Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, to the House and I welcome this debate. The motion is a clear, succinct and unequivocal request. As we were aware before the last election, both Fine Gael and Labour called in their election manifestos for the abolition of the Seanad and their suggestion was that this would be done within 100 days, which obviously has not happened. In this instance, we must make it very clear that all parties, including my own party, Fianna Fáil, have the position that there is a need for Seanad reform.
The questions one should pose are as follows. Does Ireland need an Upper House? In my view, it does. Does the current cost of the Seanad justify its retention? I believe it does. Despite rumours to the contrary, the overall cost of running the Seanad according to information from the Oireachtas Library and Research Service is approximately €9 million per annum, which could be improved on. What should Seanad Éireann do and how should it be elected? All of these issues have to be considered.
With regard to whether Ireland needs an Upper House, Bunreacht na hÉireann was introduced in 1937 and the Seanad has served this country very well since then. Irish democracy is built on the organs of State and the separation of powers. We have the Judiciary and the Executive and there is a need for the operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas — the Dáil and the Seanad — to be examined. If reform of any of those bodies is needed, the most obvious and first port of call should be the Dáil itself. The Dáil is cumbersome and has a committee system that, while it was intended to be of benefit to democracy, is in fact unworkable at present because the committees are very large and unwieldy, despite recent changes.
The other point that should be put on record is that the Legislature is currently under the control of a Government with a very large Dáil majority which is unprecedented in the history of the State. There is a widespread recognition that in order to improve our democracy we need to have a stronger Legislature that can hold the Government to account. At present in Ireland, the Legislature does not hold the Government to account. In fact, on recent issues, were it not for the Seanad, the majority is so large in the other House it would be almost undemocratic.
Seanad Éireann slows down Governments. Irish Governments, particularly those supported by large Dáil majorities, can effectively steer through whatever measure they wish. In the current situation, without the Seanad, the huge majority of the Government parties in the Dáil could bulldoze through whatever legislation they require.
Irish politics is dominated by parochial issues. It is ludicrous that Deputies should be sent from all parts of Ireland to represent their constituencies by having a focus on local, parish pump politics, which is an ongoing, festering issue. Recently, a particular issue in a west Cork town was being dealt with by every member of the town council and every county councillor and Oireachtas representative in the electoral area, amounting to 23 people. It is wrong, be it in relation to planning or other issues, that every engineer, architect and public servant is being engaged with in a plethora of correspondence from Deputies, councillors and so on. The proposal to reduce Dáil representation from 166 to 158 seats is only tethering around the edges of the problem. It will not resolve it.
With regard to the operational cost of the Seanad the Taoiseach may have given the impression, not deliberately but mischievously, that the operational cost of the Seanad is approximately €18 million or €19 million per annum. As I have already stated, the correct figure is closer to €9 million. Fianna Fáil believes that the number of Senators should be reduced by at least ten and that Senators should be paid an annual salary of, say, €50,000. A reduction in the number of Senators and their salaries would result in an approximately €2.5 million saving to the Exchequer. Also, Senators should be required to vouch for expenses, an issue which we have looked at but in respect of which we have never grasped the nettle, and should devote themselves fully to their job as Senators. I believe that the Seanad should sit normal working hours Monday to Friday rather than on a part-time basis, which allows Members to hold other jobs.
Another important matter is what Seanad Éireann should discuss. In my view, we are now dominated by Europe. Current issues of concern include the influence of Germany in our economy, the problem with the eurozone and the financial difficulties being experienced by Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. As I understand it almost 70% of all legislation currently passed by the Oireachtas is initiated in Europe, either by way of directive or indirectly. There is not enough scrutiny of European legislation. A reformed Seanad could take up the mantle of scrutinising European directives. Currently this work is done by various committees. I was once told by a senior clerk in the Oireachtas that this is done on a need to know basis. In other words, if, say, the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht is required to scrutinise particular measures from Europe these are simply landed in front of it. There is no cohesion between the various Departments in regard to what is coming down the track, which is totally unacceptable.
I also believe that a reformed Seanad should play a greater role in the development of cross-Border relations. It should be inclusive of representation from Northern Ireland. We all live on the one island and it should be written in stone that both communities in Northern Ireland be represented in a new Seanad. I hope that during my lifetime we will aspire to a united Ireland. There should be more integration on issues across our communities including, health, fishing, farming, the environment and so on. Also, Seanad Éireann should be given the specific power to assess, on a regular basis, the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement by this jurisdiction. Time limits should be imposed on speakers, the reading of speeches should be prohibited and time should be allocated to debate issues currently affecting citizens, as is currently the case in the Dáil.
Seanad Éireann should be given the specific job of assessing our obligations under the many international treaties to which we have signed up and this should be done on a rotating basis to ensure we know what we are doing. I believe the public consultation process initiated by the Leader, Senator Cummins, should be further developed so that the citizens of this country, particular groups, minority groups of citizens and so on would have the right to bring acute issues affecting their lives before this House. In my view, Seanad Éireann should be in a position to vet all major State appointments by the Government and there should be a requirement that any recommendation by the Seanad on any such appointment must be taken into consideration by the Government. An issue arose recently in regard to the propriety of a senior appointee to the European Union. A cross-party committee of the Seanad could fulfil such a role.
Fianna Fáil recommends that at the very minimum the current constitutional convention should review the Seanad. It is abominable that that convention is proceeding without taking cognisance of the role of Seanad Éireann, which is an important plank in our Legislature. Former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, for whom I have enormous respect, established the committee on the Constitution in 1997 chaired by former Deputy Jim O’Keeffe from west Cork. That committee considered many issues and was subsequently chaired by the late Deputy Brian Lenihan. I later chaired the committee from 2002 to 2007. The committee dealt with many issues and produced 11 reports, some of which have never been acted upon. It would be more appropriate that the Government act on already completed constitutional reform work rather than on the knee-jerk political proposal to abolish the Seanad, which is a ludicrous proposal. As stated in the motion, the constitutional convention should deal with the issue first and foremost.
Senator David Norris: I am happy and honoured to second the motion. It is appropriate that we are taking it now. This was a victory for democracy in the House today, which is rare and unusual. I compliment all those who had the courage to vote in favour of democracy. What is being done against this House is a serious matter. Also, it is being done by someone who has never been a Member of this House. I do not recall ever seeing him in this House. Perhaps he did flit in once or twice.
There is a nasty odour emanating from this Chamber, a bit of a whiff reminiscent of what happened in the House of Lords about 200 years ago in terms of placemen, peerages, advantages and preferment. I wonder if some day history will not show that this type of thing has been going on here also. There is no question but that there is some degree of collaboration on the Government side in regard to the winding down of the Seanad. It is seen in all kinds of ways, including the absence of the ordering of business and Private Members’ time. As the longest serving continuous Member of this House, I very much resent this. It is a serious step to lock-off one limb of democracy. It is not something that should be done on a whim as a brainstorm in front of a television camera. It was ill-thought out and there was no consultation on the matter with the Cathaoirleach or Leader of this House or with the Taoiseach’s Cabinet colleagues. It came out suddenly and the justification given was that it was financial. What rubbish. It was an insult to anybody’s intelligence but the voters are not stupid, they are quite canny. They were frightened into voting for the recent fiscal treaty. They knew there were risks, so they judged matters and made their decision, which we must honour and respect. By God, however, they have been given a free kick. I believe that if this referendum is put to the people, they will reject it because there are plenty of people who respect the Seanad. Regardless of that, all the people whom the Government has alienated will come out. I will be out too and will be campaigning on this matter. I will ensure that no sore is left unscratched because we have to have democracy.
There are decent, honourable, good people on all sides of the House who are called to politics as a vocation. However, we are in an unprecedented situation where every single lever of power in this land is in the hands of the Coalition. Thank God we have a decent and independent-minded President, but what if it were different? He was a member of the Labour Party but presumably he has withdrawn his membership since being elected. We are so lucky to have a man of that calibre.
Senator David Norris: It is important from a democratic point of view that this House remains a dissenting voice, particularly because we face these economic problems. I sit on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, of which I was a founder member with our current President Michael D. Higgins. He was a Member of this House as was W.B. Yeats and another President, Mary Robinson. As we sit here, a Bill introduced by my colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn, is going through the Dáil. That is how useful Seanad Éireann is.
I have produced social legislation that was revolutionary and while the Government eventually took it over, it was initiated in this House. Every single Member on the Independent benches has produced legislation, which has had an impact. In fact, one could say we have had more of an impact in proportion to our size and the way we are resourced, than Dáil Éireann which is simply full of voting fodder.
