Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 8 June 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
General Scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill 2020: Discussion (Resumed)
This committee meeting will recommence pre-legislative scrutiny on the electoral reform Bill. Today, we are joined by representatives of the following advocacy groups: Mr. Bernard Joyce, director, and Ms Jacinta Brack, co-ordinator of political advocacy communications and campaigns, Irish Traveller Movement, ITM; Mr. James Doorley, deputy director, National Youth Council of Ireland, NYCI; and Ms Jennifer McCarthy Flynn, head of policy, and Ms Catherine Lane, women in local community and rural development officer, National Women's Council of Ireland, NWCI. Their opening statements have been circulated to members in advance. I welcome them all.
We have spent some time on the Bill, which is quite right because it is hugely important legislation. Today, we want to concentrate on how to improve engagement with the political system, how to get more people to participate in the electoral system, and how to get more people to vote in local and general elections. We welcome and appreciate the attendance of the witnesses. We will benefit from their experience and the submissions they have made to help us improve this legislation.
What we do is we go round the members. It is a six-minute slot for questions and answers for each member. If we stick to six minutes, we can get to every member and possibly get back in for a second round of questions.
I will read the note on privilege. Members attending remotely within the Leinster House complex are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentation they make to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege. It is my duty as Chair to ensure that this privilege is not abused. I remind members of the constitutional requirements that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, either Leinster house or the Convention Centre Dublin, in order to participate in public meetings.
For witnesses attending remotely, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege. As such, they may not benefit from the same level as immunity from legal proceedings as a person who is physically present.
The opening statements, which were submitted to the committee, will be published on the committee website following this meeting.
I now invite witnesses to make their opening submissions. I will start with Mr. Joyce.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
The Irish Traveller Movement welcomes the opportunity to present to the committee on matters related to the electoral reform Bill. We refer to our submission to the forum on a family-friendly and inclusive parliament and related recommendations, which may have meaning here too. We also note the current Government-led interim report of the anti-racism committee, and any actions and recommendations arising there.
The establishment of an electoral commission and provisions connected to that can make way for broader engagement of Travellers, minority and under-represented groups in a political democracy, and ensure those are upheld in a non-discriminatory way, a principle objective of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.
Travellers encounter many obstacles to participating fully in political democracy, from low voting, lack of political awareness and apathy to the political system, which as a duty bearer, has under-served Traveller needs and dented trust, in many settings. This is coupled with a lack of sanctions for running candidates and elected representatives who have, over many years, articulated anti-Traveller sentiments in electioneering matters and often in housing decisions, with some of them openly canvassing against Travellers as a strategy to be elected or, in some cases, re-elected.
The structural obstacles are a problem too, where there is no universal right. Right now, there are approximately 45,000 to 57,000 Irish Travellers in the Republic, 60% are aged under 25 and just 3% are aged over 65. Given our population size and age, our political system of proportional representation statistically disadvantages us when competing with non-Travellers in elections. A more successful way for some Travellers was through the local town councils. Unfortunately, these have been abolished now. Other obstacles to achieve presence in constituency settings through the normal pathways to politics, such as through social and civil engagement and sporting and cultural arenas, are also a restrictive barrier. Even after those barriers are overcome to get onto a ballot paper, Travellers encounter deeply ingrained prejudices at a level, including for nominations by political parties and groups. Notwithstanding that, in the 2019 local and European elections, five Traveller candidates ran. This was the most significant number to date. There is hope that we will see more candidates in future. However, the reality is competing in an environment of anti-Traveller sentiment is challenging and limits success. However, there is much that we can do.
Improving Traveller visibility, where we are participants in national and local political structures in mainstream politics would support integration and inclusion. Traveller-led articulation would not only promote but could be seen as an approach that would also mainstream our identity beyond the stereotypes. Encouraging greater Traveller voter participation requires proof that the system will deliver for our community and that we are participating in discussions and decisions of national importance. That means that when national policy decisions are made, we are part of that discussion of how democracy happens. For example, the function of the citizens’ assembly is to inform legislation and public policy. Members of the assembly are currently selected at random from the electoral register. Travellers are not always on the register and were therefore unlikely to be included in assemblies so far. It is difficult to see that this is true to their remit “in reflecting Irish society”.
We must also be included in national Government planning strategies, which are not comprehensively inclusive in design. Travellers are not factored into Ireland’s broader plan across cultural, social, community and environmental strategies. That is a matter of fact. Consultation on those matters assumes that Travellers are included in broader public cohorts and across all national engagement strategies. The Seanad and presidential election systems, by their design, disadvantage Travellers, and other under-represented and disadvantaged groups, and should be broadened at their entry level. The likelihood of having a Traveller as President is remote, worsened by obstacles in the first stage, where a candidate must be endorsed by either 20 Oireachtas Members or four local authorities. Up to now, the Oireachtas has not created a minority panel system.
In that context, but not exclusive to it, there is an immediate opportunity within the Seanad, a proposal which has been supported by some political groups.
Finally, representation in political decision-making has been recognised by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, in 2005, 2011, 2016 and finally in 2019, saying that:
the State party take effective measures, including special measures, to improve the representation of ethnic minority groups in political and public life, including by implementing the goal of ensuring that 1 per cent of the civil service workforce are from ethnic minorities.
Travellers should now be included in that. It also said recommended that "the State party collect and provide updated statistics on the ethnic composition of its population based on self-identification", including in political life. We would be very happy to address any of these matters further and can reply by submission.
Mr. James Doorley:
On behalf of the National Youth Council of Ireland, NYCI, I thank the committee for the invitation to speak to it today concerning the general scheme of the electoral reform Bill 2020.
The National Youth Council of Ireland has a long track record of promoting the active citizenship of young people and supporting their participation in our democracy. We have outlined in our written submission the work we did in advance of the 2020 general election. As a result, we have organised campaigns to encourage and support young people to register to vote and to vote in all elections and referenda. We welcome the fact that there has been increased participation by young people in recent elections and referenda. The level of pre-election engagement, voter registration and participation in recent referenda and in the 2020 general election was unprecedented, in our experience.
We have called for the establishment of an electoral commission for many years. As a result, we have a strong interest in this legislation. In the interests of brevity, I will focus on those areas of the draft legislation on which we have substantive comments and concerns. I do, at the outset, welcome the long-awaited establishment of the electoral commission, the introduction of the rolling electoral register, the move away from household to individual registration, the greater availability of online voter registration, and the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds. I will now outline our comments and concerns on particular sections of the legislation.
In relation to head 5, membership of the electoral commission, we understand the integrity and independence of our elections is vital and we understand the rationale for using the current membership model of both the Referendum Commission of Ireland and Standards in Public Office, SIPO, with regard to the membership of the electoral commission. However, we believe that if we are serious about promoting greater participation by young people and, indeed, by under-represented groups, the legislation should explicitly include provision for a youth representative and-or others who have experience of promoting participation by those from under-represented groups in the electoral process. We also believe the electoral commission should have a member with expertise in IT systems and digital cybersecurity, given the remit of the commission and importance of this expertise now and into the future.
On head 28, functions of the electoral commission, we are disappointed the remit of the electoral commission omits key functions. We note the proposed functions are referred to as “initial functions” and that other functions could be assigned to the commission over time. However, since it has taken us more than 14 years to get this far, since the first commitment to establish an electoral commission was made in 2007, we believe additional functions should be included in the legislation which can be enacted and commenced over time. For example, under head 30, the electoral commission will have the remit to promote public awareness of a referendum and encourage the electorate to vote at that referendum. However, the commission has not been assigned the same role with regard to promoting awareness of an election and encouraging the electorate to vote. We believe the commission should have an explicit role in increasing electoral participation and should be empowered to undertake its own actions and support actions by non-governmental and non-partisan bodies which are solely concerned with promoting voter participation. Head 77 does refer to the electoral commission having a role to "increase participation in our political processes through voter education". In our view, this appears to be vague and limited. It needs to be clarified and further expanded when the full Bill is published.
Likewise, the commission has not been given an explicit function to promote voter registration, which we believe is a major and significant omission. In 2007, a poll conducted for us by Red C found that 22% of young people under the age of 30 were not registered to vote. Based on the current population cohorts, that would mean that up 155,000 young people were not on the electoral rolls. We believe democracy is diminished and undermined when so many young people are excluded. We have to take into account that every year we have to get 60,000 young people on the electoral rolls. We believe the work to promote voter registration should not be left largely to voluntary youth organisations or, indeed, other organisations such as us, the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and SpunOut, which are doing their best on limited resources to encourage and support young people to register to vote.
