Wednesday, 6 February 2019
European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
There may not have been much interest among Deputies in contributing to the debate, but the Bill is exceptionally important, not least because of what is happening across the water. As the Minister of State stated, it is the first item of legislation that will be affected by Brexit which will have a direct impact on this country. We all believed the impact would be straightforward, that the number of seats would increase, but, as evidenced by the hames made of the Brexit process across the water which has been botched, it is not straightforward.
The proposed amendment Bill mooted by the Minister of State shows that Ireland is again in a position where it will lose out. I thought lessons had been learned from the botched Local Government Bill 2018 a couple of weeks ago, when amendments were tabled at the last minute and ultimately dropped. While I appreciate that he is contending with an emerging issue, I hope Opposition party members will be given a heads-up on possible amendments to the wording of the Bill. Given that the Government requires the agreement of Opposition parties, I expect that to happen in dealing with this important and time-sensitive Bill.
We all hope a deal will be reached on Brexit with our friends across the water, but one cannot hope that will happen. In case there is an extension under Article 50 when the net effect will be that there will be a freeze on the additional seats that were supposed to come our way, there is a need for contingency planning.
I presume legal advice has been provided to the Minister of State in this respect. What contingency plans have been put in place by equivalent Ministers in other countries that are in the same position? Is there a cohesive approach? Two seats would effectively be put in "deep freeze". Will the Minister of State explore the determination as it relates to the Dublin region and the Midlands-North-West region?
We will have an election for 13 Irish Members of the European Parliament and it is possible that two will go into deep freeze and be left there until God knows when. For those contesting an election, it is some limbo in which to be placed. It is bad enough to lose an election but to win an election only to find the elected person cannot do the job the people voted for him or her to do would be even worse. Having expended all that energy and finance, with all the team members volunteering and people engaging in the democratic process, to end up with what would effectively be a non-result would be simply unbelievable. It is an amazing scenario that could possibly play out from the ongoing drama playing out across the water. Irish MEPs could be elected by the people only to be put on ice and left there.
This comes at a time when we need a strong European Parliament. I refer specifically to the European Parliament rather than the European Commission or Council of Europe. In recent weeks people have been observing how small the net is when we speak of where the power lies in the European project. We have always seen in a democracy that when its executive branch rides roughshod over parliament, it is not good. In 2016, the composition of the Dáil forced the Executive to engage far more with the Parliament than it would have had before or would like to. Watching the fly-on-the-wall documentary on the BBC over the past couple of weeks examining the past ten years of chaos in Europe, leading to the disastrous exit of Britain from the European Union, one can see how just two or three people were, effectively, running the Union. Frankly, that amount of power resting in the hands of so few is not healthy. The need for a European Parliament that exercises a strong voice is needed now more than ever. When the UK's 73 MEPs head off into the sunset and there is a rebalancing within the European Parliament, there will be a need for strong representation and Irish voices there. The next election will effectively reshape the European Parliament, and it is possible the long-standing centrist majority will end. Ireland must take a stand to resist the tide of populism.
Speaking of populism, I know Sinn Féin has submitted that Northern Ireland should be allocated the two seats we are discussing this evening instead of them going to the citizens in the Republic of Ireland. We know that is not legally possible. I find it hilarious that Sinn Féin is seeking more representation when its Northern Ireland members already refuse to attend two of the three parliaments to which they are elected. Why would the party want more seats when its members cannot sit on those they already have?
Sinn Féin put forward a legally weak and inconsistent case to establish a new Northern Ireland-only constituency for the two additional MEPs. Case law clearly states that citizens should be treated equally and cherry-picking specific citizens outside the State above others would clearly breach that principle of equal treatment. This means the seats would have to be open to all Irish citizens, regardless of residency. Even if there was a single Northern Ireland constituency, the issue of proportionality would apply and citizens on the island would be treated with significant difference due to residency. Citizens in Cork would have a major difference in representation when compared with citizens from Northern Ireland. It is within EU law to restrict voting rights based on residential requirements. It is the practice in Ireland and it is currently being reviewed through a popular referendum that is restricted to the presidential election. I know the Minister of State is aware of our work on Seanad reform proposals and we are looking at that scenario as well. It would be dramatic for the State to shift away from the long-established practice in the area of EU parliamentary elections as our electorate has not yet made a decision in the upcoming referendum.
Fianna Fáil accepts the recommendation of the independent electoral commission but as I have already stated, we need to see this process handled sensitively. Effectively, this is the first piece of Brexit-related legislation and there is a need for engagement with the amendments that will come.