Wednesday, 6 February 2019
European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In commending the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019 to this House I am asking Dáil to continue the long established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of independent electoral constituency reviews. As Deputies in this House are aware, a decision on the number of representatives to be elected to the European Parliament in each member state for the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term was made by the European Council on 28 June 2018. That Council decision establishing the composition of the European Parliament provides for 13 members to be elected in Ireland for the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term. That provision of seats is up from 11 seats in the current Parliament and the last few European Parliaments. The Council decision reduces and redistributes European Parliament seats following the decision by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union on 29 March 2019.
The new composition will reduce the size of the European Parliament from 751 to 705 MEPs. Of the 73 seats vacated by the United Kingdom, 27 will be re-allocated to reflect better the principle of degressive proportionality. The 27 seats will be distributed to some 14 member states, including Ireland, with no member state losing a seat. This change necessitated a review of European Parliament constituencies in Ireland with the result that a European Parliament Constituency Committee was established by order under section 5(1A) of the Electoral Act 1997 on 24 July 2018.
The committee was required to report to the Ceann Comhairle no later than two months after its establishment, that is, by 24 September 2018, and was required to hold a public consultation process to inform its deliberations. The public consultation was held over the month of August 2018 and a total of 20 submissions were received by the committee in advance of developing and finalising its report. In arriving at its recommendations, the committee was required to have regard to the following terms of reference: the total number of representatives to be elected in the State to the European Parliament shall be such number as may be specified for the time being pursuant to the treaties governing the European Communities, that is, 13 in this case; reasonable equality of representation as between constituencies; each constituency returning three, four or five members; the avoidance of any breach to county boundaries as far as practicable; each constituency being composed of contiguous areas; geographic considerations including significant physical features and the extent of and the density of population in each constituency; and subject to the above, continuity in relation to the arrangement of constituencies.
The committee's report was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 24 September 2018, after which it was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. The report was also circulated to Oireachtas Members and MEPs on that date.
In summary, the report recommends that the State continue to be divided into three constituencies. A four-seat Dublin constituency will comprise Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, south Dublin and the city of Dublin. In effect, the existing Dublin constituency will gain one additional seat but remain geographically unchanged. A four-seat Midlands-North-West constituency will comprise counties Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath and the city of Galway. While the number of MEPs in the Midlands-North-West constituency will not change, its geographical territory is reduced by the transfer of counties Laois and Offaly to the South constituency. A five-seat South constituency will comprise counties Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow; the cities and counties of Limerick and Waterford; and the city of Cork. In summary, this constituency will gain an additional seat, with its territory increasing to include counties Laois and Offaly to maintain reasonable equality of representation.
The Bill provides for implementation, in full and without change, of the recommendations made in the report I have outlined. This approach is consistent with the established practice since the first independent Constituency Commission reported in 1980. It is a short Bill which provides for the election of 13 MEPs in Ireland across the three recommended constituencies. In addition, it provides for a number of technical amendments to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to implement certain requirements set out in the EU Council decision of 13 July 2018. This decision which aims to modernise the European Union's electoral law, known as the Act of 1976, as well as strengthening citizens' participation in future European elections, was adopted in July 2018 under the special legislative procedure following more than two years of negotiations between the European institutions. It inserts a number of provisions into the Act of 1976, some mandatory and some voluntary, which are intended to take effect in advance of the holding of the elections to the European Parliament which are scheduled to take place in member states between 23 and 26 May 2019.
The Bill has seven sections. Section 1 provides that the principal Act referred to in the Bill is the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, which is the Act that is being amended.
Section 2 amends section 10 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to extend the minimum period within which a polling day order announcing the date for the holding of a poll for an election to the European Parliament must be made. The amendment is consequential on the amendment in section 4 of the Bill to extend the timeframe for the notice of election as set out in Rule 2 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. A polling day order will be made not less than 60 days in advance of polling day for the elections to the European Parliament, up from the current 50 days.
