Wednesday, 25 February 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, Industrial Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; No. 2, statements on the Competition Authority’s report on the insurance market, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of the statements; No. 3, European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2003 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 18 and to conclude not later than 8.15 p.m.; and No. 18, motion No. 22, to be taken from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
There will be two earlier signature motions today, one relating to the Civil Registration Bill when we get the message that the Dáil has passed the Bill and the other relating to the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill when all Stages of that Bill have been passed. I am not dismissing the debates that will take place today but I am explaining that when the debates have concluded, that is what we will do. A supplementary Order Paper will be circulated later.
Mr. B. Hayes: Given the Government’s decision to push ahead with legislation to bring about electronic voting for the June elections without the consensus of all parties, when will the legislation be before the House? When that legislation comes to the House, I intend to use Article 27 of the Constitution to ask a majority of Members in the House and at least a third of the Members in the other House to petition the President not to sign this Bill and to put it to the people by way of referendum.
As the Leader well knows, Article 27 has never been used since the founding fathers of our State enacted the Constitution. However, I believe that the use of this article is appropriate because it refers specifically to issues of fundamental national importance. We should ask the President not to sign the legislation if the Government intends ramming it through the Houses of the Oireachtas and to have a referendum to allow the people to decide whether they want electronic voting. The people should have the final say, not some arbitrary Minister back on a kick from the Far East.
Will the Progressive Democrat Members of the House please contact their former friend, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and ask him to stop this collision course that he has decided to embark upon with other Members and parties in the House? The Progressive Democrats are the key here because before the last election they told us they would keep an eye on Fianna Fáil when this kind of issue came up.
Mr. B. Hayes: Where are they now? Many elements of the Fianna Fáil Party have a difficulty with the concept of a paper trail, but it is vital that a paper trail exists, that votes can be verified and that people have confidence in the process. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, is not imbuing the system with confidence. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, gave further ammunition to those people who are opposed to this measure last night on RTE radio because of his performance. Yesterday the Taoiseach showed himself to be at sixes and sevens on this issue. We need clarity and independent commentary which currently——
Mr. O’Toole: The issue is clearly beginning to gather moss among the general population. People are very upset and concerned about what is going on. From the outset I was actively in favour of electronic voting for two reasons; one reason was speed and the other was accuracy. It was suggested that, for the first time, we would have true proportional representation. It now appears that we cannot have true proportional representation. For me, this was the biggest reason for being in favour of the electronic system.
I ask that the Leader convey to the Government the embarrassment people felt while listening to the Minister of State talking about this issue on RTE radio last night. This was picked up on by “Morning Ireland” today. One would not hear the like in a pantomime; the Minister of State argued that these were voting machines and not computers and was not able to answer simple questions on the issue. This is the wrong way to go about giving trust and confidence to the population. A serious problem is arising here and it is a pity it is dividing parties along Government and non-Government lines. Each Member of the House should have a view on this. I speak as one disinterested in party politics. However, we should worry about this issue. Can someone indicate to me why this system cannot provide true PR?
Cork, the capital city of Munster, has offered calculated contempt to the rest of Munster by choosing Dustin the turkey as the grand marshal for the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The leader of the Labour Party in this House often purports to be a Cork man. Does he associate himself with this?
I fully agree with what the two previous speakers said about electronic voting. Why did Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas insist that a detailed paper trail, requiring the signature of four Members of each House, be put in place when electronic voting was introduced here? When we take a vote electronically in the House there is a paper record that is signed and verified by four Members. The Oireachtas does not trust electronic voting sufficiently to dispense with a paper record.
Mr. Ryan: We do not trust it when we have a public vote. While we vote in public we still want a paper record verified by four Members, yet we are telling the electorate that this will not be available to it. Why are we so different from the electorate?
Representatives of the OECD recently visited this country as part of a review of higher education. Many bodies, including the Higher Education Authority, the Department of Education and Science, directors of institutes of technology, and presidents of university made submissions to the OECD. Yet again, the voice of the Houses of the Oireachtas has not been heard. Members have a variety of views and experience of higher education. I seek a debate on the future of higher education in the short term. Having completed the debate, we should send a transcript to the OECD to represent the views of Members on the issue.