We also welcome the inclusion of a research function in the remit of the commission, but it does appear limited to electoral policy and procedure. A previous contributor to the committee's deliberations referred to it as tightly defined and unambitious. We agree. If we are going to look at how we increase participation of those who are under-represented, we believe the commission should have a wider remit to undertake and commission research on electoral participation, means to increase turnout, and barriers to registration to vote. We are particularly interested in research on examining ways to support and increase the participation of young people. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, produced a report on the 2011 general election. However, we have had two general elections, two sets of local and European elections, and numerous referenda since then, and we do not have any detailed data or research on voter participation available. In the absence of regular and robust data, it will be difficult for the electoral commission to contribute to policy and advise Government, as set out in the legislation.
The other area is oversight of the electoral register. Many aspects of the electoral system function well and, most importantly, have the confidence and trust of the people. However, we are concerned about the voter registration system. We are of the view that it is not fit for purpose as it is under-resourced, inconsistent and incomplete. We are running 21st century elections with 19th century processes. This is not a reflection on either the staff of the franchise unit in the Department or on the many staff in the local authorities, who do tremendous work on tight timeframes, especially in advance of elections. I am sure members of the committee are familiar with this. What we are saying is that the registration system is under-resourced and outdated. We welcome the move towards a rolling register and towards online registration, which will make it easier for young people to register to vote. We would have anticipated that the legislation would have assigned responsibility for the electoral register to the electoral commission. Instead, it has been given an oversight role. We are concerned that, instead of being a regulatory body with the powers and resources to reform and improve the electoral register and registration process, the electoral commission appears limited to undertaking research and making recommendations. This, in our view, will not give the commission explicit authority to address the inadequacies in the individual electoral registers which are compiled by the local authorities.
While head 90 provides for the development of a national shared electoral register, it is not clear if and when this will happen. This has already been provided for in legislation for 20 years and has not occurred. We accept the establishment of an electoral commission may make this more likely, but we would have preferred this to have been more definitive. We know from other jurisdictions, such as Canada, that up to 17% of electoral information changes each year. This is especially an issue for young people, who are highly mobile. It is important, therefore, we have a national database that does not lose voters in the administrative cracks. As I said, young people are moving around and may deal with three or four local authorities and electoral registers over a number of years. They can get lost in the system and end up not having a vote when it comes to an election.
We welcome the introduction of the pending electoral list which will allow young people aged 16 and 17 to register to vote so that they do not have to wait until they turn 18. However, we call on the Government, as we have for many years, to implement the commitments that the Convention on the Constitution recommended to extend voting rights to young people aged 16 and 17.
We believe this can be done as a first step by means of legislation for the upcoming 2024 local and European elections.
Those are the main issues we have with the Electoral Reform Bill, as outlined, but, as I said, there are also have other issues. I thank members for their time and attention. I am happy to answer any questions or comments they may have.
Ms Catherine Lane:
The National Women’s Council welcomes the invitation to speak to the committee today. We are the leading representative women’s membership organisation in Ireland. Established in 1973, we represent a membership base of over 190 groups and organisations across a diversity of backgrounds, sectors and locations and we are committed to the promotion of full equality between women and men. Our mission is to lead and to be a catalyst for change in the achievement of equality for all women.
We welcome the Electoral Reform Bill in its intention to deliver a much-needed centralised and professional structure to provide for the needs of all residents, candidates, political parties and the media. Its responsibilities and obligations to uphold democratic values should be clearly outlined, including ensuring that electoral politics delivers for women. Equality, diversity and inclusion should be clearly evident across all its functions and responsibilities, including broadening the scope of the functions currently outlined in the general scheme. These should specifically include the promotion of gender balance in political life and in electoral contests, including necessary change to support women’s access to elected office. It should include using the broad policy role to engage groups facing barriers in participating in the electoral system and safeguarding equity of access for all, including Travellers, young people, disabled people and people from minority ethnic backgrounds. It should also include the creation of conditions for safe and fair elections, electoral competition and electoral communications, both online and offline.
There is an urgency in this area to deliver substantive change for women’s representation and participation in public and political life. Representation of women in politics remains unacceptably low. At local level, only 26% of councillors are women, with significant disparities between rural and urban areas. In rural areas, in the most recent local elections, women made up 23% of candidates as opposed to 35% in urban areas. Only ten local authorities have achieved a critical mass of 30% or more women councillors. The local elections are a critical pipeline for elections at national level, as over 80% of women Deputies have served as local councillors. We welcome the commitment outlined in the programme for Government to "introduce practical measures that will encourage more women to stand in local elections in 2024" and to consider the recommendations of our report on Women Beyond the Dáil: More Women in Local Government, with a view to reporting in 2021. As was the case with the general election, a gender quota for local elections is a necessity if we are serious about achieving gender equality in political life.
The number of women in politics matters. In a representative democracy, it matters who represents us and what they represent. Women’s representation is essential to the quality of our democratic processes. This is because principles of justice and equality dictate that a representative government should constitute a microcosm of the larger society in terms of gender, class, age, minorities, disability and so on. The under-representation of any of these groups weakens our democracy as their interests are at risk of being marginalised or ignored. Women make up the largest group who are currently vastly under-represented in Irish political institutions, government and political parties. We believe that the electoral commission can contribute to addressing and challenging these systemic gender inequalities still evident in Irish political institutions.
The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality recently presented its comprehensive recommendations covering many key areas for women and women’s equality. It outlined a clear pathway to achieve gender equality in Ireland and has called for the Government to act promptly and decisively. The citizens have made a clear statement that women’s low representation in all sectors of society needs to change and they do not want soft measures, they want quotas. Some 87.6% of the citizens voted in favour of extending the gender quota for party candidates at general elections, local elections, elections to the Seanad and European Parliament elections by the end of 2022. We have advocated, and continue to advocate, for the introduction of quotas of candidates for local elections. We will continue to campaign for systematic and cultural change which addresses the hostile environment that women, particularly minority women, experience online, utilises the technological advances that can support access and inclusion in the system and supports elected representatives with caring responsibilities. Specific positive action measures need to be introduced to address the particular barriers experienced by Traveller women, disabled women, young women and women from minority ethnic backgrounds. We are asking the commission to specifically address the following areas as part of its functions. It should take on a role around supporting and promoting political candidacy among women and under-represented groups, including overseeing the extension of candidate selection quotas for local elections. It should monitor the reporting and public investment of political parties to ensure the participation of women. That could include funding related to carrying out gender and equality audits of political parties, covering membership, officer roles, candidate recruitment and selection. It should develop standards for political discourse that are free from discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech, and tackle online abuse. The rise of online abuse has impacted women's lives in many ways. It can have a chilling effect, leading to women turning away from political life because of those difficulties, which risks widening the gap in gender representation.
The Electoral Act should be amended in order to protect the legitimate advocacy role of civil society organisations, as set out in the Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill, which is also before the Oireachtas at the moment. This is an issue on which the Coalition for Civil Society Freedom, of which we are a member, has set out a detailed position. We believe we need to use all the opportunities available to us to support the participation of women in public and political life. Transformation is required to achieve gender equality in Irish politics and to break down the barriers for women in politics. We look forward to engaging further with the work of the committee and assisting its work in any way we can.
I thank the representatives of the three organisations for being with us here today. We were anxious to ensure that groups such as those represented today with a long track record of representing people who are under-represented within the political system had a voice in this Bill. Our guests are right in saying it is something that has long been campaigned for. I certainly appreciate the fact this legislation has come before us so soon in the lifetime of the Government and that a commission will be established. I also welcome some of the positive suggestions that are being made with regard to the ambition of the commission. It can go ever further.
To bridge the three different areas represented within a five-minute speaking slot is challenging. I will try to ask each of our guests a specific question and I promise to try to flesh out some of the ideas that our guests have put forward when we are drafting our report. We have made a start on many of these issues but we have not gone a long way. There were no women on the ballot paper the first time I ran for election to Dublin City Council. When I left, almost 50% of the members of the council were women.