Section 3 amends section 15 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to provide that the counties, the cities and counties and the cities listed in the new Third Schedule to the principal Act will be those in existence on 1 September 2018.
Section 4 provides for amendments to Rules 2, 5 and 50 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. The extension of the current timeframe for the giving of the notice of election as set in Rule 2 will ensure the mandatory requirements under the Council decision of July 2018 in respect of the three-week deadline for the receipt of nominations, as well as the six-week deadline for the commencement of the exchange of information, will be achieved. A notice of election will be issued by the returning officer at least 45 days, disregarding excluded days, before polling day, up from the current 35 days. Separately, the amendments to Rules 5 and 50 will allow a candidate standing for election to the European Parliament the option to include on the ballot paper the name of any European political party to which his or her national political party may be affiliated. The application of this provision will be entirely voluntary and whether the name of a European political party should be included will be a matter for prospective candidates and their national political parties, if any, to decide.
Section 5 provides for the substitution of the Third Schedule to the principal Act. The new Third Schedule sets out the name of each constituency, the counties and cities each constituency will comprise and the number of members who will be elected in each constituency in the European elections to be held after 1 January 2019. The major change from the current configuration is that an additional seat will be allocated to the Dublin and South constituencies, as I have outlined. In addition, counties Laois and Offaly will move from the Midlands-North-West constituency to the South constituency to provide for a better balance of representation. In spite of these moves, there remains a considerable degree of continuity in the arrangement of the constituencies, with a three-constituency arrangement continuing to apply. In addition, the population per MEP in the three constituencies ranges from just under 337,000 to just over 380,000, which is a narrow range in the variance of population per MEP. Therefore, there is a fair balance of representation among the three constituencies.
Section 6 is an amendment consequential on the changes proposed in section 4 and amends section 25 of the Electoral Act 1992 to allow national political parties the option of including in the register of political parties the name of any European political party to which they may be affiliated.
Section 7 is a standard provision which provides for the Bill's Short Title, collective citation and construction.
The Bill has been drafted on the basis that the United Kingdom will withdraw from the European Union on 29 March 2019. As Deputies will be aware and can appreciate, however, the timing of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union is less than clear in the light of recent decisions on the withdrawal agreement taken in the House of Commons. In the event that the withdrawal does not take place as envisaged before the start of the 2019 to 2024 parliamentary term, the provisions of Article 3(2) of the June 2018 Council decision will come into effect. In summary, it would mean that, in the case of Ireland, 13 members would be elected to the European Parliament, with 11 taking up office immediately, while the remaining two would take up office only when the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union became legally effective. Prudence dictates that we make provision for a delayed withdrawal, given the uncertainties that prevail. Accordingly and if necessary, I will bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to provide for such a scenario and any other such matter that may arise on foot of the Brexit process.
As I stated in my introduction, this is a short Bill which has the specific purpose of providing for new constituencies, in which 13 MEPs will be elected to represent Ireland in the European Parliament for the next term. It is now a matter for the Oireachtas to revise our European constituencies. I look forward to the debate on the Bill and the contributions of Members to it.
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.
That is correct. In the ordinary course of events this would be one of those very dull debates where we give our comments on the Constituency Commission's proposals before accepting them. In the debate on the recommendations of the previous Constituency Commission, that was my position.
I will address the missed opportunity of giving some recognition to the North of Ireland and I will respond directly to Deputy Cassells on that. Before doing so, I raise the matter of the two "deep freeze" seats, to use the term used by Deputy Cassells. It is not the Government's fault and we are all caught in a bind whereby a delayed Brexit will result in two of the successful winners of the seats, subject to this legislation, having lesser status. I would have liked to hear from the Minister of State what mechanism the Government is looking at with the amendments. I can think of only two. Either the additional seats in Dublin and Ireland South go on hold or it is determined by whoever gets the lowest number of votes. The problem with the second option is it could end up with a disproportionate lack of representation for Midlands-North-West. If the Minister of State could give some indication of where is the thinking of the Department, it would be helpful. It would also be helpful if people understood what the status means. Would it be similar to what happened with Croatia before its accession, for example, with certain entitlements for people, who would not just sit at home for the period in question? It would be very helpful for the Minister of State to provide clarity on that.
