Wednesday, 11 March 2009
Seanad Éireann Debate
believes that every qualified citizen should be entitled to participate in Seanad General Elections and urges the Government to bring forward as soon as possible, the necessary constitutional and legislative amendments to establish this universal franchise as recommended in the Report on Seanad Reform and;
resolves to mark this, the thirtieth anniversary of the Constitutional amendment whereby the people of Ireland approved the extension of the Seanad University constituency to other institutions of higher education, by having, in the University of Limerick (UL), the first new provincial university, a special Seanad sitting during which the details of the arrangements
I welcome the Minister of State. I am extraordinarily disappointed in the Government amendment to this motion. The strongest line in it is that the Seanad “resolves to request the All-Party Group” to do something, which is extraordinary. We have an opportunity to debate the Seanad. We either change it or get rid of it because it cannot continue the way it is currently operating. From a democracy point of view, we have to examine certain aspects of it and get them right. In other words, we either reform or we die, we either change or be abolished, which I believe will happen. The Government believes it controls these matters but it does not.
This House does extraordinarily good work. Major legislation it dealt with in the past year included the Adoption Bill, currently going through the House, the Charities Bill which passed through it House earlier, the Broadcasting Bill, the Civil Liability (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill and the Harbours (Amendment) Bill. Those Bills did not receive the detailed scrutiny and discussion in the Dáil that they received here. That is the strength of this House. What I say is no reflection on the personnel in this House. I do not go along with those people who say that local authority members should not have an extraordinarily important voice in the election of the Upper House. Those are not my points.
What is required is a threefold approach. First, this is a democracy. The Second House is owned and shared by all the people, therefore, the question of a universal franchise where every citizen of the State would have a vote, a voice and an input into the election and composition of the Seanad is a sine qua non, and that must be delivered on.
Second, the universities constituency has no place in a democracy as currently structured. It has only a place in a democracy where other members of that democracy, other citizens, also have a vote. Then it has a perfect place. Because of the vocational nature of the Seanad, it is completely right that a vocational group such as university graduates would be picked. There is nothing wrong with that as long as they do not get something ahead of other citizens of the State. The way to deal with that is for a person who is citizen and a graduate to decide where he or she wants to register, whether for the election in the universities constituency or in one of the constituencies outside it.
I am talking about the composition and the election of a Seanad in three main parts, or four allowing for the nominations of the Taoiseach as part one. Part two would comprise local authority members electing a significant number of Members to the Seanad, about half of the number they currently elect. Every citizen of the State would have a vote on a list system such that parties would list the candidates they want to put forward for the Seanad in order of priority and the people would be chosen off the list on the basis of the percentage of the vote they were given by the ordinary people in the list system vote. I want to focus on that element. I say to my colleagues on this and the other side of the House who feel threatened by what I am saying that this is a huge attraction to Members of this House who have no intention or ambition to go forward for election to the other House. It means they will concentrate on the inside panels being elected by the local authority members and if candidates fail to get elected to the Dáil and their parties want them to be Members of the Seanad, they would be put on the list system, therefore, they would not be in competition with each other when calling to county councillors. In that way, the field is cleared and dealt with.
The way to deal with the universities constituency is to extend the franchise to every third level college, as asked for by the Irish people 30 years ago this year. Having extended it, people who are citizens and graduates can then decide where they want to vote. They can register through their colleges or in the normal electoral process to elect a candidate to the Seanad. Surely Members would find nothing threatening in that.
I hold in high regard my colleagues who are elected through the indirect system by councillors. I am not demeaning that system in any way, all I am saying is that as it stands it is overwhelming and that is unacceptable. I am talking about more than 20 Members as opposed to more than 40 Members being elected in the indirect system, more than 20 Members being elected by the people by a direct vote, maintaining the six Members on the universities panel except it would be extended to all the colleges, and there would also be Taoiseach’s nominees. Furthermore, the outgoing Cathaoirleach should be returned unopposed. Everything I have said, apart from the numbers which may be slightly different, is part of the recommendations of the Seanad reform group. We should grasp such reform and move forward.
People do not trust or have confidence in this House nor do they have a sense of ownership of it. Debate is ongoing about what it is doing — it does not know what it is doing. Journalists who report what it is doing do not have a clue. These are the people who were experts on stem cell research yesterday, the following day they will be experts on health matters, the day after they will be experts on the economy and they are also experts on the Seanad. I talked to a journalist recently about the Seanad and asked him when was the last time he checked what was happening there. For instance, the Broadcasting Bill was changed more in this House than in the other House. I could go through other such instances time and again but I do want to get into that game. However, it is the reality. Work is done here.
In a time of recession when the other House will be rightly focused on the economy, as it is currently, the work of legislation still has to go on. The nuts and bolts of the political process has to continue and this is the House where that can happen. The idea of bicameral parliament with two chambers is hugely important and it is never more important than in a recession.
People have often heard that the first casualty of war is truth. The first casualty of recession is democracy. We saw it in Germany, Italy and Spain during the hungry 1930s and 1940s when people, by election, got rid of their democracies and were left with dictatorships. The first casualty of post democracy — our journalists friends should note this — is a free press. We need only look to Zimbabwe, Russia or any other country where there is not a democracy. These are important issues that we need to examine. That is not a debate I can get into now, as time does not permit.
