Thursday, 22 May 1986
Dáil Eireann Debate
In addition, the Bill proposes to amend the electoral law to ensure that additional sheriffs appointed solely for the execution of tax certificates will not take on the duties of returning officer at Dáil and European Assembly elections and referenda.
The explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill explains fully the purpose and content of the Bill and it does not appear necessary for me to make a lengthy statement on the matter. Briefly, section 1 provides that in the event of a sheriff being appointed for a county or county borough outside of Cork and Dublin, the sheriff will have no function in relation to Dáil elections and referenda. Section 2 makes a similar provision in relation to European Assembly elections. Section 3 provides that a polling  card, containing the statement set out in Irish and English in the appendix to that section must be sent to every elector including postal voters. The statement will also be displayed on posters in and in the precincts of polling stations. Presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out the statement to them, where necessary, and asking them whether they wish to vote in favour of or against the proposal and then marking the ballot paper in accordance with the voter's answers. These arrangements are identical with those made in relation to previous referenda on Bills to amend the Constitution.
The information arrangements provided for in this Bill are additional to the permanent provisions of the referendum law under which copies of Bills to amend the Constitution are made available in post offices for inspection, free of charge, and for sale at a nominal charge.
The Bill is a technical one. Section 3 of the Bill is identical in form with previous similar measures. The important part of the content is the proposed statement in the Appendix to section 3 which sets out in full the text of the new subsection which the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill proposes to substitute for Article 41.3.2 of the Constitution.
The effect of sections 1 and 2 will be to maintain the present position in relation to returning officers in the event of additional sheriffs being appointed for the purpose of executing certificates of tax liability under the Income Tax Act, 1967.
Mr. R. Burke: It is a matter of regret that the Minister started on such an aggressive note on this issue which, as she said, is merely a technical Bill to put the machinery regarding the referendum in place. There is no question of any controversy about the Bill.
Sections 1 and 2 deal with sheriffs. This is also a technical matter and I have no intention of getting involved today in the rights or wrongs of the appointment of such sheriffs. That is a matter for another  day. Suffice it to say that this structure of sheriffs was promised last October with a great fanfare of trumpets by the Taoiseach but has not yet been put in place.
The referendum is a basic fundamental issue affecting society as we know it and all electors should have an opportunity of voting. It is quite obvious, from the response given by the Taoiseach this morning to a query in regard to postal voters, that the Government do not intend to take the opportunity of giving all the electors an opportunity to vote. I ask the Minister of State to assure the House that all voters who are disabled through age and illness, will be entitled to vote in the referendum and that the machinery to allow them to do so will be in place in time for the referendum. Such machinery already exists and has been used in local elections. In introducing this technical measure, the Minister of State should ensure that incapacitated persons should have the opportunity of voting.
Perhaps the Minister would also take the opportunity of clarifying the position in regard to personating agents? Government parties are, regrettably, campaigning in the referendum. Will they be using personating agents? Are those involved in the anti-divorce campaign entitled to nominate personating agents? Who is entitled to nominate personating agents to be present in the booths on polling day?
I will not delay the House. I appeal once more to the Government to allow the disabled and the elderly who, through no fault of their own, are unable to go to a polling station, to vote on a fundamental issue. It is their basic human right to exercise their choice in this matter.
Mr. Dowling: This is a technical Bill and there is not likely to be any controversy surrounding it. I am glad that the matter has been clarified in legislative form. These sheriffs have been appointed for the purpose of ensuring that tax collections are done properly in accordance with the law and they will not have any role to play in elections.
 I support the previous speaker regarding the right of extending postal voting to disabled persons and others who may not be in a position to vote in person. This is the most important referendum since 1937 when the Constitution was framed and everybody has the right to vote. I hope that persons who normally depend on the election machines of the various parties will exercise their vote. I do not intend to campaign in this matter, I will leave it to the intelligence of the electorate but I am concerned that disabled persons and those who are temporarily hospitalised will have the opportunity of voting. I ask the Minister of State to give serious consideration to that aspect of this amending legislation.
