Dáil Éireann - Volume 67 - 01 June, 1937

Committee on Finance. - Plebiscite (Draft Constitution) Bill, 1937—Second Stage.

Minister for Local Government and Public Health (Mr. O Ceallaigh): I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. This is mainly a machinery Bill in connection with the Bunreacht na hEireann (Dréacht) which Deputy Cosgrave says we are now hoping to give to the country.

When the Draft Constitution which is now being considered by this House in Committee is finally approved, it will be submitted for adoption and enactment to the people by means of a plebiscite to be taken in accordance with the provisions of the Bill.

For the taking of the plebiscite, no elaborate machinery is necessary. It is to be taken on the polling day at the general election. In constituencies in which the Dáil election is contested, the voter will receive two ballot papers. On the white ballot paper he will indicate his preference for candidates by the figures 1, 2, 3, and so on; and on the plebiscite ballot paper, which will be of a distinctive cream colour, he will place the mark “X” to indicate his approval or non-approval of the Draft Constitution, in accordance with the instructions on the face of the ballot paper set out in the Schedule to the Bill. The voter will have the same guarantee of secrecy for his vote at the plebiscite as he has for his vote at the Dáil election.

[1385] The holding of Dáil elections is strictly regulated both as regards machinery and corrupt and illegal practices. The plebiscite will be subject to the same regulation, and there is the same appeal to the courts if the plebiscite is not conducted in accordance with the principles laid down in the electoral law. The plebiscite votes recorded in each constituency will be counted in each constituency by the returning officer, and a return giving the number of votes cast, approving and not approving of the Draft Constitution, will be sent to the plebiscite returning officer. From these returns the plebiscite returning officer will ascertain the total number of votes approving and not approving of the Draft Constitution, and will certify whether the Draft Constitution has or has not been approved by a majority of voters.

There is one aspect of the plebiscite to which I invite attention. The question how the elector is to indicate his view in the matter of the Draft Constitution has received a very careful consideration. It is contrary to practice at elections to write on ballot papers. If the plebiscite rules required voters to write words of approval or non-approval on the plebiscite ballot paper they might misunderstand the instructions, and write on the general election ballot papers as well, with the result that their votes at the general election might be rejected. A qualified or alternative approval or non-approval is not practical. These considerations ruled out marking the ballot paper with words or figures. The solution left is to place the mark “X” in the square opposite the word “Yes” if the voter approves, or opposite the word “No” if he does not approve. Supplemental instructions for voting at the plebiscite will be printed and exhibited in each polling booth.

Dr. O'Higgins: I have no great enthusiasm for these proposals, neither have I any very strong objections to them. It is all so much elaborate setting for a still-born entity. Its arrangements were made at a time when people estimated or calculated the thing would be a living entity, and [1386] this was just part of the impressive trappings that were arranged at that particular time. If the Constitution were a matter of more real interest to the public than it appears to be at the moment, then I would have urged very strongly that the opinion of the electors on the Constitution should be taken at another time and on a different occasion than the particular time when the people are called on to vote for candidates for the Dáil. Seeing that there is so very little interest in the Constitution, I think it is just as well that the opinion of the people is taken in conjunction with the general election, because, at all events, there will be other forces and other factors influencing the electors to go to the polling booths on that particular day.

I think, however, that the matter that will take up least of the electors' interest and will come in for the minimum of consideration will be the Constitution. If opinions for or against a Constitution covering 115 difficult pages are to be studied, considered and voted on by the people generally, surely some better occasion should be selected than the occasion when the electors are going to the poll to vote for a certain group of candidates as against another group of candidates. Every possible issue, real and bogus, will be thrashed out and discussed by thousands of speakers from hundreds of platforms for three, four or five weeks before this particular vote is recorded. I venture to say, the people being realists, that the subject that will get least attention either from speakers or from the audiences, will be the Constitution itself. If the Constitution is to be the very important factor in the lives of the people that the President pictured, surely it is sufficiently important to have the calm consideration of the public and the opinion of the public recorded quite distinct and separate from the controversy and heat and excitement and din of a general election. I believe that a Constitution to be put through in this particular way will be a Constitution put through without, in fact, any adequate consideration by the public generally or with any fair presentation to the public by public men.