A considerable amount of extraordinary and self-serving nonsense is being fed to the OECD. The submission of the HEA is about how important it is that the body be maintained. The submission of the Department of Education and Science is about how important it is to stop it from increasing funding for third level education. The political process ought to be involved in this. I call on the Leader to provide a debate on higher education in the immediate future.
We should have a debate on democracy on this island as a matter of urgency. We are getting into murky waters when in one guise people can celebrate the achievements of an illegal organisation while in another guise pretend they have nothing to do with the organisation when it starts kidnapping and beating up people. There is a need for clarity on this issue. I am tired of lectures from people who claim to be on the same part of the political spectrum as me. I do not believe there is anything sufficiently wrong in this country to justify beating up or killing a single person. This is the difference between my party and Sinn Féin.
Mr. Dardis: The secrecy of the ballot is sacrosanct and should remain so. It will remain secret under the new system. One uses cards in ATMs and expects the bank to provide the money. We do this with confidence——
Mr. Dardis: This is exactly the same. I have advocated electronic voting since I entered this House. It is a secure and good system. If we were to have electronic voting and someone were to say that we would also have paper voting, we would resist it.
Mr. Finucane: I support what Senator Brian Hayes said. Based on the last general election, I was in favour of electronic voting. However, since then and in view of the concerns expressed on all aspects of electronic voting, I have changed my opinion. I have changed my opinion because I am dubious of a Minister who keeps changing his position. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, has been quite arrogant in the area. The Minister was in Malaysia when the Taoiseach announced that people would have the chance to spoil their votes. When the Minister returned, he said this would not be the case. How can one trust a Minister like this?
There is also the issue of credibility and trust from the electorate. The Minister happens to be the director of elections for the local elections and as he is introducing electronic voting, people are bound to doubt it.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: Will the Leader consider holding a debate on the role of voluntary organisations in community life? We all accept they play a major role in charitable works, tourism, sport and culture etc. The world is changing and these organisations face many challenges. Many groups have said that it is sometimes difficult to find volunteers. Community life will be the poorer for this and many of the things that are currently being done will be left undone. It would be good if the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs could discuss this matter with us. It would give us an opportunity to highlight concerns and also to salute the great work of such groups.
Mr. Norris: I congratulate Senator Brian Hayes on his idealism if he believes it is possible to invoke Article 27. He is much more idealistic than me; I do not believe for a minute that there will be a breaking of rank on the Government side and that large numbers of them will vote with us.
Mr. Norris: I am aching for a debate. I raised this issue from a Luddite perspective four months ago. I do not like the interposition of machines between the voter and the result. Senator Dardis said this is not a serious issue. I would have thought that the undermining of the confidence of the electorate in this State is a dangerous threat to democracy. Since this debate has opened up, I have been in constant receipt of additional information casting doubt on electronic voting. Yesterday it was said that in the Florida election one of those machines registered minus 30,000 votes.
Mr. Norris: I support the call for a debate on violence in the North of Ireland. It is important to remember that people in Sinn Féin really do seem to be moving. I listened two nights ago to a senior Sinn Féin representative on Vincent Browne’s programme. He was asked the very direct question whether he would like to see arms taken out of the situation now. He answered “Yes” with uncharacteristic directness. He was also asked whether he would like the IRA to disband now and answered “Yes” with the same uncharacteristic directness. That demonstrates to me that Sinn Féin is really attempting to move towards full democracy, and that should be encouraged. However, it is very difficult to disentangle people from the paramilitaries, because they have their hooks into illegal drugs and all those other activities. It will be a very complicated task to remove them from the equation.
Ms White: Twice already I have called for an urgent debate on human rights at home and abroad. Today it was reported in The Irish Times that the Colombian Government had tried to segregate Niall Connolly from his two colleagues in La Modelo Prison and move him to a state penitentiary notorious for violence. Intervention by our ambassador to Mexico and Colombia, Art Agnew, and his staff was able to stop that move. As reported in the newspaper today, the lawyers are very concerned——
Mr. Bannon: I would like to have a debate on the proposal by the national lottery company to introduce a system for playing lotto by mobile phone. They tell us that they have the technology and that, within three months, they hope to take a decision. We must approach it with caution, since significant numbers of children use mobile phones throughout the country. We must ensure we do not become a nation of compulsive gamblers as a result of playing lotto by mobile phone. It is important that we have a debate on the matter.
