Friday, 3 December 1999
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. O'Donovan: I welcome this useful debate. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution under the chairmanship of Deputy Jim O'Keeffe produced a progress report in April 1997. It was initiated under Deputy O'Keeffe's chairmanship early in 1996, when that committee was revived. The report does not suggest that the Seanad should be abolished, despite the myths put about by some commentators. That is not my interpretation of the report and it would not be fair to  the committee to take that interpretation. The idea that the Seanad should be abolished is not what emerges from the report, although that has been misconstrued by some Seantors
The committee debated the need for a second House. It employed Professors Coakley and Laver, experts in constitutional law, as consultants to give directions and advice. The countries of Europe are divided approximately 50-50 between countries with parliaments with one chamber and those with a second. If one looks back 200 to 300 years ago, or more, most European states were controlled by monarchies. Our nearest neighbour, Great Britain, had a king or queen as head of state. There were two parliamentary houses, the House of Commons, which was for the ordinary common man's input, while the Upper House was the House of Lords, which represented big landlords, wealthy merchants and aristocrats. That situation still prevails in Great Britain, even though the Queen is more of a figurehead and the main thrust of Government lies with the House of Commons and the Prime Minister.
Prior to the French Revolution, a similar system existed in France. Following the French Revolution, a single House of Parliament was set up. I have read extensively on this subject. I am a member of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and there are conflicting opinions as to whether Parliament should comprise one or two Houses. From the reports I have studied, I am strongly of the view that there should be an Upper House.
In the first Dáil, established in 1919 under the Act of Union, there was only one House of Parliament. In 1922 the then Dáil set up a Seanad and historically, and in some sense ironically, that Seanad was to represent the views of the Unionist population in the new Twenty-six Counties – it was not a Republic then. Its role was to protect minority interests, which is an important feature of this debate. As the then Seanad was so powerful and obstreperous, the then Government abolished it in 1936, and in 1937 under de Valera the new Seanad, as we now know it, was set up.
Members are elected from certain universities and from five panels, the agricultural panel, the labour panel, the cultural and educational panel, the administrative panel and the industrial and commercial panel. The theory behind this election process is to ensure that various aspects of life are represented in the House, and that process has been reasonably successful.
In addition, the Taoiseach has the power to elect 11 Members. This is an important aspect of the Seanad and of the process of Government. In his submission to the committee, Dr. Laver proposed that this process should be abolished. He proposed that Seanad elections should be held at regular intervals and there should be a geographical split of constituencies with various sectors represented in the four provinces. I would favour such a geographical split of constituencies. Any candidate who has traversed the Twenty-six  Counties on a Seanad campaign over a six week period will realise what a cumbersome and difficult task that is and that one would not meet all one's constituents, who number approximately 900. I would not rule out that proposal.
This report gives us food for thought. In so far as we can, we should beef up the role of the Seanad. Certain things have happened since this report was initiated. At the time of initiation of the report, we sat approximately half the number of days we are currently sitting. That is a great tribute to our current Leader, to the Leaders this year and particularly last year, when I remember pointing out that we sat about two days less than the Dáil. That in itself is a sort of revolution or evolution within the Seanad, making ourselves more important and creating a greater role for the Seanad. This is a significant change from the time this report was initiated almost four years ago.
Had the committee then the evidence it has seen this year and last year of the way this House conducts its business and its extra sitting days, it might not have taken such a critical attitude towards the Seanad. If it had known what is now happening it would have been less critical.
Another important feature which was not in existence when I sat in the Seanad from 1989 to 1992 is that, as in the past two or two and a half years, more legislation is initiated here. A case in point is that last year alone the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, initiated six Bills in this House, which was a tremendous recognition of the House, and I pay tribute to him for that. A clear indication of this in the last two to three weeks was the planning Bill, which was initiated here by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey. There was a long drawn-out debate on a huge number of amendments. It was probably one of the best trawled debates in this House in the past couple of years. That again is a mark of respect by the Government for this House. These are just some examples.
One of the reports under Professor Laver or Professor Coakley suggested that there was a lack of respect by successive Governments for the role of the Seanad, that certain Ministers begrudgingly came to this House and that it was difficult to conduct business because Ministers and Ministers of State were not available. Thankfully, in my experience since August 1987, this has not been the case. The Taoiseach has been here on two occasions and successive Ministers have put down legislation or set out Bills here, and this is important recognition.
Greater participation by this House in the European Union is another positive role that we must examine if we want to improve our lot and our image. Increasingly our lives and those of Irish citizens are being ruled by directives and legislation from Europe, into which Seán Citizen does not generally have an input. One of the  recommendations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee is that we should play a greater role in European matters. That is one area we should examine. There are European directives and new legislation covering matters such as the quality of meat, the quality of water and the size and type of eggs. There are debates on whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Many of these decisions are made in Brussels and this House could have a role in teasing out certain aspects of European directives, independently of the other House. That would be a sort of watchdog role, which would be important and would be welcomed.
There would be no difficulty in the expansion of that role in the Seanad and, to be positive about this House, in possibly allowing MEPs to have a more active role in this House. There is no problem with that. There is another salient fact related to the review. The committee system used in the Houses would be unworkable without the presence of Members of this House. The all-party committee on the Oireachtas looked at the cost of running the House for a year. It worked out at £2.8 million, not a lot of money these days. It reached the conclusion that if the committee system was to succeed, replacing Members of this House with others would be less efficient economically. We play an important role in the introduction of legislation through the committees and that should not be forgotten.
As a result of the positive developments in Northern Ireland, which we all welcome, the ties between the Seanad and Northern Ireland and the new Assembly will become more significant. In recent years Taoisigh have recognised this and have nominated people from Northern Ireland to the Seanad.
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