Seanad Éireann - Volume 102 - 07 December, 1983
Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1983: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Mr. M. O'Toole Mr. M. O'Toole
Mr. M. O'Toole: The leader of our party when he was Taoiseach in 1980 agreed with the Prime Minister of Britain that a reciprocal arrangement would be provided here. For that reason we have no objection from this side of the House. The unanimity expressed here and in the other House comes at a time when this country should be giving this type of example. Legislation which could be used in respect of cross-Border traffic and in the removal of the Border at a later date must be accepted in both Houses.
Many British citizens living in this State have made a worthwhile contribution to industry, socially and in technological training. They have been resident here for some time. Nevertheless, the question of legislation to extend this right to British citizens on a reciprocal basis is more complex than might at first appear.
In 1698 the House of Commons debarred all aliens from having the right to vote in elections, referenda or in elections to the House of Lords. As history tells us, up to 1922 we were not regarded as foreigners or aliens under British law. Up to 1949 we were still regarded as non-aliens and non-foreigners because then we were under a different legal system, we were in a British dominion. Although The Republic of Ireland Act, 1949, changed that somewhat, since 1949 citizens of Ireland are not in British law regarded as aliens or foreigners although there are classifications of various sections  of Irish people. I do not know if it is a good thing to be regarded as an alien or a foreigner. If we look at the other side of the coin, if British nationality law was changed at any time, what would be our standing then? This legislation does not give to citizens of EEC states the right to vote in Dáil elections. Membership of the Community will bring many people to Ireland from other countries who will be resident here for long periods but as the Bill now stands it will not give the nationals of member states the right to vote in this State.
The Minister referred to the most crucial point, namely, the matter of constitutionality of the Bill. I am not a legal person, but having listened to the varied opinions of my legal friends on both sides of the House on another matter recently I wonder what will happen to this Bill when the legal people get hold of it and start to examine it. I have no doubt the constitutionality of this Bill could be questioned. Knowing what happened in the legal field of activities in recent times that is a probability. The reduction in the voting age from 21 years to 18 years was a non-contentious measure but the then Government felt that it would be unconstitutional to bring in legislation without first giving the Irish people the right to decide in a referendum. It was a very good thing to have that referendum to lower the age from 21 to 18 but it took a referendum to do that. It was a purely internal domestic matter that concerned this country solely but it took a referendum to make it constitutional. In the final analysis this matter will have to be considered carefully by the legal people. I have no doubt the Minister has got the benefit of the legal advice available to him. All the Seanad can do is to pass the Bill with the reservations I mentioned.
I do not know which party will get the benefit of the 10,000 to 12,000 voters who will come on to the register as a result of this measure. I would simply hazard a guess that neither the Minister's party nor my party will benefit from their inclusion on the register.
Professor Dooge Professor Dooge
Professor Dooge: I join with Senator  O'Toole in welcoming the substantive provisions of this Bill. As he remarked, the matter goes back to 1980 when the undertaking was given by the then Taoiseach that this would be done.
My only regret is that there has been a substantial delay. Part of this delay may well have been due to the difficulties of constitutionality, but we must be glad that at last we have a Bill before us. We hope that the constitutionality will be tested at an early date, whether tested at the absolute discretion of the President or tested otherwise after the enactment of the Bill. Senator O'Toole says that legal opinions differ but at least if we can get the Supreme Court to speak they will not differ quite as much. They may disagree but at least we will have a binding opinion on it.
What we are doing now is something that should have been done long ago. While there are very clear arguments that perhaps we should extend what is being done in this Bill to all our partners in the EEC, nevertheless it is appropriate that we should do it first in regard to Britain. There is a special relationship there. Our country and Britain inter-penetrate one another; not just economically but socially and culturally there is a degree of inter-penetration that makes for a special relationship between us. I do not think that should be exaggerated but it is appropriate that voting in all of our elections should be extended first to UK citizens. I hope there will not be too long a delay before there is a further extension to the citizens of all the countries in the EEC.
It is a sound principle. I do not think we should make too much of it as having any great profound effect, but it was a deficiency, maybe to some people an irritant, that the imposition was for so many years as it is at present. We have all had the experience of canvassing in elections and people answering the door saying, “Well, you will not let us vote”. This position is now being remedied.
