Referendum (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, 1992: Second Stage.

Friday, 30 October 1992

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 134 No. 8

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Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Minister for the Environment (Mr. Smith): Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  At all previous referenda the Oireachtas has seen fit to enact a brief technical Bill to provide the electorate with objective factual information designed to assist them in making a rational and informed decision on the proposals dealt with at the referenda. The present measure represents a continuation of that practice.

The Bill proposes to assist voters at the referenda on the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution by making available to them a statement relating to the proposals which are the subject of the referenda and by providing for headings on the ballot papers in order to help distinguish between them.

Section 1 of the Bill provides that a special polling card, containing the statement set out in the Appendix to that section, will be sent to electors generally. A copy of the statement will also be sent to each postal and special voter. The statement will be displayed on posters in and in the precincts of polling stations. Presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind and incapacitated voters and those unable to read and write by reading out this statement to them, where necessary, and marking the ballot papers in accordance with the instructions of the voter.

The statement for the information of voters is contained in the Appendix to section 1. The statement, which is prescribed in Irish and in English, set out as clearly and concisely as possible, the proposals which are the subject of the referenda. Quite properly, the statement does not attempt to paraphrase, summarise or interpret the proposed constitutional amendments. It simply quotes the words which the three Constitution Bills propose to insert in the Constitution with the minimum of associated wording.

The task of spelling out for the electorate the purpose of the proposed amendments and the implications of voting one way or the other will be a matter for the political parties and groups who are advocating a particular result in relation to one or all of the proposals.

The arrangements proposed in section 1 are the same as those made in relation to the referendum in June of this year and, indeed, at all previous referenda.

A further step to aid voters at the forthcoming referenda is proposed at section 3 of the Bill. This section provides that a heading will be printed on each ballot paper to indicate the proposal to which the paper relates with a view to assisting voters in distinguishing betwen the separate papers.

Experience has shown that where two or more polls are taken on the same day, the proportion of spoilt ballot papers tends to increase substantially. One of the likely reasons for this is that some electors may have difficulty in distinguishing between the separate proposals. In a single nationwide poll the proportion of rejected papers is normally somewhat less than 1 per cent. Where two or more ballot papers are involved the proportion tends to increase to 2 or 3 per cent or, on occasion, even higher.

At a referendum the ballot paper is, and must be, a formal document and not a particularly informative one. The question asked is “Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution [923] contained in the undermentioned Bill” and the Short Title of the Bill is then given. Thus, where there are two or more referenda there is nothing other than the Short Title of the relevant Constitution Bill together with the colour of the paper to distinguish one ballot paper from another.

On this occasion there will be three separate ballot papers. In order to reduce the risk of a high number of spoilt papers, it is clearly desirable that a further distinguishing feature should be included on the ballot papers. The simplest and most effective way of doing this is to include a descriptive heading on each paper which will indicate clearly which of the three separate issues a particular ballot paper relates to. This is proposed by section 3 of the Bill.

The arrangement is not new. In 1979, when two proposals to amend the Constitution were put to the people on the same day, provision was made for the inclusion of distinguishing headings on the ballot papers. In section 3 we are following this precedent. The provision, with the measures I have already mentioned, will help electors distinguish between the three separate proposals and will help in ensuring that the number of spoilt ballot papers will be kept to the minimum.

The purpose of the headings is to distingish between the ballot papers and to provide a signpost to the subject matter to which each relates. The headings have no significance other than as an aid to electors in distinguishing between the three papers. The headings are not part of the proposed amendments to the Constitution; they will not be written into the Constitution; the electors will not be asked to vote on the headings or to approve or disapprove of them. The matters on which the electorate will vote are the proposals contained in the Constitution Bills as passed by both Houses. The ballot paper headings proposed seem to me to be suitable and sensible. They are brief, clear and relevant and will leave the elector in no doubt as to which is dealt with in each paper.

[924] In relation to section 2 of the Bill, I would like to explain that a statement for the information of voters could be prescribed by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas under section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992. However, since a Bill was required in any event in order to provide for the descriptive headings on the ballot papers, it was considered appropriate to deal with both questions in a single instrument. Section 2, therefore, provides that the relevant section of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, shall not apply in relation to the present referenda.

I believe that this Bill will fulfil a useful function in providing the electorate with objective, factual information to assist them in making an informed decision at the referenda. The inclusion of clear, easily understood headings or labels on the ballot papers will provide practical assistance to voters in distinguishing between the different papers.

I am sure the Seanad will agree that the Bill is a worthwhile and practical measure.

