Thursday, 30 September 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. O’Toole: I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, and congratulate him on surviving yesterday, which was an important stage for everyone. I also thank him for his work on the labour portfolio. I am not sure if the Minister of State still has it, but his accessibility and flexibility in dealing with labour issues over the past two years have been very much appreciated in trade union circles.
On the business of Seanad reform, there are as many views as there are Members in the House. However, this is my starting point. The structure of the Seanad today is undemocratic, unrepresentative and anachronistic, and I do not exclude myself in any way from that assessment. It is undemocratic because it does not treat people equally within a democracy. Regarding my own situation, certain third level graduates have votes in the Seanad while others do not. That must be undemocratic. The fact that 43 Members of the House are elected by elected local authority members raises a significant question in terms of democracy. I do not object to the principle as I cannot accept the argument that it is undemocratic for local authority members to elect the tier above them. However, if it is the only way to so elect people, the question of it being undemocratic arises. The structure is anachronistic because it is out of time. It does not fit with the ebb and flow of a modern democracy. It needs to be changed and we have the opportunity to change it.
In trying to make this topical, I want to put in context two of the less discussed aspects of what is proposed. The report presents a compromise position. On the Order of Business this morning I raised the consultation issue. In the New Zealand Parliament, after Second Stage and before Committee Stage of a Bill, the Members factor in a formal consultation process through committee. A consultative committee meets people who wish to have an input, comment on, suggest modifications or make proposals regarding the Bill. The committee listens and arrives at a conclusion.
At the next stage of the debate, the Members of the House have before them a sort of two-sided document, like the Irish Constitution with the Irish version on one side and the English on the other, except that in this case the original Bill is on one side while the other shows the Bill with the changes which the committee asks the House to consider. The changes are not made at that stage but are put before the Members. When the Bill arrives at Committee Stage it contains that additional information for all the people.
That is something we could carefully consider in this House. It would make us better informed, but crucially, it would create connectivity with people on the ground. It would give people a direct and real input into the legislative process which does not diminish in any way the responsibilities, rights and duties of legislators. It would also bring about involvement in democracy which is very much to be welcomed.
This process should be structured into the Seanad. I suggested this morning that we might apply it, for example, to the Disability Bill. The consultation took place before the Bill, the Bill was then presented and it is now published. I disagree with those who say the Bill should have been cleared by the consultation group afterwards. That is not how government works. It is the Government’s duty to bring forward a Bill. It brought the Bill forward to Members of the Seanad and it is now our duty to consult further. We should take the time to talk to these groups and ask them how disappointed or happy they are with the Bill, what good aspects they see in it and what they want to see changed. Nobody expects consensus on these issues but we could at least listen and inform ourselves, and then bring forward proposals on that basis for the Government to listen to again. It might not accept the proposals but that is democracy. It is another issue. It is not about taking the power away from us but about ensuring that we channel it in the proper direction.
The report also proposes the scrutiny of public appointments. As politicians we all get very frustrated when, very often, a person appointed by Government to a senior position is seen to be appointed merely because he or she is a friend or supporter of that Government and voted for it. That can often be grossly unfair to the people involved. It generally is unfair because nowadays people cannot risk that inference. I have no doubt, however, that being on the right side of the party line is of great help in these situations.
We need a system which neither includes nor excludes party affiliations or people with certain political views. I do not support the system in the United States which involves lengthy intensive scrutiny of people appointed to senior positions. Such people have to go through a committee structure. It is a tortuous way of questioning. If someone is found to have slept in the wrong bed 20 years previously, that person might be considered inappropriate for a job in a legislative capacity, though there is no connection, and the story still makes the headlines.
The Seanad could be an appropriate House in which to form a committee to approve people being proposed for important public appointments. The point would not be to suggest the best person, second-guess an appointments procedure or go through the skeletons in anyone’s wardrobe. The committee would simply look at the matter, check that the person meets all the essential and desirable criteria and say if the person is fit for the job, or that it has no opposition to that person being appointed. It would be a default method rather than an appointment procedure. It would therefore take away from Government any hint of political favouritism in job appointments. I am not talking of board members but of people appointed to paid positions, as boards are dealt with in a different way. This matter could be handled effectively and efficiently by this House.
Regarding the franchise, three consistent threads emerged from all the presentations made, as anyone could see if he or she took the trouble to read through them or sit in on some of the presentations. There was no appetite for the abolition of the Seanad. The matter was open to discussion by all and there was no such proposal. It is also crucial, and an aspect to be noted by the Lower House, that there was no appetite for creating a sort of second Dáil in the Seanad, or a House which would be in conflict with the Dáil. People accepted the argument that the sort of gridlock which can arise in Washington, Rome and sometimes in Paris is not what we want. I support that view.
The will of the people should be articulated in the first place, and with greatest clarity, in the Lower House. Our job as Senators is modification, information and building on what is discussed there. The Upper House should never be able to pervert the will of the people as articulated and decided in the Lower House. That is not what it is about. There has been no proposal to increase the powers of the Seanad to check the Dáil, though it is proposed to increase the Seanad’s functions and influence.
What emerged from the presentations was that people wanted the Seanad to remain and did not want it to have greater powers. I have been a Senator for some 18 years and I oppose those who seek greater powers for the Seanad. The Seanad needs some sort of Question Time whereby we can put a question to a Minister. It also needs more topicality but these issues can be addressed. We do not need greater powers to put us on a par with the Dáil. All of this emerged in the presentations and there was no threat in them.
The strongest issue to come through related to franchise. Some 95% of the presentations referred to increasing, expanding and extending the current franchise. Currently, if one removes the Taoiseach’s Seanad nominees, 49 Senators remain. Of these, 43 are elected by local authorities and county councils and in some cases urban councils, while six Senators are elected by some university graduates. Regarding my own constituency, it was felt that it was quite unacceptable that only the graduates of certain universities would have a vote in electing people to the university panel. Up to 97% of those who made presentations on that point took that position. Only one or two posed questions about it. For 16 years I have pushed the idea of extending the franchise to every graduate of a third level college, which is the way it should be.
The position is similar in regard to county councils, an issue on which there was a major row and a long debate. I know Members on both sides of the House have felt threatened by proposals for this kind of change, as I feel threatened by the possibility of a further 150,000 people joining my constituency. However, the case made most strongly was that the vote should be taken away from local authority members who should not have this power and that a second Chamber should be elected by the people in a format different to the Dáil. I have considered the workings of second chambers around the world and think the idea of local authority members electing representatives to a tier above them is quite acceptable and what I would describe as a distillation or refinement of democracy. The people at ground level elect others to a local level and there is nothing wrong with local representatives electing people to a further tier above. Nonetheless, I accept the argument that for them to have the significant preponderance they currently have is impossible to justify. Therefore, we need to increase the franchise.
This increase can be achieved by reducing the number of representatives elected by the local authority members or by increasing the number of seats so additional representatives would be elected by the people in a new way. Effectively, the suggestion has been a combination of these options. The proposal is for a slightly enlarged Seanad but I suggest it should be slightly larger again. It is important for local authority members to have their votes, which they value, and important that we recognise their value to Members of this House, although they do not vote for me and I have no vested interest in this, as the House is aware. Nonetheless, I would protect the rights of local authority members and it is important we enshrine their importance in the structures of the Seanad.
There is clear need for representatives to be elected by ordinary people. This must happen and was of greatest importance to those who made representations on this issue. There are various means by which it can occur, including various types of geographically-based constituencies, national list systems and otherwise. As I do not have time to consider all the options for implementation, I will discuss the principle. Some Members will be elected by local authorities and some by ordinary voters. Every third level graduate should have a vote on the University Panel and the Taoiseach’s nominees system should be extended to allow him or her to nominate further Members, for example, Members representing both sides of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland and representing the emigrant community. We could not reach agreement on the election of such Members and, therefore, the only way this can be achieved is through appointment by the Taoiseach, which is how we left the matter. The nominating bodies wanted to have more of a say and we should give them this.
The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad should not have to face re-election and should be returned by acclaim not by vote. If he or she is to do an impartial job in the course of his or her period of office, it is unfair for that person to suffer the pressure of having to seek votes from those who may have been rapped on the knuckles on a regular basis.
