Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2023

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2023: Second Stage


3:55 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2023 is to provide for the number of Members of Dáil Éireann, the revision of constituencies and the number of Members to be elected for such constituencies in light of the results of census 2022. In broad terms, the Bill provides for the total number of Members of Dáil Éireann to be 174 and for the number of constituencies to be 43 in accordance with the recommendations in the Constituency Review Report 2023 published by An Coimisiún Toghcháin on 30 August last. In debating and deciding upon this Bill, the Oireachtas will meet its constitutional obligation to review and revise constituencies with due regard to population change and its distribution across the country. To support the Oireachtas in this task, the Electoral Reform Act 2022 provided for the establishment of An Coimisiún Toghcháin and assigned it responsibility for, among other matters, the review of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. Under Section 30(3) of the Electoral Reform Act 2022, An Coimisiún Toghcháin is independent in the performance of its functions.

An coimisiún's Constituency Review Report 2023 was published and laid before these Houses on 30 August. Since the report’s publication, the Government has given due consideration to the recommendations of an coimisiún and, in accordance with accepted practice since 1980, has agreed to implement them in full and without change.

The Bill before this House provides for this.

Our Constitution sets out clearly and distinctly the overarching requirements that apply to membership of the Dáil. In addition, and complementary to these constitutional provisions, chapter 7 of Part 2 of the Electoral Reform Act 2022 provides for a constituency review following each census of population and establishes, among other things, the terms of reference for such a review. The constitutional provisions require that Dáil constituencies be revised whenever population change, as ascertained in a census, leads to population-to-Member ratios in individual constituencies that are significantly out of line with the national average or the limits set in the Constitution of one Member to every 20,000 to 30,000 of population.

It has been six years since Dáil constituencies were last revised by way of the Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Act 2017, which gave legal effect to the recommendations of the 2017 report, which was, in turn, completed following census 2016. The results of census 2022 show a population increase of over 8% on the 2016 population, with population growth tending to be stronger in the eastern side of the country. Some 5,149,139 people are now resident in the Republic of Ireland, the highest the population has been for 171 years.

The population is such now that the ratio of Members to population, at just over 32,000, is outside the constitutional upper limit of one to 30,000. While this does not make the composition of the Thirty-third Dáil unconstitutional, since it was formed on the basis the 2016 census, there is now an imperative to legislate for revised Dáil constituencies to bring them into line with Article 16.2 of the Constitution.

These constitutional provisions were considered by the courts in two cases in 1961, namely the High Court case of John O'Donovan v.the Attorney General and the Supreme Court reference case relating to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 1961. They were considered again in the High Court case taken by Deputies McGrath and Murphy in 2007, where it was argued that the constituencies on which the general election was fought at that time did not comply with the requirements in Article 16 of Bunreacht na hÉireann.

In his judgment of 2007 in the latter case, Mr. Justice Clarke stated that he was satisfied that there is an urgent burden on the Oireachtas to review constituencies following a census. In effect, he concluded that the Oireachtas must act promptly to bring constituencies in line with population once a census reveals significant population change. The progression of the proposed Bill will now allow the Oireachtas to so act on this occasion.

Chapter 7 of Part 2 of the Electoral Reform Act 2022 provides for the review of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies to be undertaken by An Coimisiún Toghcháin. Under these provisions, An Coimisiún’s report on the review of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies must be published within three months of the publication of final census results. The terms of reference of An Coimisiún are specified in the Act. These provisions are, of course, subordinate to the constitutional requirements set out in Article 16.2.

An Coimisiún Toghcháin was established on 9 February 2023. The programme for Government included a commitment to have a stand-alone electoral commission and, having regard to the provisions of the Act, it held a public consultation from 10 February 2023 to 10 May 2023. It received some 541 submissions on Dáil constituencies and a further 33 submissions on European Parliament constituencies. Final results for census 2022 were published on 30 May 2023 with An Coimisiún’s constituency report 2023 subsequently finalised and laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas on 30 August 2023.

By now I am sure all Members are familiar with its content and its recommendations. However, for the information of Deputies and for the record of the House, I will outline the main features of An Coimisiún's report in relation to Dáil constituencies. I imagine most Deputies in the House probably know them off by heart. The number of Dáil Members will increase by 14 to 174. This will give rise to the largest Dáil in the State’s history. There should be 43 constituencies, an increase of four, of which 15 will have five seats, 15 will have four seats and 13 will have three seats.

The constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, less the electoral division, ED transferred to the new Tipperary North constituency, remains a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, less the ED transferred to Meath East, remains a five-seat constituency.

The constituency of Cork East, less the ED transferred to Cork North-Central and Cork North-West, remains a four-seat constituency. Cork North-Central, with the additional ED transferred from Cork North-West and Cork North-East and less the ED transferred to Cork South-Central and Cork North-West, is allocated one additional seat and becomes a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Cork North-West, with population transferred from Cork East and Cork North-Central, less the transfer of one ED to Cork North-Central, remains a three-seat constituency. Cork South-Central becomes a five-seat constituency.

The constituency of Dublin Bay North, with the addition of one ED from the current Dublin Fingal constituency, less the transfer of ED to the Dublin North-West constituency, remains a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Dublin Bay South, less one ED transferred to the Dublin South-Central constituency, remains a four-seat constituency. Dublin Fingal will be separated into two, a Dublin Fingal East constituency and a Dublin Fingal West constituency. The new constituency of Dublin Fingal East will have three-seats, as will Dublin Fingal West. The constituency of Dublin Mid-West, with an additional ED from Dublin South-West and part of an ED from Dublin South-Central, will be allocated an additional seat to become a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Dublin North-West, with additional ED transferred from Dublin Bay North, less parts of ED transferred to the Dublin West constituency and the new Dublin Fingal West constituency, remains a three-seat constituency. The constituency of Dublin South-Central, with an additional ED transferred from the Dublin Bay South constituency, less ED and parts of ED transferred to the Dublin South-West and Dublin Mid-West, remains a four-seat constituency. The constituency of Dublin South-West, with additional ED transferred from Dublin South Central, less one ED transferred to the Dublin Mid-West constituency, remains a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Dublin West, with parts of ED transferred from the Dublin North-West constituency, will be allocated an extra seat to become a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Dublin-Rathdown, with additional ED and part of one ED transferred from the constituency of Dún Laoghaire, will be allocated an additional seat to become a four-seat constituency. The constituency of Dún Laoghaire, less ED and part of one ED transferred to Dublin-Rathdown, remains a four-seat constituency.

Galway East, with additional ED from the Roscommon-Galway constituency, is allocated an extra seat to become a four-seat constituency. The constituency of Galway West, less ED transferred to the Mayo constituency, remains a five-seat constituency.

Kildare North, with the addition of ED transferred from the Kildare South constituency, is allocated an additional seat to become a five-seat constituency. The constituency of Kildare South, less ED transferred to Kildare North, as well as the new Laois and Offaly constituencies, remains a four-seat constituency.

The constituency of Laois-Offaly will be divided into two constituencies, the new Laois constituency and the new Offaly constituency. The new constituency of Laois, with the addition of ED transferred from the Kildare South constituency, will be a three-seat constituency comprising the entire county of Laois. The new Offaly constituency, with the addition of ED transferred from Kildare South, will be a new three-seat constituency comprising the entire county of Offaly.

The constituency of Limerick City, less County Tipperary ED transferred to a new Tipperary North constituency, remains a four-seat constituency.

The constituency of Longford-Westmeath, with the addition of ED transferred from the Meath West constituency, will be allocated an additional seat to become a five-seat constituency.

The constituency of Louth, less the transfer of one County Meath ED to the Meath East constituency, remains a five-seat constituency.

The constituency of Mayo, with the addition of ED transferred from Galway West, will be allocated an additional seat to become a five-seat constituency.

Meath East, with the addition of ED transferred from Cavan-Monaghan and Louth, is allocated an additional seat to become a four-seat constituency. Meath West, less the transfer of ED to the constituency of Longford-Westmeath, remains a three-seat constituency.

Roscommon-Galway, with the addition of ED transferred from Sligo-Leitrim and less ED transferred to the Galway East constituency, remains a three-seat constituency.

Sligo-Leitrim, less ED transferred to the constituency of Roscommon-Galway, remains a four-seat constituency.

The constituency of Tipperary will be divided to become two new constituencies, Tipperary North and Tipperary South. The new constituency of Tipperary North, with additional ED from the Limerick City constituency and the Carlow Kilkenny constituency, will be a three-seat constituency. The new constituency of Tipperary South will also be a three-seat constituency.

The constituency of Wexford, less the electoral districts transferred to the new Wicklow-Wexford constituency, will become a four-seater. The constituency of Wicklow, less the electoral districts transferred to the new Wicklow-Wexford constituency, will become a four-seat constituency. The new constituency of Wicklow-Wexford is a three-seater consisting of electoral districts transferred from the southern part of the constituency of Wicklow and the northern part of the constituency of Wexford.

The constituencies of Cork South-West and Limerick County, which are three-seat constituencies, Clare, Dublin Central and Waterford, which are four-seat constituencies, and Donegal and Kerry, which are five-seat constituencies, will remain unchanged. This is the full list of constituencies. Hopefully, I will never have to read it again.

In arriving at its recommendations, the commission had particular regard to the constitutional provision around equality of representation and the issue of variance that has been considered in the High Court and Supreme Court judgments I referenced. The report notes that the principles and guidance in those cases were carefully considered by the commission, which also obtained its own independent legal opinion on the matter. Against all of these factors, the Constituency Review Report 2023 notes that the commission decided to adopt a more flexible approach to variances, having regard to other competing factors such as minimising the breaching of county boundaries and retaining continuity insofar as practicable. In this regard, the commission allowed for a variance ranging from -8.13% to +8.08%, a total range of just over 16%, when this would allow either an existing breach of a county boundary to be removed or would avoid a new breach of a county boundary. Overall, the commission reported that it was satisfied, in light of the constitutional requirements and its terms of reference, that the recommended constituencies met the constitutional requirements from the point of view of equality of representation.

An Coimisiún Toghcháin has signalled that, in advance of the next census, it intends to commence and guide a "national conversation" on whether Dáil Éireann should continue to grow to match the increase in population, which currently requires an additional two Deputies per annum. It has also indicated that it proposes to examine the size of constituencies and whether the upper limit of five seats best meets our democratic needs.

The commission was required to report on the new European Parliament constituencies. In its report, it recommended maintaining the existing arrangement of constituencies for the election of our 13 Members to the European Parliament. Subsequent to that, however, the European Council decision of 22 September establishing the composition of the European Parliament was adopted. Among other matters, it provided for 14 Members to be elected to represent Ireland in the next European Parliament, or an increase of one seat. Against this background, An Coimisiún Toghcháin has commenced a further review of the European Parliament constituencies and has already held a public consultation to invite submissions from all interested parties. Its report is expected shortly. In any event, it has to be with us not later than 27 November. In light of the increase in Ireland’s representation in the next European Parliament and the recommendations that can be expected to emerge, I intend to table amendments to the Bill when An Coimisiún Toghcháin reports with its recommendations in respect of European Parliament constituencies.

I have outlined most of the main details of the Bill, but I will go through the provisions in the time remaining. Section 1 provides for the definition of particular references in the Schedule to the Bill. Section 2 provides that, once the Bill is passed, there will be 174 Members in the next Dáil, that being, the Dáil elected after the dissolution of the current Dáil. Section 3 provides for those 174 Members to represent the constituencies I set out and as specified in the Schedule. Section 4 provides that each constituency shall have the number of Members specified in respect of it in the Schedule. Section 5 provides for the repeal, on the dissolution of the Dáil that next occurs following the enactment of the Bill, of the Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Act 2017. Section 6 is a standard provision that provides for the Short Title and collective citation of the Bill.

The Bill continues the long-established practice of implementing the recommendations of independent constituency reviews in full and without amendment, which has been an important factor in supporting the independence of the review process. It is a matter for the Oireachtas to revise the constituencies and I look forward to the debate on the Bill.

I thank the commission’s members for the work they have undertaken and for the efficient and expeditious way in which they have gone about it. This is the first constituency boundary review conducted by a stand-alone independent commission established by the Oireachtas. That is the way forward. One of our firm commitments on electoral reform was to establish An Coimisiún Toghcháin. It has carried out its work. I thank its chairperson, Ms Justice Marie Baker, her team, the representatives on the commission, its chief executive, Mr. Art O’Leary, his team, and the appointees to the commission, who carried out their work well. I assure the House that the commission took seriously the submissions it received from the public and interested parties, including Deputies, prospective Deputies and public representatives throughout the country. Speaking as the line Minister, the commission carried out its work well and has done a particularly good job of striking a balance between maths and geography.

I look forward to the Second Stage debate. I expect to table an amendment in respect of the European Parliament constituencies at a later point once I have received the report from An Coimisiún Toghcháin.

4:15 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Electoral Commission for the large body of work it needed to do. We support this legislation and the enactment of the constituency review report. Boundary reviews are looked at by politicians with particular interest. Moving from 160 Deputies to 174 would be a difficult sell to the public and would never sit too well on Twitter, but we have to work within the constitutional constraints.

I welcome a considerable amount of the work that has been done and that attempts have been made almost to rectify, as best as possible, the centrality of the county structure. Anyone who has operated as a councillor, Deputy or representative in any way, shape or form knows it makes life easy when there is a general crossover between the area he or she represents and the area administered by the relevant local authority. It can be difficult when people have to move from one to the other. In my county, Drogheda falls under this scenario. It is a town that has grown. As Deputy Munster would say, it is the largest town in Ireland and, as the Minister knows, there have been considerable calls to grant it city status. This is why there is still technically a breach in the county’s boundaries. As much as some areas are happy from a footballing point of view to be in County Meath, they would see Drogheda as their largest hub. It is always difficult to marry all of these considerations.