Professor Murphy: Information on John A Murphy  Zoom on John A Murphy  If we adhere to the original arrangement of ten minutes for each speaker, only three speakers will get in and there will be no Committee Stage. Could I suggest that the House now agree to limit contributions on Second Stage to five minutes?

Acting Chairman:  Is that agreed? It is a matter for the House to decide. There is a limited amount of time and amendments to the Bill have been tabled. We have until 4 p.m. so it is up to Members to allocate that time among themselves.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Liam Anthony Naughten  Zoom on Liam Anthony Naughten  It is important that Members get an opportunity to speak. I will not delay the House.

Mrs. Honan: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  This side of the House agrees.

Acting Chairman:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Liam Anthony Naughten  Zoom on Liam Anthony Naughten  I welcome the section [925] which provides for the holding of a referendum on the amendments discussed in this House over the last three days. This Bill proposes to assist voters at the referendum on the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution by making available detailed proposals and outlining what is envisaged on each ballot paper the electorate will receive on polling day. I find no difficulty with two of those proposals — the pink ballot paper on information and the green ballot paper on travel — but I have great difficulty with the white ballot paper on the right to life.

I understand from what has been said in this House for the last three days that we are debating effectively, the right in certain circumstances to terminate a pregnancy. Therefore, the white ballot paper is wrongly described and does not specify what this amendment is about. It would be more honourable to spell out clearly to the electorate the implications of that amendment. Describing it as “the right to life” is not an appropriate heading for the white ballot paper.

In his address I note that the Minister did not indicate if the new Electoral (No. 2) Bill will be law for the holding of this referendum, that is, if it will go through the other House and be signed by the President before 3 December. Will the changes in the regulations in the new Electoral (No. 2) Bill become law before the referenda and, if so, will a supplementary register be provided to allow the maximum number of the electorate cast their vote on these very important changes in our Constitution?

I also regret that the Government did not take this opportunity to have a Sunday poll. At this time of year many young people from rural Ireland are attending colleges all over the country and will not have the opportunity to cast their vote on polling day because it will be too difficult for them to commute from the cities to the rural areas where they are registered for voting. The Government missed a great opportunity to hold these referenda on a Saturday or Sunday which would have enabled thousands of young people to vote.

[926] I feel strongly about the heading on the white ballot paper and Senator Neville and I have tabled an amendment to that effect which we hope to have an opportunity to deal with.

I appreciate that we agreed to restrict our contributions to five minutes each. I note the comments made by Senator Murphy and I know Senator Jackman and a number of other Senators wish to speak. It is unfortunate that the heading on the white paper should read “the right to life”; the whole purpose of this referendum is the right to terminate a pregnancy and that is what people are voting on.

Professor Murphy: Information on John A Murphy  Zoom on John A Murphy  In making arrangements for the holding of a poll — I am anticipating my Labour Party colleagues on this — it is relevant to consider the possibilities of undue interference with voters and so on. I am convinced that the practice which some groups intend to continue of picketing the houses of legislators to object to their stances on this issue is reprehensible and cannot be construed as anything other than intimidatory. No words are strong enough to condemn these fascist tactics.

Every legislator has a duty to make up his or her mind on this grave and complex issue and their position on the matter should be respected. It is absolutely reprehensible that they should be intimidated in any way.

Like Senator Naughten I am dissatisfied with the way in which it is proposed to distinguish the various ballot papers in these referenda. The Minister rather disingenuously said that there would merely be a few words to indicate the proposal to which the paper relates; a descriptive heading, as if this were neutral.

We all know that this is far from being the case. We all know that Article 40.3.3º, as it exists, is the pro-life amendment. That is what it was in 1983. Therefore, what is being put in now in the white ballot paper is a modification of that pro-life amendment. Senator Naughten would wish that modification to be recognised by calling a spade a half spade [927] and saying “termination of pregnancy” should be the descriptive title. I have no hesitation in calling for the use of a full spade and saying that the white ballot paper should be tiled “abortion” because that is what it is. It proposes to introduce a measure of abortion into the Constitution and that is what should be told to the people instead of deliberately misleading them by pretending that they are voting for some additional dimension of right to life.

I am against the con job of “pro-life” as a description and the euphemism of “termination” as a description. Indeed, if we were honest we should probably call the green ballot paper on the issue of travel “abortion abroad” as a short description. I find this a further exercise in revolting hypocrisy and if the time permits we shall certainly force a division on this one.

Dr. Upton: Information on Pat Upton  Zoom on Pat Upton  I agree with what Senator Murphy said about the absolutely appalling and disgraceful intimidation which Members of the other House were subjected to by way of pickets on their homes. That is truly appalling.