Mr. MacSharry: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and wish him every success in his new role at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am glad to have the opportunity to make some points on Seanad reform. I made a submission on the issue and congratulate the sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which presided over the process. It went through a sizeable number of submissions and produced a very good report with which I almost fully agree.
Two problems are highlighted in the report, namely, that the Seanad has no distinctive role in the Irish political system and that its arcane and outdated system of nomination and election diminishes Senators’ public legitimacy. I do not fully agree with these conclusions and feel the problems should be redefined. I accept there is a public legitimacy issue. Despite this being perhaps the 12th instance of Seanad reform, nothing has happened. Therefore, I question whether the reform process has legitimacy and whether we will achieve something on this occasion following hundreds of submissions from many quarters. I hope we do.
When we focused on the issue of public legitimacy in the past, we focused completely on the electoral system. I find this offensive. Is it to suggest that we have no public legitimacy because the electoral system for the Seanad produces not good but substandard representatives? This is not the case. While I accept there is a view that universal franchise may be the way to go for the future, it does not need to happen. The system whereby 43 Members are directly elected by county councillors, borough councillors and outgoing Oireachtas Members is a good one which has served us well.
The list system, as proposed, would be completely undemocractic. A Member of the House said privately to me that Members voting for this would feel like turkeys voting for Christmas, as I would. Who would draw up the list? I agree with Senator O’Toole that the University Panel should be extended to include all third level graduates. This may open an argument for all tradespeople, for example, to have representation in the House because they have qualifications and careers. Should this also be considered?
When considering public legitimacy, the focus should not be on the electoral system. The process can be tweaked if necessary. The Taoiseach’s 11 nominations are a good idea and I support using some of the nominations to include representaion for the North of Ireland, emigrants and other sectors. However, to have real public legitimacy the process needs to be relevant to the people. We have universal franchise in the context of the European elections but if the local elections were not held on the same day the turnout would be poor. The difficulty still exists that the public does not engage with Europe despite voting for representatives. Why, therefore, do we think that universal franchise will give Members more credibility with the public?
We need to make the Seanad more relevant to the people and can do this with the kind of functional reforms proposed. We should have a greater role regarding public scrutiny, as Senator O’Toole stated, and European legislation. If the House considered legislation at draft and proposal stage, it would give legitimacy not only to the European Parliament but would enhance our position in the public eye. It might also get a few members of the media to sit in the Seanad’s press gallery. I have been a Member of the House for two years but only saw journalists in the gallery on one occasion, when it was full for the debate on freedom of information, which was of great interest to the media. Other than that, the Seanad gets very poor coverage. If we debated European legislation at draft stage, it would be very beneficial to the House. All too often motorway construction is stopped because of legislation emanating directly from Europe. One example of this was when a variety of snail was found that could not exist anywhere else on the planet. Such legislation should be scrutinised through the committee system. However, when it comes to EU scrutiny in the committees, what happens is that huge documents arrive on the morning of the meeting and although it is agreed that they should be further scrutinised, they are adopted. We, in this House, could carry out that function. It would be very meaningful and would give us public legitimacy. The media would have no choice but to cover it and, in turn, the public would see exactly what is going on here.
If the Seanad was to receive adequate coverage in the media — I do not say this from an egotistical standpoint — and the public could see what goes on here, it would give the House more legitimacy. People would see the level of debate and scrutiny not only of legislation, but many other issues such as alcohol abuse and could see how legislation is changed as a result of good debate on all sides of the House.
It would also be a good development if the Cathaoirleach were elected automatically, as is the Ceann Comhairle in the other House. The number of nominating bodies should be reduced because there is much duplication with particular sectors having multiple bodies with multiple nominations. A scenario that develops at elections, which is not particularly fair, relates to inside and outside panels where somebody may have a certain number of votes but because a particular sub-panel is already full, a candidate with half the vote may take the seat. That is not addressed. I am not sure that is equitable and it should be examined.
I would be opposed to the introduction of a list system as it is undemocratic. I am fully in favour of the maintenance of the local authority franchise because it has served us well in the past. In the search for enhanced public legitimacy, the electoral system is not where the focus should be. It should be on the functions. Engaging in debate on public policy and EU affairs, particularly EU legislation, would greatly enhance our position.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him on surviving the axe yesterday, although it turned out to be a fairly blunt instrument as nobody was sacked — we had a couple of resignations. I wish the Minister of State well with his portfolio.
I welcome the report on Seanad reform. I compliment the sub-committee and the secretariat on their work and all the individuals and bodies who made submissions on the subject, which I read with interest. While they differed in many areas, what came through forcibly was the need for reform in terms of the functions of the Seanad and the electoral system. Senator O’Toole stated, and it should be emphasised, that nobody suggested the Seanad should be abolished. It was also agreed by everybody that the Seanad should not be in conflict with the Dáil and should not be a second Dáil per se.
The vocational panel system has served this House well in the past. Scrapping it would be a retrograde step. Some of the nominating bodies are outdated. There are probably too many of them. Some of them show very little interest in the process. However, other nominating bodies take their responsibilities very seriously and view their function as an important part of the electoral process and as an important part of the their duties under the Constitution. My nominating body, the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations made a very good submission on Seanad reform. I would have grave reservations about depriving nominating bodies who are active and informative of a say in the electoral process as they have carried out their duties in an exemplary and fitting manner as envisaged under the Constitution. I certainly agree that the system should be reformed, but scrapping the input of such bodies would not be fair or equitable.
I have no objection to the direct election of a number of Senators to a national constituency by the people, whether under a PR list system or otherwise. I agree with Senator MacSharry that a list system may not be as democratic as people would wish. It is suggested that we should move away from the political system and towards a system of people representing various bodies. However, under a list system it will be down to the political parties, probably not even local representatives in many instances, but people in headquarters in political parties to put people on lists. I do not view that as being very democratic, but I would agree that some Senators should be elected by the people to a national constituency. It would make the Seanad a more meaningful and relevant body in the eyes of the people and it is also very important that the people should see the Seanad as a very democratic body.
That the role of county councillors in elections has been recognised is welcome as they also view their role very seriously. The proposal that the Seanad be renewed on a rolling basis over a five year term in the interests of continuity is a sensible one. I have not heard anybody speak against a rolling system with elections every two and a half years.
The Seanad should at all times avail of the experience and expertise of former officeholders in Government and the suggestion that former taoisigh and tánaistí should have the right to attend and speak in the House is a good one. Providing Irish MEPs with a domestic forum in which to discuss EU issues and give an account of the work they do is another sensible suggestion that would add to the effectiveness of the Seanad. In the past year or so several MEPs have come here to speak on European issues and have been very effective, and they welcomed the opportunity to do so. That practice should be encouraged and expanded on and I agree with the sub-committee’s remarks in that regard.
The recommendation that a formal system of consultation should be put in place in the Seanad to allow for consultation with interested groups and individuals early in the legislative process is one of the most important recommendations in the report. This has been alluded to already by Senator O’Toole. It is imperative for the House to know, well in advance, even in terms of its current operation, what Bills will come before it. I accept that this must be within reason as emergency Bills must be introduced from time to time. Knowing what Bills are to come before the House would afford Members a better opportunity to prepare and make more informed and considered contributions on proposed legislation. This is why one of the report’s key recommendations is for more public consultation at an early stage in the legislative process.
Having the Seanad assume the function of principal policy reviewer in the Oireachtas is an interesting recommendation. However, it may put this House in conflict with the Lower House. I may be incorrect in my interpretation of this recommendation but I would not wish it to happen. Another interesting recommendation is for the Seanad to be assigned responsibility for the scrutiny of senior public appointments, similar to the system used in the US. I welcome the clarification given by Senator O’Toole on the sub-committee’s interpretation of this issue.
The report is a challenging one with recommendations that will, in some instances, require constitutional change. This should not prevent setting the wheels in motion for change. One recommendation is that the Taoiseach’s nominations to the Seanad should include various interest groups such as emigrant groups. However, there is already a proposal with the Taoiseach from Senator Higgins on this issue. He has stated that he is prepared to step down if someone from the emigrant community takes his Seanad seat. If the Taoiseach is serious about Seanad reform, he should respond quickly to this matter by stating there will be no opposition to Senator Higgins’s proposal and that the Government parties will not take his Seanad seat if he decides to resign. A representative from the emigrant community should be co-opted in his place.
