Wednesday, 6 March 2019
European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage
As Senators will be aware, a decision on the number of representatives to be elected to the European Parliament in each member state for the upcoming parliamentary term was made by the European Council on 28 June 2018. That Council decision, establishing the composition of the European Parliament, provides for 13 Members to be elected in Ireland for the parliamentary term, up from 11 seats in the current Parliament. The Council decision reduces and redistributes European Parliament seats following the decision by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union on 29 March 2019. The new composition will reduce the size of the European Parliament from 751 MEPs to 705. Of the 73 seats vacated by the United Kingdom, 27 will be reallocated to better reflect the principle of degressive proportionality. The 27 seats will be distributed to some 14 member states, including Ireland, with no member state losing a seat.
This change necessitated a review of European Parliament constituencies in Ireland, with the result that a European Parliament constituency committee was established by order under section 5(1A) of the Electoral Act 1997 on 24 July 2018. In arriving at its recommendations, the committee was required to have regard to the terms of reference set out in Part Il of the Electoral Act 1997. In addition, the committee was required to report to the Ceann Comhairle no later than two months after its establishment - that is, by 24 September 2018 - and was required to hold a public consultation process to inform its deliberations. Against this background, the committee's report was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 24 September 2018, after which It was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.
In summary, the Report on European Parliament Constituencies 2018 recommended that the State continue to be divided into three constituencies. The first is a four-seat Dublin constituency comprising Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, Fingal and South Dublin; and the city of Dublin. In effect, the existing Dublin constituency gains one additional seat but otherwise remains unchanged. The second is the four-seat Midlands–North West constituency comprising counties Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo and Westmeath, and the city of Galway.While the number of MEPs in the Midlands-North-West constituency does not change, its geographical territory is reduced by the transfer of Laois and Offaly into the South constituency. The third is a five-seat South constituency, comprising the counties of Carlow, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Tipperary, Wexford and Wicklow, the cities and counties of Limerick and Waterford, and the city of Cork. In summary, this constituency gains an additional seat with its territory increasing to include Laois and Offaly in order to maintain reasonable equality of representation.
The Bill before the House today provides for the implementation of the recommendations of the report on European Parliament Constituencies 2018 in full and without change. This approach is consistent with established practice since the first independent Constituency Commission reported in 1980. In addition to constituencies, the Bill provides for a number of technical amendments to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 in order to implement certain requirements set out in the EU Council decision of 13 July 2018. This Council decision, which aims to modernise the European Union's electoral law, known as the Act of 1976, was adopted in July 2018 under the special legislative procedure following more than two years of negotiations between the European institutions. The Council decision inserts a number of provisions into the Act of 1976, some mandatory and some voluntary, which are intended to take effect in advance of the holding of the elections to the European Parliament scheduled to take place at the end of May.
The Bill contains nine sections. Section 1 provides that the Principal Act referred to in the Bill is the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. That is the Act that is being amended. Section 2 amends section 6 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 in order to remove the explicit references to the United Kingdom in subsections (1) and (4) of that section. These provisions implement certain requirements in relation to the exchange of information on the registration of voters between member states. It should be noted that these amendments do not remove the right of British citizens resident in the State to vote at elections to the European Parliament. Those rights are contingent upon their continued citizenship of the European Union as set out in the European treaties. These amendments provide that British citizens resident in the State will no longer be exempt from the requirements of EU Directive 93/109/EC in the context of the registration of voters and that the exchange of information requirements, which are to prevent double voting. They will fully apply to British citizens resident in the State in the event that the United Kingdom does not withdraw from the European Union and its citizens therefore continue to hold the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament. While member states are permitted to differentiate between their own citizens and those from other member states, having different regimes in place for different European citizens is considered to be incompatible with the requirements of the directive.
Section 3 amends section 10 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to extend the minimum period of time by which a polling day order must be made announcing the date for the holding of a poll for an election to the European Parliament. This amendment is consequential to the amendment in section 6 to extend the timeframe for the giving of the notice of election, as set out in rule 2 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. A polling day order will now be made not less than 60 days in advance of polling day at elections to the European Parliament, which is an increase on the current 50 days.
Section 4 amends section 11 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 to remove a number of explicit references to the United Kingdom and to British citizens from the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, similar to provisions previously referred to in section 2. In section 11, these references relate to the exchange of information in relation to the eligibility of a person to stand for election to the European Parliament, rather than to the exchange of information on the registration of voters. These amendments provide that British citizens resident in the State will no longer be exempt from the requirements of EU Directive 93/109/EC in the context of their eligibility to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament and that the exchange of information requirements, which are to prevent a candidate from standing if he or she has been prohibited from doing so in his or her home member state, will also fully apply to British citizens resident in the State in the event that the United Kingdom does not withdraw from the European Union. Should the United Kingdom legally depart the European Union, its citizens will no longer have a right to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament. In addition, this section amends subsections 4 and 4A in section 11 which provide that certain members in these Houses, if they stand for election to the European Parliament and are deemed elected at the end of a count, must resign their Oireachtas membership upon being deemed to be elected. In a scenario where there is a delay in the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the provisions of Article 3(2) of European Council decision (EU) 2018/937 of 28 June 2018 establishing the composition of the European Parliament will apply. In practical terms, this means that two MEPs deemed to be elected, of the 13 deemed to be elected, may not take up their seats in the European Parliament until the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union becomes legally effective. Accordingly, given the uncertainty surrounding the timing of when those two MEPs may be allowed to take up their seats, the amendments to subsections 4 and 4A will provide that the prescribed officeholders would not have to cease holding their existing office until such time as they take up their seats in the next European Parliament. The provision relates to dual mandates.
