Wednesday, 29 June 2005
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The main purpose of this Bill is to implement the recommendations in the report of the independent Constituency Commission published in January 2004 on revisions to the Dáil constituencies for the next general election. A copy of the report was given to each Member of both Houses when it was presented to the Ceann Comhairle.
It might be helpful for Seanad Éireann if I outline the principal constitutional and legal requirements relating to the establishment and revision of Dáil constituencies and other relevant background to the Bill. Article 16.2.3° of the Constitution provides that:
The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country.
This provision was considered by the courts in two landmark 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. In neither of these cases did the courts quantify the precise degree of equality of representation required by the Constitution, although Mr. Justice Budd in the O'Donovan case appeared to suggest that a departure of about 5% from strict mathematical parity would be acceptable.
Dealing with the question of equality of representation in the reference case, the Supreme Court stated that it could not lay down a figure above or below which a variation from the national average population per Deputy is not permitted. The court stressed that the practical considerations which ought to be taken into account, and the weight that should be attached to them in departing from strict equality of representation, are primarily matters for the Oireachtas and should not be reviewed by the courts unless there is a "manifest infringement" of the relevant article of the Constitution.
The court concluded that the test to be applied is whether the failure to maintain the ratio between the number of members for each constituency and the population of each constituency involves such a divergence as to make it clear that the Oireachtas has not carried out the intention of the relevant constitutional provisions.
Each revision of constituencies effected between 1961 and 1974 adhered to the limit of 5%, to which reference was made in the O'Donovan case. However, more substantial departures from mathematical equality of representation were provided for in the revisions carried out since 1974, based on the recommendations of independent commissions. The maximum departure since 1980 was 7.89% below the national average in the constituency of Mayo East in 1983.
The proposed constituencies in the Bill now before the Seanad are within this range. Article 16.2.4° of the Constitution provides that: "The Oireachtas shall revise the constituencies at least once in every twelve years, with due regard to changes in distribution of the population,". This, in effect, requires that the constituencies be revised whenever population changes result in populations per Deputy in individual constituencies that are significantly out of line with national average representation. Thus, section 5 of the Electoral Act 1997 provides that, on publication of Volume 1 of the Central Statistics Office reports on a population census, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must set up a commission to report on Dáil and European constituencies. The membership of the commission is specified in the Act, together with its terms of reference, which are subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions.
Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution provides that:
The number of members shall from time to time be fixed by law, but the total number of members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than onemember for each twenty thousand of the population.
Based on the population in 2002, this provision would allow for Dáil membership to be fixed within a range of 131 and 196 seats. The statutory terms of reference for constituency commissions in the Electoral Act 1997 provide that the total Dáil membership shall not be fewer than 164 and not more than 168. In accordance with the reports of successive commissions, the total Dáil membership has been fixed at 166 since 1980. Article 16.2.6° provides that no law shall be enacted whereby the number of Members to be returned for any constituency shall be fewer than three. The statutory terms of reference of a commission provide that constituencies must be represented by three, four or five Members.
For over half a century after the founding of the State, changes in constituencies were formulated and advanced by the Government of the day. The first Constituency Commission was established in 1977 to report on constituencies for the first direct elections of the European Parliament in 1979. The first Dáil Constituency Commission was established in 1980 on a non-statutory basis and such commissions continued to report on constituency revisions under the enactment of the Electoral Act 1997. The commission that reported in January 2004 is the second statutory commission established under this Act.
Volume 1 of the 2002 census reports was published in July 2003. This showed an increase in total population of over 291,000 from 1996, giving a total 2002 population of 3,917,203. Each of the 166 Deputies represented an average of 23,598 persons in 2002. The detailed population figures for each constituency showed serious variances from the national average population per Deputy in many constituencies. A total of 21 constituencies had variances from national average representation in excess of 5% and 13 had deviations in excess of 8%. The most under-represented constituencies were Kildare North and Dublin West with variances of plus 20.73% and plus 16.43% respectively. The most over-represented constituencies were Dublin North-West and Sligo-Leitrim with variances of minus 11.89% and minus 11.01% respectively. Clearly, significant changes have become necessary in some areas to secure equality of representation between constituencies based on the 2002 census.
The Constituency Commission established in July 2003 in accordance with section 5 of the 1997 Act was chaired by Mr. Justice Vivian Lavan. The other members of the commission were Mr. Kieran Coughlan, Clerk of the Dáil, Ms Deirdre Lane, Clerk of the Seanad, Mr. Niall Callan, Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Ms Emily O'Reilly, the Ombudsman. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the commission members for the conscientious and impartial manner in which they carried out their work.
Section 6 of the 1997 Act provides that a constituency commission shall, in observing the relevant provisions of the Constitution, have regard to the following. The total number of members of the Dáil shall not be fewer than 164 and not more than 168. Each constituency shall return three, four or five Members. The breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable. Each constituency shall be composed of contiguous areas. There shall be regard to geographic considerations, including significant physical features and the extent and density of population in each constituency. Subject to these provisions, the commission shall endeavour to maintain continuity in respect of the arrangement of constituencies.
The main features of the commission's January 2004 report on Dáil constituencies are as follows. There should be no change in the existing level of Dáil membership, a net increase of one in the number of constituencies from 42 to 43, an extra seat in the Kildare North constituency, which is expanding to a four-seater, and in County Meath with two three-seaters being established where there is currently a five-seater. There should be a reduction of one seat in the constituency of Cork North-Central to four seats and across counties Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Longford combined.
There should be a new constituency configuration in the north Connacht-north Leinster area, with new three-seaters named Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim and a new four-seater named Longford-Westmeath. The new formation brings to an end the breach of a provincial boundary inherent in the existing Longford-Roscommon constituency but involves breaching the boundaries of counties Leitrim and Westmeath. In Dublin, the existing profile of 47 seats spread over 12 constituencies is retained but in a new configuration of three five-seat constituencies, five four-seaters and four three-seaters. The new arrangement transfers almost 31,000 people. The major boundary adjustments affect six constituencies and the minor adjustments affect four others.
The main changes recommended in Dublin are as follows. There should be an extra seat in Dublin Mid-West, which is currently a three-seater, with the addition from Dublin West of approximately 12,000 people in the Palmerstown area. There should be a reduction of a seat in Dublin North-Central, which is currently a four-seater, with the transfer of almost 11,000 people in the Edenmore and Beaumont-Whitehall areas to the Dublin North-East and Dublin North-West constituencies respectively. The transfer from Dublin North to Dublin West of almost 4,000 people in the St. Margaret's-Kilsallaghan area west of Dublin Airport is recommended. The transfer from Dublin West to Dublin North-West of approximately 1,100 people in the Dunsink-Cappagh area and the transfer from Dublin Central to Dublin South-Central of almost 1,000 people in Islandbridge is also recommended. Almost 2,000 people in the Firhouse area west of the M50 should be transferred from Dublin South to Dublin South-West.
The commission's terms of reference include the avoidance of breaches of county boundaries as far as practicable and commission recommendations have been criticised for not keeping to county or provincial boundaries. While attachment to such boundaries is understandable, the terms of reference of commissions are subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions, which do not refer to counties or provinces. In the High Court judgment of Mr. Justice Budd in the O'Donovan case, it was stated:
Although a system in the main based on counties has in fact been adopted, there is nothing in the Constitution about constituencies being based on counties. The Constitution does not say that in forming the constituencies according to the required ratio, that shall be done so far as is practicable having regard to county boundaries.
The Government has accepted the commission's recommendations as a single package of interlinked measures bringing Dáil constituencies into line with the prevailing population pattern in accordance with constitutional imperatives and the associated legal requirements. We can all recognise that it might have been possible for the commission to suggest other solutions. Some alternatives were put forward by Deputies when the Bill was being considered by the Dáil. As an interested spectator, I had much to say on certain matters.
One of the main issues arising was the commission's recommendation that there be two new constituencies of Roscommon-South Leitrim and Sligo-North Leitrim. In this context, we have all been aware of the depth of feeling generated in County Leitrim on this issue since the publication of the report. However, it can readily be seen that the commission had no option but to recommend some change to the existing Sligo-Leitrim constituency as the minus 11.01% variance below national average representation of its 2002 population to seats ratio is more than 3% greater than the largest variance recommended by any commission in the history of the State. The commission has brought forward its proposed solution and its recommendations for Leitrim are in line with constitutional requirements, in particular those relating to equality of representation, and with the commission's statutory terms of reference as set out in the Electoral Act 1997. While acknowledging the depth of feeling in Leitrim, the Government does not propose to depart from the package of recommendations that has emerged from its deliberations. It would be a bad day's work if we were to break with the principle of acceptance of commission recommendations in their totality. To facilitate Members of both Houses in familiarising themselves with the changes to individual constituencies, maps of each constituency were produced with assistance from Ordnance Survey Ireland and were recently circulated to Deputies and Senators.
I now wish to outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 2 provides that, after the next dissolution, the number of Members of Dáil Éireann will be 166. This is the same number as at present and is the number recommended by the commission. Sections 3 and 4 provide that, after the next dissolution, the members of Dáil Éireann will represent the 43 constituencies specified in the Schedule, as recommended by the commission. This represents a net increase of one in the number of constituencies compared to the existing constituency formation, which remains in force for the purpose of any by-elections up to the time of the next dissolution of the Dáil.
Section 5 provides for the repeal of the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1998 which specifies the existing Dáil constituencies. The repeal will come into operation on the next dissolution of the Dáil. The Schedule contains the formal definition of the 43 constituencies, the main details of which I have already set out for the House. In summary, it provides for the creation of five new constituencies, the replacement of four existing constituencies, changes to 23 constituencies and the retention of 15 existing constituencies. Overall, 12 five-seat constituencies, 13 four-seat constituencies and 13 three-seat constituencies are proposed.
Section 6 addresses a technical issue that has been raised by the Standards in Public Office Commission in regard to the definition of election expenses for the purposes of the Electoral Act 1997. Paragraph 2 of the Schedule to that Act sets out certain items that are not to be regarded as election expenses for the purposes of the Act. Following the High Court and Supreme Court decisions in 2002 in the Desmond Kelly case, section 33 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 deleted from paragraph 2 the reference to services, facilities and so on provided out of public funds. The effect of this deletion is that, in accordance with the courts' rulings, such services are now reckonable for the purpose of making statements of election expenses to the Standards in Public Office Commission.
However, the section 33 deletion was inadvertently drafted to also remove a number of other items which were not at issue in the court cases from paragraph 2 of the Schedule. These items include free postage provided for candidates, the litir um thoghchán; a service provided free by an individual or by an employee of a political party; normal media coverage; and the transmission on radio or television of a broadcast on behalf of a candidate or political party.
It was never intended to provide that these items would be regarded as election expenses for the purposes of the 1997 Act. The present Bill redresses the situation by inserting a subparagraph in paragraph 2 of the Schedule to the 1997 Act clarifying that the items at issue are not to be regarded as election expenses at presidential, Dáil or European elections, thereby returning to the position in respect of these items before enactment of the 2004 Act.