In relation to the Bill before us today, most of it is pretty harmless and straightforward with the exception of the term which is going to be used as a heading on the white ballot paper, namely, the right to life. The pro-life amendment is a pejorative term which has subliminal connotations. It is a term which is being used by way of political campaigns in this country. I wonder whether it is constitutional to use such a term on a ballot paper. Such influences should not be introduced. It is particularly regrettable that we are unable to call what is being put before the people by is proper name, and that is making abortion available in this country on limited grounds. That is what is happening and we might as well face up to what we are talking about and call it by its proper name.

Those pejorative terms which have subliminal implications are quite unfair and would be unacceptable if they were used in opinion polls. I see no reason for [928] their introduction here except as a kind of sop or some type of subliminal gesture to the pro-life and SPUC elements in this country who exercised themselves fairly well politically in the 1983 referendum. We have to wait and see what will happen on this one. As far as those people are concerned, that type of sop will not do a lot to appease them. It is a pity and regrettable that type of terminology should be introduced in what should be a neutral heading on the white ballot paper.

Mrs. Jackman: Information on Mary Jackman  Zoom on Mary Jackman  I find also it offensive to use that term. I find extraordinary that in the amendment the word “terminate” occurs twice as in “terminate the life of the unborn unless such termination is necessary”. Here you have two words that clearly state what this amendment is about but on the opposite page we have the “right to life”. It reminds me — and Senator Upton put it correctly — of an unprofessional survey tactic where by putting that question you are more or less saying to the voter, “if you vote ‘no’ you are voting no to the right of life, therefore you are not pro-life”. I find it extremely distasteful and hypocritical. We are back again to the notion of something by another name. It is, as I said yesterday, a Fianna Fáil solution to an Irish problem. I would much prefer to see the words, “termination of pregnancy”, used. Let it be specific and let us go to the electorate with a clear, specific white ballot paper with the words “termination of pregnancy”.

It is totally incorrect to say that young people are running in their thousands to avail of abortion services abroad and are only waiting to have the opportunity to do so. If it were a question of being sensitive to the needs of our young electorate, the date, December 3, means that most of our young people, the 40 per cent who are in third level institutions, will not be in a position to vote for something that will affect their lives in the future. I find it extraordinary that the date of the referendum was not set to accommodate our young people whom we are protecting.

[929] As I said, the “right to life” certainly is not in keeping with what I would want on that ballot paper on the day. It should be, as the amendment states, “termination of pregnancy”. Let us call a spade a spade, and I do not agree with Senator Murphy that it is a half spade. “Termination” is the term that is used. It is referred to in the amendment wording and I think it would have a direct bearing on what people are voting.

Acting Chairman:  Prior to Senator Norris coming into the House there was general agreement that each speaker would speak for five minutes. I cannot prevent you from speaking for ten mintues because that is what was agreed on the Order of Business but there was general agreement on five minutes.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  Very wise. I will do my best to restrain myself. I agree with Senator Jackman. There seems to be an extraordinary notion in Government circles that abortion is an obscure form of pleasure and if women are not prevented from having an abortion they will do their best to queue up and have one. I cannot understand that attitude. Abortion is always a sad and tragic situation.

It must be recognised, and I welcome the fact that Senator Ó Cuív put it unequivocally on the record of the House, that abortion has always existed in Ireland and that terminations have been performed. With regard to the right to life amendment, this is obviously a deplorably dishonest sleight of hand. It may also be a neat piece of political footwork but I wonder if honest Albert cast his eye over that. His standards of integrity which we learned yesterday are so extraordinary high that it seems unlikely he could possibly have consented to that nasty form of deceit.

Mr. McKenna: Information on Tony McKenna  Zoom on Tony McKenna  The Senator is talking about the Taoiseach.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I understand at the moment that the Taoiseach is Albert Reynolds but may not last for very much longer. It is first of all a tag which has a [930] clear political association. There is no question about that. It is also an abuse of language and it certainly does not fit the facts in this case.

Reference was made to the X case. As I understand it, if Miss X were in the same situation after the passage of this Bill she would not be in a position to have an abortion. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court determined that the risk of suicide was so sufficiently grave and substantive — to use one of the other buzz words — as to pose a real risk to her life and, therefore, she should be permitted to have an abortion, the impact of this legislation would be to ensure that she would actually have had to commit suicide in order to demonstrate that there was a right to a termination of her pregnancy.

(Interruptions.)