I have no difficulty with the variance being as much as -8.13% rather than the regular 5%. We need as much flexibility as possible if this is to work from an administrative and electoral point of view, but the State setting itself against six-seaters needs to be reconsidered. We all accept there has been a large growth in the population and, from a planning point of view, work needs to be done to provide the infrastructure to accommodate that growth. According to the most recent census, 5,149,139 was the count for this State. I would like to think that, at some point in the near future, we will be undertaking a boundary review that deals with 32 counties, but I will not jump the gun on that. I would like to think this State could undertake some planning in that regard to ensure we will be ready when that moment comes or when we near the point of holding a referendum.

On the question of six-seaters, we did not opt for Westminster’s first-past-the-post system because the idea here was to involve as many people as possible, not to disenfranchise voters.

The thrust needs to be from a proportional representation point of view and to ensure smaller parties and Independents can be represented. That adds to our democracy. Despite all the issues we have with democracy, I have not seen anyone put in place a better system to date. As much as we need to factor in limits or constraints owing to considerable population growth, and while this creates difficulties, it is obviously a positive, we need to factor in the best means of delivering the best kind of proportional representation, even if it means considering six-seaters. I would welcome that.

I have spoken about the fact that there has been an attempt not to breach county boundaries. I imagine that if you spoke to Deputies or citizens on the streets in Wicklow and Wexford, they would not be particularly enamoured with what has happened. I get that there will always be anomalies but I return to the point that, with a view to future-proofing, we have to consider having greater flexibility around seat numbers.

While we have some sort of decision made on where the extra European Parliament seat will go and while all welcome that, there will be a need to allow further consultation. It is absolutely necessary. I would find it difficult to make this speech without stating that the anomaly in the North regarding the democratic deficit, as it is often known, will need to be dealt with down the line. I have already said, and not for the first time, that there is one particular solution to anomalies like this: Irish unity. Again, the State has work to do on the planning scenario, whether that entails a citizens' assembly or another mechanism. At some level, the State, especially the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, has set itself against this. However, the onus is on the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to provide some sort of mechanism whereby the preparatory work and the general conversation will happen. I accept on one level that we all want to see an Executive up and running, and that has to have primacy. It is to be hoped we will see consultation on the European Parliament.

When making representations on behalf of constituents, it is much easier if dealing with one local authority and if the area you represent falls as close as possible within one single local authority area. There will always be anomalies and difficulties but a question arises in that we have had a problem concerning the centralising of power and control. I am not the first to say that this is the biggest county council in Ireland. What I describe is something we need to move away from. As much as we need to review boundaries in future local authority elections, although not the upcoming one, we need to consider the powers that exist. While we know about the huge rows between elected representatives and the executive, while I accept there will always be a need for a professional executive that can carry out operations, and while I understand there have been issues with the planning process in this State, the fact is we have hollowed out local government. That does not add to our democracy.

While the work of the Electoral Commission is very welcome, it is a genuine positive that we now have a rolling register. We had points during the year when nobody could apply, with every local authority probably operating its own bespoke solution. Applicants were just added on the day the electoral register opened again or put on the supplementary register if an election was called, with each local authority having its own rules and regulations regarding whether the supplementary register would become part of the long-term one. The rolling register makes absolute sense. The aim is to make registration as easy as possible. The website is www.checktheregister.ie. I have now heard a fair number of the advertisements. We know that people have to be told to register. It used to be said that people have to be told three times before they hear the message but I would imagine they have to be told five, six, seven or eight times before they do so. We know of the issues that exist regarding accommodation, and a large number of people may have moved. Therefore, work needs to be done by local authorities to ensure the register can be as good as possible.

A wider issue needs to be addressed regarding people being put on the register automatically. I get the issues regarding GDPR and all the rest of it but it cannot be beyond us to find some means of ensuring a register that is as good as it can be. I am not saying it can be perfect. We all know the issues that exist in that people have been taken off the register unknown to them, and there were electoral courts, etc., so we need to ensure a system that is robust and as automatic as possible. Until we have that, there will be considerable work. I accept it will be a lot easier to do this in urban settings, particularly as we get weather that is far from perfect, as we have all discovered in the past while. I hope this will not be a winter of more weather warnings.

If we are talking again about the powers of local authorities, we will need to consider how we deal with emergency circumstances. I am aware there are anomalies regarding flooding in that flooding is technically not considered an emergency. I am not entirely sure what the threshold is regarding a flooding incident such as that in my county, especially to the north, including the Cooley Peninsula and parts of Dundalk. It could have been a lot worse. Had there been one more day or night of rain, it would have been lights out for an awful lot of us. We need a better means of dealing with flooding in terms of command and control. We all accept the number working in local authorities is a factor. Maybe this will not change greatly. We need to assess the resources we need. My figures could be slightly wrong but I contend that while there are now 28 staff in Louth County Council, there were around 163 in the 1980s. We have to accept that if we cannot replicate that number and do not necessarily have the capacity we would like to deal with flooding emergencies, we need to know about the thresholds and who will be in command and control. We also need to ensure there are protocols for drawing in State agencies and services. I have already brought this up with the Department, and I will be over and back in this regard. A huge body of work needs to be done to repair roads and bridges that have been damaged, particularly in north County Louth.

I have spoken to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and others and said that, as much as we have supports, we need something very specific for farmers. I was at a meeting with Councillor Antóin Watters yesterday regarding this. We need to see movement on this. In some cases, farmers are afraid of doing works because they do not know the detail of the scheme and if there is to be one.

The main thing stated by everybody, including homeowners and business owners, is that as much as they need supports to get back up and running, bearing in mind that some have dealt with absolute devastation, they need to make sure the mitigation measures are the best that can be. We accept that when there is unprecedented rain, it can never be dealt with completely, but we need an assessment carried out and the local authority to lead on it. We also need to make sure Irish Water, the OPW, Coillte and any other body required is part of the conversation. While accepting that we cannot deal with everything all at once, we need to deal with as much as possible.

I will make just one more point regarding this matter. I realise I have gone slightly off topic. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan's party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, regarding a drainage area plan. In respect of north Louth, he said Uisce Éireann, which has responsibility for this matter, came back to him and stated the plan is for Dundalk. There is a need for a piece of work to be done on this. It should have regard to where I live, namely, Bay Estate, the estates around and behind mine, such as Avenue Road, Greenwood Drive, Cluan Enda, Avondale and many other places that may not have experienced flooding at the level we experienced. Had there been one more night of rain, thousands of houses would have been flooded.

We seem to have a particular issue. Uisce Éireann needs to look at this drainage plan. We cannot deal with wastewater. It is a combined system dealing with sewage and also the likes of stormwaters. The line is full and therefore the estates have been flooding. As I say, with one more, the flooding would have gone through far more houses than it did. That particular issue needs to be dealt with.

Just because it has happened today, I have a particular issue for Uisce Éireann. We seem to have an issue with monitoring in the Dunbin reservoir. It looks like the pump kicked out. A generator had been put in place-----

4:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are discussing the Electoral (Amendment) Bill.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I understand that. It is just that it is a particular issue that I need an answer for. That is me done on that. In long term we have a monitoring issue. The people in the likes of Sheelagh, who are at the end of the line, are out of water at this point in time.

We support the Bill. A greater piece of work needs to be done to ensure proportional representation. I think I have spoken for long enough and I may have gone off topic slightly.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The acknowledgement that the Deputy went off topic is not the same as permission to go off topic.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I also thank the commission for this report and I welcome to opportunity to discuss the Bill. Representative politics as we have in this country should enable representation with a diversity of views inherent in a properly functioning democracy.

I welcome the report and the legislation. I acknowledge the commission's independence and the fact that it had the difficult task of working within the parameters set out through the terms of reference. While we will support the Bill, I want to address elements of the parameters within which the commission had to operate. The terms of reference had consequences on its conclusions and by extension on supporters and political representatives alike.

Let me first address the feature of ratios and seats per constituency. One of the daunting tasks of the commission is to ensure that the balance of Deputies to constituents enables an adequate representation given the diversity of views and needs of the constituents concerned. In taking this into account, it must also take due care in so far as possible and feasible to respect existing county, local authority and community boundaries, while also getting the urban and rural balance right. This is no easy task and that is where the terms of reference become an important feature of how the commission can do its work.

In our submission to the Dáil constituency review, Sinn Féin addressed the issue of three-seat constituencies. In particular we pointed out that we should seek to minimise the number of three-seaters. This was for a very good reason that I have mentioned previously - diversity of representation. Constituencies with a larger number of seats are more representative because they afford a greater representation of the political views of constituents. In the 2017 review of local government boundaries, Sinn Féin supported amendments to provide the commission with the option of creating six-seat constituencies. The purpose of this was to avoid the need for three-seat constituencies and ultimately allow them to be phased out. This was to retain and allow for the diversity of representation I mentioned while at the same time reflecting the demographic changes the State is witnessing.

The merit in this is for the benefit of constituents and the ability to provide adequate representation for them. Of course, on a party-political level, there are different views on this, as traditionally larger parties often prefer constituencies to have a smaller number of seats, while independents and smaller parties usually prefer a larger number. The only influence that political parties can have upon this is through the terms of reference which define and confine the options open to the commission when considering its work. Unfortunately, the Government's preference in this regard became obvious through its failure to support the amendments to allow for the creation of six-seat constituencies in the terms of reference. This was reflected through the proliferation of three-seat constituencies such as mine in County Tipperary, which will now have two three-seat constituencies.

It also reduces the potential representation for the different views of constituents, which by extension presents possible deterioration in the equality of representation. Therefore, it would be appropriate for the commission to indicate to the Government any concerns it may have over the restrictiveness of the terms of reference. In future the Government should not tie the hands of the commission to the extent that it cannot consider all feasible and sensible options to ensure that representation works for constituents and not serve the interests of large parties and incumbents.

Sinn Féin in government would consider reintroducing town councils because this would be a perfect example of proper representation. My county lost seven town councils. My local electoral area, LEA, used to have 23 public representatives and now has only seven. How can the Government claim that it can work as well for the public or give the same service? Changes to constituency boundaries are always a matter of some contention and Tipperary has been subject to this previously and again now. I understand the necessity for this but it should only be a last measure where all feasible alternatives have been exhausted.

We have a margin of variance in representation of plus or minus 5%, which is a prudent approach in seeking equality of representation overall. Where this has the likelihood of being exceeded in either direction, boundaries may be breached. This breaching of boundaries is not ideal and I believe all Members would agree that it interrupts the continuity of representation for constituents. While the changes to boundaries that have been announced have been factored to address over-representation, there should be scope in the variances of representation to avoid this where possible. This is a feasible option as given the rapid population growth since the last census, any over-representation would likely be resolved before the next review given that all constituencies are seeing continued population growth. Where a breach of county boundaries is necessary for the delivery of equality of representation, this should be done in a way that ensures that the portion of a county that finds itself in a constituency with a neighbouring county is significant enough in population that the electorate of that area feel that their vote can deliver effective representation for their area in the Dáil.

I again thank the commission for its valuable work and I commend it on the independent approach it takes.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2023. It is standard procedure to introduce a Bill like this to implement the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. We have seen similar legislation in the past on foot of the recommendations of constituency commissions. What marks this out is that it is the first report from the newly established An Coimisiún Toghcháin.

It goes without saying that we accept the recommendations of this report, as is the practice, but we believe there are flaws in the process. I was very struck by really a strong analysis of the report's findings and indeed of the process by Professor Michael Gallagher in The Irish Timeson 6 September, in which he rightly suggested that there are serious questions about the appropriateness of a procedure whereby we have a redraw of constituency boundaries approximately every five years and whereby county boundaries are, it seems, almost routinely breached, therefore resulting as he says in a sort of profoundly anti-democratic system where individual voters and communities of voters are moved between constituencies depending on boundary redraws. I will return to Professor Gallagher's analysis during my speech because he makes some really excellent points about how we manage this process. In particular he makes international comparisons which are very useful when we are looking at this report. He points out:

...the number of seats per constituency (known by the term ‘district magnitude’) is exceptionally small for a proportional representation (PR) system. With 174 seats and 43 constituencies in the next Dáil, average district magnitude is barely above four, much lower than that of most European countries that employ PR. In Spain, for example, it’s seven, while in Finland it’s more than 15.

He argues in keeping with this that three-seat constituencies are simply too small to ensure proportionality. While smaller parties are disadvantaged by this - I know the Minister of State will appreciate that, as do I - the real concern is not about whether the concept of three-seat constituencies is fair to any particular party. The primary concern should be about whether it is fair to voters and whether it ensures the composition of the Dáil reflects the way people voted. I do not mean to criticise the commission on this. Clearly the commission had no option but to abide by the legislation that specified it was confined to proposing constituencies in the three- to five-seat range.

I hope that, as Professor Gallagher argues, this will be the last time we hear about three-seaters. We should move away from three-seaters. I see the Minister of State nodding. I know the Green Party had a view on this as did we. In the Labour Party's submission to the commission, we made clear our preference for larger numbers of seats per constituency. A mix of constituencies in the range of four to six, or four to seven, would guarantee a better district magnitude.

There is the political science from an objective political scientist of some international renown.