Before concluding, I wish to address the suggestion made in the Dáil and elsewhere that because the next census will take place in April 2006, we will require a further review of constituencies before the next general election. This view is based on the assumption that a constituency review can take place using the data in the preliminary census report which is usually published by the CSO within a few months of the census being held. However, it is the CSO publication Volume 1 — Population Classified by Area which contains the necessary final data to enable a constituency commission to undertake a review of constituencies in accordance with the relevant legislative and constitutional requirements.
The CSO states clearly that the initial figures in a preliminary report containing provisional information are subject to revision and are not to be regarded as having statutory force. I hope Senators will agree that it would not be the correct approach to ask the commission to operate and make recommendations on a basis other than the final census results. Still less should the Oireachtas be asked to evaluate a commission report prepared on such a basis. Moreover, the case law in the area supports the approach we are following.
As I mentioned earlier, following the census carried out in April 2002, Volume 1 was published in July 2003. On this basis, the constituencies set out in the Bill will apply at the next general election. In conclusion, this is a short but extremely important Bill for existing and prospective Deputies, the electorates they serve and the democratic process as a whole. I commend it to Seanad Éireann.
I welcome the Minister of State. The Taoiseach said in the Dáil on 27 April that this would be the last Electoral (Amendment) Bill in the life of the Government, which is to say it will be the last before the next general election. While essentially dealing with the implementation of the recommendations of the report of the Constituency Commission, published in January 2004, relating to the revision of the Dáil constituencies for the next general election, the Bill is a blatant attempt by the Minister to shake and finally bury some of the appalling miscalculations of his predecessor, Deputy Cullen.
The main recommendations of the boundary commission have resulted in the creation of five new constituencies and the replacement of four existing ones. The report also changed 23 constituencies and retained 15 existing ones. However, the Bill also allows for the reinstallation of certain electoral expenses which the Minister of State has said were inadvertently deleted from the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004. It is no secret that strange and incomprehensible events took place during the tenure of the previous Minister, Deputy Cullen, and the inadvertent removal of important details from that Act is just as incredible as the same Minister forking out more than €50 million of taxpayers' money on prehistoric electronic machines.
The inclusion of these provisions in the Bill represents a fudging that should not have happened.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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A further review is taking place. Senator Bannon should deal with the facts.
We are obliged to sort out the major cock-up made by the previous Minister but that should be done independently. His railroading of an e-voting system that was blatantly flawed posed a real threat to our democracy. Its long drawn out storage poses a serious threat to the public purse.
When will the Minister of State publicly admit that the machines purchased by his predecessor are not viable and when will the taxpayer be let off the hook? He should stop expecting our hardworking citizens to pay for the storage of these dinosaurs, for that is what they are. In May 2004, while speaking on the Electoral Bill 2004, I said that e-voting would not be introduced in June 2004 and that a question mark hung over the area of e-voting. What is new? E-voting lost the confidence of the public. The equipment, which the previous Minister tried to foist on us last year, never had nor will have the confidence of the public. It is time to return to the drawing board. The provisions of the Electoral Act 1997 need to be reviewed and public acceptance of e-voting should be sought.
——and congratulate the commission on honouring historical and geographical constituency boundaries to such an extent, given its difficult task. An exception is the controversial decision on my neighbour, County Leitrim, which raises numerous questions.
The population is ideal for a Dáil constituency. It is the historical constituency for the area and it was unnecessarily abandoned for the Longford-Roscommon constituency. The old commission erred in its last revision and I am glad it has corrected this. While Longford-Roscommon and Longford-Westmeath do not breach county boundaries, the Longford-Roscommon arrangement was a completely unrealistic constituency because counties Longford and Roscommon are in separate provinces and have separate tourism boards — to which I referred this morning and which should be abolished — and regional authorities. They were in separate health board regions until these were abolished last year.
The River Shannon is the most significant physical feature by far in Ireland, yet the commission failed to show regard for the Shannon, despite its terms of reference. A mere two bridges connect counties Longford and Roscommon, at Lanesboro and Tarmonbarry. There are fewer land connections between counties Longford and Roscommon than between England and France — the channel tunnel has three.
The population of Longford-Westmeath would be large enough for five seats if the commission had not included part of County Westmeath in the Meath West constituency, a decision which is open to debate and has echoes in the circumstances of County Leitrim. However, the division of County Leitrim into separate Dáil constituencies is totally inexplicable, leaves the door open to constitutional challenge and raises fears that County Leitrim may never have its own Deputy living within its borders.
Bearing in mind the historical precedent of the judgment of Solomon, perhaps the cutting in half of Leitrim is wise in ways unclear to ordinary mortals but is right and fitting to the commission. If this is so, perhaps it could enlighten us and the people of this constituency who are concerned over this decision. The preservation intact of County Leitrim is uppermost in the minds of its population. Fine Gael strongly supports the protection of Leitrim as an electoral entity. With the county split in two for electoral purposes, there will be more than 18,000 voters in one electoral area and more than 10,000 in the other, drastically reducing the chance of County Leitrim having its own Dáil representative. If Leitrim is divided into the two constituencies of Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim, it will be almost impossible for the county, which has the smallest population in the county, to return a Deputy.
Looking at the population of the country as a whole, the 2002 census reports show an increase in the total population from 1996 of over 291,000 to a total current population of 3,917,203 at that time. There will be a census next year but, as the process involved in this will be lengthy, a new Bill will not be introduced before the next general election. If next year's census shows an increase of 500,000, which, given the new freedom of movement within the EU and the proportional increase on foot of the new member states, is not unrealistic, is it constitutional to draw up constituency boundaries for the 2007 general election based on the 2002 census? Could the election itself be ruled unconstitutional and invalid?
The Bill before us today essentially concerns the drift from rural to urban areas and the growth of cities and towns. This has resulted in changes in constituencies and led to extra seats in constituencies on the east rather than the west coast. To sustain rural communities, we need to re-examine the spatial strategy and assess it failures. Population growth is not happening as predicted in the areas designated for growth, including the hubs. In particular, the western seaboard lags far behind optimum growth and infrastructural development.
The east coast, including counties Meath, Louth, Wicklow, Carlow and Kildare are experiencing growth but lack the necessary infrastructure to sustain it. As a Senator and a local authority member, I have often called for the upgrading of the N55, which would reroute a lot of traffic between Northern Ireland and the south from the east coast to the midlands. It would be sensible to properly develop and upgrade this route. Consideration of the spatial strategy in light of direct investment from the east coast and the commuter counties towards the west may have a long-term impact.
With particular reference to the electoral process, I am conscious of the outmoded and non-user friendly nature of the process associated with registering, changing address and applying for postal votes, all of which are deterrents to voting. The procedural difficulties encountered in updating the electoral register, particularly the failure to include eligible voters and those who recently relocated or turned 18 years are also areas of concern.
On behalf of Fine Gael I call on the Minister of State to introduce root and branch reforms of the electoral process to include weekend voting, including the possibility of opening booths at four or five o'clock on Friday and continuing through Saturday. This would accommodate a large number of people and allow no one the excuse of being unable to vote on polling day. Other reforms should include a review of procedures associated with the updating of the electoral register; an assurance of greater accuracy and accessibility for those registering; information campaigns on the roles of local government, the European Parliament, the Oireachtas and the President and highlighting the importance of transfers in the proportional representational system; an expansion of the grounds of application for a postal ballot and an extension of deadlines for applications; a definitive report on electronic voting, particularly on the costly storage of obsolete machines; and the automatic registration of all 18 year olds using the PPS number provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
I would like to address the inadvertent omissions from the last Electoral (Amendment) Bill of certain items concerning election expenses not affected by the ruling in the Kelly case, which led to the deletion of a paragraph in section 33 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004. The Minister of State assures us that the Oireachtas never intended to cover them as part of the 1997 act. They include free postage, services provided for all candidates, services provided free by an individual or by an employee of a political party and normal media coverage or transmission on radio or television of a broadcast on behalf of a candidate or political party.
It is therefore to be welcomed that the Bill seeks to address the anomaly, by inserting a subparagraph in part 2 of the Schedule of the 1997 Act, but I would like the Minister to go past assurances that the omissions were never intended, and explain how they happened. This is important as the public, Members of the Oireachtas and members of local authorities require more explanation than what the Minister of State has given to us.
I share the concern of my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, about the position of Members of the Oireachtas when a general election is called. The aforementioned Kelly case was taken because of a perceived advantage legislative changes would give to candidates who were serving Members of the Oireachtas. This Bill is based on the fact that previous changes were incorrect. Will this Bill now see Members of the Oireachtas advantaged or disadvantaged? This question must be answered and I hope the Minister of State will deal with it during the course of today's debate.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for the Bill he has brought before us. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this short but extremely important Bill. I join with the Minister of State in complimenting the Constituency Commission, whose recommendations are now the focus of the Bill.
The commission had a difficult task and tried to bring a fair balance to the Bill. One of the issues it dealt with was the breaching of provincial boundaries and the constituency of Longford-Roscommon no longer exists. The Minister of State made the point that breaches of county boundaries still occur. Naturally there will be much disappointment that County Leitrim has been torn down the middle, and also with issues about Westmeath. I know the Minister of State was biting his tongue when he spoke because his county has also suffered from the changes and his old constituency has lost a seat.
The members of the commission are distinguished public officials who have given long service to the country and their integrity is certainly not in question. Perhaps the question of what other people would do can be asked. What would any of us do if we examined the revision of constituencies based on the last census? However regrettable, reviewing constituencies means winners and losers. I do not know why the commission recommended particular lay-outs of constituencies but it did so within its guidelines and constitutional remit. If one rejects a particular issue within the revision, the entire report is rejected. I read a transcript of the recent Dáil debate where the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, clearly stated the Government intends to accept the commission's reports.
I know from my time in the Dáil, and the Minister of State also referred to it, that governmental revisions of constituencies provoked much controversy. The late Kevin Boland was known for making certain changes when he was Minister with responsibility for local government. I remember when part of south Roscommon shared a three-seat constituency with north Galway and Fianna Fáil succeeded in getting two seats. On the other hand, the party lost a seat in Roscommon in 1973, which led to the election of a coalition Government. The late Jim Tully carried out what was affectionately known as the "Tullymander" for the 1977 election. I recall part of north Clare was put into a constituency with west Galway to create a four-seat constituency. The idea was that Fianna Fáil would get two seats while Fine Gael and the Labour Party would each get one. In fact, Fianna Fáil got three of the four seats, which is difficult to achieve. It shows how issues can rebound on the Government party even with gerrymandering or "Tullymandering".
It was no surprise when we decided a commission should do this work, firstly for the European elections in 1979 and the Dáil elections in 1981. I remember the late Jack Lynch discussing his disappointment at the changes made in County Cork for the 1981 election. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, would express a similar opinion on the present situation in Cork.
We all agreed the commission should examine the constituencies and I am certain that not everybody will be pleased. I know my colleague, Senator Mooney, will have much to say on how these changes have affected Leitrim. Difficult choices were made as Senator Bannon pointed out. We are discussing the manner in which the guidelines are laid down and adherence to the Constitution. The constituencies are based on the figures from the census of 2002. I will briefly discuss the Electoral Act 1997 later.
