Thursday, 22 October 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: On the issue of subsidiarity, section 7(3) provides that either House can adopt a resolution to prevent a particular EU legislative measure if it believes it is in breach of the principle of subsidiarity. The Seanad could have an independent role in this regard. If the proposed process of reform led to the House taking on a role scrutinising legislation without having to consult the Lower House, we could pass a resolution to block an EU measure if we believed it was in breach of the principle of subsidiarity. I welcome this important measure.
Senator Alex White: I welcome the passing of the Lisbon treaty by a large majority of 2 to 1, which was an excellent outcome. I congratulate the Minister of State and all the leading spokespersons who ran a much better campaign this time than on the previous occasion. The issues were ventilated more carefully and comprehensively, although the quality of debate, for which we all must take responsibility, on European affairs still leaves a lot to be desired. There were claims and counterclaims during the campaign and it was possible to make polar opposite claims about the same proposition in the treaty. How the two sides could have had polar opposite interpretations of the same measure frustrated many decent citizens who were genuinely troubled about what they should do.
For example, during a wet August day, I decided to go cycling and I stopped at a pub for a sandwich. A well informed, cultured lady in her 70s, who I would guess was a teacher, had also entered the pub. The woman behind the counter, who was also a farmer, asked the teacher how she should vote in the referendum. The teacher said, “Well, of course, you’ll vote for it. No question you’ll be voting ‘Yes’.” The women behind the counter contemplated this and said the teacher was probably right. However, she said that during the previous referendum campaign she attended a local IFA meeting where she was told she had to vote “No” because farmers would not get their payments unless they did so. She attended a similar meeting the week before I arrived in the pub and the same people said she had to vote “Yes” or she would not get her payments. I felt like leaning across to point out neither proposition was true. They were both equally untrue. This demonstrates that the quality of debate left a lot to be desired. It probably will be a long number of years before a treaty similar to this will be negotiated at this level but it is a lesson for us that we need public discussion while such treaties are being negotiated and not just at the time they are presented to the people as a fait accompli. The Minister of State will correctly point out that information was available and there was discussion. However, most people are not interested or do not have time to engage in the detail of treaties. They throw the document on their kitchen table a week before they decide to vote but they need time and the documents need an opportunity to breathe.
I refer to the measures relating to the involvement of the Oireachtas in the future. We do not know how many of them will work. They are set out in bald terms in the treaty but they must be made to work. They will not work on their own and, as Senator Cummins stated earlier, the flexibility needed in the Oireachtas should be addressed. We have been killing ourselves regarding our relevance and the relevance of the House in the past few days but there is a great deal of time wasting. I do not denigrate the Chamber but we do not need to do much of the stuff we do. We could, for example, wrestle with the detail of draft European directives.
Senator Alex White: It is not pretty. We have all had to examine European directives and other measures for different reasons. I have to struggle with them in another life. It is not exciting or entertaining and it is extremely difficult. We have bound ourselves to doing this work having passed the treaty. Senator Cummins is correct that we need to be better equipped. While I acknowledge these are tight times and the Houses will be unable to secure new resources, perhaps resources could be reoriented towards providing Members with the expertise to make proper judgments and to engage in productive analysis of directives and other measures passed by the EU in order that we can mediate them to the public and be part of assisting the public to understand and make up their minds about them. Senator Leyden fairly pointed out we should not fall into the trap early on of engaging in a partisan approach to these measures because, very often, they do not admit a partisan response. They need a different type of analysis.
The charter is at the heart of everything but it will need a great deal of support, with many people wanting to make it happen. It is a measure that can be invoked in the context of the European Union dealing with European matters and where institutions are dealing with issues that bear on a relatively limited number, although highly important, range of issues.
I hope the trade unions, for example, who see some hope in the charter, as I do, in regard to expanding employee and labour rights, use the charter, take the cases to court, perhaps lose them at lower levels but get to the European Court of Justice and have those battles. The only way to make a measure work is to invoke it and try to have law moulded in a way that suits one’s objectives.
In respect of the overall European project, we were too reticent, especially in the first Lisbon treaty referendum, in regard to getting on the highest step possible and arguing forcefully for the great project that is the European project. We allowed ourselves to be drawn very often into the detail, and I accept the detail is important, and not what is the incredible achievement of such enormous historic proportions and what it can be in the future.
