Dáil Éireann - Volume 661 - 25 September, 2008

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

  Deputy Cyprian Brady:The purpose of the Bill is to implement the recommendations of the Constituency Commission with regard to Dáil and European Parliament constituencies and to revise the procedures to be followed by future constituency commissions. It also revises procedures for the nomination of non-party candidates in European and local elections, which worked well in the most recent general election. The balance struck in the legislation is fair and equitable and will ensure that those who express an interest in running as Independent candidates in local and European elections will have the opportunity to do so. The deposits involved are not prohibitive and applicants will have some choice as to the centre in which they stand. This gives an opportunity to people interested in representing constituencies to put their names forward.

Many Members have mentioned the effect boundary changes have in their constituencies. The current situation is that the 166 Deputies in the Dáil each represent approximately 25,541 people, well within the proposed guidelines. According to the Constitution, there should be no less than one Deputy per 30,000 of the population and any future commission will have to take into account changes that have taken place.

The demographics of our population have changed immensely in a short time. In the past ten years there has been significant change in the demographics, particularly on the north side of the city. These older areas, like developing areas, continue to develop and need investment in education and other areas. Older and more settled areas continue to develop, particularly with the increase in the number of apartment complexes and small in-fill estates. People often refer to one-off housing as a rural issue, but it is now common in urban areas. The trend over [904] recent years has been for one-off housing to be built adjacent to existing houses, particularly in local authority areas where there has been an upsurge in the gardens of existing houses. This has contributed to the change in population trends in these areas. I have seen the effect apartment developments have had on old, settled areas and these are now young, vibrant and busy areas. Population in such areas have increased and this has led to increased availability of services such as shops, restaurants and pubs.

The reduction of the number of European Parliament seats in the Dublin constituency by one must be revisited as a result of the changes in population, particularly in the city. I understand there are developing areas outside the city boundaries, but the continuing rate of growth of the population of the city must be taken into consideration. The diminution of representation at European level must be given further attention.

Since its initiation in 1979, the Constituency Commission has had an advisory role and it is established practice that its recommendations are accepted. There is scope for change here. Individual Deputies have explained the effects boundary changes have on how they represent the people in their areas and how those people react to the changes. I had experience of this prior to 1997 when the most natural boundary in the country, the River Liffey, was breached and my constituency took in part of the south side of the city, Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard, areas with no relationship with Cabra and Glasnevin. Although we are all Dubs, I believe Dublin is made up of a series of small villages. I see this in my constituency and have noticed that people are proud of their community. They are involved in their local parish or community and take pride in that. When a change such as the one mentioned occurs, it is difficult for a public representative to explain that because a person is on one side of the road, he or she must be referred to another Deputy or councillor. This causes confusion.

To further add to the confusion, sometimes successive commissions decide change is needed and areas that were changed by a previous commission are reviewed and a further change takes place. This means representatives must explain to people they are moved again. This can interfere with the ability of people to vote. It creates a fragile situation and hampers their privilege to cast their vote for particular individuals or parties.

The serious and important issues dealt with in the Bill are sacrosanct to the way we implement democracy. There are proposals in the Bill relating to how the commission does its business and it can now use the preliminary report of a census, rather than wait for the detailed results of the final census report. That provision will make it easier and quicker for sitting and potential representatives to assimilate changes. In my area the commission made no changes to our boundaries in the case of local elections nor does it make any change to the boundaries of Dublin Central. Therefore, it makes no impact on my area.

I listened however to a different story from representatives from Leitrim, Meath, Kerry and Limerick and these stories help us understand the problems of local representatives in those areas. I listened to Deputy Johnny Brady last night. He gave 34 years in an area serving the needs of the people there, but has to explain to them that he will no longer represent them, but now represents people just a few fields away as the result of the change in the boundary. It is very difficult to explain this to people.

I welcome the changes with regard to Independent candidates putting their names forward. Those changes will make a difference. We want to avoid the situation that exists in the UK, where comical candidates put their names forward. These candidates have absolutely no representation but because of the system, they manage to put their names forward for whatever crazy party name they invent. We have to protect ourselves from that because this is a relatively small democracy.

[905] Any change we make to our electoral system must be treated with respect and dignity. We are a modern, vibrant and economically progressive country and we now have many new communities joining our society. Our population is increasing year on year. We have to protect what has gone before and this Bill will help. Other issues, such as the register of electors, can be addressed but I welcome the Bill and wish it speedy progress.

  Deputy Charlie O’Connor:The next speaker is Deputy Crawford, whom I understand wishes to share time with Deputy Noonan.

  Deputy Seymour Crawford:I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, although I would prefer to spend the time discussing the state of the economy and the pressures facing individuals and institutions. Economic issues have an influence on the movement of people towards the eastern part of the country rather than western and north-western areas.

I welcome the fact that the Houses of the Oireachtas opened a stand at this year’s National Ploughing Championships. It is a major event and we were fortunate in having had the Ceann Comhairle officially open the stand on Tuesday. There was great interest in it and it is important that people are informed of the workings of this House. I wish those involved well in their visits to schools and other places throughout the rest of the year.

In regard to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008, I welcome the fact that there is no change in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan but I am appalled that a further two counties, Longford and Westmeath, have been added to the North West European Parliament constituency, to which County Clare was already added in the previous election. This has been brought about as a result of the failure of Government to provide the infrastructure and jobs needed in the north west to retain and increase the population. Even the Government’s decentralisation programme was a total disaster and has now been abandoned. It is unlikely that any one party will get more than one seat in the new North West constituency, which means that each MEP will have to cover an area from Malinhead to the Shannon estuary and from Connemara to the stony grey soil of Inniskeen. That is an impossible project. Governments of whatever kind must look seriously at injecting the necessary support structures into the north and west so as to maintain and increase the population base in those areas rather than continuing the present Government’s insistence on making all investments on the east coast.

This brings me back to my situation in Cavan-Monaghan. According to statistics and the information provided by the independent commission dealing with this revision, my constituency is close to the bottom in terms of the retention of five seats based strictly on the county boundaries of Cavan-Monaghan. The commission can do nothing in that regard because it must go by the figures in front of it. However, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and the Government have a major role to play in ensuring that the population of the Cavan-Monaghan region is not only retained but also increased.

The Minister’s decision to intervene in the county development plan for County Monaghan, which was clearly based on the advice he was given, has implications for the potential population growth of the county. It was clear from the letter sent in his name that he had never read it because it stated on the first page that he had made decisions on issues regarding County Monaghan in January 2007, even though he was then a humble Green Party spokesperson and not a Minister. While I have some sympathy with his letter dealing with some of the expansion programmes for villages, his decision to restrict planning in areas of the county that were not classified as CLÁR is unforgivable. A friend of mine spent €10,000 on a planning application which should have been granted by the middle of the following week but was blocked by the Minister’s outburst on a Sunday evening that declared planning permission for his site was [906] restricted to people living in the immediate area. He has lived only one mile outside this area for most of his married life.

It is encouraging that the people of Monaghan should be able to build houses under normal planning regulations in any part of the county where depopulation has been a scourge. The border counties of Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Donegal have suffered more than most as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles. Governments have failed to provide inward investment into the area and if the peace process is to mean anything, the Government, particularly the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, must ensure that the commitment of the previous Taoiseach to increase investment is delivered and that high technology jobs are created.

The failure of the Government to deliver on its decentralisation project is a serious cause of concern. Some 80 Department of Social and Family Affairs jobs were committed to Carrickmacross and, in fairness to the staff and management of Monaghan County Council, every effort was made to provide accommodation. Unfortunately, however, the project was held up as a result of party political resistance and the enthusiastic private investor pulled out in frustration. These jobs in Carrickmacross, which were over-subscribed by people who wanted to move home or into the area, would have maintained or increased our population. Similarly, 350 jobs were destined for Cavan and would not only have benefited the Cavan area in terms of population but would also have utilised many of the unused housing developments currently available. While I appreciate these issues may not be directly relevant to the Bill before us, I raise them as examples of the Government’s failure to maintain or increase populations in difficult rural northern and western areas.

I have no problem with the people named by the Minister, Deputy Gormley, as members of the present revision commission because they have a job to do. However, unless the Government takes action to increase its involvement in the development in areas outside of what was originally known as the Pale, more and more Deputies will come from the greater Dublin area.

Another issue of concern to rural dwellers in many parts of my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is the failure of the Government to provide proper broadband facilities. It is extremely important in this day and age that people, even those based in Dublin, are able to work in their home areas. This would not only cut down on time wasted travelling morning and night to the city centre but it would also bring a major benefit to our environment by cutting down on carbon emissions. However, not even certain major companies have hopes of getting broadband at present.

The decision of the commission to increase seat numbers in some Dublin constituencies will provide opportunities for new people to get elected. I wish them well but I can understand the frustration of people in areas like Dún Laoghaire, Limerick City and others where the number of seats has been reduced from five to four, meaning that some of the city members must lose or go elsewhere.

A similar situation has occurred within my own constituency in respect of the county council elections, where some individuals have lost their immediate electoral base and will find themselves under tremendous pressure. While the Cavan-Monaghan constituency will be retained under the Bill, I have first-hand knowledge of how much pressure a change of boundaries can cause to individual politicians and their families.

