Private Members' Business. - An Bille um an Ochtú Leasú Déag ar an mBunreacht, 1997: An Dara Céim. Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1997: Second Stage.

Tuesday, 30 September 1997

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 480 No. 6

First Page Previous Page Page of 414 Next Page Last Page

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Tairgím: “Go léifear an Bille an Dara Uair.”

I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

I wish to share my time with colleagues.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Kirk): Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Many were surprised when, a few weeks ago, Mary Banotti indicated her approval for the nomination of Derek Nally as a candidate in the presidential election. However, I was not surprised because she has expressed the view on a number of occasions that we should democratise the nomination process for presidential elections, which is the purpose of this Bill.

The presidential nomination process in Ireland is more restrictive than in any other country except for France which provides for direct elections. [955] We cannot be proud of this. While the nomination process in France is complicated, the President of France has executive powers out of all proportion to those held by the President of Ireland. Indeed, excluding the nomination processes for those presidents in Europe with executive powers the nomination process in Ireland is the most restrictive.

The purpose of this Bill is to democratise this process, to establish a people's initiative and to ensure that the people who elect the President will also have a voice in the nomination process. The Constitution provides that every candidate for election, other than a former or retiring President, must be nominated either by not less than 20 persons each of whom is at the time a Member of one of the Houses of the Oireachtas, or by the councils of not less than four administrative counties, including county boroughs, as defined by law.

It may be asserted that the use of the council route to nomination by Derek Nally and Dana, Rosemary Scallon, destroys my argument. However, it proves my point because these two candidates were nominated despite the process rather than because of it.

This issue has been examined by a number of independent bodies. The one for which I have the greatest respect is the Constitution review group headed by Dr. Whitaker. His team of eminent lawyers, political scientists and others concluded that the constitutional requirements for nominating a presidential candidate are “too restrictive and in need of democratisation”. Given this recommendation there is an onus on the Oireachtas to initiate the necessary steps for change. While this will not affect the presidential election, nominations for which closed today, one must look to the future when dealing with constitutional matters; one cannot simply take the short-term into account.

We are dealing with a democratic approach that is more symptomatic of the views of people today than were prevalent hitherto. They did not obtain in 1937 when the Constitution was formulated, nor in 1967 when the first constitutional review took place. At that time consideration of the nomination of President was concerned not with the question of establishing a people's initiative for the nomination but on whether the people's right to directly elect the President should be removed. Discussion centred on the possibility of indirect election by electoral college as opposed to arguments adduced in favour of the system set out in the Constitution. Fortunately no such changes were made. However, now is the time for change by making the process more liberal and democratic and by allowing the people to have a say in the nomination process.

According to a research paper on the presidency completed by Barry Doherty, the nomination process for the President of Finland involves one member of parliament and 20,000 voters; 20,000 voters alone are involved in the [956] process of Lithuania, which has a population approximate to ours; 7,500 electors are involved in Portugal, whose President has more powers than our President; 1,500 electors are involved in Iceland, which has a smaller population, while the constitution of Slovenia, with a population of approximately two million, has no threshold for nomination. This Bill is not radical in that no concept is being introduced which is foreign to democratic practise in Europe, rather it draws on the experience of other European countries.

It is important that we continue to examine what we have with a view to effecting improvements. While we have a good Constitution which has proved its worth over the past 60 years we must, as in the case of a good building, be prepared to update and modernise. In seeking to modernise an aspect of the presidency this Bill fits this pattern.

One of the best ways to amend the Constitution is to seek the support of other parties in the House. That is why I am making this proposal in a non political and non contentious way. While I acknowledge that we have a good Constitution I would like to see agreement on the need to improve it. In this regard I wish to seek all party support for this proposal.

The Government benches are made up of two parties, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. I know the Progressive Democrats' position because, in 1988, they circulated a draft of a new Constitution in which they made the following proposal.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Was that the godless Constitution?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  I was not focusing on that aspect, more that, at the time, the Progressive Democrats provided for the nomination of a Presidential candidate by 30,000 electors. This is on record in the party's document The Constitution for a New Republic produced in 1988. The Progressive Democrats recently circulated a Bill along the same lines but reducing the requirement from 30,000 to 20,000. Thus my proposal is enhanced by views expressed or placed on record by the Progressive Democrats.

That leaves Fianna Fáil.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  And the Independents.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  We would be glad of their support. I hope Fianna Fáil accepts that the views of the other parties in the House favour giving people a say in the nomination process and that this democratisation is in the best interests of the country.

Concern has been expressed recently in the media that people like Dana, Derek Nally, and others are or could be precluded from being nominated. It is easy to say that both candidates obtained nominations, but it was through a process never used before and was despite rather than because of the constitutional requirement. [957] That point is highlighted in the following comment in The Irish Times editorial this morning:

Mr Nally's achievement — and the earlier endorsement given to Dana by local councils — does not, however, obviate the need to make the nomination procedure less restrictive.

It continued:

.a situation in which candidates like Derek Nally and Dana can only get their names on the ballot paper despite rather than because of the nomination procedure is not good for democracy.

It behoves us as parliamentarians to take such views into account and weigh them against arguments to the contrary.