We must enact this Bill before the next general election. I understand the existing constituencies are used if a by-election is held before that. While the number of constituencies to be increased by one seat did not surprise me, I was surprised by the Department's use of creative language in discussing a new constituency configuration in the north Connacht-north Leinster area. What the Department is really stating is that a seat was lost in the western region while the counties of Meath and Kildare got an extra seat. A seat was also lost in Cork. There is time, as Senator Bannon suggested, to implement the spatial strategy and examine development in the west. For many years we stated that losing Dáil seats in the west of Ireland will lead to difficulties in the future. It would be better to state directly that this is what is happening and not describe it as a new constituency configuration. Dublin will retain its 47 seats over 12 constituencies, but these have changed to three five-seat constituencies, five four-seat constituencies and four three-seat constituencies. I support Senator Bannon in his call to examine our spatial strategy and how we draw up constituencies in the western region in the future. It is hoped that we will not lose further seats.
The Bill clarifies what is allowed on electoral spending and that is welcome. Items such as free postage for candidates, normal media coverage, broadcasts on behalf of a candidate on radio and television and services provided free by an individual or by an employee of a political party are now not an issue in terms of expenses. The Kelly case, which arose during the last election, affected all candidates from all political parties. Some items were ridiculous, such as use of the car park at Leinster House. I do not understand why that was included. I would even suggest it should be looked at again in addition to the other areas I have mentioned.
On the west of Ireland issue, according to our Constitution we will now have three, four or five-seat constituencies. There has been a strong campaign by smaller parties for more five seat constituencies but I question the practicality of that in rural Ireland. The five-seat constituencies in counties Mayo and Galway, for example, are huge areas to cover and from the point of view of effective representation, it is clear that smaller constituencies are better in rural Ireland. I may not get the support of everybody on that view but certain problems exist in those areas and an argument could be made for three, three seat constituencies in Galway, for example. There appears to be some status attached to having a five-seat constituency in the west, with Galway city as the major city in that region, but I am aware from talking to the Deputies who represent that area, and those who used to represent Mayo when it was a five seater, it is difficult for them to serve that large area.
The issues on voting which Senator Bannon referred to are important and we hope to have a debate on that soon in terms of the register. Fine Gael has referred to using the PPS number as a good basis for the register. I suggested also that something similar to a census form could be given to a household to ensure people are included on that register.
I am happy to support what the commission has said. I do not agree with everything the commission does. We would all do things a little differently but as I said in the past, we let political parties do it and it has not worked out very well. Even though the political parties might have got it wrong on occasions and it might have rebounded in their faces, since the 1979 European elections the commission has examined the constituencies and despite the serious situation in Leitrim, I cannot see how we can make any changes now. The Minister has set out what the Government is doing and I hope the Minister of State will respond to the suggestions made by Senators.
My party, the Labour Party, is party to the general consensus in welcoming the Bill. Senator Kitt mentioned that the late James Tully was party to the creative reorganisation of the constituencies in the 1970s and if anybody in the Labour Party needed persuading that that was not the way to do it, the end result of the 1977 election, the outcome of which was not exactly as the then Minister Tully had intended, was sufficient persuasion. We are all now committed to the idea that it is an essential part of our democracy that an independent commission should draw up the constituencies. It does not necessarily follow from that that we should remain wed forever to the terms of reference, which I understand are set out in the 1997 Act. I will deal with some of those terms of reference shortly but I hope the Chair will forgive me for starting my contribution on a parochial basis.
It is interesting to note, although I am not sure anybody has done so, that the area of the country where most seats have been lost is the north side of Dublin city. Over a period of approximately ten or 15 years we have gone from having four, four-seat constituencies to three, three-seat constituencies and one, four seater. We have actually lost three seats on the north side of Dublin city in that period. I am not in any sense criticising the commission for that. It simply reflects the changing demographics of the city and the county.
Many of the houses in the estates in the constituency I used to represent in places like Beaumont, Artane and parts of Coolock, which were built in the 1970s and which until recently had four, five or six voters in them, now have just two. In their late 20s or even early 30s in some cases, the children managed to find homes in the constituency represented by the Minister and other formerly green pastures of rural Ireland and are no longer part of Dublin. That is more of a social commentary than anything else. I am not suggesting we should continue to represent people who are now living in Kildare and Meath but it is a debate for another day, which has as much to do with housing policy as with anything else. I accept that we now have three seats in Dublin North-Central. There is a clear left-wing quota in that constituency, even based on the result of the last general election, and it is my business and that of my party to ensure we win that seat.
There is an issue about three-seat constituencies. Traditionally, three seaters were based in rural Ireland for the good solid reasons of geography that Senator Kitt mentioned and they are still largely based in the south west of the country. However, there is a specific issue about urban three seaters, which is a relatively new phenomenon. It is not just true in Ireland but in many other countries that there is a greater diversity of political views in urban areas than in rural areas. We can talk at length as to the reason that should be the case but it is a clearly established fact and therefore a greater variety of parties are looking to contest. There is also a variety of Independents looking to contest in urban areas as well, although that is less obvious.
It is also practically more appropriate to have five-seat constituencies in urban areas because the geography is much simpler. In the constituency Senator Kitt represents, I suspect one could travel for 40, 50 or 60 km. and remain within the constituency whereas in the constituency I used to represent one could not travel more than five or ten minutes on a bus without going outside the constituency. There is no comparison, therefore, in terms of the practicalities of looking to represent a constituency like that and there is no serious reason to have urban three seaters.
In urban areas in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and so on, five seaters should be the norm and in principle there should not be any objection to six or seven-seat constituencies if that were considered appropriate. As I understand it, this is not a provision in the Constitution. It is a provision in the 1997 Act and there is no reason we cannot change the terms of reference to make that provision.
The integrity of county boundaries has been spoken about and I am as sympathetic as everybody else to the position in Leitrim but there is also an issue in the Dublin area about the integrity of the city boundary in terms of the practicality of representing an area covered by more than one local authority. The constituency of Dublin North-East, for example, covers both Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council and I am aware it causes difficulty for the three Members who represent that Dáil constituency. In looking at the terms of reference when we next come to do that exercise, we should give some thought to including the integrity of city boundaries also as something that should be considered by the commission when it examines those issues.
One aspect that struck me in the Minister's contribution today and his contribution in the other House was the emphasis we have always put on the ratio as between the population and the Deputy. In the past, that has been reflected typically in the ratio of voters to Deputies but in the future that is less likely to be the case because immigrants are entitled to register but may not necessarily vote. One way or another they are included in the census. As long as they are living in a particular house on a particular night, they are part of the census and are therefore considered to be part of the population of the country.
Regarding the constitutional provision, therefore, they are counted in terms of deciding the ratio and the number of seats in a particular constituency but the overwhelming likelihood is that many of them are here temporarily and they will not vote. In some constituencies, therefore, where there is a significant immigrant community we are likely to find a significant divergence in future years in the ratio of population to Deputy and in the ratio of voters to Deputies. That is something to which we must give some consideration. I appreciate that this is a constitutional provision which poses a difficulty but it is something we must be aware of in years to come because there will be constituencies in which perhaps many thousands of immigrants live, some of whom will have the right to vote but many of whom may not exercise that vote. We have to be conscious of the possible distorting effect that may have in years to come.
Other speakers mentioned the state of the register, which is becoming an increasing problem for all of us, but it can be resolved. Whether we use the PPS number, a passport or another form of ID, it must be possible to, for example, ensure voters are only registered once. If a person provided a PPS number as a means of registration, there should be a central register to tell that the person was already registered in a different constituency, so that person's details could be deleted from the other constituency.
This is where the major problem arises. Those who move house might be anxious to register in their new constituency but, more often than not, I suspect, they do not de-register in their old constituency. Depending on how efficient the local authority is, it can be some time before they are removed from the register in the old constituency. We have a position where some hundreds of thousands of voters are illegally registered in two constituencies, although one would hope they are not actually using two votes.
Surely it is not beyond our wit to organise a solution. I am open to the idea of ID cards for multiple uses in the future. I accept issues arise as to how that would be organised, how they are used and for what purpose. However, if an ID card is not for discussion, let us use some means we already have, be it the PPS number, passport or otherwise, so we can at least ensure double registration does not happen, or we are aware of it if it does.
The Minister of State referred to the 2006 census. There is a real issue in this regard. It is probably fair to say that if there is only a slight or manageable increase in population, there will not be a serious constitutional issue at the next election. However, it is possible or even likely there will be a significant increase in population indicated by the preliminary figures in next year's census, which may provoke serious constitutional issues about the representative nature of the constituencies. I urge the Government not to close this book just yet. If we are talking about relatively minor deviations, I do not think anybody will get particularly upset. However, there is a real possibility of serious deviations. If that happens, the Government must be open to the possibility of setting up a commission, if only to consider those areas of the country where deviations arise. If that is not done, a serious constitutional issue could result, one that we should not ignore.
Others, including Senator Bannon, referred to the issue of voting at weekends. I was going to say the jury is out on this issue but it has probably come back in. If memory serves, we experimented with weekend voting in one of the Tipperary South by-elections. On that occasion, the turnout was significantly higher than it had been at the previous election, which was held on a weekday. It is beyond doubt that weekends are more convenient for a significant number of people. We should not wait for the turnout to fall close to 50% or below, which it will do in 20 years if we do not proactively take measures to make it easier to vote.
The easiest measure we can take has to be to change the voting day to a weekend day, or perhaps one and a half or two days. Such a change should be made immediately. We should also look to use technology to ensure that while people should have to turn up to a polling station, they do not necessarily have to turn up at the polling station where they are registered. The register should be available electronically so a voter can use his or her card to vote at any polling station on election day, provided his or her identity can be verified. We must consider such measures now rather than doing it in a panicky way in ten years, as we look in a semi-puzzled way at why turnout figures have reduced.
On the other hand, I am not sympathetic to the idea of extending postal voting, which has been used in the United States and most recently in the UK. While Ireland is particularly restrictive in this area and perhaps we need to consider some sort of liberalisation, the least we can expect in terms of democratic commitment from citizens who want to have their voice heard is that they will turn up at a particular location on a given day to register their vote. I do not like the idea of there being three or four postal voting cards on a kitchen table, all to be filled out by the same person, although they may belong to other members of the same family. However, while we should require the people to present in person, we should also consider the good case that has been made for postal voting, for example, for people with disabilities.
Much has been made — I will not add more to it — of the e-voting fiasco. I was one of those who instinctively supported the idea because it struck me as being a modern and efficient way of voting. However, having listened to the debate last year, I changed my mind. We should not easily remove one of those elements of politics which seems to be of some interest to the population, namely, the count on the day after polling. As some of the worst days of my life have been spent in count stations, I take no particular pleasure in the memory of counts. Nonetheless, it is clear that it is a day on which, and a way in which citizens interact with the political system. That is not unimportant and we should be slow to change it.
An issue that has not been touched upon is that of the correction of the Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997 following the Kelly case. I accept the principle that Members of the Houses should not be allowed to use that position in a way that gives them advantages over candidates who are not Members. However, one aspect we need to seriously consider is the major advantage Ministers have. I accept in principle that Ministers are entitled to constituency offices as they will probably have a greater volume of constituency business than those Members who are not Ministers. However, they should not be allowed to have five or in some cases many more civil servants dealing with constituency business during election time. It is not a matter of not reckoning for this; it should not be allowed in the first place.