This House does very good work. In the main the Members of this House are serious, committed people. They have work to do and are serious about their job. Nothing I say can take away from that. However, having said that even though it can be viable, vital and effective, in terms of how we are elected or selected it is exclusive, undemocratic and unrepresentative. That is not a reflection on the people. In a democracy we cannot have a system where the people do not get a voice all the way through. It is also not fair to say they have no voice at the moment. They have an indirect voice through their local authority members. It is an indirect form of democracy and there is nothing wrong with that. I disagree with some of my colleagues on these benches about that issue. That is something that has worked well in other places. My only criticism of it here is that it is overwhelming. To have 43 such Members out of 60 is too many.
The Leader knows my views on this matter. If we do not take control of that, there will be no tolerance outside of here for the point I have just offered. Most people would say at an election the people should elect the representatives, that they can elect local authority members on another day and that local authority members should not have the vote. We have seen it in the North over 40 years. It is too little too late that causes the problem. We need to look at it now, grasp it, control it, manage it and direct it. This is an opportunity to take matters forward, to change the composition, to put in place the proposals made by the latest Seanad reform group, which had the support of all parties in the Seanad at the time. It represents a way forward that will give new life to the second Chamber.
I went to New Zealand which eliminated its second Chamber and I considered the impact it had on the legislative process. I believe it was a mistake to get rid of it there. I was told that its Parliament could do its work in one Chamber. However, it ended up adding three extra stages to the legislation, including another stage after Second Stage and another stage later on. It got longer and longer, and less efficient. The idea here is that the second House gives a second view and a new perspective and makes it work that way.
I also disagree with those many people who claim this House should have more power, which is nonsense. This House has enough power. The Constitution is fine as regards the power of this House. We do not want to end up like Washington where there can be legislative gridlock with one House going against the other. The will of the people should be expressed in the Lower House and that should always carry sway.
It was reported to me that only today somebody said: “Sure what does the Seanad do only rubber-stamp?” I do not know whether those people recognise that the Government has an inbuilt majority in the other House. There is more chance of getting the Government to change its mind here than in the Lower House. For those people that is the case.
Let me get back to the basic issues here. I can no longer look straight in the face graduates of universities other than NUI and Trinity, and try to tell them that I accept that they do not get a vote 30 years after the people decided differently. I cannot accept that point, nor can I say that the vocational system works. I come to my final red flag to people. The vocational system is working not in the way it was contemplated by Eamon de Valera. At the moment there is a very low bar, which calls for knowledge and experience. There is a very low bar in the implementation of that. If we do not do as I suggest, we will find ourselves in a situation where strict reform of the House will go into far greater detail as to what is required by that.
I will give my own example. I was the chief executive of Ireland’s largest educational organisation, covering the entire island, and one would imagine I would have been a model to stand on the Cultural and Educational Panel. As I am not a member of any party and am non-party, I would not have got five votes. That was not what was contemplated when the system was defined in the 1930s. Later I became president of Ireland’s largest labour organisation. I am not blowing my own trumpet here, I just want to put on the record that it does not work. I should have been a model to stand for the Labour Panel, but I would not have got five votes on that panel. I had to find my way in here through the most exclusive cadre, which I found very difficult at the time. I am thankful for the decent graduates of NUI who have managed to elect me in the past seven elections over 22 years. I hope I have represented them as well as I can. In every election campaign and even before that I have said that we should reform this House. I believe we should take control of it now and do it.
The Government amendment is appalling. I got a call this evening from a representative of the University of Limerick, members of whose alumni association were talking with Members of this House and members of the Green Party in recent times and were given a clear commitment that the university franchise would be extended to all the other colleges by the end of this calendar year. I would like that to be put on the record of the House tonight.
I have listened to the debate with interest. I have only scratched the surface of it. It is a major, constitutional, democratic and structural issue. It is to do with participation in democracy and is very much to do with a lack of trust and confidence by ordinary people in the political processes. Let us put trust back into the system. Let us give the people ownership and a say in the election of Members of the Seanad.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am delighted to second this important motion on Seanad reform and to support Senator O’Toole. It is an excellent motion. Like Senator O’Toole, I have supported calls for Seanad reform even before my election to the Seanad for the first time in 2007. When we had a debate on Seanad reform, prompted, I believe, by a Government motion in November 2007, I spoke in support of that shortly after my election to this House for the first time. However, I believe this motion is more elegantly worded. It is important to note that it welcomes in particular that the indirect method of election by local authority members should remain a core part of a new approach to elections to the Seanad as envisaged by the all-party report on Seanad reform.
It also states the belief that “every qualified citizen should be entitled to participate in Seanad General Elections”. It concludes with the need to include all the third level institutions and to create a universal franchise. Those are two very important principles to take forward while we reflect on the all-party report on Seanad reform of former Senator, Deputy Mary O’Rourke.
Before addressing the subject of Seanad reform, like Senator O’Toole I would like to say something about the nature of the Seanad. Some criticisms have been expressed in recent weeks, some by very long-standing Senators, of the procedures and the existence of the Seanad. Given that I am a relatively new Senator of less than 18 months, I would like to say something of my experience of the procedures. Coming in as a new Senator, some of these procedures are undoubtedly cumbersome. I am sure other new colleagues will share my view of that. At times there may appear to be considerably more heat than light generated in debates, yet I believe the Seanad fulfils a very important function and has enormous strengths. Any criticism must be measured against that.