Is there any reason the people should not be given a say in the nomination process? I can think of one possibility which was touched on in the report of the Constitution Review Group. It referred to the difficulties of controlling and validating the process. The review group felt the validation of such nominators would be difficult but went on to say that some alternative mechanism based on a specified number of voters ought to be explored. I have examined this and am satisfied that the validation process, especially with modern technology, could be put in place effectively. It should be examined. It works in other countries. If Lithuania, Finland, Iceland, or other countries I mentioned can carry out this process, why can we not? Secondly, with the way electoral registers are now framed and modern technology, it would be simple to ensure, by insisting on the appropriate references from the electoral register, that the list of nominating electors is valid. We will listen to anything said on this point, but I will not accept any blanket condemnation of a process which works effectively in other countries and which I am convinced can work here.

The bottom line is whether we are prepared to give the people a chance or whether we are to persist in what is essentially a restrictive and undemocratic process. Will we insist political parties continue to control the nomination process? There have been ten presidential elections of which five were contested. It is clear people will not accept uncontested elections in future. They feel what prevailed in the past, meetings in proverbial smoke-filled rooms producing an agreed candidate, is not acceptable any more, however it might have been judged in the past. One aspect of the legacy of the Robinson era is that we will never again see a presidential election where party leaders agree on one candidate, which means no one else can be nominated.

It should be remembered that county councils are largely controlled by the political parties. If a whip had been imposed by all parties, the two candidates outside the political process would not have been nominated. In my county, Fianna Fáil applied the whip and refused to vote for a nomination. The largest party on the council is Fine Gael and, had it done likewise, it would have [958] ended the candidate's chances. However, the Fine Gael leader on the council allowed a free vote. In other councils, there were abstentions, the process was not obstructed and the nominations were allowed to proceed. However, it was by chance that that happened and it was, to a degree, a reaction to popular will. People insisted that, regardless of how they fared in the election, the two candidates should at least be given the chance of standing.

Let us provide in the Constitution for that to be done in future so that people have the chance to nominate someone. If the Derek Nallys or Danas of the future feel they have popular support and want to ensure their name is put before the electorate, they should be allowed to secure the requisite 20,000 signatures, which should be the only barrier to being nominated. I want this Bill to be treated on its merits and not as a Fine Gael Bill or a Mary Banotti or Jim O'Keeffe and Paul McGrath Bill. I want it to be treated as one which is a genuine effort to improve and democratise our Constitution by removing a restrictive barrier and replacing it with a process which allows people to nominate a candidate to contest an election to the highest office in the land.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  I thank my colleague, Deputy O'Keeffe, for sharing his time. I am proud to be a co-sponsor of this Bill with the Deputy, who has done the bulk of the preparatory work on it.

It is opportune that we should be discussing this Bill tonight. In recent times there has been much public discussion about who should be a candidate in the presidential election. There was talk about various people from political parties or complete outsiders; for some time it was speculated that there would be an agreed candidate from Northern Ireland. Anyone who took an interest in what the people said would be aware that they wanted an election for the presidency. They did not want it to be agreed among a number of political parties that a certain person should be President and no one else should have a chance. If the parties had done that, the county councils might well have nominated a candidate — as they have done — and it is quite possible that such a person would have swept the boards against an agreed all-party candidate. It would have been a kick against the system — the public does not want cosy cartels or to have the political parties making arrangements among themselves.

Deputy O'Keeffe mentioned the discussions of the constitutional review group and gave examples of what was happening in other European countries. The review group, as quoted in the leading article in The Irish Times today, suggested that we need to “loosen the nomination procedure” for candidates to the presidency. We must take this suggestion seriously. There are currently three ways in which a person can be nominated to the presidency — the outgoing President can nominate himself or herself, 20 Oireachtas Members can nominate a candidate, or four county councils can nominate someone. In this [959] election, two people have managed to come in from the outside and gain nomination through the county council system. This has not happened before and it is a sign that our democracy is alive and well. It is interesting to note that many of the county councillors who supported the independent candidates did so against the wishes of their parties. In some cases the party whip was applied and many councillors did not obey it.

In discussing this Bill, someone suggested that it was strange that four county councils could nominate a person to contest the presidency, because that implies that two councillors in each of four councils could nominate a person. This person wondered whether this was democratic, but I argue that if a person proposes a motion at a council meeting and has it seconded, it is up to the other councillors to disagree with or vote against it. That is the essence of democracy. If they do not vote against it or abstain on the vote, one can assume they go along with the wish and it is not fair to say that the wishes of two councillors carry the day. It is a democratic process in which the councillors can vote for or against.

This discussion has arisen because the presidency has changed. Mrs. Mary Robinson brought a whole new outlook to it. In the past the President resided in Áras an Uachtaráin, was seen on rare occasions and made the occasional trip abroad. That was the order of the day and I do not criticise anyone for that. During her election campaign Mary Robinson captured the public's imagination and in office she enthralled the people with the way she behaved and conducted her presidency. There is scarcely a parish in Ireland that did not have some contact with Mary Robinson's presidency — if she did not visit the parish hall or a caring group in the community, members of a local group visited Áras an Uachtaráin. She won huge support — 92 per cent of the people felt she was doing a good job. We politicians might be jealous of those returns but Mary Robinson achieved them. In so doing, she has changed the nature of the presidency. She has created a public expectation that a presidency of that nature will continue. She was seen as outside politics, which is why people want a change to the existing procedure; they want to have a say.

The Office of the President is serious, because he or she has a major role under the Constitution. The President must monitor what is happening in this House and, at appropriate times, refer Bills to the Council of State or the Supreme Court to ensure that everything is in order. The President also plays an important role as our ambassador in portraying Ireland and what we stand for. Mary Robinson did that job well.