I welcome this exciting and challenging report. Whether the changes will proceed at this stage is in the lap of the gods. Nothing has happened despite several previous reports on Seanad reform. I hope that some of the challenging proposals of the sub-committee will be acted upon and make this House more meaningful and relevant to Irish life.
Mr. Moylan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and his officials to the House and also take the opportunity to congratulate him on his promotion. There have been some excellent contributions from Members on this issue. I compliment those Members of the sub-committee who listened and read in detail the many submissions made by numerous bodies on Seanad reform.
Time spent discussing Seanad reform is worthwhile. However, how the Seanad has worked up to now must be taken into account before a large number of changes are made. The old saying comes to mind of why fix something when it is not broken. While times change, I agree with the principles of the nominating and electing bodies of the Seanad, particularly with the election of 43 Members by public representatives. It is important as every public representative, particularly every local authority member, represents a number of voters. Each one expresses his or her own views when electing Members to Seanad Éireann. When Éamon de Valera established the Seanad, he assumed that each public representative represented approximately 1,000 people. Electing Members with interests in different spheres to the various vocational panels ensures a broad view of society.
The number of Members must be expanded — by how many is for others to decide. Traditionally, three Members are elected from the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin. However, with the numerous changes in the educational system that have occurred, the universities deserve extra representation. With the changes between North and South, representatives from Northern Ireland should also be included in Seanad membership. This can be done by increasing the Taoiseach’s 11 nominations, allowing for three representatives from Northern Ireland.
From my experience as a Senator, another area for change is in Dáil and Seanad sittings and their overlapping with the committee system. Reforms for streamlining Seanad Éireann must take this into account. Up to half the number of Members can be tied up in Oireachtas committees, preventing them from making a proper contribution to the Seanad. One proposal that should be examined is having the Houses sit for three weeks out four, with the fourth week given over to committee sittings. This would make for a better committee system and, particularly, use of Seanad time.
Those allowed to address the House should also be reviewed. Over the past 12 months a number of MEPs have addressed the Seanad. This step in the right direction should be expanded upon to allow Senators the opportunity to meet and question MEPs on EU legislation.
Sometimes the House sits for two days in one week and three days in another, depending on the pressure of legislation coming from Government. If Members of the European Parliament or other such people addressed the House occasionally, we could move towards a four-day sitting week. This could happen if we examined a change in the committee system and the proposal that the Seanad sit for three weeks out of four.
The Seanad is an ideal Chamber for hearing the views of the party leaders from Northern Ireland. We should give them that opportunity; this may not require major reform. If the opportunity were afforded to the leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland to address this Chamber we would gain a better view of their thinking and they would get a better view of the thinking of the Members of this House. Senators from the northern part of our country have made a valuable contribution to the Seanad. However, they were nominated by the Taoiseach of the day. If successive taoisigh had not made those appointments, we would not have had the opportunity of listening to their views.
I was appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach on this occasion but I was elected to the previous Seanad, having been nominated by one of the nominating bodies. I have a strong view on the manner of nominating candidates to the Seanad. Some nominating bodies are very active and made excellent contributions to the review while others did not think it worth their while to do so. Irrespective of whether a candidate is nominated by the Oireachtas or by a nominating body, the election should be held on a first-past-the-post basis. Seats should not be reserved for Oireachtas nominees or for the nominees of outside bodies. Candidates go before public representatives for election and they decide. It should not make a difference whether a candidate is nominated to a panel by Members of the Oireachtas or by a nominating body.
Public representatives are strongly of the view that some of the large town councils should be included in the election process. Some of the larger town councils deal with budgets which are on a par with some of the smaller county councils. This proposal should also be examined.
The Leader of the Seanad should attend Cabinet meetings. Every day on the Order of Business the Leader is asked pertinent and important questions. The Leader should have the opportunity to attend Cabinet meetings so as to be able to reply to Senators who put questions on the Order of Business.
The Cathaoirleach should be automatically re-appointed to a new Seanad as the Ceann Comhairle is re-appointed to the Dáil. The Cathaoirleach must hold an independent position and he or she should be automatically re-elected.
I commend the people who spent considerable time last summer listening to the submissions made by so many bodies and individuals. I listened to many of the contributions, particularly those made by party leaders, who made excellent contributions. Seanad Éireann may not require major changes but we must continually review it and consider the need for change. We should expand our electorate to ensure that the interests of other organisations and individuals are represented in Seanad Éireann.
I thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, and I thank the Ministers of State and their officials for coming to the House. There have been reports on Seanad reform in the past and nothing has come of them. The Leader, Senator O’Rourke, and the committee have put considerable effort into the production of this document. I hope this report will not gather dust but will lead to reform and improvement and that the proposals of Members on Seanad reform will be accepted. The final say will be with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Taoiseach and the Government. However, I hope the report will be examined quickly and decisions taken within a specified time limit. This matter should not drag on longer than six or 12 months. Reforms should be in position before the next election.
Dr. M. Hayes: I could shorten my contribution by saying I agree with almost everything Senator Moylan has said. His suggestions all seem to be eminently practical and sensible and would help the working of the Seanad. It has been an honour and a pleasure for me to be a Member of the Seanad and to have been the Taoiseach’s nominee on two occasions. That could be taken as an argument for continuing the practice but could equally be taken as an argument against it.
What added value does the Seanad give? We should be prepared to face the awful prospect of asking what it would be like if there was no Seanad. Would matters be any worse? I happen to believe they would but it is a case to be made. The case is that we are a revising Chamber, that we can have more thematic and reasoned debates than the other House, that the atmosphere is not as adversarial and that business can be done. However, I often wonder if that is enough for the general public. We must show that we are in some way different from the other House and not just a pale replica thereof.
It might be cruel to say it but sometimes the Seanad reminds me of the old county junior football teams. They were full of last year’s minors trying to get back up and last year’s seniors on their way down. We should not be afraid to open the doors and bring in a new culture and a new part of the body politic. Part of being different from the other House is that we operate from a different constituency. Members of the Seanad should be elected from a different constituency. There would be little point in electing Senators from the same electorate and by the same method as Members of the Dáil.
The vocational base is important. It has been diluted to an extent by being politicised at that level. Whether it is possible to avoid that or whether it is desirable to do so is another issue. The link with the local authorities is important and I support Senator Moylan in that regard. In fact, I would go further. There is a tendency towards centralisation in local authorities also, with the units becoming bigger. The essence of the process is to try to press political participation down to the lowest units possible. I would include town commissioners, town committees and many other groups if a way could be found to define them and add them to the electoral college from which the Seanad is elected.
In this day and age it would generally be regarded as anti-democratic to have university seats. We had this argument in Northern Ireland when four seats were allocated to Queen’s University. In the great rush to democratic change we got rid of them. The sad aspect of it was that we extinguished some of the only independent and interesting voices. The university centres over the years, without going into details or personalities, have produced a range of interesting, quirky and sparky people who have not only enlivened debate but have also given expression to views that might not have been voiced if they had not been there. I would retain that element but I would go further and extend it to all third level institutions.
Furthermore, I would extend it, as Senator Moylan suggested, to universities and third level institutions in Northern Ireland. That might be a way of providing for a wider representation of views from the North in this Chamber. The House could withstand a modest extension in numbers. The Senate should not get much bigger because there is an intimacy in the Chamber and in the nature of the debates which it is important to preserve. However, it could accommodate these other interests in some way.
Then there are the Taoiseach’s nominees, which I should be the last to decry. I am not doing so. However, the question is how to include people who are representative of the North. I am conscious of the fact that I do not represent anybody. I represent myself. I am not authorised to speak for anybody else. I have been around the North for a long time, I have listened to people and I live there so I can sometimes say things in the Seanad that might not be said if I had not been here. I am glad of the opportunity to do so.
The only way I can envisage increasing Northern Ireland representation in the present form is by giving the Taoiseach two or three other slots to fill and by trying to fill them not just from one party or group, but from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. The idea that one could have an election for the Seanad in Northern Ireland is farfetched for ideological, practical and constitutional reasons. Equally, it is a little fanciful to talk about representation for the wider diaspora. It is proper that there should be people, and there are such people, in the Seanad who are aware of the problems of the diaspora and can reflect them. However, in giving constituencies to people how far does one go? Does one go to find people in Patagonia or the descendants of people from the midlands who went to Argentina and Australia? It is far too difficult and we should not go down that route.