There are some obvious reforms we could make without recourse to constitutional or even legislative change. I would like to put on the record three obvious changes we could make. We should publish a legislative schedule. I know the leaders of each group debate this matter each week and particularly in current times an element of flexibility is needed when emergency legislation comes through. However, we can predict much of the legislation that will be before us in two to three weeks’ time, yet we do not tend to get adequate notice. It would improve the quality of debates if we had more time to prepare ourselves for those. I would love to see a legislative timetable prepared and publicly accessible so that not only we, as Senators, could prepare our debates, but also those ordinary members of the public in civil society. For example, those involved in adoption would know that the Adoption Bill would be debated in the Seanad in two particular weeks in March 2009. That would greatly improve public awareness and information about the Seanad and the debates here. It is a very obvious and simple measure that we could implement. I understand that in some sessions the Seanad has given more advanced notice of a timetable. Clearly it would need to be flexible. However, even if we could say that particular Bills were due to be debated in particular weeks it would be of great assistance.
Second, like many colleagues, I asked that the Order of Business would be reformed to become more obviously a debate on topical issues of the day. The time could be extended to one hour and perhaps the time of individual speakers could be limited usefully so that each Senator would have more of a chance to contribute.
Senator Ivana Bacik: It might be useful. It would also make it easier to have a topical debate. Yesterday, as we all know, the Order of Business became a discussion about the dreadful events in Northern Ireland at the weekend, which is as it should have been. Yet, we still had to remain within this rather artificial framework of the Order of Business. It would be a great improvement to the perception of the Seanad outside and to our work within were we to say this is a debate on topical issues and to extend the time generally while allowing particular time limits for speakers, including the Leader, if I may say so.
My third proposal for internal reform, before we deal with more general reforms, is with regard to statements on particular issues. I can see there is often great merit and value to those issues but, equally, they sometimes seem rather obscure and it may not be clear, even to Members, why we are debating particular issues at particular times. While we all call for statements on issues, we can sometimes be surprised to see a particular issue on the agenda.
This afternoon’s discussion on Seachtain na Gaeilge was obvious because táimíd i Seachtain na Gaeilge, which is fine. However, there is often no rationale apparent to us or the public as to why we have statements. If we gave more advanced notice, it would give a better indication of why we have statements. Perhaps there should be a line or two on the agenda every week explaining why we have statements on a particular topic at a particular time. Where we have statements, given it is sometimes difficult for every speaker to contribute, 15 minutes is too long for individual spokespersons and perhaps an eight or ten minute maximum might be preferable.
Those are some minor points which would improve and enhance the quality of our internal debates. That said, in the 18 months I have been a Member, I have seen the immense strengths of the Seanad. Before I came in, I knew the Upper House served a very valid function. Senator O’Toole pointed out the merits generally of a bicameral system, which are undoubted. The Irish experience has seen some articulate Senators in the past — I am thinking of former Senators such as Mary Robinson and Mary Henry, for example, who used this House as a platform to express radical and progressive views on issues that were not being aired in the other House and probably would not have been aired in public debate otherwise. Those were the sorts of issues that led to legislative reform — I am thinking of issues such as the Bills on contraception that Mary Robinson brought forward in the 1970s and Mary Henry’s very valuable contributions on IVF and the need for its regulation, as well as on capacity and wardship, which we are still debating.
A similar point can be made with regard to debate on legislation in the Seanad. Senator O’Toole has got it exactly right. We have much more thoughtful debates, particularly on Committee Stage, because all Members can come in on Committee Stage and this means that those who have individual expertise, knowledge or experience to share on a particular issue can contribute. This is a strength we have over the Dáil committee procedure. For example, I found the Adoption Bill debates this week and last week incredibly informative. They showed the Seanad at its best, teasing out complexities in difficult legislation with many sensitivities, working together with Government and Opposition to try to improve the quality of the adoption process for everyone, and always working in the best interests of the child. That is the Seanad at its best.
Many of the criticisms that are made about Seanad procedures could equally be made about Dáil procedures or committee procedures — I believe we have too many committees. One gets to a point where the criticism becomes too much. One could always say government would be a lot more efficient without opposition, but we must remember this is democracy. As has been said, it is an imperfect system but nobody has come up with anything better. Of course, government might function more efficiently without cumbersome processes of democracy, but that would be a dictatorship. We must bear this in mind and be reasonable in our criticisms.
I absolutely defend the systems and functions of the Seanad. While we should look at our internal procedures for reform, this motion looks at a more substantive type of reform, namely, reforming the structures and the need for greater democracy in the processes by which we elect our Members, which is important. I have had a strong welcome from graduates of different universities to the very narrow proposals that we extend the franchise for the university seats to all third level graduates. I have received e-mails, as I am sure others have also, from graduates of many different universities and institutes of technology — I understand we would have a warm welcome awaiting us at the University of Limerick if we were to sit there. This is a very important reform we need to make. Some 30 years after the constitutional amendment, we need to do this.
Reform of the university seats is only part of the overall picture. The report of former Senator, Deputy Mary O’Rourke, made a very valuable contribution, recommending comprehensive reform of the Seanad as a whole. I fully approve of her proposals that there should be a list proportional representation system for direct election to 26 seats and that higher education should choose six seats, but nobody should have two votes and a graduate would choose which of those two lists to vote for. We would then preserve the indirect elections by councillors.
