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Ballot papers in May's elections will be 'unfair and misleading'

Legislation means Independent TDs must list themselves as ‘non-party’ or else leave a blank space.

Independent TDs Finian McGrath and Catherine Murphy (File photo)
Independent TDs Finian McGrath and Catherine Murphy (File photo)
Image: Sam Boal

BALLOT PAPERS DO not accurately “reflect reality” by not allowing candidates who are unaffiliated with a political party describe themselves as ‘Independent’, according to Deputy Catherine Murphy.

The Kildare North TD raised the issue in the Dáil recently, saying the “grossly unfair” current legislation forces Independent candidates to list themselves as ‘non-party’ or else leave a blank space.

“The ballot paper should reflect the reality of the candidate’s standing. Imagine for example, a party candidate not being allowed to have the name of their party included on the ballot paper – it would be unfair and misleading, the same is true for Independent candidates,” Murphy said.

“Candidates are under extreme pressure to ensure that the information they include on the ballot paper is accurate and factual yet they are not allowed to include one of the most important facts about themselves – namely that they are an Independent candidate,” she added.

Amendment rejected

Murphy, who is also the Whip of the Technical Group of TDs, called for an amendment relating to the issue to be included in the Electoral Bill currently being debated in the Dáil. Her request was dismissed as it was “not relevant to the provisions of the Bill”.

Murphy said she was told her amendment was “out of order” because the Bill “is only dealing with the issue of bankruptcy”.

She added that the Government had missed “a golden opportunity to deal with that anomaly and in time for the local and European elections”.

“I’m not ‘non-party’. I could decide to be in a party if I wanted to be. I’m not deficient because I’m not in a party and I want to describe myself as Independent on the ballot paper, as do the many hundreds of Independents that are going to be contesting this election. It’s long past the time that this should have been changed and I regret that we’re not even going to be allowed to debate the amendment,” Murphy said.

Replying to her statement, Junior Minister Fergus O’Dowd said the Electoral Act 1992 sets out that “the term ‘non-party’ … indicates adequately that the person does not belong to a political party … briefly, clearly and in a neutral way”.

“On the other hand, the description ‘Independent’ could be viewed as a value-laden term and could have different meanings for different people,” O’Dowd commented.

Meath East By Elections Campaigns A ballot paper from the 2013 by-election in Meath. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Lack of consensus

Consensus on the issue does not appear to have been reached within Fine Gael.

Party Chairman Charlie Flanagan said he agreed with Murphy on the issue, noting: “Since the foundation of the State there have been self-styled Independents.”

“If there are people who are independent of the party political process they should be in a position to describe themselves as such. The law should recognise people independent of parties, rather than categorise them as ‘non-party’. ‘Non-party’ suggest that they are lacking in something … By using that term there is a suggestion that there is something odd about that stance,” Flanagan stated.

He told TheJournal.ie he would be happy to “pick up the matter” with Environment Minister Phil Hogan, saying he saw “no reason” the law could not be changed.

“I’m not sure whether there’s an advantage [for party candidates], electorally, but I do believe that people who are independent of the party system should be formally recognised,” Flanagan remarked.

Speaking in the Dáil, Murphy noted:

“Given that only 2 per cent of the population are registered members of a political party, and considering the fact that our constitution makes absolutely no reference to party politics, it seems grossly unfair that a person who makes the choice to run as an Independent candidate cannot include the word Independent – a true and accurate reflection of their candidature – on the ballot paper.”

Fellow Independent TD Finian McGrath supported Murphy’s proposal, claiming the current system was a “discriminating against Independent candidates”. He called on Hogan to end the “blatant exclusion of Independent candidates throughout the country”.

McGrath had previously raised the issue in the Dáil on a number of occasions.

The press offices for Fine Gael and Labour said neither party had taken a stance on the issue. At the time of publication, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin had not responded.

‘Splitting hairs’

At the time of the 2011 General Election David Farrell, a professor at UCD’s School of Politics and International Relations, conducted research on why no new political parties have been founded in recent years.

The findings suggested that the term ’Non-party’ “might play to the advantage of Independent candidates” as the public may be unhappy with party politics.

“If I were to give advice to Independents, it would be to leave the situation as it is. I think it’s splitting hairs, to be honest … There are more burning issues to be dealt with,” Farrell said.

He noted: “Ireland has more Independents in the Dáil than all the other parliaments of Europe combined.”

Farrell said this is partially due to the list system of voting in many European countries, but remarked that Ireland has a high level of non-party candidates regardless.

Read: ‘We don’t really simplify things that are straightforward’: Ballot papers cause confusion

Read: What happens to your ballot paper after your vote is counted?

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Órla Ryan

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