Mr. Leyden: I wish to add my support for the extension of the postal vote to disabled and handicapped persons and to those who are in hospital. This is a fundamental issue which will have a far reaching effect on everyone, including the disabled and, in fairness, they must be given an opportunity of participating in the referendum. This referendum should not go ahead unless every person over the age of 18 years is given an honest opportunity to vote in a particular way on referendum day. It would otherwise not be constitutional to allow this referendum on the amendment of Article 41, which will have a devastating effect on 70,000 families if carried by the Government. I regret that the Government are proposing to campaign in a political manner——
Mr. Leyden: A Cheann Comhairle, you may try to rule me out if you wish, but if you read through this Referendum Bill it refers to the item to be put before the people. Seeing that I was deprived for two days of contributing to this debate, I must get an opportunity of expressing my views in relation to the contents of the referendum.
An Ceann Comhairle: If the Deputy  will bear with the Chair for a moment, as the Chair sees it, the Bill deals with the machinery for holding a referendum. It does not form a platform or an occasion for opening up a discussion on the merits of the referendum or the matter which is being placed before the people.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair will not rule out a passing reference, but from his experience the Chair knows that passing references can very often develop into debates and can be abused. The matter which the Deputy wishes to raise now was dealt with in the House this week and last week and was agreed to. Certainly, it cannot now be re-opened. That is only reasonable, as well being in accordance with procedure.
Mr. Leyden: I can refer to referendum day. First, the referendum should not take place at the end of June, before we know the result of the recent census. The facts from that census will not come forward until autumn in 1986. That April census was taken at considerable expense, and I wonder at the unnecessary haste in putting this referendum before the people before they can be made aware of the facts arising from it? Some people have mentioned 70,000 families being affected, but we would like to have the exact number.
The referendum should also be postponed until the postal vote is introduced. People who have left these shores temporarily seeking employment should be given an opportunity of casting their vote in relation to this very important issue. I appeal to the political parties, particularly on the Government side, not to abuse the free postage available to Members of this House and the Seanad in relation to promoting a particular aspect of this referendum.
Mr. Leyden: I agree. I know that you would be above reproach in this regard. You would never lend an Oireachtas envelope to anybody, no matter what issue was involved. Deputy Flanagan made the point here last night on this matter and it should be investigated if Oireachtas envelopes have been made available to the pro-divorce group to promote their campaign. In relation to free postage, will this apply to the referendum campaign as to general election campaigns and other elections? If the Government side are promoting their side of the campaign, people with different views should have an opportunity to avail also of the free postal service, to convey their point of view, their concern and their objections to the changing of Article 41.
Mr. Leyden: Will personation agents be allowed for Deputies or for the anti-divorce group or the pro-divorce group to be present in the polling stations to ensure that the poll is carried out properly? Time is very short to allow this referendum to be fully considered by the people. I appeal to the broadcasting media, in particular, and the printed media to give a fair hearing to both sides of this debate on RTE and in the newspapers. This applies to referendum day. What happens on RTE in relation to this issue will have a bearing on the outcome of the referendum.
Mr. Leyden: I appeal to the media to be impartial and allow people to get both sides of the argument. There is not just the Government point of view, there is the anti-divorce view, which should be given a fair hearing in relation to section 3 of the 1976 Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act which updates——
Mr. Leyden: ——the 1960 Act. Information on the referendum issues should be clarified. Is it adequate to have only a poster appearing at the polling stations  indicating the proposed change in Article 41 of the Constitution? Is there any other method to brief fully the people on both sides of this argument? I appeal to the Government not to use political muscle to pressurise the people to vote in a particular way.
Mr. Leyden: The former Minister for Justice, Deputy Noonan, was responsible in his constituency for abusing electoral rights by using his State car to convey people to the polling station and by pressurising them and Ministers used their offices to send out——
Mr. Leyden: I appeal to the Minister of State to use her good offices to ensure that a postal vote will be given to all the people who need it on this occasion. It is absolutely vital. How can the Government agree to deprive disabled people of their vote on this major issue? It will deprive them of voting yes or no to a change in Article 41 of the Constitution. The result could affect their personal lives fundamentally. Perhaps the Government want to ensure that the disabled will not cast their votes, which could be the crucial votes in this campaign, to defeat the Government's proposal.