We live in changing times and Irish society has altered dramatically over the years. Until recently, the public accepted, apparently without complaint, that whoever was nominated for the presidency would be a former politician. As Deputy O'Keeffe said, on the ten occasions on which a President was appointed, there were only [960] five elections. However, the public is now demanding wider involvement in many decisions which affect them. On environmental issues, people want to know about planning applications or how developments will affect the environment. That did not happen 20 years ago — to a great extent people let those matters pass them by and accepted what they were told.

Our changing society is also reflected in the presence of worker-directors on State companies, who are now given a say in how the company is run. This shows people being involved in something which will ultimately affect their lives. Education has changed considerably through the introduction of boards of management, parents' councils, and the presence of parents on interview boards. People want to be involved in the decisions which affect their children, and rightly so. Even within the church, so long dominated by our elders, dramatic changes have taken place. The laity are now in the driving seat on parish councils, representative and diocesan groups, etc. They will now be making the decisions and planning the future of that organisation.

All this has come to Ireland in recent times and it influences the people's thinking on how a candidate for the presidency should be nominated and who should have a say in doing so. In this Bill we propose that 20,000 voters should be allowed nominate a candidate for the presidency. It may be asked why we chose 20,000 rather than 40,000 or 10,000. Twenty thousand is a fair number because each Member of this House represents a population of approximately 20,000. Electoral registers have been computerised and each voter has a specific reference number related to the county in which he lives. For example, in Westmeath my registration reference consists of two letters and three or four numbers. People might think it would be difficult to know who nominates a candidate for the presidency under this system and may worry about how the 20,000 names could be checked. However, the rules will be drawn up by law and it would be simple to check. The 20,000 people nominating a candidate could be asked to give their names, county where they vote and register reference number. Will it be possible for somebody to stand on O'Connell Street and gather 20,000 signatures? It would be easy, because the normal shopper on O'Connell Street will not have his electoral number on him. What is being proposed is reasonable.

Will this proposal be acceptable to the House? Deputy O'Keeffe has rightly observed that the Progressive Democrats Party brought forward similar proposals in the recent past and it would be hypocritical of them to vote against this Bill. We wait with baited breath to hear the wisdom of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy Dan Wallace, to see the reaction of Fianna Fáil. I hope the Minister will be open to considering this reasonable proposal which will fulfil a demand among the public. Acceptance would demonstrate that Fianna Fáil [961] is prepared to favourably consider what is best for the country.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I thank my colleagues, Deputies O'Keeffe and McGrath, for sponsoring this Bill and for agreeing to share time with me.

I support the Bill as presented. We want to widen the process of nomination of candidates for presidential elections. However, despite having the second most restrictive nominating process in Europe, we have done well in getting five different and well qualified candidates nominated to run in the election. I hope everybody will support Mary Banotti, but four other candidates have succeeded in being nominated in accordance with the Constitution. I see no difficulty in having more candidates if that is the wish of the people and therefore I support this Bill.

Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally have been credited with breaking new ground in using the local authority route to gain a nomination. However, this is not the first time such a route has been followed. Twenty-one years ago when I was first elected a member of a local authority, a similar request for a nomination came before our local authority. At that time the candidate wrote to councils and our council marked the letter read. We thought he was not a serious candidate but at least the process was tried if not pursued as vigorously or professionally as it has been on this occasion.

It is a reflection of the maturity of local authorities that Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally were successful in seeking nominations with the support of councillors from all parties. Their names will now appear on the ballot paper. There is scope for expanding the nomination process of the local authorities and it would be no harm to have a greater number of candidates in presidential elections. The heavy whip of parties was not applied, but even with the light whip applied candidates succeeded in getting nominations because they proceeded in a professional manner and councillors responded to public opinion which supported candidates being given the opportunity to run for election. Many councillors said they would support the nomination of the two candidates but would not support them in the presidential election as they would support their party candidates.

Much has been made of the fact that students and those away from home will be allowed the facility of postal votes. The Government has created the perception that this is to be lauded. However, the perception and the reality is entirely different because I found out from my own children who are students in Dublin and Cork that this facility is not available to students in the manner in which it is perceived. For example, some students in UCD only returned yesterday and today and it was not possible for them to have their application for a postal vote stamped by the college and returned to the local authority by 5 p.m. this evening, the deadline for receipt of such applications. The deadline would [962] have been 15 September were it not for the fact that there is to be a referendum on the same day as the presidential election. Students in UCC, where one of my sons is studying, are only registering today. According to last year's figures, 2,500 first year students registered in UCC last year. Two thousand students remain to be registered this year, none of whom will qualify for postal votes simply because the college cannot stamp the necessary document until the student is registered. It will be impossible for those students who registered yesterday and today to return their registration papers to the local authority today without the benefit of a fax machine. All of these people will be disenfranchised and they cannot apply to be placed on the supplementary register in Cork where my son will be living together with 2,500 more students from all over the country. All these students will be based at their college address on the day of the election because it is being held on a Thursday. They are not eligible to go on the supplementary register as it is first necessary to be registered for a postal vote. Neither is it possible to be included on the supplementary register if already registered at one's home address. Therefore, students are being denied the facility of having their names included on the supplementary register. It is farcical to say that students and those away from home will have a vote in the presidential election. They will not have a vote because it has been denied them by the Government which fixed Thursday as the day of the election and which made no provision for a special extension of the closing date for applying for a postal vote beyond the day on which nominations for the presidency close. The Government simply has not facilitated students and I wish to put that lie to rest.