There is a group of people who are under represented in politics in this country and whose involvement is vital to the continuation of democracy. That group comprises young people. It is not just in Ireland that young people are turning away from politics. It is happening everywhere. Some are getting involved in street politics, some are involved in protests. By and large, politics and politicians are sliding down the scale of respect as far as they are concerned. It is important that we get them to engage again in politics. My radical suggestion is that a third or a quarter of the seats should be reserved for people under 25 years of age. They should be elected. There is no reason the general electorate should not elect them. We have to find some means of engaging young people and that is perhaps one.
Having discussed the composition of the Seanad, I will now discuss what the Seanad might do to make itself different. There is a revising role. There is also a role which I would describe as the pre-Green Paper stage of legislation. It is difficult to make substantial changes to legislation when one is confronted with a draft Bill. It is almost cast in concrete. One can tweak it here and there and make suggestions but the principles of it have already been embedded. It would be helpful if, when a Minister gets a gleam in his or her eye about some matter, that he or she says: “We are going to have to legislate on this; here is the problem and here are the ways we are thinking of dealing with it.” There could be a broad debate at that stage about the principles involved and the things that might be done. It would be extremely helpful to Ministers and to the people who will draft the subsequent Bill. The Seanad would be ideal in that regard.
The other issue the Seanad could deal with is Europe. It was extremely interesting and useful to have not only speakers from other European member states come to the House, but also MEPs to discuss their experience in the European Parliament. This House could be a focus for debate, although not for scrutiny of European measures. An Oireachtas committee will carry out the scrutiny and it is a technical matter anyway. However, there could be debate of the broad issues of principle that arise in Europe. It would give us the opportunity to examine them before they become problems.
We could also examine other big and broad problems that are not dealt with by separate Departments and seem to slip between the interstices of Government. An example is what the impact of global warming will be. What crops will be grown in 2050? What land will be habitable or uninhabitable? What lifestyle changes will we have to make? These are great thematic debates that are ready made for the Seanad. We could serve a purpose in that regard.
The Seanad could be a point of contact for the North-South bodies. I was attracted to Senator Moylan’s suggestion of Northern political leaders and representatives coming before the Seanad from time to time to lay out their wares and to be open to discussion. The Seanad could also be a focus for consideration of the reports of the Ombudsman. They seem to run into the sand at present even though they are full of case studies and information which could be used to improve administration and the responsiveness to the citizens.
I have great belief in the Seanad. I have enjoyed the fellowship, warmth and contributions of all my colleagues. I believe we could make the Seanad a beacon of participatory Government and I hope we do so. I hope also, like Senator Moylan, that we do so in time for these things to come into force at the next election, which may be in two years time. This allows sufficient time for consideration and to get these things moved on.
Mr. Bradford: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this report and congratulate all those who had an input, the authors and those who made submissions. While it is an interesting debate, the question of reforming the Seanad is almost as old as the Seanad. We should not delude ourselves into believing there would be rejoicing on the streets and wild parties and celebration if, suddenly, the Government announced a changed system of election to the Seanad where there would be a universal franchise and where in the near future all citizens would have a vote to elect the Members of the Seanad. We must recognise there is a new reality in regard to the lack of connection between people and politics. We recognise that from the most recent general elections where we were lucky to get a little over 50% of the people to vote to elect the Government. I admit there was an improvement in the turnout at the recent local elections.
The country is not very concerned about how Senators are elected. What concerns those interested in politics, sadly the diminishing number of people interested in politics, is how the Seanad and Senators do their work. It is not a question of a larger Seanad or a smaller Seanad but a better Seanad. That is the question we must pose, whether elected through the vocational system, the university system or direct nominations. The issue is how can we make the Seanad a more effective debating chamber and a forum where the daily concerns of the people are debated and deliberated upon. From the point of view of debate and considered analysis of legislation, the Seanad has always been most effective.
Having served in both Houses, I make the point I have made previously in another place that there is much better debate and dialogue in the Seanad. It does not have the same political bite that, perhaps, the other House, believes it must have. The debates here are much calmer and, therefore, more effective. The question, therefore, is how the Seanad can be more effective.
The vast majority of queries from constituents and friends about the Seanad are not about how one is elected to the Seanad but rather what the Seanad does. We must ensure our work is more strongly profiled and that our engagement with the people is stronger. If we were to proceed with a number of measures contained in the recommendations, our role would be strengthened in the eyes of the public.
I do not wish to get into the issue of election to the Seanad as I do not think it will happen. In ten years time, if some future Government is debating Seanad reform, it will still debate how Senators are elected. Progress in that area will be slow. In the short term there is much we can do and we can go forward in a positive fashion.
I am happy to note the comments on EU affairs and the proposal that the Seanad should play a major role in debating European Union policy. Some Members, including Senator Ormonde, are members of the Joint Committee on European Affairs. Others of us are unfortunate enough to be members of the EU scrutiny committee where, once a fortnight, we go through in a reasonably detailed way the huge number of proposals before the Commission in Brussels. We are charged with the responsibility of suggesting what documents should go for scrutiny to the various committees. It is not a high profile committee but it does much effective work. That type of work could be done here in the Seanad.
As an aside, an issue we did not debate but observed at our EU scrutiny committee meeting this morning was a proposal, before the Commission in Brussels, on introducing and controlling licences for the felling of timber. One might ask what is the significance of that. It was pointed out to members of the committee by officials and through the documentation that it could result in a major increase in the price of timber here which would have a major knock-on effect on house building given that up to 30% of houses are built by timber frame construction methods. Relevant issues such as this often remain hidden. If the Seanad were to tackle those EU policy issues it would give the Seanad a meaningful role as far as the public is concerned.
I was very impressed last year when we had dialogue with the then MEPs. Every MEP who addressed the Seanad and took questions learned from us and we from them. It may be too early to invite the new batch of MEPs to address the House but it should be done on a regular basis. This is an ideal forum for listening to our MEPs and debating the issues of the day with them. There is the possibility of extending such dialogue beyond MEPs to other distinguished persons who, from a policy perspective, would have something to add to Irish life.
The proposal from the all-party group makes the observation that the Seanad should assume the role of principal policy reviewer in the Houses of the Oireachtas and mentions the possibility of debating medium-term economic and social planning, the performance of Departments, etc. I agree with that view. It is fair to observe, however, that as every Department has a committee of its own, there may not be the same scope for re-debating public policy, economic planning, performance of Departments as could have been the case five or ten years ago. I would expect that, say, the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food, would have a greater role in debating the work of that Department than would the Seanad. The Joint Committee on European Affairs probably has a more major role to play in examining the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs than would the Seanad. Nevertheless, it is a matter that should be kept in mind because these issues are important. If we want to be viewed as relevant by the people, the question is not how we are elected but what we do once we are elected and the impact of our work on people’s daily quality of life.
The system of election to the Seanad is very different from that for the Dáil. It has existed for a long time and may not be perfect, but it is difficult to improve it because we are not competing with another House. There is no point setting up 20 constituencies around the country to elect Senators. The Seanad is designed as a different Chamber from the Dáil, to be elected in a different fashion and to do a different job. It might not be broken as badly as some might argue. We should not rush to fix something that might not be completely broken. For us to concentrate more closely on our role and exercise it better might not be a bad starting point. Taking on issues such as more detailed consideration of legislation, a stronger emphasis on EU policy and public policy would be effective.
We have enough work to do here. Over the past five or six years the Seanad has met more often per year than the other House. The individual contribution of the average Senator is probably more substantive than that of the average backbench Deputy. I do not use the word average as a judgment of the quality of the speakers. We complain that we do not receive sufficient public profile and media attention, but we do not live in a perfect world and we must expect and accept that the other House will always be the focus of greater political attention.