Senator Ivana Bacik: My final point is that at this difficult economic time, the proposal of former Senator O’Rourke to extend the numbers in the Seanad to 65 might not be a runner. Overall, however, we need to overhaul our internal system internally and externally. I commend the motion to the House without the amendment.
that following discussion of a scoping paper at its meeting in October 2008, the all-party group requested a further paper setting out a broader approach to possible reform in relation to four specific issues,
that the all-party group’s members agreed to consider the options in consultation with their respective political parties and to respond, in writing, prior to the next meeting of the all-party group,
resolves to request the all-party group to conclude its deliberations as quickly as possible and for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to report on its conclusions to Government.”
Senator Camillus Glynn: It is very important that the whole concept of Seanad reform is being debated and I hope it will not be the last debate. With regard to the vocational panels and the 43 members elected under five different panels, all of which have two sub-panels, I note that five members, or 20%, were initially on the committee. While we are all aware Senator Ryan resigned for his own reasons, I note that 20% of the membership of the committee came from the vocational panels — that was Senator Brian Hayes. Yet, the people elected under that system constituted 71% of the membership of the Upper House, which is not a fair balance, although that is just an observation.
I have no difficulty whatsoever with including the other third level institutions and I believe they should be included. If one accepts that concept, which I do, it must be borne in mind that there are a number of local authority members who are disenfranchised from the system and do not have a vote for the Seanad. There are the members of the five borough councils of Drogheda, Clonmel, Kilkenny, Wexford and Sligo. There are the 49 former urban district councils, some of which have populations bigger than at least two counties in the Republic. There are also the 26 town councils, in one of which I happen to live. These are the former town commissions and, while there was a change to the name, that is all that changed. They have no vote.
We should be inclusive and this is an opportunity in that regard. This report has thrown in the ball and the game is on. It is like the league in that there should be “home and away” debates on this issue on many future occasions. I cannot understand why allegedly educated and intelligent people should advocate the abolition of the second House of the Oireachtas when one considers all that has happened throughout the world in respect of depression of democracy. Is it not true to say that a Member of this House, now sitting in this Chamber, discovered a glitch in legislation? That was Senator Shane Ross, to his eternal credit. Was it not this House that came to the fore in that regard? Do people suffer from convenient amnesia when we discuss the strong points of Seanad Éireann? Is this House not the watchdog of the Constitution, the House that fills the void left by faulty legislation put forward by several Governments and emanating from the other House?
Senator Bacik made a very relevant point when she said that when we speak on Committee Stage of a Bill the collective wisdom of Members of this House can contribute to that debate as they offer individual views relevant to their expertise. Is it not true to say of the Order of Business, condemned ad nauseam by speakers in this House, that Members can day after day make valuable points relevant to debates? They can call for debates on many issues that affect Senators or the public at large.
One of the most important points in this report concerns the automatic re-election of the Cathaoirleach. The holder of the office is a political prisoner and cannot leave because he or she is precluded from doing so, even though in a former life the Cathaoirleach might have been affiliated to a party. There are many meetings of a public and community nature that he or she cannot attend. What is happening here? The Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann is a prisoner of the job and yet, if he or she wishes to go forward for election he or she must traipse around the highways and byways and put up 12,000 or 13,000 miles, as I did. I say to Senator O’Toole that I was neither listed nor assisted. I would love to be one of those chosen people but any list I was on was the final list when I was declared elected to Seanad Éireann. Any phone calls made for me were made on my own behalf. It is a great privilege to be a Member of this House and I do not begrudge the people.
This is a rare opportunity to reform Seanad Éireann. We must have a further debate on the election of the 20 seats. That matter must enjoy a far more protracted debate than the few minutes we have today. I am aware the Acting Chairman is showing me the red card. Today we have begun the debate. We had one not long ago but we must come back to this item repeatedly and in the fullness of time we will get it right. I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to the House.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I thank Senator Glynn for allowing me say some short words. I welcome the report for our deliberations today with the Minister present. It is a very important time for the Seanad. As Leader of the Seanad I fully support its reform. I support the proposal that all graduates should have a vote and I believe I speak for all Senators on all sides of the House when I say we are in unison in that respect.
As I said during the Order of Business recently, this House has an important duty with regard to the processing of legislation. It is not always possible to give all Bills full time in the Dáil. This House must be the protector of the Constitution and of the taxpayer. I am very proud to state that in my seven years as Leader of Seanad Éireann, to which position I was appointed three times, no Bill was guillotined in this House apart from two occasions. All sections were discussed. All Committee and Report Stages were taken. Line by line every Bill was protected under the Constitution and with regard to the taxpayers getting value for money. That is a serious commitment to the value of Seanad Éireann.
The people do not see the good work that takes place in this House. We have a duty to discuss the possibility of moving the time of the Order of Business to allow for the televising of our proceedings at least one morning per week, as happens in the Dáil at present. We should opt for a system other countries have whereby a Member is allowed to ask one question for one minute, in an orderly fashion. I am prepared to take this matter to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and to do anything within current regulations and procedures to bring the message to the people about the great importance of the work being done in Seanad Éireann.