[1387] There is not one speaker on either side of the House who can afford at the present moment, from a public platform, to devote any reasonable or adequate length of time to the presentation of the favourable factors in the Constitution, or the contrary. It seems to me that the suggestion to put the Constitution through simultaneously with the polling for the general election is rather securing, as far as the Government can, that that Constitution will not be closely studied or calmly considered by the electorate. It is more or less ensuring that the registration of opinion for or against the Constitution will take definite political lines, that people brought in to vote for a certain Party will vote at the same time for a Constitution, and the opposite would hold as well. That, I think, is rather unfortunate. It is not the best for any of us, and it is not the best for the country. To my mind, a Constitution should be introduced and discussed as far as possible away from the heat and divisions of a general election, even here in this Assembly, and the opinion of the electorate, if a plebiscite is the machinery to be used, should be taken at a time when there is no Party feeling, when there is no excitement, and when there are no animosities dividing people on other issues. It is a most unfortunate choice of date.

Possibly, one argument that may be used for it is that a plebiscite is a costly machinery and that it is economical to do it in conjunction with a general election. Surely that argument will not be seriously advanced from the Government Benches? Surely that argument will not be seriously put forward in association with an instrument that is inviting a multiplicity of plebiscites or referenda? Surely the thing that is furthest from the minds of the Government is a desire to save the money of the taxpayer, because the amount of money that would be saved by taking one plebiscite on the same day and at the same time and place as the general election poll will be squandered thousands of times over in subsequent plebiscites or referenda if the vote of the public on the first occasion [1388] happens to be in favour of the Draft Constitution. I believe that a plebiscite not associated with a general election would be a very costly thing, a much more costly thing than a general election.

Although the occupants of the Government Benches may talk glibly about the prevention of electoral abuses and all that kind of thing, and refer to the Act for the prevention of corrupt practices during elections and on the polling day, in fact and in practice the prevention of electoral abuses is left to the Party agents. There is no agent of the State inside or convenient to a polling booth whose business it is to any extent to prevent electoral abuse. They are there to keep order in the ordinary every-day sense of the word; they are there to prevent violence in the ordinary sense of the word; but there is no agent, from the presiding officer to the policeman, whose duty it is to prevent electoral abuses. In spite of all our legislation and all our Acts, we do in fact invite electoral abuse and we leave it to the citizens themselves, by organisation and by the expenditure of money or voluntary effort, to see that there is none, or at least that there is a minimum of electoral abuse.

I make that point because, in fact, that is the position, that it is the Party organisations and the agents of the different candidates who secure as far as possible that there will be a minimum of electoral abuse. An argument for taking a plebiscite on a general election polling day would be that if a plebiscite were taken on another occasion, Party machines would not be available and any busybody could poll a parish with nobody to challenge him. If adequate steps were not taken by paid agents of the State to prevent that type of wholesale personation, then I fear that there would be a tremendous amount of electoral abuse associated with the taking of a plebiscite.

Mr. O Ceallaigh: I disagree entirely with Deputy O'Higgins when he says that this question of the Dréacht Bunreacht that we are discussing is of no interest to the people. I do not suppose that anything I could say or [1389] anything any of us on this side could say in contradiction of his view would carry conviction to him or to his colleagues, but it is my belief that there are few measures that have been put before this House since I became a member of it that have excited as deep an interest in the public mind as this Draft Constitution. That is my belief, and I think I see evidence of that every day I open a newspaper. There is nothing that has happened of a political nature in recent years that excited such public controversy as this Constitution. Newspapers, magazines and reviews, the few of them that have appeared since the document was first published and that I have seen and read, have commented on and discussed in some way or another the provisions of the Constitution. I think it is absolutely undeniable that there is nothing since the Free State was founded in which the people have taken a deeper interest than in this Constitution. They have discussed it, examined it and commented on it, and, while I have to accept Deputy O'Higgins's word that the people have no interest in it, I think the vast majority of his supporters—some of them I have met and talked to, and some of them I have heard criticise various aspects of the Bunreacht—would not agree with him that the Bunreacht is a matter of no interest. However, on that we can afford to differ, but I think that any unprejudiced person who takes an interest in the matter and who likes to discuss affairs of that kind, can make up his mind as to the side on which the truth lies. We will leave it there.

On the question of the time when the plebiscite on the Constitution is to be taken, I think Deputy O'Higgins must be talking with his tongue in his cheek when he criticises the Government for putting this Constitution to the people at the time of a general election. He personally had no responsibility for the way in which the Constitution was put to the people in 1922, but I am sure that if he were asked he would say he saw nothing wrong with it. The people have had this Constitution before them some months in advance. The matter, as I have said, has been commented upon, [1390] and it has been published in full in newspapers in every part of the country. It has been discussed through every available organ for discussion, and it has been debated at considerable length in this House, and the debates, I am sure, will go on for a considerable time. The length of the debates here and the number of speakers who have addressed the House from amongst Deputy O'Higgins' own colleagues all bear tribute to the fact that they regard it as a matter of very considerable interest and importance to the people generally, thus contradicting, to my mind, his view that it is a matter of no interest or importance, and showing also that the people have what they did not have when the first Constitution was put to them, a great opportunity of learning what the Constitution is, what is in it and what is not in it and what its sections mean.