I was going to deal with the political point anyway before Deputy Cassells made his remarks. From a political perspective this was a missed opportunity. I accept that the Constituency Commission has a certain limitation with its statutory remit, as we teased out at the private session with the officials. The Government could have seriously considered the possibility of having a designated constituency for the North of Ireland for European Parliament elections. The legal case is very strong and the Minister of State knows we submitted a detailed legal opinion on the matter that is worthy of discussion. Leaving aside the legal arguments, given that the majority of people in the North of Ireland voted to remain in the European Union and that Brexit of any kind, and particularly the chaotic Brexit presenting itself to us, will have a disproportionately negative impact on people in the North of Ireland, there was a political imperative to seriously consider this. My concern, notwithstanding rhetoric in Second Stage speeches, is that I have not seen anything other than our proposals where it has been seriously considered.
I will not make a political speech but I will read some of the key conclusions from the legal opinion. I am happy to give a copy to Deputy Cassells so he can consider it more fully. While he may not agree with us, at least he would have to accept we did not make a superficial case but rather one that took quite some consideration. In the conclusions, the solicitors and barristers involved in the opinion stated "The extension of voting rights in EP elections to EU citizens in Northern Ireland will have to be limited to Irish citizens as opposed to all residents of the jurisdiction." That is regrettable and I would have preferred it if we could have extended this to all residents in the North of Ireland. It is not legally possible so that is why it would only be extended to Irish citizens. The opinion suggests that in producing the report, the boundary commission could have looked at these broader issues and it makes the case in the context of its "promotion of values contained in Bunreacht na hÉireann and the EU treaties." The opinion further states, crucially, "Member states are granted a wide measure of discretion, albeit subject to the treaty and secondary EU legislation, in how they organise their electoral systems, including elections to the European Parliament." There is scope, legally speaking, for this to be seriously considered at least.
The legal opinion goes on to state "In its current state of development, European Union law does not require that member states provide for external voting for non-resident citizens." It imposes "no restrictions on the ability of member states to extend the franchise for EP elections to non-resident citizens." There is no impediment in European law for such a thing.
Indeed the legal expert suggested that, "The extension of the franchise to non-resident citizens is consistent with the democratic principles on which the European Union is founded." That is an eminently sensible proposition. It goes on to say, "The extension of the franchise to non-resident citizens is consistent with widespread state practice in the European Union." Many other European states already have certain arrangements that are not dissimilar. "The extension of the franchise could be said to complement the requirement on the UK government to ensure no diminution of rights of citizens in Northern Ireland occurs as a result of Brexit." That is plainly self-evident.
We do have a uniquely restrictive system of external voting, without a doubt. We have discussed this, and the Minister of State is bringing forward legislation and subsequent referendums. A challenge by an Irish citizen deprived of his or her voting rights is at least a real possibility in certain circumstances.
The legal opinion continues, "The extension of voting rights to Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland would be consistent with EU law" and that the creation of a new constituency for the North of Ireland is "primarily a matter" of policy choice for this House. It is a political matter for us to decide if it is something we want to do.
While Deputy Cassells makes a legitimate point in saying it would result in a divergence of representation I would imagine that folks in the North of Ireland would be happy with any representation in the European Parliament, even if the ratio was disadvantageous to them, which it would be in this instance, rather than having no representation at all.
We can have a debate about Stormont but this is about a serious proposition to ensure that Irish citizens in the North of Ireland, no matter what their political opinion, have some representation. I would have thought that is something Fianna Fáil would have at least liked to discuss as opposed to dismissing it in order to score political points but that is its own business.