I call on those responsible journalists who have the democracy of our country at heart. We are not a dictatorship but a proud democracy in a very young nation among the nations of the world and we must consider seriously allowing the print media and radio let the proceedings of this House be known. We did not get the title of “Upper House” in a flip one-liner in an article in a Sunday or daily newspaper. We got it by the hard-earned work of Members who have gone before us since the setting up of this House. I can say, without fear of contradiction and having been a Member of both Houses, that the way our business is conducted and the manner in which Bills are scrutinised here is second to none in any parliament in the world.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to the House to listen to a very important debate. I commend the Independent Senators on what I and Fine Gael believe is a very reasonable motion asking for urgent reform of the Seanad. We must all act as soon as possible on this.
Even today media mandarins and commentators were on national radio calling for the abolition of Seanad Éireann. For those of us who believe in a truly democratic system, it is important that Seanad Éireann should continue to act as the Upper House and play an oversight role with regard to legislation and democracy in this country. Previous speakers have noted that the media do not take much notice of what happens in this House. Reporting in the media is very scant. In fairness, Jimmy Walsh of The Irish Times contributes a regular piece and it is important we acknowledge that.
Senator Paudie Coffey: “Oireachtas Report” offers a brief piece. I also acknowledge Mr. Tim Ryan who does a brief piece in the local paper in my constituency of Waterford. Other than that, members of the media have many questions to ask themselves in respect of the notice they give this House and the important workings that happen within it.
Reform of Seanad Éireann is the only way to give the House true credibility and connection with the electorate and to enhance its roles and functions in a fully functioning democratic State. The previous Seanad commissioned a report on Seanad reform and much work on a cross-party level went into the compilation of this report. Members looked at all previous reports. They invited many submissions from interested parties and made excellent recommendations on how the Seanad could become more relevant, democratic and connected, and how it could function with enhanced powers in the current era. I compliment the work of former Senator and Leader of the Seanad, Deputy Mary O’Rourke, former Senator and leader of the Fine Gael group, Deputy Brian Hayes, former Senator and deputy leader of the Seanad, John Dardis, and Senator Joe O’Toole, co-ordinator of the Independent group, who met on numerous occasions and considered all views while compiling this report.
Seanad Éireann is something that I am going to reform. What we do need to look at and I think there is a motion next week in the Seanad, is to ensure that we have proper, democratic structures so that we have a franchise by the people that everyone can exercise and not just the chosen few.
The motion before the House certainly addresses the Minister’s comments. It will be interesting to see how the Green Party Senators vote on this motion. It is obvious the leader of the Green Party has a clear view which seems to be in line with the thrust of the Independent group’s motion before the House, namely, that Seanad reform is required urgently and that proper democratic structures are required to address all these issues. Under the current system of voting for university Senators, the graduates of Trinity College Dublin and NUI are the only graduates with a vote. Literally thousands of graduates from other universities and third level colleges and institutes of technology throughout this country are disenfranchised. My local institute is the Waterford Institute of Technology. A delegation of interested students from Waterford Institute of Technology travelled today to Seanad Éireann to hear this debate and I commend them on their interest. The graduates of such institutes are fully compliant with the framework of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. All its major awards, from higher certificate to ordinary degree, honours degree, masters and up to and including awards of doctorates are placed on this framework. This framework is the same for all institutes of technology and all universities. The framework is used across the European Union and its purpose it to ensure equality and recognition of all third level awards across Europe. It means that a degree in whatever discipline is worth the same respect and recognition whatever the awarding body, be it TCD or WIT.
It is unthinkable that 30 years after the passing of a constitutional amendment to allow legislative representation for all third level graduates, this measure remains undone. All our third level graduates should and must be treated the same. How can we hope to have any credibility in asking multinational companies to give equal respect to all our graduates if our Legislature fails to do the same? Is it not an admission that an award from outside a select few mature universities is worth less than those in the NUI and TCD? It is a startling hypocrisy that would not be allowed to stand in any other western democracy.
As politicians we often complain that young people are not engaging in politics. I am sure that I speak for every Member when I say that this is an issue that is always brought up when speaking to graduates. They want to engage and they want to participate in the democratic process, and Bunreacht na hÉireann was amended to allow it. I ask all sides of the House to support this motion which would allow this representation.
I refer to the Fine Gael policy which was announced today and which offers reform of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Fine Gael proposes that 20 of the 60 Senators be directly elected by the public, based on five Senators from each of the European Parliament constituencies, with these elections to take place every five years on the same date as local and European elections. It proposes that six Senators be elected by all graduates after each general election. If Fine Gael gets into power, whenever that may be, we hope to implement that policy.
I hope this motion will be adopted by the House and that progress can be made. For the sake of the credibility of Seanad Éireann, for the democracy we all represent, it would be a positive move and I commend the motion to the House.
Senator David Norris: I thank Senator Coffey for sharing time with me and I welcome the Minister to the House. It is very appropriate he should be here as he was chair of the committee and I sat at the first meeting. I do not agree with my colleague, Senator O’Toole, as I do not think anything very much will be done. The Minister will recollect that the first item on the agenda, this scoping nonsense, was an attack on university seats. The Minister was open about that and he changed it slightly. This is always what happens and it is complete and utter rubbish. Nobody in this House actually believes it. Perhaps it will happen, but it will not happen because people here believe it, because nobody does and that is what they will say privately.