Professor Gallagher has also pointed out, as regards flaws in the process, that it is very unusual, comparatively, for the size of parliament to fluctuate constantly. The norm across the world is for the size of parliament to remain fixed over time, yet in Ireland we have become used to having an increase or a decrease in the number of parliamentarians. There is a trope we hear constantly that Ireland has too many TDs per capitabut, again, Professor Gallagher contests that and suggests that it depends on where one looks. If we take the ratio of population to MPs in India as the norm, the Dáil should consist of only two TDs. If, however, we were to use Malta as the touchstone, the Dáil would have more than 800 TDs. It depends, therefore, on where one looks when making that argument. Professor Gallagher argues that it is facile to take such a ratio as one's guide. What he argues, ultimately, is that the size of the Dáil should be fixed. We should have a fixed number of TDs and, crucially, we should have stable constituency boundaries in order that, while the number of TDs per county, for example, would change according to population size, the boundaries would remain the same. There is real merit in that from the point of view of better functioning of democracy. An end to three-seaters, stable constituency boundaries and a fixed-member parliament would be better for democracy, Professor Gallagher argues, and would be perfectly possible within the terms of the Constitution.

I offer those critiques, drawing on Professor Gallagher's criticism, to point to the constrained statutory criteria that the commission was given by the Government and, we would argue, a somewhat conservative interpretation of those terms of reference. That means we believe there were flaws in the system. By relying on a narrow reading of the statutory terms of reference, the commission, in our view, failed to be appropriately guided by two key criteria set out in the Constitution, specifically the maximum limit of one TD per 30,000 persons and the principle of proportional representation, which, in our view and in the view of Professor Gallagher and other political scientists, requires that move to constituencies with higher seat numbers and a move away from three-seaters.

In our submission to the commission, the Labour Party outlined in extensive detail our views on these provisions, but our arguments were not taken on board to the extent that we would have liked, clearly. The commission, as I have said, was restricted in its freedom of manoeuvre most critically by the size of constituencies it was allowed to propose. We sought to amend that, and the Government opposed that. The ability to provide for six-seater constituencies would, in our view, have made the commission's task much easier, would have made the report and the findings much more robust and would have enabled better future-proofing. Again, that is a critique we have of the process because we do not think - again, there was a fairly wide interpretation - that the findings are sufficiently future-proofed. Given the growing population and demographic change, it would have been infinitely preferable for the commission to have been asked to look at a much longer-term fix for the issue it was given.

For the first time in this process, the Minister and the Government gave the commission a range of possible future seats for the next Dáil rather than clearly defining a set number. There may have been some political expediency to that. It ensured that it was not the Government itself that recommended the creation of a number of new TDs, but it did leave the commission with an unenviable task. It could have interpreted this, though, as meaning that the Oireachtas was comfortable with a "future-proofing" approach, and it could have taken more discretion on this but it seemed to have decided that the terms of reference governed or overrode its discretion as to seat numbers. It picked a number that best enabled it to meet the other terms of reference. It retained the established precedent to leave the Ceann Comhairle with a casting vote.

The commission's work was clearly necessary because all bar one of the current constituencies breached the constitutional maximum of 30,000 people per TD due to population growth. Between 2016 and 2022, the overall population grew by 7.6%. We all knew, therefore that an additional number of seats - at least 12 - would be required to bring the national ratio of population below 30,000. As we said in our submission, 20 new seats would have been appropriate to avoid the radical reshaping of constituency boundaries that has resulted in some cases, to ensure that future-proofing could be maintained and to ensure that constituencies would be adaptable to continued population growth. Instead, as we know, the commission proposed an increase of 14, to 174 seats, structured across 43 constituencies, 16 of which breach the constitutional limit of 30,000 people. While the most recent rate of growth in population may not be maintained over the next five years, even a lower increase, say of 5%, in the current population would require a 180-seat Dáil for a population per TD of just under the constitutional limit. Twenty additional seats would therefore have provided greater certainty into the future and would have avoided many individual constituencies being over the constitutional limit.

The commission has also recommended constituency sizes with much larger variances than had been the case in previous years, ranging from 8.08% to -8.13%. In Clare we will see 31,985 people per TD versus 27,186 in Kildare South. There will be quite a wide variance. The usual rule in the past had been 5% variance. There had been a number of court cases litigating the issue. The commission spoke about a somewhat flexible approach; therefore, it noted it would have to recommend in a limited number of cases a variance of greater than 5%. It went as far, it acknowledges, as 8.13% when this resulted in the restoration of a currently breached county boundary or the avoidance of recommending a new breach. Clearly, therefore, it was very cognisant in its report of the criteria it had been given. It was struggling, it seems, to maintain county boundaries as far as possible. We are still seeing some unfortunate consequences of that. We think there was not enough regard to future-proofing because the necessary review of boundaries after the next census, it seems, will have to go through this entire exercise again, presumably with some equally unfortunate consequences. What is the point of continuity - the commission refers to the desire to maintain continuity - if you know you will have to change continuity again in five years' time? It should be noted that in the submissions to the commission, the undesirability of breaching county boundaries was the issue most often raised. People really care about this. It is a huge issue to breach county boundaries, to move people in and out of constituencies which they may have become very accustomed to voting in.

In particular, the deployment of three-seaters has meant, as Professor Gallagher writes, that the outcome of votes in a particular constituency will simply not be reflective of the way people have voted in that constituency. The whole point of the PR-STV system is to ensure as accurate as possible a reflection of the way people vote in the representatives who are elected, so this is a really serious issue. Not allowing six-seat constituencies tied the hands of the commission to act. It was clear even before the publication of the report that by not allowing six-seat constituencies we would see breaches of county boundaries, either in this redraw or in the next, which we now know will be inevitable due to the failure to future-proof. I can list for the Minister of State the currently existing five-seaters, which we all knew will require some change if population growth is to be adequately accounted for with a large enough Dáil: Dublin Fingal, Donegal, Tipperary, Wicklow, Wexford and so on. The need to allow six-seaters to be included was extensively raised, as the Minister of State knows, in previous debates. The failure of the Green Party to secure an amendment dictated, in effect, the outcome of the commission report. Again, I suppose that is the realpolitikof it. Six-seat constituencies have existed before, but we know it is not in the interest of the larger parties, particularly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to reintroduce them. I stress, however, that this is not about the interest of parties. Again, the analysis by Professor Gallagher makes that clear. This is about ensuring the most reflective representation possible and the best democratic representation possible.

We therefore believe the commission should have been more cognisant of the nature and purpose of our electoral system, PR-STV, in multi-seat constituencies. It is unusual in comparative terms to have this system, but we are all, I think, very mindful of just how democratic it is because we know such a system is designed to ensure that, as far as practicable, no vote cast is wasted, even vote No. 18 in a constituency with 18 candidates. It continues to work in the course of the electoral count until a most effective form of representation is achieved. This ensures a proportionate overall result in terms of a parliamentary configuration that matches the votes cast. I think all of us adhere to that principle and see it as infinitely preferable to the first-past-the-post model we see in our neighbouring jurisdiction across the water.

The commission itself, it is clear, believed that the failure to include a requirement to future-proof limited its options, and that absence was used by the commission, maybe, as the reason to provide for the more conservative increase in the number of TDs.

The commission adopted a generally indifferent approach to constituency magnitude. It said there was no guidance in the terms of reference as to whether a review should favour any particular magnitude within the terms set of three-, four- or five-seat constituencies. The commission acknowledged that in the submissions it received, there was a clear preference for more five-seat constituencies and a general view that there should be a reduction in the number of three-seat constituencies. It stated: "These [submissions] were mostly based on the view that constituencies with larger seat numbers provide for more proportional results, and allow for more choice for the electorate." It is unfortunate the commission did not engage on this argument having made that statement, which is self-evidently true.

It is somewhat bizarre that having acknowledged the bulk of the submissions and the basis for them, the commission then went on to increase the number of three-seaters by four to 13 in total. It said it took the general view that there should be a reasonably even distribution between three-, four- and five-seat constituencies. That flies in the face of the evidence-based submissions, however. The commission does not give any reason for taking this approach. The commission states that it "endeavoured to tailor the constituency size and number of seats to the population and circumstances of each constituency". It noted in passing that, while the majority of submissions proposed more five-seat constituencies, it was cognisant that "given the anticipated continued rise in population, it may not be possible to retain the current 5 seat county constituencies in future reviews". Again, the commission is acknowledging lack of future-proofing that is built into this.

The reality is that more three-seaters produce a skewed result under the proportional representation single transferable vote, PRSTV, system that does not represent fully the views of the votes cast by the electorate. That is self-evidently true. The 2017 proposals represented a positive shift in thinking when the number of three-seat constituencies decreased from 13 to nine, and the number of five-seater constituencies increased from 11 to 13. That work has been has been partially undone. I believe I am correct in those figures. That is regrettable The commission should be guided by the fundamental need to ensure as close an approximation as possible between votes cast and the seats won, so that PR is achieved in practice as well as in theory.

Moving now to the recommendations, it is noteworthy that for the first time some of the decisions of the commission were leaked in advance and were circulating in political circles. It may be well-known where the leak came from, but it is not good practice. It certainly has been a difficult period for those individual representatives most affected by redrawn boundaries but, more importantly, for their voters and for the communities represented by them.

The UK's Electoral Commission publishes draft constituency boundaries for further public consultation. That practice would be welcome here because it would eliminate the surprise element and would allow people in different communities affected by constituency redrawings to absorb and respond to what was being proposed. The only other alternative is for local communities having to wait for another five years before they can mobilise a campaign to get boundary changes reversed because there have been some bizarre decisions.

The hybrid Wicklow-Wexford constituency has been the subject of much public commentary. This would have been avoided if two six-seaters could have been created instead. With Tipperary split into two three-seaters, a portion of north Kilkenny was redrawn across provincial lines. Again, six-seaters would have addressed this change.

In Cork we saw the most unlikely and bizarre redrawing. The town of Mallow, long a feature of Cork East constituency, has been transferred to the Cork North-Central constituency without its hinterland. It was joined there along with Ballincollig, an urban area south of the Lee with no real connection to north Cork. No submission to the commission called for this hodgepodge of a change, yet that is what those voters must now live with for the next general election. There was no justification given by the commission for the radical changes it made. An opportunity for the public to see draft boundaries would avoid mistakes like this happening.

We should say that in my Dublin Bay South constituency, although there was relatively minimal change, nonetheless, the electoral division of Kimmage C, which I have been proud to represent and I have worked really hard in along with my Labour Party colleagues, has now gone into Dublin South-Central. That is a community that has moved over successive boundary redraws between Dublin South-Central and what was Dublin South-East constituencies. That is not really particularly democratic. I regularly find when I am canvassing doors in the Kimmage C ward that people ask me if they are going back again. They have been moved back and forth. I do not believe it is respectful to particular communities that have very distinctive views and concerns to be constantly on the boundary and on the fence between different Dáil constituencies. I do not believe that that is helpful or appropriate.

The Labour Party will certainly be making a submission to the commission when it is seeking views on its proposed research programme. We welcome the move by the commission to write to Deputies asking for views. That is very sensible and it is sensible to hear the commission say that it will be looking now at the number of Deputies appropriate in the context of a rising population and the size of constituencies. We will, again, be making those arguments we have made previously to phase out three-seaters and to create six-seat constituencies to ensure fixed boundaries and constituencies as far as possible.

Any move to limit the size of the Dáil and the ratio of Deputies to population would have to be aligned with a strengthening of local government. The Minister of State will have noted that a recent report adopted by the Council of Europe shows Irish local government is ranked fourth weakest among 46 European states. This is a very serious concern that at local government level we are seeing the powers and responsibilities of elected councillors being eroded.

There are other measures which need to be looked at in the context of the commission's research programme. The use of posters in election campaigns, which we support, is a critical part of a democracy enabling new candidates to establish themselves and to become known. I note that the question of by-elections is also being discussed.

I also want to use this opportunity to briefly note that our dear friend and colleague, Senator David Norris, has announced today that he will be retiring from politics in January, thereby triggering a by-election in the Seanad. I pay tribute to David. I had the pleasure and honour of working with him in the Seanad for many years. He has been a great friend and dear colleague. I know that we will all miss him. I just want to refer to that.

People would say that I would be against replacing by-elections, particularly as I was elected in one. We need to see more research on the issue. We need to look at lowering the voter age to 16, something we in the Labour Party support. We need to look at the widening of the franchise to citizens living abroad and other matters.

The Constitutional Convention addressed a number of these issues in 2013 and we have had numerous reports on Seanad electoral reform. All of these are matters which should be reviewed appropriately in the commission's research programme.

We accept the commission's findings, but it is worth noting the flaws in the process and, in particular, the move away from larger constituencies, which is regrettable.

4:55 pm

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill and the opportunity to speak on it. It is important that there is debate. This is the first time that we are debating boundary redrawings under the new Electoral Commission. I called for this body to be set up some time ago. It is of great importance that we have an independent body set up to oversee all elections.

We must take great pride in the electoral and democratic process we have had for the past number of years and since the foundation of the State. We have probably one of the oldest democracies in Europe at this stage. The Electoral Commission was set up to look at and report on the census and decide on the constituencies. There are a number of issues upon which we should reflect. It is very difficult to get the balance right because one knows when the census will be in the electoral cycle but it is important that as soon as is possible or is practical after the census, that the commission reviews the Dáil and European Parliament constituencies, and other local electoral areas, and so forth, and makes decisions early in the cycle because it can be destabilising.