While we accept the decisions of independent commissions, it is sometimes very hard to see their logic. I welcome the Minister’s comments to the effect that he wished to hold more consultations. It is vital that there be consultations on the ground, in addition to looking at maps in Dublin, so that simple logic can prevail. When one area is shown as a long stripe and [907] others only cover small areas, one has to question the thinking of the commission. The numbers may add up, but the process could be carried out in a different way.

The use of an independent commission is the best way to carry out this exercise and I support the Bill in principle in the knowledge that my party spokesperson will table amendments, which I hope will be accepted in a constructive way. I wish the Minister well but it is vital that, in the interests of democracy and fair play, when reasonable amendments are tabled they are not blocked for the sake of opposition. I urge the Minister to listen to constructive amendments to make this Bill worthwhile.

  Deputy Michael Noonan:My party supports the Bill but I do not welcome it because it is based on a flawed commission report which was carelessly drafted. In future reports the relevant commission should be asked to justify the decisions it makes and not be allowed to hand them down as diktats. The logic of some of the decisions in the report is hard to understand. It is inequitable and flawed. The report is careless but the commission arrived at its conclusion and knows that the practice in the Dáil is to accept what the commission decides. If there are other reports like this, that practice itself could break down.

Over the years commissions have adopted two different approaches to constituency changes. One approach involves small changes with knock-on effects for every constituency in the country but which do not discommode many people. The other approach is where one boundary goes free and this report is in that category, being based on two large initiatives with everything else built around them. The two large initiatives were to suppress one seat in Dún Laoghaire and one seat in County Limerick, giving two additional seats which could be applied to the new population areas in west and north Dublin.

I accept the approach because it has been adopted before but I wish to examine the situation vis-à-vis Kerry and Limerick, which affects me personally. County Limerick is losing a seat. We had eight seats, one five-seater and one three-seater, but we will now have a four-seat city and a three-seat county, whereas Kerry is holding onto its six seats. If the plan was to change the boundaries between Limerick and Kerry, I would question its logic. The changes are being made by people who must be totally unfamiliar with both counties and they have discommoded many people. Many ordinary voters and political activists are extremely unhappy that a whole tranche of the county, from Abbeyfeale down to the Shannon estuary at Glin, is being transferred to Kerry. They are extremely unhappy that a tranche of the Castleconnell electoral area of east Limerick is going into what used to be Limerick West and will now be Limerick County.

Obviously, when populations change constituencies have to change and the report of the commission provides statistics in that connection. In 2006, Kerry North had 23,148 persons per Dáil Deputy and Kerry South had 23,464. Limerick East had 23,647 and Limerick West had 23,733 so Kerry was further from qualifying for six seats than Limerick was from qualifying for eight. One of the major bases for the change made by the commission was the record of current Dáil constituencies ranked by percentage variance from the national average for population per Deputy, given in table one. Limerick West stood at -7.08 relative to the average and Limerick East at -7.42, whereas Kerry South stood at -8.13 while Kerry North was at -9.37. This would favour a transfer of population from Kerry to Limerick rather than vice versa, yet the commission flew in the face of its own evidence and recommended the opposite.

The justification for constituency change is the principle that the weight of representation should follow the weight of population but the opposite has been done in this case. Why? The commission must have had other reasons. Was the position of the Ceann Comhairle taken into account? Was there an informal conversation in which it was said that if Kerry was made a one-county five-seater it would effectively be a four-seat constituency, because the Ceann Comhairle would be elected automatically? If that was a consideration, where in the Consti[908] tution or the terms of reference of the commission is it stated that the position of the Ceann Comhairle’s automatic re-election is to be taken into account?

When the three ladies and one gentleman of the commission decided this, they were quite aware of the political consequences, as anyone would be. Limerick loses a seat and anyone looking at the statistics over the years would assume that the seat being lost when Limerick City went from five seats to four had to be an Opposition seat. One does not need to be a genius with numbers or to be of a speculative disposition. Many would assume it had to be a Fine Gael seat but, even if one was to take a wider interpretation, it has to be an Opposition seat. In Kerry, the seat being saved as the county retains its six seats has to be a Government seat, and probably a Fianna Fáil seat.

Not only did the commission fly in the face of the evidence of the population statistics that it produced itself, its members did so knowing there were foreseeable political consequences which would favour the Government. That is not fair play. I would accept this report, as I have all the revisions which have marginally affected my constituency. I would argue that this is the way the system works and we have all decided it is the fairest way to do it. It would be biased if it came from a Minister but with a commission it would all be fair and above board. However, I cannot see how a commission which examined its own statistics could recommend the county in the weaker position keeping its six seats while the county in the stronger position was deprived of a seat. Given the fact that the commission has not sought to justify or explain the decision in any way, we must draw our own conclusions. In future, I would like the commission to provided an explanation of its decision.

I will move on to discuss the part of the Limerick constituency which is in County Clare. When one crosses the Corbally bridge one comes to housing estates such as Shannon Banks and Westbury, which are part of Limerick City but administratively are in County Clare and run by Clare County Council. Villages from Parteen to Ardnacrusha, where the Shannon power scheme is located — many Members not familiar with other landmarks in Limerick will be aware of it — will become part of the constituency of Limerick city. Those living in the suburban estates are essentially Limerick city people. The people living further out in the villages of Parteen and Ardnacrusha are Clare people. This brings with it all the tensions experienced in any border area. These people are in a peculiar situation which it is hoped a future commission will examine.

In general elections those people voted for candidates from Limerick East and in future they will be in the constituency of Limerick city. For the purpose of local elections they are included in the Killaloe electoral district of Clare and vote for Clare councillors who take up office in Ennis with Clare County Council. For the purpose of the European elections these people are included in the County Clare district. The euro constituencies are made up not of Dáil constituencies but of counties. While these people reside in County Clare the MEPs for whom they can vote may represent areas as far away as Donegal. That is the extremely anomalous position in which these 3,500 people will find themselves.

I hope that the Minister of State, when replying, will provide us with more detail of future arrangements for commissions. I understand that Mr. Frank Clarke’s judgment provides that a future commission may work on the provisional figures of the next census rather than the final figures. I understand from the Minister’s preliminary remarks on Second Stage that the commission’s report may be finalised only when the full figures are released. There will be some time gained but not much.

I would like the Minister to match this to the electoral cycle. Perhaps he will also answer the following question: will there be time before the next election, provided the Dáil runs its full [909] term, to have another revision of the constituencies? Is it the case, as many of us believe, that because a report on provisional figures cannot be finalised, the date for the report of the commission, three months after final figures are available, will be after the last possible date of the next general election? There is an expectation that this is a temporary arrangement and that the position will be changed again, but I do not believe that. I would like the Minister to let us know in exact terms the timeframe and how it matches with his plans.

  Deputy Mary O’Rourke:I welcome the Bill and the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I am aware that the inclination is for everybody to speak about their own constituency, as Deputy Noonan did so eloquently. Clearly there is cause for debate in regard to what he said. However, I bring the attention of the House to what occasioned the setting up of an independent boundaries commission. I was not elected to this House until 1982. However, I recall reading, when I was a member of a county council and local authority, about the famous “Tullymander” when the then Minister of the relevant Department decided he would become the god of the constituencies and that he alone would decide how each constituency was to be configured, thereby returning his colleagues and their parties to Government. We all know this action backfired in the face of the “Tullymander”. One does not like to talk in such disparaging terms about a person who has passed away so I shall not dwell further on that issue.

The late Jack Lynch, the man who became Taoiseach following the election at that time, committed Fianna Fáil on taking up office to establish an independent boundaries commission and so it happened. We have stook with it ever since. I followed the debate in my office and noted Deputies’ distinct inclination to speak about how they will be affected by the new constituency boundaries, the loss to them of valuable parts of their constituencies and how unfair all of this is.

I must say, despite some rocky ups and downs in various constituencies, I prefer to stick with the independent method of deciding constituencies rather than entrust such decisions to a Labour member, as happened in the Government of 1973-77. I find it amazing that nobody else has mentioned this during the debate. We are led to believe that the Labour Party is all things bright and beautiful, wonderful and good, but clearly that was not the case in that instance. The action backfired because former Taoiseach Jack Lynch romped home, if one may dare say it, with too many seats, therein sewing the seed of future disagreements and difficulties.

I welcome the report. I recall when for constituency purposes Longford was linked with Roscommon and what a jarring note that struck. Nobody could get their heads around it or understand what led to it. However, it was accepted and people got on with it. Likewise in the last round of constituency changes my constituency became the constituency of Longford-Westmeath, which had a comforting ring about it and gave me hope, which was subsequently realised. As part of the change, the north part of Meath was moved to the constituency of Meath West which has its own gripes, about which I heard Deputy Johnny Brady speak in the House. He was bemoaning that he cannot serve certain people.

I am glad the Minister of State with responsibility for housing is in the House to hear my simple solution to Deputy Brady’s problem. I live in the town of Athlone, a busy and bustling town which has been greatly extended to the west into the area of Monksland following the construction of an enormous number of new housing estates. As far as I am aware, Monksland is the second largest town in Roscommon — I am sure the Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong. It is part of the Roscommon constituency and is a mile from where I live.

As one can imagine at least half of the people who attend my constituency clinic are from other constituencies. I do not moan about this but explain the situation to them and deal with their queries. I do not believe I can deal only with people from County Westmeath or County Longford. Many of these people would have lived in Athlone and later moved a mile or two [910] to rus in urbe because they believed they would have a better life there, and good luck to them. They come to me because I dealt with them previously under a different constituency arrangement. I deal with their queries, and why not? We are all elected by the people. On a more practical level, many of them have mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers living in the town of Athlone, which has its own wash-back.