I came into the House 25 years ago on a slogan of reform. My slogan was: “Vote No. 1 Norris for an end to the quiet life in the Seanad.” I think I have delivered on that whatever people might think about it. Ten years earlier, in 1977, I also coined the phrase that the Seanad was in danger of becoming the intensive care unit of the Dáil. I know there are flaws in it, but I also know they can be rectified, and so does every single Member of this House. We will not act on it, however, and why not? It is because there is a lot of hypocrisy and laziness in establishment circles.
The Cathaoirleach and the Leader know that on numerous occasions in the past I have tabled all-party resolutions — agreed by every single party in this House — concerning reform of the Seanad, yet Governments of whatever hue routinely vote their own proposals down. That is how serious they were about the reform of Seanad Éireann.
Senator O’Donovan, who has had a distinguished career in this House, said that other reforms were proposed as well. The Government should be ashamed to make such a farce of an alleged consultation with the people — a convention that does not address the real issues, but avoids them and talks about reducing the voting age. The latter point is significant but it is not earth-shattering. It also seeks to reduce the term of the Presidency. I am glad the Government received my letter at last because I wrote it about 20 years ago. It has taken a long time for that particular penny to drop, but it is not of huge significance. If the Government is going to look at the Presidency, what is it afraid of? Why is it so hypocritical? It should consider its own 1998 report which said — as did every single party — that the nomination process for the highest office in the land was undemocratic and unfair. The former Deputy, Jim O’Keeffe, produced a Fine Gael Bill on the matter. However, when something that was not even quite as tough as that was produced within the last few months by Deputy Catherine Murphy, who is a decent woman, the Government voted it down. Therefore let us tear away this figleaf that the Government is interested in reform, because it is not. It is interested in power. I am glad that a professor from Trinity College is coming in here to give a talk about power. It was Acton who said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I would hate to see it happening to the Government.
We have a very difficult economic situation and it is precisely in those situations that human rights get pushed down the ladder. That is where I see this House doing more than talking about European law. This is one forum where we have never avoided human rights issues; we have consistently brought them up. While the other House is dealing with economic affairs, as it is charged to do, and we are restricted in our capacity to deal with such affairs by the Constitution, we can deal with human rights.
We all know that reforms are needed because we are unrepresentative. I acknowledge that the university seats need reform, but we are probably the most democratic element of the whole House. Some 55,000 Dublin University constituents are eligible to vote and in my case they are quite independent-minded. I think the electorate is approximately 95,000 or 100,000 in the NUI constituency. Those are real constituencies. They should be broadened but the Government should look at the beam in its own eye. The Taoiseach’s selection of his 11 seats was visionary, although he may live to regret it. They are independent-minded people. Those 11 seats are filled without any pretence of an election. The last election to be held was a by-election in which 237 votes were cast. For public consumption to gull the people, those votes have to be multiplied by 1,000 and the newspapers collaborate with this. Therefore, if somebody gets 97.3 votes, we are told they got 97,300 but it is a farce.
We need to look carefully at the nominating bodies to ensure they do not represent the current antiquated groups, but that they are spread out to represent the whole variety of Irish life — intellectual, academic, working, nursing, teaching and others. We must then do the critical thing which is to liberate the voter, giving ordinary members of the public the vote. We will then not duplicate the Dáil. If the Seanad was just the “son” of Dáil Éireann there would be no point in it, but there is a point in having something that is different and can bring in a different expertise. It can, for example, bring in medical expertise, as we have seen with the professor of oncology, Senator Crown. We have also seen Senator Feargal Quinn who is an extraordinarily successful businessman. In addition, Senator Denis O’Donovan is constantly talking about the fishing industry, while Senator Fiach Mac Conghail talks about the arts with such passion. I will not name any more Senators because it would just become invidious and be a waste of time. Nonetheless, in this instance, we have a real possibility to undertake reform if we have the courage to do so.
In order to reform Seanad Éireann, it must be included in the constitutional convention, otherwise it is a farce. The Government must also include the Presidency, otherwise its cover will be blown and we will know we were right to suspect what was going on. It is a dangerous exercise. I protested when, at the beginning of the awful economic difficulties, instead of addressing financial problems, the previous Government, led by Fianna Fáil, silenced every organ or group, from Combat Poverty to the Equality Agency, that spoke out on behalf of marginalised people.
It is the same system now in that the Government is silencing one of the last critical voices. Seanad Éireann was established in 1922 to give a voice to people who thought they might have no voice in the new State — those of a dissenting religion — and it was successful. It was abolished by President de Valera in 1936 but by 1937 he had to rethink it and reintroduced it. Does anybody here think I would ever have been elected to a national parliament? In my opinion it is an honour for this country that I was the first gay person in the world to be elected to a national parliament by a real electorate. It took 25 years to replicate that in the Dáil. So I am saying, let us keep the Republic and the values of Tone, Pearse and the rest. Let us cherish both Houses of the Oireachtas equally.
Senator Maurice Cummins: The constitutional convention will be established during the next couple of weeks by way of resolutions in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government proposes that initially the constitutional convention should look at two matters, namely, reducing the presidential term to five years and reducing the voting age to 17 years. The convention will be asked to report on these matters within a two-month period.
With regard to Seanad Éireann, the programme for Government contains the commitment that a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann will be put to the people during the term of office of this Government. Members, including on this side of the House, have expressed the view that the issue of Seanad reform should be discussed by the constitutional convention. However, the Government’s position on the matter is clear: a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann will, more than likely, be held during the latter half of next year. The Government does not intend to refer the matter of Seanad reform to the constitutional convention.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I look forward to Senators’ contributions. I can assure the House that I will not interrupt any Senator when speaking. It is my duty to outline the Government’s position to the House, which is what I am doing now. In the circumstances, I cannot accept the motion before the House.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: I welcome this important debate on Seanad reform, in particular consideration of Seanad reform by the constitutional convention. As I look across the Seanad Chamber, I note there are six Independent Senators here. As such, we outnumber all political parties in the Chamber this afternoon. What signal does that convey to those citizens watching us while we are discussing the future of the parliamentary model of Seanad Éireann which includes elected and nominated Senators from diverse backgrounds and university Senators? This is a symbolic moment. Were a vote to be called now and the doors were locked, Independent Senators would have the majority.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: I am assuming that Senators Norris and Quinn are on the same wavelength as I am. What is the Government afraid of in the context of including Seanad reform in the constitutional convention? It is ironic that I, as a nominee of the Taoiseach to the Seanad upholding the Constitution in terms of my position here, am in favour of a greatly reformed Seanad Éireann. If the choice was clear between abolition and retention I would favour abolition. However, in my view, that displays an ill-considered view in terms of how we can reform our political structures and can invest more time in developing trust between citizens and parliamentarians. I do not consider myself a politician, rather I consider myself a parliamentarian, a role which I take seriously.
Unlike Senator O’Donovan who spoke eloquently on this issue earlier, I believe that the work of the Seanad could be dealt with in a day and a half. I run the national theatre and I have just as much right to be a part of Seanad Éireann as does a full-time politician. The diverse backgrounds and experiences we bring are important. My fellow Senators in the group of Taoiseach’s nominees, can, while running businesses outside of this House, contribute constructively to any debate. To me, the notion of a part-time Senator is not a derogatory one. A Seanad which meets for a day and a half, commencing on a Tuesday morning and finishing at lunch time on Wednesday, would encourage all vocations, elected politicians, teachers, fire officers and so on to get involved in the important work of the checks and balances on the Dáil. It should not duplicate what is being done in the Dáil but should bring a different nuance to legislation.
I find it disturbing that the Government is afraid to allow our citizens to discuss the future of a part of our Oireachtas in a safe environment, namely, the constitutional convention. Of what is Government afraid? What is wrong with a public debate on this issue? I believe that as a Chamber the Seanad is wholly undemocratic because not every Irish citizen can vote in the Seanad elections. That is open only to those lucky enough to have a third level degree and studying in NUI or TCD. I am lucky I had the privilege of a third level education in Trinity College, which allowed me to vote, as I did for Senators Norris and Bacik. I believe that is a very narrow——
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: We have a flawed system of democracy in terms of the manner in which the Seanad is constituted. The report of the sub-committee on Seanad reform is a wonderful document prepared under the chairmanship of former Deputy and Leader of this House, Ms Mary O’Rourke, with the assistance of many Members of the current Seanad. It states on page 26 that one of the problems — this was accepted by the Seanad — is that the Seanad has no distinctive role in the Irish political system. The reason for this is the major gap between the average citizen and Seanad Éireann. I again ask, of what is the Government afraid? Why not openly discuss this reform? I have been a Member of this House for 12 months now. Reform is very slow. I accept the bona fides of the Leader and that he has delivered some change but reform of this House has been on a basis which has made no necessary connection. The media is often blamed for not giving enough attention to what is done in this House. I believe we do a good job and that if there was reform, in particular around election and reflection of a broader section of Irish society, we could do a better job.