Section 5 amends section 15 of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 in order to provide that the counties, the cities and counties and the cities listed in the new Third Schedule to the Principal Act of the Bill will be those in existence on 1 September 2018. That was when the Constituency Committee was preparing its report. As members of the House will be aware, European Parliament elections in Ireland are administered on a local authority basis within their wider European Parliament constituencies and are jointly held with the local elections. Accordingly, for the purpose of the efficient administration of the local and European elections in Cork, subsection (b) amends section 15 of the Act to ensure that provision is made for the change to the Cork city boundary, as provided in the Local Government Act 2019, to come into effect in advance of the local and European elections. That will enable the local returning officers in Cork to undertake such preparatory work as may be necessary to facilitate the taking of the poll within the revised administrative areas on the polling day.
Section 6 provides for amendments to rules 2, 5, 10, 18, 19, 50, 88, 92, 94 and 96 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997. The extension of the current timeframe for the giving of the notice of election, as set in rule 2 will ensure that the mandatory requirements under Council Decision (EU, Euratom) 2018/994, which I mentioned earlier in respect of the three week deadline for receipt of nominations, as well as the six week deadline for the commencement of the exchange of information will be achieved. A notice of election will now be issued by the returning officer at least 45 days, disregarding excluded days, before polling day, which is an increase on the current 35 days. Separately, the amendments to rules 5 and 50 will allow candidates standing for election to the European Parliament the option to include on their ballot papers the name of any European political party or group to which their national political party may be affiliated. The application of this provision will be entirely voluntary and whether the name of a European political party is included on a ballot paper is a matter for prospective candidates and their national political parties to decide. Similar to the provisions in sections 4(a) and 4(b), the amendments to rules 5(1)(c), 6, 10, 18, 19 and 96 provide that British citizens resident in the State will no longer be exempt from the requirements of EU Directive 93/109/EC in the context of their eligibility to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament and that the exchange of information requirements will fully apply to British citizens resident in the State in the event that the United Kingdom does not withdraw from the European Union. These amendments are of particular importance in rule 10 of the Second Schedule, which provides that British citizens who wish to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament held in Ireland have 14 days in which to submit their nominations form. That is the deadline that applies to Irish citizens who wish to stand for election. To be compatible with the directive, British citizens should be treated the same as citizens from another European Union country resident in Ireland who have seven days in which to return their nominations forms. Legal opinion provided by the Attorney General has confirmed that different deadlines for different European citizens would likely amount to direct discrimination between Union citizens and may not be capable of being justified.
The amendments in this section to rules 88, 92 and 94 are intended to provide for a delay in the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.In this scenario, it is proposed that the two members who do not take up their seats immediately in the European Parliament will be the last person elected in the constituency of South and the last person elected in the constituency of Dublin, those being the two constituencies that have gained the additional seats.
In the event that the last remaining candidates in the constituencies of Dublin and South are not in a position to take up their seats due to a delay in the UK's exit from the EU, the principle of equality of representation within these two constituencies, which underpinned the recommendations of the constituency committee, would be affected for the duration of any delay. Representation in the Dublin constituency would be 449,120 per MEP, a variance of +3.75% from a national average representation based on 11 seats, while representation in the South constituency would be 472,747 persons per MEP, which is a variance of +9.21% from the national average representation. The difference between the lowest variance, which would be Midlands-North-West at -12.02%, and the highest variance, which would be South at +9.21%, would be 21.23%. While this would be the highest on record, variances of approximately +20% were recommended and adopted in 1977, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2007, respectively. This variance is considered unavoidable and temporary given the use of sub-national multi-seat constituencies for the holding of elections to the European Parliament in Ireland. This issue would, however, be resolved when the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union becomes legally effective.
To ascertain the last persons deemed to be elected in Dublin and South, rule 88 of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 makes provision for the election of the last remaining candidates in a European constituency. Where a delayed withdrawal occurs, it is proposed to amend rule 88 to allow for the transfer of votes to continue for the last remaining candidates in Dublin and South until the final candidates in these constituencies are deemed to be elected. This will ensure that the last remaining candidates will each have a total number of votes, which can be used to inform which candidate in each of the two constituencies will not take up his or her seat in the event that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU is deferred post the holding of the European Parliament elections at the end of May next.
The amendment to rule 92 complements the amendment to rule 88 in that it provides that the returning officers in Dublin and South will publicly announce the order of election in respect of the last remaining candidate deemed to be elected in each of those constituencies. This will ensure that the order of election in respect of the last candidate in each of the constituencies of Dublin and South is publicly clear and unambiguous. The amendments to rule 94 will provide for the deferral of the last candidates to be elected in Dublin and South from taking up their seats in the European Parliament until a date for the additional seats allocated to a number of member states, including Ireland, to be taken up is established.
Section 7 provides for the substitution of the Third Schedule of the Principal Act. The new Third Schedule sets out the name of each constituency, the counties and cities that form each constituency, and the number of members who will be elected for each constituency in European elections held after 1 January 2019. Under these arrangements, the population per MEP in the three constituencies ranges from 336,840 to just 380,879, which is a narrow range in terms of the variance of population per MEP. Thus, there is a fair balance of representation between the three constituencies.
Section 8 is a consequential amendment from the changes proposed in section 6 and amends section 25 of the Electoral Act 1992 to allow national political parties the option of including on the Register of Political Parties the name of any European group to which they may be affiliated. Section 9 is a standard provision providing for the Bill's Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement.
The Bill has the specific purpose of providing for how we elect our MEPs to represent Ireland in the next European Parliament. I look forward to the debate on the Bill and commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister of State and welcome him to the House.
