That Dáil Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:
Direct Election of Mayor Plebiscite Regulations 2019,
a copy of which was laid in draft form before Dáil Éireann on 1st April, 2019.”
I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the draft direct election of mayor plebiscite regulations 2019. I will set out the background. Part 6 of the Local Government Act 2019 provides for the holding of plebiscites on the direct election of mayors in Cork city, Limerick city and county as well as Waterford city and county. Section 41 provides that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government may make regulations for the purposes of holding a plebiscite. It also provides that, where regulations are proposed to be made, a draft of the regulations shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and the regulations shall not be made until a resolution approving the draft has been passed by each such House. The draft regulations were laid before both Houses on 1 April 2019.
It is intended that the plebiscites will take place on the same day as the European Parliament and local elections on Friday, 24 May 2019.
These draft regulations provide for procedural and administrative matters relating to the conduct of the plebiscites. They set out the statutory arrangements for the taking of the plebiscites, the counting of votes and electoral offences. The provisions relating to the conduct of the plebiscites set out in the draft regulations apply many of the provisions of the Local Elections Regulations 1995. They provide that the local authority returning officer, who is responsible for the conduct of local elections, would be appointed as the plebiscite returning officer with responsibility for the conduct of the plebiscite. They set out the form of the ballot paper, including the question to be put at the plebiscites. They also provide that the plebiscite returning officer is responsible for giving public notice of the holding of the plebiscite; the distribution of information for voters; the printing of ballot papers; and making arrangements for postal and special voting. Provision is also made for matters such as the secrecy of the ballot; the official mark on the ballot paper; the security of ballot boxes; the procedure for voting; arrangements to deal with spoilt ballot papers; and voting by those who are visually impaired. The arrangements for the counting of votes at the plebiscites are also set out in the draft regulations. These include the time and date of the count; the appointment of a place for the count, including practical arrangements such as the provision of furniture and equipment; and the arrangements for the safe custody of the ballot papers and documents relating to the plebiscites. The draft regulations set out who can attend the counting of votes; who can handle ballot papers; and the arrangements for opening, extracting and counting ballot papers as well as ensuring that the number of ballot papers tally with the information on the ballot paper account that accompanies each ballot box. Provision is also made for mixing the ballot papers; identifying invalid ballot papers; and arrangements for counting the votes and recounts, if necessary. On completion of the count, the draft regulations set out the procedures that must be followed by the plebiscite returning officer, including the retention and disposal of documents and the preparation and signature of a plebiscite certificate. This certificate, which states the number of votes recorded in favour of and against the proposal, must be published in Iris Oifìgiúil and a copy must be also sent to the Minister and the relevant local authority. Electoral offences set out in the draft regulations apply many of the provisions regarding electoral offences contained in the Local Elections Regulations 1995. These include matters such as breach of secrecy; offences relating to ballot boxes, ballot papers and official marks; and obstruction of the poll and interference with electors.
The Department, under instruction from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, and myself, has established a committee chaired by Henry Abbott, a former High Court judge and Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas as well as a former local authority member. The committee includes local government section officials and representatives from the three local authorities where the plebiscites will take place. The committee is in place to ensure that the public information issued as part of the plebiscite campaign is in line with the McCrystal and McKenna judgments, which also apply for the plebiscites.
I understand that early next week in each area where the plebiscites are taking place, the committee will launch its public information campaign. I know that next week Fine Gael will launch its plebiscite campaigns in the three local authority areas where the plebiscites are taking place.
The only criticism of the plebiscites thus far has been of the public information campaign. I ask the House to note that, at this stage, it looks quite likely, notwithstanding the fact that all Stages of the referendum legislation are to be taken in the Seanad tomorrow, the public information campaign for the plebiscites will commence before the public information campaign for the referendum. The argument that there is not sufficient time and that insufficient information will be made available does not stand up to scrutiny, even in the context of polling taking place on 24 May.
I will welcome contributions by all colleagues.