversight to ensure uniform implementation across the country. Approaches to polling stations often vary. Our use of community halls or schools should be uniform throughout the country. We must also ensure that every building used is accessible and has all necessary facilities.
There has been a great deal of discussion of the Seanad, and rightly so, because all that we are getting is a provision on envelopes. Sometimes, we wait for so long to tackle the big reforms that we end up making none. There has been no reason in the past four and a half years not at least to open the university franchise to graduates of all universities in the State. It is farcical that we are still tied to the NUI-TCD model.
Many people who are critical of the Seanad actually do not know why there are university seats in that House at all. The reason, of course, is that up to 1937, including under British law and, amazingly, under the Free State Constitution, there were university seats in the House of Commons and then in the Dáil. Quite rightly, when the new Constitution was being introduced in 1937, it was decided to abolish university seats in Dáil Éireann and make it a House of popular franchise such that every Member would be elected directly by the people. One might ask why university seats were not simply abolished. The argument against that at the time was quite valid. I believe there were two seats in the Dáil for the National University of Ireland and two for Trinity College at the time. In those days, the majority of graduates of Trinity College belonged to the Unionist minority. It was felt that, by transferring those seats into the Seanad and increasing the representation to three, it would ensure the minority voice would be heard in Leinster House. The Protestant Unionist population tended to be so scattered around the Twenty-six Counties at the time that it would not have been able to ensure election in any one constituency. That was then and this is now and circumstances have changed dramatically, but it is important for people to understand that the historical reason for the arrangement was very valid. It is time, or thar a bheith in am, that we changed the law. That could have happened quite simply here.
The second point that is interesting about this is that the State recognised what I would call dispersed minorities. I refer to a community within a community that is so dispersed that it cannot, in any democratic election, elect its own representatives. We seem to have lost that concept. It is one that could be revived in the context of the Seanad.
There has been considerable disquiet among all fair-minded people in the past two weeks over the horrendous deaths in the fires in Carrickmines. Those of us who work continuously with the Traveller community have had first-hand experience of how it is discriminated against. From interviews in a very detailed work produced by the eminent sociologist Dr. Mícheál Mac Gréil over 30 or 35 years, the most recent version of which was launched in the past few years, it was found that 18% of the people of this State believe Travellers should not be given Irish citizenship. Travellers are people of this soil and of this land. They comprise the most disliked group in our society, not because of anything they do but because of who they are.
One very dramatic and positive step that could be taken on Committee Stage would be the introduction of an amendment to ensure Traveller representation in Seanad Éireann. We often hear about emigrant representation. That is a little more tricky for a number of logistical reasons but the proposal on Travellers would be quite simple. Alternatively, one could even introduce an amendment that would make Traveller groups, such as Pavee Point, nominating bodies for the Seanad. That would be even easier on Committee Stage. It would ensure Traveller representation in the Oireachtas. This would begin to change perceptions of the Traveller community.
Let me outline an interesting point in Fr. Mac Gréil's study, which considered every kind of group, both national and non-national. The study found that the main in-group in Irish society comprises Irish language speakers. One might ask why not, but one should think about the status of Irish language speakers in 1890, for example. They were part of a small, peripheral, poor community on the west coast comprising small farmers and fishermen, who are not normally considered the greatest in-group in society. One should consider how social engineering over a hundred years, perhaps not for the purpose of bringing the group in but to promote the Irish language, had the interesting sociological effect of bringing the group in from the margin such that, when measured against all comers, it became the main in-group in Irish society. Therefore, there is a way of bringing about change by creating status. It is time that we created status for Travellers.