I am disturbed by Fine Gael and Labour’s deliberate opposition to the notion that 66 citizens within a constitutional convention, along with 33 politicians, 2:1, cannot have a deliberative, safe and informed debate around reform of Seanad Éireann. My fear is — I believe this will come true — that the proposal on abolition of the Seanad will go to a referendum without any prior deliberative process. If the result of the referendum is “No”, the Seanad will be abolished. If the result is “Yes”, there is no promise of reform.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail: As I stated earlier, I have been a Member of this House for almost a year. If reform takes this long, I can guarantee that should the result of the referendum be “Yes” and the Seanad is retained the reform agenda will not continue at any pace that would give citizens a sense of enhanced trust in the Oireachtas. This is the reason we should put the cart before the horse. The Taoiseach, Ministers, Deputies and Members of this House should trust members of the constitutional convention to deliberate fairly on this issue. A series of work programmes has already been set out for the convention. The Leader stated earlier that the likelihood is that a referendum will be held in the latter part of next year, which means the schedule is already slipping. We are talking now about a referendum being held at the end of 2013, which could slip into 2014. The constitutional convention could easily convene on this particular issue. I have experience in deliverable democracy because I had the privilege of being chairperson of We the Citizens, which was a project that lasted a year and examined how deliberation and informed decisions by citizens can enhance trust, increase participation in political life and increase understanding of and empathy with the difficult decisions politicians must make in the Oireachtas. A vote taken prior to the citizens engaging in a debate on Seanad reform weighed heavily in favour of abolishing the Seanad. We then had informed discussion with expert witnesses and political scientists on both sides who presented the history of Seanad Éireann, how and why it was established and the diversity it showed in its first ten years. The founding fathers of our Republic made an extraordinary and significant contribution to the establishment of a diverse republic. The Seanad was so strong and influential that de Valera tried to stop it not once, but twice. After this debate the citizens voted in favour of Seanad reform. I urge the Labour Party in particular, because we know Fine Gael’s policy is to abolish Seanad Éireann, to support with us the motion to include Seanad reform as part of the constitutional convention.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am always happy to debate Seanad reform, but this is not a debate on Seanad reform; it is a very specific debate on a motion put before us. It is unfortunate it came before us in the way it did. I do not see the urgency in having this debate today. I voted against having this debate today and I would much prefer to have had a really meaningful debate in the House with the Minister——
I have debated reform of the Seanad in a range of fora and I will do so again in UCD on 30 June at a conference celebrating 75 years of Bunreacht na hÉireann. My personal position is very clear. I favour reform rather than abolition of the Seanad and I would have preferred to see Seanad reform contained in the constitutional convention along with a range of other issues. However, I must accept, as the Leader of the House has stated, that the programme for Government, voted on and accepted by the Labour Party and the Fine Gael Party, states otherwise and sets out a range of specific topics to be dealt with by the constitutional convention, of which the two announced are just the first in the early phase which will take two months. The other issues will be dealt with at a later date. The issue of the future of the Seanad is not in it and I must accept this.
As colleagues on all sides of the House are aware, we have been trying to conduct internal reforms of the Seanad to ensure our business is done more efficiently and effectively and in a more meaningful way. Initiatives such as the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, on which I commend the Taoiseach’s nominees, and the invitation to the Orange Order to address the House on 3 July show the Seanad can make a difference. Senator Norris is correct with regard to legislation initiated the House and I have been responsible for some of it. It shows the Seanad has a very worthwhile role to play.
It is also true to say the Taoiseach’s nominees have greatly enhanced the Seanad and their presence means that often the Government does not have an effective majority in the House. This makes for a stronger and more democratic Seanad. All of these points are powerful arguments that will be brought into play when we debate the future of the Seanad in the context of the constitutional referendum we now know will be held next year. In the meantime it behoves those of us interested in the issue to debate it wherever we can. As I have stated, I debated it at public meetings in Trinity College last December and March and I will debate it in UCD this month. The subject of this motion is much narrower. It is directly against what is in the programme for Government and on this basis I will oppose it.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome this opportunity to debate the important issue of the future of one of the Houses of the Oireachtas. My party has long held the view that the constitutional convention is the best place to examine Seanad reform. In examining the issue of Seanad reform, it is important to put it in wider context. It would be a mistake for the Government and the political establishment of the country to see Seanad abolition as a serious attempt at political reform. There is no doubt we need to reform the Dáil, local government and the Seanad. Simply wielding the axe on the Seanad and ignoring what is happening in the Dáil and local government is not a genuine attempt to reform governance in the country. In my view reducing the number of Deputies, changing the time of questions to the Taoiseach, sitting an extra day a month on a Friday when most Government Deputies do not even turn up, reducing the number of Oireachtas committees and reducing the number of local authorities and local authority members without examining their powers and functions, considering the vision we have for local government and giving it the powers and responsibilities it should have in key areas such as health and education, do not amount to genuine reform. All I see from the Government is a cut in numbers at — let us be honest — the behest of the troika. It is reducing the number of Deputies, councils and councillors and abolishing the Seanad and presenting this as some type of political reform. However, we are not dealing with the real issues which include the relevance of the Dáil, what the relevance of a second Chamber should be and what a proper system of empowered local government should be. This is the big mistake in the Government’s approach.
The key principles which would underpin my approach to reforming governance generally include sovereignty, and God knows we need to discuss this given that we have given it away and it looks like there could be another European referendum as a full fiscal and closer union is sought by a small group of people who want more powers for Europe. The other principles are democracy, accountability, transparency, national unity, equality and the power of local communities and the influence they should have in the democratic process. Our view on Seanad reform sits in this overall framework and is underpinned by these principles.
Our party has made clear that the Seanad in its current form is not fit for purpose. I took part in a debate in the Chamber before I was elected, when I was part of a Sinn Féin delegation that came in 2003. The former Leader of the House, Mary O’Rourke, held a number of consultations and my party made a presentation. A report was published but no meaningful reforms were made. We must be honest about the fact that the political establishment has put all of us in a situation whereby one of the options on the table is the abolition of the Seanad, and it seems to be the only option on the table. It is quite sad that it is acceptable for us to consider severing one of the arms of the Oireachtas because it does not mean anything and is not fit for purpose without having any meaningful discussion on the need for a second Chamber, the relevance of a second Chamber and the powers and functions of the Seanad.
The whole approach to Seanad reform is very dismissive and, to be honest, it is very dangerous to simply present a notion to people that it is easy to get rid of one arm of the Oireachtas. We are not doing justice to the fact that the House has powers. Limited though they are, we do have powers and these should not be taken for granted or taken lightly which is what is happening at present. It makes perfect sense to me that the issue of Seanad reform should be included in the constitutional convention. What better place to discuss it? We have been told it will be an opportunity to consult with the people of the State on a number of key issues, many of which are important. However, we are missing a golden opportunity to reform the Constitution and the structures of governance in the State because the Government is reducing the ability of the convention to deal with a number of very important matters. Many issues should be dealt with by the convention and I fail to see how it will not discuss the future of this House. I genuinely believe we are putting the cart before the horse by holding a referendum next year that will gut the Constitution and God knows how many amendments will be made to it. It is proposed to do away with one arm of the Oireachtas without giving genuine and serious consideration to the impact so doing will have or to the relevance of a second Chamber or to the powers and functions thereof. This is the wrong approach. It would make perfect sense for this to be done by those who will be considering those issues, engaging in consultation work and consulting with people in this State. Thereafter, on foot of all the aforementioned consultations, were the convention to decide in its wisdom there was no place for a second Chamber, then by all means a referendum should be held and the people should be allowed to have their say. However, in the absence of such a thorough, independent analysis of the future of this House, it would be a grave mistake on the part of the Government to proceed with its abolition.