My party supports the Bill. We accept the general principle of the commission, whatever about the individual details, which many of us might be nervous about. The principle is a good one, and one we support.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The setting of electoral boundaries and seat numbers has in the past been a process that has led to some of the most extraordinary political machinations in many countries. The names Elbridge Gerry and Ireland's own James Tully have become forever associated with the more intriguing side of boundary setting. Some would claim that politics has now been so removed from the process of setting seat numbers and constituency boundaries as to make discussion of it almost obsolete, and that the process is now a mechanical, mathematical and statistical one. To an extent, they have a point. Article 16 of the Constitution dictates that the ratio of seats for each constituency be consistent nationwide based on the preceding census. It states that the Oireachtas shall revise the constituencies at least once in every 12 years, with due regard to changes in distribution of the population, and the total number of Members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one Member for each 30,000 of the population, or at more than one Member for each 20,000 of the population.
Since 1977 we have had a constituency commission to independently assess and set out boundaries and seat allocations. The point made is that, given the constitutional provisions, the employment of the most recent census data and the establishment of an independent commission, politics has been removed totally from the issue of constituency make-up. That view goes too far. There is still some politics in this debate, and the reason for that is simple. There is, and always will be, a difference between the statistical and political, on one hand, and the reality on the ground.
To take my own part of Cork city as an example, is Cork University Hospital on the north side of the city, in the eyes of politicians? Are Nemo Rangers north side or south side Cork county champions? On what side of the city does Father Matthew's statue reside? Where is UCC located? From a political perspective all are located on the north side but from the perspective of Cork people the opposite is true.
We have had many north side lobbies for hospitals, universities and football teams. Sadly they are all on the south side. We have an independent commission, which I welcome, and it bases its recommendations on census data but constituency borders must reflect the affinities that exist in communities. In the case of Cork, I would refer the House to the terms of reference of the Constituency Commission, which states "there shall be regard to geographical considerations including significant physical features and the extent of and the density of population in each constituency".
I am not breaking news to the House when I say that the River Lee is a physical feature of great significance to Cork people, and has been so for many generations. Cork people, despite their modest and retiring nature, have even been known to mention it in song on occasion. The River Lee is a natural boundary for Cork people and I want to specifically welcome the reinstating through this Bill of the river as the natural and correct constituency boundary between Cork North-Central and Cork South-Central. When the legislation before us is enacted, nearly 26,000 citizens will be correctly redesignated as south side residents and voters. For future reference I suggest that should adjustment to boundaries be deemed necessary on the basis of population shifts in the future, the extremities of the constituency, rather than the areas around the natural boundary, should be altered. I would hope that where a similar situation exists in other areas of the country this type of approach would also be followed.
When I was elected to Cork City Council in 1999, my ward area straddled two Dáil constituencies. This type of geographical break-up leads to problems on the ground for both the electorate and candidates at later elections, and these problems are not of their making. If one is changing Dáil constituencies, if necessary, changes should also be made to local authority areas to ensure they are consistent with Dáil constituencies. In my case the boundary ran down the middle of my ward, within 20 yards of my home. Was I representing Cork North-Central or Cork South-Central? This matter must be considered in more detail when revising boundaries.
In accordance with section 5 of the 1997 Electoral Act, the Constituency Commission was set up in July 2003, chaired by Mr. Justice Lavan. A debt of gratitude is owed to him and his excellent team. I referred at the outset to Elbridge Gerry and James Tully and it is imperative the public have total confidence in the system that leads to changes in constituency configuration. Where there exists a possibility of political gain from adjustment, suspicion also exists. I am satisfied that the necessary procedures are in place to ensure all suspicion can be ruled out. This does not mean that this Bill is without contention. The Bill proposes changes in 23 constituencies, leaves 15 unchanged, creates five new constituencies, and replaces four existing constituencies.
My earlier point illustrated that any change will make for debate at the least and possibly bald anger among the electorate and, in some cases, elected representatives. The issue of representation is at the heart of this matter. We operate a system of representative democracy in this State, where we ask citizens to select people to give voice to their views in the Houses of the Oireachtas. That link between citizen and representative is central to how Irish politics works, and has shaped our political culture. Our system encourages the strongest link between the representative, the citizens and the locality, sometimes to the detriment of the wider political process. We must not underestimate the strength of county loyalty in this country. As a Corkman, a phrase involving the words "snowballs" and "hell" would spring to mind if I were to consider standing for election in Kerry.
Section 6 of the 1997 Act provides that the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable. However, the Bill before us provides for a new constituency configuration in the north Connacht-north Leinster area. It creates new three-seaters, Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim, and a new four-seater, Longford-Westmeath. While this brings to an end the breach of a provincial boundary in the current configuration, it means breaching the boundary of County Leitrim. I do not underestimate the concern this creates for citizens of Leitrim.
I state my belief that the political process as a whole would be better served if we could move away from the intense localisation of politics. While this is a separate issue from the one facing the citizens of Leitrim, the availability of national legislators to deal with very local concerns can have negative repercussions for the wider process.
Weekend media reports suggest there could be a constitutional challenge to proposed constituency boundaries after next April's census results. The Minister covered this in his address. If amendments are necessary to this Bill or the Electoral Act 1997 to deal with this possibility, I would like to see the issue addressed quickly, effectively and efficiently.
Another issue raised recently is the accuracy of the electoral register. Given that many important decisions are to be taken on the basis of figures such as census data, it is unacceptable that something as important as the register of electors would be so out of sync with reality. I would like serious and committed action by local authorities to rectify this inaccuracy.
I endorse the comments made by Senator McDowell on this matter. There is healthy loyalty both within and to Irish counties — just consider the Cork norrie versus the southsider, or the people of Leitrim. Although the combination of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Electoral Act, census data and the independent Constituency Commission have successfully removed suspicion of political shenanigans from the issue of constituency configuration, they have not, and probably never will, remove politics from the designation of territory. It is part of the essence of Cork people, Leitrim people and Irish people. I welcome this Bill in the House today.
I welcome this independent commission's report on the redrawing of constituency boundaries. I listened to Senator Minihan's comments on county loyalties and recalled that in the 1930s west Donegal was in the same constituency as Leitrim. This is something people in Donegal would not understand today. We do not have a problem with county loyalty in Donegal as we have both Donegal North-East and Donegal South-West. County loyalty is as important in politics as in other domains. When we mention county loyalties, people generally think of sport such as hurling, football, soccer, etc. County loyalty should transcend sport and other areas into politics.
On the redrawing of the constituency boundaries in Donegal, Letterkenny is expanding at an alarming rate. That is progress and we must move with the times. As a consequence of the population rising in Letterkenny, the geographical spread in Donegal North-East has decreased. Consequently, Donegal South-West which has a smaller population base is expanding in terms of territory. An issue arising from this — I do not know whether it should fit in with this Bill or should be an issue for the local authority — is that the Letterkenny electoral area now straddles two constituencies. Forgive my ignorance, but I do not know whether this happens in other constituencies. This straddling is a bit of an anomaly for much of the politics within both constituencies because, while it is a distinct electoral area, there is a straddling of both divides. There should be an onus on the electoral commission to give some acknowledgment that electoral area boundaries should fit succinctly into constituencies. That debate should be advanced at some stage. I welcome the report drawn up by the independent commission. It is important that it is passed by the Oireachtas as quickly as possible.
The other issue of concern to me relates to voting. I intend introducing amendments on Committee Stage with respect to voting, accountability and transparency during elections. Two weeks ago The Sunday Tribune front page story and editorial concerned almost 800,000 people who are on the register but who are not eligible to vote. We have a serious problem with regard to the electoral register and it is urgent that we as legislators tackle it head on, not as a party but as a political issue. On the day of the 2004 local elections people phoned me in Letterkenny to ask whether they should use their vote in Milford or Letterkenny, because they were on the electoral register twice. One person phoned to say he had five voting cards as a consequence of migrating from Donegal South-West to Letterkenny and of moving house. This is something we must address.
I hope this House will consider the amendments I will propose in this regard. All we want is transparency and some accountability. As matters stand, anybody's name can be put on the register. Osama bin Laden could be on the register in Leitrim without any check being made providing we made up an address for him. There is no detection of irregularities because while the matter is left to the local authority, it does not have the proper resources available to it to deal with the upkeep of the register. The matter is urgent and should be tackled head on. This may be an aside from the Bill before us, but it is an important issue. Some 800,000 people who are not entitled to a vote are on the electoral registers, from Malin Head to Mizen Head. We must raise serious questions in this regard.
I thank Senator McHugh for sharing his time. We should deal with the issues he has raised on Committee and Report Stages.
I welcome the Bill and welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is wrong for politicians to start play acting with the independence of a commission which makes these difficult choices every five years or so. We do not want to return to the past when this kind of nonsense occurred. The commission is now on a statutory basis, but it should not just be initiated when the census report is issued. It should operate on a long-term basis and should be removed from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is wrong that an electoral commission that determines constituency boundaries should be based in any Department. It should be a separate body or agency and be independent of any Department.
When it comes to appointing the commission, all of the usual suspects are rounded up, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad, a High Court judge, etc. Often these people have other responsibilities, not least in this House. Some of them are also members of the electoral offices commission. We should be more imaginative and put independent people onto this commission.
I suggest to the Minister of State that when submissions are being made to the commission, we should consider allowing them to be made in public. I expect, for example, that a substantial lobby from County Leitrim will, rightly, make submissions to the next commission. The commission should meet in public session to take on board the public submissions. Currently, submissions are made in writing, but the commission is not entitled to meet in public the people making them. Public sessions would be a useful addition to the work of the commission and would put it on an independent basis. The commission should not just operate when a census report has been issued, it should operate on a 24/7 basis. It should be a standalone agency with a remit to deal with the issues our colleagues have raised about the integrity of the electoral register, etc.
Dublin is still substantially underrepresented and should have two extra Deputies. We have been aware of this problem for the past 15 years. The population is growing so why do we set the bar so rigorously in terms of 166 Deputies? So what if another three to six Deputies are elected to the other House. We must reflect the increasing population structure. Based on the figures available to me, Dublin has two Deputies fewer than it should have and this is an issue the next commission must address.
I welcome the report of the commission which does us a significant service. However, we should be more imaginative about who we ask to do the work. We should not just round up the usual suspects. There are many other independently-minded public servants who would fit the bill in terms of trying to produce a fair and equitable boundary system. We need to be more imaginative and put the commission on a full-time statutory basis to do other work on a constant basis, rather than just asking it to work when the census report comes out.
I thank the Minister of State for outlining the background and context to this legislation. It may be a small Bill, but as far as the people of County Leitrim are concerned, it is probably one of the most significant pieces of legislation to come through the Houses to have a direct impact on the future representation of the county, so long as the proposals contained in the constituency revision prevail.