The legal opinion also states, "The Constitution imposes no restrictions on the ability of the State to extend the franchise for EP election to Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland." It is constitutionally permissible and possible, whether we want to do it or not is a secondary issue. We would argue, and the legal opinion argues, that it would be consistent with the principles of Bunreacht na hÉireann, particularly the amendments made post the Good Friday Agreement, and that it would be consistent with the current citizenship regime. Then there is a series of more detailed points.
It is not, contrary to Deputy Cassells's suggestion, a populist move, it is a very serious and credible proposal which we think all the parties in this House should have considered. If I was an SDLP, Sinn Féin or Alliance Party voter in the North I would be a bit disappointed with the way Deputy Cassells has presented this because all of those people are telling all of us, and the Government knows this because it is engaging very extensively with Northern public opinion, that the worst case scenario for people in the North is to have no representation.
-----grows a backbone and decides to actually contest in the North of Ireland. I have no difficulty in its arguing the case for taking its seats in Westminster and then taking them up if elected but while it stands on the sidelines of electoral politics in Northern Ireland I do not think it is in a position to question anybody's integrity or the representation any political party provides. Our vote has increased because of the positive stand we have taken to ensure the rights of Northern nationalists and republicans are properly protected.
We can have an argument about what is going on in the North of Ireland any day the Deputies want-----
That is my point exactly, a Cheann Comhairle. This is a serious and credible proposition to try to find a way to ensure that at least Irish citizens in the North of Ireland, the overwhelming majority of whom want to remain in the European Union have a voice and have representation. I am absolutely amazed that Fianna Fáil does not even want to discuss it or consider the proposition but I would be interested in hearing the Minister of State's response to those and, while I appreciate the very tight timeframe we now have to get this legislation through means in all likelihood it is impossible, I would still like to think the Government would have considered the matter actively and given us a substantive response because I know the Minister of State would take these issues much more seriously than maybe his Opposition counterparts.
To continue from Deputy Ó Broin's contribution, the Taoiseach made a public commitment never to leave citizens in the North behind again. He now has a real opportunity within the scope of this Bill to act on that commitment, to ensure Irish and EU citizens in the North retain the most basic entitlement of any system, the right to elect democratic representation. More than 600,000 people in the North voted in the last European election to have their voices heard in the European Parliament and they have. The majority of people in the North voted to remain in the EU in the referendum in 2016. The very reason we are discussing this Bill, and debating the European Council decision made in June 2018, is, need we remind ourselves, Brexit. The impact of that decision on citizens in the North must not be ignored in the context of this Bill before us.
Despite the fact that they will remain EU citizens post-Brexit, with a right to direct representation in the European Parliament, they will be denied that right as a result of Brexit. The British Tory Government throughout the Brexit circus has given no thought to the rights of the people of this island. The right to representation in the European Parliament for citizens in the North can be protected if the Irish Government allocates the two additional MEP seats that Ireland has been given to the electorate in the North. It is vital that the people of the North have their voices heard in the European Parliament and it is within the remit of the Irish Government to facilitate this. This is legally possible. It is not impeded by any constitutional barriers. It can be done.
My colleagues, Martina Anderson, MEP, and Teachta David Cullinane made a submission on behalf of Sinn Féin to the constituency commission in August 2018 which dealt with the upcoming European elections, the impact on the number of Irish seats in the European Parliament and their distribution across the island in the face of Brexit. Sinn Féin's submission proposed that the constituency commission consider the creation of an additional constituency for the North of Ireland. It would have two MEPs the two that Ireland, south of the Border, is set to receive as Britain leaves the EU, the Six Counties dragged in its wake. In November 2018 that submission was reinforced by the legal advice commissioned by the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, GUE/NGL, on retaining European voting rights in the North post-Brexit. This independent legal opinion demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that this action is legally possible and permissible. The excellent work done by barrister Mark Bassett covers EU and Irish law and is unambiguous, showing that with political will this can be done.