I agree with those in other parties who have made the point regarding climate change, for example, which is the single biggest threat facing all of humanity. We are nothing on that issue if we do not work with other countries, for example, and our partners in the European Union. That is where the fight, the arguments and the compromise will have to take place. That is where we need to be, not just to get things from it but to make our historic and unique contribution to change at that level in the interests of the generations coming after us. It is that big of a project and that noble a challenge.
I congratulate all concerned with the “Yes” vote. It was not always clear that was the way it would go. I will wind up in deference to the time pressures, and I thank Senator Cummins for reminding the House that, unfortunately, this is not the first time we have ended up being squeezed, so to speak, but that is an issue for another day. I thank the Cathaoirleach and Senator Leyden for agreeing to extend the time. I will support the Bill on Second Stage.
The point Senator Cummins made about recess is a valid one and is one of the issues we must work through. We now have a blank canvass on which we can explore a much more meaningful role on the part of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Alex White that we must elevate the debate about Europe in this country. It must get away from the minutiae and the meaningless “Yes it does, no it doesn’t” exchange which is irritating, boring and drives people away. It must focus on the higher plain and the issues Senator Quinn touched on, which are the concerns about federalism.
The argument that has gone on in Europe for far too long about whether Europe is federalist or unitary is a nonsensical argument because Europe is an entirely different project. It is a remarkable project, and that is the sense I get from the last contribution. It is a project where 27 sovereign states pool small amounts of their sovereignty to achieve a greater purpose. What greater purpose could have been achieved in the second half of the 20th century than to create an area of peace? That is what was created, but all too frequently the value of that contribution is overlooked.
Senator Norris raised a concern, and I am glad Senator White touched on the issue of the charter, but in that respect I will mention one issue in the charter which I believe shows how uplifting this treaty is. It is not a prosaic piece of text. On the issue of non-discrimination, Article 21 states: “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.” It is extraordinary to aspire to a Europe where all people are equal.
At the outset the charter expresses the very essence of Europe and the perversity of some of the arguments that are made. Article 6 states that everybody has the right to liberty and the security of the person. Senator White is correct in that it is up to us to make the charter work. Article 1 states that human dignity is inviolable and must be respected and protected. We live in a Europe which is based on principles and which has been crafted by men and women who knew the horrors of war. We live in a Europe that has been built on solid foundations. I thank the Senators for the strong engagement in today’s debate and I regret that it could not have been a more extended one.
What we have seen in the 15 months between the first and the second Irish referendum is something magical. We have seen democracy at work in this nation where the people rendered a judgment in June of last year that shocked many of us and the Taoiseach, standing in Government Buildings, said that was the sovereign decision of the people. We may have wished it would have been otherwise but that is what bound us in our actions. We then took that decision to our European colleagues and partners and did they point the finger? No. Was there bullying? No. Was there hectoring? There was not. There was a respect that this was the voice of a sovereign people and it had to be listened to.
Shortly after the referendum President Sarkozy came here and while travelling to the French Embassy we had a private conversation on the issue of the Commissioner. There were many coherent arguments, and Senator Quinn made some of them, for having a smaller Commission but he said if that is what the Irish people have said is required, we must listen to the Irish people. This was such a different view of Europe from the view characterised on a poster, with three monkeys saying: “Won’t see you, won’t hear you, won’t speak for you.” That was so wrong. That is why I am pleased with the contribution made by Senator Alex White, and I do not say that in a patronising way. I agree with him that we must somehow or other elevate it.
Whatever the debates about what will happen in terms of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Members of the Oireachtas have a real role to play now. We can show the people that we are worth what we are paid and that we can deal with their cases. Whether it is the bog issue or an issue of some wider national importance, we can have real debates in both Houses and the pressure will be on us to make a coherent contribution.
On the issue of federalism, it is ironic that the debate did not deal with that issue because while some people see federalism as the way forward, we see it as a different way. The arrangements which have been made in Europe are the arrangements which accommodate both views.
The legal guarantees achieved were not just a triumph of Irish negotiations, as suggested in one of the British newspapers, or even a triumph of a government, although governments like to claim triumphs, they were a triumph of the Irish people. When we did the analysis last year we identified clear strands in the Irish people’s decision in June 2008 and we took those concerns to our European partners. They listened to those concerns and responded in a way that allowed people who voted “No” on the previous occasion to change their view, as we have heard from Members of this House.
I thank the Members of the House. I regret I have to withdraw from the balance of the debate. The Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, will replace me. I extend a heartfelt thanks to all the Members of this House for their kindness and their comments but, most importantly, for their support for this project.
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