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Future Irish elections and referendums will be overseen by a new Electoral Commission

A public consultation on what structure and responsibilities the Commission will have has been launched today.

Image: Niall Carson

THE GOVERNMENT IS to establish an independent Electoral Commission to oversee future elections and referendums. 

The setting up of an Electoral Commission has been mooted for some time by the government, with the Referendum Commission recommending a permanent body be set up in each of its reports.

A public consultation on what structure and responsibilities the Commission will have has been launched today. 

An Oireachtas Committee in 2016 recommended that the new Commission would take charge of key functions such as the oversight of elections and referendums, the register of political parties and the register of electors, as well as the monitoring of political spending and donations and election spending. 

It is envisaged that the role of the Standards in Public Office (Sipo), as well as the Referendum Commission, will be folded into the new Commission. 

“Up there with Seanad reform, this is a chestnut that needs to be grasped,” said Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan.

The minister said four options are up for consideration:

  • the first – that there be no change;
  • the second option – that the Commission is initially set up on a non-statutory basis;
  • and the third option – that the government opts to establish it on a full statutory basis giving it limited powers.
  • The fourth option is for a full statutory body with all functions transferred over. 

The estimated costs for these proposals ranges from €3.3 million up front, with additional yearly costs of 1.8 million to €2 million each year. This cost does not include the funding that is already dedicated to Sipo, as well as the Referendum Commission, which would be folded into the Commission. 

The minister said the new agency would have a role to play in setting the standards for online political adverts. It would also carry out national research into all elections and referendums held in Ireland. 

The public consultation is open until 15 March, with a report due after three months. 

Depending what option is selected, it’s predicted the roll out of such a Commission could take up to two years as legislation will need to be drafted and passed.

The minister said he hopes that the non-statutory body could be set up in 2019, with laws to follow to put it on a statutory basis afterwards, adding that reports about such a move have recommended that any changes be brought in on a phased basis, so as not to undermine the trust people have in the electoral system. 

The latest report on changes also suggests that the 1997 legislation which governs the logging of politicians interests, such as property and shares, should be reviewed.

Sipo has made similar recommendations that the law should be reviewed and updated, and this is something the new Commission could carry out, added the minister.

The public consultation on the new Commission is open until 15 March. 

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