Ms Ormonde: I support the call for a debate on higher education, particularly regarding the OECD report. I include in that the post-leaving certificate courses, the rationalisation of courses and how access can be encouraged through the PLC system. That would be very worthy of debate.
Mr. Bradford: Perhaps I might raise with the Leader comments made at the weekend by the head of the police force in Northern Ireland, Mr. Hugh Orde. In view of there being such a large number of unsolved crimes and murders there and throughout the island, many of which will remain unsolved and all of which are linked to the political conflict in Northern Ireland, he suggested that consideration once again be given to a truth and reconciliation commission. That issue merits consideration by the House and the Government. It has been suggested before and is seen internationally, particularly in South Africa, as a method of bringing some degree of closure and peace to many families. I would like us to consider that suggestion, and perhaps the Leader might arrange with the appropriate Minister that we have a debate in this House on it.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Senator Brendan Ryan has called for a debate on third level education. I assure the Leader that we on this side of the House are happy to debate third level education at any time and look closely at our record vis-à-vis that of others. Senator Ryan reminded us that the OECD is conducting an in-depth analysis of third level education commissioned by the Minister. However, as Senator Minihan has rightly reminded me, we are debating the issue in detail at the Joint Committee on Education and Science, starting tomorrow. We invite Senator Ryan to join us, since his colleagues from all sides will be there. It will be interesting to hear the views of the Opposition parties regarding the recent pronouncements of Dr. Garret FitzGerald. There may be something of a conversion on the road to Damascus. We await it with bated breath.
Mr. McCarthy: I know the Leader has already organised a debate on this matter, however, I support some of the views expressed on electronic voting. The Minister was away on European Presidency business in the Far East, and I accept that he could not be in this House for that debate, but it would be appropriate, now that he is back and the Cabinet has discussed the issue, giving it apparent closure from the Government point of view——
Mr. Kitt: When we discussed electronic voting in the House some weeks ago, I mentioned in particular Senator Finucane’s support for it, and I am sorry that he has changed his mind. I said at the time I believed that Senator Finucane would have been in the Dáil if there had been electronic voting in the 2002 election. People talk about a lack of security with electronic voting. What security do we have with the current system? Think of the hundreds of votes unfranked or spoilt accidentally.
Mr. U. Burke: Yesterday we witnessed with pleasure the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, signing the Dublin declaration on behalf of the European Council as president of overseas development. I request that the Leader ask the Minister of State to come back to this House to explain the criminal negligence on the part of the European Union regarding the fact that, within the European fund, $14 billion has lain idle and unused. No one has taken responsibility for it, despite the fact that it had been earmarked for overseas development to combat poverty. It is an absolute disgrace that the body has failed to take its work seriously and utilise the money to save some of the 6,000 people who die daily in Africa and south-east Asia from hunger and poverty. I ask the Minister to come here and say clearly that he, acting during our Presidency, will insist that projects are initiated and that, if no one within the European Union can administer the money, it will be given to the charities which have worked on the ground over the years rather than having them penny-pinch and beg for funds from the public at large. It is a disgrace that such a quantity of money lies idle and unused——
Mr. U. Burke: ——and no one knows about it. No projects are listed for alleviating poverty and hunger. We got a note from the Taoiseach as Members of these Houses requesting that we collect some momento of the Presidency of the European Union.
Mr. Coghlan: Last week, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, correctly referred to the constitutional and civil right of citizens to cast their ballot as they so decide. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, appears to have forced the Government to make a U-turn on the issue. As Senator Dardis stated, the secrecy of the ballot is sacrosanct and was so upheld in the McMahon v. the Attorney General case of 1972, which was later unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court. As we know, if someone enters a polling booth——
Mr. Coghlan: With the guidance of the Cathaoirleach, I do not intend to have a debate now. Under the electronic system, if a person does not want to vote for any of the candidates, the machine will have to be deactivated, thus breaching the secrecy of the ballot because the presiding officer, polling clerk and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform——
Mr. Hanafin: I, too, would welcome a debate on electronic voting. The Opposition is concentrating on rumours and stories emanating from other parts of the world, but failing to take into account a fact to which I have referred previously in the House, namely, that under the current system a representative, random sample can be taken from a surplus for distribution, which is not a democratic procedure.