I have come to the conclusion that it is really the fault of the GAA and not the fault of the Government or the commission. When the English conceived the concept of counties — under the policy of divide and conquer — it was to split up the traditional fiefdoms. In my part of the country, and I am sure other Members have similar experiences of folk memories in theirs, the traditional lands of Breffni Ó Raghallaigh and Breffni O'Rourke, which extended from Donegal to Meath, were split. As a former Senator from the county, Patrick O'Reilly, said during a debate in this House, County Leitrim as it is currently constituted is a geographical monstrosity because, like other counties, it was carved out with political reasons in mind.
Political considerations continued to dominate the debates on constituency revisions after this country achieved self-government. The 1961 revision split County Leitrim for the first time. The 1969 Boland revisions, quite bizarrely, created three new constituencies from the entrails of County Leitrim. The figures from that time are interesting. Some 11,000 people in County Leitrim were allocated to the Roscommon-Leitrim constituency, a further 11,000 people were allocated to the Sligo-Leitrim constituency and 8,000 people were allocated to County Donegal. I do not doubt that a direct political gerrymander was carried out in 1969 by the then Minister for Local Government, Kevin Boland. That decision was compounded some years later by the famous gerrymander that was carried out by the then Minister for Local Government, James Tully. It became known as the "Tullymander".
The people of County Leitrim had bitter experiences when boundaries were revised in the 1960s and 1970s. Most people welcomed the Government's decision in the late 1970s to establish an independent commission as an attempt to address an injustice that had been done. The commission, which operated within its terms of reference, restored County Leitrim as a political unit, for the first time in 20 years, in 1981. The county has been served almost exclusively by Deputy Ellis, of Fianna Fáil, since then. It has also been served intermittently by the former Deputy and Senator, Mr. Gerry Reynolds, who is now a member of Leitrim County Council. I congratulate my friend, Councillor Reynolds, on his recent election as cathaoirleach of Comhairle Contae Liatroma. I wish him well in his term of office.
In the short amount of time available to me, I examined quickly the speech of the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in which he pointed out that the existing Sligo-Leitrim constituency has a variation of 11.01% from the national average. It is rather interesting that the other constituency that is so highly over-represented is not a rural constituency. I refer to the existing Dublin North-West constituency, which is in the heart of Dublin city. It has an even greater variation of 11.89% from the national average. The Minister of State also referred to the terms of reference of the Constituency Commission. He mentioned that section 6 of the 1997 Act provides that "the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable" and that "each constituency shall be composed of contiguous areas".
The impact of the proposed changes on County Leitrim is not just a matter of political representation. I said earlier that the foundation of the GAA is to blame for the consolidation of county identity, based on the boundaries which had been introduced by the English, in the hearts and the minds of Irish people in the last 100 years. A strong form of county identity, which was not as evident before 1884, is now implacably and permanently located deep in the psyche of the Irish people. The natural boundaries found in the north west mean that the boundary of County Leitrim is a geographical nonsense. One has to pass through County Cavan or County Roscommon to travel from north Leitrim to south Leitrim. One also needs to avoid Lough Allen, which is a natural geographical boundary that divides County Leitrim.
The factors I have mentioned have combined over generations to create a sense of isolation among those in either half of the county. People in the northern half of County Leitrim refer proudly to themselves as being from "north Leitrim", rather than County Leitrim. As a person who lives in Drumshanbo, in the centre of the county, I have to say that I do not have great empathy with such a description. I am not alone in railing against it. One will never hear people from the southern part of the county referring to themselves as being from "south Leitrim". One must consider the historical aspects of this matter. Farming and sporting organisations, such as the GAA, have attempted over a long period of time to rebuild the natural division in the hearts and minds of the people of County Leitrim, who should see themselves as being from a unitary administrative entity.
An interesting decision was taken by the Government some years after this country achieved its independence. The constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, which existed in the immediate post-colonial period, was abolished in 1937 when the Government decided that County Leitrim should stand alone as a constituency. Three Members were returned for the constituency of Leitrim in each of the 1937, 1938 and 1943 general elections. The constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, which exists to this day, was not reintroduced until the general election of 1948.
It is gratifying that the Minister of State's speech contained more references to the revisions being made to the Sligo-Leitrim constituency under this Bill than to the changes being made elsewhere in the country. I am grateful for his decision to devote a significant portion of his contribution to the impact of the proposal on County Leitrim. I am aware that there is a great deal of concern about this matter at all levels, from the Taoiseach down. I am glad that there has been a due acknowledgement of the depth of feeling in my native county about this matter.
I have to say I would vote against this Bill if I were not a member of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party and if I were not taking the Whip. That is how strongly I feel about the proposal to divide County Leitrim for electoral purposes, which is an abomination. As some of my predecessors as a representative of the county in this House and the other House have said during previous debates on electoral matters, it is essentially a political rape of my own county.
I cannot act like King Canute by imagining that I can stand on the strand and try to roll back the waves. This country's entire political establishment is in favour of the proposals contained in the Bill. In their submissions to the electoral commission, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael proposed that the recommendation that County Leitrim be split in two, which is now contained in the Bill, should be accepted as a means of addressing the imbalance in the national average. I know the battle lines have long since been drawn. Not only would I find myself on the losing side if I were to try to reverse the decision that has been taken, but I would suffer a crushing defeat. I hope the Leitrim football team does not suffer such a defeat when it plays Meath next Sunday.
I would like to repeat, in as strong and unobjective a manner as I can, that I am bringing emotion and passion to this debate. Such emotion and passion have blinded many people to the statistical reality that the population of County Leitrim did not and does not allow the continuation of the status quo in the form of the Sligo-Leitrim constituency. I believe that a better way of making the necessary changes could have been found, but it was not explored. I welcome the comments of other Senators, who have said that the terms of reference of the electoral commission should be seriously examined before the next constituency commission is undertaken.
I will end on a positive note. Statistical evidence that has been given to the members of Leitrim County Council over the last two weeks indicates that the population of County Leitrim is increasing inexorably. It appears that the current population of the county is 28,000, which is 3,000 more than the figure in the last census. We await the results of next year's census with great interest. I hope I will still be a Member of the House when it considers the next constituency revision Bill. I am convinced that such a Bill will be introduced within a short period of time. At that time, we will be in a position to restore Leitrim to its natural status as a single entity and thereby guarantee that it can return a Member to the Dáil.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, to the House. I am sure he is interested in this debate. I support the remarks of Senator Mooney. The recommendations of the members of the political establishment, in their submissions to the electoral commission, were along the lines of the proposals which have been made by the commission. It seems that County Leitrim will be split in two for electoral purposes. Sadly, there is every prospect that there will be no Deputy from the county in the next Dáil, which would be very regrettable. When we establish the terms of reference for the next commission, we should try to ensure that the smallest areas and the smallest counties such as Leitrim are protected politically to ensure they will have representation in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I appreciate that while the Bill may be short in terms of pages it is substantial from a political perspective. The commission must work with a small degree of discretion. Given that there are a set number of seats to be allocated and a fairly tight population statistic from which to work, the commission probably does not have room to manoeuvre to any great degree. I appreciate that its work was difficult, therefore, it is difficult to object to the recommendations made. However, we should consider other issues which greatly impact on the political system.
We need to concentrate on voter registration. I was pleasantly surprised during last summer's local election that, for the first time in a generation, there was a percentage increase in the number of the electorate voting, which I welcome. However, we should not take it for granted that such an improvement will continue. Unfortunately, the trend over the past 25 or 30 years is that fewer and fewer people vote in national and local elections. One of the reasons for this is difficulty with mistakes in the register of electors. A report in a recent Sunday newspaper highlighted the possibility of serious errors in the register of electors. We must put in place a more watertight system of voter registration which will ensure that, once a citizen of the State reaches 18 years of age, he or she will be automatically registered. Given the various systems that are in place, including the tax system and the social welfare system and the fact that every citizen has a PPS number, it should be possible to ensure that, on reaching the age of 18, every citizen will be registered.
I would also like to hear the Minister of State's views on setting a firm week and day for all elections, whether referenda, council elections or general elections. Weekends would offer people who live and work away from home a much greater prospect of voting. I support what Senator Bannon said earlier. I made the same suggestion previously in this House and elsewhere, which is that there should be a two day voting window. Perhaps voting could take place from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday. This would give everyone an opportunity to vote. We must try to ensure that citizens exercise their entitlement to use their franchise to vote. At the very least, Saturday should be set down as a voting day but we should also consider a half day on Friday. In other words, we should give the electorate a day and a half to use their franchise and cast their ballot. This would help to encourage more people to vote. I would be hesitant about Sunday voting, not from a religious point of view, but I would not like to encourage the voters of Cork or Tipperary to vote on a Sunday like last Sunday when the Munster hurling final was on. Friday and Saturday would be preferable in that regard.
Electronic voting was referred to by some of my colleagues. I was one of the people who welcomed the concept but, sadly, the system now appears to be very devalued. There was too much controversy and doubt about it. The Minister was unwilling to address the reasonable issues raised by the Opposition and others, including some of his party colleagues, during the course of the debate. There is now a degree of cynicism and doubt about electronic voting, which we will not be able to overcome in the short term. We must make it clear to the electorate that, for the next decade or so, voting will be done in the traditional fashion.
In a recent Supreme Court judgment in the United States, there was a strong ruling that there would have to be a paper trail for all electronic voting in the states that brought the matter forward for submission. In other words, they were not happy with just electronic voting and the result being produced on screen; they wanted a paper trail. This was one of the issues which was very much to the fore in the argument in this country. If we ever revisit the issue of electronic voting, the paper trail will have to be guaranteed.
As part of the whole package of voting, democracy and encouraging people to participate in the democratic process, I hope we will be sufficiently mature in the coming years to consider seriously our electoral system. The former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who landed himself and all of us in trouble in regard to electronic voting, has been brave in his pronouncements about our need to examine our electoral system. Dr. Garrett FitzGerald and others have suggested alternative systems which would be just as proportional as our present system but would produce better politics and policies. We are now supposed to be at a stage where, as a result of the ending of the dual mandate, local politics is to be separate from national politics. We need to reflect this in a new form of electoral system which in the future will be necessary if this country is to take the political decisions a modern economy and a modern society will need to take.
I hope my final point will be the subject of an amendment to be tabled by my party spokesperson, Senator Bannon. It relates to the Schedule. The constituency of the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, my former Dáil constituency of Cork East, was for half a century known as Cork North-East. It is made up of two distinct electoral areas and two divisions, Avondhu and Imokilly, and two council areas. Half of the constituency is part of the administrative area of north Cork and the other half is part of the administrative area of south Cork. I will be requesting that the constituency of Cork East is retermed Cork North-East, as it was called for two generations. I am not seeking a change in the boundaries, just that the constituency is retitled Cork North-East.
I thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, for allowing me to make these observations, some of which may refer to matters beyond the scope of the current Bill. However, democracy is always an interesting topic to debate. Perhaps we take it for granted, but we must try to ensure that the public will engage more fully in the practice and theory of politics. We must use every opportunity to try to encourage people to exercise their vote. We must try to make registration and voting easier so that when we vote again to elect governments, councils or whatever, the public will engage to the maximum extent.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, to the House and the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005. The electoral system is extremely important to every citizen. We also know that the country has changed drastically over the past ten years. Not only has the population increased from 3,917,203 in the 2002 census to approximately 4 million currently, but the demographic profile has altered, in some cases beyond recognition. This was brought home to me during the recent Meath by-election when we spent a lot of time in the county. We visited large housing estates, which were less than ten years old, but which housed thousands of people. The majority were not registered, which was of huge concern to us. A sizeable number were from Dublin or its surrounds, but not exclusively from Dublin. We visited small towns such as Mornington, Bettystown and Laytown and the bigger towns of Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin, Navan and Kells. I was amazed at the increase in residential development in these areas. It was clear that something had to be done. I am glad that many of these areas are included in the commission's report.
As a breed, politicians are probably the most territorially possessive type of people on the planet. Any politician will have difficulty with a change occurring in an established constituency. This has been evident in the Dublin Central constituency. A commission report in the early 1990s overrode probably the most obvious boundary I know of in Dublin, the River Liffey. Senator Minihan referred to the River Lee. The commission, in its wisdom, changed the constituency of Dublin Central, with the altered constituency running from Glasnevin, Drumcondra and East Wall to Cherry Orchard, Ballyfermot and Inchicore. This new set-up had to be worked with and politicians got on with their jobs.
After listening to the eloquent Senator from Leitrim, it is clear that understandable concerns exist. Senators, Deputies and councillors in rural areas tend to have long-standing relationships, in some cases over a generation, while in Dublin and the main cities a certain element of transience is evident. However, the Constituency Commission and the terms of reference it has, which are generally accepted by all, must pay attention to issues such as geographical considerations, the maintenance of contiguous areas, population densities and, where possible, the avoidance of breaking county boundaries. It is not always possible to satisfy these requirements and a delicate balancing act must be undertaken. The commission must also endeavour to maintain continuity in the arrangement of constituencies. As Senator Mooney pointed out, any changes from these terms of reference tend to have major consequences, especially in smaller rural areas.
The changes proposed in the Bill include the increase of the Kildare area to four seats because of a population explosion. The Meath constituency will be split into Meath East and Meath West. Obvious concerns, some of which have been expressed in this debate, exist over the Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim changes as well as with the divide between Longford and Westmeath. SenatorBannon has considered these.
The issue of breaching county boundaries has on a number of occasions been subject to legal challenge but it has not been found to be unconstitutional. The commission, which is constrained by its terms of reference, must adhere as closely as possible to the recommendations set out in the legislation and in view of this its decisions should be taken as a package. This is not an À la carte menu from which we can choose.
Over 100 submissions were received from various individuals, groups and organisations and these were taken into account and assessed. The outcome of the commission's deliberations, as well as the reason for instigating the commission as an independent body, would be undermined if we were to pick and choose from the recommendations that have been made. The precedent for any Government adhering to a commission's advice is well-established. We cannot cherrypick and take one thing and not another. That would bring us back to the bad old days when any changes made were construed as an attempt to gain political advantage by the Government of the day.
Huge changes have occurred in Dublin, with 47 seats over 12 constituencies being retained. With these changes, 31,000 voters are directly affected. I welcome the clarification in section 6, which follows the implications of the Kelly case on electoral expenditure from before the last election and the confusion that was caused by volunteers giving up time and petrol to go canvassing.
Winners and losers will always emerge from the shaping of constituencies but the commission, as a statutory independent body consisting of distinguished public servants, has a difficult and technical task. The integrity of the members of the commission is beyond question and I compliment them on their work in producing this report. I wish the Bill well in its passage through the House.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. This is a missed opportunity on a number of points. I am not happy that Carlow is being split again.
I accept Senator Brady's point about accepting the entire package, but this may cause problems for small counties. I feel sorry for Leitrim which is now at a huge disadvantage because it has been split in two. The Constitution states that county boundaries should be respected where possible. Although this is not always possible, in the case of small counties with small populations, that directive should be adhered to as strictly as possible.
North Carlow was placed into the Wicklow constituency years ago because Wicklow lacked electoral numbers. Currently, Wicklow has a sufficient population to be a five seat constituency in its own right. We made submissions to that effect to the commission and, in fairness, it accepted the point that Wicklow no longer required a section from north Carlow. However, a problem arose in that if the section of north Carlow returned to the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, it would have made the constituency too big. This would have led to another section of the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency going to another constituency, most likely a part of south Kilkenny going to the Waterford constituency. A difficulty would also have arisen here as a section of south Tipperary is already in the Waterford constituency, or it may be vice versa. Either way it would have created a problem with Waterford forming part of three constituencies.
The net effect is that a part of north Carlow is being lost. The Minister, Deputy Roche, may be happy with that, as are some of my Wicklow colleagues, but the reality is that Hacketstown, Clonmoran, Rathvilly and Ballyconnell are in the Carlow County Council area for the purposes of voting in local elections. The people from these locations are also in the Carlow VEC area and community games area. They are fully part of County Carlow, therefore, it is difficult to explain, when it comes to making representations, that one cannot do anything for them because one is not their local Oireachtas Member. This is a frustrating experience. I hope that the next time constituencies are considered, this part of Carlow will return to the Carlow county lines.
Carlow traditionally had two Deputies in Dáil Éireann. The county now has only one Deputy and is suffering as a result. It is to the advantage of a county when it has at least two Deputies, one on the Opposition side and the other on the Government side. This ultimately benefits the county. I am not sure if I will put down an amendment on Committee Stage to address this aspect.
I disagree slightly with my colleague, Senator Bradford, on the most appropriate day on which to hold elections. Midweek would be an ideal time for an election and the day in question should be a national holiday to afford everyone the opportunity to vote. People live very busy lives and should be afforded a national holiday on the day of a general election. I would not recommend a weekend because people may go travelling and not use the opportunity to vote. By holding the election during the week and making the day a national holiday, people have no excuse not to vote. An increased turnout would probably be evident.
We must examine the issue of using PPS numbers when people vote. It is a farcical situation that people have to re-register before voting. Nowadays people are constantly on the move in their daily lives and it would be sensible to use a system that utilizes a person's PPS number. It would ensure that the problems faced at every election could be overcome. If the Minister of State, for example, was in Carlow on polling day for a presidential election, why should he not be entitled to vote there, given that it is in the jurisdiction? If, for example, one is not in one's county but is in one's constituency on polling day for a European election, one should be able to use one's PPS number as proof of identity at the nearest polling station to cast one's vote. This presents a difficulty for local and general elections as one must be in one's polling district to vote. However, an identity card containing their PPS number would give people flexibility to vote.
I am cautious about postal voting. A new system was introduced in England but there was widespread fraud and the Government should be careful about introducing a similar system. However, account should be taken of people who are on holidays and, therefore, cannot vote if the poll is held while they are away. If a person can produce proof that he or she will be abroad on polling day, he or she should be entitled to a temporary postal vote but it would be dangerous to introduce a uniform postal vote system.
A census is due to be carried out next year. However, according to the latest edition of The Sunday Tribune, if the census is carried out then and the next general election is held subsequently, almost half the Dáil constituencies will be under represented, which could lead to a legal challenge that could delay the census or the election. What are the Minister of State's views on this issue?
The adoption of single seat constituencies should have been examined during the electoral review. I do not favour the first past the post system but a model comprising single seat constituencies using the proportional representation system might make a great deal of sense. Invariably, in politics, a Member's enemy may not be on the opposite side of the House but rather he or she may be sitting beside or behind him or her. The mentality of looking over one's shoulder all the time does not add to politics. Single seat constituencies could produce higher quality politicians and could permit them to stay in the game much longer.
It is undemocratic that Tony Blair could be re-elected Prime Minister with 36% of the vote. Ireland could also move towards the European model of a list system. Every political party has members with great talent who would not get elected in a month of Sundays but who could make a significant contribution at national level. The US Cabinet comprises non-serving members of Parliament. One cannot be a member of Cabinet and of Parliament. Perhaps it is time we moved away from the British model. It is the ultimate irony that 80 years after independence, the Republic has a replica of the British Parliament. We should examine European and other international parliamentary systems to provide improved governance.
I compliment the Constituency Commission on its work. The origins of the commission have been the subject of an exchange of articles in The Irish Times. It was greatly to the credit of Jack Lynch that the electoral commission was established. The various so-called gerrymanders, whether they involved Jim Tully or Kevin Boland, did nothing to add to respect for politics. The system provides for fairness and that is why there is a rooted principle of not overturning the commission's recommendations, controversial though they may be.
I have great sympathy for County Leitrim, as it will be cut in half as a result of the commission's recommendations and I wonder whether the commission called it right. The commission says there is an 11% tolerance but, in these special circumstances, I would have been prepared to stand over that because it will be quite difficult for the people of Leitrim to elect or re-elect a representative when the county is partitioned. County loyalties are exceptionally strong.
The debate will not affect the legislation but it may be taken into account when the commission considers its recommendations following the next census. There are unsatisfactory aspects to the way in which Tipperary North and Tipperary South are represented. I refer to the constituencies rather than the county councils because their boundaries do not coincide. For example, significant tracts under the aegis of Tipperary South Riding County Council are in the Tipperary North constituency, which complicates representations by Oireachtas Members. Naturally, county councillors who are members of Tipperary South Riding County Council tend to gravitate towards Oireachtas representatives from Tipperary South when they should contact Members from Tipperary North. Sports clubs feel they fall between two stools.
Senator Browne referred to small areas of counties being include in constituencies in neighbouring counties. For some time, a small section of west Waterford has been included in Tipperary South. I canvassed the area and it involves climbing high into the mountains. It is entirely unclear why it is not part of the Waterford constituency. However, if one travels to west Tipperary, one will enter Tipperary rural district No. 1, which is an area within a three or four mile radius of Tipperary town but it is at least 20 miles from Thurles and 30 miles from Nenagh. Part of this district has been transferred from Tipperary South to Tipperary North but most of the residents do their business in the towns in Tipperary South and they are not happy with this scenario.
I acknowledge the population is increasing and towns are expanding. The next census, therefore, may provide for adjustments to the constituency boundaries but I appeal for more respect to be shown for county boundaries. Tipperary comprises two counties for electoral purposes and the county council as well as the constituency boundaries should be taken into consideration so that they can coincide as closely possible for local and national elections. The population in both areas was close to the national average this time round and that is probably why the boundaries were left unchanged. However, I hope the commission will take these problems into consideration next time round.
Senator Browne raised the question of interesting changes to the electoral system but I am afraid I do not agree with either of his suggestions. This is not a party matter; people in various parties hold differing views on it. Single seat constituencies might be comfortable for elected representatives but people like the competition within and between parties, for which I cannot blame them.
I have listened to every Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, and no doubt some Fine Gael taoisigh, who might like electoral reform to make the system tidier. In our present system, however, the people have their elected representatives by the short and curlies and even if there were all-party consensus to change that system, I doubt the people would agree.
The list system would be a total nightmare although there are cultures where it works. Senators Bannon and Browne should try to imagine their party leader numbering the members of their party from one to 20 or 30 or 60 and so on, and the hassle he would cause if he placed Senator Bannon ahead of Senator Browne or vice versa. If any party leader thought hard about it the last thing he or she would want to do is get involved in a list system. The Senators might say they would delegate this to the general secretary of the party in which case he or she would be the most hated person in the party.