Fianna Fáil supports this legislation, which implements the independent commission's recommendations on new boundaries for EU Parliament elections and increases Ireland's representation from 11 to 13 MEPs due to the redistribution of the UK's seats. These additional seats may be subject to a freeze in the case that Article 50 is extended and Britain temporarily remains in the EU. It is frustrating to be making statements in the uncertainty that Brexit has presented us with.
While a minor aspect of the overall Brexit issue, the seat redistribution raises legal questions. It is not legally possible to give Northern Ireland two additional seats under the distribution of the UKs seats. Ireland must have a strong voice in the reshaping of the internal EU Parliament system. The EU Parliament has grown in importance over the past decade. It is vital that we are present in the debate and that we have a vibrant and engaged debate in the upcoming election and select a strong team to represent Irish interests in the only directly elected EU institution. Sinn Féin cynically claimed Northern Ireland should be allocated seats but this is not legally possible.
The European Parliament is the world’s only transnational parliament that is directly elected. It has powers over important decisions, such as how public money is spent through the EU's common budget, and how the Single Market is regulated. We must have a strong voice in those decisions.
There are currently 751 MEPs in the EU Parliament. Brexit will result in 73 MEPs exiting the parliament as well as a reduction of one member of the Commission. The new figure will be 705, allowing for other population changes. Ireland benefits with two additional seats.
The next election will fundamentally reshape the Parliament and the long-standing centrist majority is due to be ended. Ireland needs to take a stand to resist the tides of populism. The European Court of Justice case law M. G. Eman and O. B. Sevinger v. College van burgemeester clearly states that citizens should be treated equally. Cherry-picking specific citizens outside of the State above others would clearly breach that principle of equal treatment, that is, Northern Ireland being elevated above the Irish citizens. This means the seats would have to open to all Irish citizens regardless of residency.
Establishing a new national list constituency if the right to vote was extended to all Irish citizens as required the equal treatment provisions in case law would transform the Irish electoral system. A single list would remove the regional bias which is a crucial part of Irish politics and disenfranchise rural areas, particularly in peripheral parts of the country.
That scenario also raises the question: why should it be limited to the two seats? If the principle is established, proportionality demands that each citizen is treated broadly similarly within reason. Just two MEPs for all non-resident citizens could breach that principle. Even if it was a single Northern Irish constituency, the issue of proportionality would apply. Citizens on the island would be significantly treated differently due to residency, for example, citizens of Cork would have a major representation difference with Northern Ireland citizens.
It is within EU and ECHR law to restrict voting rights based on residential requirements. This is the practice in Ireland and is only currently being reviewed through a popular referendum that is restricted to the presidential election. It would be undemocratic and a dramatic shift for the State to depart from this long established practise in the area of EU Parliament elections given that the electorate as not made a decision on the issue in the upcoming referendum yet. As a result, Fianna Fáil accepts the recommendations today and we will vote in favour of the legislation.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Bill. While Sinn Féin may disagree with what is being suggested, it is understandable what is being proposed by Government given the unprecedented circumstances.
The proposal of withholding two MEPs from taking up their role until such time as we have certainty as regards the completion of the first stage of Brexit is something that I am uncomfortable with. The proposal suggests a large contradiction with the ethos of PR-STV. If a fourth-placed candidate happens to be in fourth place whenever the final count takes place does not mean that he or she was the fourth placed in the European constituency's preference. For example, in Dublin, if a candidate is in fourth place when the final count comes to an end, his or her running mate may have been fifth and his or her transfers were not distributed. If the fifth-placed candidate was the fourth-placed candidate's running mate from the same political party or from a similar ideology or locality, his or her transfers would have a different effect on the fourth-placed candidate's place had he or she been eliminated earlier, or if the party had run only one candidate, the place and vote share would be substantially different.This is one of the many reasons we give candidates elected under the proportional representation and the single transferable vote, PRSTV, system equal weight in their election. To suggest they are lesser elected candidates shows a very deep misunderstanding. However, I hope that in this instance MEPs are not kept waiting for a substantial amount of time, unable to represent their constituents in the European Parliament as they are properly elected to do.
If Article 50 is extended by a renewed agreement but Britain does not wish to hold European elections, these MEPs-in-waiting may be left on the sidelines for a year or two years of their term due to where they happen to fall in the final count of their election. As things currently stand, an extension of Article 50 would mean European Parliament elections taking place in Britain and the North. A renewed agreement may seek to avoid that due to the conflict it may cause in Britain.
My party and I do not support distributing additional MEP seats across the State. I do not wish to dwell on this, but I respectfully suggest that should other scenarios like this arise, we should not lock this solution in as a default remedy by setting a precedent. Our party's solution is radically different. As this House will know, we wish to allocate the two additional seats to the North. The representation of the people of the North in the European Parliament by candidates from the North is absolutely crucial. Their voices are instrumental in providing diversity. They can play a vital role in interacting with the European Parliament to ensure the effectiveness of the backstop, to ensure there is no hard border, to ensure legacy issues are brought to European attention and to ensure that citizens' rights under the Good Friday Agreement are upheld. This all needs to continue regardless of Britain's membership of the European Union. In effect, by losing these seats, none of these concerns can be pursued by MEPs mandated to do so by people in the North. We can claim that MEPs in the South will do this. However, the sentiment that MEPs in the South can represent everyone in the North is disrespectful. It is a piecemeal approach that we should not be satisfied to stand over. We do not have any right to decide who the North's European representatives should be no matter where they stand.