My first question is to the representatives of the National Women's Council. I fully support gender quotas at local level. My fear is that quotas may erode some of the progress that has already been made. On Dublin City Council, the majority of Fianna Fáil, Green Party and Social Democrats members are women. A gender quota may actually erode some of that progress. In other words, there may need to be male quotas in some cases. Could we talk a little about how we can avoid eroding the progress that has been made and how we can build the capacity and experience of women councillors?
Ms Catherine Lane:
I thank the Deputy.
Gender quotas would be one mechanism, alongside a number of other actions that are needed to balance the representation of women, in particular, as the Deputy spoke about, in terms of local government. We have seen very positive developments. I understand three urban local authorities now have gender balance but, as I outlined, the lack of female representation across the north west and midlands is stark.
We have seen how quotas have worked quite quickly and that pace of change is required. We saw the impact when they were introduced for general elections, for example, which was very positive. Obviously, more remains to be done. What we learned from the most recent local elections is that the action that is required is from political parties themselves. We saw a lot of positive progress in some smaller parties. Some of the bigger parties did not put in the effort in terms of fielding women candidates on the ballot paper across all of the different constituencies.
In terms of the impact and change that we need and want to see, and that women and our membership want to see, the introduction of quotas at a lower level will bring about that positive change. We also recognise that other areas need to change, such as maternity and paternity leave for councillors, more family-friendly processes and system changes within local government. Some of those are being addressed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and other stakeholders, which we welcome.
On the obligations that have been set out, the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality has voted overwhelmingly in favour of the introduction of such quotas. We would not be concerned that the obligations would erode any progress that has been made. They would accelerate progress in areas where it is desperately required.
That is good to hear. The National Youth Council made a suggestion around head 104 and the electoral register. I do not disagree. It is an area of increasing concern. Will Mr. Doorley talk about how the preregistration system might work? What user experience does he want for that system in order to encourage as many young people as possible to register?
Mr. James Doorley:
I thank the Deputy. We have worked over many years to encourage young people to vote and register to vote. We get calls from young people during every election and referendum campaign who may have naturally assumed they were already registered to vote, that there was a system which they were on and they could just turn up at polling stations to vote. Lots of young people lose out.
Thankfully, because of the good work done at local level by our members, we get many young people registered. We have 54 voluntary organisations working with young people around the country and some of them, such as USI, do amazing work on college campuses. The system is set up in such a way as to make it hard for young people to register. The criticism is based on the old model that people were born, raised and lived in one area for their entire life and everybody knew them. We live in a very different Ireland now where people move around. The age of 18 is a bad age to get people on the register because a lot of young people are moving away to college, work or training.
Our experience has been quite frustrating. I acknowledge the great work that is done by staff in local authorities, but the system is not set up to support young people to get on the register. We welcome the preregistration process which would allow young people aged 16 and 17 to register. That might be a better age at which to encourage young people to get on the electoral register. There would have to be work done by local registration authorities to ensure that happens.
I do not know if it is a global phenomenon, but it is certainly an Irish phenomenon that we tend to leave things until we need to do them. We always find there is a huge rush for young people to get on the register. The 2020 election was phenomenal. In my experience, the numbers of young people who wanted to register were much higher, as was the case for the referendums with which we are all very familiar. There was a huge interest in them among young people. The system-----
I am very conscious that I want to ask Mr. Joyce a question. I apologise for cutting Mr. Doorley off. Mr Joyce may not have time to answer all of my questions. In my area, I see a dysfunctional postal service, in particular on halting sites, as one of the issues that affects voting cards, election literature and so on. Is that something on which the Irish Traveller Movement has engaged with An Post? How can we improve that? I appreciate I have gone way over time.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I thank Deputy McAuliffe for the question. I fully support the comments from the other national organisations. In terms of the postal service for halting sites, in 2021 some people still do not get post directly delivered to them. That has been a concern in the work of the Irish Traveller Movement, not just for voting but also in terms of people getting medical appointments and other serious matters. When An Post needs to directly deliver post to a halting site or house and there are issues with people being registered, that needs to be taken up with local authorities which are the landlords of Traveller-specific accommodation. That issue needs to be addressed. That is my understanding.
I would also like to add that I concur that the current system is very outdated. It is from the last century. In terms of a modern Ireland, Travellers are a nomadic group in Ireland and one would think we would have a right to vote. It is only in the past decade that people have started to feel they can vote and have the right to vote. My father never voted, and nor did his father. We never had a right to vote because we never had a fixed address.
When people talk about the last 100 years there have never been any Travellers in Dáil Eireann in the history of the State. Our voice has never been presented until recently with the appointment of Senator Eileen Flynn, and we commend the State and Taoiseach in that regard.
I am sorry to interrupt Mr. Joyce. We only have six minutes per slot. If members are going to ask three in-depth questions, they are likely to get three answers within the six minutes. I ask members to co-operate as closely as possible.
I apologise for being late. I had another meeting with some colleagues which has just finished. I thank the witnesses for the presentations and written submissions. My questions are to all of the witnesses. We will probably come back to these with other people. They should feel free to give their answers and come back at a later stage.
Two key elements of the legislation are how we ensure the Act and subsequent reform of the register and electoral commission maximise voter participation and, therefore, fix the problems in registration, in particular for people who, as Mr. Joyce said, have been traditionally excluded from the system.
Outside of marriage equality and repeal, which saw huge youth registration, there are real difficulties in terms of voter registration for young people, especially those from low income backgrounds, as well as the new Irish and minority communities. Do any of the organisations have specific proposals they would like to see us insert into or add alongside the Bill on how to improve voter registration and electoral participation? I ask Mr. Joyce to continue where he finished, or if his colleagues have specific proposals for how we can facilitate nomadism and a formal registration that allows Travellers to vote.
The powers we give the commission are important because this Bill is not going to fix everything. If there are things that we do not think can be fixed in the Bill, the commission could, if we gave it the necessary powers, keep improving and refining the process, almost on a rolling basis.
Have Ms Lane, Mr. Doorley and others thought about whether the powers to be given the commission are sufficient or should other elements be included to allow it to keep up with work on the register and the electoral process?
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I will address the issue of voting. People who are moving may find difficulties with registration because of travel. The process is set up in a way that does not provide in a culturally appropriate way for the Traveller community, which is an indigenous group. There will have to be some elements of change in order that this is done in a way that facilitates the cultural needs after the Traveller ethnicity recognition in 2017. That must be considered and part of that may be today's discussion. There must also be further consultation and dialogue as we need to look at this in a way to create dialogue.
I apologise for cutting across Mr. Joyce but one of the options is to use post office box registration, which would not require a fixed abode in the traditional settled sense of the term. Does post office box registration or some similar system provide a practical solution? My question, I suppose, is if the witness has a preferred option.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
Looking at technology and the way we have moved, there are many opportunities to make the process accessible, user-friendly and not as bureaucratic as the current process. The Deputy referred to one example but there are other means that could facilitate voting rights in Ireland.
We must also give confidence to voters with regard to the political establishment. I was highlighting the challenges at local level and the witnesses from the National Women's Council referred to the fact that many people become Deputies having gained much experience at a local level but this does not happen with the Traveller community. There is not the same opportunity at a local level. There must be reform and a move away from a sense of the elite. People should be able to bring their own living experience, knowledge and insight to Parliament. It is also really important that the Parliament reflects the community it represents, which includes Travellers, minorities, black people and women.
How can we do that in a system that is very competitive and where people want representatives who look like them? That is a challenge. The last Traveller who ran for election to a Dáil seat was Ms Nan Joyce in the 1980s. She was the mother of nine children and never wanted to run but she just felt she had no other choice. At the time, some candidates canvassed on an anti-Traveller platform. They were using phrases like "knackers out of Tallaght". That was not a million years ago but during the 1980s. Against all the odds, Nan Joyce ran for election and although she was never elected, she highlighted her plight.
Travellers could not vote at the time and many still cannot. That means the people who voted for Nan Joyce were members of the settled community. She was able to bring them with her but she could not depend on her own community, as its members were not registered. It is an awful shame that the same position exists today. There is much work done in the sector to register Travellers to vote and there is an onus or responsibility on the State to ensure this process is accessible. It should also facilitate a process that works for everybody in the community, including those who move around.