Mr. Leyden: Let the Minister of State say that she is in favour of the disabled  being given an opportunity to vote. If the Government are afraid of those votes and feel that their proposal will be beaten by them, let them state why they are not giving postal voting. That is the motivation behind the refusal to grant disabled people the vote.
Mr. Carey: I wish to be associated with the remarks of some of the speakers who spoke on behalf of a postal vote facility for disabled people. I listened with interest to Deputy Leyden accusing the Government of various kinds of connivance. I do not know if he reads the national newspapers. One possible reason for postal votes not being available on this occasion is because it was abused. Councillors of a particular party have been accused in court and, according to the newspapers, found guilty of abusing postal voting. That is the real difficulty in which the Government find themselves.
Postal voting was abused on the last occasion when this Government brought it in and it was also available at the previous election when this Government brought it in. The generosity with which Deputy Leyden expects the Government to act amounts to bending over to accommodate his views at all times. I must commend the Ceann Comhairle for his patience. He is very accommodating to Deputy Leyden.
Mr. Carey: It is a little hard to listen to Deputy Leyden continuously using niggling phraseology to try to provoke confrontation. He is doing so for his own basic aims, promoting himself, and he has made plenty of mileage on that. I do not know if I agree with the content of his contribution at any time, but certainly this morning he mentioned everything that was in the referendum. I do not think he was entitled to do that.
Mr. Carey: I support postal voting and would ask the Minister for the Environment to have another look at the situation to see if it can be tightened up further. It was abused at the last and previous elections and local elections. One may recall the dramatic change at the last election and I wonder how much was through abuse. Was it abuse in the postal voting area?
Mr. Carey: I appreciate what goes on. In any case, I do not have very much to suggest by way of changing the regulations which were last brought out. Abuses exist, even though I would say that in my constituency the officers running the postal vote were at pains to be scrupulously fair. I must commend the assistant county manager of Clare County Council who supervised it. He did a very fair and good job, which was seen to be done.
Mr. Carey: However, there were abuses elsewhere. We did not lose any seats at the last election, at least I did not lose mine. As far as personation is concerned, this is a great opportunity for  all the political parties to get together to provide personation agents to see that the poll is properly conducted. Deputy Haughey, because he is not involving himself in the campaign, can make a generous gesture to the public by ensuring that personation is prevented. The Fine Gael Party in County Clare would be quite willing to meet with the Fianna Fáil organisation and arrange for suitable personation agents to be at each polling station so that everything would be conducted fairly and above-board.
Mr. Carey: I will be at some polling station anyway. This is a great opportunity for all the parties to get together to see that at least one poll will be properly conducted and above-board. It is a rare opportunity which is being provided by this Bill. I would ask the party officers and the Chief Whip to convey my sentiments to their leader and ask him to cooperate as well as he has co-operated in this House since this subject was brought in.
Mr. Carey: He is doing well so far When personation agents are provided the good will be seen by the public and they will appreciate it. The referendum, whether it is a yes or a no vote, will have been conducted honestly and fairly according to the rules as laid down in law. I support the Minister of State and would appeal to her again to see if it is possible to have another look at the postal voting situation.
Proinsias De Rossa: I want to express my pleasure at the number of speakers who have so far supported the call for postal voting for the disabled. This is a very important issue. Legislation in the area has been promised over a long number of years and we still have not got that legislation. Despite the fact that the regulations introduced last year and in 1974 were abused to some extent we should still have a scheme in place for this coming referendum. No matter what scheme we introduce, people of one kind or another will find some way of abusing it. The disabled should not be put at a disadvantage because of that reality. I would press the Minister of State to introduce a scheme for the referendum. Some speakers have already mentioned that the local elections scheme is in existence. I do not know what the legal position would be in relation to implementing that scheme but some method or means should be found to do that.