I want to address Fianna Fáil's claims that the solution of providing two additional seats in the North is somehow legally unworkable. This claim is made despite Fianna Fáil being furnished with legal opinion to the contrary. It is only right that we give due consideration to the rights of citizens in the North. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the birthright to Irish and British citizenship in the North is enshrined. The rights of Irish citizens in this instance mean that they will be EU citizens from birth. However, they will not be able to exercise those rights.
This is explicitly provided for in paragraph 52 of the joint report from the negotiators of the European Union and the United Kingdom Government of December 2017, which states:
The people of Northern Ireland who are Irish citizens will continue to enjoy rights as EU citizens, including where they reside in Northern Ireland. Both Parties therefore agree that the Withdrawal Agreement should respect and be without prejudice to the rights, opportunities and identity that come with European Union citizenship for such people and, in the next phase of negotiations, will examine arrangements required to give effect to the ongoing exercise of, and access to, their EU rights, opportunities and benefits.
Similarly, they will probably not be furnished with the opportunity to vote from the North in a southern constituency. I should highlight that we are one of the only EU states that do not furnish voting rights for citizens outside the jurisdiction in European elections. In discussions of a proposed referendum to extend presidential voting rights, there is a general acceptance across all political parties that all Irish citizens should have the opportunity to have their say on who represents them. The current franchise does not include citizens in the North or abroad, as it should. We should think likewise in terms of our MEPs. For that reason, we fundamentally disagree with the principle of the Bill and we will be opposing it on Second Stage.
I thank the Minister of State for bringing this legislation forward. It is extremely important that we elect 13 very good people to the European Parliament. The Minister of State has outlined the numbers. The European Parliament has a very large membership. People may not be aware that MEPs have only one minute of speaking time in the Parliament. The main work of the Parliament is in its committees. In the time I spent there, it was not unusual to attend up to 12 committee meetings in one day. If a Member did not attend a certain percentage of committees, he or she did not have speaking rights in the Parliament in the debate on that particular issue. One of the problems Members faced was dealing with the issues as they arose. Each and every item in the Parliament is important and MEPs must watch out for Irish interests. We enjoyed good support in the European Parliament from the permanent representatives based in Brussels. When I was a Member there were more than 90 permanent representatives from the Irish Civil Service. Within 24 hours of looking for clarification on an issue, I normally got a document of four or five pages clarifying each and every part of my concerns on an issue, outlining the Irish view and noting why our MEPs should be careful around it. It is extremely important. They are a group of people we do not acknowledge often enough.
It is important we elect people who are able to do the work, who will put in the research and who will give leadership in the Parliament. That is extremely important, especially within the committees. As I outlined yesterday, when I was there, I was on the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection. The committee work was intense. For instance, I was the leader of the EPP group dealing with the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive. More than 400 amendments to the document, which was drafted by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, were moved. We had to watch each and every word and proposal in it. Despite what the media might say, this is not a gravy train. That seems to be the line that some people in the media take. I remember doing an interview with someone from Strasbourg in which the journalist complained about our expenses claims and pay. That same person was on ten times the salary of an MEP. On the topic of the media, Mr. Tony Connelly has done a superb job over many years in reporting on the Parliament and the work that is done in Brussels. He has provided very accurate and up-to-date reportage on each part of the Brexit proceedings.
It is important that we have a proper structure for elections. This Bill sets up that structure and gives voters an opportunity to vote for people who they feel are adequately equipped and experienced to represent this country. Given that we had only 11 MEPs and will now have 13, Ireland's big problem is the huge number of committees within the Parliament. I am not sure what the current number is. I believe it is well above 20. It is not always possible for Members from Ireland to be on each and every committee. During my service an MEP normally served on two committees. At times it was difficult to cover matters ongoing in the committees. Increasing our membership will therefore be of benefit in that we will now have two more people to attend committees, such as the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, the Committee on Foreign Affairs or the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection. It is important that MEPs sit on the committees that are relevant to Ireland. Our MEPs work hard, despite what some people may say. Our big problem in reporting back from the European Parliament is making the issues relevant to what is happening back home.I recall debating the cross-border healthcare directive in 2008-09, which was only finally signed-off by parliament in 2011. If one were to contact the media on the subject, the standard response was, "We have already covered that", and they would have covered it. It was, therefore, difficult to demonstrate subsequently that any further work had been done on it. This is a disadvantage in making what happens in the European Parliament relevant to people's lives here in Ireland. Numerous changes were initiated in the European Parliament. The current parliament is dealing with policy and decisions that affect 500 million people. Following the forthcoming changes it will be 440 million, which is still a large number of people for whom to develop policy.
I thank the Minister of State for bringing forward the Bill. I look forward to working with him on it, and for it to pass all Stages in the Oireachtas.
Go raibh mhaith agat. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I will not oppose the Bill, as it implements exactly the recommendations of the independent constituency commission. However, that does not mean that those recommendations are above criticism. I will return to that.
We are here yet again rushing a Bill through all Stages over the course of a day. Last Sunday, the Minister for Justice and Equality again bemoaned the conduct of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 in the House and tweeted that it "underlines the urgent need for root and branch Seanad reform or a second referendum". I like the Minister for Justice and Equality. He is a very likeable fella, but this is yet another example of sensible people saying rather insane things on Twitter. It is a comment that shows a certain hypocrisy in how the Government proceeds with its own legislation through this House. Ministers complain about the time taken on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill and yet the Government managed to ram its abortion legislation through the Seanad in three days.
On a point of Order, I wish to acknowledge Senator Mullen's remarks. The business of the House is usually agreed at a group meeting of the leaders. That is normally the case and there are exceptions. There were no disagreements on this Bill or the other Bill to which the Senator referred at the group Leaders meeting.