We have a very good electoral system and it will stay. We could debate electoral reform for the next 50 years but the people would not allow us to change the system because with the electoral commission we have one of the fairest electoral systems possible. Reform would go backwards.
I too welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to comment on this Bill. I am conscious that, notwithstanding this debate, an independent body has decided on the make-up of the Dáil constituencies for the near future. The forthcoming census may have implications for this. Will the Minister of State in his closing remarks indicate whether the census will affect constituency boundaries and if so, is there a timetable for a further review? This would have implications for the next election, if that is to be held in two years time as set out in the Constitution. It would be helpful for Deputies, or aspiring Deputies, to know what those implications are.
From a parochial County Clare point of view, the redrawing involves relatively small changes. A small portion, however, of what was in the Clare constituency is being assigned to the Limerick East constituency. Recent reviews have included a significant area of Clare in Limerick East. This has created difficulties in Clare because people are represented in the Dáil as being in Limerick East — which is not to say that the Deputies of all parties do not represent them well — but their local administration is Clare County Council.
This situation creates confusion and I support the contention of other Senators that maintaining county boundaries is one of the most important elements to consider in redrawing constituencies. The area of south-east Clare, including Parteen, closest to Limerick city, is a perfect example of where the crossover of Dáil and local authority representation occurs. It is particularly difficult for new people moving into the area to understand they are represented in two different areas, and to recognise where are the centres of power and control.
While Limerick City Council's proposal to extend its city boundaries into County Clare is not part of this Bill it is related to the subject of administration of the regions. Clare County Council and Oireachtas Members from Clare have rejected this proposal. It is difficult when a city attempts to breach its boundaries and take control of land. Senator Mooney referred to people's pride in their county. The thought that a city would be allowed to grow into a neighbouring county is unacceptable. With all due respect to the distinguished guests in the Visitors Gallery earlier today, and the Cathaoirleach, who comes from west Limerick, I do not wish to prejudge any situation.
I know that but as a citizen of west Limerick he might have a view on this proposal.
If Limerick city is to grow it should move towards County Limerick, not County Clare. This would eventually impact on the Dáil constituencies because if Clare had succeeded in maintaining the portion of its population that was within its territory at previous boundary reviews it would now have five Deputies. That must be taken into consideration, particularly in light of the significant growth in population. If the independent body continues to remove areas close to Limerick city, bit by bit to add to Limerick East, County Clare will remain a four-seat constituency by giving away parts of its county and population to its neighbour. That is not acceptable.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senators who spoke about the importance of maintaining county boundaries because people identify with their counties. Senator Mooney referred to the impact of the GAA in creating and maintaining the image of one's county through support for local teams. Clare may not have much to shout about in that respect now but beidh lá eile. People's pride in their counties is eroded by decisions taken in this case.
The Constitution prescribes certain criteria which must be taken into account in regard to this review but the provision which refers to maintaining county boundaries should supercede certain other provisions to ensure this development, particularly in south-east Clare does not continue. I am aware there is a similar situation in Leitrim but south-east Clare is particularly complicated by the desire of a city to grow. I recognise the need for a city to grow into its natural hinterland but the necessity to maintain county boundaries supercedes that.
I urge the Minister of State to lay that type of information before his departmental officials and the people who will be part of the next review which is due soon. I would welcome anything that can be done on that matter although I am aware nothing can be done immediately.
I welcome the opportunity to make a number of points concerning this legislation. The Bill highlights a great problem for this country, namely, the population drift from many areas in the west to the east with the exception of some core centres, such as Galway and Limerick cities. An essential part of this debate is the concern of the people of County Leitrim that they may not have Dáil representation after the next general election. Their concerns, as expressed by the group that formed subsequent to this proposal, are not necessarily about where the line will be drawn. For any county to go without Dáil representation would be serious. Other proposals detail only slight changes for constituencies in counties Dublin and Cork primarily. There is a choice of going here or there, as it were, but representation will be within those overall counties.
This is a matter of concern for the people involved and everyone, particularly those from the west, can identify with the serious decline in population levels in certain parts of rural Ireland. The Government has put few if any policies in place to rectify the situation or stabilise the population. Time and time again we are told about the flight from the land but it is more than a flight. Due to imminent threats to agricultural incomes in particular, many young people might live at home for a short time and commute to work over long distances but will leave for urban areas within three or four years. There is a large void in rural areas. We are only discussing County Leitrim today but what will be the status of other counties after the next census in 2006? We can see indications that this process will be accelerated. The end will come for any growing populations in the marginal areas of large towns and cities. People will move to small villages and towns due to their inability to get planning permission in rural areas.
Regarding the compilation and content of the electoral register, the media has highlighted recently that a number of people who are on the register should not be so. We must point a finger in this instance, as there is no clear process in place within local authorities to maintain a register that is reasonably accurate. For example, a young woman of approximately 23 years of age got married before the last general election in 2002 but was on the register five times, three times in her own parish and twice in her newly adopted area. For any local authority to stand over a claim that it has a proper mechanism to compile a register, this example shows it to be totally farcical.
On the matter of resources, the Better Local Government programme initiated by a former Minister for the Environment and Local Government is not working well. To the ordinary person who wants a service or access to local authorities, the situation is worse. Who are the people behind the answering machines and directors of services? I am certain they do not know their supposed areas of responsibility fully.
Someone from the community could be asked to send a list of names to local authorities. The local finance officers representing the local authorities could do this. If a realistic effort were made and actions adopted nationally, it would provide an opportunity to achieve a proper compilation of the register. This could be done through PPS numbers. Every individual in the country is now given a PPS number at birth. As a result, the relevant agency would be aware of dates of birth and the date at which persons become entitled to vote. Persons could also be automatically removed from the register upon death. The Minister of State should turn his attention towards compiling an accurate register.
I wish to speak about a specific case concerning the competency of presiding officers at polling stations. At a particular polling station in a town in the Galway East constituency, as Senator Kitt is aware, 40 first preference votes for me at the 2002 general election were deemed to be invalid solely because the presiding officer did not stamp the voting papers. I challenged this and had someone witness as I reported it in writing to the returning officer, whose response was to reappoint the person in question, who had proven his or her unworthiness to be a presiding officer, to work on the local and European Parliament elections. This was high-handed and inefficient of the returning officer, as he did not tell the person that he or she had been shown to be incapable of carrying out a very simple task. If e-voting had been introduced at the last general election, I dread to consider what might have ensued in the chaos of the new system with such people being appointed as presiding officers.
There is a need for the Minister of State to appraise the voting process, its operation and timing. If we are anxious to have a good turnout, should we not consider weekend polling from Friday to Sunday? We cannot blame the apathy of young people. They are not apathetic by and large but we do not provide ideal opportunities for them to vote.
I welcome the Minster of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to the House. The Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005 is important because it will decide the fates of many Members of the Oireachtas, particularly those in the Lower House, in the next general election. The people of County Leitrim have rebelled in light of certain concerns. As the last remaining Oireachtas Member for the Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency from the 1977 period, I wish to say that we gave the people of that area a very good service. The Deputies elected in 1973 were the late Pat Joe Reynolds, Mrs. Joan Burke and Dr. Hugh Gibbons. After the 1977 election, the late Seán Doherty, Joan Burke and I were the three Deputies for Roscommon-South Leitrim and we served the constituency extremely well. I held clinics throughout south Leitrim, in Ballinamore, Mohill and surrounding areas. Deputies elected to that constituency believed it a priority to serve that area in order to ensure the people there did not feel disenfranchised. It was in 1977 also that Deputy Ellis was elected to this House, as was Pat Joe Reynolds, and both served the people of south Leitrim.
In 1981, a constituency change meant County Roscommon was now part of Roscommon-East Galway, encompassing some of what is now Senator Kitt's constituency. This was a natural constituency boundary particularly because it accommodated my electoral base.
There are constituents of mine in the Visitors Gallery and it seems appropriate to reminisce in this way.
I made a strong submission to the commission but it refused my request to be allowed to make that submission orally. How is it possible that the commission could devise the constituency of Longford-Roscommon which is divided by the River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles? This so-called commission was supposed to be above reproach, like Caesar's wife, but a situation seems to have arisen whereby it broke every rule in the book.
The decision that County Mayo should consist of two three-seat constituencies had a knock-on effect on Roscommon and resulted in the creation of the new constituency of Longford-Roscommon.
I wish to make another observation in this regard.
I am making the point that the commission had little regard for ensuring that Leitrim should be one county for electoral purposes. I put forward my case on the basis of the information I have as a consequence of putting the same case on previous occasions. The redrawing of constituencies affects the livelihood and future policies of the State and the ability of a person to be elected to the Oireachtas. The commission should have some regard to the physical location of existing Deputies so they will at least not be disenfranchised to the extent that their home base is removed from them and they are unable even to vote for themselves. However, these considerations were clearly not of great concern to the commission.
I hope the commission will publish the submissions it received. My submission included several options including a restoration of the old Roscommon-East Galway constituency.
This is not the first occasion on which I have challenged the commission to allow me to make my submission orally. This is an option that should be available. I put this proposal to the Minister of State although I am aware that none of my other suggestions found favour today. Like many others, I feel aggrieved at the general thrust of the commission's recommendations over the years. Will the Minister of State agree that a facility should be provided for the commission to receive oral submissions from interested parties in regard to the division of constituencies? A wrong has been done in devising a constituency of Longford-Roscommon which is divided by the River Shannon. The Clerk of the Dáil said to me at the time——
The voters of Leitrim have the opportunity to vote for Deputy Ellis and the difficulty will be overcome if they all unite behind him. This will mean Fianna Fáil will have one seat in Leitrim and one in Roscommon while Fine Gael will only have one. This represents a 2:1 advantage and indicates that we will be in a position to form the next Government. It is a simple solution to the problem faced by the people of Leitrim.
That certainly was a party political offering from Senator Leyden. The commission has a difficult job and must abide by certain parameters in regard to the optimal population per Dáil seat. The commission members try to do this job as best they can. It is worth bearing in mind that some constituencies are still significantly under-represented with a variation as high as -7.5% in one. In some other constituencies, however, there is overrepresentation. For example, in Waterford the variation is +6.07%.
I wish to draw attention to one aspect in which the electoral system is unfair. I speak from personal experience more than anybody with regard to what could be classified as a close count. I was one of the few people in favour of the proposed change to electronic voting because I believe a computerised system might allow for a fairer outcome. Senator Ulick Burke mentioned that a presiding officer in one particular polling booth had some 40 votes which were declared invalid because they were not stamped properly. When it comes to spoiled votes, it is a terrible heartache to think that one's political future may be determined on the basis of negligence on the part of presiding officers. Votes have been declared invalid even if a person has voted for one in good faith.
The reason I favour computerisation is that it would remove the human element from the electoral system. Where votes are declared invalid because they have not been properly stamped, it should be possible to determine whether those voting slips have come from a particular polling booth. Human nature being what it is, it is not inconceivable that voting slips may sometimes be incorrectly franked. I do not claim this happens in all cases but it is possible. I make this point as a person who saw votes declared invalid for that reason and it is a particular heartache.