I would like to see some simple measures introduced such as allowing Ministers to come here to answer questions, be they oral or written. We are all Members of the Oireachtas, whether elected to the Dáil or the Seanad, and should all be entitled to the same level of response from Ministers. This report provides the bones of proposals which can in some cases be introduced gradually to make the work of the House more effective. The document is a substantive response to the submissions from members of all parties in the House. However, I have been around long enough, and was fortunate to be a Member of the Seanad in the late 1980s, to expect no miracles in regard to the electoral system, but we can make genuine progress in the way we do our daily work.
The Seanad has made a significant contribution to political life. Sometimes when we review our role as politicians, whether as Senators, Deputies or Ministers, we can be too critical. We should reflect on the development of the country in the past 50 or 60 years. It has matured politically, grown economically and loosened itself up socially. Many people have got it right including many Oireachtas Members and many of our institutions have not been too wrong. We could do with a little less self-flagellation. Everybody elected here under whatever system does his or her best and contributes to parliamentary democracy and to the life of the people. We would all like to have a designated cine-channel that our constituents were forced to watch 24 hours a day, but that is not going to happen. We should try to get on with the job we are elected to do and expand our policy role a little more in so far as possible. The idea of changing the electoral system totally on the basis that the people would become highly excited at directly electing a portion of the Seanad might be a little unrealistic.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for listening to my meandering thoughts. My current tenure in the House reinforces what struck me during my first term here, namely, that the House and its Members do a good job on behalf of the people. In politics one can never expect the sort of recognition that one believes one deserves whether as an individual Member or as a member of a group. Since its inception this House has served the people well in a calm, considered fashion. We should approach change cautiously because the Seanad does not need too dramatic an overhaul.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him well for the next two years in office. I agree with Senator Bradford that too drastic changes would be dangerous. This Chamber has served the public very well. This is my third term in the Seanad and my father and brother also served here. Over the years my family has made a significant contribution to this House and we acknowledge its worth and how it has worked. There are, however, areas in which it can improve. My submission to this report was divided into two areas — the composition and the function of the Seanad.
The composition is made up of 43 elected Members from the county and city councils, the university panel and the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees. To understand how we are elected one must consider the five vocational panels. We could look at how those panels operate. Perhaps they should be updated and the criteria for becoming a nominating panel reviewed and revisited. There could be a combination of those panels and I wonder what criteria are used to form a nominating body. I would have no difficulty with examining that aspect.
In my submission I said there is ongoing confusion among the electorate, the county and city councillors, about the significance of and the advantage for a candidate of being on an inside or outside panel. When I canvass this becomes a problem and I have to explain that I am on an outside panel because I am nominated by a nominating body as opposed to the Oireachtas panel. The confusion arises on the question of whether one scores over the other. It is difficult to explain this to the electorate when canvassing. I would like that confusion to be tidied up. Perhaps there should be a better system in that regard. We should all be nominated through the nominating bodies of the Oireachtas or a nominating panel but not inside or outside which raises confusion about the significance or advantages of one over the other.
I am opposed to the suggestion that there be new modes of electing Senators. We have a powerful democratic body of county and city councillors who know their jobs thoroughly. They were elected by the public and they know what is needed and have a good nose for who would do a good job in the Seanad among the 43 Members. There should be no dilution of the power bestowed upon county and city councillors who have done a good job since the foundation of the House.
Councillors also have knowledge of the people being put forward. I was elected from the Cultural and Educational Panel and I outlined my views to each county and city councillor in order that they would know where my interests lie in terms of regional and national policies. I reflect the views of county councillors who bring problems to my attention. There is nothing more democratic than that. The system we have is democracy at its best and is working well. There should be no dilution of the power of county councillors to elect Senators.
Perhaps we should revisit the question of the composition of the panels. We could consider combining a number of panels. Although I am happy with the university bloc, the franchise could perhaps be extended to everyone with a third level qualification and should not be exclusive to graduates of Trinity. The franchise should be extended to every person who qualifies with a degree from a third level institution. I do not believe there would be a problem with doing this as there appears to be a universal consensus in respect of it.
I have no difficulty with the Taoiseach’s nomination of a representative from the North of Ireland. However, I would not like too much representation from the North. We should have a united Ireland before the number of representatives from there is increased. When we have a united Ireland, representatives from the North can canvass for votes like the rest of us. I would not give them a hand out. I have no difficulty with there being a representative here but there should be no more than that. I would not be satisfied with a situation where there might be four or five representatives in the House from the North. When there is a united Ireland, I would support that notion but not before then.
I would like to see changes as regards the functions of the Seanad. We have already begun the process of change. For example, much legislation has been initiated in the current Seanad and its predecessor. It has become a very effective Chamber in which to debate the Committee and Report Stages of Bills. I would like this to be enhanced.
During the referendum on the Nice treaty, this Chamber was used quite regularly as a link with the public in terms of how to debate the issues which became controversial. That link must be enhanced. Members of the public still do not know enough about the Seanad. I am not saying there is hostility but there is an attitude of indifference to us. The media should give the Seanad a fair crack of the whip. The only coverage of our proceedings appears on “Oireachtas Report” and even then only the Order of Business is shown. If Members do not utter catchy soundbites or say something controversial, they will not get any coverage at all. Everyone naturally uses soundbites but I would like to think that my contributions are more constructive than that. However, if I do not use soundbites, I will not be given a chance and the public will not know that I exist.
The media should play a greater role in covering debates. Many good debates take place in this House in respect of various documents and reports that are published. We thrash out the issues but when one reads the newspaper the next day, one finds there is not one line of coverage. We have many fine speakers in the House who make substantial and constructive contributions but what they say is not covered by the media. We put a great amount of work into reflecting the views of members of the public and we spend much time reaching out to them. However, we need support from the media. Coverage of our proceedings is very poor.
We are starting a new term and I call for increased coverage of what happens here. This will allow us to communicate with the members of the public and take on board their views in terms of our role in vetting European legislation and directives initiated in Brussels. We are obliged to scrutinise such instruments and decide whether they are important or relevant in terms of what happens in this country. We have a monitoring role in respect of all the legislation initiated in Europe and the Seanad should play a major role in terms of linking, via consultation with our MEPS, with Brussels. The links to which I refer must be further enhanced. If we get matters right in that regard, we can move forward in terms of linking with the public.
The Seanad could also consult with lobby groups, particularly when legislation is being drafted. Let us consider, for example, the Disability Bill and the elements involved such as Comhairle, the strategy and the various areas of disability. There could be a consultation process within the Seanad in respect of such legislation in order to allow people to express their views. This would enable the proceedings of the Seanad to be opened up more to the public.
As Senator Bradford stated, we are doing a very good job, we work extremely hard and we reflect people’s views, be they national, regional or local in nature. The electorate keeps Members on their toes and it is seldom wrong in terms of deciding to put square pegs into round holes. Regardless of the way in which we entered the Seanad, we are all playing a major role in its workings. I want us to do our best to enhance that role in order to serve the public. The Seanad must be used to initiate more legislation and its role in linking with the European Union and the committees must be enhanced. Other than that, all I can say is that if it is not broken do not fix it.
The Seanad comes in for a certain amount of criticism from members of the public in terms of its relevance but the process we are undergoing is worthwhile. We need to raise people’s awareness of the work done by the Seanad. How best we can do this in terms of making our work relevant is what this debate is about. There are a number of good proposals contained in the report and I wish to refer to some of them.
One of the proposals in the report, to which Senator O’Toole referred yesterday, is that there should be more widespread consultation with interested groups. The Disability Bill is a good example to take in terms of considering how we can move forward. There was much consultation with the various advocacy groups in respect of the Bill’s preparation. However, it was not shown to those groups before it was published. It would be interesting for Members to hear from those groups and obtain their opinions on the contents of the Bill. I would welcome a system being put in place to allow a Second Stage debate on the contents of a Bill and then meet those groups to hear their opinions on how best to amend or improve the legislation. This would ensure that we pass the best legislation possible through consultation with the groups working on the ground, which we represent and whose members want the legislation to be user friendly and deliver the proper service. This would make our work more relevant and worthwhile.
During the consultation process I said that I would like to see a Question Time in this House similar to the system in the Dáil to allow us to raise issues on a daily basis with the relevant Ministers. This would be very helpful to Senators.