I was amazed to hear several Deputies say they could not deal with people who came to them from another constituency. I found that odd and alarming. I deal with people on a national level and, be that as it may, I merely wished to raise that point.

The Bill is tidying up legislation and it is rather good. The daft arrangement whereby those seeking election as Independent candidates, who were called assenters, be it to a town council, county council, the Dáil or Europe, had to be assembled in a vast concourse and they had to raise their hands and say who they were representing. That was a very cumbersome, clumsy and silly system that was introduced, I think, in 1992 and was subsequently changed. Now, candidates need only sign a form and the requirements vary according to the electoral mandate one seeks to fill.

I am glad the Central Statistics Office will review population divisions.

I note with interest, but of course we knew it before now, that those in Longford and Westmeath are to be Connacht people. We are being put into the European North-West constituency. I smile when I hear about Munster refusing to accept Galway into the province for the hurling championship. They should set up a commission.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:Alas, I think that was Wexford.

  Deputy Mary O’Rourke:I am sorry for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

If we are to be lumped into another constituency, that is fair enough. We will go where we are sent. If we are part of the North-West constituency we will be glad to participate as that constituency in the forthcoming European election. All of these changes are useful tidying-up procedures which have to be carried out, and fair dues to the Minister for getting at the things that have to be done. Before now, all assenters had to come together at one time in one room if they supported an independent candidate, but not any more. There are measures here to deal with this.

There is a point I would like to bring up which is not in the Bill. I should not have signalled it was not in the Bill, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will want to strike me down, but I hope he will not. There is a huge hole in the midst of the election process, namely the electoral register. Every attempt made to compile an electoral register or bring about a new dawn in the compilation of electoral registers does not succeed. We are told it is up to the would-be voter to place him or herself on the register. There are advertisements and sexy jingles on the radio which tell one to go to the post office, the Garda or the town hall and put down one’s name. Essentially it is one’s own responsibility to do so. It is also one of the responsibilities of the local authority to compile a register. Leading up to the 2007 general election, the county councils belatedly got a handle on it, and employed people for this task. There was a very good young woman in Westmeath County Council, but she had a whole county in front of her, involving big towns, big movements of people in and out of areas and huge numbers of houses. Yet it was the people who went around canvassing, who would ask whether Tom was on the register because he was 19 since last March — or 25 since last March — who would find that Tom had never been registered. If one tells the person it is his or her own job to register, that does not cut the mustard. People want to know why they are not on this mysterious register even though they have been living in the same place for the last 25 years.

[911] As elected Deputies who got here by hook or by crook, by hard work or in any other way — and very honoured I am to be here, and I thank the voters of Longford-Westmeath who sent me — we have to get a grip on the electoral registers. We are facing local and European elections next June, and it is now almost October. There has been a desultory effort by some local officials to get people out and about, but it has been sporadic and haphazard. It almost amounts to a scandal that we cannot have some system for compiling the electoral register. Surely in our time of technological revolution we should be able to achieve this. We all have our BlackBerrys and our e-mail accounts. We can speak to our first cousin in Australia at the drop of the hat, and he can see that we have moved the couch in the living room because he is looking in. It is amazing. Yet we have not yet devised a method to streamline the electoral register. The Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been considering the system in Northern Ireland, which has registration offices in the major towns. This seems to put a shape on the collection and compilation of the data and its insertion into the electoral register.

If a person is found voting twice he or she is subject to huge penalties. There are major court cases, and rightly so. As Deputies know, a person can be on as many registers as he or she likes but can only vote once. Yet we seem to regard the gaps in our electoral register quite blithely. I do not think this is good enough. We are all citizens of the land and we are all entitled to vote. Despite the fact that it is the responsibility of the individual citizen to put his or her name down, that is never thought of until quite late in the process, and then there is a run to the Garda station to have one’s name verified and entered on the register. By that point the process is quite burdensome, and it is difficult to sort out the information and ensure that it gets in. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is failing in his duty. He should consider giving the duty of overseeing the correct compilation of electoral registers to one of his Ministers of State.

I am aware the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has given me leeway on this issue, but it is in connection with the Bill as it is to do with voting. It is about getting people on district councils, town councils and county councils to deal with the matter before the upcoming European elections. If you are not in you cannot win, and if one is not in the register one cannot vote. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to introduce a system for compiling the electoral register. I hope the estimable civil servants who are here with the Minister will take some heed of me. As we practitioners know, there is nothing to beat being in the field. I knock on a door thinking a house will be favourable to me, and then I find three members of the family cannot vote because they are not on the register. I go off dashed, and they go off thinking I have somehow deprived them of their votes. In this way the story goes on and on. We are all aware that on the day of voting one gets frantic telephone calls from people who say they were on the register for the last 95 occasions — or certainly 20 occasions — and suddenly some gremlin has removed them. This is the unkindest cut of all. One tells them it is the fault of the computer system and they were removed accidentally, but they think there is a dark plot to remove them from the register.

2 o’clock

I welcome the Bill and the tidying-up changes facilitated by it. My firm belief is that the current system is far better than Tullymandering or whatever we used to have. Whatever the inequities shown up by bruised Members talking about how the changes will be detrimental to their constituencies, the fact remains that this is a far better way to do it than on the whim of one person who wants to decide what is best for everyone in the country. I welcome the independence of the commission, the commitment of the people on it, and its results, despite the effect they may have on particular constituencies. One cannot cherry-pick the results and say one does not want the changes implemented in Limerick, Longford-Westmeath or Dublin North. It does not work like that. It is a jigsaw and all the [912] pieces must fit together, thereby presenting, I hope, a coherent whole in the set of electoral standards.

However, coupled with my approval of the Bill and my comments in favour of it, I condemn the state of the electoral register and the inactivity of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in dealing with the problem, apart from saying, in a lofty manner, that it is a job for the county councils. Lofty manners do not put names on electoral registers, which takes hard graft, hard work and application to the job in hand. While it is not possible to have a foolproof electoral register I urge a very detailed assessment of how an up-to-date voting register can be put in place.

  Deputy Seán Barrett:I wish to share time with Deputy Timmins.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Deputy Seán Barrett:Further to the point the previous speaker was making on the electoral register, in the Dublin city and county area it is possible to have two local authorities in the one constituency. Which local authority has responsibility for that whole constituency? The Dún Laoghaire constituency has lost a seat and Dublin South has retained its five seats. However, Dublin South stretches from the edge of Firhouse right down to Loughlinstown hospital. The northern end of Dublin South is in the South Dublin County Council area. Part of that constituency is in one local authority area and the other part is in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area. I agree some agency, possibly the Department, should be responsible for ensuring the maintenance of a proper register to allow people to exercise their franchise whenever an election might be called.

I share Deputy O’Rourke’s concern. There is nothing worse than people arriving at a polling booth and finding that their names are not on the register. This can happen despite the fact that people might have lived in the same house for years. In a modern democracy with all the technology available surely it is not beyond the wit of man to find some system. I do not profess to be sufficiently qualified to offer a solution. However, there are plenty of people around and if we ask them for their advice I am sure they would be only too willing to give it to us.

It has been proven that Irish people have a particular interest in elections. In between elections people give out about politicians, day in and day out. When it comes to the contest they are tuned into their televisions and radios to hear the results and it is part and parcel of the whole thing. The ratings go way up on the night of a general election count. Although people are really interested, we have done everything in our power to destroy their interest. I will give a small example. We introduced voting machines. Who ever asked for them? I never knocked on a door where somebody said to me: “Listen, Deputy Barrett, could you do something about getting rid of this pencil and paper? Is there not a machine we could use?” In the 34 years since I was first elected to public life I never heard one person complain about getting a pencil to put “1, 2, 3” on a piece of paper. Yet we decided that because another country did it, we too should have voting machines.

I often think of poor former Deputy Nora Owen, who was a great colleague here. The manner in which that woman was treated on the night of that famous announcement was disgraceful. Given that weaknesses were discovered in the electronic voting system, to this day I am sure she often wonders whether she was cheated out of her seat. That should never be the case. I do not see anything wrong if it takes 24 hours to physically count the votes. We can all go in along with our tellers and all the rest of it and see the pieces of paper being opened in front of us. If there is a recount and it takes another day, so what? Let us get rid of this notion.

[913] While I know it is not directly the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, he is a man of great influence in the Department. Would somebody please get rid of these machines for once and for all? It is costing the taxpayer between €1 million and €2 million each year to store machines that only have a lifespan of 20 years. They were bought approximately seven or eight years ago. We should put up our hands and say that it was a bad idea and, even though it has cost the taxpayer €52 million, get rid of them. We could give them to somebody else if they want to play around with them and see if there is anything they can do with them — perhaps turn them into gaming machines or something. They will not be used as voting machines. Let us be honest about it and not add on another €1 million a year or whatever it costs to store them.

At this stage I am all in favour of recognising that the Irish people are quite happy with their pinn luaidhe agus píosaí páipéir as the former Taoiseach said. They like marking “1, 2, and 3” and have never complained about it. As former Deputy John Kelly, God rest him, who was famous in this place for making common sense speeches, said “if it is not broke don’t fix it”. The system should be left alone. It is part and parcel of Irish life. Although they have pressed buttons in the United States that did not turn out to be very successful as far as Al Gore was concerned. Let them continue to do it over there. We like what we are doing here and people are not complaining about it.