Mrs. Honan: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  The Senator is confused.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I am talking about the question of the right to life, and I am demonstrating that this has nothing whatever to do with the right to life. In fact, the proposals are inimical to the life of a citizen of this State who has had recourse to the Supreme Court. I think we should be able to follow that. I find it quite extraordinary that the Minister should feel comfortable with entitling something the “right to life” when it is a situation in which in some, admittedly statistically remote, circumstances the right to life of the mother is not being protected. Despite the Supreme Court decision that the threat of suicide was a real and potent one, it is not allowed as a grounds for termination of pregnancy. That clearly relates to the question of the right to life.

The Minister said the international literature concerning suicide in pregnancy is very complex and needs careful and objective analysis. Then he sets himself up as God. He is prepared to decide whether there is a threat to the life of a mother in terms of suicide despite the fact that various authorities — the Psychological Society of Ireland and the Supreme Court — determined there was [931] a risk to life. He said on several occasions that it is the intention of the legislation to protect the woman from any risk to her life however remote, and if there were only to be one case in a million or ten or more million they would take account of it. They are not doing that. The Government are clearly setting their face against it.

Acting Chairman:  Do not forget our gentleman's agreement, please.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I will remember it so promptly that I will sit down.

Mrs. Honan: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  Every time I hear the likes of Senator Norris lecturing I say to myself, thank God I never got into university, or any place near it.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  If the Senator keeps trying she will eventually get the points.

Mrs. Honan: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  God preserve us from the likes of you. When he was lecturing us he did not even know which Bill he was dealing with.

I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Smith. Senator Norris was speaking on the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution which were discussed an hour ago.

Senator Naughten referred to Sunday voting. That is covered in a very excellent Electoral (No. 2) Bill the Minister put through the House. There was welcome for Sunday voting throughout the House and the Minister and this Government will be in power long enough to put that Bill through. Have Senators heard that? That is first hand news. I will continue with the Bill.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  Hollow laughter.

(Interruptions.)

Mrs. Honan: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  As regards the three ballot papers with which there seems to be some trouble, and some of my colleagues seem to think there is some kind of Fianna Fáil waffling, I was in the [932] House for most of the contributions made in the last three days; I rarely left the House. Senator Brendan Ryan is supporting two of these Bills but not the third, the one we are now dealing with. He is recommending that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments be carried but not the Twelfth Amendment. That is an example of democracy at its best, which is not unusual in Fianna Fáil.

I welcome this Bill. I think we should clear up any confusion. We have had a calm debate in this House, which in fairness is usual for the Seanad — except when one Senator is not lecturing.

I recommend that the people vote on the three amendments bearing in mind the alternative to voting against the Twelfth Amendment. I have already said that I do not like the alternative. I commend this Bill to the House.

Mr. Smith: Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  I will be brief at this stage because I want to leave as much time as possible to discuss the amendments. I am delighted to know that nothing has changed in the Seanad — the banter and the humour are as strong as ever.

Senator Naughten referred to the supplementary register. As he knows, electoral reform has not been dealt with by successive Governments since 1963. I am happy to say that we have a Bill which will be going through Committee Stage in the Dáil next week which will bring about major reforms. For the first time it will be possible within 12 days of an election to provide a supplementary register so that people who are not included through errors in the system will have the opportunity to vote. In the past many of us were unable to explain why the name of somebody who had voted for 25 or 30 years was omitted from the register. We have rectified that. However, within the time available it will not be possible to pass the Bill through the Dáil in time for the forthcoming referendum; most people accept that. As the general election will probably take place towards the middle of 1994 — it will not be our fault if the Governemnt go earlier——

[933]Mrs. Honan: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  Hold the envelopes for a while.

Mr. Smith: Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  Hope springs eternal. I have yet to meet an honest politician crying for an election.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I thought there would be a full stop there after “honest politician”. It was hanging perilously on the point of a period.

Mr. Smith: Information on Michael Smith  Zoom on Michael Smith  With regard to the argument and the disagreement about the heading on the ballot paper and the description “the right to life”, it is a pity Senators underestimate this description. We are not saying it is perfect; it is a way to enable the voter to distinguish between three ballot papers. It takes on board the words that have been used since the early eighties.

I do not want to play second fiddle to anybody, and I know most Members do not play second fiddle to anybody, in our desire to protect life. In the context in which were are talking here, it is legitimate to use that heading because we are spelling out the circumstances where it is unlawful to terminate a pregnancy.

The words “right to life” are used three times in Article 40.3.3º; “life” is used more than once in the amendment and the words suggested do not seem to fit the Bill as neatly as our proposal. It is not a question of influencing voters; it is a question of helping people to distinguish between three ballot papers. I hope Senators will accept that.

Question put and declared carried.


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