Tuesday 5th July 2011

I very much welcome this Bill. The political system requires major reform and this Bill is a first step in a positive direction to enhance democracy and political effectiveness in this country. It is particularly relevant in light of recent events which precipitated the need to introduce such legislation without delay. The ruling by the High Court in November 2010 that there was unreasonable delay in holding the Donegal South-West by-election and that the delay was a breach of constitutional rights highlighted the need for such legislation. Such an occurrence can never happen again. It came about because common sense did not prevail in the previous Government to fill vacant seats in a timely fashion.

The UK does not need to legislate for writs to be moved because this generally occurs within three to six months of a casual vacancy arising. However, in Ireland to ensure that history does not repeat itself, a timeframe for the holding of a by-election should be enshrined in our legislation. I very much agree that by-elections should take place within six months of the vacancy arising. The electorate deserves to be fairly represented in Dáil Éireann at all times to maintain a democratic balance within a county. On such a small island one can understand how people can be aggrieved when neighbouring constituents, who often live only a few metres away, have an adequate share of representatives.

Legislation is urgently required because, constitutionally, there must be one Deputy per 20,000 to 30,000 people in each constituency. If this ratio is breached and people are denied their quota of representatives, a legal challenge could once more be taken to call a by-election, as occurred in November last year. This challenge brought before the High Court last year was an unnecessary cost to the State. This amending legislation is a mechanism for saving such wasted money and unnecessary recourse to the legal system.

We have two electoral systems on this island in terms of voting for national parliamentarians and both systems have by-elections. However, our neighbours in the North appear to address the issue of casual vacancies without recourse to legislation and much more efficiently. This amending legislation will give reassurance to the public that their voices will be heard both from the point of view of representation and their choice of Deputy.

In Ireland we should embrace the fact we can again allow the electorate a choice to fill a causal vacancy. The holding of a by-election is important in terms of democracy as the people’s voice can be heard.

This is unlike Malta, for example, where there is similar electoral system but a count-back system is worked for filling casual vacancies.

Our European Parliament does not have by-elections for MEPs and there is a substitute list instead for a vacant seat. However, the replacement MEP may not necessarily have been next in line on the official substitute list at the time of election and candidates lower on the list by default may take a seat in the Parliament. Is this really fair? Consequently, the Irish system appears to be fair as it allows the voice of the electorate to be heard.

One may question the need to reduce the number of Deputies in the Dáil. According to some leading political scientists, Irish figures are comparable internationally per head of population. The method used determines the appropriate number of representatives per cubic root of population, and based on the method, we should have 166 national politicians. However, the Bill is correct in decreasing the number of Deputies as Ireland is over-represented in terms of elected personnel, with 1,627 local councillors, along with 166 Deputies and 60 Senators.

This Government is serious about overall political reform, which must begin at the top with our national Parliament. Reducing the number of Deputies will decrease the link between local and national issues by focusing the attention on legislation to a greater extent. As a former county councillor just elected to the Dáil, I know the reduction in the number of Deputies will devolve power to local government and strengthen its role within communities in a move that would be appreciated by all concerned. It was recently indicated that only 61% of Deputies spend more than six hours per week on legislative work in the Dáil, and we must ensure this time is increased and that legislation becomes the primary focus of all Deputies.

An argument has been raised that a reduction in the number of Deputies will affect the level of accountability in the Parliament but I argue for the contrary. The fewer Deputies in the Dáil, the more responsible they will be for their actions and they will hence be more accountable to constituents and society as a whole.

This Bill is one step in addressing the lack of Government reform by previous Administrations. The recommendations of a number of independent and Government-backed reports have been discarded in favour of self-interest and this practice will now cease. We must change how the Dáil works and how we view our role as national elected representatives. Furthermore, in the current economic climate we cannot ignore the fact that reducing the number of Deputies is a cost-saving measure.

Overall political reform is required and this Bill is a major step forward in that direction. I look forward to the establishment of the electoral commission, which will be tasked with addressing the current discrepancy in the electoral registers, which we all encountered in the recent general election, as well as many other functions.