The manner in which people are elected to the Seanad undoubtedly must be reformed as if there is to be a future for this House, this must be done on the basis of universal franchise. In addition, there must be discussion on what a second Chamber should look like. I make no apologies for believing a second Chamber should scrutinise legislation. While this should be a core part of its activities, I also believe it should scrutinise European Union legislation. Moreover, it should be a conduit for the people and for many organisations that do not have access to the Dáil and never will. The second Chamber can play a role by providing a space for individuals, organisations and those who wish to engage in a genuine way with the political system. This House could serve such a purpose and I note this has been partially achieved through the reforms enacted by the Leader of the House, with the support of all parties and groupings, through the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. This has been a worthwhile exercise that will continue over the next few years. However, it could be enhanced and could be made to be a relevant part of informing decision-making in this Chamber. For example, I have consistently called for a debate on poverty and this House could play a very important part in this regard. It could invite before it individuals who are affected by poverty and organisations working in communities that have been devastated because of poverty. Such organisations and individuals should be invited before the House for consultations, after which Members’ policy documents should be published. Such documents should then be allowed to inform and underpin decision-making. For example, Members have done this in respect of the rights of older people. Consequently, there is much that a second Chamber could do. It would be wrong simply to get rid of this second Chamber or to state it does not matter and the referendum should be held because it has had its day without giving it a proper analysis.
While I could say much more on governance in general, I am conscious this is a specific motion that calls on the Government to ensure the future of the Seanad is part of the constitutional convention. Sinn Féin has called consistently for its inclusion. In their discussions with the Taoiseach, my party leader and those members of my party who comprise our membership of the convention expressed clearly their view that the future of the Seanad had to be part of the convention. I am very disappointed the Government has not acquiesced to that request. It would have had support from the Opposition and from many Independents. It makes no sense but for whatever reason, the Taoiseach has set his face against doing so and is set on the abolition of the Seanad. I believe this to be wrong and the Taoiseach will be obliged to defend his position when he eventually attends this House. However, the position of Sinn Féin is crystal clear. It is wrong to dismiss this House without considering it in the proper context and in Sinn Féin’s view, the proper context is the constitutional convention.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few points and welcome the Minister of State the House. On the Order of Business this morning, I mentioned that far too often in Irish history, the Government of the day has been guilty of using Parliament as a tool, rather than the Government and Cabinet being the tools of Parliament and its people. While I noted all Administrations probably were guilty in this regard, the current Government certainly is guilty. This is the biggest difficulty Members face. Having made that point this morning, it gives me no pleasure to note, lest there was any doubt in my mind, that of anyone listening or that of anyone who cares to read the record of the House, the Government has proved it to be a fact today through its subversion of the democratic process by whipping Fine Gael Members not to participate in this debate. Think Ceaucescu, think Stalin.
Senator Marc MacSharry: Members should think of that level of democratic subversion because this is what is taking place today and there is no excuse for it. I do not hold Senator Cummins responsible as Leader of the House, because I acknowledge he shares many of my views. However, what has sickened me in my ten years as a Member is the manner in which the political hierarchies of Fine Gael, of Fianna Fáil in its day and of the Labour Party have abused the Seanad and have kicked around democracy as though it were a game for the sole use and participation of the 15 people around the Cabinet table. While I am sure the Minister of State has had a busy day, it looked for a moment as though he were falling asleep while others were speaking. This is out of character for the Minister of State and I note Senator Bacik mentioned it was an awful shame this debate could not be arranged for another day, when a Minister who was briefed could be present. This was a sad and unfair indictment of the Minister of State because I assume all Ministers are briefed on the work of the Government and, if not, they should not be Ministers. It is as simple as that.
For far too long, the Seanad has been perceived by the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, simply as an electoral tool. Members should recall the shock and surprise on the face of the then Leader of the Opposition in the Seanad, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, when, as they prepared to enter the dining room of the Citywest Hotel for the Fine Gael presidential dinner, he announced Fine Gael would abolish the Seanad because there were votes in so doing and sure enough, there were. Thereafter, the establishment of the constitutional convention for political reform was promised because there were votes in that too and that also was the case. However, the intention now is to ensure the facade of Government and democracy continues, thereby proving and underlining that the Dáil and Seanad are mere servants of the Cabinet, rather than the other way around as it should be. As Senator Norris has observed, the intention is to give the convention a couple of important but fairly superficial issues such as reducing the voting age or making the term of the Presidency a bit shorter. Why did the convention not consider the number of Deputies in Dáil Éireann? Why does the aforementioned convention not consider the abolition, reform or whatever else of the Seanad?
There is no point in talking to Senators about Seanad reform as they all have their individual views in this regard and historically, Senators have not been the problem. The problem always has been the abuse of the political hierarchy and I refer to the downright contempt the leadership of Fine Gael is showing for its Members today by telling them they cannot speak on this motion. How dare they? How dare they effectively admit that what they are involved in is a democratic dictatorship? It is a case of “Do as I say and do what I tell you.” As for the purpose of the Fine Gael and Labour Party parliamentary party meetings, the Ministers wheel in a policy and tell their members to go out and sell it. Those who might not like it are reminded there is a queue of people to take their place. This is what is wrong with this constitutional democracy in which we live. It was a sham and a downright disgrace today to see Fine Gael and Labour Party Members outside the leadership clearly being whipped not to participate in a debate which I remind Members was democratically decided on by this House earlier today.
Senator Marc MacSharry: Why are the active Members who have often spoken about Seanad reform and the need for the constitutional convention to include this issue not present today to participate in this debate? It was because they were told to stay away. Moreover, Senator Bacik would have Members believe the Government sent in the poor, honourable Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, who is not briefed on the issue. This is an admission from the so-called leader of the Labour Party in the Seanad that Ministers come before this House to preside over Bills on which they are not briefed.
It is a disgrace that we are stifling debate and democracy, giving a Harvey Smith to democracy and downright manipulating a process that will ensure Seanad abolition. Shame on Fine Gael in particular, and also on the Labour Party for allowing this to happen.
There are 1 million things that could be suggested, debated and considered by a constitutional convention. The last people anybody needs to hear talking about it are Senators. I have never known a Senator, Independent or otherwise, who is not an avid enthusiast and proposer of radical Seanad reform. That has never been the problem. The problem is clear for everybody to see today. It is the empty Fine Gael and Labour Party benches. How dare those Senators call themselves democratic, and representatives of the people? Shame on them. Think of Ceausescu, Stalin and that kind of Communist oppression because that is what they are holding up and standing for today.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I do not understand the thinking behind having a constitutional convention but excluding from that convention a discussion on the Seanad, at a time when there is a proposal that the Seanad be abolished. If the Seanad is abolished there will be at least 70 changes to the Constitution. How can there be a constitutional convention and shortly afterwards a change be made that was not discussed at that convention? I spoke of 70 changes to the Constitution but I am told there may be as many as 93. That just does not seem to make sense. What we are debating today is whether the discussion about the Seanad should be included in the constitutional convention. It does not make one iota of sense to consider having that convention, concerning the taking place of which there is clearly a great deal of agreement, while excluding from it a measure that will bring about so many changes. There have been many discussions about the abolition of the Seanad, and about from where this move came. It appears it may have come as a whim, or as something in which the potential Taoiseach of the day declared he believed. That is worthy of discussion but the place to have that discussion is at the constitutional convention.
We have talked today about some of the benefits of having a second House. It is essential that we have one. The bicameral system exists in a very large number of countries around the world although many smaller countries do not have it. Senator Norris has been in the House for 25 years; I am in my 20th year here. I look back and think of some of the occasions I can remember where this House played a very large part. Let me offer just two instances I remember. I remember the George Mitchell scholarship Bill going through the Dáil. It was a very short and easy Bill that honoured the George Mitchell scholars who were to come here from the United States to study peace in Ireland or, indeed, any subject here. The Bill that went through the Dáil referred to studying in this “State”, meaning the Twenty-six Counties. That was noticed in the Seanad the following day and drawn to the Minister’s attention. He stated he had advice that the wording had to take that form. Imagine coming to study peace in Ireland and not being allowed to study north of the Border. It just did not make sense. It was argued in the Seanad that this should not take place and that the scholarship should apply to study in all of Ireland. The Minister went away, thought it over and accepted the amendment made in this House. The Bill was changed and returned to the Dáil. That seems such a simple item but if we had had only one House when this matter was discussed the original wording would have passed.
Senator Feargal Quinn: The point we are making is not merely about whether we should have a second House but about whether that debate should take place in the constitutional convention. It seems to make sense that it should.
I offer a second example, one that was quite dramatic and which a number of us will remember. I forget how many years ago it happened but a proposal had gone through the Dáil that public opinion polls should not be published for the three weeks before an election. It passed through the Dáil and that House went into recess. That evening, in this House, we carried it on to Committee Stage. The then Senator, now Deputy Shane Ross, had a proposal which pointed out the ludicrous situation whereby there would be no public opinion polls for the three weeks prior to an election, not until the midnight before the election took place. Can Members picture how idiotic that would be? Suddenly, on the morning of the election, the television cameras, the radio stations and all the newspapers would carry the news that there had been a big swing, for or against. It was the most ridiculous thing but this had not been noticed in the other House.