The provision for nomination through collecting 20,000 signatures would encourage others to seek nominations once the correct procedures, including each signatory supplying their correct register number, were adhered to. At least the process was opened up on this occasion by two candidates who pursued what was already provided for in the Constitution by seeking local authority nominations, and that was good.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. D. Wallace): Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  Before discussing the Bill I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the former President, Mary Robinson, for the magnificent job she did over the past seven years. She performed the functions of the presidency with grace and dignity while at the same time bringing a new dimension to the office and staying within the parameters set by the Constitution. I wish her well in her new post with the United Nations and hope she will be successful in that important and demanding job.

Returning to the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 1997, I am surprised at the timing of its introduction. A similar Bill was published last March but the party opposite, which was then in Government, did not seek to provide [963] time for a debate on it. A Bill passed at that stage could have been implemented for the current election, but that opportunity has now passed by. It therefore seems strange that the party concerned should introduce the Bill at this juncture.

I should also point out that Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, one of the sponsors of the Bill, was chairperson of the all-party Constitution Review Committee in the last Dáil. The committee issued two progress reports earlier this year but it did not deal with constitutional matters concerning the presidency. If the matter was urgent, why did the all-party committee not deal with this matter as well as other matters concerning the presidency in either of the two progress reports? Surely Deputy Jim O'Keeffe could have asked the other Members of the committee to give the matter priority.

I now turn to the content of the Bill. On the one hand, the proposed procedure would clearly imply a greater degree of democracy in the nomination process while on the other hand, it would present some practical difficulties which would have to be overcome. There is a growing demand to have the procedure for the nomination of candidates for election as President made more open. I anticipate that contributors to the debate on the Bill will, to varying degrees, concur on the general desirability of making it easier for a person to secure such a nomination.

The existing requirements for nomination of candidates for election as President were implemented in the Constitution which is in place for the past 60 years. In examining the existing arrangements, it is important to look at the nominating procedure in its proper context. As far as I can ascertain, there had been little, if any, criticism of the arrangement up to about a decade ago. The fact that on only two occasions in the past — the first contested election in 1945 and the last election in 1990 — were more than two candidates nominated in itself suggests complacency about, if not satisfaction with, the procedure.

In this context, it could be said that the arrangements put in place in 1937 in relation to the election of the President have, like the Constitution as a whole, worked reasonably satisfactorily in the past and served us well. As a document, Bunreacht na hÉireann has been seen over the years as a model by newly emerging democracies which have in some cases based their constitution on ours and included some of its principles. This is a truly significant tribute to the framers of our Constitution.

By its nature, a Constitution must consist of a fixed set of rules not open to challenge in any court of law. As such, it is important that there be a procedure for amendment when this is warranted to take account of changing public attitudes and political demands. There has been a trend in recent years to question existing arrangements in relation to access to elective offices and to ask why a different approach should not be [964] adopted. I welcome this public interest in the wider debate on the ground rules which regulate public affairs generally and the private rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution.

Ideally, fundamental changes to constitutional provisions affecting institutions of the State should be implemented only after a thorough and systematic review and examination of the available options. This is particularly appropriate where the office of President is concerned. Any changes which may be made to the Constitution now will, in all probability, outlive the citizens who vote for such changes.

The previous Government, on coming into office in December 1994, included a commitment to establish an all-party Oireachtas committee to review the Constitution. In March 1995 an expert review group was established to prepare a report on all aspects of the Constitution to assist the all-party committee in its work. The expert review group completed its report in just over a year. I pay tribute to the members of the group and compliment them on their thorough and comprehensive report which examined every aspect of the Constitution.

The all-party committee established in July 1996 produced two progress reports by the time the Dáil was dissolved in May of this year. I am happy to say that this Government is re-establishing the all-party committee to continue with this work. All sides of the House are committed to this review.

In its report, the expert review group considered whether the procedure for nominating a presidential candidate is too restrictive. It concluded that to be the case and that the system is in need of democratisation. It referred to the procedure in other countries where a specified number of electors may conjoin to nominate a candidate. However, it came to the conclusion that validation of such nominations would be difficult. It recommended that some alternative mechanism, based on a specified number of voters, should be explored. It also suggested that the nomination procedure could be loosened by reducing the number of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas required to nominate a candidate.

The all-party committee had not dealt with the constitutional provisions relating to the office of President before it lapsed on the dissolution of the Dáil, but I expect that these provisions will be dealt with by the re-established committee in the near future.

In democracies where a non-executive President is head of state, Constitution writers have devised different mechanisms for choosing their President. In many countries, the function is assigned to parliament without a direct vote of the people. We have chosen a system which provides for a direct vote of the people, with a nomination procedure involving directly elected public representatives. In this regard, it could be said to be a finely tuned model of democracy, balancing involvement of the electorate with that of elected [965] representatives. However, the evolving public attitude to the office of President and the increasing public awareness of the importance of the role of that office has generated an impatience with what are seen by individuals and some political parties as barriers to nominating a candidate for election as President.

There has also been a widely held perception that political parties have this area all sewn up and that it is impossible for a non-party candidate to succeed in being nominated at a presidential election. This is not true if we examine the record of elections to date. The history of previous presidential elections since 1937 shows that of a total of 12 candidates for the office, four have claimed not to be members of a political party at the time of their nomination.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  What about Mary McAleese?