Where there is a will, there is a way but it is no way for the Legislature to run its business. I do not care where that criticism falls, whether it is on the Government side or on any of the groups.
I have a couple of observations on the proposed changes to the constituencies. I speak as someone who sought election in the Midlands North West constituency in 2014. It received 36,000 votes, enough to maintain my amour propre but a few votes short of a quota. There is a perception out there of a democratic deficit between the voters and our MEPs, despite the hard work, no doubt, of our MEPs. The vast size of the Midlands North West and South constituencies, particularly in contrast with the relatively confined geography of Dublin is a contributory factor to this perception. As a result of the boundary changes proposed by the Constituency Commission, Laois and Offaly are transferred into Ireland South. I refer, for example, to the towns of Clara and Edenderry, both in County Offaly. Voters in these communities live north of the Galway-Dublin railway line yet they are now to be told with a straight face that they are in the south of the country. This is news which will be greeted with a hoot of derision in those towns. Worse still, of the four sitting MEPs in Ireland South, one is based in Cork city, two others in west Cork and the fourth is in Kerry. This geographical spread is unlikely to change significantly in the upcoming elections. If I am correct, how can voters in Laois and Offaly feel that they have any buy-in to decision-making in Europe if they are represented by MEPs who are based so far away from them?
Previous Constituency Commissions and the larger political parties have made the point that moving areas from one constituency to another with which people have little geographic affinity leads to a disconnect and a reduction in voter turnout in those areas. I am thinking not so much of Kilkenny or Waterford but particular parts of Tipperary and Kildare which found themselves in Offaly and Laois, respectively, in recent general elections. Turnout fell in the areas that were moved because people felt that their votes did not count. This factor is surely pushing down turnout in European Parliament elections as well and I fear that it will do so again this year.
The size of the constituencies was perhaps defensible in a scenario where the number of MEPS had been reduced to 11 but surely not now that the number has been increased to 13 once again, which is the same number as in 2004. The fairest way of dealing with this would have been to return to the constituencies we had in 2004, namely, a four-seat Dublin constituency and three seat-constituencies roughly comprising the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Connaught-Ulster. Adding a constituency in this way would dramatically reduce the size of the constituencies overall and reduce the geographical disconnect I mentioned.
The terms of reference given to the Constituency Commission would have allowed this configuration. The commission specifically mentions in its report that the division of the country outside Dublin into three-seat constituencies was something that it could have recommended and stated, "All of the options that were considered by the committee achieved reasonable equality of representation and all arrangements were configured so that no breaches of county boundaries occurred." However, it went on to say, not once but twice, "The committee considered that the continuation of a three constituency arrangement would be most in keeping with its terms of reference." The commission felt that it was being corralled into maintaining the existing configuration of constituencies. Clearly this is a reference to the final line of the terms of reference which states, "Subject to the above provisions, the committee shall endeavour to maintain continuity in relation to the arrangement of constituencies." Reading between the lines, the commission must have felt itself hamstrung by this proviso, and that it could not propose a more radical and sensible reshaping of the constituencies as a result. It is also an open secret in these Houses that the incumbent MEPs from Fine Gael lobbied their party to maintain the status quo. This is probably because if three-seat constituencies had been created along provincial lines, as in returning to the 2004 boundaries, then two of the Fine Gael MEPs, one in Cork and one in Kerry, would almost certainly have had to face off against each other. The commission, it seems, was able to read the mood music both from its terms of reference and in submissions from the Fine Gael Party. It states in the report twice that it was not inclined to pursue this option, even though it acknowledged that it was possible in terms of population spread and the terms of reference. It may be a good outcome for Fine Gael, but it is a poor outcome for voters in many areas of these vast constituencies who will feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the EU election process as a result.
Why was the commission hamstrung by its terms of reference, confining it to three, four, and five-seat constituencies? Is it not the case that this could be permanently addressed by electing a full slate by some kind of list system with a mix of voting for parties and individuals? This is done in many member states. It ensures that parties with large mandates have good representation but it also ensures that small parties and independents are protected. It is a pity that the terms of reference did not allow consideration of that issue. I would be interested in the Minister of State's opinion on the matter. It would be much fairer, would not disadvantage anybody and would bring us together. One can understand in the context of the Dáil and so on, how local representation is so key, but given that it is impossible in constituencies of this size should we not just say that it is an opportunity to elect 13 MEPs as a country.
On the Bill itself, I am unhappy with the current proposal to simply put the last two elected MEPs in stasis or in limbo in the Dublin and Ireland South constituencies.This is not a fair way of doing it and the same party is at risk of being penalised twice. My office sought to submit amendments for alternative proposals but found the process deeply complex so we were unable to do so. One option that has been advocated by Professor Michael Gallagher, with whom I know the Minister is familiar, is to have two election counts, with one filling the full number of seats in Ireland South and the other to fill just four seats, as the results would necessarily pan out differently. This would also be complicated and time-consuming. Another option is to assign seats to be taken using the d'Hondt method after the results of the first count. This would be fair and easy, and it would not involve an extra count. It is a pity we are not going to look into these options. As the Minister of State knows, I have skin in the game and I am the Green Party candidate for Ireland South so he can imagine how I would feel if I got the fifth seat but found I could not take it up. It would be a desperate position after all the campaigning.