I thank the witnesses for their submissions, which were particularly detailed and helpful. I look at the three entities represented today and it appears that two are disenfranchised. We are trying to advance their cause. From women's point of view, meanwhile, we are trying to ensure we have greater female representation.
The submission from the Irish Traveller Movement has that really tangible feeling of otherness and this was captured extremely well in the document. Senator Eileen Flynn is fantastic for also articulating what is that experience of otherness, and that it is incumbent on all of us to ensure we are inclusive in our society and must hear the voices that everybody must hear. When Senator Flynn speaks, I would say the entirety of the Seanad stops and listens to her. If we all had that experience, it would be great. I am sure Senator Boyhan supports the view that she represents incredibly well.
We must empower people like Senator Flynn and give her greater visibility in getting people on board. She is the Chair of the joint Oireachtas committee dealing with Traveller matters and it has dealt with housing and accommodation and the employment and labour market. I welcome more of such meetings where we can hear further about those matters through the fantastic voice of Senator Flynn.
The witnesses have made fantastic points and the question of a citizens' assembly seems obvious. It is shameful that the matter has not been considered. Perhaps it has but I still want to highlight it today. I am talking to the witnesses about their submission but it is great.
With regard to the National Women's Council of Ireland, I note the point in particular about political discourse, discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech. There was recent legislation brought forward by the former Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee. Is it proposed that the Electoral Commission would have a right to issue take-down notices to social media? As a woman in politics, I know we receive messages privately and publicly that refer to us with the "C" word or in a number of other ways that it is astonishing to think people consider okay. When I report such matters, I am generally told it does not breach community standards. There should not be anonymous accounts on the likes of Twitter because it enables people to get away with murder in what they say.
What is the proposal of the witnesses in this regard? Do they want the Electoral Commission to have the power to injunct if it sees particular trends? Should there be a threshold of tolerance, as that is generally what people in public life are told?
The Youth Council of Ireland has a broad church of membership. Are there particular impediments for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth and ensuring their participation in the process? What about new communities? What more could be done to further their participation. I very much support this idea of preregistration and loved those comments.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I will be brief. I welcome the Senator's comments. As regards the way the structures are established, they are not as inclusive or engaging as one might think so that does need to change. The Senator can see that and so can other Members. The recommendations from the Irish Traveller Movement are very clear and moving on them would make things somewhat more open and inclusive. That is the purpose of and rationale for why we are here today.
Regarding the Senator's point about Senator Flynn, there is an onus on all of us to assure and support Eileen, who is the only Traveller within the Seanad. At the same time, it should not be on her shoulders to bring forward all the issues. There is an onus on all of us and on all parliamentarians to support those issues and ensure that all parties progress them. It would not be fair to put that responsibility on her alone.
Mr. James Doorley:
There are many measures in the legislation promoting good technical responses, such as moving things online, pre-registration and a rolling register. However, there is something missing from the legislation, which is to empower the electoral commission to support the promotion of participation in elections and encourage registration. That cannot be done by one office. The electoral commission must have powers and resources to work with organisations that are supporting those communities, such as LGBT young people. One of our member organisations is BeLonG To, which is doing amazing work. If it was supported in a non-partisan way it could engage with young people from that community to ensure they are registered. The same could be done with ethnic minorities, young Travellers, young women and young people from different groups. We would like the Bill to be more ambitious and for the electoral commission to not solely be about making sure the technical aspects are all good. We need to reach out. While the electoral commission cannot do it all by itself, it should be able to work with groups, like we do at the moment. We work with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage every year to encourage young people to register but we have very limited resources for that. There are other groups that could do that as well. We would like the Bill to be more ambitious and to provide for more engagement through those representatives groups.
Ms Catherine Lane:
We are very aware of the insidious nature of the online harassment and abuse that women in public and political life experience and of the impact that has. We are supportive of a stronger regulatory framework for online companies. The Association of Irish Local Government recently carried out a survey of its members and found that very high numbers of councillors and elected representatives experience a high level of abuse online. We are concerned that this will further marginalise women and add to the existing barriers to them entering or staying in political life. We do not necessarily agree that there should be a threshold of tolerance for abuse because someone is in public office. Why would people take the type of abuse that women, and particularly women from LGBT backgrounds or Traveller women, have to endure on an ongoing basis? I will not say any more because I know we are tight on time.
I thank the witnesses for their participation and wisdom. For millennia, minority groups, young people and not least women have been prohibited from electoral participation. While in living memory everyone has been able to participate there is a legacy of non-participation. I completely support gender quotas and full society participation in our political system. My question is short and may come out of left field. What are the witnesses' positions on compulsory voting systems, such as the one in place in Australia? I feel that would make people participate. Do the witnesses have an opinion or position on that?
Mr. James Doorley:
We do not have a position on compulsory voting, although I do think we need to do a lot more before resorting to it. I would see that as a last resort when engaging with young people. It is one thing to force people to vote in a compulsory voting system but the danger is that they are going there against their will and will ask why they are doing it. It could be put in place but we have a long way to go in removing the barriers to registration for young people, encouraging young people to vote and supporting the NGOs that are doing that. The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice did a lot of work in disadvantaged communities by running workshops with groups of people who did not vote and making them understand how decisions were happening at local level. It has to be an option that governments and politicians keep in their back pocket but my initial reaction is that we have to do a lot more to enable, support and encourage citizens to vote before we take that quite drastic measure.
Ms Catherine Lane:
We are supportive of Mr. Doorley's comments about compulsory voting being a last resort and trying to reform the existing mechanisms. In our submission we welcomed the recommendation on pre-registration. I was involved in many community organisations that delivered those active citizenship workshops at local level but they are poorly resourced and there is not any real investment in that kind of voter education and participation. It is left to community and civil society organisations to try to bridge that gap. We need investment in those mechanisms before resorting to mandatory voting.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
It is an interesting question. For people living in a particular halting site where no political canvassers come in electioneering, because they do not see any value in those people voting, who would they vote for if that kind of system was brought in? We need to go back a number of steps, build confidence, canvass and show what issues those people stand for when it comes to inequality, participation, engagement and legislation. There is still a significant gap for those who feel very disenfranchised from the establishment. Mechanisms, supports and structures must be put in place but it is also up to elected representatives to canvass and show that their party stands for the communities that are very far removed from society. Travellers are still very far removed from that, as are other minority groups. Steps need to be put in place, as well as supports and structures, to bring people along. That kind of electoral reform is the responsibility of the establishment.
I know Deputy Ó Broin also looks at constituencies and where votes are. There are 43,000 houses in my constituency. It is very difficult to get around to 43,000 houses. There is an electorate of 100,000 and that would probably be higher if everybody had the vote. Given the time constraints and everything else there is to do, it is very difficult to canvass in a particular area. I like canvassing but looking at the map it is very difficult to get around the constituency. That is why that might happen. I thank the witnesses for their responses.
I thank our guests. I return to the common theme running through the three submissions, that is, promoting politician participation and encouarging and supporting candidacy. That is what is coming back to me continuously. There are two words jumping out at me. Mr. Joyce has articulated this particularly well. It is about confidence and about participation. We see this with the demographics and the people engaged in politics. I was a member of Gaisce, the President's Award, and was always amazed when certain groups were never represented in the early days of Gaisce. We began to ask why. Why was it that the private schools were engaging in this and why were we finding it difficult to get into certain communities? We decided, therefore, to carry out an outreach programme. Mr. Doorley spoke earlier on of the importance of outreach and engaging with people. He talked about the Vincentians and I am very familiar with the work they did. When the Vincentians went out to communities, they went to Traveller communities and all sorts of communities. They went to vocational schools and all over the country. Suddenly they got engagement and when one asked those people if they would be interested in being in politics they would say they had no education or had no confidence or they could not speak. They would say they had nothing to say or to contribute. That is what people feel. Therefore, we must go way back if we want to engage in political participation. It goes back to primary schools, back to those young kids who are recycling cans and are heads of committees. We are giving our young boys and girls confidence to be leaders, to be vocal, to be articulate, to be able to be listened to, to be able to be valued, to be able to be authentic and, more importantly, to be believed for who they are and respected for who they are. That is why we must go back that far, because where we give confidence, where we give support, where we give love, acknowledgement and affirmation, we build confidence. People then have that confidence to participate in their communities and in their lives. There is much work to be done on that and it is particularly worth saying.