To improve our profile it would be extremely helpful for this House to scrutinise draft EU legislation and EU legislation already implemented to determine how well it is working and whether Ireland is in compliance with all EU directives, etc. On many occasions the authorities in Europe have advised that we are not fully complying with such legislation. That duty would make our work very relevant. While the work at the moment is carried out in the committees, it could be done more fruitfully if such a structure were established here and provided time to prepare for and scrutinise the legislation.
We are increasingly influenced by and interlinked with our European partners and this House could deal more fully with European issues. Earlier this year we welcomed MEPs to address the House, which was very successful. Our MEPs should be statutorily obliged to come to the House at least on an annual basis to outline their work. This would give us an opportunity to put our views to them on how best we feel they could be working. We could question them and make other points that would be of value to the MEPs. This would also help to make us more relevant.
To increase the profile of Members of this House and make us more relevant to the public we should be allowed to scrutinise Departments on their performances. This has come to light with the publication of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General in recent days, which highlighted issues such as the problems with speed cameras. I was amazed to hear the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform say on radio that he did not know about those problems. If we had the opportunity to monitor how well a Department was doing it would make us very relevant in terms of keeping an eye on what is happening in various Departments, State agencies and semi-State companies. I would like to see the senior management teams appear before us so that we could question them on the progress or otherwise of their Departments.
On the make up of the Seanad, I support the recommendation of the committee that we should have directly elected Senators. I believe it was proposed there should be 26 such Members — the number could be discussed more fully at a later date. We could be more relevant to the public if they were to elect some Senators, while still having local authority members and outgoing Deputies and Senators electing a large number of Senators. That must be retained. We have a very close link with the local authority members and now that Senators and Deputies can no longer be members of such authorities, retaining that link is vital.
I ask the Minister to consider how emigrants can be represented here. As he is probably aware, Senator Higgins has proposed to the Taoiseach that in the event of his vacating his Seanad seat, he could be replaced by an emigrant. Emigrants have expressed interest in being represented here. We have had a very good debate on our emigrants abroad. Many of them had to leave and went all over the world, particularly to the UK. They helped to build roads, bridges and railways. In their later years they find themselves in pretty awful conditions. From the debate we had here it is clear the majority of Senators have a great empathy with them and would like to improve their lot. Having a representative here to keep their views on the agenda would be worthwhile and would be recognised by the public.
As is the case with the Dáil, considerably more television coverage of proceedings in the House should be broadcast. When I travel to the US I can see the local council proceedings on television and the same is true of their legislature. This would make us more open and transparent to the public. While “Oireachtas Report” has a considerable viewing public, it is mainly watched by those involved in politics. However, its biggest problem is that it is broadcast so late at night. Considerably more people would watch it if it were broadcast earlier in the evening. Television coverage should be broadcast during our proceedings, which would allow the public to know what we are doing by hearing the debates and help them to make up their minds as to how we perform.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I dtosach, is mian liom fáiltiú roimh an tuarascáil seo. Is mian liom freisin na daoine a chuaigh i mbun na hoibre a mholadh. Tá sár jab déanta acu. Tá sé soiléir freisin go raibh modus operandi ann a bhí an-oscailte, an-fhairsing agus an-éifeachtach. Is mór an cabhair é dúinn agus táimid go mór faoi chomaoin, ní amháin ag na daoine a bhí ar an gcoiste ach ag na daoine a chur aighneachtaí isteach freisin. Táimid an-bhuíoch ar fad de gach duine.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to the House. I congratulate him on his re-appointment and wish him well in the future. He has done a magnificent job in the past in a very challenging area. The concern and compassion he has shown to vulnerable people is something I like to see in public life. I wish him well in the future.
I compliment those who put so much time and effort into making this transparent report available to the Seanad. It is obvious that many people engaged in the process. I accept that we have had discussions, debates and reports on Seanad reform in the past, but we have to start from the premise that it will be successful and effective on this occasion. I am sure most Senators have had a difficult time making contributions on this subject, for the simple reason that we probably have a vested interest in Seanad reform. It is possible that the implementation of the report, or part of its implementation, will impact on our electoral prospects in the future. It could also impact on our role and the perception of the Seanad and the part it plays in parliamentary democracy. Having said that, all Senators are clear in their desire to make a sincere contribution to this debate.
A number of things have come across to me in a forceful manner during my time in the Seanad. There is quite a gap between perception and reality in the public view of the Seanad, but it is improving and it is possible that the reality is coming centre stage. I give credit to RTE, particularly “Oireachtas Report”, for that. When debates are broadcast to the public, people can see the standard of debate in the House. It is evident that quite an amount of research is done by Senators, many of whom take independent views, irrespective of political affiliation. I do not mean to be derogatory when I say that personalities are not to the fore in our debates to the same extent as they are in the Dáil. Senators tend to focus on the business in hand. We receive a fair degree of credit from the media and the public in that regard.
It is interesting to note that few people suggested in their submissions that the Seanad should disappear from the parliamentary democratic process. It is good that people feel that the Seanad should be retained. It is also right that we should adopt an incisive approach to deciding what should and should not be changed. It is easy to make changes for the sake of change, but one often discovers afterwards that the devil one knew was better than the devil one did not know. I would like to put my remarks in context for that reason.
I genuinely believe that the Seanad has served us well, although I accept that Senators have a vested interest in saying so. It is not a place where those who want to go to the Dáil mark time, or a reward for others. There is great cut and thrust in the House from time to time. Many Senators are passionate and determined about the subjects discussed in the House. It would be wrong to categorise the House as a rest home.
Many Bills — over 30 in one session — have been initiated in the House. They have been exceptionally well debated, as have the Bills which have come to the House from the Dáil. Many amendments have originated in the House. Many Bills have been set aside or delayed as a result of something that has come forward in the Seanad. That has to be an important contribution.
I do not accept that the election of the Seanad has been the source of democratic weakness, an argument which is sometimes made by those who engage in the false characterisation of local authority members. I support Senator O’Toole’s assertion that other assemblies use a particular stepping stone of election, which is exactly what happens in the case of the Seanad. Local authority members, who are elected following a severe process, face difficulties because they are at the coalface. When they come through that challenge, they have been filtered through an examinations system which is not found in any other electoral process. When local authority members vote in Seanad elections — I am not talking about the university elections — they participate in another system to elect us. They comprise our constituency and we are elected by the people through them. I would not like that to be tampered with in any major way.
Those who have proposed a list system of election have not told us how such lists are put in place and have not outlined how such lists can be said to be transparent. They have not clarified the degree to which one might need to be in favour to get on a list. I would be worried about such a system. We will not be made aware of its lack of transparency until it starts to operate. I do not think we should tamper with the other system. I agree that all third level institutions should be brought into the franchise for graduates — that is the right thing to do.
I wish to consider the role the Seanad can play in the future. I would like to suggest a new role which would not require a change to the Constitution, but to Standing Orders. I have to be careful because the Leas-Chathaoirleach is familiar with the mechanisms which are used. On the Order of Business each morning, for example, one has to try to avoid the malign eye, if that is the case, of the Cathaoirleach. One has to get a benign eye if one wishes to sneak something in under the Order of Business. One has to be tight in one’s contributions. There is a degree of panic, generally speaking, among those who fear that the Cathaoirleach will interrupt them. I propose that a couple of hours be set aside every day for dealing with day-to-day and urgent matters. We have dealt with issues such as Iraq, crises in the Third World and racist attacks on unfortunate immigrants when such issues needed to be dealt with urgently. The Seanad would be thanked if it had such a role.
We know that sensitivity applies in many other areas. The Seanad could play a particularly effective and sensitive role in dealing with the Northern situation, for example. It is far better that we should talk to each other than at each other. There is a significant difference between the panic or sensational headlines in the media and the personal dialogue many Senators have with people of different traditions in the North from time to time. I had the pleasure of serving as chairman of a particular body of which the late Sir Robert Kidd was vice-chairman. Sir Robert was the chairman of the Northern Ireland civil service when the secretary was the famous Paddy “Bogside” Doherty. It was a rare mixture and yet we found that we could work together, respected each other and became great friends.