I will not vote for this motion because of the inclusion of the councillors. This is what makes it a rotten borough really. It is highly dangerous and is totally undemocratic. That does not mean that I do not hold my colleagues in high regard as I hold them in very high regard just as in the same way I support population control. I do not think anybody should have more than two children but as for my friends who have five children, they cannot be wished away. I do not wish these people away but I wish to God they had never been procreated and the method by which they were procreated is obscene in the extreme.
All sides of this House put forward the idea and it was beginning to be implemented. A special committee of Seanad Éireann was set up to look into the situation of the renditions at Shannon Airport. This was scuppered because local councillors down in County Clare put the squeeze on the Government parties and the committee was abolished. This shows a distortion of the power through local parish pump politics and that is the main reason I object to the motion.
The only thing good about the university seats is the method of election. We are the only democratic bit in the whole bloody place. There is an electorate of 50,000 in our constituency and 100,000 or so in Senator O’Toole’s constituency. We all refer to these things as ours; it is a constituency in which I stand. We have real constituencies. I do not think it is a good idea to multiply the numbers by one thousand in order to give the public the impression that there is some kind of democracy here. Unlike Senator O’Toole, I would be in favour of giving more power to Seanad Éireann. Why not? It is absolute nonsense that we are spancilled like babies and we are not allowed to spend money. Why not? How many times have we put down proposals here in this House and we have been ruled out of order because it would create a charge on the Exchequer? That is absolute insulting nonsense.
I am not taking any lessons about democracy from either side of this House. I have sat in this House when every single one of the named officers of this House had been rejected at least once, and several of them twice, by the electorate and then they were popped back in by the Taoiseach. I do not think anybody in that situation is in a position to give lectures on democracy. Whatever its faults, whatever its difficulties, Seanad Éireann does a good job in revising legislation and that is what we are here for. We have found flaws in legislation and we have introduced and amended legislation. Ideas have been canvassed in this House of which the other House was notoriously shy.
We have good debates, and we should have them more often, about, for example, the North of Ireland. I thought it was a mistake in the old days when we were told we could not speak about the North for danger of inflaming the situation; it was already inflamed. I would like the opportunity to take on ideas such as those expressed by Senator Harris who accused the rest of us of posturing. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile is my answer to that. He is a very good posturer, a very powerful posturer, and his physical posture tells one a lot as does the wonderful expression in his voice, but the ideas were dangerous in the extreme. He talked about introducing internment. I would have liked an opportunity to reply and say that is the wrong way to go. Despite the accusations of posturing, I am very glad we had the opportunity in this House to express the grief of this country at the shocking events and the abhorrence that so many people on both sides of the community, on both sides of the Border, felt about that.
Mary Robinson was an old friend and colleague of mine, and still is, I think. As President of Ireland, she was not able to interfere directly in politics but she was able to express in gracious, clever and subtle ways what the Irish people were feeling and, in giving that expression, she really did a service to the people of Ireland. In addition to what else we can do, we can give that kind of service.
The Irish people will want the abolition of the Seanad. Pat Kenny thought he had got an interesting result on the radio today. If he had asked, “Do you want Dáil Éireann to be abolished?”, there would have been a 100% chorus saying, “Get rid of them”.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister to the House. I am delighted to be here to make another contribution on how best to reform the Seanad. This matter has been raised several times since I first came to this House in 1993. Several debates have been held on the subject of how best to reform the Seanad for the 21st century. I have read the report and I have scanned it again and again, and there are two areas where reform is needed. I refer to the composition of the Seanad, how Members are elected and our role and function as Senators. People say the Seanad should be abolished. I did not read all 161 submissions. The majority of submissions contained suggestions as to how the reform should take place. I certainly do not agree with the cynics who believe for whatever reason that the Seanad has no relevance in the 21st century. I disagree totally with such thinking.
There have been suggestions that the election of Senators to the Seanad is undemocratic. I could not disagree more. How could it be? We are selected by a nominating body. We then have to travel the whole of Ireland to campaign among county councillors——
Senator Ann Ormonde: ——who to me have been elected by the public, and they elect us. Are we suggesting that people who have been elected are not good enough to elect us to the Seanad? That, to me, is democracy. For somebody to say to me that there should be a list system——
Senator Ann Ormonde: ——is undemocratic, because I, having worked very hard could find at the end of the campaign, if a list system is imposed, that no matter what I have done to earn my Seanad seat, that people who are prominent in Ireland are selected above me. It could be that prominent people who have failed to hold their Dáil seats may be selected, and not I. Is that a fair system?
As regards the university procedure, I agree totally with all the Senators who said the franchise should be extended to all graduates. It is most unfair to graduates from the University of Limerick and Dublin Institute of Technology who possess worthwhile degrees as well as those from Waterford Institute of Technology and all the other institutes of technology that are not given a chance. They should be well recognised and I believe that is the way we should go.
As regards the Seanad’s role as it stands, there are fine debates in this House. We initiate legislation in the Seanad and nitpick every part of it on Committee Stage, and yet none of us gets any credit from the media, and I believe this is a shame. I have asked many times about how this might be corrected. Why are we disregarded, downgraded and in effect the poor relation? I do not like being a poor relation and I never was, in my household, growing up. I do not want to be a poor relation in this House, either. However, I find that the response from the public to the Seanad is along the lines, “Ah, you lot”, and these are the lies that are being used. I do not like this and I should like us to acknowledge that.