This is only a reminder of the value of having a second look at every piece of legislation. That is the reason this matter should be discussed in the constitutional convention and not merely discussed as a question of Seanad reform. If there is going to be Seanad reform, the very aspect the constitutional convention will look at is how we can make it a more healthy body, one that will be more efficient, that will work better.
The point that will crop up very early on, and the constitutional convention is surely the place for it, is how we should elect the Members. Senator Norris has spoken on this today and there is little doubt that the Independent Members can speak on this. I understand that in the first 14 years of the original Senate, from 1922 to 1936, there were no Whips. This played a very valuable role because all Senators were, in effect, individual independent Members. Looking back, one of the best uses of this House was during the years 1994 to 1997, when the Government of the day did not have a majority in this House. Those of us who were here then, five Independent Members, held the balance of power. It was great fun. The Leader will remember that time, too, because the Government had to be nice to us in regard to any item it wished to get passed. It had to have at least three of the five of us to agree. I am sure that on occasions we made mistakes but it was a very healthy Seanad and a very healthy Government. It achieved a very great deal and on that basis it balanced out.
I mention that because the case I make is not about how we reform the Seanad — if we do so. I am sure it must and will be reformed. My point is that it is essential that there be a second House, whatever it is called. It is essential that we do not have a constitutional convention that studies the Constitution while knowing that as soon as that convention is over the Government intends to make a change that will bring about at least 70 changes to the Constitution. It seems ridiculous. If we are going to have a debate in the form of a constitutional convention it must include a debate on the institution of the Seanad because the abolition of the House would change things so very much that it would become a laughing stock. It would not make sense to have that convention and ignore what is coming immediately afterwards. This needs very serious consideration but the solution is simple.
Senator Paschal Mooney: In 1933, Éamon de Valera, who had just been elected Taoiseach, called an election. During the course of the election campaign he visited my home town of Drumshanbo in County Leitrim and made a speech on the high street. This is commemorated with a plaque that was unveiled subsequently by his granddaughter, a former Member of the other House, Síle de Valera. It was an extraordinary event, according to what my late father told me, and happened on a fair day when many such political gatherings used to take place. The reason the cameras happened to be in Drumshanbo at that time is that a cameraman was following de Valera on his national campaign. The clip was subsequently used in the programme about de Valera from that wonderful series, “Seven Ages: The Story of the Irish State”, by Seán Ó Mordha on RTE television, which is available on DVD. During the clip, the extract from his speech, de Valera threatened to abolish the Senate if it continued to thwart Government business. As Senator Quinn outlined in his eloquent contribution, the First Seanad that was established under the Free State Constitution did not have a Whip system. The Seanad continued to thwart W.T. Cosgrave’s Administration from 1922 to 1932 and the two subsequent de Valera Administrations between 1932 and 1936, when Mr. de Valera abolished it. It is rather interesting that despite his antipathy towards the Free State Seanad, which obviously had a mind of its own, Mr. de Valera decided to reintroduce the Seanad, much to the surprise of everybody, when he put his proposal for a new constitution before the people in 1937. I have never gone into the detail of what changed his mind but it is obvious that when he looked at the situation, he decided this country would be more suited to a bicameral parliament. At that time, and to a large extent today, the Executive ruled and the Dáil disposed of the Executive’s proposals.
As I have often said in this House, we have one of the most centralised Administrations in Europe. Senator MacSharry spoke about Stalin in another context. The manner in which we govern is in urgent need of reform. Successive Administrations of all political hues have done very little to reform the manner in which we carry out our democratic duties in either House. This House has been totally ignored. The 13 reform documents that have been prepared since 1937 are gathering dust on the shelves of the Oireachtas Library. In all that time, not a single Government has done anything to address the inequities and flaws that have existed since the First Seanad. The first of those flaws relates to the manner in which Senators are elected. Mr. de Valera’s concept was excellent. He decided the new Seanad would be broadly reflective of vocational and other interests. It was supposed to be a broad representation of Irish society. However, even the most dedicated MA students would find it difficult to get their heads around the complex structure of Oireachtas panels and nominating sub-panels he put in place. Only those of us who have gone through the system are able to go some way towards explaining how it works. However, it has worked in terms of getting people elected.
The original concept was all about representing various vocational interests such as organised labour, administration, the industrial and commercial life of the country, the cultural and educational life of the country and the agriculture sector. All of these important parts of Irish life — of who we are as a nation — were supposed to be represented in the new Seanad. The flaw was the manner in which one had to go about being elected. It was all very well to allow the respective bodies to make nominations, but the broad membership of those bodies did not have the right to vote in Seanad elections. That was left to the politics of the day. As a consequence, this Chamber was, is and will remain a political Chamber. Therein lies the flaw. That is just one aspect of this debate, however. I raise it merely as an historical anecdote that points to the urgent need for Seanad reform.
The most recent of the 13 reports that have suggested various ways of reforming the Seanad was published when Mary O’Rourke was the Leader of the House. Such a level of activity proves that the Members of this House, across all groupings, have never at any time been reluctant to embrace change. We have been pilloried by the public for being irrelevant. It has been suggested that the Seanad is a nursing home for broken-down politicians or a starting point for aspiring politicians. In fact, the Seanad has been accused in the public domain of doing everything other than what it was established to do, which is to operate as a means of bringing checks and balances to the democratic system. That was and remains the core of the business of the Seanad.
The Government has suggested the establishment of a constitutional convention. The dogs on the street would say without any reflective thought that Seanad reform should be included in such a convention. Like Senator Quinn, I cannot understand why the Government is going down the route it has chosen. It is not as if there is no room for debate on Seanad reform. What is the Government offering? It is offering an architecture that will involve elected representatives and a random selection of people from across the country. I assume they will be selected in the same way as people are selected for jury service. It is likely that some of the people who are asked to get involved will not want to do so. What will they be asked to deliberate on when this elaborate structure is put in place? At a time when 440,000 people are unemployed, they will be asked to talk about whether the President should serve for five years rather than seven years and whether the voting age should be reduced from 18 to 17. How is the Government deciding on its priorities?
The Taoiseach set the ball rolling in this regard by unilaterally declaring he wanted to get rid of the Seanad. I can inform Senator Quinn that according to the information available to me, which will be for another day, the Taoiseach did so in a fit of pique without consulting his colleagues. He is now being hung by his own petard. The Labour Party has not made a public policy statement on the abolition of the Seanad, but it seems it is not in favour of it. I am aware that some senior members of the Labour Party would prefer if Seanad reform was considered as part of the constitutional convention. Fianna Fáil is not in favour of abolition. When our leader got a rush of blood to the head during the general election campaign — perhaps he was going for a populist line of thought as well — he asked why it should not be abolished but we managed to convince him otherwise and put a little halt to his gallop. He has now seen the proper light of day in that regard. In fairness to him, he went about it in a very systematic manner. He consulted his Seanad colleagues and asked our esteemed colleague — Senator O’Donovan, who has legal training — to conduct research and prepare a report. We had a democratic debate on that basis, as we always do in Fianna Fáil, and we made a democratic decision that we are not in favour of abolition. Senator Cullinane made it quite clear in his contribution that Sinn Féin is not in favour of abolition. I understand from those who comment on these things that any time an amendment to our Constitution is proposed — I think we have made more amendments to our Constitution than the people of Switzerland have made to that country’s constitution — the referendum does not pass unless there is a political consensus in the country and among the political establishment.
Senator Mary Ann O’Brien: I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House for this debate. During the 20 minutes I had to prepare for this debate, I researched the basis for the establishment of the Government’s constitutional convention. I was interested to read that the Government proposes to establish the convention “by Resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas”, which will “provide for the Convention to submit its final report to the Houses within twelve months of its establishment”. I always look at the Government, the Dáil and the Seanad as a giant company. For the moment, we are set up as a giant company. We have the Lower House and the Upper House. That is how we are for the moment. I need to be educated in one respect. I know the Taoiseach said during last year’s general election campaign that he intended to abolish the Seanad. Did extensive discussions and deliberations take place before he came to that position?
Senator Mary Ann O’Brien: Was it a fleeting moment in Citywest? When the Taoiseach nominated me to this position, I told him I had heard him say that he intended to abolish the Seanad. He said he had that in his mind. I do not think for a moment that the Taoiseach, being the man I know he is, would not sit down and discuss the wheres, the whats and the whys. We are running a giant company here. Things have changed significantly since the Taoiseach was elected. It has struck me in recent days, as I have been reading and talking to my colleagues, that we are still beset by challenges and worries. Things have not remained the same since the day the Taoiseach was elected and the evening in Citywest when he said that. Reform is on the table. There is reform that might have been good in this document but a lot more reform is needed now.
