In the normal course, as provided by the existing law, a general election is completed and the personnel of the new Dáil settled three or four weeks after the dissolution of the outgoing Dáil. As the law stands at present, the outgoing Dáil, being dissolved, cannot be resummoned, no matter what the circumstances are—even, for example, if it were clear that the election could not be held. It is felt that in the present conditions of the world it would be unwise to allow this position to obtain during the forthcoming general election, and the primary purpose of this Bill is to ensure that the existing Dáil, the outgoing Dáil, will be kept in being until the general election has been completed, when it will then be dissolved and the incoming or new Dáil convened as expeditiously as may be.
That purpose is secured by providing that the President, instead of issuing the usual proclamation dissolving the Dáil, will issue a proclamation declaring a general election. The general election will then take place, and as soon as all the writs have been returned to the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Dáil will certify that fact to the Taoiseach, and the Bill makes it mandatory on the Taoiseach, within two days of receiving the notice, to advise the President to dissolve the outgoing Dáil Eireann and to summon the incoming Dáil to meet. The Taoiseach thus must advise the President after he has received the necessary certificate from the Clerk, and the President must summon the incoming Dáil to meet within 14 days after the Taoiseach has given his advice to the President.
It may happen, for one reason or another, that the Clerk of the Dáil may not be in a position to certify within a reasonable period that the election has been completed. This may arise because of the fact that in a particular constituency, as a result of the death of a candidate, the loss of ballot boxes or something of the kind, it may be necessary to have fresh nominations and a poll taken again. To provide for that, it is made mandatory on the Taoiseach to tender advice to the President to dissolve the Dáil within 16 days after the date of the poll. We allow first of all two days, and, within 14 days after these, the Taoiseach must advise the President to dissolve the old Dáil and summon the new Dáil to meet. If the worst of calamities were to happen, and it were to be quite clear that the general election, due to some outside interference, could not take place over this period, the old Dáil could be summoned to deal with the situation before it was dissolved.
The idea underlying the Bill is to retain the old Dáil in being and in existence until the incoming or new Dáil is ready, so to speak, to step into its shoes. Certain provisions in the Bill are consequential upon the fact that this new procedure is being adopted. First of all, there is a provision to apply the enactment under which the Ceann Comhairle retains his seat—unless he has given notice, prior to the dissolution of the Dáil, that he does not wish to be a member of the incoming Dáil. The Bill contains a provision, in Section 6, to cover that situation and to adapt the existing Electoral (Chairman of Dáil Eireann) Act, 1937, to the new procedure. It will be necessary also to adapt the procedure governing election to Seanad Eireann, and Section 8 provides for that adaptation also.
Section 7 of the Bill gives power to the Minister for Local Government to modify the Electoral Acts in order to expedite the conduct and completion of the election. I should like to indicate here what I have in mind in that particular. First of all, it will be necessary to alter the form of the writ, because the writ certifies that the Dáil is being dissolved when, in fact, under this Bill, the outgoing Dáil will not be dissolved before the completion of the general election has been declared, and, secondly, it is most desirable that the count and completion of the election should be expedited. Under the law as it stands, if the count in constituencies has not been completed by 7 p.m., I think, it must stand adjourned until the following morning unless the returning officers and the agents of the candidates agree that it should be proceeded with. I wish to vary that and, if possible, to allow the count to be continued up to midnight or until such an hour as would enable the count to be completed within 24 hours, or certainly within 48 hours after the close of the poll.
Another thing that I wish to have power to deal with is the situation that has grown up in certain constituencies where you have the same person acting as Returning Officer for more than one constituency. That has developed in such a way that in some constituencies the count is not completed until, perhaps, seven or eight days after the close of the poll. What happens is that the Returning Officer and his staff suit their own convenience. They proceed to count the votes in one constituency, and, when that is finished, they switch over their staffs to another constituency, and it has happened that where one Returning Officer has been responsible for two or three constituencies the counts are strung out over an unreasonably long period. It is quite obvious that under the present circumstances of emergency we cannot allow that sort of thing to occur.
There is the further disadvantage that where that kind of situation exists, of having one person responsible for the returns in a number of constituencies, you will have ballot boxes being brought, one might almost say, from the western end of the constituency to the eastern end of it—across the whole constituency— or even outside it, or vice versa. I want to make it obligatory on the returning officers to conduct their counts in convenient and easily accessible centres in the constituency to which the count relates. Now, it is necessary to do that for a number of reasons. First of all, we have difficulties of transport, and we have also the question of the convenience of the candidates and their agents, as well as of everybody else who is interested in the election. These should be taken into consideration and I fear that in some constituencies they have hitherto been ignored. These are the sort of modifications that I propose to make under Section 7, and which I wish to indicate to the Seanad. They will be all designed towards the one end, and that is to ensure that the election will be completed efficiently and expeditiously and with the least possible inconvenience to everybody concerned: the candidates and their agents and, of course, the general body of the electorate throughout the country.