I want to make a general point about reducing the Dún Laoghaire constituency by one seat. I realise that a commission given the job of reviewing boundaries will need to take difficult decisions. I am not qualified to talk about rural areas. There are plenty of other Members who are qualified to talk about rural areas and the effects of taking bits of counties and putting them in with other counties. I can understand the difficulties that causes for many people because people are loyal to their counties and like to be represented by their Offaly Deputy, Meath Deputy or whatever it may be. The commission has fiddled around with the boundaries in Dublin many times. Deputy Gregory must be the greatest survivor as an Independent Deputy. As long as I have been in this House, every time there was a constituency boundary revision, Dublin Central was the first to get the hammer. It has been moved all over the place. Deputy Gregory has managed to survive which says much for his work.

The part of the Dún Laoghaire constituency to be moved into Dublin South is the part that will be developed in the future. I recently read a Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council report which anticipates a population in Cherrywood of 32,000, with 18,000 jobs planned. That is the target for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. That part of the Dún Laoghaire constituency is the very part the commission has been taken out and put into Dublin South. If it were necessary to redraw the boundaries and the Dún Laoghaire constituency were to lose a seat, it would have been far better to take an established part of the constituency at the other end to join in. It is inevitable that in a subsequent revision those boundaries will need to change it again.

Like previous speakers, I believe there should be a fixed term so that people are guaranteed this will not be changed every five years or whatever. Provisions in the Bill will permit the commission to review boundaries after the initial census figures are published. People like to have certainty. The part that has gone from my constituency, which has been with me for the 30 odd years I have been a councillor and Deputy, is very much part of Dún Laoghaire — it is not just the votes. It is totally foreign to what is in Dublin South. There is no connection between Firhouse in the South Dublin County Council area and the southern part of the existing Dún Laoghaire constituency. There is not even a bus service — they do not connect with each other.

We have to be careful about who sits on these commissions. I do not wish to criticise the integrity of those who served in the past but there is a need for people who know and under[914] stand the areas involved. One likes to think they walked the territory. I do not think the same commission should deal with urban and rural areas. The maximum number of seats is 166. One has to look at both rural and urban areas and arrive at a solution on the 166 seats. The hiving off of some part of an urban area to make up the numbers upsets people as they do not have the connection and it is not good for representation.

  Deputy Billy Timmins:I thank Deputy Barrett for sharing time. I agree with much of what he and previous speakers have said that there should only be one change made to the boundaries every five or ten years. We have to look at how we conduct our business. We cannot have a situation where during the lifetime of a Dáil there may be two revisions of boundaries. It is unfair to the public and to the elected representatives.

I believe we need to go further. The electoral commission and the legislation is constrained under the terms of the Constitution and the ratio of Deputies per head of population, that is, not fewer than 20,000 and not more than 30,000. If the population continues to increase, within a few years it may be necessary to increase the number of Deputies, for which I do not think there is public support, or change the Constitution. This is the time to set up an internal group — not engage consultants — which has the expertise to examine the impasse coming down the tracks. Let us anticipate it and put forward proposals on how we may move forward.

There is a weighted balance heading in the direction of the east coast. I am based on the east coast, as are my two colleagues, Deputy Fleming and the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, on the far side and the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Deputy Howlin. There is a bias towards the east coast. In time the western seaboard and the midlands, relatively speaking, will be denuded of representation at Oireachtas level. That is an issue we must address to make up for that counterbalance. I recall running a proposal on it a year or two ago and I was accused of looking for two rural Deputies for every urban Deputy. That is not the concept but it is much easier to operate a constituency, be it in Kildare or Castleknock, than in Mayo or Kerry. The amount of travel a politician in Mayo has to endure to get around the constituency is phenomenal relative to Kildare, Meath and parts of Wicklow. It is important that we look at those issues.

When he was Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, mooted the idea of single seat constituencies and was shot out of the water straight away. We have to go back and examine that issue. We talk about public sector reform — we must look at reform in our own electoral system. How can we justify Deputy Barrett writing to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council about a housing issue and the housing staff having to send out 20 letters to councillors and Deputies? That is a crazy workload to impose on the staff and it leads to inefficiency.

The dual mandate was abolished to try to reform the electoral system. I do not know how beneficial it has been. Certainly the work has not changed. One does not have a greater amount of time for dealing with legislation and other such matters. If anything, work has become more difficult because one still has to access all the services as in the past, except that one does not have the personal relationships one had in the past to do so.

As far as it is possible, I would like county boundaries maintained. However, I am the beneficiary of a small part of Carlow which has been very kind to me. On Committee Stage, if I can get agreement, I hope to table an amendment to rename the constituency Wicklow-Carlow as opposed to Wicklow because it is important to recognise the contribution the people of Carlow make in that constituency. Despite submissions made by some public representatives in County Carlow about the population being disenfranchised, the vote turnout increased in that part of the constituency. I will allow people to draw their own conclusions.

[915] With regard to the conduct of elections, reference has been made to the electoral register. One electoral register system will not work. There is a need to have several systems in place at the one time. Under the current system of knocking on doors and putting in slips of paper, if the document is not returned the person is struck off the register. During the Lisbon treaty referendum a lady came into my office crying. She had voted in 13 general elections, three by-elections, eight local elections, six European elections and a number of presidential elections, but had been struck off the register. No matter what system is in place we will run into difficulty. I cannot recall the reason but some years ago in my constituency there was an appeal mechanism in place for one of the referenda. There should be an appeal mechanism in place on the day in the event of a difficulty. If somebody arrives at a polling booth, he or she can approach the polling clerk and telephone the county registrar, his or her representative or somebody in the local authority and make his or her case. It is soul destroying not to be able to vote on an issue. One can see the impact it has on people and it is not difficult to deal with the issue there and then.

On the issue of the conduct of elections, many people believe that politicians know how they vote, due to the fact that we check the tallies and how many people voted from a particular street. The clear message has got to go out that we do not know how each individual votes. Many people can be intimidated on the basis that they feel the politicians know how they vote. It is important to realise that the only way one can be sure that somebody does not vote for one is if one gets no vote in the box. There is no other way. That message should go out loud and clear.

Aligned to that are the improvements made in recent years in regard to pressurising people at the entrance to polling stations. No agent should be allowed within the vicinity of a polling station. Once the election is called, people should go to the polling station and cast their vote. There should be nobody there checking off the register. Perhaps we are unique in my constituency, but anything I see is purely to intimidate or influence the voter’s right at the polling booth. We need to provide in future legislation that just as posters are not allowed within 100 m of a polling station, an agent or someone else who can influence a candidate should not be allowed within 100 m of a polling station.

On the issue of posters, I am a strong advocate of, and I expect to see legislation from the Green Minister in this regard, confining the erection of posters during election campaigns to certain designated areas in the constituency. For example, in Wexford, there might be some posters on the N11 as one approaches Gorey, some outside Wexford and Enniscorthy.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:Wexford is more important than Gorey.

  Deputy Billy Timmins:There is the danger that this could give a certain advantage to the incumbents as opposed to the individual who is starting off. Serious consideration will have to be given to designating areas for posters because they destroy the countryside, are an unnecessary expense and are a massive headache for the public and the politicians taking part. There is a need to designate areas in constituencies where posters can be erected.

There is much emphasis on election spend once elections have been called. I have to be honest and say that the system has been circumvented by many politicians and political parties. We need a transparent system with regard to election spend and how fundraising is carried out. I am a strong advocate of limiting the election spend between elections. There are some people out there who spend an inordinate amount of money between elections, trying to soften up the electorate. It is unfair that votes can actually be bought. Perhaps the spend should be limited to a couple of grand every 12 months on a politician promoting himself or herself, as [916] distinct from giving out information to the public. We have to look at curtailing the buying off of community groups with sponsorship and so on.

The final issue relates to the last referendum and the McKenna judgment. The Government must examine that judgment, not in the context of Lisbon but in the calm light of day, because it is undemocratic; it is outrageous. I tried to get on local radio during the Lisbon treaty campaign but failed. Who decides what is 50% of the “No” side? How is that determined? The Lisbon treaty referendum result was determined on the basis of the access to finance that people had. That is not a democratic system.

  Deputy Seán Fleming:I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill. By and large it deals with new Dáil constituency boundaries. I have several observations to make with regard to the commission itself in terms of how it went about its work and the outcome. There are some geographical areas I wish to highlight and I will deal with some of the points raised in the debate concerning the conduct of elections and various related matters.

First, there must be general acceptance that we must have an independent commission. If this work were left to politicians, inevitably the Minister and the Government of the day would have the major say in what was to happen. In any case, the public would not tolerate this and we would diminish ourselves if we tried to influence the independence of the commission.

I presume the commission set about its work in an objective manner. We must, however, examine its membership. I mean no disrespect to any member of the commission, to its make-up or to the commitment of the membership to do their work in a fair and impartial manner. However, they represent what I would consider a very small group, internal to the operations of the franchise section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the operations of the Oireachtas building itself. I believe a commission would benefit from having a broader membership. I do not refer to party representatives but a broader based membership would benefit the commission rather than the small select group involved.