They will have read the debates, pro and con, and they will have heard the views of the President and other speakers on this side and various speakers from the Opposition who have given their views of what it means. If ever the public had an opportunity of understanding any measure, they have that opportunity in respect of this Bunreacht. I do not see anything wrong at all in choosing such a time. I would not put forward the argument as one of very great importance that we save expense by asking the people to vote on the Constitution on the day of the general election. That is not a matter that ought to weigh very heavily with the Government, I agree with Deputy O'Higgins, in deciding the day on which a measure of this kind should be put to the people, but I think the day of a general election is a suitable day. I thought the Constitution would have been brought in earlier, but that could not be done, and the time of the general election draws near. The end of the normal period of office of the present Government is drawing to a close, and the two things happen to coincide, and I think very happily coincide. There will be a bigger interest taken in both matters as a result of the political interest that is always evoked by a general election, and you will [1391] have a bigger vote. It would be perhaps difficult to work up the same enthusiasm for a plebiscite on the Constitution if that plebiscite were taken alone. The people would not have the same urge to vote on any Constitution, no matter what it contained, as they would have to vote at the time of a general election. I think that those who are asked to vote for one side or the other at the general election, and at the same time to decide pro or con on the Constitution will have a deeper interest in both matters. You will have more interest displayed, and probably a bigger vote than you might have had on any Constitution put to the people by plebiscite at any other time.

I hope, and this hope has been expressed several times by the President, that the people will be made to understand that whatever way they vote in the general election, they are free to vote any way they please on the Constitution. If they are supporters of the present Government and dislike the Constitution, I hope they will understand that they are completely free to vote against the Constitution, if they so wish, or vice versa. I think the people are politically-minded enough to understand the job they have to do on the day of a general election, to understand what the general election and the Constitution mean to them, and to be able to differentiate between Party programmes and Parties and, at the same time, to make up their minds on the Constitution. I do not think the excitement which has always existed on the day of the poll, and, later on, and will, I suppose, always exist, will be any less, but I do not see any reason why that Party feeling should prevent people from making up their minds independently and clearly and definitely on the Constitution. Our own people will probably pay more attention to what we say, but I hope that the people, all of them, will understand that they are completely free to vote any way they like on this Constitution, and anything we can do to get them to put aside Party views when discussing it and voting on it we will do. It has been done already, and [1392] it will be continued to the day of the poll.

With regard to the question of electoral abuses to which Deputy O'Higgins referred, it is the duty of the Gardaí to prevent them. I cannot speak for the country—I have never been in the country at the time of a general election polling day—but here in Dublin the Gardaí are inside the polling booths and outside them.

Dr. O'Higgins: I do not claim to know the law, but the practice is that one or other of the agents of the candidates challenges the bogus voter and, subsequently, the Guard is asked to take action. I have never heard of a Guard taking action on his own initiative.

Mr. O Ceallaigh: They have taken action in Dublin, and I have seen them take it.

Dr. O'Higgins: I am referring to the country.

Mr. O Ceallaigh: I have seen the Gardí take action in Dublin when they suspected persons coming into the polling booth more often than they should. I have seen them stop people going in—messengers carrying food and such persons—and ask them what right had they to be there and what brought them there more than once, and I have seen persons arrested by them.

Dr. O'Higgins: Of course, that is the exception.

Mr. O Ceallaigh: I do not think so, not in Dublin. I can speak only of Dublin from personal experience. They are watchful and strict in Dublin and I think every Party will agree that electoral abuses are rare in the City of Dublin, anyway. The Party agents do watch and it is a good thing they should. In the old days—I am not talking about present-day politics— when the different Parties used to be just as watchful as they are to-day and sometimes succeeded in arresting their opponents for attempted personation or for personation, they used occasionally at the end of the day to count up heads. If they found that one Party had got so many prisoners and the other Party had got so many, they simply withdrew their charges and paid whatever compensation was to be [1393] paid. They ended the matter in that way. That practice is over and done with. One never hears of that now. If a Party agent does get a man arrested for personation, they go through with the charge. In recent years men have been convicted on this charge and it is right they should. That is the practice at the present time.

Question put and agreed to.

Agreed to take the Committee and Final Stages now.