A number of issues have been constantly brought to the fore over the years. We have had many debates on boundary changes and on the continuity within each community, whether these are urban or rural, where there is a continuity and a certain area which identifies around a particular landmark, large town or centre. It is important that it is also fed into the Electoral Commission. It had a hugely challenging job to look at increasing the Dáil representation and in trying to ensure that it has given a fair and adequate response in each constituency, because constituencies have developed. The last major structural changes to the constituencies were probably way back in the 1980s, when my constituency come into being for the 1981 election. My constituency has been in existence for over 41 years and will remain in place into the next election.

Looking at constituencies and trying to make sure there is continuity, it is vitally important that as much information as is possible is at the disposal of the Electoral Commission. Many of the submissions that have been made have talked about county boundaries. Indeed, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and I have discussed this on many occasions-----

5:05 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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We want our bit of Ballydesmond and Rathmore back.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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The Blackwater River decides that.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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No, no.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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It has been there long before any of us. Deputy Healy-Rae has left the House but it is a hotly contested part of the country on either side of the Blackwater and on either side of the Cork-Kerry region. What side people are on is contested not just on Munster final day but throughout the year. The point being made is that it is important that county boundaries are not divided up and pieces of different constituencies put in. I remember going back a number of years ago where part of west Limerick was put into north Kerry. There may have been a precedent way back 50 or 60 years ago for that particular change but to not divide county boundaries is important, insofar as is possible.

The Electoral Commission came before the Joint Committee on Disability Matters to discuss how we would ensure people with disabilities were heard. Indeed, Senator Conway had a delegation in the Houses over the past couple of days discussing the same thing. The Houses of the Oireachtas have to be representative of all the citizens. In different censuses, between 17% and 20% of the people have disabilities and it is important we get those voices heard as well. We have seen the many challenges people with disabilities have and it is important they are at the table when decisions are being made. Any decisions about them should not be made without them and it must be ensured their voices are included. As with every other group within society, whether an urban or a rural group, they are entitled to their opinion. Many people criticise rural communities for standing up for themselves against depopulation or the very difficult challenges that are facing rural communities. There is no better place to live than in rural communities. I live in a village called Kiskeam which I think is the centre of the universe but many people would think it is only a dot on the map. The point I am making is that if you identify with a place, whether urban or rural, it is hugely important that this is reflected in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I look at the Houses and the various groups that are represented here. Going back when I was elected first, those groups were probably the same but they were under the umbrellas of political parties and the debates were being held within political parties about different issues. Now the debates are being held on the floor of the Chamber which is to be welcomed as well because it is important there is diversity that reflects what we are and what we need as a society to ensure we are more inclusive. The challenges facing us as we go forward can only be resolved through the democratic Chamber we have. We are very proud of what it has been done in the past to ensure we have democracy into the future. We have seen the many challenges globally where democracy has failed. It is important we protect it. We have to support this legislation and ensure that the body that is set up, namely, the Electoral Commission, is resourced and informed properly as we go forward in any decisions it makes, whether on Dáil constituencies, presidential elections, European or local elections because it is now given the authority by this House to ensure we have a fair and democratic process into the future.

In the 20 seconds I have left, I am going to digress slightly. I raised one issue privately with the Minister of State regarding heritage and the courthouse in Kanturk and I would appreciate if he would look into it because it is a crucial matter for me at this time.

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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I will be making a short contribution to this debate and will not be using the full time or anything close to it. This is because usually on Second Stage I outline the amendments I intend bringing forward and the rationale for them. Given that we accept the independence and impartiality of the commission, we will not be bringing forward amendments to its suggestions regarding the boundary reviews and constituencies. I will make a number of brief points related to the legislation and the recommendations the commission has made.

First, it is abundantly clear that there is not popular support for increasing the number of Deputies. This is something of which we are aware. Most people would like to see the resources going to other areas, be it employing more gardaí, nurses, doctors, teachers and speech and language therapists. If more resources were to go into democratic structures, there is a very strong case in Ireland for putting that into local democracy. We are one of the weakest countries in Europe and the OECD for local democracy and this is where extra resources should be put in. Failing to do so means we continue to have some of weakest public services in a number of areas. Other countries with stronger local democracy deliver stronger public services through their local democratic structures.

A second point I make was referenced by a previous Deputy. It has very strong merit. I thank the Library and Research Service for its excellent Bills digest where this is also discussed. There is very strong merit in the proposal of permanent constituencies with fixed boundaries. This is where the boundaries do not change but the number of seats allocated is revised due to changes in population. This should be looked at and there is merit in this approach. Some of the constructive reasons why this should be looked at is because it potentially provides stability, certainty and a level of continuity. It means county boundaries can be respected. It also potentially allows for better alignment. If constituencies are not constantly shifting, statutory structures and how they are aligned at a more local level can be aligned with Dáil constituencies. I refer to boundaries for the HSE, An Garda Síochána, drugs task forces, local employment services and all these different things. As a public representative, one can see over time how constituency boundaries shift. The statutory agencies sometimes shift to coincide with those and then the constituency boundaries end of shifting again and it can be very disruptive. As there is no standard for them to work within, it makes it harder then to have a consistent set of local boundaries that fit political structures and other public services which can mean you do not get the kind of liaison between different public services you might otherwise want. Therefore, there is a case for that. It is worth noting that several other EU countries with multi-seat constituencies have fixed boundaries and constituencies. Countries such as Spain, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Portugal use those.

The chopping and changing can be very alienating for communities. One example is an area that will now be in the constituency I represent, Balgriffin. Approximately 15 years ago, this was in a constituency called Dublin North. It was then shifted into a different constituency altogether called Dublin North-East, which no longer exists. Then it was shifted back into Dublin North called Dublin Fingal, and now has been shifted back into Dublin Bay North. Balgriffin is a developing community with very important needs. It potentially affects the representation of the community if it is constantly getting shifted back and forth. People living there are probably wondering what will happen in the next boundary review and whether they will simply be shifted off somewhere again. Even for public representatives who will be working on the issues that affect that community, this is potentially disrupted each time that community gets shifted and the new set of public representatives obviously have to become familiar with the issues and so forth and take up the work on it. We have seen previously how Swords, which is close enough to my constituency but not in it, was split in half, put into Dublin West and put back into Dublin Fingal.

There is a strong case for this at least to be investigated and properly examined by the Electoral Commission. It would require an amendment in legislation to allow for larger constituencies. It was disappointing to see submissions made to the commission arguing for six-seat constituencies from parties that voted down amendments that would have allowed for this and that supported the Bill restricting that cap of five-seaters. It was strange to vote down the legislation that would allow for six-seaters and then subsequently to ask for six-seaters in submissions having passed legislation that made that impossible. That needs to be revisited. The case has been made that looking at places like Wicklow and Wexford, six-seat constituencies would have meant they would not have been broken up in the way they have been.

The Electoral Commission is doing important work in its areas of research. The scrapping of by-elections would be a highly regressive move. We live in an electoral system where often, but not always, certain significant parts of the electorate vote for the candidate and not the party. For them, if a by-election arises, not being able to have a say again would be unfair. They do not necessarily vote in a party candidate, though some voters do. It would give particular power to party insiders and party hacks who decide those list systems and who goes forward on them. We see that, generally, where there are alternative lists, there is not scrutiny of them because the assumption is they will not be utilised. By-elections can also give important feedback to the political system for both Government and Opposition. When that feedback is listened to and heard, it can be useful. Taking that away from voters would be regressive. Another area the commission is looking at in research is about including people more in the democratic process, including disabled people, young people and migrants. These are important areas.

The final point I wish to make is about the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and its oversight of the electoral process. Where are the legislative measures to beef up its powers? These have been promised by successive governments since 2014 but have never been delivered. Why have they not been delivered, when we see all these other reforms going on with regard to the electoral process? SIPO itself has been calling for increased powers of investigation and enforcement for 20 years. Given that all of us take the democratic process so seriously and given these resources are going into the process and the Electoral Commission that is set up, why is this deficit of SIPO powers still outstanding and when will we see progress on that?

5:15 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I thank the Electoral Commission for its work on the boundaries. There are significant problems with the outcome but one cannot really blame the commission for it. It just implements the process that has been designed elsewhere, particularly here. Its hands have been tied by the decision to restrict constituencies to between three and five seats. The consequence is the current proposal we have, which will pass and come into effect for the next general election.

One good aspect of electoral politics in Ireland is the use of proportional representation. It is a very democratic way. It is not like some countries where minimum votes, such as a 3% or 5% threshold, have to be obtained in order to get into the Dáil. It means smaller parties and different viewpoints have a much better chance of being represented in the Dáil. Proportional representation-single transferable vote allows, generally speaking, for a reasonably close mapping of the vote of people and support for different parties onto the make-up of our Dáil. The higher the number of constituencies with few seats, the farther away from that one will go.

It is regrettable there has been an increase of four in the number of three-seat constituencies, which are, by definition, the least proportional. It is in the interest of the big parties in this State, historically, which are now the second and third parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to oppose that, because historically it has kind of meant they will get one each, then maybe someone else will get the third, or Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael might get it. The losers there are people who are trying to choose alternatives, such as smaller parties seeking a chance to be elected and to have a voice in the Dáil in national politics, which then gives the opportunity to go further and for more people to say that is the kind of politics they want to see. The increase in the number of three-seat constituencies is problematic, but I understand the commission was working within a certain framework where it had to deal with the political geography and only had available the tools of three, four or five-seat constituencies. That is a thing the Dáil needs to deal with. We need to say there can and should be six or even seven-seat constituencies, which will result in more proportional outcomes nationally and locally.

This process is one of the few areas where an important decision about public life is made and that is basically it. It comes here, but nobody is going to amend it, in reality. It is made by the Electoral Commission. It goes through the figures, publishes it, and that is effectively it, whereas in many other areas of life, such as planning decisions or council decisions, preliminary decisions are made, put out to the public, people are able to make submissions on them, and then any mistakes can be rectified. The process of BusConnects is an example. It published the maps. There was uproar in many areas. There is a process where BusConnects has taken on some of those criticisms. There has been campaigning and so on and some element of a two-way process. It is far from perfect but there is real public participation, whereas in this process, the public gets one go to have a submission. People can make a submission on a national level or about a particular constituency. The commission then makes the decision and that is it. It creates space for mistakes to be made which, if the commission had the opportunity to hear feedback, may be rectified, but there is no opportunity here to rectify those mistakes.

These people are working with a bird's-eye view. They look at the overall numbers and at the electoral districts, and at moving people around, but they cannot possibly have an intimate knowledge of all the different communities throughout the State and how they integrate with each other. I think mistakes are made in breaking up natural communities where natural communities do not naturally fit into electoral districts. That is pretty important. Almost nobody in this State knows which electoral district they live in. It is not something people think about. They might know which council ward they are in but they probably do not even know that. They probably know which Dáil constituency they are in, unless they are in an area where they switch from one to the other. People know they live in Swords, Blanchardstown, Tipperary, Athlone, Tallaght or Rathfarnham. People live in communities that are not identical to the electoral districts. When the Electoral Commission is operating without that real two-way process with communities on the ground and effectively comes up with a decision which to all intents and purposes is a final decision, that is a problem. It can result in communities effectively being broken up.

I will give an example of what I think was a bad decision that was made, which was to break up Tallaght. Some 11,000 people live in the Fettercairn electoral district, a majority of whom live in Tallaght, with a minority living in Citywest. They are distinct areas, although they are beside each other. People would identify as living in Citywest or in Tallaght. Some 7,000 or 8,000 people who live in Tallaght are being taken out of the constituency of Dublin South-West, which contains all the rest of Tallaght, and being put into a different constituency, Dublin Mid-West. That is a problem because these people go to school, go to doctors, use public services and use public transport in Tallaght. They identify with Tallaght, more than they identify with Fettercairn, Brookfield or Ardmore. People identify as living in Tallaght. That is not just some abstract identification. They have real material interests and connections to this geographical place called Tallaght. Now they are being shifted out of the Dublin South-West constituency, which still has close to four fifths of Tallaght left, and into a different constituency, Dublin Mid-West. People Before Profit has a Deputy in Dublin Mid-West, and I have every confidence we will campaign and maintain that seat in Dublin Mid-West and that Deputy Gino Kenny will represent those people in Fettercairn well.

There are dangers that the communities could effectively get stranded and left behind. The main focus of people representing people in Dublin Mid-West could be Clondalkin, Lucan and Palmerstown while this part of Tallaght gets forgotten. It will not be represented by the Deputies who are representing most of Tallaght while it will not be on the radar of the Deputies representing the constituency it is in, who will not live in Tallaght and will not be connected to the issues affecting people in Tallaght. This is quite problematic.

There will also be a major issue because for many people it will be on the day they go to vote that they will realise they have been moved to a different constituency and they will not recognise the candidates. They will have seen all of the election posters for Dublin South-West because they spend their time in Tallaght. They will have seen other posters but it will not register that they are a different set of people. They may get various leaflets but people do not really engage with them. It will literally be when they go to vote that all of a sudden they will realise they are in a different constituency. I have spoken to many people who do not know they have been moved to Dublin Mid-West for the next general election.

This is a problem that has happened previously. The previous speaker referred to River Valley in Swords, which is a big housing estate that was taken out of Dublin North and put into Dublin West with the exactly the same dynamic as is happening with Tallaght. The majority of Swords was still in Dublin North but a bit of Swords was all of a sudden in Dublin West. This was reversed. It was clearly a mistake and should not have been done. This mistake is being repeated with the exact same thing being done to Tallaght. A similar amount of Tallaght is being taken out and given to a neighbouring constituency.