It is also important to acknowledge that the commission does not have a free hand but must work within the Constitution, legislation and its own terms of reference. In general, these refer to the size of constituencies, whether three, four or five-seaters. No six or sever-seaters are permitted. They must respect as far as possible the county boundaries and also, where possible and practicable, existing constituency boundaries without making wholescale unnecessary changes.

The reference to provincial boundaries may not have been included in the last terms of reference. In hindsight, that was a mistake but one would have assumed that it was not necessary to spell out to an intelligent commission that breaking provincial boundaries should have been avoided. A justification of a sort for doing so was produced and was, at best, half-hearted.

Regarding the process of the commission’s work, public submissions were invited and a large number was received. My family and I put together a submission because we gave due consideration to the matter. A number of hours went into that submission. In fairness, I must ask what the point is in having a process for making public submissions if those who do not bother to make one complain when they see the work submitted by others. It is like everything we do in public life. This House set up a process and we should respect it. When there is a county development plan at home, those who make no submissions will still complain and say they do not agree with something in the plan even though they do not bother to involve themselves.

[917] I know a large number of submissions were photostatted copies of work done by people in Leitrim which were on the website for anyone to see. The county of Leitrim has definitely been badly served not merely by this commission, but also by the previous one. However, I would like a greater engagement in the submission process by the public and by people with an interest in these issues. If the energy that has gone into debating the outcome of the report had gone into making submissions in the first place, perhaps we might have had a different report. However, people are entitled to comment on the outcome.

It has been suggested that in the future the commission might be asked to produce only a draft report for consideration by the Oireachtas. That is a possibility, but the work of the commission is undermined if it can be easily dissected here on the floor of the House. This is a valid point of view but the outcome might be fraught with danger and careful consideration would have to be given if this were to happen.

The report was produced, the debate has been had and we are now commencing the legislation. It is up to the Oireachtas to take action. Ultimately, it can decide to change the report. It is a democracy and this is only a commission’s report, not the Bible. There is a general acceptance not to tinker with the edges of the report. Once the cherry-picking of pieces is begun, there will be a piece somebody does not like and then another somebody else does not care for. It is important to keep the integrity of the report.

My biggest problem is with the actual work of the commission. Perhaps when the debate is concluded the Minister can spell out the details. I would like to know what they are. Perhaps I should know the following but I do not. Are all the working papers of the commission available under the Freedom of Information Act? Are they available in the first place, without the requirement to use the Act?

It was a public process. The submissions were on the website and I believe the work of the commission should also be there, not merely the final report. I would like to see that available for those who want to scrutinise the work and see how the commission went about it. I believe it held six meetings. I would like to see the minutes and the discussion that took place at each of those meetings. I know there were support staff who probably came from the franchise section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

In the inevitable way these things occur, the commission would have had a meeting to consider the submissions and a general discussion, followed by someone going away to produce a first draft of the report. That would have come back, been looked at and then there might have been a second or a third draft. It would help the understanding of the process by the Oireachtas and by the public if we could see all this material, after the fact. This is not an attempt to interfere with an ongoing process but rather, when the work is completed, to be in a position to see how the commission went about it and the different elements of consideration that went into various aspects.

I will refer to one direct statement in the commission’s report which I find completely unsatisfactory. There are 166 Deputies at present and the figure can range from 164 to 168. I believe there was a proper way to have gone about this aspect of the work and perhaps the members did so, but I do not know what way they approached it because I have not seen the information. That is why I would like to see their work.

The members should have looked at the population changes on the basis of how a constituency boundary would work if there were 164 Deputies. Another schedule might have posed the question of how it would work with 165, 166, 167 or 168 Deputies. There should have been a range of possibilities to examine. I am genuinely concerned. I would like if my concern could be dispelled but I suspect that a unilateral decision was made at the beginning to stick with [918] 166 Deputies in the belief that the public would not accept any more. I do not believe that is the case. There might be a hullabaloo in the papers for two days and then life would move on.

There has been a 25% increase in the population since 1980 and a corresponding great increase in the numbers of people in each constituency. The figure has gone from 20,000 per Deputy to 25,000. I maintain that rigid adherence to a total of 166 Deputies, as laid out by the commission on several occasions, is adding to the democratic deficit in this country. The population is increasing and the numbers of elected representatives is held at a pre-existing level.

I would like to know how the members arrived at this decision. If they were able to show me that they had looked at how the situation might work with 167 or 168 Deputies, that such an outcome would lead to mass changes and that, therefore, having 166 Deputies was the neatest solution, that would be well and good. However, I do not believe this is the case and I genuinely do not believe they consider it so either. In its report the commission points out that there are arguments for and against changing the total number of seats but that, after detailed consideration, it was decided not to recommend any change because “it was satisfied that the present level of membership allowed for a reasonable arrangement of constituencies in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions in its terms of reference”.

If I were a commission member given a job to do by the Oireachtas and were to report back at the finish that I did a “reasonable” job, I would not consider that to be a good job, a fairly good job or an excellent job. By their own admission the commissioners are saying, at best, that they did a reasonable job. I consider that to be very weak. Was it a good job, a fairly poor job, a fair job, a reasonable job or a very good job? They have pitched their assessment of the report at the lower level of competence. They could not say that they had compiled a good report. To say it was reasonable is a weak assessment of the situation and they know it. Unnecessary changes were made and had they changed to a system of 167 or 168 Deputies we might have seen fewer constituency changes and more continuity.

Continuity in constituencies helps in the representation of constituents. Constant changes to constituencies contribute to the democratic deficit because people are familiar with public representatives in their area. No account was taken of increases in population and I hope the next commission is instructed, in its terms of reference, to take cognisance of the population with regard to the number of Deputies. If the population decreases some day and the number of Deputies must fall, then that is fine, but rigidly adhering to a limit of 166 Deputies without examining how the figure is reached is not a good approach. Perhaps light can be cast on this aspect.

I hope that before there is a new commission an Oireachtas committee can examine this matter. I am Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Local Government and I am not looking for another job, but I feel there should be an all-party approach to this to see how a commission goes about its work. It seems to be something of a black box and the process could have been helped by oral submissions. If one can make an oral submission to An Bord Pleanála on a planning matter, there should be an opportunity for citizens to do so in this regard. This applies particularly to the people of Leitrim, who would have appreciated the opportunity to make an oral submission to the commission. There was no provision for this and it marks another democratic deficit in the process. The commission went about its work behind closed doors, without public information on how decisions were reached.

An Opposition Deputy said he was upset at changes in his constituency, which he believes may have been almost political in nature. I can understand that a commission would be afraid of such accusations and I think the report of every recent commission has tried to ensure that they could not be accused of political favouritism towards the Government. The commissions [919] over compensated on every recent occasion and set out to change the constituency of the Taoiseach of the day. Dublin Central was mentioned and one wonders how Deputy Tony Gregory survives as an Independent Deputy. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, was in that constituency and it was changed on every occasion.

My constituency, Laois-Offaly, is the home of the current Taoiseach and is a five-seater in the midlands. It is close enough to Dublin and the east coast to see an increase in population in line with the national increase in population, but the western half of the constituency has seen a decrease in population, like the western seaboard. Laois-Offaly has always grown in population in line with the national increase in population and, for this reason, it is the only constituency to go untouched by a boundary commission since the foundation of the State. However, because it is now the Taoiseach’s constituency I think a decision was made to make changes to it, lest the commission be accused of supporting the Government. The commission can then always say “we made changes to the Taoiseach’s constituency”. There is a pattern of commissions doing this and it is an objective fact that every commission does so. I feel this is done to demonstrate that the commission is not influenced by the Taoiseach. The facts bear this out, though some might not like to hear it.

  Deputy Finian McGrath:Deputy Fleming is alright because he has a safe seat.

  Deputy Seán Fleming:I do not know about that.

The major question is whether the next general election will be fought on these new boundaries. We do not know the answer, partly because we do not know the population changes that may occur. Also, we do not have fixed term elections in Ireland. If we had elections regularly, every four or five years, as is the case in many other countries, people could plan accordingly. There would be greater certainty and this could be a factor in making a decision.

I understand the complaints people have about certain changes, particularly those affecting Limerick, Kerry, Leitrim, Meath and Louth. I especially understand the problems in Dublin. A cohesive town in north Dublin, possibly Swords, has been divided down the main street. Why dissect a cohesive urban area? This probably happened because of the commission’s determination to keep the number of Deputies in the Dáil at 166. There is an increasing population in that part of the country — north Dublin, west Dublin and Louth — and it should have gained extra seats. The commission felt restricted by the need to keep the number of Deputies in the Dáil at 166 and this has resulted in extra changes being made.

Many other issues have been mentioned during this debate. Whether or not it is due to foresight, the figures of 20,000 and 30,000 set out in the Constitution are based on population, not voters or citizens. It is somewhat ironic that the courts upheld the decision to proceed with the preparation of a draft, as early as possible, based on the draft census and population. We all know people can move around and if one were to conduct a census today one might see a smaller population in some areas, though the number of Irish citizens and Irish-born people may not have changed.

It is up to the Oireachtas to decide the course to take on this but I expect the Bill will pass without undue difficulties in the House. That is how it should be but we should seek greater transparency in future commission reports — there should be scope for public submissions. The democratic deficit should be eliminated by investigating the fact the population per Deputy is 25,000, compared to 20,000 a few years ago.