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  Two other non-party candidates, the distinguished scholar, Dubhglas de hÍde, the first President, and the late Cearbhaill Ó Dalaigh, have served as President. This at least helps put paid to the theory that the office of President is the preserve of party political candidates.

It is only fair to note that as far as I am aware, until this election no serious attempt was made to explore the option of seeking a nomination from local authorities. It has always been assumed that, as local authorities are controlled by political parties, that procedure for nomination was in effect closed off to a non-party candidate. In nominating two candidates for the current election, individual local authority members and political parties have broken new ground and proved commentators wrong.

It is fair to say that the presidential election campaign has been given a new and interesting dimension by the exercise of this procedure by the local authorities. The public's imagination has clearly been captured and I hope this will be reflected in a very good turnout when the polling stations open on 30 October.

It is also fair to say that this new development has led to further debate on the nature of the presidency. Its role is being defined, not just in terms of the formal responsibilities laid down in the Constitution but also in terms of less tangible aspects. There is a sense in which the public is beginning to see the presidential election as an opportunity to select as its Head of State a person who, in some way, encapsulates those ideas and aspirations which the voters feel would best represent those of today's Ireland. The political parties have clearly recognised this in their choice of candidates. The nominations of two further candidates by the local authorities gives the electorate an even wider choice, not just in terms of personalities but also in terms of quite different sets of ideas and aspirations.

Those of us within the political party system will, of course, be fully supportive of our own candidates and will each feel that the candidate [966] we have selected has the most to offer in terms of symbolising the ideas and aspirations of Ireland as we enter the 21st century. However, we must also welcome the wider choice that is available now to the electorate as a result of the decisions taken by the local authorities. I welcome this development as an expression of local democracy and a demonstration that it is possible to get nominated for the Office of President other than by political parties.

I would now like to deal with the specific proposal before us in this Bill. It proposes to amend the Constitution to add an extra mechanism for securing a nomination as candidate for election as President. This would involve an aspiring candidate getting at least 20,000 presidential electors to join in a nomination.

This nomination procedure has also been suggested as a possibility for other types of elections down the years as an alternative to a deposit requirement. The main area of potential difficulty relates to validating the signatures. The register of electors would have to be checked to verify that every single person joining in such a nomination is, in fact, registered. After that task was completed, there would have to be some reliable way of establishing the authenticity of the signatures. The expert review group in its report acknowledged that difficulty and seems to suggest a much smaller number of people joining in such a nomination.

I am sure I do not need to remind the House of the importance of requirements, both constitutional and statutory, governing the election of the Office of President being rigidly complied with. Any doubt which might hang over a nomination could result in a petition questioning the result of an election.

We would also have to bear in mind that we have had experience already which allowed for a procedure involving participation of registered electors in initiating legislation. The Free State Constitution provided for a so-called right of initiative under which legislation could be initiated by a petition of 50,000 registered electors. However, that provision was repealed by an Act of Parliament within a few years of the coming into force of that Constitution without the procedure having ever been exercised.

In short, there is an obvious potential difficulty which would need to be addressed if the procedure proposed in the Bill is to work satisfactorily. I will listen with interest to the views of Deputies on how this problem might be overcome.

Apart from the existing arrangement for the nomination of candidates and that proposed in this Bill, requiring a deposit fixed at a reasonable level is another mechanism for acting as a disincentive to non-serious candidates who have no serious expectation or hope of getting elected and to prevent the ballot paper from being flooded by such candidates. A deposit is a reasonable earnest of serious intent. It has the advantage that it is a simple requirement of long-standing and is well [967] known and understood. It is refunded if the candidate attracts a certain minimum of support. Compliance with the deposit requirement is easily verified. A genuine candidate, with serious policies, should have little difficulty in putting such a deposit together.

The level of deposit which will deter frivolous candidates without inhibiting genuine contenders is a matter for judgment. A deposit pitched too high appears élitist, while it has no effect if pitched too low. While the deposit requirement applies in the case of Dáil, European and local elections, it is a matter for debate whether it would be regarded as appropriate at a presidential election.

I would like to take this opportunity to refer briefly to the demands by Opposition Deputies for polling to take place on Friday at the presidential election and referendum. Under our electoral law, the polling day at each election or referendum is appointed by order made by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in accordance with, and subject to, the constraints specified in the particular electoral code. It is a matter for decision on each occasion which day of the week should be appointed for taking the poll. The decision is reached after taking into consideration such factors as time of year and other events coinciding with polling day.

As far as I am aware, the only two occasions on which polling was on a Friday were the divorce referendum in 1995 and the general election this year. Interestingly, the polling day at the bail referendum last November reverted to a Thursday. This is also related to the broader question of weekend voting. Suggestions for weekend voting have been raised off and on in the past. Strong arguments have been made in respect of this. For example, it has been asserted that it would reduce or eliminate school closures. Other arguments put forward are that it would facilitate voters generally by giving a wider choice as to the time of day at which they could vote and that it would possibly increase the percentage turnout. While the Minister has power under existing law to appoint Saturday or Sunday as polling day, there are a number of considerations which would have to be considered.

There could be objections on religious grounds from some denominations. The question of Sunday voting was raised some years ago with church leaders and the minority churches indicated that they would be opposed on religious and moral grounds. The Catholic church had no objection. Saturday, of course, is the Jewish sabbath and consideration would have to be given to the views of that community. It is possible there could be a reduced poll because of people going away at weekends. Major sporting events coinciding with a weekend polling day would pose problems for persons wishing to attend. Likewise, the strain on Garda resources could be greater on Sunday because of such sporting events, especially in summer.