While the constituency commission was unable to consider the submission as part of its work owing to its terms of reference, this does not prevent this Government from considering its content. The question of who votes in EU elections is for national governments. It is therefore a matter for Irish legislation and, as such, it is within the power of the Irish Government to do something about it. Legislative changes will be needed. This is not a reason to do nothing about it nor is it an inhibitor to actually doing something. It should be pointed out that Brexit requires not only changing the law but drawing up entirely new treaties. Sinn Féin is calling for the creation of a constituency in the North and for the two additional European Parliament seats being allocated to Ireland to go to our fellow citizens in the North, providing them with the opportunity to continue to exercise their right to vote and return representatives to that Parliament. This means that no one has to sacrifice existing representation and that the people of the North who voted to remain in the European Union continue to have a voice in Europe. Those who held, and who may continue to hold, a contrary view, and who are Irish citizens, would be equally entitled to fully participate and contest. Every person born in the North of Ireland has the right to EU citizenship and therefore the right to stand and to vote in European elections.
There are a number of regions and territories across Europe that offer flexible and imaginative solutions to ensure citizens maintain their voting rights.
This Government could do likewise for the people of the North of Ireland, and for the people of all of Ireland by extension. Any proposal to exclude the people of the North from the future EU elections goes against the Good Friday Agreement and runs totally contrary to the Taoiseach's statement that they would never again be left behind. Citizenship must mean something. Let us not forget that the people of the North did not vote for Brexit. They see the value of EU membership and of being closer to the rest of Ireland and to the EU rather than being left at the mercies of Westminster alone. British and Irish citizens from the North of Ireland deserve representation in the European Parliament and this is what we have been proposing. I am again calling on the Government to review this decision. As my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, has said, there is no legal impediment to its enfranchising Irish citizens who are registered in the North.
In conclusion, let me recall that paragraph 52 of the joint report produced by the EU and the British Government in December 2017 specifically stated that the people of the North, "who are Irish citizens will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, including where they reside in" the North of Ireland. The Taoiseach stated that everyone born in the North, "will continue to have the right to Irish and therefore EU citizenship". He also stated the joint report was rock solid, cast-iron, and politically bulletproof. In response to a letter signed by representatives of civic nationalism - not by Sinn Féin, although some signatories may indeed support our party - the Taoiseach assured them that Government had protected their interests. He stated, "Your birthright as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected." He added, "You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”, which is something I have already cited here this evening.
This was a very welcome and positive commitment that I, with colleagues and other voices in this House, warmly welcomed at the time. However, many now believe that this promise has been broken. The specific commitment to citizens who reside in the North is missing from the withdrawal agreement. The Government has yet to explain why the rock solid, cast-iron and politically bulletproof joint report commitment of December 2017 on the right of Irish citizens in the North to enjoy rights as citizens of the European Union is missing from the withdrawal agreement. The additional seats allocated to this State by the EU could have been - and, I contend, still should be - allocated to the North, but the Government has so far said "No". I conclude by simply asking the question, why?
I welcome the clarification on this legislation, which implements the recommendation of the commission. Such recommendations are normally accepted. There are questions around the Bill, particularly in respect of the impact of Brexit. The fact that the boundary changes are fairly minimal, only affecting Laois and Offaly, will be welcome. There was a time when the people of Clare were quite confused about what they were doing because some people who were in my constituency for general election purposes were in County Clare for local election purposes and, although they considered themselves to be from Munster, were in the Midlands-North-West constituency for European elections, which represents Connacht and Ulster. Minimal changes to boundaries are always best.
The main questions arise in the context of a possible request from the British Government for an extension to the Article 50 period. That clearly poses significant questions. The Minister of State has indicated that he will table amendments on Committee Stage if it appears that will be the case. I have some questions around that. Some questions around the two successful candidates who will not take their seats have already been raised. First, how will they be picked? What happens to those two people? Will they be able to attend and observe the European Parliament? Will they be paid? Will they be able to do some work? Will they have offices? These are practical questions and very pertinent for people who are running for the European Parliament. People elected to the European Parliament will have put considerable effort into the campaign. They may have put other things on hold. What happens? Do they have to wait and see what happens with Britain? What happens in Britain? Do 73 people take their seats only to be told halfway through that they have to go-----
-----to make space for other people? I hope they will not try to hold on to the seats. There are a lot of big questions in this regard.
