I want to thank you, Sir, for allowing me to raise this very important motion on the Adjournment. I want to thank the Minister for coming in here to respond to this matter himself. I appreciate the demands that are on his time but, as far as I am concerned, the issue is one of major importance to many parts of rural Ireland.
This issue arose as a result of the judgment in the High Court on 29 November 1990. Waterford students had taken an action in the Circuit Court and were defeated in an appeal hearing in the Supreme Court which gave a judgment whereby, according to my interpretation of the judgment, students had the option to be registered either at their place of birth or in whatever town or city they were attending college. However, at the appeals court in Athlone last Monday the county registrar for Roscommon, Mr. McCormack, took the view, as a result of the Supreme Court judgment that students should be registered in the town where they were attending college and not at the home of their parents. That judgment has very serious implications for many parts of rural Ireland.
In counties such as Roscommon, which has no third level institution, in counties such as Mayo, Leitrim, Galway, with the exception of Galway city, in Sligo, with the exception of Sligo town, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Donegal and Cavan the implication of that judgment is that none of the students between the ages of 18 and 21 can be registered in their home constituencies. I am not here to criticise Mr. McCormack on the decision he has taken, but it is my interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment that students are permitted to be registered, if need be, both at home and at their place of residence in college.
In my view the Supreme Court bent over backwards to point out that it was not an offence to be registered twice — the offence was to vote twice — and it drew the distinction clearly between being registered twice and voting twice. I feel that if this situation is allowed to continue it could deprive many of our young people of the opportunity to use their democratic right to vote. As the Minister knows, many students go to Dublin, Galway or wherever, and for the first year many of them are in digs; during the second year they move out to apartments and most of them could have up to four different addresses between the time they enter third level education until the time they complete it. It is more than likely that the vast majority of them will not bother to register.
In Athlone I made the point to the county registrar that it was my interpretation of the law that a student was entitled to be registered where they were living on 15 September. The county registrar pointed out that at that stage they had made up their minds as to whether they were going to college or not and would probably have paid a deposit on their fees. As far as he was concerned he would not register any students at the revision courts in 1992. His interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment was that they should be registered wherever they were in college.
There are many issues involved here. Are different county registrars going to adopt differing attitudes? If so, surely the situation needs clarification. That is why I have raised this question here today. I cannot understand how a judgment would be given that would deprive those young people of the opportunity of being registered at their place of residence or of birth.
The point was made very forcibly at the revision courts that any student of 18 years of age would normally give his home address and not his address at college. However, this was questioned by the county registrar when he pointed out that it was not the student's residence but that of his parents. I know that this matter has arisen since at a number of other revision courts in Roscommon and the county registrar has stuck to his interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling. It is a sad and annoying situation. Many young people throughout rural Ireland could find themselves, in the event of a general or a local election, unregistered because the vast majority of them, having been deprived of the right to be registered in the county of their birth, would probably not bother to go and register at the place where they are attending college.
Many people who move out of Mayo or Roscommon and go to Dublin certainly would prefer to be registered at home — I am not talking about students but about people who move to Dublin to work — because they are familiar with the politicians in their home area and would prefer to go home to vote rather than be registered in Dublin. We all recognise that the law of the land does not permit this and we understand why. But when you are dealing with students it is a different situation because, as I already pointed out, those people move and do not remain at one address. The likelihood of their being registered is practically nil, except for those who are involved in the students' union or in some other organisation and for a political reason decide to register as occurred in the Waterford case.
I understand Senator O'Keeffe wants to share my time and I am prepared to give him five minutes of my time.
I appeal to the Minister to clarify the situation once and for all. It is fair enough if amending legislation needs to be introduced but I do not think the Minister will have to do that. If it has to go back to the Supreme Court, then that will have to be done because I do not think this can be left unclarified. I do not see how a judgment of the Supreme Court grants rights to students in Waterford and deprives students in other areas of the right to register at their place of birth.
This decision could have very serious implications. If one is to stick rigidly to the law, all students will have to be resident at home in September. They will not be resident on that date in the town where they will receive their third-level education and will not move there until approximately the middle of October. How can they be registered there when they are not resident there? That is a contradiction. A student is likely to be away from home at college for approximately 130 days each year. In other words, he spends a far greater portion of the year living at his parents' residence, using his parents address than he does at college. It would be utterly wrong to deprive a student of the opportunity of being registered at his place of birth.
I ask the Minister to clarify the situation. I have not come here with a chip on my shoulder. I have no wish to criticise the county registrar's interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment but my interpretation is different from that of the county registrar. I believe a student is entitled to be registered at his place of birth and that is my concern.