Let us say that if there was a “Yes” and a “No” vote again regarding the abolition of the Seanad then like my colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, I would vote for its abolition. We could talk about reform of the Seanad if it was done in a way that we could debate it. We can put the subject that is up for debate today on the list of topics for debate at the constitutional convention. It must be put on the constitutional convention’s list to be debated, thought about and reported upon and then come back here. As one of the speakers said earlier, reform is not just for us Senators to debate. I favour reform but it is not right that we must wait until 2013, the end of the next year. There are “Yes” and “No” views but there is no time for us to have a meaningful dialogue with our people. A new Seanad should embrace experience and expertise that represents the professions such as the legal, the business, the health, the sports, the arts, the agriculture, the education, the candlestick maker, the toy maker, the emigrants, all of society and some Northern Ireland people.
Today I heard some eloquent speakers here say that we have known, over the years, what has happened in the House and Senator MacSharry spoke very eloquently and strongly. Let us imagine for a moment that 20 years have elapsed and there is somebody in the Dáil whom no one likes and who has complete power but there is no Seanad. What then? What if there are no checks and balances? We must keep the Seanad going but we live in a different world. We live in a very frightening Europe and Ireland is under the troika at the moment. New Zealand is the only democratic country that I can think of that got rid of its Seanad. The other day I spoke to Sir Michael Fay in New Zealand and he said that getting rid of its Seanad was the worst thing that they had ever done in his country. We cannot stand here and not put this matter on the agenda for the constitution convention.
Senator Mary Ann O’Brien: ——but who cares whether it is seven or five years? With regard to a voting age of 18 or 17 years of age, I do not mind but 17 years sounds better. The Seanad versus the Dáil argument or the Seanad’s abolition is serious and needs to be discussed. It is the lifeblood of every citizen in the country that we are talking about.
I also want to put a question to the Leader that we can discuss later. Hypothetically, if the Seanad is gone, how many Deputies will we have in the Dáil? Can somebody answer my question? What has the Taoiseach in mind?
Senator Mary Ann O’Brien: I thank the Senators. If we have two chambers and we reform, how many Deputies will be in the Dáil and how many Senators will be in the Seanad? As we know, it is not just the Seanad that needs to be discussed.
There is much to be discussed here. A lot has gone wrong and we have huge challenges ahead so we all know that the problem is greater than the reform of the Seanad. It is not question of me making a very ineloquent and badly thought out speech. As I said, I was not prepared but I also was not prepared not to speak.
Senator Mary Ann O’Brien: We are here to serve our country and our citizens. This should not be day for the imposition of a party Whip. There should be an informed discussion about a simple debate on whether the reform or abolition of the Seanad should form part of the constitutional convention. I implore the Taoiseach to open up his mind to discuss this with the convention, with the Seanad and all of these advisers. I thank Members for listening to me.
Senator Thomas Byrne: I hope that my county colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, conveys the deep anger that has been expressed in the Chamber today about his party colleagues being banned from speaking in a debate. He would never want to be banned from speaking because he is outspoken and rightly so. They have been banned.
Senator Thomas Byrne: Nobody from the Government has offered and that is evidence that they have been banned from speaking. No Government Senator spoke and that is the evidence. It is a shambolic day for democracy in this country.
Senator Thomas Byrne: It is revenge for two Government defeats in the Seanad this morning. It was a good jolt to remind the Government that this country is a democracy and run by the people and not as my colleague, Senator Marc MacSharry said, by 15 people around the Cabinet table. I urge the Leader to get his colleagues into the Chamber to offer their views no matter whether they are for or against the motion. Let us not forget that the motion tabled is to decide if Seanad reform should be discussed at the constitutional convention and is not about Senators being for or against the Seanad. The former is a reasonable discussion to hold because the constitutional convention is shambolic. It is a sham. As has been said, it will reduce the voting age and decrease the presidential term. They are not matters for debate in which the public needs to be involved. They are matters that public representatives can decide within Parliament and then hold a referendum if needed. There are far more serious constitutional issues affecting the country that can and should be dealt with by a constitutional convention and they include the Seanad.
The reality is that the Government wants to keep full control of what happens at the constitutional convention. It wants full control of the pace of reform and to slow it down. The Government members came to power as reformists and talked about the abolition of the use of the guillotine in debates. We have had more guillotines under the Senator’s leadership than ever before.
Senator Thomas Byrne: ——between Second Stage and Committee Stage and between Committee Stage and Report Stage. That rarely happens. I acknowledge that the situation has slightly improved. The commitment to reform by the Government side has been shown for the sham that it is.
Senator Thomas Byrne: It is smoke and mirrors. The impression of reform has been given but things have got far worse. Never before in the history of a European democracy have Members of Parliament been told by their Government not to speak. It is incredible and never before has it happened. Shame on Fine Gael and the Labour Party for allowing it to happen. Little more needs to be said. I hope that the Seanad passes the motion and that the Government takes cognisance of it because the pressure will be serious. Let this not be seen as some sort of self-preservation motion because it is not.
I do not know where I shall meet the Minister of State tomorrow night. I do not know whether it will be in Laytown or Kells but we are both fairly well got in both places. I want to be in the next Dáil. I shall do my work as a Senator but I am not here to preserve my seat as a Senator. I am here to make sure that reform is properly debated by the Irish public. At the end of the day it is the public that decides on what happens in this Chamber and not 15 people around a Cabinet table.
Senator John Crown: I have tried to think of a good analogy for the facial appearance of the Minister of State and his predecessor here this afternoon. The best that I can think of is that they seem about as enthusiastic as the fraternal delegate from the Taliban going to a women’s political association meeting.
Senator John Crown: I understand the circumstance in which they have found themselves press-ganged into a duty that they evidently find — I will not say distasteful — somewhat down the list of priorities for what had been their planned activities for today. It is well known that when I ran for the Seanad a year ago——
Senator John Crown: I thank the Minister of State. However, I stand by my comments. When I ran for the Seanad a year ago I stated that I would never run again for it as currently constituted. There is a very strong case to be made for either its abolition or reform. My three complaints about the Seanad are that it is undemocratic. It has introduced an electoral cast system into the country where some citizens have a vote while others do not, some are so far down the caste system that they would best be considered to be untouchables. Something I have learned since I have become a Member, I hope my colleagues do not take this personally, is that it is somewhat ineffectual. I am not saying that it never has an effect but certainly in terms of bang for the book, in terms of the opportunity of having the Chamber and all these people working here, it could be used far more effectively. My principal objection is that the original intent of the Chamber has been comprehensively subverted in the past 15 years.
The purpose of this Chamber was to bring an alternative set of life experiences and life skills into the corridors of Parliament and we have lost that. It was supposed to be a place where people who came from academia, labour, commerce and agriculture, industry and across the whole spectrum of society, could bring their life experiences to bear together with those of the full-time politicians in the Dáil and they would give us, perhaps, some more information that would help them when making their decisions with respect to governance and legislation. We all know that something very different has happened to it since and it has become an extension of the Dáil and the local government system, mainly used by the political parties as a means of advancing the careers of those on the way up and rewarding those who have been loyal servants. I am not saying that people have not given good service here as a result of it but that is not the original intent of the de Valera Constitution. While some of that subversion has taken place from without the House, with great respect some of it has taken place from within the House. When people continually act as if they are local representatives for some fantasy football version of Dáil Éireann here, it actually undermines the authority of allowing this Chamber to continue in the future. When people who look at it in a dispassionate fashion from the outside ask what it does, it makes us very vulnerable to the accusation that it is a somewhat cynical, party politically inspired Chamber which has, as its real intent, something other than that which was planned for it in the beginning.
One can make really fine arguments for having a two-tiered, bicameral, dual-chambered national parliament. There are all kinds of arguments that can be advanced in terms of checks and balances and of the original intent of the de Valera Constitution and in terms of providing time for deliberation on big matters. One can make many fine arguments for having a single-tier parliament as well. This is the truth. Anybody looking at it critically from the outside would say there are arguments on both sides. This is a small country which is geo-ethnically largely homogeneous. I acknowledge that we have a rich tapestry of ethnic groups within the country but we do not have large ethnically-defined political parties. This is not pre-1999 Yugoslavia. This is a very different country. We do not have that. We do not have one of the big reasons people need a second chamber.