I do not question that this will be reversed in future. The demographics will shift and it will be recognised that it is a community and it makes sense to have it in one place. It highlights a problem with the process. If the public had opportunities to make submissions on this, it would have been flooded with people saying Tallaght is one area and it should stay together. Saner heads would have prevailed with the benefit of this local knowledge. However, the process does not have the benefit of this at present.

Some of the research projects will be very useful. The question of reducing the voting age is very important. It is a slam dunk case that we should reduce the voting age to 16. People can go to work and pay taxes at 16. Why should people not be able to vote? There is no good argument against it. The main argument against it that people have is that they do not trust what these young people will decide. This is democracy. It should apply to 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds as much as it applies to those who are over 18.

There is also the issue of posters. It is definitely worth doing research on this. As well as considering the option of restricting the number of posters, I encourage discussion on restrictions on the material of posters. This may deal with some of the issues. We are talking about corriboard and plastic posters. This is the dominant form of election posters erected throughout the State. I have seen the argument made that having no restrictions on posters is of benefit to bigger richer parties because they can spend loads of money on posters. Election posters are expensive, do not get me wrong, but what are really expensive are advertisements at bus stops and on buses. If we restrict one of the cheaper forms of advertising, the danger is we will end up benefiting those who have big pockets and who can pay for much more expensive forms of advertising.

There are potential models. In many European countries there are big boards in the centres of various residential areas, with space allocated where people can put up posters. It assists the democratic process for people to see posters up and see there is an election happening and for people to have the opportunity to have the election messages, ideas and slogans of people on posters. It is one of the cheaper forms of election promotional material.

I encourage the consideration of further restrictions on election spending. It is an issue. One of the problems is that the restrictions on election spending only kick in when the election itself is called. There is nothing to stop someone spending tens of-----

5:25 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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We changed that.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Has it changed?

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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It is now 60 days.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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There is still a period up to that when there are no restrictions. We could have annual restrictions on advertising by any potential candidate to avoid a lot of money being spent. An election does not just happen. Certainly in a three-week period or even 60 days-----

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I think it is 60 days.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I will check it out. I encourage this because lowering the limits, and certainly not raising them in line with inflation, would generally have a good outcome.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for being present. While we deal with important and significant legislation in the House every week, the Bill is prominent legislation that provides for the very nature of our work in these Houses and for the democracy to which most of us are committed. I pay particular tribute to the Electoral Commission for its work in preparing its constituency review report, which has informed not only the creation of the Bill but plenty of political discussion since the end of August when it was published. I also thank the team in the Department for their work in preparing the Bill.

Our population is growing at a significant rate and, thus far, not showing very much sign of slowing down. We must have a democratic parliament that reflects these changes and the needs of people that are linked to these changes. The addition of 14 new Deputies after the next general election will provide for better public representation in Dáil Éireann. It is an important and necessary step in ensuring the public's voice is heard here and throughout the country. We are all aware of the clear constitutional requirements that underpin these changes and require us to act on the data that emerge from the census in a timely manner. As a result, we will see three new constituencies created and changes to a significant number of constituency boundaries, including those of my constituency Dublin Fingal.

Dublin Fingal will change for the second time in my almost 13 years in the House. The constituency will be split in two to create Dublin Fingal East and Dublin Fingal West. I want to highlight an issue that could be easily corrected in the process of these debates. It is something with regard to the naming of constituencies. The naming of Dublin Fingal West does not best represent the communities it includes. I am specifically thinking of the inclusion together of areas such as Balbriggan and Santry. They are in the south and north-east of the constituency. The constituency should be called something more neutral and I will make the suggestion of "Fingal north-central" or "Fingal central". I contend this would be more in keeping with the sweeping nature of the area. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, will have a word with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, on this. It would more accurately incorporate the geographic reality of the communities taken in by the constituency. This change, while seemingly small, would allow for future changes to take place. As Deputy Murphy mentioned, should future growth exclude parts of Dublin City Council's jurisdiction in the constituency of Dublin West, this would allow for a suitable name to be available for a new Dáil constituency of "Fingal west", which would be an easy transition for the people in Dublin West.

By suggesting the name "Fingal central" or "Fingal north-central" I have dropped the reference to Dublin. I have done so on the basis that I do not think it is necessary. Fingal is an administrative county that has existed since 1994. I do not believe anybody is under the illusion that Fingal is anywhere other than north County Dublin. There are places on the south side of Dublin where I am sure we could include "South Dublin" or "Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown" along with the constituency name if we were following a trend.

We are not. It is unique and I think we should stop it. I intend to introduce an amendment to this end. I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State, the Minister and other colleagues, including in the context of feedback from the Minister, which would be very much appreciated.

I am clearly content, I should point out, with the constituency of Dublin Fingal East, which I hope to represent in the Thirty-first Dáil, because I believe it is an accurate and acceptable name as to its geography. I believe the commission's reports and the legislation we pass in this House concerning our electoral system should always seek to future-proof our systems and infrastructure. Our next national census will happen in 2027. By that time, I suspect we will again see significant increases in population, especially in Fingal and Dublin more generally. I remind the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, that Fingal has been one of the fastest-growing and youngest constituencies in Europe, never mind in Ireland, for the last four censuses in a row. It stands to reason, therefore, that we will see further growth. While this will be a matter for the Government of the day, I believe we must be cognisant of actions that we take today and what impact they will have on the process.

I believe the public and our political system is best served when space for growth is built into our future planning, and widespread or wide-scale change is not required following the publication of each census. We have seen many times how changes to communities, including placement in a different constituency or changes in the names of constituencies, can be a source of local concern. Deputy Catherine Murphy covered the area I was going to touch upon when she spoke about what happened in 2007 or 2008 when River Valley and surrounding communities were dumped out of Dublin North into Dublin West, only to be changed back in 2012. Splitting a community in this way results in lower turnout. I invite the Minister of State to look at the tallies, which clearly show a lower turnout in those parts of Dublin West, as it was at the time.

I wish to touch quickly on a few other points. The first is the issue of headroom. The Electoral Commission, unlike previous boundary commissions, is a permanent body. This means it has a permanent impact. The individuals who make the decisions will have time to reflect on the impacts of the changes they propose in their reports. This will be unlike previous boundary commissions, which were established and issued reports, and were then disestablished and never had to worry about decisions made again. Members and would-be Members of the Dáil were left to worry about the repercussions in the context of the River Valleys and the Tallaghts of Ireland.

I had hoped that the Electoral Commission would give more consideration to a more expansive enlargement of the Dáil, for the express purpose of not having to make big changes in future. I think the average set out by the commission, in the context of the constitutional requirement, is too shallow and this will mean we will see another change in this regard within a few years. I regret this, but I mention it nonetheless.

Finally, I want to throw my oar in with regard to posters. I do not favour any change to posters and postering. I say this not for me, because I am well established, having been in politics for 20 years. There are Members here with 30 and 40 years of experience. They do not need posters, and we all know this. Those who are not incumbents absolutely need posters. Where I would like to see a change in postering is not in regard to having a geographic spot where all the posters would go, because I think that would be an eyesore and a mess, but in limiting the number of posters per election. Some consideration should be given to larger wards in constituencies but a limit should be put in place. I have also trialled various biodegradable cardboard posters, as I am sure the Minister of State has.

5:35 pm

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I have.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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They are awful, but I would like us to move away from using corriboard and plastics.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I have hundreds and hundreds of posters stockpiled in the outbuilding of a very nice friend in the north county. I hope I will be reusing them for years. I hope as well that the electorate will not mind me reusing posters with photos taken when I was around 26.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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That being said, I think a limit would reduce the environmental impact and tick the box in terms of the programme for Government commitment, which I entirely respect. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his forbearance.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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All right.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gcoimisiún. Is é an Ceann Comhairle an t-aon Teachta nach bhfuil aon trioblóid aige. I think the Ceann Comhairle is the only person who is above all these changes. Beidh sé ar ais anseo ar aon chor.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I could always stand down and run.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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You could of course. Anyway, I wish you well. I just said that in jest.

The terms of reference for the commission set out in the 2022 Act stated each constituency should have three, four or five members. This has been the range of constituency sizes permitted by law in Ireland since 1947. Thankfully, I am old enough to remember the gerrymandering of the late Mr. Tully. We called it Tullymandering back in the heady days of that awful coalition Government from 1973 to 1977, the heavy gang of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. It included Mr. Tully, Conor Cruise O'Brien and company, and people like them. Anyway, this report seems to be an objective enough affair. Regarding Tiobraid Árann, it was made a five-seater constituency two elections ago, but it is now going back to two three-seater constituencies.

I thank the people of north Tipperary, whom I am a long way away from, for the way they have accepted, supported, listened and put up with me. I did my best. Rinne mé mo dhícheall on many issues. We are now back to having a constituency of Tipperary South. The county should really never have been amalgamated at county council level either. The British, in their wisdom, divided Tiobraid Árann long long ago because they could not control us. They divided us to make smaller and handier areas. We are good-spirited and high-spirited people. We maintain a good stance on issues and look after our people.

I made a submission to the Electoral Commission regarding part of west Waterford which is in the town of Clonmel. It is part of the town. The children are christened, go to school and play there. Their families work, attend meetings and socialise there. They are part of the town, trasna na habhann, across the River Suir. It is a pity. I will say this here in the House. These people come regularly into my office, although certainly not all of them. At least 25% of my work concerns daoine as Port Láirge agus tá fáilte mhór rompu. These people do not have representation in the county they vote in because most of the Members representing the constituency are 25 or 30 miles away from them. That is those Members' business, but these people are a part of Clonmel. I thought the commission might have done something for them. These people wanted to come back and were hoping to be back because, as I said, they do everything else in County Tipperary and the town of Clonmel, the famed town of Cluain Meala. This did not happen, and this is the way it has come down. I do not think we will be submitting any amendments in respect of this situation. My colleagues may have some.

We need to enact this legislation and give people certainty. It is always enacted very soon after a commission like this produces a report. I thank the members of the Electoral Commission. It included a good friend and former colleague, John Curran, a former Deputy and Aire Stáit. The members of the commission have a hard job to do.

One silly thing was done in County Tipperary. If a bit of west Waterford had been taken into County Tipperary, we would have had the numbers. Instead, the commission made a foray across the border into Leinster, into Contae Chill Chainnigh. In hurling parlance, we often make forays there and they come back with forays at us. Now, the Limerick boys have the cup, but we will get that back off them again. It was very unusual that the Electoral Commission went off over into County Kilkenny, not only breaking a county boundary but also a provincial boundary. No one expected this or saw it coming. I can tell the House that regarding the people of Cill Chainnigh, níl siad sásta. The Minister of State knows this. He is from and lives in Kilkenny, so who am I telling? I know he will not interfere, unlike the Tullymandering that went on in days past.

I wish this work well. I hope the Cabinet approves this endeavour swiftly and that a debate occurs swiftly as well. People need certainty about where they are going.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I am delighted to get the opportunity to speak about this Bill. I think I was the only politician from County Cork, if not Munster, who made an open submission to the Electoral Commission. To be honest, I feel it was ignored, much to the detriment of many the areas in west Cork that have been put into north Cork. The last census proved that the population of west Cork has grown. If I had listened to rumours, the only place that I would have been left to stand in, as I said to someone one day, would have been Goleen. It was suggested that various parts of the county, including Castletownbere and Kinsale, were going to be taken. Jesus, there was not going to be a bit left. Thankfully, at least these areas were left to us.

I welcome the fact that county boundaries were respected. That is greatly important. Many people made a strong point about this matter to me. A very disappointing aspect arises when we look at the area of Ballineen-Enniskean. Anybody who knows west Cork knows that it is one town. It is astonishing to think that it is split down the middle.

One half of Enniskean-Ballineen is represented by Cork North-West and the other half by Cork South-West. Ballineen is represented by Cork South-West and Enniskean by Cork North-West. The people of Enniskean continuously come to me about issues and I welcome them with open arms because as far as they are concerned, they are in Cork South-West. It is the same with Castletown-Kinneigh, Newcestown and north of Dunmanway. I argued strongly in my submission that those areas should be looked at and brought back into west Cork. That is their homeland and where they should go. I mean no disrespect to other politicians when I say that people tell me they do not know the politicians in that area and have no association with them. It is sad that nobody listened to their call. This decision was not made by this commission. I respect that. It was made by the previous commission but it should have been put right by this commission. Good God almighty, how can you split a town down the middle? It does not make any sense whatsoever. It has to be looked at again. I plead with the Minister of State on behalf of the people of Enniskean, who are not in my constituency but want to be in the Cork South-West constituency. I plead with the Minister of State to stand up for them and give them that right and give them the only respect they could ever get, which is to be at one with Ballineen, the other part of their town which happens to have a slightly different name. It is an astonishing situation. I would like the Minister of State to come down and see both parts of the town, where they sit and how they are joined together but split apart politically. That is a wrong decision made by the Electoral Commission. The Government has to try to put that right before seeing this through the Dáil.

The population of west Cork has grown. I would like more detail on that. If somebody makes a submission, the least that person should get is a very detailed reply as to why Enniskean, Castletown-Kinneigh, Newcestown or north of Dunmanway were left in a constituency they feel completely unattached to. It is very important that the commission should at least have the respect to reply to the Deputies who pushed for the people who asked us to do that.