[968] Overall, it is not clear that more people would have an opportunity of voting if elections and referenda took place on weekends rather than midweek, as at present. Neither is it clear that voting on weekends would be the only way, or the best way, of facilitating those for whom the existing practice is not suitable. In any event, it is open to a Minister to consider polling at weekends in the future under existing electoral and referendum law.

I would also like to mention that since the general election, a number of changes to electoral law relating to the registration of electors have come into force which would be of relevance to students in facilitating them to vote at elections and referenda. The Electoral Act, 1997, provides for the extension of postal voting arrangements to electors who satisfy the registration authority that the circumstances of their occupation, service or employment are such as to render it likely that they will be unable to vote in person at their polling station on polling day. Students pursuing a course of study on a full-time basis at an educational institution in the State come within the meaning of “service” and “employment” for the purposes of the Act. The provisions of the Act relating to postal voting were commenced on 11 June and, therefore, enable students who are living away from their registered address who satisfy the conditions to apply for entry in the postal voters list and to vote by post at future elections and referenda.

Mr. Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford  Zoom on Paul Bradford  But not this time.

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  Registration authorities gave public notice advising electors wishing to be included in the postal voters' list for the current register to apply to their local registration authority by 18 July 1997. This was the subject of a national publicity campaign organised by my Department in July. In addition, eligible electors may apply for entry in the supplement to the postal voters' list to be published in connection with any election or referendum to be held while the current register of electors applies. The closing date for these polls is today. My Department also arranged for newspaper advertisements to this effect early last week.

The 1997 Act also provided for extending the eligibility of voters to get on the supplement to the register of electors. The effect of the new provision is to expand, with effect from 11 June 1997, the grounds on which applications for inclusion in the supplement to the register may be made to include persons who take up ordinary residence at an address subsequent to the qualifying date — 1 September — provided they are not already registered at any address and persons who reach 18 years of age during the currency of the register.

It is envisaged that returned emigrants, nonnationals taking up residency in the State and persons not already registered who move house [969] are likely to constitute the principal categories who will avail of the supplement facility following relaxation of the requirement in relation to ordinary residence at place of registration on the qualifying date of 1 September.

The Act provides for new supplements to the postal voters' list and special voters' list. A new section 15A provides for the preparation and publication, in advance of an election or referendum, of a supplement to the postal voters' list containing the names of certain qualified electors who are not already on the postal or special voters' lists — members of the Garda Síochána, persons unable to vote in person due to a physical illness or physical disability who are ordinarily resident at their residence and persons who because of the circumstances of their occupation, service or employment are likely to be unable to vote in person at their polling station on polling day.

In addition, a supplement to the special voters' list containing the names of qualified electors who are unable to vote in person due to a physical illness or physical disability who are ordinarily resident at an institution and who are not already on the postal or special voters' lists will be prepared in advance of an election or referendum.

I welcome the fact that the new arrangements provided for in the Electoral Act, 1997 requiring the disclosure of donations in excess of £500 received by candidates at a presidential election will apply at this election.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  The Minister of State's party fought tooth and nail against this provision when I proposed it.

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  Was it the Deputy who introduced it?

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  The Minister of State's party fought against it for a year and a half.

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  The Deputy should be delighted we are recognising it now. The 1997 Act provides for similar disclosure requirements for donations received by presidential candidates as apply to candidates at a Dáil election. Each candidate is required to appoint an election agent for the purposes of accounting for donations received. The agent must be appointed not later than the latest date for receiving nominations, which is today. Details of agents must be furnished to the presidential returning officer by that date. It is the duty of the presidential election agent to make such inquiries and maintain such records as are necessary for the purpose of furnishing the presidential donation statement and making the statutory declaration.

A candidate may not accept directly or indirectly anonymous donations in excess of £100. Any such donation received must be surrendered to the Public Offices Commission. Details of donations exceeding £500 must be disclosed by the agent of the candidate within 56 days from [970] polling day. Where the same person makes more than one donation to the same candidate at the election, they must be aggregated and treated as a single donation.

The definition of “donation” includes a contribution from any person for the purpose of promoting the election of a candidate and includes a donation of money, property or goods. It also includes the conferring of the right to use, without payment or other consideration, any property or goods or the supply of services. The difference between the commercial price and the actual price charged for goods or services, that is, where a discount is offered, is also regarded as a donation. Under the Act, failure to furnish a donation statement or make the required statutory declaration within the specified period — 56 days after polling day — or the making of a false or misleading statement in the statutory declaration is an offence.

The question of nomination procedures is one of a number of issues relating to the election of the President which will have to be addressed between now and the next presidential election which, barring unforeseen circumstances, will not take place until 2004. For example, suggestions have been made that the age requirement should be reduced. I have no doubt that the all-party committee will have recommendations to make on this and a number of other issues related to the presidency.

The fact that there are a number of issues which merit consideration of the current arrangements for presidential elections, makes it inevitable that in the course of this debate we will have to consider whether it would be best to deal separately with the single issue in the Bill which is before us at present, or whether it would be better to work towards an eventual package of proposals which would be complete and comprehensive. In that context, I should point out that Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, in his capacity as chairman of the all-party Constitution Review Committee during the last Dáil, stated in his report on the committee's work it was recommending that changes should be effected through a series of omnibus proposals. We will certainly have to consider whether this would be preferable to having a number of single-issue Bills such as the present one. However, that is not to take away in any sense from the value of having the debate that is now under way.