Dublin Corporation are at present putting together a new scheme of polling places. I wonder whether or not that procedure will be sanctioned by the Department of the Environment in time for the referendum. In my area in particular there are anomalies where people have to travel long distances because of old polling boundaries. I would urge that that scheme be finalised in time for the referendum. I hope the Minister will seriously consider the postal voting issue.
Mr. V. Brady: We cannot make the point strongly enough or often enough in relation to the disabled voter. I am very disappointed that this facility of postal voting has not been extended to cover the disabled on this occasion. One may ask why this facility was extended during the local elections last June. I recall that when the Minister brought the legislation to the House he made the point that the Government were going all out to give every possible facility and to give rights to the disabled to enable them to vote by post. We welcomed that on this side of the House. There was unanimous agreement that the postal vote should be with us to stay. It is most regrettable that  that facility is not being extended on this occasion. The reply given by the Taoiseach a couple of weeks ago to a question from Deputy De Rossa on this subject was that there was not sufficient time and the Government were still looking at it because of some abuses that took place during the local elections. It is very obvious that if the Taoiseach had been sincere and genuine about this facility he would have seen to it that whatever the problems were, and they cannot be that great, would have been ironed out and got out of the way before the forthcoming referendum.
Apart from the disabled, many business people and commercial travellers are away during the week on business and are deprived of their democratic rights. I hope that the Minister when replying will give the House a much more satisfactory response than we got from the Taoiseach.
The question of free postage has been raised. It is not my intention to enter into the controversial aspect that was raised by Deputy Flanagan last evening. I would like to know if free postage will be available to the parties and to groups who are involved in campaigning on both sides of this referendum. It is very important that this facility should be made available. The campaign will receive massive publicity but nevertheless the ordinary voter likes to receive the paperwork and documents from the parties or groups putting forward their case for either a yes or no vote. I hope the Minister will clarify that point when replying.
Personating agents have been referred to by Deputy Burke. This is very important because we all know from experience if there are not personating agents at the respective polling stations there is the very great risk of serious abuse. We must all be conscious of this. Irrespective of how we approach the referendum, it is in the interests of democracy that the referendum should be carried out in a straightforward way and with the highest integrity. The presence of the personating agents will certainly help that.
The voters' register is a matter for respective councils and local authorities. It is well known, in Dublin in particular,  that the content of the register has been to say the least somewhat inaccurate from election to election. I know that Dublin Corporation in particular have gone to a lot of trouble to try to ensure that the register is up to date and is as accurate as it possibly can be. Despite those efforts, unfortunately we find names on the register of persons who have been dead for three, five or ten years. We find names of children of two and three years of age on the register. This is most unsatisfactory. Although it is the responsibility of the local authority it is the overall responsibility of the Minister. The Minister should take some positive step to ensure that that type of error would not appear on the register.
I hope the referendum will be fought out in a very sincere fashion by all parties concerned. It is with that in mind that I regret that all the electorate, the disabled, the commercial travellers, the business people and those who will not be available in their respective areas on the day of the referendum, will not have a chance to vote. I appeal again at this late stage that, if at all possible, the extension be made to give that facility.
Mr. Skelly: Like Deputy Brady, I regret the limitations involved in so far as incapacitated persons are concerned. In this day of high technology we should be able to extend the facility to persons such as commercial travellers and those who have to be away from home because their livelihood warrants that they do so, because they are employees and have not the freedom to delay their journey or to stay at home for polling day. We should encourage in every possible way the democratic process to take place. We should enable people to cast their vote at elections by making it easy for them to contribute to the democratic process.
People on doorsteps have told me they did not vote because they were fed up, or that they could not be bothered, that the weather was bad, that they were feeling a little ill or had some minor errand to do on voting day. I have pointed out to them that there are very few countries where people have freedom to cast their  votes, in totalitarian states, or dictatorships, or in one-party systems. The ability to cast one's vote is a tremendous freedom which was fought for. Though the system here is imperfect and the voters' choice is not always great, we have a party system and the parties do not put up candidates at their peril.