There are a lot of people here talking about boundaries. Someone on the Boundary Commission was on the radio one day and was asked about west Cork. They knew I was quite frustrated. They said it was a bit like Cuba and it was almost impossible to sort out the map of Cuba. There is no doubt that the area is well spread out, from Castletownbere to the north of Kinsale, down south and then from Innishannon to Goleen. I accept that but every area can be looked at and looked at fairly if time is given and the proper understanding is there. Sometimes I think maybe the Electoral Commission is made up of city-based people who do not understand rural Ireland. This is definitely such a situation. If somebody comes out and says it is like Cuba and they just could not handle it, there is something wrong somewhere. These areas should have been added.

There is a lot of talk here about posters. Either everyone should have posters or everyone should not have posters. It is one or the other. We cannot have it in the middle of the road because it is not going to work that way.

I would also look at town councils. It is an area we should have more discussion on. Clonakilty continues to have a town council even though town councils were abolished. We need to bring some town councils back in again to work for local democracy.

5:45 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I want to thank the Electoral Commission for the great work it has been doing. It is a very difficult job trying to balance everything. For the future, I would encourage six-seater constituencies and not breaking county boundaries. That is obviously very important. The Minister of State appreciates that. It is not natural for people to break a county boundary. If there is any way that could be respected, I would be very grateful for that.

With regard to lowering the voting age to 16, I can see a great merit in it. People can do an awful lot of things at 16 now and one of the things I think they should be allowed to do is vote. We want to encourage people to vote. It is a thing we should not be afraid of and if we are afraid of it as politicians, it is we who are wrong and not the 16-year-olds. If we are not in tune with the 16-year-olds, that is our fault, not theirs. It is up to us to be in tune with them, to be marching with them and to be public representatives for them as 17-, 18-, 19- or 20-year-olds. That should be welcomed.

With regard to making it easier for people to vote, our system of postal voting is antiquated. It has not been looked at. We always hear of it happening through work or time constraints. We are in a very busy world now. I am not for one second suggesting that people should be able to vote with their phones but people can do everything else with their phones now. One of the things that is still very restrictive and hard for people to do is vote. To make it easier and to get more people out voting, we should look at that. We should look at mechanisms and ways of doing that. Obviously we have to ensure there would not be any shenanigans or voter impersonation or anything like that but we should have some system in the world we are living in so people could be able to vote.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The last effort did not work out too well.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I know. I am not saying we should use that system. I am very glad the Ceann Comhairle mentioned that because electronic voting is not what I am talking about. I am talking about postal voting of some type. We should look at that.

Regarding by-elections, it is very interesting. I am conscious of the time. We definitely have to look at by-elections. It is an old-fashioned system that if one of us dies, there has to be a by-election. It is very costly on the electorate. We do not want to die but if the inevitable happens and we do die, there should be a panel system like the situation in Europe where we would save the electorate the expense of having to pay a high price at the time of our death.

With regard to increasing the number of Deputies, I appreciate that the commission has increased the number of Deputies but we have to look at the representation that goes on in other parts of the world, not just around Europe but everywhere in the world. Surely to God we are perfectly capable of representing more people than we do at present. That old-fashioned rule should be removed so we do not, for instance, have to put a second floor on this Chamber to cater for more seats and have an upper group of people here eventually. That is nonsensical. We should look at that.

This is the final and most important thing I have to say, in the half-minute I have left. I want to go back to 1999 and thank the people in the Killorglin electoral area who gave me the benefit of coming into politics in the first instance. I barely scraped my backside over the line by something like 90 votes. My father nearly had a heart attack and I think I did have one. At that time it was a case of barely getting in and having to prove yourself. Since then, I want to thank the people in that electoral area, then in south Kerry and then all over Kerry for ensuring I got to come here and stay here. I hope that the same will happen when next year comes. I will send the message out to them right now. I am asking in advance and hoping they will give me another chance.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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We are talking about the electoral reform Bill. The County Limerick constituency was always a three-seater. For many decades it elected two Fianna Fáil Deputies and one Fine Gael Deputy, or two Fine Gael Deputies and one Fianna Fáil Deputy, until we broke the record and now it is one Fianna Fáil Deputy, one Fine Gael Deputy and one Independent Deputy. I believe I am the first Independent to be elected in County Limerick. When Limerick city and county were together in the early 1900s, there was an Independent elected but they only lasted 90 days. If I am not the first elected, I am definitely the longest-serving Independent elected for County Limerick.

Looking at the statistics from 2016, there were 194,899 people in County Limerick. The census has shown that the population in County Limerick has grown by only 8%. What is that a failure of? It is a failure of the Government to look at infrastructure in our areas in order to allow people - our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters - to come back to Limerick to live. Compared to all the other counties across Ireland, Limerick has had the lowest increase in population. The average age in 2022 was 39.3. Going back to 2016, it was 37.

For an electoral reform Bill, I cannot understand why an average of 30,000 people per Deputy is the rate to have an elected Member. Across in England it is 90,000. Why do we want extra Deputies elected to the Dáil if in other countries it has been shown that members can cater for up to 90,000 people and still do the job? We have it at 30,000 here.

I understand it is an old law, but the law needs to change fairly quickly to ensure that taxpayers get value for money and that we can deliver a better service for people in our areas by investing in additional staff. Why do we need more Deputies? We have 166 and the people of the country say that many of those do not work for them. The next election will show that people want real people, not career politicians, to represent them. The Dáil as it stands does not represent all of Ireland. It represents a view of a Cabinet that is too city based. The Cabinet does not reflect all of Ireland, nor every county in Ireland. That is what the Opposition does in this Chamber. We fight as much as we can to make sure our counties are looked after, but we come up against a Cabinet that has lost touch with the reality of the people who once voted them in. It is changing. The only reason it is changing is the city-based Cabinet.

Where did the old Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael members come from? Does that reflect where the leaders of these parties first came from? It does not. The sooner we look at this and say we need to represent more people and we need fewer Deputies - we do not need more Deputies - the better. We need Deputies who will work for the counties that elected them and for the country as a whole and we need for decisions not to be made by a Cabinet that is out of touch with reality.

5:55 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the opportunity to speak. I thank the Electoral Commission for the great work it did and for leaving County Kerry intact and not putting any part of it into any other county. I have a small regret that there are small bits of Rathmore and of Ballydesmond in Cork North-West. They are part of their respective parishes and perhaps they could have been put into the Kerry constituency, but the Blackwater divides them and we have to accept that. Nevertheless, people from those places come to me, as well as some from farther away. I am glad to say I can work for people who are not from Kerry. I have done so and will continue to work for people no matter where they come from. I am glad to be in a position to do that. Perhaps Deputy Michael Collins should not have Dursey Island in the Cork South-West constituency. It is in the Kenmare River and it is part of Kilmackillogue harbour. I believe Dursey Island should be in with the Kerry constituency.

I am an advocate of posters. We have to create some kind of atmosphere to get people interested in voting. At present we do not have posters in our towns and that is all right, but in the North of Ireland they are in the towns. It is part of our country, just above the Border and it is close to us.

The other matter that is important is the electoral register. We have to ensure people are registered to vote. When children reach the voting age of 18 or whatever it will be, if they are in a secondary school or college, they should be helped and encouraged by their teachers to register. I welcome the new system. In the past, we had only two windows of opportunity to put our names on the register. The first was coming up to an election and there were only so many days after the election was called that people could register. That created an awful uproar with An Garda Síochána having to sign and stamp papers. That is no longer required which is no loss. That is not a reflection on An Garda Síochána, but it was cumbersome. People were afraid to go to the Garda stations to do it. The other window was from October to November, which was too short. People need to be reminded that they can now register all year and can even do so online. We appreciate that.

The other gripe I have relates to housing. When the local authority allocates a house to someone who is on the register for some other electoral area, they have the person's PPSN and so on. Surely, it should be a matter of just putting that person on the register. The local authority should be able to do so. Many people who move into our county to live in a local authority house finish up not being on the register, even though they got a local authority house. The same should apply to voluntary housing run by Clúid or others. The approved housing bodies get their nominations from the local authorities. That is important. We need to create awareness and keep reminding people to put their names on the register.

We all love working for them. We all want to be elected. I have done my level best for the number of years and days I have been here. The election is coming up and I ask the people of Kerry to come out and vote again for me, and for Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, to ensure we return. We also have three candidates running in the local elections next year so I ask the people of Kerry to keep us here and there because if they do, we will continue to work for them.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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All right. Very good. You do not miss any opportunity. Fair play to you.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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As he said, we are here, there and everywhere.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I got that. Can Deputy Leddin follow that?

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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Is Deputy Matthews first?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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There is now a Government slot so Deputy Leddin can speak. We will then go to Deputies Pringle and Connolly and then to Deputy Matthews.

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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I will make one point that will perhaps provide some balance. Deputy Wynne might disagree with me on this. I will talk about the Limerick City constituency and why we should challenge the idea that the constituencies should align with county boundaries. Limerick and Waterford cities are situated on the county boundaries and extend into other counties. Perhaps I am in agreement with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae who said it does not make sense to divide Rathmore, which is on the Cork-Kerry border on the Blackwater river. Neither does it make sense to divide Limerick or Waterford cities. County boundaries are not necessarily the appropriate boundaries to align constituencies with.

Notwithstanding that, we are all proud of the counties we come from. I am certainly proud to come from Limerick and I think all Members of this House are passionate about their counties, as they should be. However, if we are to have the proper administration of national and local government, we need to move away from seeing county boundaries as sacrosanct from the point of view of administration. They are absolutely sacrosanct from the point of view of Gaelic games. I would never agree with changing the boundaries with respect to our sporting loyalties. They are set and rightly so. However, when it comes to managing our country, we should challenge the idea.

I was not due to speak, but I asked to do so - I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to - because I heard a one-sided debate with respect to how constituencies must align with county boundaries. That does not need to be absolutely the case. In the case of Limerick, there is already a precedent for looking at how the area can be managed separately. We have a metropolitan area strategic plan which includes southern parts of County Clare, including Shannon and Shannon Airport.

The Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy aligns with that area as well. It does make sense to me that there is not a line going through the Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area. It is its own economic entity, notwithstanding that it straddles two counties, and in that regard we should challenge the dogma whereby county boundaries and constituency boundaries must align.

6:05 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak to the Bill. It will put in place recent changes announced by the Electoral Commission and give the legal blessing of the Legislature. It will put into legislation the make-up of the next Dáil of 177 Deputies, which will reflect the constitutional imperative for one Deputy for every 20,000 to 30,000 citizens. On balance, the commission took an overly conservative position on the changes to constituency boundaries. In Donegal, the one constituency to which I can speak most easily, there is a clear need for the county to revert to being one unit, as in the entire county of Donegal, although the Electoral Commission was not allowed to do that because under county boundaries, the constituency would have to have six seats. At the least, it should have been divided into one constituency for the south west and another for the north east, as was the case previously, which would ensure Donegal was reunited as a functioning area.

It seems the reason this was not done at this time related more to Sligo-Leitrim than to Donegal, because in order for Donegal to be reinstated as two constituencies or a single, whole-county constituency, an equivalent area would have to be taken from Roscommon, Mayo or some bordering area of Sligo-Leitrim. Alternatively, part of Leitrim or Sligo would have to be ceded to some other constituency to maintain that balance of 20,000 to 30,000 of population to one Deputy and revert Sligo-Leitrim to being a three-seater or else keep it as a four-seater. Those are the issues on which the constituency reviewers had to make a judgment call and that is the way they worked it out but I think that, really and truly, what the constituency review has done at this stage is kick the matter to touch, because the commission is going to have to revisit this after the next election. At that point, Donegal and Sligo-Leitrim are going to have to change and it will all have to be done again.

Rather than do it in one fell swoop, therefore, the commission has chosen to do it in two bits and pieces. That is a retrograde step. There was an expectation among everybody that that was going to happen, not least in Donegal, given Ballyshannon, Rossnowlagh and Ballintra are still in with Sligo-Leitrim. Functionally, I suppose, that area is too small to elect a Deputy and, therefore, it could never stand alone within the Sligo-Leitrim constituency, but it also contributes to electing Sligo-Leitrim Deputies as well and its functional area is under Donegal County Council as well.

That is something which, in an Irish context, has to be addressed. The idea that county boundaries should be maintained is vital and should permeate all our thinking in this regard. A method could be found whereby the county boundaries could be respected constituencies could benefit the people and we could recognise the growth in the population as well. I think that can be achieved. To do that, we would have to revisit the constitutional imperative whereby there must be one Deputy for every 20,000 to 30,000 people, and that is what we should look at overall to ensure it will be done. There is a strong connection in Ireland to the county boundaries and people recognise whether they are from, say, Leitrim, Sligo or Donegal, which should be seen in political life as well.

It gets complicated when it comes to the cities, as it always will, and in particular cities such as Limerick, to which Deputy Leddin referred, where the boundaries of cities go over, but that is really a local government issue rather than an electoral one. It can be addressed in that context where there are anomalies, not least where cities have a boundary and recognised area that differs from the county boundary. I would imagine that even those parts of Clare that are in Limerick city identify with Limerick city as well as identifying with Clare, and that can be addressed. That would lead to fewer anomalies in the system overall than there are now, and that should be examined and addressed.

We have to look at the connection to the county boundaries. As well as looking at the numbers in the Constitution and so on that Deputies must represent, we cannot look at this in isolation. We have to look at it also in terms of how local government is addressed and reformed. I have heard Deputies during the debate talk about how there are too many Deputies in the House, but I do not believe there are. Similar sized countries in Europe have very similar levels of representation to us, and we should look to them. It is true that in comparison with the UK, for example, we definitely have more Deputies per capitathan it has MPs, but I do not think we should be looking across the water at any time to see how we should be going with things. We should be looking to see what works for us as a country, and I believe we need to have more representation across the board. I think that works, and there is a need for it to work.