Let us bring that to another stage, that of the legislative area. I do not mean tokenism but there should be people here, perhaps through the nominations of the Taoiseach. I do not think that it can be done in an electoral manner in the immediate future, since it will be difficult to achieve representation in a sensitive situation. However, I know that the different players would be particularly pleased to participate in a more subtle manner in providing people for this House. Consider the types of debates we have had. On the Order of Business this morning, we requested a debate on Northern Ireland because we felt that there had been a long vacuum and we were awaiting developments. Incidentally, it is great news that Dr. Ian Paisley and the DUP representatives are coming to Dublin. That is major progress, and we ignore how much has been made in the last 20 or 25 years. We could give substance to that if we had people representing both traditions here with us.
The other area I would like brought centre stage is that of Europe. The vast majority of people do not relate to it. I do not mean “Europe” as a continent, but the European institutions. Probably people relate far more to America or Britain. One reason is that we do not seem to have a continuous flow of information or interaction between us. I see no reason in the world that MEPs should not regularly attend not just to address us, as they have done, but to interact with us in debate. I know that we get all the documents passed on to us. However, as Senator MacSharry said this morning, how is one to read through those and how relevant are they?
I see that I am getting a little nod. I may be being unfair to Senator Feeney, since I promised that I would share time with her. However, my first point is that there are many suggestions in that report on which we should act. Second, we should not do something because it is politically correct or might in some way satisfy the media. We should act as legislators of real conviction who want to get the best out of the current system. As I had already complimented the previous Minister of State, I would like to avail of the opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, and congratulate her most sincerely, wish her well for the future and thank her for all the good work she has done hitherto.
I feel a little inadequate as a new Senator. I do not like to say “young”, since I am not that. I have been here only two years, but I am speaking about Seanad reform. I am still finding my way. There are still days when I come in and ask questions regarding what is going on and how the system works. However, I left it until quite late in the debate to contribute. I am giving myself a little tap on the back since I listened to the more experienced Seanadóirí. They have all voiced the same type of issues that I picked out of the report. I must be good — at least as good as them and I always have the height of respect and admiration for them.
When it came to looking at the report, I took it away with me on holiday. I had one or two days in the sun and flicked through it, making little comments and annotating it. When I summed it all up, I thought to myself that it was a very good system. However, it occurred to me that I would say that, having been elected through it. If I may be very personal and honest, I would be afraid of how I might fare if the system were changed. I want to be back here after the next election.
However, when I considered the system, it seemed to me that there was not a great deal wrong with it. It has served us well since 1937. It is a complicated system and I say that as someone who has come through the election process to get into Seanad Éireann. However, as a member of the public before my election, I never really understood the system, all the bodies, or the difference between the inside and outside panels. It was not really until I decided to run for Seanad Éireann that I got my head around it. It seemed too complicated to waste time getting one’s head around.
I should have said at the outset that I thank and compliment the authors of the report, who are all our colleagues in this House. They put in a great deal of time. I believe that this time last year they gave over almost an entire month to it. I sat in on some of the deliberations, since my nominating body was very anxious to make its own submission, which it did. It is a complex system. The report, if implemented regarding getting people elected or appointed to Seanad Éireann, will make it more complex.
I am saddened that it would somewhat reduce the role of the councillor and create further centralisation of political power and influence. As Senator Ó Murchú pointed out, we should never underestimate the closeness of our county, city, town and urban councillors to our shared electorate. We should not deny them, with the dual mandate gone, the right to determine part of the membership of one House of the Oireachtas. I would hate to see the role of the county councillor diminished in that way.
I am glad that others have raised the list system, since I was in two minds. As a young Senator, one wonders whether one is saying the right thing or will bring the wrath of the political powers down on top of one if one says that one disagrees with such a system. However, I do not agree with it, just as I do not agree with its use in those countries which have it. It would bring more cynicism into the political parties in both Houses. One would have 20 people going forward on a list, with the party deciding who were the best people. That is undemocratic and unfair. I would hate to see a list system come into play.
I suppose that I am a little critical of the university system. Out of a small Chamber of 60 Members, it is a little selfish that six of them are from such panels, although I respect and admire the six colleagues here. It is a shame when third level education is so widespread and everyone has access to it. It is not only NUI but institutes of technology and whatever other third level institutions may come under that umbrella. I would keep the six seats, but we should widen the electoral base. On the question of outside and inside panels and whether seats should be reserved, it is grossly unfair and I have always thought so. I listened to the Acting Chairman’s contribution earlier this morning, and I say this not because he said it, but the system should be first past the post. We all get into our cars and roam the country from morning to night. By the time one is in the fifth week, one is almost deranged. One lives on a bottle of water, an odd bar of chocolate and an apple. If people say “Hello” and smile, one almost questions why they are smiling. Are they supporting someone else? It is a horrible system. For those who take it on, it should be a case of “first past the post” rather than the current system. I hope that area will be looked at and perhaps changed.
Where can we improve? The system works very well. I would not like to see a radical overhaul but there are areas where it could be improved. When I was campaigning I talked about EU legislation. Whether we like it or admit it, many people continue to view EU legislation as foreign policy. This House has bright minds and intellects. If more complex EU issues were discussed in this House, and more television coverage were brought to people’s homes at a reasonable hour, Seanad Éireann would become more productive and more noticeable, and be perceived to be working better, but we would also be educating people who feel lost.
I will outline my own position regarding the Seanad. I did not originally have a clear view of what the Seanad or Senators do. Five years ago I was elected to Roscommon County Council and even then was not sure of the role or mandate of a councillor in the political process. I have learned a lot in the past few years.
To be elected to a corporation, to a local or urban council, is a significant achievement. One has the trust of the people in one’s ability, integrity and capabilities of delivering results. When elected, one is appointed to many different boards. At one stage I was chairperson of Roscommon VEC. I saw the complexities of the education system and how many education providers had a vocation or a commitment to ensuring the best possible education was provided to students. I was on the Roscommon County Enterprise Board and was also fortunate to work with volunteers committed to ensuring that any industry or local person starting out would be helped with expertise or employment grants which would foster the business and help it grow, so that employment would be created in the county.
I also served on the Western Regional Authority, where I met many councillors from different political parties. There was a great way of working together on regional issues such as water quality, road and transport and rail freight. That was a major plus. I also worked with the adult education board and I pay tribute to the amount of energy it put into adult education. Although there are some issues in that area with which one might not be entirely happy, matters have improved in the past ten years. Adult education is an area to which we must give more resources.
I was on other committees, including special policy committees of the county council and so on. One then wonders how a Senator can be a county council member, sit on a VEC, a county enterprise or adult education board among many others, and then find time for the Seanad. It cannot be done. When I was elected to the Seanad I was fortunate that the county councillors around the country put their faith in me to represent in this forum their interests and those of the people. I was fortunate that one of the nominating bodies, the Irish Kidney Association, took the time to nominate me. I had an interest in its work and have worked closely with the association since my election to the Seanad.
I have some difficulty regarding the nominating bodies. Senators act as a conduit to all the nominating bodies in the country. If, for example, the Irish Kidney Association has difficulties it can use me, through my good offices, perhaps to contact the Minister for Health and Children to raise an issue, whether serious or sensitive. It is regrettable that some of the nominating bodies do not use this facility to the optimum.
There are more than 1,000 county councillors in the country, many with far more expertise than I had. Some have 30 or 40 years’ experience and genuinely represent the grassroots. I spent two most enjoyable months travelling around the country. I was in every town and village and met many would-be Senators on the trail. It should almost be compulsory for any would-be elected representative to go around the country and meet people from the particular party. One gets a view of where the party is heading and what is happening in the political system, from independent councillors and even from councillors in opposing parties. We can bring out reports and set up think tanks but there is nothing to replace the bond or liaison created when one sits in a county councillor’s kitchen for half an hour and explains why one is the best candidate. The councillors will tell one what is wrong with the party or with the political system.
I am very keen to retain that system. For example, I raised certain issues with my party leader in Fine Gael. I realised, for example, that there was a strong republican tradition in Fine Gael which was still evident among the councillors. One does not realise such truths until one sits in someone’s home. Any would-be Senator or Deputy should be sent around the country for two months in every five years, and meet the people who should make the decisions, the people who matter, namely, the councillors who represent the people.