If the franchise were operated as it should be and if people want to have a say in the destiny of their country and their children, we must ensure that parties would put up unsuitable candidates at their peril. Because of the system we have, however, an elector is really voting for the party, and even if an individual candidate is entirely unsuitable for public office, if he will not make a good representative, if he will not be a good legislator and even if he were to decide to come in here but not to perform——
Mr. Skelly: I was making a passing reference. If the voter does not exercise the choice very carefully and fully we will have a slipshod system and democracy, of its nature, will bring mediocre parliamentarians. I should like to see the voting system extended to its maximum. Physically incapacitated people who wish to exercise their votes should be able to do so. We must make that possible. I have met many incapacitated people who feel they are treated not just as second class citizens but as if they are mentally deficient, morons who do not count. I get complaints from incapacitated people all the time. Blind people have commented on this by wearing badges with the slogan “I am blind but not stupid”.
Paragraph 6 of the explanatory memorandum deals with incapacitated people or those who are illiterate, who need assistance. Caution should be exercised here because we all know there have been abuses in the past. In the past, disabled people and geriatrics who are hospitalised have been wheeled into polling booths which are often set up near hospitals  and homes. The patients have been collected and wheeled in to vote. The presiding officers can tell patients how to vote, but very often they are in such a state of incapacity that they have no idea how to vote. It is a terrible infringement of a person's freedom and a terrible insult to his dignity to be treated like a product or counted as a number. In an election in which I was involved, I went around the hospital wards and saw supermarket tags pinned on the patients so that members of a certain political persuasion — I will not go into which party because all parties may be involved — would more easily be able to identify the patients whom they would bring down to vote.
I have also seen wheelchairs which are made available in the hospital hidden the night before under stairways and cubby holes so that the first members of a particular party to arrive would be able to get the patients first. I have seen old people being wheeled down to the polling booth. I saw a 90-year-old man being lifted into a polling booth, held under the arms by two people, and they were able to walk straight into the booth and mark the ballot paper. I heard others being instructed to call out a name and the electors did not even know which party they were voting for. The patients had been indoctrinated or brainwashed during the campaign to vote for a particular candidate.
My late father-in-law was a quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down, but he was compos mentis and very alert until the day he died. He told me that, as he was being carried from a hospital in Castlebar into a polling booth, a campaigner came over to him and whispered into his ear that the bishop had said he was to vote for so and so, or that the bishop had said not to forget so and so. He said to the campaigner, “I will not” and on his way out he said to the campaigner, “I did not”, not telling which way he had voted. Even though he thought it was a bit of a joke, he was very upset at the way people like him were treated.
To their credit, the Government have  enacted many pieces of social reform legislation, and electoral legislation has cleaned up the system somewhat. In a highly competitive campaign one party is goaded by another to come up with better tactics, better techniques to get out the vote, as it were. Now, with the help of technology we should be able to make improvements and wipe out many of the anomalies that exist. Parties go around collecting itinerant voters, but we have not catered for commercial travellers and others who cannot vote, either because it is cumbersome or there might be abuses.
The Minister might have a look at the system whereby Dublin Corporation and perhaps other local authorities are computerising their registers to keep them up to date. There is no reason why our registers should not be up to date at all times. Deputy Brady referred to a matter that annoys and concerns all of us on all sides of the House, about people being crossed off the register, that children are put on the register and that there is duplication. My wife and I were crossed off the register a few years ago and it was very frustrating to have to drive around the Dublin west area to find out where we could vote. Deputies are aware of the many people who wish to exercise their vote but who cannot do so because of some mistake.
By having a computerised register we could keep up-to-date. Simply by making a telephone call the necessary changes could be made and a security system could be incorporated in it. If a public representative wishes to obtain up-to-date information he should be able to get a copy of the computer read-out. When results are tight in an election, seats can be won or lost because of mistakes made in the register. If a few streets are not included that can mean a considerable loss or gain for the various parties. I know that in the Dublin area the local authorities assign people to check various districts. Like the postman who knows about the people in his locality, these people have considerable local knowledge. The percentage of mistakes in the registers can be significant and it should  not be necessary to wait for a year before they are sorted out.