One of the reasons we had a second Chamber in the 1920s was that those from the class that had regarded themselves as having an allegiance to Britain would not feel totally democratically disenfranchised by majoritarianism in a new State. That was a noble idea which was, perhaps, deemed anachronistic in the early 1930s and replaced.
Senator John Crown: The most critical component of the constitution of any country is how it elects its national parliament. If we are having a constitutional convention and it deals with issues which some would see as relatively trivial and insubstantial in direct comparison to the actual Constitution of the national Parliament, one has to say there is something severely wrong with the democratic process. I for one readily buy into the theory that the Taoiseach, who is a good man and has made a good contribution to public life, did, perhaps, in a fit of pique, perhaps somewhat informed by the populism of an impending election make a decision which may not stand up to scrutiny. I have made mistakes in my life. I have done and said things which were wrong and I am happy to take them back when I have done so. He should acknowledge that he should advance in the constitutional convention his arguments for, and allow those who have arguments against, abolition of the Seanad. It is regrettable that such a vicious whip has been applied today which has prevented our colleagues, many of whom I know have similar opinions to myself, from speaking. I yield to my colleague.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I thank the Senator for sharing time and also for telling us that he was wrong on occasions. It reminds me of a friend who said he was only ever wrong once and that was when he thought he was wrong but he was actually right. Somebody said today was a good day for the Seanad that we had voted against the wishes of the Government and managed to secure a debate on the motion. It would be a much better day for the Seanad if, on any given day, the House was to show itself capable of voting against the wishes of the Government on a point of principle about a particular legislative amendment or some other issue. A weakness that is apparent for all to see in the way the Seanad operates is that we do not prove sufficiently often that we have minds of our own and we do not live out what the Seanad was meant to be, which is a place where unusual, surprising, but very carefully considered points can be made and where there would be a reflection of legislation and policy that did not manage to happen in the other House. Whatever is to be the future of the Seanad it has to involve promoting that independence of thought and unpredictability as well in terms of the scrutiny that is available. I am not a particular fan of the constitutional convention idea. It is rather rash and does not compare well with the previous sophisticated work of the Constitution review group. If there is to be a constitutional convention it is appropriate that any proposal to change the Constitution would come under that heading and would fall to be considered in due course by that convention.
I disagree with those who say that if presented with a straight proposal to abolish the Seanad they will vote for it. To do that and to say that actually panders to the superficial, ill-considered, authoritarian and anti-democratic approach being taken by the Government. The change I would like to see in our institutions is that we would introduce a list system or elements of the list system into voting for the Seanad. In that way we would be able to guarantee that in one House at least there are people elected who have an eye to national issues, to policy considerations and who are not driven to the extent that, perhaps, happens in the Dáil, to focus on local issues so much of the time because that has been to the detriment of democracy. That is where the Seanad could make a major contribution. Were we to be elected by a list system it would guarantee diversity of representation of different shades of opinion in the country and would be to the benefit of politics.
Senator Averil Power: I join colleagues in supporting the call for the constitutional convention to be given the opportunity to discuss real political reform. I do not see how it can in any meaningful sense discuss electoral reform for the other House without looking at how it fits into the overall picture from local government to national Parliament to this House. All three need to be examined together if there is to be any meaningful review of how the political system works. Senator Mac Conghail pointed out that the convention is well suited to do that because there will be 66 citizens on it. It is extraordinary that the Government does not want to give such a reflective and deliberative group the opportunity to consider all the issues and develop proposals which at the end of the day will be put to the people.
In general, in respect of the constitutional convention I am disappointed at the brief it has been given because it is a good idea but it has been somewhat trivialised by the issues that the Government has said it will put before it. Senator Norris spoke about the presidential selection system. I agree this is infinitely more important than discussing whether the term of the Presidency should go from seven to five years. Neither should a discussion on the voting age take months. As a strong advocate of marriage equality, that is an issue on which political leaders should take leadership. It is extraordinary that the Taoiseach seems to be one of the last leaders in Europe, and in the western world now that President Obama has made his position clear, who will not say where he stands on the issue or if he has a personal view. Instead of trying to deflect it to the constitutional convention the Taoiseach could say where he stands. My party passed a motion at our recent Ard-Fheis supporting marriage equality, and I will support it whenever the referendum is held. It is an issue on which people should take leadership, and it is not necessary for it to be debated in the constitutional convention. It should be put to the people.
I agree with previous speakers that there are weaknesses in respect of this House. The Seanad often makes a far greater contribution than is appreciated. Generally, the debates here are more reflective and less partisan and as previous speakers pointed out, over the years both Senator Quinn and Senator Norris brought forward Bills that passed through this House and made a contribution. However, there are significant flaws that must be addressed such as the lack of popular legitimacy to this House, which undermines the work we do regardless of how hard we work and what we achieve. The House does not have adequate powers. More important, the composition of the House is not sufficiently distinct.
I agree with Senator Mullen in respect of a list system. If we had a Seanad that was elected on a national list we would end up with a distinct group of parliamentarians here that would be very different from the constituency focus that is in the Dáil. We would also get far better representation for minorities. If we had 50 seats, for example, the quota for each one would be only 2% and we would end up with a genuinely vocational representation because people would run on national issues and we would have representatives of the Traveller community and our immigrant communities and therefore a much more diverse Parliament. A second House would add enormously to Irish democracy and it is regrettable that the constitutional convention will not be given the opportunity to examine those issues.
As Senator Quinn pointed out at the outset, this is not a debate on the future of the Seanad, and Government representatives have not been asked to take a side on that issue. They are being asked to consider that the constitutional convention would be given the opportunity to discuss these issues and that when the people vote on the future of the House, they are given real options for reform on which they can decide. That is all that is being asked of the Government representatives. I express the same regret as others that there have not been more contributions from the Government side because I would have liked that engagement and to hear what Members on the opposite side of the House feel about this issue.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: This is a bad day for the Government, the Seanad and democracy. For an historian, it is reminiscent of the final days of Grattan’s Parliament and the passing of the Act of Union, which was probably one of the most unfortunate and sordid periods in our history. It is shameful that those on the Government side have effectively boycotted this important debate.
The Taoiseach made a serious error of judgment in the heat of the pre-election debate. As Seán Lemass said, all election promises are null and void. The Taoiseach should be man enough to admit he was wrong. We should talk about reform, but this knee-jerk reaction of abolishing the Seanad is not going down well with the people. I predict that if the Taoiseach, Fine Gael and Labour continue on this road they will get a resounding answer from the people because people know their history, and they want their democracy. As we speak, the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, is planning the abolition of the oldest tier of public representation in this country, namely, our town councils. He has taken the scalpel to county councils. He is amalgamating some and intends to break up others. Is this Government anti-democracy? We have fewer local units of democracy than any country in Europe. We have a third of what they have in France.
I compliment the Independent Members, many of whom were appointed by the Taoiseach and would have a sense of loyalty to him in that regard, on their courage but the idea that we would have a constitutional conference to examine the Constitution and exclude from its business the most central item, namely, the proposed abolition of the Seanad, which affects 68 Articles of the Constitution, is Alice in Wonderland stuff. It is laughable.
A series of Ministers of State have attended the debate, and they are all welcome. Apparently, their lips are sealed also. They appear to be here only in a listening mode. We will not get the wisdom of their views or the view in Cabinet. That is silly. Obviously, words do not mean what the Government says they mean.
More democracy, not less democracy, is what this country wants. The Seanad has a proud tradition. I am proud to say a kinswoman of mine, Kit Ahern, served here for many years. During that period she provided a constituency service in Kerry North while attempting to win a Dáil seat, which ultimately she did. The service she gave to the people would not have been possible had it not been for the Seanad. The idea that the Seanad is a nursery for upcoming people is not a bad thing. Some of our best leaders, including former taoisigh, started their political career in the Seanad——
Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell: I support the motion that the future of the Seanad should be part of the constitutional convention. Why would that be so wrong? What is it about that proposal that Fine Gael and Labour do not want to do it? Have Fine Gael and Labour no faith in the Seanad? Have they no faith in its past, its present and its future? What does the Government really want? If it wants the abolition of the Seanad it can have it but it should look around. If that happens it will have closed down part of a powerful Executive. It will have closed down a place where there are checks and balances, new voices, new ways and a democratic balance in terms of what happens in this country and to our people. If that is what the Government wants, it can have it because without reform the Seanad will not survive. If it turns down the constitutional convention as a place where that reform can be discussed, I have no doubt it will bring about that demise.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I have listened with great interest to all sides in this debate but, unfortunately, it reminds me of watching the Ireland-Spain game in that everything was coming from one side. That is a shame. I have never seen that. I served in the previous Dáil when the Government took very difficult decisions and I do not recall such an instance whereby Members were told not to speak in a democratic Chamber when those Members were elected to represent the people.