The current size of the constituencies demonstrates that a regional approach to the allocation of seats to the European Parliament no longer makes sense. Last year I moved an amendment to the Bill's predecessor to create a single national constituency in recognition that these elections are about representing Ireland in Europe. Having spent the past few months on the campaign trail, I believe that a single constituency would be fairer. Those candidates in the Dublin area can criss-cross the constituency in the matter of a few hours. In Ireland South and the northern constituency, there is a huge amount of travel involved. I echo the point from Senator Rónán Mullen that Ireland must be represented and one constituency would be a fair way of doing that.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will be very brief and I will not oppose the Bill. I put this on the record because I listened to my good colleague, Senator Mullen, speaking about the Bill. I will not be contentious with the Leader but it is not a matter for the leaders and whips in their meeting to implement the Order of Business, as this House discusses the Order of Business. We have had a continuing argument for the past week or two on the Order of Business. It is adopted in this House by Members every day. I do not want to have to keep repeating that argument. What people might say or do in the ante-room is another day's work but they do not have the power to agree the Order of Business for this House. As long as I am in the House, I will continue to argue that the Order of Business is for us to decide. If it means making adjustments to that order on a daily basis to reaffirm that power, I will continue to do it.
I have one question to ask of the Minister of State about the Bill. Are Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, South Dublin and the city of Dublin counties or local electoral administrative areas? There is a subtle difference between the terms and perhaps the Minister of State has had legal advice on it. I am interested in hearing that position. There would be ramifications depending on the Minister of State's response, as he knows the constitutional provisions relating to the nomination of candidates for the presidency, as it clearly mentions counties. I am not asking a question where I know the answer. What is the legal definition of South Dublin, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Fingal? Are they counties clearly set down in law? It is my only query and I will not be opposing the Bill. I thank the Minister of State again for coming the House.
With respect to my learned friend and colleague, Senator Boyhan, it is the job of the Leader of the House to put before that House the business of the day. It is the job of the House to agree or reject it. Nobody is disputing that but the Senator seems to have been misguided on what I said. I did not say what he has implied at all. It is my job as Leader to put the schedule to the House. That is the point I made. I also indicated there was no disagreement on the taking of this Bill and the way we ordered its associated business. It is a valid point.
I welcome the legislation and this evening's debate on the future of our European constituencies. We had a very good debate last night on the future of Europe and it is a pity not all Members participated in it because it was so enlightening. We had divergent views. In a post-Brexit world, the power and importance of the European Parliament will become more relevant. After the redistribution of the United Kingdom seats, we will have an extra two seats, which is to be welcomed. The Minister of State mentioned the principle of redistribution but this is about ensuring the European Union and the European Parliament would be seen to work on behalf of the citizen. The democratic deficit expressed by Senator Mullen will not be bridged by the taking of all Stages of this Bill today but that will come through engagement with the citizens of Europe.
Many of us would have issues with constituency boundary commission reports; I have a number of them, as the Minister of State knows quite well, from a local and national perspective. It is an independent body and although sometimes we find it hard to fathom the decisions, Senator Mullen's contribution was extraordinary. It is the right of every political party and citizen to make a submission to the commission. I have done so with respect to the Cork South-Central and the proposed new local government structure for Cork. That is the right of a citizen. The Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, has opened a six-week consultation process this week. This is not the preserve of a small few and it is open to all of us.
Equally, I found it amusing to hear Senator Mullen speak about the "shoot-out" between two candidates. He is assuming the electorate will not make a change and he has assumed what the outcome will be. The Irish electorate is sovereign and it makes the decisions. We may not like those decisions but it is the power of the ballot box. It is why it is important to have independent boundary commissions. I have argued in the past that a politician, either retired or active, should be on such commissions as he or she would bring a certain expertise to the table. I have not heard what will happen if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union on time and on schedule. There are two seats in a limbo or holding pattern. The Members from Sinn Féin might say we should have had a member of the European Parliament from the North. I welcome our party's decision to invite Mr. Mark Durkan to contest the election. It is a very good move by the Fine Gael Party.
The Minister of State referenced the very topical issue of the city boundary change in Cork. In the context of this debate and the future of the city and county, it is important we get the transition right and ensure every opportunity is there for this to succeed. I do not share Senator Grace O'Sullivan's negativity about her chances as she is running a very good campaign. I have my own candidate in the field but we will not get into that just now.It may be an exercise for the Citizens' Assembly to consider the use of a list system for future elections to the European Parliament. I know we have discussed lowering the voting age to 16 years on a pilot basis, but perhaps we could look at that in tandem with a list system for European elections, given the importance of the European Parliament in future.
Senators have spoken about a number of issues relating to the Bill, for example, the additional representation of two MEPs. I know the Minister did not have a great deal of information on that when speaking in the Dáil, but perhaps the Minister of State might have more now. I would like to know what resources, if any, may be allocated to those elected as MEPs but who are not in a position to take their seats, in order to ensure their ongoing engagement with their electorate who have chosen them as their representative. They will still have a mandate of sorts.
I wish to focus on the narrowing of the franchise. Some UK citizens living in Ireland who vote in European elections in Ireland and have passionate views and are very committed to Europe care very much about that vote. There is a deep concern about the decision to remove those UK citizens effectively from the electoral register.
As the Minister of State will be aware, I have tabled a number of amendments. I may oppose the Government amendments but I am trying to produce a number of compromises. I am trying to ensure that those who are on the electoral register already do not find themselves removed from that electoral register in the forthcoming elections. It is very important that we make every effort and there is precedent. In the 1977 Act, which is the principal Act referred to in this Bill, we know there was an exemption made in respect of the 1994 electoral register. I am asking for a similar exemption to be made in respect of the current register, so that those on the register do not find themselves losing the franchise. During the debate in the Dáil, the Minister of State acknowledged that the legal advice available to him had concluded that it might be possible for member states to allow citizens of third countries resident in their territories to vote in European Parliament elections, but that he felt it was more prudent not to do so. As was mentioned in the Dáil debate, a European Court of Justice ruling in respect of Spain versus the United Kingdom on Gibraltar stated that a non-EU citizen would be able to vote in an European election. I have that ruling which is very clear. The argument made at that time, which the Minister of State referenced is around close ties. I do not think that anybody could argue with that. I am sure that if I looked back over the record, I would see every Minister speaking about close ties between Ireland and the United Kingdom. We also have the unique situation of the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement. I am also putting forward a very mild amendment to bring the definition of who may be allowed to vote in the 1992 Act into line with something which every citizen in this State voted for, that is, the amendment to Article 16.1.2o of the Constitution which reads: " such other persons in the State as may be determined by law.." That amendment simply seeks to provide that we would ensure there is scope for such other persons as may be provided for to have their vote.