I was interested in the commentary on the electoral register. One of our guests, I think it was Mr. Doorley, said the commission should have control. An independent commission should have absolute control over the administration of the register. It is important.
Turning to questions, it slightly touches on the area we were talking about, that is, the registration of 16- and 17-year-olds but let us hear what our guests have to say about giving votes to 16-year-olds because once a person has a vote he or she has equity in it, he or she has an interest in it and will engage. I am not going to be registering for something two years down the road. Most of us do not do our tax compliance certificates until the last minute. By contrast, when someone tells me I can have a stake in my local council or local community, in who shapes our swimming pools, who develops our sports pitches, that that person listens to me and is involved in a whole range of things, then I am interested. Thus we must have voting with the registration, otherwise we are not going to have the take-up.
I will say two things and conclude. Women's participation in politics is also a common theme running through this. Are any of the groups aware of a circular or correspondence issued in May by the Minister on the subject of participation of women in local government in the next local elections? I ask because the focus is on political parties and I am an Independent Senator and was an Independent councillor as well. I noted no mention of independent-minded people in the political process. It is all framed around engagement with the registered political parties. If our guests are not aware of it I will send them each of these circulars before I close business today. Secondly, our guests might tell me what single thing they think we could include in this legislation that would in some way improve it, from their perspectives.
Mr. James Doorley:
I thank the Senator. The extension of voting rights to young people aged 16 and 17 is something we have long supported and campaigned for. The Convention on the Constitution in 2013 recommended voting rights be extended to young people. I agree with the Senator that we may have a difficulty asking a 16-year-old to register for something he or she may not be able to actually use for another two years. We always say that what youth organisations and schools do around democracy and encouraging youth participation is great. However, many young people say they can talk about democracy but they would like the opportunity to practise it, to actually go out and vote and express their opinions on local issues. I fully agree with the Senator. We would like to see the Government move ahead of the 2024 local and European elections to extend voting rights. It does not need constitutional change and can be done via legislation. We just saw young people in Scotland and Wales having the right to vote at 16 in their respective parliamentary elections. It is a question of when and not if. We really would like to see the Government move in this legislation and introduce an amendment to allow young people to vote in the local and European elections in 2024. We have time to do that if it is done in the next year or two.
I thank the Chairman. I will try to keep my questions brief. Beginning with Mr. Joyce, in his opening statement he talked about there being a lack of sanctions for running candidates and elected representatives who have articulated anti-Traveller views for many years. What sort of sanctions are needed? Does he think those sanctions should be in this legislation? Should the electoral commission be able to impose sanctions? Should they be sanctions which affect electoral funding or what are his thoughts on that?
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I thank the Deputy for the question and the line of questioning as well. It should really be about holding people to account for their anti-Traveller rhetoric. The Deputy mentioned sanctions, it is about ensuring those in public office adhere to standards and ensuring that there are protocols in the political parties, but also with the electoral commission, to ensure such behaviour does not go unnoticed. People should be requested to refrain from any elements of rhetoric or commentary in their electioneering. All of this can be done in a very dignified and respectful manner, where canvassing is concerned. People certainly do not have to push communities which are already on the margins out further to try to gain votes from it. That has happened time and time again. It also diminishes the status of the political establishment and the ability of communities like the Traveller community and others to have confidence in it. There must be strong sanctions around removing those who are canvassing for local or general elections. The sanctions must be very strong to hold people to account and in some cases even to remove people from the elections if their rhetoric is directed towards any particular community.
I thank Mr. Joyce for that response. I have a question for Ms Lane of the NWCI on the issue of gender quotas. They are currently set up such that each party must have a minimum of 30% male or female candidates and that will rise to 40%. Does the NWCI have a view on the male side of those quotas? Are they needed? Men have always been over-represented in Irish politics. We have a situation now where some parties, mine for example, has a majority of female representatives. As those quotas go up that will affect parties with majority female representatives, possibly forcing them to have more male representation on the ballot paper when males have been over-represented.
Do the witnesses think the balance between males and females regarding gender quotas is needed, or what is the view in that regard?
Ms Catherine Lane:
We want to see our Parliament, local authorities and all those decision-making spaces being reflective of who lives in and makes up our local communities and society. The introduction of gender quotas for general elections was a blunt instrument which was required to address that persistent imbalance in our democracy. Regarding our campaigning for the extension of gender quotas to local elections, what we are concerned with is that the two big parties, namely, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, failed to run the minimum of 30% in the previous local elections. Therefore, and in the context of the size of political parties, they are the main gatekeepers in respect of women getting on ballot papers.
We are interested in giving voters more choice. We are also very aware of the positive impact that seeing women on posters, and especially women from minority backgrounds, has on young people and, indeed, all people living in the local community. The issue here concerns getting more women elected, but even getting more women to run, to be part of campaigns and to take part in canvassing locally has a positive impact. Turning to the scheme the Department has introduced to incentivise political parties to support more women and people from diverse backgrounds to run as candidates, we have seen those sorts of soft measures taking too long to achieve the change we must see in our representative democracy. While those kinds of measures are to be welcomed, we do not believe they are going to bring about the required change.
Women also face particular obstacles in running as independent candidates in local elections. Without the backing of a party, there can be financial barriers to running and that can be very challenging in respect of canvassing and having to rely much more on the support of family and friends in that regard. The research we did in 2019, entitled "Women Beyond the Dáil: More Women in Local Government", clearly identified the barriers faced by women in rural communities in getting on the ticket, and that is where we believe the quotas can really make a difference. The question arises of where political parties go to seek their candidates. It has traditionally been in spaces where men continue to dominate, such as in chambers of commerce, farming organisations and sporting organisations. Therefore, quotas would bring pressure to bear on bigger political parties to look outside the traditional pools of candidate selection.
I am sorry to interrupt Ms Lane, but Senator Boyhan has pointed out that the time slots must be consistent. I agree with him completely and I am doing my best to keep the slots consistent. I do not like to interrupt people when they are responding to a question, but I am trying to keep contributions to six or seven minutes. I thank Senator Boyhan for pointing that out. I call Deputy Higgins.
I thank Mr. Joyce, Mr. Doorley and Ms Lane for being here and for sharing their insights on behalf of the groups they represent. It is evident that they all want the same thing, as does this committee. I refer to having more diverse Dáil, Seanad and county council chambers. The establishment of this commission will give us the opportunity to get a step closer to achieving that objective. I have a quick question for each of the witnesses, and I promise to keep them brief because I know we are tight on time.
Starting with Mr. Joyce, I am particularly interested to hear more about challenges he spoke about regarding registration. I would love to hear his ideas regarding how we can ensure full voter registration and encourage more participation from his community, not just as voters but also as candidates. Turning to Mr. Doorley, I have rented in four different properties, so I understand fully how difficult it can be to ensure that mobile people, who are often younger renters, are able to easily change their addresses online to allow them to participate fully in democracy. The online voter registration system trialled in Dublin works well from that perspective. I had good feedback from my constituents, and especially from my younger constituents, about the system and it will be rolled out nationally as part of this legislation. I would love to hear the views of Mr. Doorley concerning whether he thinks this initiative is and will help.
Moving to the contribution made by Ms Lane, she referred to women coming up through the councils and I am one of those women. Some 18 months ago, I represented an area along with six other councillors and they are all male. South Dublin County Council is a progressive and fairly well gender balanced council and it is in an urban area. Therefore, there is still an imbalance even in Dublin. Having high percentages of women in certain areas allows us to meet our national gender quotas because it drags up the average, but it still means that areas are being left behind. I do not believe that having 80% or 100% of councillors on some local electoral committees being female and then 0% or 20% on others is what we want. Everyone is aiming for more gender balance overall, and I would love to hear the views of Ms Lane on that point.
Ms Catherine Lane:
An average can hide many disparities still existing across several local authority areas. In developing that extension of quotas, legislation in respect of the Electoral Acts will be required to introduce the candidate selection quota for local elections. Again, the research function of the electoral commission has potential. Not much research exists concerning the experience of women at local government level and we must learn and understand more about that aspect and the barriers to women's participation. We could definitely build in geographical targets to address the existing imbalances in many rural constituencies, as well as in some urban constituencies.