Deputy De Rossa referred to the situation obtaining in polling stations and the review that goes on in county council and corporation areas. Many people are reluctant to go to the trouble to vote. This may be because they are fed up with all of us and with the system, or perhaps they may be suffering because of the recession. If a polling station is situated too far away from them, and particularly if they have to pass another station, they will not exercise their right to vote. I know of one or two estates in Dublin and for the past three elections as a protest there was no vote cast by the people in those estates. I am not talking about ten or 20 houses but up to 1,000 houses where the people would not go out to vote. If they have young children, if the weather is inclement, or if the polling station is distant, many citizens will not bother to vote.
All of these points should be taken into consideration. The returns from rural areas, even in local elections, are very high but in some parts of my constituency the turn-out has been as low as 30 per cent and even in the general election there was a turn-out of only 50 per cent or 51 per cent. That is a serious threat to the democratic process and we should give careful consideration to the problem. In the local elections there was a 34 per cent turn-out in the Ballyfermot area and a turn-out of 50 per cent for the general election. However, in another part of the constituency there could be a turn-out of up to 85 per cent.
The question must be asked: what kind of people are not bothering to vote in such a crucial matter as a general election when people elect representatives to represent them at national level? I do not want my remarks about the shenanigans and the competitive one-up-manship that has been going on in polling stations to be taken as a criticism of any particular party or branch. I am only saying what has developed. It is particularly degrading when the disabled, the illiterate or geriatrics are the victims of such tactics.  I will describe to the House what happens. A convoy of cars comes to a hospital to pick up patients who wish to vote. Then two cars come out of a side entrance and block the way while a bus comes along and takes the remainder of the patients away. All of that kind of thing must be stopped. We may not be dealing with very many people but we must not forget that we are dealing with human beings and we must respect their dignity.
We should ensure that the situation with regard to presiding officers is above board. Members of parties should not be able to wheel in people to the polling stations or to be present when they vote. Presiding officers or people in authority in the polling stations should not be active members of political parties. We should use the high technology and the computers that are available to keep accurate and up-to-date registers and we should extend the postal vote. I know we have given that facility to members of the armed forces and members of the diplomatic service abroad in the past few years——
Mr. R. Burke: On a point of order, by order of the House this debate is to finish at 12 o'clock. I am anxious that we get an opportunity to deal with this Bill on Committee Stage and I appeal to Members to be as brief as possible.
Mr. Skelly: I was not aware of the situation. I shall conclude shortly. I should like to get the register, which is very inaccurate in many cases, up-to-date and computerised as far as possible. The suggestions I have made can be dealt with on Committee Stage. I had not realised the time limitation.
Mr. J. Leonard: I should like to voice my concern for those who will be unable to travel to polling stations due to illness or disability. They will be deprived of an opportunity of voting in the referendum. It is not enough for the Minister to tell us that presiding officers will be authorised to assist the blind, the incapacitated and the illiterate. We must remember that a large segment of the population are hospitalised or confined to bed at home and, consequently, will be unable to make the journey to polling stations. Those people are concerned about this issue and, having had a lot of time to listen to the radio, watch television and read the newspapers are well versed in the issues involved in the referendum. It is not enough to say that those people are being refused the opportunity to vote because there were abuses in the past in the postal voting system. I have listened to one Member allege that a political party abused the system and I can recall that in 1974 in my constituency there were serious abuses which were not carried out by the party which I represent. However, last year, when postal voting operated for the local elections, we did not have any reports of abuse in my constituency.
I appeal to the Minister to adhere to our request in regard to postal voting. Others have made a plea on behalf of commercial travellers and those who will be away from home on polling day on business or abroad on holidays, but I am concerned about the person who will be lying sick in bed and unable to make the journey to the polling station. Surely the Department can arrange for such people to have a postal vote. It is worth nothing that the issue being put to the people on this occasion is more emotive than a general, presidential or local authority election. When a group from developing countries met a delegation of voluntary workers in Africa recently the first question they were asked was if there would be postal voting in the constitutional referendum. The Minister should try to facilitate those who are hospitalised or bedridden on referendum day.