There is certainly a general consensus that debate on this area is worthwhile, and I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies. The date of the election has been referred to, but we have no control over that. A presidential election must be held within 60 days of the President's resignation.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  The Minister of State began his speech by paying tribute to the former President, Mary Robinson, and I begin by also paying tribute to a remarkable President who, for the last seven years, reformed the office of President and [971] changed all our thinking on the role of the office of President in the political, social and public sense and how it relates to the very essence of the affairs of the country.

Those of us who supported the candidacy of Mary Robinson seven years ago did not envisage the sweeping changes she would bring about. She brought those changes about not by fundamentally altering the Constitution, but by bringing the constitutional role to its natural limit. She graced the office in a way that brought huge public support, as opinion poll ratings of 92 per cent satisfaction evidenced. Like the Minister of State, I wish former President Mary Robinson well in her new endeavour, a very demanding and challenging role with the United Nations in furthering human rights. That is an area with which she was long concerned and we will be hearing of the successes of Mary Robinson in this new endeavour for many years, to the credit of herself and her country. I am sure I am not alone in being extremely proud of all she has done.

I am heartened by the concluding remarks of the Minister of State. He did not shoot the Bill down by saying the Government would vote against it. I presume from his concluding remarks that he will listen attentively to Deputies' comments and that he is open to persuasion.

I accept the logic in the rounded approach he is advocating, as there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. One is the nominating procedure. Deputies have outlined the three procedures. An outgoing President can renominate himself or herself. The most used and readily understood mechanism is that 20 Members of the Oireachtas nominate a candidate. For the first time, we have seen the third constitutional provision utilised where four county or borough councils can nominate a candidate. In essence, what is envisaged in this simple amendment is a popular franchise where 20,000 citizens could also provide an avenue of nomination. That would have been a very compelling argument a month or six weeks ago and some might feel that the argument has been somewhat eroded by the ease with which two non-party candidates procured nominations by seeking and getting the support of at least four county councils. I welcome the opening up of that avenue and I strongly support the independent stance taken by individual councillors who said they had a constitutional right to act in that regard and no party whip from Mount Street or any other street in Dublin would tell them what they could do in their own council chambers. That is right and proper. There would have been a very negative reaction from the general public if that had not been allowed to happen.

It is the people of Ireland who will ultimately decide who the President of Ireland will be and they want as broad a range of choice as possible. If somebody has the ambition and the tenacity to seek to fight an election campaign, I certainly would not be in the business of putting barriers [972] in their way. We have all contested elections and know it is not an easy task to undertake. I heartily welcome the broadness of the choice available in the forthcoming presidential election. All of us, even the professional political pundits, will admit that this is a totally unpredictable election because of that. That is no bad thing; the race is a very open one between very competent and able candidates, each of whom brings a dimension which will attract a degree of popularity.

Ultimately, it will be decided on who will attract the most support — probably through preferences because I do not think anybody in a five candidate race is going to win on the first count — and best reflect the modern Ireland in the concluding years of the twentieth century. The chosen person will be the one who can mirror the essence of Irishness today and who will best represent the Irish character and nature of modern Ireland to people abroad. That is only one of the tasks which the new President, whoever he or she may be, will take on.

Deputy O'Keeffe managed to mention his party's candidate, Mary Banotti, at least five times during his contribution. I suppose that when my party colleagues are reading my contribution I should ensure that Adi Roche is mentioned at least as often as that.

Ms O. Mitchell: Information on Olivia Mitchell  Zoom on Olivia Mitchell  Adi who?

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Adi Roche — that is twice I have mentioned her name. There are good candidates in the field, people of stature who have already made a contribution to society. I am looking forward with genuine enthusiasm to the coming weeks where each of those candidates will present their view and their vision of the presidency which will bridge — I hope my use of the word is not taken to be an endorsement of another candidate — the twentieth and the twenty-first century.

The Labour Party supports this Bill because it broadens the franchise. There was much speculation throughout the summer that the political parties would decide on a single candidate and, in so doing, would foreclose the debate making it impossible for anybody else to be elected. Had the political establishment done that, there would have been a very negative reaction from the public. It has now become clear to all of us that people want to make up their own minds. They do not want anybody in this House doing that for them. They want choice and they want an election. I agree with earlier speakers who said that probably will be the trend from now on. None of us in politics should make long-term predictions because they often turn out to be short-term.

There is now a new understanding of the role and potential of the President, and there is a new pride in the office. That is not intended as a slight on any of the excellent holders of that high office since the foundation of the State. People want and will demand a say in the election of the President. [973] There will be a reaction to any political closing of the options available to the people.

For that reason, the Fine Gael proposal to broaden the avenues available for nomination is welcome. It is interesting to examine the difficulties that might arise from the procedures. Under the current procedures, there are 29 county councils — three in Dublin, two in Tipperary and one each in the other 24 councils. In addition, there are five county borough councils, making a total of 34 nominating councils. Together they could theoretically nominate eight candidates for the park; many of them are well minded to do that. That is certainly a much broader entry gate than we would have envisaged heretofore.