It was suggested in the House that single-seat constituencies could be a help but I oppose this. It might suit politicians to be elected and have no challenger but that is why I oppose such a system — it is bad for the public. In England, Labour Party voters in a constituency represented by a Conservative will feel disenfranchised and will not be inclined to approach him [920] or her. In Ireland it would be wrong to start dividing four-seaters into four single-seat constituencies because people of another allegiance would feel they did not have a representative in the national Parliament. This system would be convenient for Deputies but would be bad generally. We always talk about competition in the marketplace and the little bit of competition we must endure in three, four and five seat constituencies keeps us on our toes, whether we like it or not. We might complain about residents’ groups writing to each TD in a constituency but it keeps us busy and serves the electorate. People have said a complaint in an area leads to a great deal of correspondence for local authorities and State bodies but there would not be so many letters if the local authorities and State bodies operated more efficiently in the first place. It is not the fault of the public if people must go to their elected representatives to get action from a Government body in the area. Besides, a change to single-seat constituencies would require a constitutional referendum.

Also with regard to single-seat constituencies, it is important that the public not only has a choice on polling day but has a choice every day between general elections, thanks to having a choice of representatives in Parliament. Choice in a democracy means more than having a choice one day every five years.

Electronic voting was also mentioned in the House and it was suggested that the people of Ireland love using a pencil to vote. This is not the case — the last general election saw 25,000 spoiled votes by people using a peann luaidhe. They marked X twice or three times or marked two ones or two twos and so on. In many constituencies the number of spoiled votes exceeded the difference between the last candidate elected and the next candidate in line. Awful mistakes occur in votes cast using a peann luaidhe. Some 500 or 600 people in each constituency, over 20,000 nationwide, went home from the polling station thinking they had voted for their candidate of choice. Those votes, effectively, went into the bin because of the peann luaidhe. One of the advantages of electronic voting is it would not allow this to happen. Most of us know a person who might wish to vote for three candidates in an election and so placed an X next to each of their names. This achieves nothing.

In the interests of allowing the people to cast their votes correctly, we must move away from the existing system that leads to many spoiled votes and people’s disenfranchisement.

A number of other issues were mentioned in the course of this campaign in terms of the conduct of elections and the voters’ register. While one could talk forever——

  Deputy Seamus Kirk:Tá an t-am caite.

  Deputy Seán Fleming:I look forward to the Bill’s progression to Committee Stage and a speedy passage through the Select Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, of which I am Chairman.

  Acting Chairman:Deputy Burton has up to 20 minutes.

  Deputy Joan Burton:That sounds daunting. I will begin my observations by referring to a paragraph in the first chapter of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which was published recently and is highly pertinent to both today’s topic and the economy. The Comptroller and Auditor General disclosed that during the Dáil and Seanad elections of 2007, An Post delivered almost 26 million items of mail to voters in both elections. The chapter in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report details how, because of the manner in which the legislation from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is framed, it is impossible for the Dáil and Seanad to secure a deal on bulk volume postage, as would be the case with any commercial operation. Consequently, An Post maintains, probably [921] correctly, that it is legally bound to charge the full whack for the 25 million items of mail. One should bear in mind that the mail for Seanad elections normally is delivered by registered post, which is more expensive. Last year, the State paid An Post nearly €15 million in postage for the Dáil and Seanad elections.

As Members are discussing ways to try to prune back unnecessary public expenditure, this area is crying out for reform and, together with many political colleagues, I have called for such reform for many years. Not only should a bulk discount be obtained for delivery of this mail, but the system must be completely reformed. At present, those who wish to avail of the free postage available to Dáil and Seanad candidates must send an addressed item to everyone on the electoral register. In the not unusual case of a five-seater constituency in which ten candidates are standing, a not unusual household with two adults and three young adult children, that is five voters, will receive through its door 50 items of election material. Such material will have been posted to the electors in the house as free post at full postage stamp cost.

This has been the cause of an enormous amount of scandal to voters, including during the Lisbon referendum. Two or three items of material from political parties often arrive on the same day or all together in sequence over a single weekend. It would be a simple matter to reform this system by doing a deal with An Post in which candidates retain the right to free postage, as it is important to be able to communicate with the electors, particularly in these days of gated communities where it can be difficult to gain access to them. Why not simply allow a single item to be delivered to each house on behalf of each candidate? Moreover, why must such literature be addressed? It could be used as a circular which is delivered and dropped. I reckon the cost and numbers of items posted could be cut by between one third and one fifth. I am neither the first nor the only person who has called for reform. This would save both money and many trees because political parties could reduce the number of circulars they are obliged to send to each person on the register and costs would be cut accordingly.

As for the debate on constituency boundaries, the Government should indicate at the conclusion of this debate whether it considers the proposed constituency boundaries to be definitive and whether they are likely to be in force for the next election. I note the way the economy and the Government are going. The Progressive Democrats are now gone and the Minister, Deputy Mary Harney, holds power as a kind of independent in government. The Green Party flutters from time to time and while its Members are happy to be there, they are growing a paler shade of green as the economy worsens. Consequently, it is highly likely the next election will be fought before another census has been taken. All the shape throwing should be cut and the Government should indicate that these are likely to be the constituencies on which the election is to be fought. In addition, the census has been postponed as part of previous cutbacks. Indications already have been given that with the variety of other data that are collected, a ten year census, which now is usual in most countries, probably would be perfectly acceptable in Ireland, except that constituency revision is tied to the census data.

I noted with interest that a Fianna Fáil backbencher, Deputy Michael Kennedy, who was elected to represent Dublin North at the last election, was particularly concerned that Swords has been cut up like a cake. Two thirds of the town will remain in Dublin North while one third will be transferred to the constituency I have the honour to represent, namely, Dublin West. In a letter to constituents, Deputy Kennedy stated the boundary commission is independent, even if it has made some stupid decisions and because of the so-called independence, all previous Governments have accepted its recommendations. He stated the only way this proposal would be defeated is if Fine Gael and Labour were to kick up a fuss and then Fianna Fáil would be willing to refer the matter back to the committee for review but that were Fianna Fáil do this on its own, it would be accused of gerrymandering. Basically, this constitutes kicking the ball over to the Opposition. While it has views on this matter, the Opposition does not [922] have the power to act. An issue that clearly causes some unhappiness in Fianna Fáil circles, as it probably does in both Fine Gael and Labour, suddenly is shifted to become the responsibility of the Opposition. Deputy Kennedy also stated that when the matter came up for discussion in the Dáil, he would be speaking strongly against the proposals but his voting against it would achieve nothing.

He is agin it but he will not be voting agin it. This constitutes nods and winks on a peculiarly elevated scale. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, must clearly state that the Government accepts this recommendation. It is from an independent commission, regardless of whether one likes it. There are flaws in the commission’s decisions, as well as ample room to improve the way in which it works. However, it would be almost impossible for the Government to reject the findings of an independent commission. Moreover, if one opts for another review, who is to say that another set of people will not be made unhappy, were those who are unhappy at present to have their concerns addressed by a review? It is for the Government, particularly the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to state clearly whether it accepts the commission report and we will now sit down to work on the revision as suggested.

This matter should be concluded as soon as possible as the uncertainty holds out hope for people who are concerned about their representation. These include people in Leitrim, those in Swords who have been transferred to Dublin West, people in parts of south Offaly around Shinrone who have been transferred to Tipperary North and people in south Limerick who have been transferred to Kerry North. There are certainly difficulties in various areas in terms of electoral representation and real challenges for politicians.

We either have an independent commission and accept the recommendations, which we must, or we reform the commission process in an orderly way. We should let people know what will happen.

The Labour Party has already proposed that the Constituency Commission should act similarly to similar bodies in other countries. They advertise the recommendations and hold a local hearing on them so people with serious issues have a chance to put their case. That would be the best thing to do as it would allow a degree of public engagement, both by political parties and, more importantly, individual citizens in how they felt the constituency boundaries ought to be drawn to maximise political representation.

I heard Deputy Fleming say Laois-Offaly really has not changed much since the foundation of the State. Dublin West is probably the constituency that has changed with every revision more than any other in the State because of its growth in population. In the 1970s, when I was a student, Dublin West extended from near Sandyford through places like Newcastle and Rathcoole into what is now the west side of Dublin, including Lucan, Blanchardstown, Clonsilla etc. all the way out to Balbriggan. That was one constituency. Clearly, as these areas grew they were lopped off to their own constituencies. The process has continued.

In the previous boundary revision, Lucan and Palmerstown became Dublin Mid-West and Dublin West became a three-seat constituency taking in Castleknock, Clonsilla, Mulhuddart, St. Margaret’s, Coolquay and various other areas of rural north and west County Dublin.

In this revision, the boundary review commission is going further into what we traditionally call north County Dublin. It has indicated that Dublin West should absorb approximately a third of Swords, specifically the area around River Valley and Forest Little. That poses difficulties for Swords. The core of the Dublin West constituency is the new town of Blanchardstown, Castleknock, Clonsilla and Mulhuddart, which had a population at the last census of 92,000. It is more than twice the size of Waterford, bigger than Galway and pretty much the [923] same size as Limerick city. Swords is the county town and has a population heading for 40,000 but it has now been split, with a third of it going to Dublin West.