I was just wondering when Senator O'Toole was speaking in regard to where the votes would go if there are any UK citizen members of county councils. It might be interesting to see whether votes  have been cast by UK citizens in the Seanad elections. I do not know what is the position. If the position is that there has been a bar, I hope they will not be debarred in the future. I hope that Senator O'Toole will get his fair share of those extra votes but no more than his fair share. On behalf of the Fine Gael group I welcome this Bill.
Mr. Ferris Mr. Ferris
Mr. Ferris: On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome what is, in fact, an extension of democracy. It is appropriate that anybody who lives in the country should have a voice in who governs the country and how it is governed. Indeed UK citizens have expressed concern that although they live here and have to abide by our laws and regulations they do not have a voice in our Dáil elections as of now. They have extended a comparable right to our citizens in England. I could imagine the uproar that would occur in England if the Irish there were not able to express at times their abhorrence of some of the Conservative policies that are being enacted over there. I would like to feel that we are extending a similar right to those who are permanently resident in this country, and who are resident on the dates required by the compilation of the electoral lists. I see nothing fundamentally wrong with it. It is an extension of democracy and I certainly welcome it.
Mr. McMahon Mr. McMahon
Mr. McMahon: I, too, welcome this Bill. Indeed it is legislation that is very much overdue, and one wonders why it has taken so long to have it brought before the House. There seems to have been a desire on the parts of politicians and Irish citizens generally that the British citizens living with us be given the right to vote. Great Britain was generous enough to facilitate Irish citizens immediately they landed on British soil and to give them the facility of voting in British elections. One wonders why it has taken so long for this very desirable piece of legislation to come before us. Will the Minister tell us if this extends to citizens of the Isle of Man, the nearest island to us? There is some difference there  between British citizens and citizens of the Isle of Man.
During the years when I was a Member of the other House there were numerous questions to Ministers. On all occasions it would appear that there was some shadow boxing. The matter was not completely considered and investigated. On one occasion it was thought it would require a change in the Constitution, but now we find we can deal with the matter without a change in the Constitution. I regret that we did not arrive at that position many years ago and allow British citizens to vote in general elections in the past.
I am not so sure that Senator O'Toole was correct that the votes of the 10,000 plus will go all in one direction. I am sure that will not happen. I have had many British citizens approach me, as I am sure most public representatives have had, with regard to this matter. I know two of them who are very favourable to his party because they were quite straight with me. They asked me to do what I could to ensure that they would in the future have a vote and they also assured me that it was most unlikely they they would be voting for my party. The Senator should not be too disheartened that 10,000 will be against his party.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Quinn) Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Quinn)
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Quinn): I would like to thank the Members of the House for their contributions. Three points have arisen which I would like to deal with very quickly. The first is the question of constitutionality. I want to restate what we have said before. We are quite happy that the provision is constitutional. However, a respectable body of legal doubt has been expressed against that view. In order to avoid a situation where the entire result of a general election in which UK citizens participated could be challenged it is obviously necessary as well as prudent to remove all legal doubt. Accordingly, there is a provision under the Constitution whereby the President at his own absolute discretion, and I want to stress this, can refer this measure to the Supreme Court for their opinion. If that is done and if the Supreme Court  give a clear and decisive ruling on the matter then that particular fear can be removed out of the way.
There seems to be on both sides a degree of unanimity and support for the proposal to extend Dáil election rights to all EEC citizens currently resident in the Republic. The reason that is not in the legislation here is not because there is a Government decision against that; there is no Government decision for it either. We wanted specifically to highlight the concrete and practical measures that this administration are taking to develop and improve relations between Britain and Ireland and to follow up on initiatives that have been taken by both administrations, Fianna Fáil when in office and by Fine Gael and Labour. It was to emphasise that it was maintained as an exclusive element, so as not to be open to the charge that we were giving the right to everyone.
The last point I want to make is in relation to the points raised by Senator McMahon. It is our clear understanding that the residents and citizens of the Isle of Man would qualify for inclusion under the first categorisation of British citizen as defined in the 1981 Act. Therefore, as a consequence, they would automatically be eligible to have the vote here, provided they met all the requirements of residence and so forth.
Senator Dooge made a point in relation to a local authority member who in theory could be a UK citizen and had voted in the Seanad elections. I do not know if he is referring to anything specific.
Professor Dooge Professor Dooge
Professor Dooge: No.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: They are the points I wanted to make in response to the various speeches that were made in the House. I thank the House for its support.
Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.
Seanad Éireann 102 Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 1983: Second Stage (Resumed).