I hope the Minister of State will do the job I propose but if she does not, we will do it. On 7 May 2014, I published the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014. Bhí cúis an-simplí leis an mBille sin. Is é sin, i láthair na huaire, faoi na dlithe toghcháin, is féidir toghchán a reachtáil ar na hoileáin amach ón gcósta i dTír Chonaill, Maigh Eo, Gaillimh agus Corcaigh lá nó dhó roimh lá an olltoghcháin, toghchán uachtaránachta nó reifreann agus mar sin de. An chéad toradh a bhíonn ar sin ná nach mbíonn an díospóireacht thart nuair a chaitheas na hoileánaigh vótáil, más sin a shocraíonn an ceann comhairimh. Mar shampla, anois is féidir leis na meáin a bheith ag plé leis an toghchán go meán lae lá roimh an toghchán, ach i gcásanna, bíonn an toghchán thart do na hoileánaigh dhá lá roimh ré. Freisin, i láthair na huaire sa dlí, fágtar é seo faoin gceann comhairimh i ngach dáilcheantar.
An dara rud ná go hiondúil bíonn toghchán ar an Aoine. An fáth go mbíonn sé ar siúl ar an Aoine ná gur féidir le daoine ón tuath filleadh abhaile don toghchán tráthnóna Dé hAoine agus vótáil. Ní gá dóibh lá saoire a thógáil ón obair le vótáil. Má bhíonn an toghchán ar na hoileáin lá nó dhó roimh ré, bíonn orthu lá saoire nó go deimhin dhá lá saoire a thógáil, ceann le dul isteach agus ceann le dul amach, le gur féidir leo vótáil. Bhí an fhoráil seo ann ar chúis mhaith blianta ó shin, nuair nach raibh rochtain éasca chuig na hoileáin. Ach níl oileán ar bith anois amach ón gcósta nach bhfuil seirbhís báid laethúil ann agus is corruair ariamh go dteipeann ar an mbád teacht isteach. An cineál stoirme a theastódh le nach bhféadfaidís seoladh, is ar éigean go bhféadfaí feidhmiú ar an mórthír ach oiread. Ar ndóigh, sa chás go dtarlódh an rud uair sa 1,000 nó sa 10,000, is go raibh stoirm ollmhór ann, táimid in ann an jab a dhéanamh le héileacaptar. Murar féidir le bád ná héileacaptar seoladh, ní bheadh muid in ann daoine a thabhairt isteach ar an mórthír ach oiread.
Tá an rud a tharlaíonn i gCorcaigh spéisiúil. I gCorcaigh le blianta fada bhí an toghchán ar na hoileáin ar an lá céanna leis an mórthír agus ní raibh aon fhadhb leis sin, agus tá Oileán Chléire chomh fada amach sa bhfarraige le haon oileán eile. Más féidir seo a dhéanamh i gCorcaigh, cén fáth nach féidir é a dhéanamh i nGaillimh, áit nach bhfuil i gceist ach ceithre oileán, na hOiléain Árainn - tá go leor cainte déanta faoi rochtain chucu sin le gairid - agus Inis Bó Finne? Níl ach ceithre oileán freisin i gceist i gContae Mhaigh Eo, Inis Bigil agus trí oileán eile, agus sílim go mbíonn vótáil ar cheithre nó cúig oileán i gContae Thír Chonaill, Gabhla, Inis Fraoigh, Árainn Mhór agus Oileán Thoraí.
Go deimhin, ar na hoileáin bheaga, ceadaítear lá gairid vótála. Ar Inis Fraoigh agus Gabhla, ní bhíonn ann ach ceithre nó cúig huaire a chloig le vótáil ar lá na vótála. Mar sin, beidh muid ag cur síos leasuithe ar Chéim an Choiste le leasadh a dhéanamh leis an ndiscréid a bhaint de na cinn comhairimh sa cheist seo, le go gcaithfidh an toghchán a bheith ar an lá céanna leis an gcuid eile den tír.
As I have said in Irish, we will be proposing an amendment on Committee Stage of this Bill to have the islands and mainland vote on the same day.
Early-day voting is a relic of the past which, thankfully, is now gone. I believe I played my part in terms of providing reliable ferry services on piers and islands to ensure that it is a thing of the past. The argument made was that the ballot boxes might not be got in on time for the count, but that is a redundant argument. If the Minister checked the number of days the ferries do not sail from the islands at the appointed times, she would find they were few and far between. It would take a hell of a storm to stop them. If that extreme case were to happen, we always have the fall-back of the helicopter services available around the coast that can travel in every kind of weather. In fact, we have often argued that it is quicker to get a patient in from the island than it would be from certain more rural parts of my constituency and, therefore, the argument for previous-day voting is gone.