The question of the principle of equal treatment was brought up by the previous speakers. If the two people who do not take their seats are those elected to the two extra seats, which would be one person in the Dublin constituency and one in the South constituency, then the people of those constituencies will not receive equal treatment and will not have equal representation. The boundaries will have been extended and the Minister of State has said that the constituencies will be fairly well proportioned. Those constituencies will have elected four or five people, based on their population, but will not be represented by that number of people. There is a question of equal representation in that which has to be raised in the context of this debate. I would be interested in the Minister of State's views on that.
I do not have too much to say about the Sinn Féin proposal on Northern Ireland. I do not have any legal opinion or advice on it, though everyone in the room apart from me seems to. As I see it, it is too late for this to be a practical proposition. If there is an extension of Article 50 and if the seats were to be given to Northern Ireland, would the people of the North also be able to vote for British representatives? I presume it would be done on a geographical basis, so everybody in Northern Ireland would be able to vote. Again, there are serious questions around that. Could an Irish citizen living in a different part of Britain vote for those two seats, because such a person would also have been disenfranchised? There are big questions. If it is a serious proposal and if it is being given serious consideration - and I do not think it is, because time has run out - these questions have to be raised. It is easier to give votes to the diaspora for the presidency because people would be voting on the basis of one geographical entity, the Republic of Ireland, no matter where they live. That is much easier. Northern Ireland is a separate geographic entity which would have its own seats. That poses difficulties.
I refer to the amendments to rules 5 and 50 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Election Act 1997, which will allow candidates standing for election to the European Parliament the option to include on the ballot paper the name of any European political party to which their national political party may be affiliated. I welcome that. We pay far too little attention in Ireland to the political groupings to which our European parliamentarians belong. These groupings have a significant influence on how they vote and on how they participate in the Parliament. My party is affiliated to the Party of European Socialists. We are very proud of that and, although I have not consulted with my party or the candidates, I assume we will be very happy to put that on the ballot paper. I hope that other political parties that belong to a group will not be shy about declaring the group to which they belong when their candidates are going for election. That is a positive. It has not got very much public attention. There are some other technical provisions, which relate to more time and so on, which seem to be relatively positive.
That is about all I have to say. The most difficult issues are around what will happen if Brexit does not go ahead. Obviously, that would be a good thing in lots of ways but if the British look for an extension of article 50 and then go anyway after a couple of years, it would pose very serious questions. I am not sure the Minister of State is in a position to answer them all but we would welcome clarity insofar as he can provide it. I hope the public will engage in the forthcoming European elections in a very positive way. In some places we will be voting on four or five different things. We will be voting on a plebiscite, local elections, European elections and possibly referendums. I hope the European elections will get the attention they need from the public. It is up to us as public representatives to ensure there is the kind of debate on the issues that are really going to be very significant for us now as we face Brexit. Our European parliamentarians are going to be really important in terms of how the represent our country and political parties in the European Parliament. I look forward to whatever clarification the Minister of State can give us in his reply.