We need to look at local government, how it is run and how it can have more powers and more say. Perhaps we could then look at reducing the number of Deputies, if local government actually did local work, controlled budgets and so on. We need to revisit the county manager system, which needs to be addressed. It was established in 1940 because of corruption on the part of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and because appointees were being chosen in a political manner. The county manager system was put in place, supposedly, to take politics out of the local government system. It has worked to an extent, given it takes politics completely out of the matter, but what happens is politicians pretend they are in control when they have no control at all over how the local government system works, with the county manager and his or her staff actually running the show and calling the shots. That needs to be addressed in whatever system we put in place. It is only then, by giving control back to the local authorities, that we can reduce the need for national politicians. That is vital, but it can be done only as part of an overall change.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak to this important Bill. I thank the commission, led by Ms Justice Marie Baker, for its work. It was set up in February and its report was published in August. I thank also the Department for its work on the Bill.

I thank the Minister for the written copy of his detailed contribution. He stated, somewhat jokingly, that he hopes he will never again have to read through an entire report regarding changes or the absence of changes to various constituencies. The best way to do that, of course, is to follow up on the research that is going to come from the commission in regard to boundaries being fixed, bringing certainty such as that which the various academics have asked for and backing it up with research. We will then have certainty on the matter and flexibility regarding the number of Deputies, if not regarding the boundaries. That is one of the best ways for the Minister to ensure he will never have to repeat this exercise.

Unfortunately, however, it is going to happen again after the next census, which will be in 2027, because it did not happen this time. The reason it did not happen this time is that the commission was asked to base its analysis on the existing Electoral Act, which places a premium on the boundaries. I am not sure when Deputy Leddin was first elected to the House, but the county boundaries have been set and we must take particular notice of them. When the commission was acting, it was acting on the basis of what is set out in the legislation and also, of course, of what the Government asked it to do. There was no flexibility in regard to constituencies of six seats or more. I understand there have been no six-seaters since 1943, but at some stage prior to that, there was a nine-seater for Galway city and county.

It has been pointed out in that research that the more seats there are, the better the representation for diverse groups, from what I understand. Will the Minister of State tell us when we will have the research? Is a date set? I know other research is ongoing on reducing the age of voters to 16, on which I have very mixed views. I must put that on the record. Children are children in my opinion. Maybe we will come back to that another day. There is research on posters. I think they are a vital part of any election process. It is low-hanging fruit that we look at posters. I often see a hypocritical attitude in Galway to posters. TDs are held to the strictest accountability when putting them up and down, yet various clubs, such as rugby and soccer clubs and charities or clubs from any walk of life, erect posters yet the same accountability is not held to. That is a low-hanging fruit argument with which I do not agree at all. I am open to looking at recyclable materials but at the very least a poster alerts people that something is happening, that there is an election. It invites participation and even comments on your image. It is all part of the process. There are comments such as whether you did your hair right or not, particularly if you are a woman. That is all part of the process of an election and it raises awareness. Although I believe democracy is an illusion on my bad days, on my good, optimistic days, I believe it is all we have. We have to make it work. The election process is a vital part of that. The physical count is a vital part too. As someone who lost out by 17 votes in 2011, I know it from every side. I have the greatest respect for the process, county registrars who stand into the breach and all workers from local authorities and extras who come forward. I hope we never lose that.

The Bill will increase the number of TDs by 14. There is a narrative that we do not need to increase the number and it will cost a lot. It will cost some money, which is set out in the regulatory impact analysis. It is quite clear. What it will cost is open and accountable. It is also pursuant to the Constitution, in Article 16, which sets out that all TDs will represent a population of between 20,000 and 30,000. Rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator that we do not need TDs and so on, we must set out clearly for people what is involved. If we need to change the Constitution, which we clearly do, that should be the argument and the focus of our approach. I am watching this and I have been impressed by the various articles I have read by Michael Gallagher, as has already been mentioned, and Mr. Coakley and another person setting out how best to represent people and what the best changes are to make democracy mean something. Having the maximum number of TDs in the Dáil across all groups seems to be the best way. I am no expert. I am repeating parrot-like but I understood from what I read that we need more seats in any constituency. Unfortunately, with this, we increased the number of three- and four-seaters but the biggest increase has been in three-seaters. We also increased four- and five-seaters but a bigger number would put paid to our hypocrisy when talking about more representation in the Dáil. The best way to do that, it would seem, is to increase the number of TDs in any given constituency. I look forward to that when the research comes out.

I spoke about the illusion. That is something I experienced as a local councillor. I watched more and more responsibility being heaped upon councillors and staff without any more resources. At the same time, power was completely taken from them. I listened to the EPA telling us that Waterford and other local authorities have failed to inspect. I despair with that type of comment because, at the risk of boring the House, I will repeat that 23 years ago, we led in Galway in recycling. There were three different bins and we had an education officer. We did not work in a punitive manner. I say "theoretically" because no system is perfect and there were serious questions as to where the material was going but, theoretically, we led in Galway city and tried to lead in the county, as I gather, with education officers encouraging people, no incineration, zero waste and working towards all of that. We brought in a city plan that reflected those principles and what the people of Galway wanted. There were monster meetings in the Corrib Great Southern Hotel, which unfortunately is now gone and should have been bought by the State; one bad mistake after another. The point is that we were going in that direction 20 years ago. People came on board; they begged us. What happened? Power was taken from councillors. They can no longer make waste management plans. It is out of their hands. Many other powers were also taken away along with that. I am conscious that we are talking about increasing the number of TDs in the Dáil. I think Deputy Ó Murchú referred to it earlier when he said it is a glorified county or city council on occasion because we have failed to resource local authorities. The number of councillors in Galway in the city and county was increased which I did not think was necessary but I have an open mind on these things. However, they were not resourced and there was no restoration of powers. Councillors were increased up to 18 in Galway city and 39 in the county but we utterly failed to give them power back.

My colleague mentioned the County and City Management Association, CCMA, of which I despair. I put that on the record publicly without any hesitation. Power should be with the city councillors who have meetings in public, whether you like them or not, they are open and accountable and people can see that. After a battle in Galway to have a public gallery and people walking in like in a courthouse to watch proceedings, that all went by the board. Now, you have to phone in advance, perhaps a week beforehand. I am exaggerating but you nearly have to give a CV before you get in to see proceedings. I exaggerate but you have to give pre-notice. We have gone backwards in that regard.

The CCMA has huge power and all is done behind closed doors. It is never seen and there is no accountability. I have not seen any minutes. Perhaps I am wrong; somebody might correct me and tell me that the minutes are publicly available of those meetings in which decisions are taken. I have never seen them. It is important that we look at the Dáil as an assembly and a coming together of the representatives of the people. That ties in with the best part of the Lisbon Treaty - I think it is Article 10 but I cannot remember precisely - in which is stated that all decisions should be made as close as possible to the ground. The EU took off in a different direction, making decisions behind closed doors. The arms industry, which is very topical at the moment because of Gaza, is on equal footing with Commissioners, there is an open door to them, totally against the purpose of the article in making decisions as close as possible to people on the ground.

In the absence of that, this Dáil takes on even more importance, where people can trust politicians. They do not have to agree with us. I do not mind if anybody disagrees with me but they know where they stand with me and that is vitally important. That does not mean I am rigid or that I have a closed mind but I know what I know and I will go off, read and listen but you will know where you stand with me. That is what people have asked for, repeatedly, in every single election since I started this career. They want honesty, straightforwardness and hard work. I pay tribute to the TDs and Ministers who work very hard but the twisting of language and spin from advisers is not good. It creates a disconnect between the people on the ground who elected us and their belief that we can do what we said we could. As well as the numbers, what is fair and just and keeping the boundaries, that is equally important.

When Galway took in south County Mayo on the last occasion, including Kilmaine, Shrule, and, at the time, Ballinrobe, they were most unhappy with us. At least this has allowed them to go back into Mayo and have that recognition of the county.

It did not want us. It was a silly decision. It cut it off from Mayo and put it in with us. It was very good to me and I want to pay tribute to it. The decision never made sense. I welcome the fact that we now have a commission on a permanent basis. Up until 1979, there were serious allegations of gerrymandering. That is what led to the various commissions on an ad hocbasis. We now have a permanent one. We must resource it properly. It is pointless having a commission unless it is properly resourced.

SIPO has been mentioned. It is vitally important that we listen to what it has repeatedly told us and what it has written in annual reports. It has appealed to us over and over again to resource it so that it can carry out its job and has the resources to do that. We are not doing that. Increasing the number of Deputies without parallel changes is not a good idea.

6:25 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Democracy is all we have and the best model in operation is the one we have. Whether we like it, political parties have derailed democracy to a degree. They have taken charge of it. What we have now is a directed democracy. Parliamentary parties of one kind or another in the House - I can certainly speak for my own – tend to put a straitjacket on each of the Members to ensure there is very little debate. When I was first elected, parliamentary parties in the Chamber would all discuss legislation in detail. We would recommend change and doing things differently. We would perhaps introduce amendments. We felt we were part of the system. We have completely drifted from that position.

Perhaps that is because of the European Union. I am in favour of the European Union, but that is not to say that we should not challenge it. We should challenge it. There are too many directives and pieces of legislation to be transposed into Irish legislation and so on without the usual scrutiny. That is the issue. We get all sorts of things happening. Politically exposed persons have a negative impact on politics in Ireland and are not doing the job they are actually supposed to do. We cannot change that because the Government has accepted it from the European Union. Likewise, SIPO was put in place but was not listened to. It then brings about rules that are hard to live with because they do not make sense and it does not listen to us.

There is a need to challenge and be challenging. We need to challenge the system and examine whether it is good or bad for the country we serve. We need to not be afraid to put forward what we believe are the relevant questions. Local government, for example, does not function in the way it should. Members do not have the power that they expected to have before they were elected. County managers and CCMA have far too much power to direct and influence what is going on. They will fill seven potholes for you, but then get a big ask from you. That is wrong.

The dwindling numbers who vote believe in democracy and that local councils should be able to fulfil the remit of local government, but they do not. We do not allow them to do it in this House. We have presented the type of restructuring that is required to make every single local authority function in a way that is answerable, through elected members, to the general public. That creates a lot of cynicism. People see through what is going on. They want to see a change.

I have never seen such a hunger for change in how we do our business as I have seen over the past few years. Yet, the Government and civil servants seem to want to ignore that. Let us be honest about it. I see a script from a Minister that was written by a civil servant. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, might agree with what he is doing here, but he is doing what the commission told him to do simply because in the past politicians in the House were not great about redrawing constituency boundaries and did it in their own favour. That is not what they were elected to do at that time. That was not democracy. The commission might be part of democracy, but the real democratic process is in here and this is where we should challenge the commission or any other State agency.

I heard Ms Justice Baker say that she had sleepless nights over the decision that was made around in my constituency, Kilkenny. Who in the name of God would think it is okay to put in a big chunk of north Kilkenny into Tipperary when they cannot stand us and we cannot stand them on the hurling field? There is huge attachment to parish and community. I believe in the integrity of the county. It should be protected at all costs. It was a ridiculous decision and one that the House should not feel obliged to adopt.

We have agreed in principle that we will accept what comes from the commission, but where there is something as blatantly obvious as that it should not happen. We are trying to encourage people to vote. All I hear in that part of north Kilkenny is people saying that they will not vote at all. That is sad. I would like to see more done about Members here having a voice. We do not want to gerrymander, but when common sense approaches are brought to the matter being debated we should listen to them. The decision in north Kilkenny is the wrong one.

In terms of local government versus this Parliament, we would not need 174 Deputies if local government worked efficiently and well in the way we expect it to, but it does not and we do not allow it to. In fact, we do not even allow this Dáil to function in the way it could or should. We do the best we can. The Ceann Comhairle has been very good in the context of giving Members the opportunity to make representations and expand in the course of debate on matters that may not be tightly within the Bill or topic under discussion. That has to be done. I would like to see that change.

I am surprised that the Commission did not take the opportunity to address all of the issues that were built in up to then in the make up of constituencies and come back with a more radical response to the make up of the next Dáil and the number of Deputies. We will go along with what is proposed, but that goes to show you the level of democracy that is in this place. We are afraid of ourselves in case we do something wrong. We should look at the commission's report, and any report that comes before us, and not be afraid to amend it if it is in the interests of the people that we represent and, in this case, if it is in the interests of democracy, because that is all we have.

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Independent)
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I want to begin by acknowledging the good work of the Electoral Commission. I am delighted to speak on the Bill.

Along with other Members, I also support the reduction of the voting age to 16. It is a progressive, inclusive and absolutely necessary step that could have been taken long before now. Nonetheless, it is a positive move that I welcome.

I welcome that my constituency of Clare did not have its boundaries breached in the constituency review. With the exception of those that have passed on or who Government policy may have driven to the likes of Canada or Australia, I will have all of the constituents at the next election that I have as I stand here today. I am wholeheartedly proud to represent the 127,938 people of Clare. I would wager that since the recent census the population has risen to above 128,000.

Clare's population has grown by just under 10,000 people, or 8%, which is in line with the national average. We have also welcomed thousands of residents to the county as beneficiaries of temporary protection and as international protection applicants. I am not saying I support the Electoral Commission’s proposal of 14 additional Deputies, but in the context of other counties receiving additional Deputies, I wish to focus on the fact that Clare has the highest variance of the long-accepted principle that there should be one Deputy for every 30,000 constituents, as provided for in Article 16 of the Constitution. We have a variance of over 8%, and I wish to take the opportunity to acknowledge that elephant in the room.