Understandably, many are worried that the kind of force of representation as a new town and developing area that Swords might have is being split between two constituencies. I am very pleased to have been given the opportunity to represent Swords and I know that part of the town particularly well. It suits me fine and I represented large areas of the old north County Dublin on the old Dublin County Council. I have many contacts in the area.

For the many thousands of people who have come to live in the new developing parts of Swords, they have barely got used to the idea of one set of public representatives before approximately 12,000 have found they must address public representatives with whom they have not been particularly familiar with up to now. They may be lucky in one sense in that the public representatives from Dublin West are the Minister for Finance, the Fine Gael spokesperson on enterprise and myself, as we are moderately well known.

  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:Only slightly.

  Deputy Joan Burton:I hope that will help assuage some of the concerns. This is important because, as with the greater town of Blanchardstown and the developing town of Swords — the county town of Fingal — when it comes to development issues like public transport, investment in education etc., public representatives put on the jersey for Dublin West and Swords despite party differences. They act as best they can in the collective best interests of the communities on the west and north side of Dublin.

The commission’s work there was difficult but it is now important that the Government shows certainty as to what it proposes to do. Will it accept the Constituency Commission’s report and will it bring it into force so that the uncertainty which applies can be settled once and for all?

In the recent review of local authority boundaries commissioned by the Minister, I am thankful that Swords retained an independent identity. The current position with regard to local authority ward boundaries was retained. Importantly, however, the average representation in Fingal is now 10,000 people per councillor. This means each councillor is effectively representing, depending on the number of seats in the constituency, from one third to one fifth of a Dáil constituency. It makes extraordinarily difficult and taxing representation for the kinds of issues that councillors deal with at local level.

3 o’clock

In speaking about new communities, politicians and particularly councillors have an important role in reaching out to people who have bought a home and come to live in an estate of 500, 1,000 or 2,500 people. One estate in Dublin West, Tyrellstown, has been almost entirely constructed and occupied in the past six years and it currently has 2,500 occupied houses. There is no permanent school building yet and no public transport infrastructure other than a bus route. All those economists who fancy buses as a solution to all our public transport issues should live in Tyrellstown for a while, commute by bus and see how much they like it in comparison to metro, rail or Luas.

The failure of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to address the issue of representation is one of the reasons that in very big urban areas like Fingal County Council, it is really difficult for councillors to help foster a sense of community welcome and an invitation to people to participate and work with them to the betterment and development of the community.

It is interesting to note that in Leitrim, where people have understandably complained about not having an opportunity to elect a Deputy from the county, each local councillor represents [924] approximately 1,400 people. The county’s deficit in terms of Deputies is to some extent counter-balanced by the number of councillors it has, which makes vibrant interaction between local representatives and citizens possible. Councillors represent relatively small communities of only 1,400 or 1,500 people, whereas their counterparts in Dublin West and Dublin North represent on average more than 10,000 people. Deputy Fleming referred to the democratic deficit. The discrepancy I have outlined constitutes one of the key demographic deficits which, regrettably, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has chosen not to address.

  Deputy Ciarán Cuffe:I wish to share time with Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. I concur with my colleague, Deputy Burton, on many of the points she made. I propose to discuss our good fortune in having such a process for fixing the boundaries of our electoral constituencies. I will also raise a concern that electoral boundaries and many of the other administrative boundaries we use do not coincide. I will then refer to under-representation of urban areas, another issue raised by Deputy Burton. I will conclude by looking to the future.

This a necessary and worthy Bill. Proportionality is an important principle, as is the onus in the Constitution to ensure each Deputy represents between 20,000 and 30,000 people. Fulfilling the latter requirement creates winners and losers. For example, the reduction from five seats to four seats in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire will make life more difficult for the five sitting Deputies but make life easier for those seeking to be elected in other constituencies.

  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:Mr. Boyd Barrett will be looking for a seat.

  Deputy Ciarán Cuffe:However, I am sure my colleagues like a challenge and we will no doubt triumph against the numbers.

It is interesting to examine the process used to effect the distribution of seats. In fairness to those involved in the process we, in Ireland, can hold our heads high because we do not engage in gerrymandering, for which I have found no evidence in the recent past. We need look no further than the United States to see a backward system which essentially allows those with political influence to change constituency boundaries. While reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, I was taken aback to learn that he drew a line on a map to decide what would be his local constituency in the state of Illinois. This was an example of gerrymandering at its worst. Whether it be Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts from 1810 to 1812 who drew a line on the map to facilitate his re-election or the lines still being drawn by most US politicians in state elections, we can count ourselves lucky that we do not have such political influence over constituency boundaries.

I am concerned at the different boundaries we use for different functions, for example, policing, health, education, housing and local administration. Having a plethora of different boundaries which do not necessarily coincide gives rise to confusion in the eyes of members of the public and causes problems in finding basic statistical data, such as crime rates and levels of participation in education. In considering this legislation, I ask that we try to improve the confluence of administrative boundaries. I accept that the Dublin Regional Authority examined this issue some time ago and some improvements have been made. When I was a councillor in the inner city in the early 1990s my local electoral boundary strayed into three different Dáil constituencies, namely, Dublin Central, Dublin South-Central and Dublin South-East. While some improvements have been forthcoming, much more progress could be made.

[925] Electoral boundaries can be confusing. Many believe I represent Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown rather than Dún Laoghaire. Although Dún Laoghaire is in south Dublin in the wider sense, Dublin South is in the Rathdown side of the town while south Dublin does not coincide with the Dublin South constituency but is a completely different local electoral area. If I am somewhat confused by this, the good people of Dublin are much more confused. The media is also frequently confused by the different electoral areas, partly as a result of the nomenclature we use. The term “Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown” does not trip lightly off the tongue. Perhaps we should consider having more effective names for constituencies in Dublin.

I wholeheartedly agree with Deputy Burton’s comments on over-representation in some rural areas. I took time to consult Google and Wikipedia before coming to the House and found that in 2006 County Leitrim had a population of 28,837 and 22 elected local authority members. In other words, each councillor represented 1,311 people. In the same year, the population of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown electoral area was 193,688, for which it had 27 elected members or one councillor for every 7,173 people. Councillors in both areas received an annual payment of €16,756, despite the fact that each councillor in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown represents five and a half times more people than his or her counterparts in County Leitrim.

It is no coincidence that the greater Dublin area is haemorrhaging councillors as elected representatives resign from their respective councils. I suspect this trend is connected to their workload. I understand 16 or 17 councillors in the region resigned in recent years. While some resignations were due to substitutions being made for councillors elected to the Oireachtas, many councillors resigned due to their workload. It is not surprising that a councillor who represents 5.5 times as many people as his or her counterpart in County Leitrim would find the workload onerous. I am curious to learn whether councillors have resigned from Leitrim County Council. If so, I suspect the number who have done so is much lower than in the greater Dublin area.

It is curious that while the Constitution stipulates that Dáil Deputies must represent between 20,000 and 30,000, we allow considerable more latitude in our county councils. Another, more disturbing aspect to the level of under-representation and over-representation is the fact that councillors and their Oireachtas colleagues elect 43 of the 66 Senators to the Upper House. I suspect that rural interests are in some cases over-represented in the House to the detriment of urban interests. From observing debate in the Upper House, it is clear that farming interests, the need for rural roads to be upgraded, rural housing and so forth are the subject of intense debate, while issues such as metro and light rail for Dublin, the layout of apartments, noise pollution and proper planning do not receive similar attention. In a subtle, perhaps understated way we do not get the same focus on urban issues.

If anything has changed in Ireland during the past 20 years, it is that there has been a dramatic expansion of urban areas. I would be concerned if such areas were under-represented in city and county council chambers and in the Upper House of the Oireachtas. I plead, therefore, that we reconsider the levels of representation and ensure that urban areas receive the attention they deserve.

I am glad the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is bringing forward proposals regarding a directly-elected mayor for Dublin. This will ensure a strong voice will be given to the interests of the metropolitan area. It is crucial that cities should have a voice, regardless of whether it be in respect of matters such as waste management, water supplies, sewerage systems or urban transport. In that context, I refer to Barcelona, under former mayor Pasqual Maragall in the 1980s and 1990s, and various cities in France and the United States. I am sure everyone remembers two former mayors of New York, [926] Ed Koch and Rudolph Guiliani. If a city has a voice, the chances are that its interests will be better represented. Directly-elected mayors are an important component in that regard.

On the wider issue of electoral reform, we intend to establish an independent electoral commission that will take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight. Said commission will also be responsible for matters relating to electoral funding and for ensuring that there will be an independent electoral register.

Financing is crucial. It makes a mockery of the financial process that we only take into account contributions made during electoral campaigns. One candidate in Dún Laoghaire spent €45,000 on a campaign to be elected not to Dáil Éireann but to the county council. This is unfair, particularly when one considers that colleagues from my party only spent in the order of €2,000 to €3,000 on their campaigns. We must ensure that a high level of scrutiny and adequate spending controls are put in place in respect of the Oireachtas. There is a need to consider what is contributed and spent in the 12 months prior to general elections. We must also examine the position in respect of spending limits.

I am heartened by the introduction of the Bill, which contains many good ideas. I look forward to more substantial work being completed in the general area of electoral reform.

  Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick:I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008, which will have a real and practical effect on the political system in this country.