One might ask why this is such a big issue. The reason we now hold elections commonly on a Friday is to allow people from the country who are working or studying away to get home and vote, and not to force them to get involved in postal votes, which people inevitably forget to do. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but we must remember there is an even bigger proportion of the island population that have to go the mainland to work or study. They commonly go home every weekend, but having the voting on a Wednesday or a Thursday means they have to take a day or a day and a half off work to go home, vote and then come back again, whereas if voting was on a Friday they could go out to the islands. As I said, the logistics of bringing the boxes back are not huge. It is really simple, because there are fantastic boat and ferry services now to all the islands.
We propose that the provision allowing the returning officers to choose an early date be deleted. If the Minister wants a practical example as to whether that will cause great commotion in the country, I would put this point to her. For years now, the Cork islands have had same-day voting. Most of Cork's islands are inshore, with one exception - Cape Clear, which is as far out to sea, when one considers the boat quality they would have, as any of the other islands one might argue about, namely, Clare Island, Inishturk, Inisbofin, the three Aran Islands, and Tory Island, because Aranmore, Gola and Inishfree are near the coast. As the Minister knows, Aran is already blessed with both an air service - long may it last - and a boat service. It is fantastic in this day and age that those living on the Aran Islands, which have on them half of the voting population, have to vote a day earlier than everybody else. They also complain bitterly that they miss out on the last days of the campaign. They have voted by the time the campaign winds up. Whether it is we or the Minister who put down the amendments, I hope that this relic of times gone by - and it was a legitimate relic, although the original reason for it was the Seanad - will go. It is very important in politics that we do not continue to do things just because there was a valid reason in the past.
That reminds me of a story I was told by a Secretary General when I was a Minister in which he illustrated this point about things continuing to happen in the system long after the good reason for doing them had disappeared. He told me that when the group of people called Fianna Fáil came into power in 1932, they found out that a copy of every Cabinet memo was sent to Whitehall. Being very strong Republicans, they ordered that no more memos were to be sent to Whitehall. Civil servants were always very obedient and, apparently, the civil servants said, "We had better do what the Government has told us to do. No memo is to go to Whitehall. But this crowd won't last any time whatsoever - they are only a temporary measure - so we will put each memo aside, and when they are gone out of office, we will send them all over to Whitehall." That was in 1932. The Minister knows what happened. Fianna Fáil won the elections in 1933, 1937, 1938, 1943 and 1944, all in a row, and they were still in power right up to 1948. Some time in the late 1940s, a junior civil servant who had never known anything about this asked why they always put one extra memo aside. Whoever they asked said they did not know but would find out. After a while, they came back and said that the reason the memos were being put aside was that they were eventually to be sent to Whitehall. In the meantime, there was a new Constitution, and the question of Whitehall being involved in our affairs was long gone, but they were still putting the memo aside. This island voting issue is in the same realm, and the Minister will be given 100 reasons not to do it.
The Minister of State has responsibility for rural development. She knows the attitudes that pervade. Where it seems so difficult to provide rural or island communities with simple things, this would be a nice legacy. I know she has not been in that position for the four years, but this would be a nice legacy for her to leave behind - to put this one right. It would make her colleagues a lot more popular on the islands if she grabbed the bull by the horns and said that, technologically, there is no problem now getting the ballot papers in. It is just not an issue. Let us get on with it and give them the same franchise as the people on the mainland.
We must not forget that more islanders have to live off-island during the week for work or for fishing. So many of them are out fishing all week, and they come back on a Friday evening to their families. It is very interesting because every time I look at the island boxes I see that the turnout is low. That is not because they are not interested in politics; they surely are interested. It is because it is a huge sacrifice for them, that they should not be asked to make, to get to vote, particularly at busy times of the year.