Let us consider the variance rates in a number of other constituencies. For example, the variance is almost the opposite in the Taoiseach’s constituency, which means it only has to account for 27,472 people. This is a variance of -7.17%. In the Tánaiste’s case, there is a variance of 3.7%. In the Minister of State’s case, his constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny is just below Clare with a variance of 7.9%. Bearing this in mind, it is difficult to see how the electoral reform has been equitable. Something I hear from my constituents a great deal is that things never seem to make it as far west as County Clare, and they do not feel Government policy is devised and administered in an equitable way where they are concerned.

This is concerning in the great scheme of things, especially when trying to attract a more progressive and sustainable pipeline of Independent Deputies. I am a non-aligned Deputy. That may seem unique in this Dáil term, but it may not be unique in future. Indeed, it may become a trend as the years pass. I have the smallest team in the House, though, and we are working under the highest variance in the country. This needs to be borne in mind, so while I commend the spirit of the Electoral Commission’s work, we will agree to disagree on whether my constituency should have received an additional seat and be made a five-seater. When discussing the sustainability of non-aligned progressives, it will be more difficult in constituencies like Clare for new Independents to win seats, as they will now need a higher percentage of the vote. Making Clare a five-seater would have resulted in a candidate needing to win 17% plus one of the overall vote, but since it will remain a four-seater, a new Independent candidate will have to win 20% plus one of the vote. For the 21% of the Clare population with a disability, for the nearly 9,000 carers in the county or for the parts of the constituency like Shannon and Kilrush that were deemed above average in terms of deprivation in Pobal’s recent indexation, how my constituents will be represented in the future is a major concern for them. We need to see more progressive politicians in the country, not fewer. We need more Independents to hold Government and Opposition policies to account. We need more diverse candidates and we need to make it easier for them to represent communities across Ireland, not harder.

I respect the independence of the process and the long-standing and vital tradition that the House not interfere with it, but I hope that some of the points I have raised about variance and future representation will be given consideration.

I will take this opportunity to thank the good people of Clare for their continued support, which I look forward to seeking next year.

6:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Next is the Chair of the committee, Deputy Matthews. I will ask him to propose the adjournment of the debate at 6.23 p.m.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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Will the Minister of State wrap up then?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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No. We have to finish at 6.23 p.m., but if the Deputy finishes earlier, the Minister of State can wrap up.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Or there might be another Deputy to speak.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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The Bill is the Government legislating for the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. The Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage was presented with the general scheme of the Bill and given an opportunity to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny of it, but we waived that opportunity because committee members felt that the commission was an independent and objective body that had made recommendations. Waiving was the right thing to do. I hope there are no amendments to the Bill, although I believe the names of new constituencies were mentioned in this context. That would be an acceptable amendment, but the fingerprints of Deputies or others should not be on the designs of boundaries. We should leave that for an independent commission, as we have done, and that commission was chaired by Ms Justice Baker.

The report was eagerly anticipated by many of us up and down the country, especially in those constituencies where we knew something was going to happen because we knew our populations had surpassed the figure of 30,000 per Deputy. My constituency is Wicklow, whose population had increased to 155,000, so I knew something was going to happen. It could have become two three-seaters, which would have been the worst possible scenario for me, or stayed as a five-seater. It could not have become a six-seater, as the Electoral Commission’s hands were tied and it could not consider six-seaters. We have ended up with a Wicklow-Wexford hybrid constituency and a 4:3:4 division of seats. It is not ideal to have split Wicklow and Wexford, but I stand by the decision. Indeed, we all stand by it because it was arrived at independently and objectively.

We have discussed county boundaries. The commission’s hands were tied by the requirement not to exceed 30,000 while also respecting county boundaries. It described this as a battle between maths and geography. I am not certain that county boundaries are the right way to set up our constituencies. We are all proud of our counties. In the GAA, the county boundary has to be respected. I spoke to people right down in the south west of my constituency. Although they are proud Wicklow people, they would have a closer affinity with Carlow. In the south, they might have a closer social, cultural, recreational, sporting and employment affinity with Wexford. I am not sure we need to stick to county boundaries rigidly. There may be better ways of splitting up electoral areas. We could still represent people, though. When we enter the Dáil, we are national legislators. The legislation and decisions we make in this House should benefit the people of Kerry, Wicklow and Donegal as equally as possible. How we decide to spend budgets should equitably benefit the greatest number of people as possible. People say that, if your county is not at the Cabinet table, you get left out. That should not be the case. We should legislate and make our decisions equitably to benefit the most amount of people as possible. Unfortunately, that does not happen.

I thank the Electoral Commission for reporting on time and doing this work within the three months. The Electoral Reform Act 2022 sets the commission a number of other tasks, one of which is education. There is a fantastic opportunity to increase public knowledge – I do not like to use the word “education” because it sometimes sounds condescending – of what happens in this Chamber. The three years I have been a Deputy have seemed short, given how it has been such an intense time. In those years, I have learned much about how this Chamber and the wider Oireachtas work that I did not know before. When I walk through those gates every morning, I always have a great sense of responsibility. I hope I never lose that, or the sense of privilege and honour I feel coming through the gates in the morning when thinking of the tasks ahead of us and what we have to do.

However, there is a considerable opportunity. In my previous job, I never had the opportunity to scrutinise legislation as closely as I do now. Nobody in their right mind with another job would ever have the time to consider legislation as many of us do to see its various aspects and what is intended. Most of the time, what we are able to pick up on is a social media snippet or video. Conventionally, the bigger parties have more money to spend on click videos, social media and influencing the perception of what goes on in here. The commission has an important role and a fantastic opportunity to bring people on board to show them how the system works.

We will be discussing Private Members' motions tonight and tomorrow. Many believe that if such motions are passed, their recommendations will be implemented, but that is not necessarily the case. There is an opportunity to discuss this. We have all issued press releases in which we tried to create the impression that we did this or that. There is collegiality when things happen and get done. The Electoral Commission has a huge body of work to do in this regard.

I have to do a refresher on our proportional representation system every time there is an election count. Aspects of it keep coming back to me. Many do not get it and do not have the time to learn. Therefore, the Electoral Commission has a great body of work to do in this regard, in addition to a great opportunity.

There was talk of six-seater constituencies. During the consideration of the electoral reform legislation, this matter was discussed. I would have much preferred six-seater constituencies. The Green Party would favour them. Many of the smaller parties, including the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and others, would favour them because they give smaller parties a better opportunity to win a seat. The lower the number of seats, the smaller the opportunity for the smaller parties.

If we want to bring about change, we should realise it rarely comes from the centre. It comes from the edges; it comes from the fringe and the smaller voices. I know that having been a member of a small party for over 20 years and having knocked on doors for 20 years to talk about the climate and the biodiversity crisis. The issues did not register with many but over the past five to ten years, or even the past three, there has been much more awareness and a much greater sense of urgency across all parties to act. The change did not come from the centre but from the edges, the smaller environmental groups and those groups that never gave up. It must give them some solace now to see the likes of the climate Act passed, but it must also disappoint them to hear some of the rhetoric and realise some people say one thing but act differently.

We cannot continuously increase the number of Deputies to have one per 30,000 people. At some point, we are going to have to make constitutional change to increase the limit to, say, 40,000. With many choosing to live in this country and with an ever-increasing population, we will face capacity constraints. Therefore, we have to address the constitutional matter and increase the limit. We cannot just keep increasing the number of Deputies.

An important part of the Electoral Reform Act on which the Electoral Commission will be working concerns the register. Having knocked on doors, register in one hand, we are all aware that there are often gaps in it. We have all met people who believed they were registered when they moved house and have encountered cases of people who appeared on the register in two places. Therefore, the commission has a vital role in getting the register right and drawing people in to register. I am aware that there is a Check the Register campaign. I urge everybody to push this. There is a simple QR code to bring you straight to the site. You can register online, which is a great advancement compared to what was in place beforehand, whereby you had to go to the Garda station with your form, get it stamped, etc. There is now an opportunity for 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register. This presents a fantastic opportunity to make younger people feel part of the system, even though they cannot yet vote at 16 and 17. Having pre-registered, they know they will be able to vote once they hit 18. We need to bring more young people into politics and we need to attract more people in to vote. I know there are those who say young people do not vote but I know many who are very engaged. It is unfair to characterise all young people as people who do not vote; they do and they do care and we need to pull them in at the earliest age possible.

Democracy is under attack in certain ways. Much disinformation is used in election campaigns and the Electoral Commission will be tasked with determining ways to ensure information circulated during an election campaign is valid and verifiable. I go to schools often and talk to students about various environmental and climate issues being worked on. I talk to them about where they source their information and ask them to check it. I ask them to check in a couple of locations. The Electoral Commission has an important body of work to do in this regard. We have seen elections throughout the world undermined, or allegedly undermined, by people who have interfered and tried to spread misinformation. People are very short on time and do not have much time to obtain in-depth information. They tend to take the high-level, headline-grabbing, flashy sort of imagery to be real. I do not know how we can overcome that. So much information comes at us these days that it is very hard to take the time to analyse what is real and what is not. This points to one of the most critical tasks of the electoral commission.

The issue of posters has arisen. I have always admired the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for getting elected without using a poster. I wish I had the nerve to do that. I would love to have done it. I have often been critical of the number of posters. I had 248 posters put up for the general election, and of those I put up about 200 myself. A part of election campaigns I hate involves climbing ladders and using cable ties. We all know about this; we have all done it. It was kind of disheartening to be driving the roads of Wicklow trying to spot my own posters. Having put up 240 across the entire county, I saw that parties with a lot of money had put up thousands. We should level the playing field for everybody. I honestly believe that 250 posters is enough for anybody in a five-seater constituency. If we all had 250, each would stand out equally. It is sometimes bizarre to drive down the N11 and see the same four-times-lifesize face of a Deputy looking at me, telling me to give him my number-one vote. It does not work, or maybe it does – I do not know. What posters do is generate a sense of excitement and advertise that an election is happening. Therefore, I am not of a mind to completely ban them. I believe they have an important role to play, including for new candidates. We were all new candidates at one stage or another but the excessive use of posters needs to be curtailed. It is a huge waste of money. With access to social media and other means of getting a message out, we really need to get away from excessive postering.

I want to mention local government. I started in politics at local government level, as I assume many of us did, considering that not many make the leap straight into the Dáil without spending some time in local government. Local government is weak in Ireland. Our local authorities are very much underfunded by comparison with European counterparts. We must always be careful when comparing something in Ireland to something in Scandinavia, France or Germany, because they are very rarely without differences, but our local government is very much underfunded by comparison with that in Europe. Many of the decisions we make in this Chamber are about where we are going to spend the money or the budget allocations. It falls to local authorities to spend much of what is allocated on roads, social housing or other aspects of local government. It is where the rubber hits the road much of the time. If we want to encourage good local representation, we have to encourage people into a forum where they can make a difference and the desired changes – a forum that is well funded and has autonomy. With the enactment of the Local Government Reform Act 2014, we lost the town councils.

That was a backward step for democracy in this country. I would love to see the day when we reintroduce town councils, properly funded with good decision-making powers. With that decision-making power and proper funding comes responsibility. For that responsibility, we need to ensure the payment is good for people to go into that. We have much work to do in local government. We all expect the local government election, along with the European Parliament election, will be the next election but we never know. I hope the Electoral Commission will focus on how to get that information out there properly and work on the disinformation aspects of elections.

Deputy Connolly spoke earlier about today's EPA report on local authorities' environmental enforcement reporting. Not only do we need to make sure our local councillors are resourced, have powers and are well funded, we need to make sure the executives in our local councils, many of whom I have worked with for many years and most of whom I have found to be excellent, very committed to their work and frustrated by a system that probably does not move as quickly as they would want it to, have the autonomy to make decisions they want to want to make and to have the funding to do it.

I thank the Minister of State for bringing this Electoral (Amendment) Bill before the House. We waived pre-legislative scrutiny on it because the commission was independent and its set of recommendations were arrived at objectively. I do not particularly like what happened in my constituency but I accept it. In democracy there are the things we need to accept.

6:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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With two minutes remaining, I call Deputy Howlin.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I have only two minutes and then I will adjourn the debate.

I have witnessed many electoral commissions presenting their findings to this House over the years. Up to now they have been an ad hoccommittee of disparate individuals with important tasks brought together simply to determine the constituency boundaries for an election. This is the first time we have actually had an Electoral Commission on a statutory basis with a much broader remit. As Deputy Matthews rightly said, we have only seen the very beginnings of what the Electoral Commission can present to us. A number of fundamental issues need to be addressed.

I will not oppose the legislation that simply transposes the recommendations of the Electoral Commission into law and provides the basis for the next election. I have already announced I will not be contesting the next election. This decision has nothing to do with the boundaries that are presented - I would be very happy to contest on any boundaries in my own area of Wexford. However, it is unfortunate, and Deputy Matthews has alluded to the notion, that a county I have represented for 37 years as an integrated entirety is now to be divided on a very arbitrary basis because the guidelines given to the Electoral Commission were as far as practicable - obviously it is not always practicable - to adhere to county divides and at least within counties to adhere where possible to electoral area divides.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I ask the Deputy to propose the adjournment after which he will have 18 minutes remaining.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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When will the debate resume?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Debate adjourned.