As regards the role of the Seanad, we have power and can invite MEPs to address this House. We can monitor and scrutinise legislation that has been drafted in Europe and can send it back if it does not satisfy the requirements of our citizens. We can link with the public through county councillors as elected representatives and God knows they keep us on our feet. Let there be no doubt about this, if they want something done and a Senator does not follow what they like, he or she will not be part of their team the next time out. There is definitely democracy in that sense. However, as regards the role of the Seanad, we could change in relation to how we do our Order of Business. I am not at all happy with that.
We are only touching on those points this evening. The Minister talked about all-party group members and said they were now having consultation papers and would report back to him. I should like the Minister to come back to the Seanad first. We should have a long day’s session on this topic. There are many points I should like to develop further. This is just a brainstorming exercise. There are many points to be discussed, for example how that list system would work. I am against it, but I should love to see further discussion on it. My jury is out as regards these matters. In relation to whether we should have the regional way of elections——-
Senator Ann Ormonde: In relation to the proposal for a regionalised way of doing things I believe the jury is out in that regard and it should be discussed further. I am not sure it would work, but it is a good idea and would remove much hardship as regards having to travel all over the country. I do not really have the answer, however, as regards that and we need further discussion on it.
I have just touched on points many of which need further thrashing out. Before the Minister goes anywhere as regards this consultation paper, I should like him to revisit this Chamber, not for a two-hour debate, but rather for a session that takes as long as is needed because we must take the lead as regards reform of the Seanad.
Senator Ann Ormonde: It must not come from somewhere out there. We know how to run this Seanad. We are good at our job, let there be no doubt about that. I can tell the Minister we can make this work if given half a chance to reform the Seanad. I welcome the debate today, although I cannot agree with the motion. There are very good points in it, however. I thank Senator O’Toole for bringing it forward for discussion. The list system proposal as it stands I cannot go along with for the moment, but we should have another brainstorming exercise on it. If the Senator can expand his paper to clarify many of the very fine points, I would welcome that.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I would like to share time with Senator Kelly, with the permission of the House. I welcome the Minister. Like many Senators before me, I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion and commend Senator O’Toole for bringing it forward. Senator Ormonde spoke about the need for a longer debate on this issue. We have been debating it for the last 60 years, so we need to see some finality.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I am not sure whether another day or another report would help. I spoke about Seanad reform here in November 2007, and while the world outside has changed a great deal since, very little has changed as regards the way we do our business. My opinion remains the same as it was then.
During the week Senator O’Toole praised the work we do here and mentioned legislation such as the Charities Bill, the Adoption Bill and the Broadcasting Bill. They came through this House and benefited by the work put into them while in the Seanad. However, we are living through a period of protracted and previously unimagined crises. Events are unfolding at an enormous rate and our decision making process is struggling to keep pace. In that context the work that has been carried out in this House over the last 18 months has done the State a considerable degree of service. We have managed to spot oversights, put down amendments that were often very useful and the overall quality of debate has meant that legislation, originally drafted in some haste, has ultimately ended up serving the purpose for which it was intended.
Despite these worthy efforts, however, our collective democratic deficit remains and our credibility and usefulness in the eyes of the Irish public are virtually non-existent. Reform of the Seanad is in everybody’s interest, not just ours. I find sometimes that it is difficult to be a participant in an aspect of the legislative process that suffers from such a chronic credibility deficit. Members of the public rightly view the status quo as undemocratic, elitist and of questionable long-term use in its current form.
I shall deal with some of the specifics of the motion. I cannot support any affirmation of the university panel system. The expansion of the franchise to include the institutes of technology, DCU and the University of Limerick would achieve little in the way of democratic accountability other than just expanding and reinforcing what is an inequitable and elitist system. The word “elitist” has been thrown about to great effect in national and international politics in the last few years. I do not want to label anyone or question the genuine good intentions of Senators in this House. However, the fact remains that this is an aspect of the system, as opposed to any individual actor, and it is inherently elitist. It promotes a group that achieved a specific level of educational attainment to a higher plane than the rest of the electorate and that is simply unacceptable and we cannot support it.
The university panel has provided the Upper House with legislators and public figures of considerable quality, both now and previously. The expertise and commitment Senators elected from the university panel bring to this House in areas such as human rights, finance, social policy and labour law is deeply appreciated by all of us. However, the end does not always justify the means, and the means in this instance must change. Senators Bacik, Norris, Mullen, O’Toole and Quinn are public figures of some strength in their own right and I have no doubt their electoral prospects would not suffer from the removal of the university panel system.
Many valuable rewards are, and should be, bestowed on men and women who graduate from university but the right to vote in an election at the exclusion of others is not among them. Many of my friends and colleagues have not had, in many cases, the chance or, in others, the desire to attend university but that should not mean they cannot take part in voting for elections to the Upper House. My preference is for the university panels to be extended and that anyone over 16 years of age who chooses to register should be entitled to vote for these panels, regardless of any educational attainment.
I have no problem in holding a session of the Seanad in the University of Limerick but I would be happier if it was held in a community centre in somewhere like Moyross than within the hallowed walls of some university campus.
Moving on to general reform, I fully support the general consensus that the vocational panel is in need of wholesale reform. The public consultation process carried out for the report found a unanimous appetite for reform in this area and it is important we recognise the usefulness of those labels. Simply, they were designed for a different time and a different society.