Mr. P. Gallagher: I should like to add my voice to try to impress upon the Minister the need to provide postal votes for the disabled, the handicapped, the old and the infirm as operated for the local elections. Those who will be unable by reason of their business to cast their vote at their local polling stations should be given the same facility that applied at the time of the local elections last year. I accept that there were allegations of abuse in some parts of the country but, generally, it worked well. It is important that postal voting facilities are made available for this referendum because the issue is more important than most others that were put to the people. I find it difficult to understand how the system can be abused because employers are responsible for certifying the application forms of employees who may not be able to attend their local polling stations. General practitioners can certify on behalf of their patients whom they feel will be unable to travel to the polling station and all applications are scrutinised by the returning officer.
I do not think we are entitled to take this right from such people. The votes of those people may be a deciding factor in the outcome of the referendum. I can appreciate that it will be difficult to distribute litir um tógchán envelopes in the run up to the referendum and to decide on how many either side in the campaign should get. If a decision is made to make those envelopes available they should be distributed in an equitable manner. I should like the Minister to establish how personating agents will be appointed. It is my understanding that in the past personating agents came from the different groups but it is difficult to decide which group is bona fide. However, I accept that this will be carried out fairly and my only plea to the Minister is in regard to postal voting for the disabled and others.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mrs. Doyle): I should like to express my thanks to the House for the way in which the Bill has been received and to thank Deputies for their  contributions on this very simple technical measure which is designed to do two quite separate things. In the first place it provides for certain formal steps to be taken to help the people about the proposal contained in the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1986. As we know, the Bill will be the subject of a referendum, probably next month, although on the issue of the date there is a procedure to be followed. Once the Bill has been passed by both Houses it is open to the Minister for the Environment to make an order fixing the polling day. The day fixed must be at least 30 days after the date of the order. I am not aware of the date but speculation suggests that it will probably be the end of June.
The arrangements proposed are identical in every respect with those taken at each referendum over the past quarter of a century. A formal statement is prescribed and this will be printed on all polling cards and on posters which must be displayed in and in the precincts of all polling stations. The statement is prescribed in the appendix to section 3 of the Bill. The statement is an entirely straightforward, factual indication of what is contained in the Constitution Bill. It presents the subject in a totally neutral way with no attempts whatsoever to make a judgment or express an opinion on the merits of the proposal.
The second purpose of the Bill is to preserve the existing situation in relation to returning officers in the event of additional sheriffs being appointed for tax enforcement purposes. At present the duty of conducting elections and referenda rest on the four sheriffs in the Cork and Dublin areas and on the county registrars in the rest of the country. In order to improve the position in relation to the collection of income tax arrears and thus help to lighten the burden on the ordinary conscientious taxpayer, the Government have decided to appoint a number of additional sheriffs for this purpose. It is intended that the new sheriffs will have this function only and, in particular, that they will not have functions in relation to elections. As the electoral law stands, a  sheriff automatically becomes responsible for the conduct of elections and it is only in cases where there is no sheriff that this duty devolves on the county registrar. To maintain the present position, therefore, it is necessary to make a minor wording change in the electoral law to preseve this existing situation.
Much mention has been made of postal voting and I find myself very much in sympathy with and agreeing with the comments and sentiments on this. To introduce an extended system of postal voting for Dáil elections and referenda requires legislation. I understand that a scheme which will allow for special voting arrangements for the disabled and, hopefully, other categories is being examined. The scheme will operate on the basis of applications made at the time when the register of electors is being drawn up. Obviously, it will not be possible to have such a scheme in operation in time for the referendum which is likely to be held next month and will be held on the basis of the April 1986 register of electors, a copy of which all Members have. Therefore, only gardaí and members of the Defence Forces may vote by post at this referendum. Many Deputies have asked why we had postal voting in the local elections last year we cannot have the same facility for the referendum. In the case of local elections the Minister has the power to make regulations governing postal voting under section 82 of the Electoral Act, 1963. For local elections we do not require specific legislation for postal voting.