We will have a chance to debate each of these amendments. I am also proposing a simple report in this area because this is not solely about UK citizens. There is a need for a review in respect of the rights of other non-EU citizens as well.
I was on a Vótáil 100 committee last year where we discussed the extension of the franchise to women. I am a member of the Seanad reform group who are pressing for reform to extend the franchise and widen the electorate to the Seanad.
I have been at a meeting listening to the young activists on climate change. As I said previously, we should be holding a vote to allow 16 year olds to vote in the European elections. This is something the European Parliament wanted. It is unfortunate at a time when we need an extension of the franchise that we would have a regressive step. The franchise is not simply a privilege for the individual, it is a service to us all. It serves us all to have as many people as possible involved in the decisions that affect our collective lives in Ireland and in Europe.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Let me begin with a quotation. The Taoiseach said:
To the nationalists people in Northern Ireland I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations. Your birthright as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens will be protected. There will be no hard Border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government. These rights will of course be available to everyone in Northern Ireland who chooses to exercise his or her right to be an Irish citizen, regardless of their political persuasions or religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, with the decision we will inevitably take tonight, the Government's commitment has fallen at the first hurdle. We are being left behind. The most basic entitlement and right of any citizen is the right to vote, the right to a franchise and the right to elect representation to whatever forum is democratically available to the individual. While I do not believe Senator Murnane O'Connor in her heart of hearts believes half of what she said, I have to take issue with the notion that on the one hand we should have a strong voice in Europe, while on the other hand denying a strong voice to her fellow citizens in the North. Imagine saying in this Chamber that giving people a vote, giving them a franchise, would be somehow undemocratic. I find that off the wall in terms of the political and electoral process. I also find it massively offensive. I resent the view that says to me that I and the hundreds of thousands of people like me in the northern part of this country are not just feeling like lesser Irish citizens but that by the actions here tonight we are being shown legislatively that we are lesser citizens because we have been denied this right to vote. I note what the Leader said in respect of the Fine Gael Party's actions during the week. At the end of the day, it is a matter for the Fine Gael Party to take the political decisions it wants to take. If Mark Durkan wants to be a Fine Gael Party candidate and run for the European Parliament, that is entirely his decision. He should be able to run in his native city, Derry - Doire Colmcille, that is where he should be standing and seeking votes, the same as any other candidate who want to himself or herself forward.
When Britain leaves the EU the first human right which will be denied to the people in the North, unionist and nationalist, is the right to vote in an European Parliament election, the right to have their voice heard in the EU by electing an EU candidate. This is particularly important, given the fact that we voted to remain in the EU and are being dragged out of it against our will. It would be universally welcomed across the North if the Government were to allocate the two seats to that constituency. It would restore the democratic needs of the people, which has been undemocratically and summarily removed from them by the British Government and the DUP.
Yesterday, the Seanad special select committee on Brexit visited the North. It was a busy day, meeting a number of groups, organisations and individuals. Almost universally, whether legal academics, professors or solicitors, all agreed that the Government was able to do this and that there was no legal impediment to allocating these two seats in the North. It is my view and that expressed by those experts yesterday. Members should talk to their colleagues in the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail Parties, because everyone was significantly moved by what he or she heard yesterday. Not only was there a legal rationale against this decision by Government, and in favour of a decision to allocate the two seats to the North, but there was a real palpable resentment at what was happening and a real sense of the loss of rights.The Irish Government could fill the democratic gap created by the British Government if it allocated the two seats northwards. The majority who voted to remain are the advance guard of democratic politics in that part of our country. Their democratic decision and stance should be acknowledged and enfranchised by the Irish Government. The best and most immediate way to do so is to allocate the two extra EU seats to the North.
A few hours ago in this Chamber I heard representatives of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael exhort the virtues of giving us a vote for the President. Last year, the Taoiseach was in here and made a firm political commitment, as well as a later commitment, not to leave us behind, that the Seanad should have a specific panel for the North and that people in the North should have the right to view. That was summarily agreed by us all and put forward in the Seanad reform group's recommendations. One has this talking out of both sides of one's mouth and the legal ability to do two things in this regard, namely, the Presidential election and the Seanad election. However, when it comes to the European Parliamentary elections there is a refusal to do so.
Irish citizens in the North have rights, or they should have rights, and the Irish Government is, or is supposed to be, the principal guarantor of those rights. It is important, as the date for Brexit draws closer, that people rally in defence of the Good Friday Agreement, in defence of their general rights and take to the streets to protect those hard won rights, if necessary.
I will attempt to address as many of the issues as I can. Many of the issues raised were similar. Senator Murnane O'Connor outlined her support for what is contained in this Bill. There was an exchange of views, particularly between the Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil Senators, on what to do with the two additional seats. In one sense, the whole argument is moot because the commission issued a report and that is what the legislation is based on. The commission recommended the allocation of seats that is contained in this Bill.