The motion I circulated last week, with the support of our Independent colleagues and our colleagues from Sinn Féin, was simply to ask for the inclusion of Seanad reform in the constitutional convention. To have a situation where we had to fight tooth and nail, and the Government had to lose three votes this morning, to ensure this debate could even take place would show anyone looking in from the outside the importance of a second Chamber.
This Government has a majority of 59 seats. In terms of the work done by this Seanad, I accept it must be improved but to be fair to the Leader he has brought about a number of changes that have improved the relevancy of this House. As someone who has served as a constituency Deputy, I am well aware of my responsibilities as a national politician and as a Senator in a national parliament. When I compare my time in the other House to my time here, I have read more legislation here, have tabled more amendments and am more au fait with the laws of this land as a result of serving in the Seanad and taking my job here seriously. I have a professional background also. Many of us here came through politics, but we also have a broad breadth of experience across society. That is as it should be.
How can we allow a situation where the Taoiseach can simply decide on this? This is a Taoiseach who in 15 months has not bothered to grace this House with his presence. A succession of Ministers of State — I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, to the House today — have come into the House, but apart from Deputy McEntee who took umbrage at a comment made by Senator Crown, they have not spoken. As Ministers of State, they have not said a word on this, yet this is what passes for democratic debate. The fundamental issue is that changes need to be made to the Oireachtas and it needs to serve the public better. We must be able to discuss that and have a proper debate.
I am astonished by the decision taken by the Leader and the Labour Party to muzzle their colleagues in the Seanad. I wonder whether that was a call that came from the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Paul Kehoe. Did he tell the Leader to tell Members they were not allowed contribute in this debate?
Senator Darragh O’Brien: I would never try to silence any of my colleagues on any matter, regardless of their opinions. If we do not allow freedom of expression in this House, what is the basis for the debate? I ask the Leader to be constructive so that the Taoiseach may be aware today that the Seanad exists. We, as Opposition, have tabled a number of Bills, some very important, for example, Senator MacSharry’s Bill, the Family Home Bill 2011, which was only beaten by three votes. That Bill, if passed, would have been enacted a year ago and would have afforded protection to homeowners, particularly the 12% or 13% of homeowners in mortgage arrears. Daily, some of these people are losing their homes and they see nothing being done to resolve the situation since the publication of the Keane report, which was provided to Cabinet in late September last year. We would have had legislation through the House, but for political reasons the Government voted down the Bill by three votes.
I want to see a Seanad in the future that does not abide by a Whip system and I include Fianna Fáil in that. I want people to be able to vote freely on legislation and to introduce Bills. I agree with my colleague Senator Byrne that since the start of this session, the guillotine has been used in both this House and the Dáil more expansively than ever used previously.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: This is happening at a time when we have serious issues to debate. For example, the next time the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will be in this House, he will be considering closing down town councils. Tomorrow, we will have Bille na Gaeltachta 2012, which will remove the rights of people in Gaeltacht regions to elect their own representatives. We have the situation now where the Government wants to abolish the Seanad, but it does not even want discussion on this in the constitutional convention. The two issues the Government wants discussed in the constitutional convention, namely, the reduction of the voting age from 18 to 17 and the reduction of the presidential term from seven years to five years, could be done in a week. I see no reason for 100 people to be brought together to discuss that. What is the point? This is window-dressing, just like the window-dressing brought forward when the Government apparently reformed the Oireachtas committees.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: They were just thrown in together and the number of chairpersons was reduced. However, last week the number was increased again. All that is being done is window-dressing, not real reform. All we are asking for today is real reform and I thank all colleagues from all sides who contributed to the debate. It is a shame that some Senators have remained silent and have allowed themselves to be told by the leaders of both Fine Gael and the Labour Party not to contribute to the debate.
Senator Darragh O’Brien: That is very sad. Before this debate concludes, I would love for the Leader and Senator Bacik, who has just come into the Chamber, to tell us why they took a decision to tell their colleagues they were not allowed speak on this debate. If that is the way a government behaves towards its colleagues, how will it behave towards opposition parties?
The Minister of State present will not contribute to this debate, no more than any of the other Ministers who sat in that chair did today, but I hope he and the Leader will take our clear message back. We are not talking about saving the Seanad or anything like that. We are simply talking about allowing a reasoned debate as part of the constitutional convention in order to allow the general public discuss what is best for this Chamber and for democracy. I have always been a reformist, even when I served in the other House, but not an abolitionist. However, let the people decide. The Government must not just proceed along the lines it is going. What happened here today and this morning is important for the Seanad. I thank our university Senators, Sinn Féin and in particular the Taoiseach’s nominees, who are in a difficult position, for supporting this very reasonable motion.
It is not too late. The Leader should tell the Taoiseach to come back down off Croagh Patrick and help him realise he has made a mistake and should include Seanad reform in the constitutional convention.
Acting Chairman (Senator Jillian van Turnhout): I now call Senator Ó Clochartaigh. I apologise, but we cannot take contributions from Senators Walsh, Barrett and Ó Domhnaill as we are out of time.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an díospóireacht seo agus ba mhaith liom a rá go raibh muide réidh don dióspóireacht seo, pé lá a thiocfadh sé. An fáth nach raibh muid sa Chamber nuair a bhí cuid den phléá dhéanamh ná go raibh muid ag éisteacht go cúramach leis san oifig.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: What it says to us is that the abolition of the Seanad is Government policy and they all agree with it. Therefore, they are not wasting our time in toeing the party line and repeating ad nauseam what is already known as Government policy.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: As somebody who sits through a lot of debates here and who as a member of the agricultural panel ends up sucking at the hind teat for speaking time on many occasions, it is great, as a Sinn Féin Senator, to get the opportunity to get back in a debate such as this for a second time. What is important when we consider reform of the Seanad is that we consider voting rights for all of our citizens, especially our diaspora. We believe there is a huge need for reform. The university panels are not really democratic as they do not recognise degrees from all third level institutions. We also need to consider the quality of debate in the Seanad. Many of the Ministers who have come into this House have said that the quality of debate on issues here is much superior to that in the Dáil.
There would be an issue also if we only had one House, the Dáil, which has a massive majority. We have seen how legislation can be railroaded through this House, but if it was necessary only to railroad it through one House, I would fear for the democratic process. We have had some very good debates here on certain issues and have been able to tease out issues, such as the septic tank issue. Although the Government side did not like the way we drew out that debate, certain changes were made to the legislation which improved it and that was important. It is for this reason we have called for issues such as poverty, regional development, older people’s issues, job creation and youth emigration to be debated here fully.
Tá mé chun seans a thabhairt anois do mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Walsh, ach tá súil agam go mbeidh díospóireacht eile againn agus go mb'fhéidir go gcuirfear an mantóg ar chainteoirí an Rialtais amach anseo arís.
Senator Jim Walsh: Today is a red letter day for the Seanad, not so much because the Government was defeated on two votes, but because it has exposed a trend I have detected in the Lower House over the past 13 or 14 months. I am reminded of a statement made in the Lower House in 1934 which is worth putting on the record as it is symptomatic of what is happening here.
The direct quotation is as follows: “ . . . the Blackshirts were victorious in Italy and the Hitler Shirts were victorious in Germany, as, assuredly, in spite of this Bill and in spite of the Public Safety Act, the Blueshirts will be victorious in the Irish Free State.” So declared former Attorney General John A. Costello of the Cosgrave Government when a Bill restricting the wearing of political uniforms was introduced in the Dáil.
|Barrett, Sean D.||Byrne, Thomas.|
|Crown, John.||Heffernan, James.|
|Kelly, John.||Landy, Denis.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Mac Conghail, Fiach.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Norris, David.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Brien, Mary Ann.|
|O’Donnell, Marie-Louise.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Power, Averil.|
|Quinn, Feargal.||Reilly, Kathryn.|
|van Turnhout, Jillian.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Brennan, Terry.||Burke, Colm.|
|Coghlan, Eamonn.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Comiskey, Michael.||Conway, Martin.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||D’Arcy, Jim.|
|D’Arcy, Michael.||Hayden, Aideen.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Higgins, Lorraine.|
|Keane, Cáit.||Moloney, Marie.|
|Moran, Mary.||Mulcahy, Tony.|
|Mullins, Michael.||Noone, Catherine.|
|O’Keeffe, Susan.||O’Neill, Pat.|
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