I suppose I should welcome the end of the dual mandate although I would prefer to be on the county council or the VEC. However, it is good legislation. I have more time to attend the House to deal with the issues I was elected to address. If I must deal with mental health legislation or legislation relevant to the health boards, I now have time to research and debate and to put across a measured argument. This was not previously possible as I was too busy attending meetings around the country. A great future for the Seanad is now possible because Members do not have to sit on local boards but have the time and resources to make the House a meaningful forum. I am not saying it was not meaningful in the past. Debate in the House since the foundation of the State was of the highest quality. However, as Members had other interests, the people did not think the Seanad was as meaningful as it could be.
I welcome the fact that more legislation is coming before the Seanad. The Dáil cannot deal with the amount of legislation before it and it is welcome that this House can debate it in a more comfortable and measured environment. While party politics will always have its place here, it enters Seanad debate far less than Dáil debate. The House is an ideal forum for debating legislation.
There should be representation for emigrants. My uncle from the west recently told me that of his school class of the late 1940s, almost 95% emigrated. How could Ireland move on when the brightest, best and most liberal emigrated to London, New York, Sydney and elsewhere? We must have some link with the emigrant population. While they visited for Christmas or at other times, their views have never been articulated since they took the boat from this country. If they had been able to return in the 1960s, we would have had the Celtic tiger in the years following. We would not have had to suffer the continued blight of emigration and would have had a more enlightened, liberal and multicultural society if our emigrants had been allowed to participate in the democratic system.
There should be much greater emigrant representation in the Seanad and perhaps in the Dáil also. We are talking about the diaspora who we tend to forget, although we remember them on St. Patrick’s Day when we tell them what a great job they are doing. However, through the Internet many emigrants know much more about the legislative process in Ireland. They have a meaningful contribution to make to the Seanad and they should be represented.
I welcome the suggestion that the Taoiseach should nominate 12 Members, including two from each tradition in Northern Ireland. Today is significant in that two members of the Democratic Unionist Party are visiting to debate and open talks. I am not concerned with the content of the talks but it is monumental that they are taking place. Governments over the past 15 years have made a significant contribution in this regard by inviting a nominee from Northern Ireland. At present, Senator Maurice Hayes represents one tradition and the other tradition was also represented. This is welcome and should continue.
I am delighted with the suggestion that the Leader should be entitled to attend Cabinet meetings with the rank of Minister or Minister of State. We have much time for the current Leader who is doing an excellent job. I would like to see the Leader representing the interests of the House and the country at the Cabinet. It is a positive suggestion and not one to be feared. The Seanad would receive new responsibilities and would also be able to inspect the work of the North-South bodies. People are appointed to various forums and committees but we never see the fruits of their works. I am sure that 99% of this work is valuable and the contributions meaningful. However, the House would like to inspect the work of such bodies and suggest improvements where necessary. Such bodies were allowed to comment on Seanad reform and we should be allowed to do likewise.
The House should also be able to review reports and Government programmes referred to it by the Dáil. County councillors represent their constituents but the Seanad has the cream of the local representative system. We should not be afraid to review reports and Government programmes.
The public image of the Seanad could be better. It is regarded as a staging post for politicians on their way to the Dáil or to retirement. However, it provides a forum for calm deliberation and provides analysis of many of the national issues. Senator Ó Murchú is correct that we had a heated but measured debate on the situation in Iraq. There should be more widespread consultation with the interested groups and Members can be used as a conduit in this regard.
I have mixed views on the suggestion that 50% of Members would be elected on the same day as European and local elections with the other 50% elected following a general election. We could have gone further by having 30% elected on a list system, a system I would prefer. However, we cannot take from the significant contribution of the grassroots and the expertise of county councillors.
I welcome this important and detailed report and pay tribute to the Leader and all involved in drawing it up. Some 11 reports were produced in the past 50 years but there has been virtually no reform. It is time to act. Members now have greater time and resources, including research officers, and we take our job seriously. This is an opportune time to make the Seanad more relevant. The quality of this debate has been exceptional and I welcome the reform process. I would also welcome an increase in the number of seats to 65. We are privileged to have the contribution of the university Members who add a certain level of debate and work closely with the council representatives.
It is somewhat ironic, given that it is Deputy de Valera who is here, that in discussing a Seanad reform document, the production of which took much time and effort by many people, we are discussing proposals to change a Seanad set up by her late grandfather. It is good to examine and debate what we are doing here and we will, I hope, be constructive in our comments. I assume that all comments on the debate have been constructive.
My reason for coming here to make a contribution is that I have difficulty in accepting some of the recommendations of the report, although there is some good in it as well. That is to be expected. I will deal first with a particular issue of concern relating to the system of election to Seanad Éireann. Why change it? Perhaps the Cathaoirleach would expect me to ask that, having been elected under that system, but that is not necessarily the reason I ask. I ask the question against the background of whether the system has served Seanad Éireann and the Legislature well. I conclude that it has. It is democratic and I know of no other form of election that would be more democratic. I have no reason to believe that the new system as proposed in the recommendations would be more democratic. I do not believe it would; it would be totally centrist. The suggestion that a political organisation, whether it is my political organisation or another, would determine who should be on the list is wrong.
The system we have, whereby Members of the Seanad are elected by Members of the other House, members of local authorities, corporations, etc., is a democratic system because all of those bodies are elected by the people. I expect there has been comment about the role of the county councillor and the local authority member in this election. We have approximately 960 local authority and county council members in the country at the moment. Each of those was elected by the people in his or her own electoral area and knows the people’s requirements. When we canvass during election campaigns we are put through the mill, whether we are on a vocational panel or on the Oireachtas panel. We are asked questions and if we are elected we are expected to live up to the answers we give. No other system is more democratic. Most democratic countries around the world have two Houses; only a few small countries do not. To do away with a democratic system that has stood the test of time begs certain questions.
If one evaluates either the vocational panel system or the Oireachtas system one will find they have selected good people. I was nominated by ICOS, the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, which embraces the totality of agriculture and has two nominations which many people seek, but which are not easy to come by. Historically the Seanad nominating bodies have selected good people. If I say that about myself, I hope I will be forgiven but that is the situation as I see it. Equally, perhaps there is a need to examine the vocational bodies as they are set up for nominating panels. Needs have evolved and changed. That aspect could be examined and I would not object to that.
Furthermore, in terms of inside and outside panels, I am on the outside while others are on the inside. The weighting of votes in the determination of where seats should go is unfair. We should have a straight system. Whoever is first past the post should be deemed elected. In the Constitution there is provision for Members of Seanad Éireann to be appointed to Government and this has been done on two occasions to the best of my knowledge. The late Senator Seán Moylan was appointed to the Cabinet by Éamon de Valera. Professor Jim Dooge was appointed to the Cabinet by former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald. I expect that if the need ever arose, that could be done again and that provision should be retained as it is currently enshrined.
I wish to say a few words on what I see as an expanding role for Seanad Éireann. Since 1937, systems have evolved. We have joined Europe which, to many people, is still a distant entity. We now have scrutiny of EU legislation in various committees. Perhaps Seanad Éireann could play a role in that area. In the recent past, various MEPs have addressed the House. They came in for 40 minutes and made a presentation. There should be more open dialogue, questions and answers.
The last issue on which I will comment, and I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence, is the evolving nature of this country’s role. The political climate is changing. In the past, we had a 26-county Republic and the Six Counties in the North were totally hostile. This morning and yesterday on the Order of Business, reference was made to the DUP’s Dr. Ian Paisley and his team coming here for the first time to meet Irish Government officials on official business. That is good. We have the cross-Border institutions which were set up under the Good Friday Agreement and we have set up many other structures. Dare I suggest there is a role for Seanad Éireann as an all-Ireland institution? I do not have answers but I have some thoughts on the issue. Dare I ask that Seanad Éireann become the first all-Ireland institution with elected, appointed or nominated Members representing communities in the Six Counties?
I long for an all-Ireland institution and a 32-county Republic. It is my wish to see this achieved before I pass over the great divide. I belong to the republican party which has as its philosophy a united Ireland by constitutional and peaceful means. Is there not a role for Seanad Éireann in this regard? I believe there is and we should apply ourselves to this rather than making cosmetic changes. Reference was rightly made to emigrant representation in the Seanad. However, if a role cannot be given to the people with whom we share the island, how can one be given to those emigrants in Australia, America and elsewhere?
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