The other discussion while interesting and while people will have different views on it was on the practice since independent commissions were introduced that the Oireachtas implements their boundary reports. Senator Buttimer knows more than most about the impact of boundary commission reports on electoral prospects. He correctly pointed out that there has never been a report by a boundary committee on electoral issues that has not produced some controversy.
Senator Mullen expressed criticism of the report, which he is entitled to do. He very legitimately pointed out that the last terms of reference could have had a curtailing effect, which is a fair point to make. He went on to make outrageous political comments about the membership of the commission. In terms of the membership, there is the Clerk of the Seanad, the Clerk of the Dáil, a judge, although I am not sure whether the person is still a judge or has retired, the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the Ombudsman. The Senator made all sorts of stupid comments on lobbying that had been made or individual submissions by MEPs, which is natural political theatre. We should remember that the people who were involved in drawing up the report are public servants of the highest standing and we cannot just throw those kinds of allocations around the House. I expected better from him. I have been friendly with him for years and I am surprised that he threw out such glib comments about what the commission recommended. It is very unfair to say that the terms of reference that the commission was given, which are prescribed in the 1997 Act, could have led it to a certain outcome. Perhaps the House and the other House should consider those terms of reference in the future. The latter comment is perfectly legitimate but the rest of his comments were pretty scurrilous and contemptible.
Senator Warfield and others spoke about what I call the two cold storage MEPs and what status they will have. I think Senator Grace O'Sullivan spoke about the entitlements given to the two people who would hold the positions. It is a matter for the European Parliament, ultimately, to decide. The system of election to the European Parliament differs from what we have in our local authorities and the Oireachtas. When somebody is elected, whether it is at local authority or national level, the moment the votes are counted he or she is elected. In the European Parliament, there is a notion of taking up one's seats, which is the point of initiation and does not occur until the first week in July when the new European Parliament will sit. There is already a differentiation between our system and the traditional European system. I have said it in the Dáil and I will say it here again, the two cold storage MEP solution is not ideal but it is by far the least worst option in the sense that it maintains our system of election. Our system of election is based on geographical constituencies at every level. To introduce a completely new system, whether it is a list, a national constituency or some people being elected geographically, and the then the two additional ones being elected on a national panel, would be to completely throw on its head everything that we have ever had in terms of an electoral system. That might be an argument to be had into the future. In the immediate run up to an election I do not think that would have been an appropriate course of action to take.
We await the European Parliament. Senator Higgins asked specifically about the powers and the position of these two MEPs. We would be hopeful, certainly well in advance of the election and bearing in mind there is a Council meeting towards the end of this month, that there would be an indication given, not just to Ireland but to the other 13 member states that are getting an extra allocation of MEPs, as to the status of those particular people and the position that they will hold in the interregnum when the UK still has not formally left the European Union.
Senator Warfield spoke about the order of election. What we are proposing here is something very similar to what happens in Seanad elections already, that there would be a complete counting of votes. If a person from a particular political party is the fourth person in Dublin and his or her party colleague is the fifth person, if the gap between the third and the fourth person is less than the number of votes to be distributed from the fifth person, the fifth person will be eliminated and that will determine the order of election. Therefore, the person who on the face of it might be finishing fourth could end up finishing second or third. We are talking about completing the electoral count to determine the order of election.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan mentioned the views of Professor Michael Gallagher, a person that I respect. He has proposed two completely separate counts of the same ballots. One would not have to be a legal expert on electoral politics to know that his proposal might pose some issues. The Senator also spoke about the d'Hondt allocation. Again, that would be a complete change from what our electoral process has generally been.
In response to Senator Boyhan, the Local Government (Dublin) Act is the legislation that broke up the old Dublin County Council. I am reliably informed that section 9 of the Act is the one that formally recognised Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal and South Dublin as counties within our legal definition of what a county is, and Dublin city as a separate city authority. All our European electoral Acts since recognise Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, South Dublin and Fingal as separate counties.
In terms of what was mentioned by Senators Ó Donnghaile and Higgins, I addressed the issue of facilities for the cold storage MEPs. I understand their reservations about the fear of removing certain rights that UK citizens who are resident in Ireland may have. I reassure the Senators that there is no question of people being removed from the register. That categorisation is already there under the letter D before the name. If this legislation was to be adopted, instead of getting a ballot paper for the local elections, European election and a plebiscite, say if one lived in Waterford or Limerick, these people would still get the ballot paper for the local elections and the plebiscite.We have always had a connection in this country, as in most jurisdictions, between citizenship, residency and voting rights. That is the firm view, notwithstanding the European court judgment Senator Higgins pointed to in regard to Gibraltar. That judgment was based on Britain's accession to the European Economic Community in 1972, following the initial discussions. Britain gave within its own legislative framework special status to what were termed in its legislation colonies and Commonwealth members, and as citizens of those areas would be treated as European Union citizens, the European decision was based on that. The issue here is somewhat different in that we are talking about Britain leaving the EU.
If there was a solid legal way of keeping British citizens' voting entitlements, I would be open to it. However, one of the premises of the treaties is that to vote for the European Parliament, one must be a citizen of the Union, and that means being a citizen of a member state of the Union. That is not to deny there are many British citizens living in the EU who have dual citizenship and who will retain that right. Many British people living in Ireland have Irish citizenship and will retain the right to vote, even if this legislation is passed. However, it is very much the advice to the Government from the Attorney General in terms of the treaties of the European Union that we cannot retain a system where there is a blanket open door, if one likes. By the way, this will have no effect whatsoever on the reciprocal arrangement between Britain and Ireland in regard to parliamentary elections, whereby Irish citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in Ireland have votes at parliamentary level nationally. The European treaties are different and our duty in this legislation is to uphold those treaties.