Many Deputies referred to abuses and expressed the view that we should not allow abuses to put us off ensuring that all categories referred to, particularly the disabled, are not disenfranchised. I feel strongly about this. We cannot allow abuse to put us off but I should like to point out to the last contributor that in Donegal alone two-thirds of the postal voting applications for the local elections were refused.
Mrs. A. Doyle: It also proves that we can learn a lot. I hope that future legislation will copperfasten this to such an extent that the system will not be subject to abuse. We will ascertain the experience of other countries because it appears to be very difficult to draw up this legislation. It is my wish that we allow the categories mentioned to have a postal vote as soon as possible.
Mrs. A. Doyle: I am stating a fact. I could go through every constituency but I was responding specifically to the Deputy's contribution and expressing my view as to the difficulties involved in regulating and legislating for what we all want. I assure the House that I share their anxiety that adequate arrangements be made to enable the disabled and other categories to exercise their right to vote. I am on record as having said that and I know I speak for the Government.
Another important point made by Deputy Burke and the others was in relation to personation agents. The arrangements for personation agents at this election will be exactly as they were for all other recent referenda in the last quarter of a century. Under section 17 of the Referendum Act, 1942, any Member of the Dáil or Seanad may appoint a personation agent for as many polling stations as he or she thinks fit. It is up to the parties to ensure that there is aequate representation in terms of personation agents. However, no Member may appoint more than one agent in respect of  any one polling station. An unduly high number, in theory up to 226, of personation agents could be appointed for any one station. By using this provision a group of Deputies or Senators could pack a polling station with agents and thus inconvenience or intimidate voters. The provision has not given rise to any real problem at previous referenda and it is not likely to do so on this occasion. The right to appoint agents to attend the counting of votes is vested in Deputies and Senators representing the constituency.
Polling schemes were referred to particularly in relation to Dublin. The making of a polling scheme is a matter for the elected members of the local authority and requires the approval of the Minister before it comes into force. As a matter of convenience a new polling scheme is usually brought into force at the same time as a register of electors, that is in April of any year, If a new polling scheme is being proposed by Dublin Corporation — Deputy De Rossa and Deputy Skelly referred to this — it will not be in force for this referendum.
Free postage was mentioned. There is no provision for this. Political broadcasting in relation to the referendum is a matter for RTE. We have heard some horrifying stories in relation to illiterate voters. Rule 18 of the First Schedule of the Referendum Act, 1942, sets out the conditions under which a presiding officer may assist the blind, incapacitated or illiterate to vote. The rule applies where the voter is illiterate or does not request that his ballot paper be marked for him by a companion or the companion is not eligible to mark the ballot paper. The presiding officer is required, in the presence of the personation agents if there are any, and no other person, to mark the ballot paper in the manner directed by the voter and place it in the ballot box.
The relevant instruction is if the companion is not eligible to act, or if the blind or incapacitated voter does not ask to have his ballot paper marked by a companion, the presiding officer should in the presence of the voter and the agent, and no other person, mark the ballot paper  as directed and put it in the ballot box. The agents present have the right to hear the instructions given by the voter and to see that they are complied with. No other person is entitled to know how the voter wishes to vote. The position will differ from station to station but the following general procedure is suggested: ask the poll clerk to take charge of the table. If necessary ask him or a garda to suspend admission to the station. With the voter and the agent, retire to the voting compartment or to a part of the station where converstion in normal tones can be carried out without being overheard.
We are heading into a constitutional referendum. In a democratic State a proposal to amend the Constitution, the basic law of the country, is probably the most important thing the electorate can be called upon to decide. The present proposal is a very highly important one and an issue on which many feel very deeply indeed. It is no secret that differing views on the subject are held by people within virtually every party in the State.
What I would like to say to the voters is: listen very carefully to what is being said on both sides, consider carefully the arguments on both sides and then make up your mind. And, above all make sure your voice is heard by coming out on polling day. I cannot underline that strongly enough. We have the franchise. Not to use the franchise is a major abuse of democracy. We do not have to remind ourselves how people in other countries have fought for it and failed to get it. I hope Deputies on all sides will join with me in this call.
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