I have come late to the debate but have been following it. I was a little disappointed when the report came out on the European constituencies. I had made a submission to the process last year. I appreciate that on many occasions we must play the hand we are dealt. We respect the independent commission and support its findings. We are not going to get into splitting hairs on that. My own submission reflected the identity of the natural hinterland, the natural affinity and identity that already exists within the provincial system, rather than the somewhat artificial entities of Ireland South and Midlands-North-West, which we had in the last elections. Kildare, for example, is now to be in a different constituency from Laois and Offaly. I am not sure exactly where the lines fall. The commuter belt, the doughnut around Dublin, is split into two if not three constituencies. We have Dublin in the middle and Dublin deserves its own European constituency. The population numbers are there and it makes perfect sense. It is a capital city and should be a constituency in its own right. However, the commuter belt would have more of a commonality of issue, purpose and representation than either north or south of the commuter belt would have with, say, Donegal on one side or Kerry on the other. The horse has bolted to an extent, certainly in terms of respecting the independence of the report and supporting its findings. However, that was an opportunity missed. I would have liked to see it split another way. The old delineation of Connacht, Ulster, Leinster minus Dublin and Munster was much more natural than these artificial constructs. It does cause issues and splits. We see around all constituencies that there are different socioeconomic strata up and down the constituency but they blend into a whole. However, at European level, at constituency and representational levels, it can be difficult for somebody to make a case. Somebody might be very knowledgeable in one area. The coastal west Atlantic is quite different from the inner suburbs, almost, of Dublin. Places like Leixlip and Letterkenny, which are in the same constituency, are actually poles apart in many ways. That was a pity. I did make a submission along those lines and the numbers were there to do it slightly differently. However, we are where we are.
On the Sinn Féin proposal, I listened with interest to the speakers. I do not dismiss it out of hand at all. There is merit and some interest to it. However, I do fear that, like much of what Sinn Féin proposes, there is more tokenism than actual thought put into it. I do not mean to disrespect Deputy Ó Broin or his colleagues but it is about beating a totem pole rather than going for a genuine, practical, real result. It is too late. I am not beholden to legal advice but apparently the legal advice is against it. I have looked at the various European Court of Justice decisions and so on. It is probably too late in the day for that. There is a degree of hypocrisy to it. We had the argy-bargy a few minutes ago. Without representatives in Stormont or Westminster, for Sinn Féin to look for representation in Europe sticks in the craw a little bit. It seem inconsistent at the very least and hypocritical at worst. It is difficult to listen to it.
My understanding of the legalities is that one of the reasons it is advised that it cannot be done is that different citizens would have different representation, for example some Irish citizens in the North as opposed to Irish citizens domiciled elsewhere. There are arguments for diaspora representation. During Seanad reform we could have created seats for the diaspora that would feed into more domestic seats. However, we do not consider citizens in the North to be a diaspora: we consider them to be part of the Irish nation. That is reflected in Articles 2 and 3 as reformulated in the Good Friday Agreement. I think there is a basis there but it is too late on this occasion. I do not dismiss the idea out of hand but it is too little, too late. Maybe if Sinn Féin was at more tables in more parliaments and committees around these islands it would not be too late and maybe there would have been some progress made on it in the last two and a half years.
I did knock on doors in Northern Ireland in the last election and look forward to doing so again at the next election. One thing that struck me was the amount of churn. When I was up there it was the fourth election in a few years. There have been two assembly elections, two United Kingdom general elections and the Brexit referendum. The voters in Northern Ireland have gone to the polls five times in the last two and a half years and are about to go for a sixth and seventh time with local and European elections on the horizon. I look forward to canvassing up there again. Maybe I will see Deputy Ó Broin on the doorsteps and we will pass pleasantries as we go by. Maybe Fianna Fáil will support its candidate to get the seat ahead of Sinn Féin. That will be another day's work.
Most of the questions are about the issue of the two additional seats and their allocation. I gave a commitment to the Members that once the Government has approved those amendments they will be circulated. People will have enough advance notice and a chance to consider them. I have been asked directly about the direction of Government opinion. Essentially, there are two options. There is the option of a national panel or, taking on board the legal opinion to which the Sinn Féin Members referred, there might be other options with regard to that. There is also the possibility that the final seat in the Dublin constituency and the final seat in the southern constituency would be put into deep freeze. That is the phrase coined by Deputy Cassells which has been used by everyone else since. If that is the decision the Government takes, it will then be a matter for the European Union in respect of the facilities available to those who are elected. The European Council decision refers to "taking up their seats." That is a different wording from "being elected." Therefore this could have other knock-on effects in respect of dual mandate legislation, including if Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas or indeed members of local authorities wished to contest.