Mistakes may be made especially at busy period, in the evening for example, when many people are trying to access the same polling booths. A gross injustice can arise in a transfer situation where it is determined that a person may have transfers of 800 to 1,000 votes to offer. The exact amount is irrelevant. The bundle of votes is taken from the top of the pile of the person already selected. It is an injustice because there is no guarantee that the votes from the top of the pile will favour one or other candidate, depending where they are. A more appropriate arrangement in a situation where Mr. X finishes with 9,000 votes and is 1,000 above the quota of 8,000 would be to count all the preference votes and then calculate percentages based on the exceeding number. This would be a fairer reflection. I am aware of occasions where people were asked to project after the first count on the basis of people who were subsequently successful. People may have predicted success based on the origin of many of the votes but it does not necessarily follow.
I favour computerisation because the mathematics would be taken out of this kind of manual control. A lot of people claim they would miss the tallies and the tumbling out of the polling booths. I shared that excitement for many years. A winner will undergo a certain degree of anxiety. Losers suffer greater anxiety. The process continues indefinitely and has a human dimension. The human dimension is that one's family is often present. My attitude to this situation is that, while a respectable delay may be intended between counts, I would prefer to know sooner rather than later and not be dragged through this long process. I see validity in avoiding the undue trauma which often arises in recount situations that continue beyond one day. It is a pressure cooker-type situation. It is a great kick and exciting for the people tallying. Maybe satisfaction and emotions are exhausted over a longer period. It would be better if it was conducted over a shorter timeframe. I say this from personal experience. I differ from many colleagues on this but I ask them, after experiencing a close count, to find a fairer system.
On the electoral register, I am sure the Minister of State has heard many times that the current system is not working. It worked in the past when we had vigilant parties who went through it with a fine tooth comb. Certain rural locations may have had vigilant revenue collectors. I know one gentlemen who sends a copy of his analysis of specific areas to me and other public representatives. I compliment that person because it is add and delete and reasons are provided. It is impossible to do this in larger urban areas because populations are rapidly expanding. In many cases, even if one was clued in to the local area, it is not as well known as it was in the past. The register may be analysed in, for example, Newcastle West, the electoral register for which probably exceeds 4,000 and where a number of families and their political persuasions may be personally known. However, in a number of situations, extended families remain on the register indefinitely, despite having moved to other locations and being recorded on other registers.
A certain fear exists in terms of removing people from the register for a simple reason. In the last local or general election, people who always voted were turned away. They could not understand why they were deleted. The current system is not working. The sooner we acknowledge that, recognise local authorities and change the system, the better for democracy and for the provision of the guided information which registrars require in order to provide people with the opportunity to exercise their vote.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their contributions, some of which were excellent. A number of issues were raised across the electoral horizon. While I wish to focus on issues arising from this Bill, I am happy to also address other issues raised by Senators.
It is important to point out in the presence of Senator Leyden that the integrity of the Secretary General of my Department has been questioned, whether intentionally or otherwise.
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It is important that I state categorically my belief that the commission acted with total impartiality. While I would be among the people who would not be happy with the outcome, I am completely satisfied with the independence and integrity of the commission. It is absolute.
I want to make reference to Senators Bannon, McDowell and Minihan and to avail of the opportunity to address the concerns voiced in terms of the current electoral register. Others also raised this issue. As I am sure Senators are aware, the compilation and publication of the register of electors is a matter for the appropriate local authority. That is in accordance with electoral law and includes the carrying out of house to house inquiries, the delivery of registration forms and the running of local awareness campaigns. It is the duty of local authorities to ensure, as far as possible, the accuracy of the register. In carrying out this work, local authorities depend to a significant degree on the co-operation and engagement of the general public.
We have experienced rapid population growth and development, increased personal mobility and other changes in modern society which will present difficulties in terms of the preparation and maintenance of an accurate and up-to-date electoral register. Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, mentioned that difficulties arise in accessing apartment blocks. All of these lead to difficulties in terms of the accuracy of the register.
In overall terms, more than 3 million people on the register in 2002 were eligible to vote in Dáil elections. However, census data from 2002 suggest 2.71 million voters over the age 18 were eligible to vote in these elections, representing a difference of 300,000. The main reasons for overregistration include a slowness in removing the deceased from the register, changes of address, where the local authority is not advised, and people with second houses. I share the concerns expressed on the quality of the register. My Department is mandated to examine any improvements that can and must be made. My Department is, in the first instance, developing best practice guidelines for local authorities to assist them in preparing and maintaining the electoral register. A national awareness campaign will also be conducted later this year associated with the preparation of the next register of electors by the local authorities. We are also looking seriously at developments in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the context of electoral registration.
The use of PPS numbers was raised in the debate. While that seems fine, difficulties exist in terms of the Data Protection Act. These are particularly so on election day concerning the verification the PPS number, which would require an outlet in every polling station. We are looking at the long-term feasibility of this matter.
In recent times, we have introduced important new controls in the voting process. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2002 contains more stringent requirements for entry to the supplement to the register. For the 2002 general election, polling staff were advised by Department guidelines to require at least 25% of voters to produce an identity document. That increased from 5%. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 made unlawful possession or use of someone else's polling card a specific offence. Strong legislation must be mirrored by vigilance on the part of polling staff and impersonation agents to ensure that only those eligible are permitted to vote. I hope that message is received by local authorities, and particularly by local councillors, who are extremely loud in their criticism of the accuracy of the register. It begs the question of how many of those local councillors ask their county and city managers at estimates time what budgetary provisions they have in place to ensure the accuracy of the register and to monitor elections more rigidly than in the past.
The Department will continue to keep these issues, including the scope for further improvement, under review. It will be important to strike the right balance between the requirement to maintain the security and integrity of the electoral process and provide for a reasonable degree of flexibility in registration and voting arrangements. We want to encourage more people to register and vote.
Before turning to issues raised on the Bill, I will make a general point. It is most important that we maintain the tradition of implementing in full the recommendations of the Constituency Commission's report. Since the report of the first commission in 1977, its recommendations as presented in legislative form have never been changed by the Oireachtas. To reject some of the commission's recommendations may create a danger of reverting to the partisan approach of the past when constituency revisions were perceived as being framed to secure political advantage for the Government of the day. I certainly do not believe the Opposition would like us to return to that.
During the course of the debate, a number of Senators mentioned County Leitrim. I reiterate that we are all aware of the depth of feeling generated in Leitrim by the county being split between two constituencies. If one examines what the commission faced, one sees it had no option but to recommend change to the existing Sligo-Leitrim constituency. The commission brought forward its proposed solution and for the reasons I have already given, it is not proposed to depart from the package of recommendations that emerged from its deliberations. The commission's recommendations for Leitrim are in line with the constitutional requirements, in particular those concerning equality of representation, and with the commission's statutory terms of reference as set out by the Oireachtas in the Electoral Act 1997.
Senators Dooley, Minihan and Brady spoke about county loyalties. It is important to remember the Constituency Commission's terms of reference, as set out in section 6(2) of the Electoral Act 1997, require that breaches of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable. However, the commission's recommendations have on occasions been criticised for not keeping to county boundaries. While attachment to county boundaries is understandable we must never lose sight of the fact that the commission's terms of reference are subordinate to the relevant constitutional provisions, which do not refer to counties. In the High Court judgment of Mr. Justice Budd in the O'Donovan case, it was stated:
Although a system in the main based on counties has in fact been adopted, there is nothing in the Constitution about constituencies being based on counties. The Constitution does not say that in forming the constituencies according to the required ratio, that shall be done so far as is practicable having regard to county boundaries.
There is a danger that excessive importance will be given to county boundaries in the overall national approach to constituency revision. We must keep this in mind.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of protecting city and administrative county boundaries when drawing up constituency boundaries in Dublin. The administrative counties of Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown have been in existence for more than ten years. While they are forging ahead in serving their communities, they do not yet have the distinct identity of long-established counties. Over time, as the individual identities of the Dublin counties develop, we should possibly revisit the issue. However, it would be inadvisable at present to restrict the commission in the way in which it draws the constituency boundaries in the Dublin area.
With regard to avoiding the breach of city boundaries generally, the reality is that urban development around cities has spilled over into adjoining counties. Many people living outside the city boundaries have a strong affinity and loyalty to their city and would prefer to be included in city constituencies. For these reasons, we should not require the commission to avoid, where practicable, breaching city boundaries.
Senator McDowell also referred to the constituency of Dublin North-Central. Of the 42 existing constituencies, only three lost population between 1996 and 2002. These were Dublin North-East, Dublin North-West and Dublin North-Central. Taking those three adjoining constituencies together, the variance from national average representation for their ten seats is minus 9.41%, requiring significant changes to the existing constituency formation. Removing a seat from the area would give an acceptable variance of plus 0.65% for the remaining nine seats and as Dublin Nort-East and Dublin North-West are already three seaters, neither could shed a seat. It is clear, therefore, that any reduction of a seat in the area had to come from the four seater Dublin North-Central constituency. It is a fact that seats follow population. This is a requirement of our Constitution. Action had to be taken and that is what the commission recommended.
Senator Bradford raised the issue of titles of constituencies. The Schedule to the Bill sets out in detail both the name and composition of each of the proposed constituencies. The Schedule mirrors the first appendix to the Constituency Commission's report and as I stated previously, the commission's recommendations are being accepted as a package. I cannot foresee circumstances in which amendments seeking to alter either the composition or the name of a constituency would be acceptable. Even minor changes to the commission's recommendations would represent the first step back to the unsatisfactory situation that pertained in the past. The Government does not want to go down that road, nor does it intend to do so.
Senator Bannon, under section 6, spoke of the Electoral Act 1997 that exempted four of the five items dealt with here from being counted as election expenditure. These are free postage provided for candidates, a service provided free by an individual, normal media coverage, and the transmission on radio or television of a broadcast on behalf of a candidate or a political party. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 1998 also exempted a service provided by an employee of a political party, the fifth item at issue here. The Kelly judgment by the High Court in May 2002 and that of the Supreme Court the following November declared separate exemptions for expenses of public representatives paid for out of public funds to be unconstitutional in respect of Dáil and European elections. The judgments were silent on using public funds for presidential elections, and that had to be addressed. In the event, the amendment made by section 33 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 went too far. It deleted the five items under consideration here, in addition to those directly relating to the Kelly judgment. It was an inadvertent drafting error. The five items are now being restored in section 6 of this Bill. I hasten to add that Senators on the opposite side of the House would be the first to criticise us in Government if we did not act on this issue once it was brought to our attention by the Standards in Public Office Commission. The items at issue are of benefit to all the candidates in an election, not just to sitting Deputies or Senators.
I stress the Government's view that the Constituency Commission recommendations are a package that must be accepted or rejected in their entirety. The Government decided to follow the established practice of implementing in full the recommendations of the independent commission. I thank Senators again for their contributions. There will be further debate on these important issues when we return to the Bill on Committee Stage. I thank the Senators for their engagement on this important legislation.