Some members of the committee may be aware that Longford Women's Link and 50:50 North West are delivering an innovative programme called 'See Her Elected', which is targeted at rural constituencies. It is part of the voter education and participation programmes, many running with different groups, but this is really about demystifying politics for women and engaging women who may be active in community organisations at local level. We need to try to create a greater understanding of what local government does, how important it is and how close it is to women's lives. Mr. Joyce mentioned the abolition of town councils in 2014. We agree that was a move that may not have been considered properly, because it was the closest level of representation. I also refer to the impact that abolition had on the representation of women and other minority groups. It was a step back in trying to build more opportunities for women and other minority groups to get involved in local government and decision-making at local level.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I thank Deputy Higgins, and her questions are very clear. Regarding the Traveller community, there are numerous issues with the whole process. However, if we were to look at this issue just in respect of what is needed, the commission should examine setting up a group to look specifically at Travellers and other minorities that have been so disenfranchised from the political process. The commission should explore ways of making it more accessible and inclusive by giving confidence to those communities. That would be one positive step in the right direction. Another aspect is the need for a more holistic approach. Last week saw the launch of the draft anti-racism plan and associated consultation process. As has been highlighted so often, however, anti-Traveller rhetoric has been to the forefront.
Guidelines need to be in place to ensure that type of rhetoric is not acceptable. Political leaders cannot simply preach about this. They need to show leadership for others to see that is not the type of society we want to live in or endorse. That leadership is needed not only at national level but in Europe and at a global level to show we expect more from one another and we expect that leadership from our political leaders in terms of the process.
Regarding the challenge, there needs to be an initiative or targeted intervention to support people in registering and voting. Otherwise, it will not happen. A targeted intervention approach is needed to support the work. We have seen good models of that by civil society groups, specifically by some of the Traveller groups across the country.
I will forget about that headset. Apologies for that delay. I thank Mr. Joyce, Mr. Doorley and Ms Lane for their presentations. I would like to hear from them rather than listen to myself speak. It comes back to the same issues with respect to what needs to be done from the point of view of the legislation and the electoral commission. The only pontificating I will do is on the electoral register. We have talked for a long time and I want to get our guests' views on voter registration being automatic. It must be within our gift to do that. People say there are difficulties in associating personal public service, PPS, numbers with the electoral register but it cannot be beyond our ability to solve that problem. It is not a rolling register in that it is not possible to register for part of the year. When elections are called, a temporary register is in place which involves people having to complete a form and bring it to a Garda station to be signed. That needs to be sorted. If our guests have a view on that I would be delighted to hear it.
Reference was made to hard-to-reach communities. Mr. Joyce represents Travellers specifically. It is a matter of getting people to engage in the system. What can be done to strengthen the electoral commission to enable it to do that? I would to hear our guests' responses to those questions.
Mr. James Doorley:
I thank the Deputy for his questions. We think the electoral commission will have to invest significant resources in the electoral registration system. We examined the New Zealand system some years ago. The clear issue is that we under-resource the electoral register in Ireland. I cannot remember the exact figures but two and a half or three times as much funding was invested in the New Zealand electoral registration system compared to our ours. The Deputy is right in what he said. Young people do not understand why they have to print out a form, get it signed in a Garda station and post it. I agree with the Deputy that we make it difficult for people to register to vote. We have always said that by linking electoral registration to PPS numbers - a person's PPS card contains his or her date of birth - people could be automatically included on the register and they would not have to go through that elaborate and difficult process. We would definitely welcome that. There are probably technical issues involved in doing that. It should be our ambition in the long term to move towards a system where people are automatically registered rather than having to go through a very elaborate system.
We are concerned the legislation, as drafted, even though it is only the heads of the Bill, provides for the commission to only have an oversight role, make recommendations and do research. We will not have a national register. A question was raised by previous speakers regarding a person who moves house three or four times. That person could end up being on the register in three or four places. The register is incomplete and inaccurate. We are not convinced based on what we have seen so far that the register will speak nationally to itself, as it were. There will still be 30 separate registers and it will be difficult for people to move around in terms of the accuracy of the register. We need to invest time and resources to make sure we have an accurate and up to date register. That work needs to be done by the electoral commission as a matter of urgency.
Ms Catherine Lane:
I concur with what Mr. Doorley added to the conversation. We are aware there are barriers to registration. It was raised by many of our members in past when we examined that particular issue. For example, a person having to go to the Garda station to get a form signed would be a big barrier for many women, for example, for those living with an addiction, on the basis of their legal status or for many of other reasons. We would be supportive of anything that can make the process more straightforward and accessible. The research function of the commission could offer us a greater understanding of the differences in voter turnout for men and women and what we need to be mindful of when we are planning in that respect. We know from other jurisdictions that voter turnout among women can be lower in local elections, even though the many functions and services provided by the local authorities are critical to women and families in local communities. There is definitely a disconnect there. We would be interested in having a better understanding and being able to respond, in an evidence based way, to support equality in terms of voter turnout and engagement.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
Unfortunately, I do not have any further good news. The conversation I am having is about how far removed the Traveller community is from the political establishment and that includes the electoral register and voting. I know first-hand that Travellers would find the process of going into a Garda station to get an application form signed quite daunting and difficult. They would not get a sense of there being mutual respect. The challenge we face is to make the system more accessible but also to streamline it in a way that works for everybody, not only most people. I do not recall any research or work that has been specifically done with respect to minorities. We have called today for the commission to appoint a minority advisory committee for Travellers and other representative groups. Other groups can also experience a sense of being disenfranchised from the political establishment. Such an advisory committee would help to inform the commission's work or at least start the engagement process. We want to move to a level where people have confidence and can, as a constitutional right, vote but we need to make the system accessible to people to vote and to ensure they have the information to do that.
I thank Mr. Joyce, Mr. Doorley and Ms Lane for coming before the committee and giving of their time today, for their submissions and for the really important work they do generally. I would make a few points regarding the prelegislative scrutiny work we are doing on the Bill. Our democracy depends on free and fair elections and for those to be healthy, effective and strong, they need to be representative. I agree with everything Mr. Joyce said about how far removed Travellers are from the political process and establishment and voter registration and participation, and we have to charge the electoral commission to try to address that. I come from Dublin Central and the north inner city of Dublin Central is a constituency that has in parts 60% to 65% of the population identifying as non-Irish.
In the most recent census, more than 500,000 people identified as non-Irish. That is more than 12% of our population. There is a massive disconnect there too. We live in a diverse society and we need our politics to be diverse also.
With regard to the electoral commission, Mr. Joyce referred to having a minorities advisory committee or a committee with a minorities function. Will he elaborate on how that would work, and in particular how it would address the non-Irish cohort?
In the context of gender equality and gender quotas in politics, progress has been made in certain respects. I do not necessarily agree that it is easier for Independent female Members who are outside the party system to progress politically than would be the case if they were in parties. That debate is for another day, however. The quotas are applied to parties. Would there be merit in changing it to a situation whereby quotas were assigned to the assemblies, for example, seats would be reserved at local authority level, in the Dáil or in the Seanad along the lines of 40% for females, 40% for males and 20% could be a mix or some variation of those percentages? We could remove the quota element from the organisations or the Independents and apply it to the assemblies. This would drive political behaviour and result in assemblies that are representative, as opposed to us trying to drive activity within subsets of the political anomaly, be they political organisations or others.
I completely concur with all of the witnesses in terms of the electoral register. We need to strengthen the functions that are being proposed. We need a centralised register. We need to simplify the registration process but we absolutely need to beef up the authenticity of it also, and the verification process. This is a hard balance to get right when one is trying to accommodate people who may be transient, to facilitate their easy access and registration, and at the same time ensure that we mitigate against the impact of voter fraud. If the witnesses have any thoughts on how we or the electoral commission can do that, they would be very welcome.
Perhaps the witnesses could be brief in their responses. There are four more members to get through and we have 27 minutes left. Senator Fitzpatrick's first question was to Mr. Joyce, on the minority advisory committee for Travellers.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I thank Senator Fitzpatrick. I will be brief because I am conscious of the time for other members. I absolutely agree that when we are talking about minorities we are also talking about new communities and existing communities in that context. It is really about ensuring that it is looked at with an holistic approach with the commission, and also that it can appoint people from those minorities within the group so it is not people talking about the communities, it is the communities engaged in the process. That would be a really positive step in trying to move from the level of people feeling disenfranchised to putting in further steps to bridge the gap between them and the political establishment.