I disagree profoundly with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's suggestion that it had not been considered, although maybe I took her up wrong. This matter is like a Rubik's cube. It has been considered by me, officials and other members of the Government in every aspect. It is a bit like the Brexit question itself: there is no clear-cut solution. It is a question of trying to find a solution that would be most proportionate to the electorate, would marry with the electoral system that we have, which is a constituency-based system, and would also respect the fact that we are legislating for boundaries in advance of a final decision on Brexit. We must do so because, as everyone said, people are making decisions about who will be selected and who is going to run. Those candidates deserve certainty on the geographic extent of their constituencies. There are myriad competing issues. I was struck by Deputy Ó Caoláin saying he would finish his contribution by asking the simple question of why. In my time here there has rarely been a less simple "why" than in this whole discussion.
I think Mr. Bassett was mentioned as the author of the legal opinion to which Sinn Féin referred and which it has submitted. I assure the Deputies that it was considered. There are a whole lot of competing interests when it comes to the rights of Irish citizens, whether they reside in the Twenty-six Counties, North of the Border, in another country of the European Union or further afield.
As Deputy Ó Caoláin spoke, I thought about my two first cousins from south Kilkenny who live in Scotland, which also voted to remain in the European Union. They will not have a vote in the European Parliament elections. It is not for the lack of discussion or consideration, but there is nothing simple about the whole question of Brexit, nor about how we allocate our Members of the European Parliament. The best I can do for the Deputies is to state that I will circulate the amendments as soon as they are approved by Cabinet. That will happen well in advance of the forthcoming Stages of this legislation.
I am sure other items of legislation have already referenced Brexit, but this is real, practical legislation that is affected directly by it. In the context of the implications for those who might be elected, the EU will have to decide whether or not those elected will be given observer status, as is the case for applicant members. Our decision concerns how we allocate the two additional seats. If a deep-freeze approach is taken, we also have to consider whether it will have implications for other legislation. The dual mandate is an obvious piece of work that comes to mind.
I would also make the point, even though I never practised law, that legal opinion is not infallible. While I respect the view expressed and would share much of it, the central question is what are the implications this could have for Irish citizens residing in other parts of the United Kingdom, in other countries of the EU or in applicant countries. Ultimately, the committee was curtailed by the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 in the context of the terms of reference considered.
The issue of proportionality was mentioned by several members. It is dependent on the amendments the Government seeks to table, but consideration must be given to the possible implications for proportionality for the time until Brexit becomes effective. If we were to elect on a national panel based on the new boundaries. this would have a lasting effect on proportionality for the rest of the lifetime of the next European Parliament. Proportionality swings both ways to an extent. If we move to a national list or panel system for those two seats, issues might arise. I have always had the sense that Irish people value the fact that their representatives are elected for a defined position, be it Clare in the Connacht-Ulster constituency of old or Clare in the current constituency of Ireland South. People associate their votes as being for specific or particularly identifiable geographic reasons. Moving away from that would be a huge electoral change in an Irish context and would certainly not be deliverable in advance of the European election.
Deputy Lawless was not the only person to express concerns about provincial boundaries; there were several submissions on that point. The committee has stuck to provincial boundaries, save for dividing the province of Leinster down the middle.
Perhaps it is more like three out of four if one includes the part of Ulster in the Connacht-Ulster constituency. I do not know whether anyone else present tonight has contested the European election before. I stood for election to Europe in 2009. I come from the part of Waterford city that is in Kilkenny. I recall canvassing in Oldcastle and places I had never been in before - and have never been back to since - during that election.
The extent of the geographical difference and the difference in people's views on issues in the provincial system, as it was, were huge. There is a certain logic to having that south-eastern region with Munster in the Ireland South constituency. It is a matter we will have to consider in advance of any future realignment of European Parliament constituencies, because the terms of reference specifically require the committee to take into account the previous electoral boundary. That restriction might have to be looked at if we are looking at how those boundaries will be drawn in the future in the widest sense.