Population figures show that there are some serious variances from the national average population per Deputy in a number of constituencies. The Government has accepted the Constituency Commission’s recommendations as a single package of interlinked measures that will, in accordance with constitutional imperatives and other legal requirements, bring Dáil and European Parliament constituencies into line with prevailing population patterns. The report that the commission returned is the best with which it could come up. Certain Deputies, even some in my party, may not be completely satisfied with the report but they must accept that the commission was obliged to work within its statutory terms of reference.

Previous speakers raised a raft of issues in respect of their constituencies. A slight change has been recommended in respect of my constituency, Kildare North. The population of Kildare has increased by almost 14% since 2002. The population in the county in 2006 was equivalent to 7.3 seats. The commission suggested, as the appropriate approach on this occasion, that there be a population transfer between the two constituencies in the county in order to address the variance in Kildare South. In recommending the addition of one seat to Kildare North, the 2003-04 commission suggested the transfer of an area in the north west of the county to that constituency and the Oireachtas made the necessary legislative provision.

The 2003-04 commission, in recommending the addition of a seat to Kildare North, also recommended transfer of an area in the north west of the county to that constituency from Kildare South and the Oireachtas legislated in respect of this. The current commission recommends the transfer of a further electoral division in the north west, and one in the north east of Kildare South, from that constituency to Kildare North. The total population will be is 1,314. This will provide Kildare North with a percentage variance of plus 4.2% from the national average population per Deputy.

I accept that there are Deputies who will be more severely affected by the proposed changes. However, I genuinely urge them to support the commission’s report. It is very important that we maintain the long-established practice of implementing the recommendations of constitu[927] ency commissions in full. To reject some of the commission’s recommendations would be to revert to the partisan approach of the past, when constituency revisions were seen as having been framed to secure political advantage for the Government of the day. Those days are long gone.

Mr. Justice Clarke’s judgment last year emphasises the urgent obligation on the Oireachtas to revise constituencies as soon as it becomes clear from a census that existing constituencies no longer have the level of proportionality that the Constitution requires. We have all had time to review the examples of the serious disparities that occur in some constituencies and we now have the opportunity to act and deal with these. In a judgment handed down in the O’Donovan case, Mr. Justice Budd of the High Court stated:

. . . although a system in the main based on counties has in fact been adopted, there is nothing in the Constitution about constituencies being based on counties. The Constitution does not say that in forming the constituencies according to the required ratio, that shall be done so far as is practicable having regard to county boundaries.

When it comes to politics — as opposed to matters relating to the GAA — county boundaries are not sacrosanct. Rather, it is those we represent who must come first when constituencies are being drawn up. As far as possible, the proportionality of constituents per Deputy must be maintained at a level that best serves the people. We must look beyond county loyalties and focus instead on our loyalty to best serving our constituents, regardless of the county in which they may reside.

The Bill brings forward significant and worthwhile improvements to the processes followed by constituency commissions in their work, as well as putting in place measures to facilitate the holding of the upcoming European and local elections. It is an essential item of legislation and I urge Members to support it.

It is good that we are engaged in a debate on matters of this nature. What we are doing here today is keeping the wheels of democracy in motion and ensuring that the most efficient political model possible operates in this country. By passing the Bill we will ensure that our constituents are served to the best degree possible under our political system. We are here to serve the people. In a time of much cynicism regarding politics and politicians, the Bill allows us to show members of the public that we have their best interests at heart.

I thank the commission for the work it has done. I acknowledge that it had a difficult task. It is in all our interests that the Bill be passed.

  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:I wish to share time with Deputy Reilly.

  Acting Chairman:Is that agreed? Agreed. Each of the Deputies will have ten minutes.

  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:As the previous speaker stated, ensuring that matters relating to constituency boundaries are independently managed is an important aspect of democracy. Deputy O’Rourke referred earlier to the activities of the late James Tully, a former Minister for Local Government. In his day, another former Deputy and Minister for Local Government, the late Kevin Boland, also wielded a rather crude axe on constituencies in the interests of Fianna Fáil. Let us say that former Members on both sides of the House did hatchet jobs on constituencies. The important point is that the most recent review was carried out in as open and transparent a manner as possible. The commission sought, and received, many different views from members of the public and political parties. I agree with Deputy Joan Burton that when the commission issues its preliminary report, it would be a good democratic exercise to [928] hold a public meeting where people could make their views known to the commission on it. It would allow the commission to take on board the public’s views in an open and transparent way.

I refer to the Louth constituency from which I have been elected. I welcome the 17,500 constituents from that part of Meath East which will become part of the Louth constituency. It would be important to change the name of the constituency from Louth to Louth-Meath East to acknowledge the people from an adjoining county who, fortunately for them, are better at football than those from Louth. I believe they would like to retain their county identity within the larger constituency of Louth.

All these changes are happening because of growth in the population, particularly along the east coast. County boundaries date back to early medieval times but counties no longer have the same focus they once had, particularly those along the east coast. What one has are growth centres around major towns and industrial centres. The people of Meath and Louth often use the same hospital, attend the same schools, shop in the same shops and go to the same churches. Crossing county boundaries is an important and significant step. As stated in the directive to the commission, that should only happen in exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, it is probably good for the region, certainly the area around Drogheda, that there is more cohesion among the communities living and using the facilities in the town.

Deputy Cuffe spoke about the local government boundaries. The town of Drogheda has run out of land and it is fully developed in every respect. County Meath is located on one side of the River Boyne while County Louth is on the other side. Three local authorities are responsible for civil and local administration in the area. That is a pretty poor set up because it leads to weak local government, lack of clarity in development plans, confusion about what is happening and shopping developments not being welcome in one part of the constituency but literally on one’s doorstep in other parts of it. There are serious issues in regard to planning and development.

I am not arguing that local government boundaries should change as a result of constituency reviews but places like Drogheda along the east coast are becoming cities. The population of Drogheda is deemed to be more than 30,000 people. We need a better local government system and better local control in the surrounding area than that which exists.

Expanding the boundaries of the administrative local area is a critical issue which needs to be addressed. It must be done in such a way as to recognise those people living in Meath with a loyalty to Meath County Council and those living in Drogheda with a loyalty to Louth County Council.

One must look at the growth of towns like Drogheda which are becoming cities. We must put in place a system which allows them to have a uniform and accountable system of local government which is real and representative, which accounts for the economic activity and interests in the area and which moves away from local decisions which are no longer relevant to the constituency.

I am a Deputy who will gain an area close to me rather than lose one. I taught in a school in the area for over 25 years. I have strong links with County Meath from where my wife’s people come and where her late father taught. I look forward to serving the people who I know so well, people, in particular from the Dublin area, who are new to the area and the emigrants from County Louth who are living in County Meath who will have the privilege of voting for me and for the Acting Chairman, Deputy Kirk.

[929]   Deputy James Reilly:This is a very serious issue for my constituency. I do not believe any constituency has been more negatively affected than Dublin North. We are losing Portmarnock which may make some geographic sense but, nonetheless, I am sorry I will no longer have the pleasure of representing Carrick Hill, Torcaill, Ardilaun, the Dunes and Beechwood to mention but a few places. At least one can say there is some geographic sense to that in that it is an integral unit.

However, what beggars belief and what has upset everybody in my constituency — not only those who live in Swords but also those who live outside it — is that they do not understand why the capital of Fingal has been virtually split in two, although it may be one third to two thirds. The bottom line is that 13,000 people will, for all intents and purposes, be disenfranchised. They will be at the tail of Dublin West dislocated by a large land mass from the rest of the urban population in Dublin West. The fear is that they will not get the representation they should. Despite the best of intentions, and we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions, they will not get the same service they currently receive. Furthermore, a county councillor will serve two Deputies. How will that work?

Important as this is for the people of Dublin North, it beggars belief that after three and a half months off and with the economy in a state of chassis and worsening by the day, the Government refused to allow a two-day debate on the economy. There are far more pressing issues. This issue could have been dealt with in the next two to three years before the next general election. The Fair Deal scheme has not been delivered despite promises made before last Christmas, last Easter and last summer. People have sold their homes. Others have no money left, so where do they go? Transplant legislation is badly needed and was discussed on the radio today. The secondary school in Donabate is afraid it will be left with a temporary dwelling instead of having a proper school. Legislation may be required to establish a patient safety authority which is becoming more relevant as more problems in the health service come to light. There is a need for people to be able to approach, confidentially, an authority which will be an advocate for them without the glare of publicity and without recourse to the courts.

To come back to the Swords area, how will Fingal County Council operate? My colleague, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, mentioned that Drogheda was becoming a city with a population of 30,000. The population of Swords has exceeded 40,000 people. There are great plans afoot with a very visionary county council which wants a university and a hospital and which has plans for a cultural centre, more shopping areas and a civic centre. This area will be split arbitrarily. It does not make sense.

I accept the commission is an independent body but independent or otherwise, human error, as we know only too well from the health service, is always with us. I have a sense that the commission has got this wrong. It has certainly got it wrong from the perspective of the people who live in Swords who are very upset, including those who live in River Valley, Boroimhe, Ridgewood, Knocksedan Demesne, Highfields, Hawthorne Park, the Nurseries and Burrow Court and the Forest Road. They feel disenfranchised and cut off.

I hope that before the general election, these people can be brought back into the constituency in which they were and that they can continue to be represented by the representatives who are there currently or those they may choose in the future. They should not be hived off where their voices will be lost in the wilderness of the other side of Dublin West.

Debate adjourned.