On the other side, it is about people who are representative of those groups and that the Dáil or the Seanad, for example, would represent the society we live in. It is always great to see Travellers or other minority groups represented because it gives a sense of it being reflective of the true Ireland we represent. It was highlighted that Travellers had not previously been represented in the Seanad or the Dáil in the past 100 years. That is only happening now. While we make such a big deal about it and think it is great, we are still so far removed. The onus should not be on any one individual, it should be on all of us to do the right thing, which is to make this space a place that is representative and inclusive of the decisions that are made about our lives.
There is also the point I made previously that the Seanad is formed by the elite. Only 1% of Travellers attend third level. If one takes this into consideration, 99% of Travellers do not go to third level. Therefore, the process used to make up the Seanad is already restrictive and already puts certain groups at a disadvantage. That would have to change also to make sure that while we are talking about reform it must be reform that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.
I thank the witnesses. I welcome all-female participation in elections. There is a lack of women representatives. I, too, came up through the county council system. I served six years on my local council. The first couple of years were within a party and I was elected as an independent candidate on the second occasion.
I can see where a lot of the issues lie. When I sat on the Limerick City and County Council, two young ladies left because they found it too hard to serve as councillors and try to keep their outside jobs. Young men also left the county council, whether they had families or other commitments, because they found it very hard to keep down a job with the way the council was structured. This is one of the things that needs to change. We have a lot of fantastic young political minds out there and we need to make sure that they can participate. As with any generation, one cannot put an old head on young shoulders, but we are all here to learn and every day is a learning day, no matter what age a person is. This is what helps us to move from one day to another.
I fully welcome the point of view of representatives of Travellers. I was one of the people who grew up old school, where we had the generations of people coming to our house, such as the tinsmiths and so on. They all had their own cultures. I am involved in cultures, through vintage and otherwise, and I would like to see all people being represented by members of their own cultures. Coláiste na Trócaire is a secondary school in Rathkeale. When one mentions Rathkeale, people might imagine that it has about 54% or 55% of a Traveller community within Rathkeale, where it goes to secondary school. With the cultures that exist, however, the females do not go to mainstream school because their cultures do not want them mixing with the different cultures. They are accommodated through a different schooling system. This creates a problem. The males usually come to second level school for the first two to three years to learn trades, and then they leave school. Less than 1% of Travellers in the State actually finish second level. This is also an issue we need to address from their point of view. I am delighted that this school helps and works with the different cultures and societies. Coláiste na Trócaire should be commended for its work in this regard.
On 16-year-olds having their voice, I am the father of four boys. Many 16-year-olds would have liked to voice their opinions on the driver theory test delays recently, and especially those from the farming community. Many young men and women in the State would have liked to voice their opinions on this at the time. I welcome that.
On the electorate and voting, no one has mentioned it, but people are saying how hard it is to get onto the register. I believe that it must be linked to a person's PPS number. If a person is at school and working part time, the first thing he or she gets is a PPS number. Neither has anyone mentioned how distraught people get whenever a voting card arrives into the house for a parent, a grandparent, a brother or a sister who is deceased. I am surprised that nobody mentioned this matter. The link with the PPS number would get rid of all that because it would be linked to a death certificate when a person passes away. Using PPS numbers is the only way we can link such things, and then we would not cause upset to those whose relatives have passed away.
This could also apply when people move around. I saw it with the general election when people would call me to say that they had received three polling cards, one to their current address and the other two to previous addresses.
They might be in the same parish but in different townlands. If a person goes to vote and has his or her PPS number, there cannot be two, three or four votes. It would clear up the system that we have at the moment and knock out anything to do with fraud. Not only would we make sure that only one person votes, we would also respect the people who have passed away by making sure voting cards are not being issued for them to the upset of their families. I would like to hear the witnesses' views on that.
Mr. James Doorley:
I agree with Deputy O'Donoghue regarding votes for young people. It would mean that their issues would get on the agenda because as we know, the democratic system we have is designed to respond to voters' needs. Certainly if 16- and 17-year-olds had a vote, different decisions on issues such as the driver theory test or, in the past couple of years, the leaving certificate might have been made.
I also agree with Deputy O'Donoghue on linking the PPS number to the voting card. I have had personal experience of receiving voting cards for deceased members of my family. It is very upsetting. It is not the fault of the local authorities. Unfortunately, they do not have a proper system in place. Anything that would improve the system and allow people to be taken off the register when they have passed away would be very welcome.
I also agree that we need to get our local authorities and our Parliament to represent citizens. There are particular issues for young people in terms of getting on to local authorities. Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned some councillors in his area who had to step down because of work commitments. We need to look at supporting young people to get involved in politics but also at supporting them once they get there. I would certainly agree with that at both the local and national level. We need to get the best. All of the committee members put themselves forward for election and they now have a mandate. We need to ensure that all of our citizens have such an opportunity to go forward. We certainly support young people's right to run. Whether they get elected is up to the electorate but if they are elected, they should be supported to fulfil their mandate.
I thank Mr. Doorley for his brief responses. It is now my turn to ask questions. In your opening statement, Mr. Doorley, you said that 22% of young people are not registered to vote, which means that 78% are registered. That actually seems quite high. What would be the average level of registration among the various age cohorts? Of the 78% that are registered, how many actually go out and vote? I have had the experience of knocking on the doors of homes where there are five or six names on the electoral register. The parents are still living there but their four children have long moved out. The parents say that their children come home to vote because their voting cards still arrive there but I suspect that a lot of the time those voting cards do not get used because the children have moved away and might not even be living in the country anymore. Does Mr. Doorley know how many of the 78% that are registered actually turn out to vote? Has the NYCI had the opportunity to do that kind of research?
Mr. James Doorley:
That is a really good question. We do not have that data. The CSO conducted research in 2011 looking at the turnout among different age cohorts and found that among young people, it was at 63% or 64%. We would argue that the electoral commission should be given the mandate and resources to conduct the kind of research to which the Chairman refers. We do not know the turnout among young people or among Travellers or other minority ethnic groups, for example. It would be really helpful if the commission had the resources to find that out.
That could be one of this committee's recommendations vis-à-visthe electoral commission. We could suggest that it examine voter turnout among those young people who are registered. Over the past couple of years, we have seen a lot of youth engagement with the political system. I am thinking of the climate strikes in particular, as well as the two referendums on marriage equality and the repeal of the eighth amendment. The come home to vote campaign was particularly interesting in that context. Would Mr. Doorley agree that there is currently greater youth engagement in politics than was previously the case?
Mr. James Doorley:
Yes, I would definitely agree with that. Having been involved in this work for a number of years, I would say that in the past five or six years we have seen a big upswing in the numbers of young people engaged in politics. The referendums demonstrated to young people that voting makes a difference and that they can influence the shape or direction of the country. That was a good demonstration for them and in the last general election in 2020, the numbers of young people who engaged with us in terms of registering to vote and making sure they had a vote was much higher than in previous elections. A great deal of work had to be done by our member organisations, particularly USI, at local level in universities to get young people onto the electoral register within a very tight timeframe. We believe that we need to invest more in the electoral register. I agree with those Deputies and Senators who said that we need an accurate register that mitigates fraud or wrongdoing but that is only possible if we invest in it. The electoral register is so important. Committee members know, as do I, that there is nothing as disheartening as making the effort to vote by going to a polling station and then being told by the polling officer that one is not on the register. That is very disillusioning. We need to invest in the register.
Thank you, Mr. Doorley. On that same point, Mr. Joyce gave us a figure of approximately 50,000 in terms of the size of the Traveller community. Does he have any idea how many Travellers are on the electoral register? Has any research been done on that? If people are on the register and their voting card arrives, there is a possibility they will vote but if they are not on the register, they are never going to vote. It is a fairly obvious thing to say but if we can get people registered, that will make a difference. Is there greater engagement among the younger cohort of the Traveller community in terms of those things that are driving young people to become more active in politics? Has Mr. Joyce had the opportunity to research that?
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I thank the Chairman for his questions. In general, young people can feel very removed from the political system. That can relate to the make-up of our Parliament and the fact that here are not many young people in the Dáil. In terms of young Travellers, the potential is there in terms of confidence, engagement and participation but more times than not they are not asked to engage. When one talks to Travellers in their homes and their caravans one finds that they have strong opinions about what is happening around them and what structural changes they would like to see. A significant amount of work is required to bring the political system into a new age that is reflective of the society it represents. At the moment, it does not reflect society. There is potential and there are many different initiatives underway but those initiatives are not really engaging young Travellers.