Would practical difficulties arise if there was, say, a petition system where 20,000 electors could nominate a candidate? Deputy McGrath referred to the fact that every elector now has a reference number and there should not be any difficulty in cross referencing 20,000 names. I have visions of a nominating officer sitting in the Custom House going through 20,000 names and numbers to ensure everybody was on a register somewhere, which obviously would have to be done.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  What about computers?

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  We have such faith in computers. I could envisage the signature of the nominating officer being a little bit shaky when validating that those 20,000 were registered thereby ensuring there would be no challenge subsequently to that determination. Notwithstanding that, the nominating procedure exists in other countries and there is no reason this jurisdiction should not be as capable as jurisdictions in Portugal, Lithuania, Iceland or anywhere else in ensuring that such nominations are valid.

I wish to share the ten minutes that will remain to me tomorrow night with a party colleague.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  That is satisfactory. The Deputy's colleague will have eight minutes available tomorrow.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  In the time remaining to me I want to raise a number of fundamental issues that the Minister of State might address tomorrow night. Yesterday I published in my name the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, l997 which deals specifically with the presidential election. From our experience of the last general election, I strongly believe that polling should be held on a Friday to facilitate young people. We took that view in the general election. Many students will not be able to take Thursday off college to travel home to vote. We should make it as easy as possible for everybody to vote and Friday voting would enable young people to exercise their franchise.

I regret the Government did not see fit to set Friday as polling day. Maybe it did not think the matter through. Legislation would be required to change the day and while the Minister of State [974] was open in his comments I do not know if he is open enough to accept the Bill I published yesterday which would change the voting day to Friday and thereby enable young people to exercise their franchise. Such an act of generosity might encourage them to vote for the candidate being promoted by the Minister and Minister of State.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  They may not have voted for her.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  I presume all wounds are now healed in that regard.

I have the highest respect and regard for my successor the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Dempsey. However, the director of elections of a candidate should not be the Minister for the Environment. The returning officer is an officer of the Department of the Environment and he or she should not be placed in the invidious position of making a determination in a dispute about the nominating procedure with the director of elections of a candidate who happens to be the political master of the Department. My Bill provides that the Minister charged with responsibility for the electoral process should not be a director of elections.

A technical defect has arisen in connection with the supplement to the postal and special voters register which I hope can be amended by way of regulation. I ask the Minister of State to deal with this point in his reply. The relevant statute, which I introduced, is very strict on this matter. The Electoral Act provides that an application to be included in such a supplement delivered after making an order appointing polling day shall be disregarded for that election or referendum.

The problem in this case is that different orders were made for two electoral procedures to be held on the same day, one being the presidential election order which was made on 13 September and the other being the referendum order which I understand was to be made today. I would like the Minister to clarify if it was made today. On a literal interpretation of the Act, anyone who registered after the presidential order was made will only be entitled to vote in the referendum. My legal advice is that we need amending legislation to deal with this matter. There is a great repository of wisdom on electoral law in the franchise section of the Department and perhaps this point can be clarified by a Government speaker tomorrow night. That would avoid any difficulty when a person votes on the appointed day and is presented with one rather than two ballot papers. I would welcome clarity on that matter.

In my former role as Minister I referred a number of issues related to the holding of elections to an all-party committee of the House, but such was the pressure on that standing committee dealing with legislation that it did not have time to deal with all the issues. This is not a party political issue and I invite the Minister of State to find a mechanism to deal with it as soon as possible. [975] For example, what day should be polling day? I advocate it should be a Friday. Some people argue it should be a Sunday, but I know there are religious concerns. The Minister of State pointed out some difficulties concerning administration and policing. We need a consensus on this matter.

The issue of ballot papers should also be considered. We experimented with the placing of photographs on European ballot papers. There is a case to be made for including photographs on ballot papers particularly for those with literacy or sight difficulties. There should not be party political division on these matters, they should be debated and decided on. A number of issues including those I mentioned are in the public domain for some time and we have never got around to having a comprehensive electoral Bill.

When I was Minister I tried to be as supportive and helpful to the Fianna Fáil Party in Opposition in regard to good proposals that emanated from the then Deputy Mary Wallace. Good proposals on postal voting were incorporated into law in an agreed Electoral Act. We need to consolidate these matters, have a forum for debate to address the issues and have political consensus on a consolidation Bill to make these changes in a co-ordinated and structured way.

It is important to have a debate on the mechanisms for nomination for the presidency. There is a popular will and consensus that it should be as open and as unrestrictive as possible. I welcome the amendment proposed by the Fine Gael Party as a valuable contribution to opening up the mechanisms. There are three existing avenues and this proposal constitutes a fourth. There are those who say that following the experience of the past few weeks it would be infinitely more difficult to get 20,000 electors to sign up than it is to get four local authorities to sign up. There are those who feel that citizens of a political persuasion, or not of any, should be entitled to have a candidate nominated if they so wish.

As the proposer of this amendment, Deputy O'Keeffe suggested that the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, supported this concept in the Progressive Democrats' policy document. I hope the tone of the Second Stage contribution of the Minister of State, which indicated an openness to hear and act on the suggestions from this side of the House is indicative of the tone of the reaction to Private Members' business. When I was in Government I argued there should not be a knee-jerk reaction to reject proposals simply because they come from the other side of the House. There is no need for that. Some good ideas can emanate from this side of the House and if a convincing argument can be made for this Bill I hope the two Government parties will accept it.

Debate adjourned.

Last Updated: 21/05/2011 03:34:26 First Page Previous Page Page of 414 Next Page Last Page