Mr. Hanafin: I would welcome a debate on the issue, particularly as the tally system may not be as democratic as we believe given the ease with which one can note which votes have changed sides when counting small boxes of votes in rural areas. This issue has not been mentioned.
Mr. Feighan: Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of electronic voting because I was concerned about the bona fides of the company offered the contract to introduce the system. We wanted to stand back and observe exactly what was taking place.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes raised the matter of electronic voting and asked when the relevant legislation would come before the House. The heads of a Bill to address the issue are being drafted, after which they will be presented to Cabinet and the legislation published. As the Cathaoirleach wisely noted, all the matters raised by Senators can be aired when the legislation comes before the House. The Seanad led the field on this issue by holding a debate on electronic voting before it became contentious. It was a healthy debate in which everybody participated. I note Senator Brian Hayes cited Article 27 of the Constitution. While it is a matter for the Opposition to choose the method by which it brings clarity and objectivity to the issue, we will await developments.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Ryan raised the issue of electronic voting. I will take up his point regarding a debate on the OECD report on higher education. While I am sure Senator Fitzgerald is correct that a good debate will take place at the Joint Committee on Education and Science, as a Chamber of the Oireachtas, it would be worthwhile for Senators to express their views on the matter in a cogent, well-structured debate on higher education. I believe the OECD would welcome such a debate. Although it may have been a little high-handed not to have had such an opportunity, we will consider the suggestion now that it has been made. Having read the OECD report, I should have considered the possibility of having such a debate, particularly as it seems that all the vested interests have given their opinion on it. We will try to have the debate as soon as possible.
Senator Dardis robustly defended the electronic voting system and made interesting comments on it. As regards the argument that those who favoured electronic voting system two years ago should still support it, the debate has moved to a new level and it is plausible for those, such as Senator Finucane, who previously favoured the system to want to raise questions about it. I believe our voting system will be sorted out in time.
On Senator Ó Murchú’s request that I ask the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to come to the House to discuss voluntary bodies, an opportunity to discuss the issue, albeit in a slightly indirect way, will arise tonight when the House debates a Private Members’ motion on the dormant accounts fund, an issue which embraces some of the voluntary bodies.
Referring to electronic voting, Senator Norris stated that voters’ confidence is being undermined. He also noted comments made by a senior Sinn Féin figure on a recent radio programme. I also heard the programme and found the politician in question refreshingly candid. Senator White called for an urgent debate on human rights and provided an update on the current position of a prisoner in a Colombian jail.
Senator Bannon referred to the possibility that people will be encouraged to play lotto on mobile telephones. I shuddered at the thought because it will make it very easy to play the game. The question arises, however, as to when one should play nanny and when one should give people rights.
Senator Ormonde indicated that she would welcome a debate on higher education. Senator Bradford noted the statement by Hugh Orde concerning the large number of unsolved crimes and asked whether a truth and reconciliation commission should be established to give people an opportunity to address these issues.
Senator Fitzgerald called for a debate on higher education and referred to an interesting article by Garret FitzGerald in The Irish Times. The former Taoiseach has reached the point where his views are read and listened to objectively. He is regarded as a man of wisdom to whom we listen and whom we commend or not, as the case may be. He is a place apart, so to speak.
Senator McCarthy also called for a debate on electronic voting, while Senator Kitt pointed out the mishaps which occur under the current voting system. I remember an occasion some years ago when 38 unfranked votes, which is a considerable number, were found in a ballot box in a voting station. At any rate, I was still elected.
Ms O’Rourke: The lady in question was not re-appointed to do the job. I do not know to what Senator Ulick Burke was referring when he raised the issue of moneys which had not been drawn down and could be used to help tackle poverty or AIDS. We will ask the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Kitt, to come to the House. He is a worthy representative who adopts strong positions on various causes. Time is the problem now because of the upcoming legislation.
Senator Mansergh supported calls for a debate on higher education and wished that e-voting had not become a partisan issue, as it clearly has. Senator Bradford, while agreeing that the truth and reconciliation idea was excellent in itself, wished that the Cory report could be published as it would throw some light on the issues. Senator Coghlan raised the issue of e-voting and Senator Hanafin raised the issue of the faults of the present system of voting. Senator Feighan again raised the issue of e-voting. The legislation on e-voting will be introduced here. I understand the heads of the Bill are being prepared at the moment. If we get the Bill here quickly, we can debate the points being made.
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