The Irish Traveller Movement is developing a national youth participation strategy because we do not see young Travellers participating in the spaces they should be in. Young Travellers are further disadvantaged within the Traveller community. They are not engaging and they are not being asked to engage. Being here and being part of this process allows me to raise issues on behalf of the Irish Traveller Movement, which is really important. I see this as a good initial step but would love to see a lot more happening in terms of the key recommendations from today.
I thank Mr. Joyce. I must cut myself short now in order to be fair to everybody else. I apologise to Ms Lane. I wanted to ask her about the fact that female politicians seem to get much more online abuse than their male counterparts and to hear her views on the cowardly pile-ons from far right and racist groups that we often see on Twitter. It is incumbent on every politician and everyone in society to stand up and call that out when they see it happening. We must not be afraid and must be united against that type of vile behaviour online.
Senator Fitzpatrick is next.
Ms Catherine Lane:
On instrumentalising the extension of candidate selection quotas to local elections, several options are available. A process would have to be undertaken to develop legislation to address those geographical disparities and to not disadvantage independent candidates. We already spoke about the incentive scheme recently introduced for political parties to support and motivate changes in behaviour in respect of supporting more women to run in the local elections in 2024. I reiterate that we have had previous incentive schemes and voluntary commitments. People will be aware that there was such a voluntary commitment concerning State boards and it took 25 years to come to fruition. That was only the average to achieve a gender balance on State boards.
There may be opportunities in this regard. If it is not practical or if there is no agreement to extend the existing quotas for local elections to general elections, what other mechanisms are at our disposal? We have presented some options in that regard. The possibilities include investment in the political parties and tying that more to sanctions and more robust reporting of how that public money is being used to support the participation of women and other minority groups in political parties. A decent amount of supplementary funding could be made available for having reached a target or quota after the local elections in 2024.
We believe work in this regard must start happening now in order to give the women we hope will be selected in greater numbers in all the different constituencies a real winning chance. Some of the feedback we have had from women candidates referred to them feeling that they were not on a winnable ticket or that they were added too late. That is not doing the women involved any justice or doing our democracy any service. Therefore, there are several options to address the situation and achieve the desired outcome. If it might be helpful, we have written up information in that regard that we could submit to the committee, based on engagement with our members and academics in this area.
Returning to a previous point, we are very concerned not only with the imbalance that continues to persist but also the retention issue for women councillors and younger men, in particular, who have caring responsibilities and who are trying to manage other paid employment as well. We believe that aspect needs serious attention in the run-up to the local elections in 2024 to ensure we do not see the gender representation gap widening even more.
Mr. James Doorley:
The Senator mentioned the high numbers of ethnic minorities in different constituencies, such as in her area in the Dublin Central constituency. The local and European elections are coming up in three years' time. Some people may have the right to vote in general elections and-or referendums, but many may not. Therefore, there is a great opportunity in 2024 to allow people residing here, and who may not have Irish citizenship, to vote in local and European elections. The legislation as drafted gives the electoral commission the mandate to promote votes in referendums, but not the mandate to promote votes in elections. We think that may be a bit of a gap. We would love to see the electoral commission having a proactive role in encouraging people from different backgrounds, including those who may have language difficulties, and background to participate in the local elections and, if they are citizens of a European Union country, in the elections for the European Parliament. There could, therefore, be a role to be undertaken in that regard.
Turning to the electoral register, ensuring that it is accurate and up to date involves having a national register. Then we must invest more in that national register, because we do not do that now. It is starved of resources and the technical and human resources required will necessitate additional investment. I say that because we do not want to set up this body to fail in respect of it not having the resources to do what it is supposed to do.
As someone fortunate enough to have been elected to Waterford City Council when I was 21 - some 12 years ago now - I count myself lucky to have been one of those young people who did get involved in politics and made a change at local level. Younger people have been represented quite well across the party political spectrum in Waterford, but women not so much. I echo some of the earlier comments of Deputy O'Donoghue, however. Many of the people elected at the same time as me in 2009 did not seek re-election when their terms ended in 2014, while many of those elected in 2014 did not seek re-election in 2019. It was mostly because of the structure and timing of meetings in the context of trying to hold down another job at the same time and the aspect of online abuse, which increased significantly from 2014 onwards.
It is difficult to try to balance the competing interests at council level in respect of meeting times. We traditionally had meetings in Waterford at 5 p.m., and then they moved back to 4 p.m. Since I have been elected to Seanad, those meetings are now being held during the day. I would not be able to attend those meetings and fulfil my obligations if I was on the council now. The organisations represented here today could take it upon themselves, therefore, to engage with each other and try to come up with ideas concerning the best times for meetings. I refer to a system that could facilitate the engagement of young people and women, in particular, in politics.
I echo the comments regarding the mobile youth vote. It is probably difficult to nail down people when they are 18 years old. Would Mr. Doorley agree that if we reduce the age of preregistration to 16 or 17 that there could be significant engagement at secondary school level to get people registered in advance? Those students are a captive audience and it is the major opportunity to preregister them. Turning to Ms Lane, what measures, over and above the quotas, would she like to see implemented? She touched on this area in her last answer when she mentioned the penalty in the supplementary funding. Gender quotas are working for national politics because there are penalties for political parties if they do not meet them. Such penalties do not exist at local level because funding is not linked in that regard. Ms Lane mentioned supplementary funding, however, and I ask her to tease out that aspect a little more. I think that is a very good suggestion.
Mr. James Doorley:
I agree that preregistration is a step forward because the Senator is right about 18 years old being a bad age for engagement. We have always said that. People get lost through the administrative cracks then and they are not sure if they should register where they live or where they are going to college, working or doing an apprenticeship. Therefore, preregistering young people at 16 years of age would allow work to be done through schools and youth organisations to encourage those young people to register and we would welcome that change.
We will be asking the Government to go a step further and extend voting rights to young people aged 16 and 17 for local and European elections. That is a matter for the Government. I agree with the Senator about pre-registration. It would make a difference. I also agree about encouraging young people to go into politics and democratic representation. We need to look at the structure of local councils, in particular, and even town councils, as other colleagues have mentioned. We should make it easier for people to take that first step on the ladder. That brings us to the thorny issue of whether being a councillor is a part-time job or a full-time job with a part-time salary.
Mr. James Doorley:
It can create difficulties for young people who are starting out in their careers. They have to make the decision to commit themselves to politics or earn a full-time wage. Employers can facilitate people but, as the Senator said, that would not be possible if every meeting is at 2 p.m. and the aspiring politician has other tasks to do. There is an issue there. We should look at how local authorities are structured and whether being a local councillor is a full-time or part-time job, and councillors should be paid accordingly.
Ms Catherine Lane:
We can try to bring forward some of the opportunities the pandemic has presented in terms of remote access and a hybrid, blended model to enable more participation of councillors. The meeting times are difficult and challenging. People come from different backgrounds and have different responsibilities and commitments. If we try to ensure access can be facilitated, it might get around some of those issues. We hope to begin a process and piece of work with local authorities around developing more family-friendly policies, for example, making it no longer acceptable to extend a meeting for a further hour with ten minutes' notice. That compromises people who have caring responsibilities and other obligations that must be planned for in advance. Practical things can be brought into protocols and procedures to facilitate councillors with caring responsibilities.
There are many other measures we need to take on beyond the quotas. The Senator said he was interested in supplementary funding. We could, for example, look at 10% or 15% additional funding if a party runs 40% more women candidates that it did in the previous local election. We could see where parties were at in 2019 and compare their performance in 2024. That may remove an issue for Independents because they could also receive additional funding if women Independents are elected. That is something we could tease out further.
I thank Ms Lane and Senator Cummins. We are out of time. I thank Ms Brack, Mr. Joyce, Mr. Doorley, Ms McCarthy Flynn and Ms Lane for their attendance. It has been an interesting and engaging two hours during which I think we have learned a lot. Our guests' opening submissions and the answers they have given to questions will feed into our pre-legislative scrutiny report. If there were questions that our guests felt they did not have sufficient scope or time to answer and want to send in a written answer, we will happily accept it and feed it into our report. I thank our guests for their attendance and the members for their contributions.