On the subject of the Taoiseach’s nominees, I support suggestions in the report that these allocations be made to under-represented or marginalised groups in society. The House would benefit enormously in operational, contributory and reputational terms if seats were allocated to people from Northern Ireland, different ethnic groups, migrants and others who suffer from social exclusion. This kind of participative democracy would be enormously beneficial and I would be delighted to see those provisions as part of a reform package.
Recommendations in regard to the type of work we should do in the Seanad are as important as the procedural and operational reforms. The idea that the Seanad should have a key role in the scrutiny of European affairs, including reviewing draft legislation and providing MEPs with a national forum for discussing their activities, is excellent and would provide the Upper House with a unique and valuable mandate. Therein lies an excellent opportunity to address the disconnect many citizens and, indeed, legislators feel in regard to Europe. Such a system would be transparent, accessible and highly relevant to Ireland’s future in the European Union.
Similarly, suggestions that the Seanad should undertake occasional scrutiny of public figures, public appointments, State agencies and the performance of public bodies would constitute an important step towards accountable democracy. Given that we now own a bank, such a function may prove invaluable in the future. Again, I thank the Senators for tabling this motion. As I said, we are speaking about the 11th report on Seanad reform, so let us just get on with it.
Senator Alan Kelly: I compliment Senator O’Toole and his colleagues on tabling this motion, which I will support. As my colleague, Senator Hannigan, said, let us just get on with it. This House needs to be reformed. We have been talking about it for long enough and it is something the Green Party proposed a long time ago. I look forward to that happening and will wholeheartedly support it.
There was a constitutional amendment in 1979 and the fact that it has not been acted on is crazy. I am a triple NUI graduate and the fact that I have a vote but most of the people living around me in the mid-west do not, because they went to the University of Limerick, is insane. They should have a vote. If we are to maintain the university panel system, graduates of all colleges should have a vote. However, I am not in favour of that system but favour that outlined by my colleague, Senator Hannigan, where people over 16 years of age should have a vote once they register. However, if we are to maintain the system where graduates have a vote, it must be extended to all graduates. It is crazy that scenario does not exist.
The Labour Party has a track record in this regard because in 1999 or 2000, the former Labour Party leader, Dick Spring, proposed a Bill stating same. I remember it because I was chair of Labour Youth at the time and had to digest this Bill on behalf of the party. The Bill would have extended the right to vote to graduates of other colleges. That should be mandatory if we are to maintain the current system. I would welcome a decision to hold a session of this House in another location such as Limerick because it would show the workings of the House to the people.
I welcome the report and wish to make a number of points in regard to it. European legislation accounts for over 80% of legislation here. The relevance of this House would be greatly served if it scrutinised much of this legislation. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, but one only gets to look at a fraction of the legislation coming through. Scrutinising that legislation would give this House a role which would be welcome. We would not end up with scenarios where we are not fully aware of the consequences of legislation or directives, whether good or bad, although I believe the majority is good. The issue is the transposing of legislation and directives into Irish law.
We need to be more flexible. Last year around St. Patrick’s Day, there were ructions in the House when I tried to get a motion passed on the undocumented Irish in America. We nearly had to move heaven and earth to get it through. There was uproar. That is crazy. The House should be more relevant.
This House should be more open to accepting Bills, especially ones which are fair and are from the Opposition. I will propose some Bills in the near future and I hope the Government will look favourably on them. I see no reason for it to oppose them other than that I want to get them through. If a Bill is good, the Government should accept it because it is crazy not to do so.
Senator Alan Kelly: On many occasions, that does not happen. Perhaps I am breaking with tradition but I compliment the Green Party which has the best track record in terms of the relevant Minister attending. I do not know, but perhaps it is the novelty of sitting in that seat. I thank the Minister, Deputy Gormley, for that.
Senator Alan Kelly: If the House is to be relevant and if we want the press to cover debates, the scenario where Ministers are sent into the House, fall half asleep and do not listen to us is crazy and cannot be allowed to continue.
Deputy John Gormley: I thank Senator O’Toole for raising this issue and for his long and active interest in Seanad reform. I welcome the motion and agree with the Senator that reform of the Upper House deserves our attention. His motion represents a commendable desire to move this issue forward without further delay and I am happy to have the opportunity to lay out the timetable I intend to pursue. I had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the Senator earlier this week. I believe he understands that I have a genuine commitment to Seanad reform.
The programme for Government states that the Government will determine the extent of cross-party agreement on the recommendations of the Report on Seanad Reform to advance proposals for its implementation. The commitment to seek to advance Seanad reform forms a part of the Government’s overall approach to Oireachtas reform.
In February 2003 the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges established the sub-committee on Seanad reform. The terms of reference of the sub-committee provided that it should review and make recommendations on the future composition and functions of the Seanad, in particular the Seanad’s electoral system and role in the areas of legislation, parliamentary accountability, public policy and EU affairs. The sub-committee on Seanad reform published its report on Seanad reform in April 2004 which sets out a package of comprehensive recommendations for further consideration and action concerning the composition, functions and future role of Seanad Éireann. Many of these recommendations are radical and far-reaching.
The principal recommendations of the report propose that the Seanad be increased to 65 senators from 60 at present to include the automatic re-election of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. Out of a total of 65 Senators, 32 would be directly elected and, as such, a universal franchise would be instituted. Under a list-proportional representation system, 26 of these seats would be filled from a single national constituency with a further six to be elected by a reformed higher education constituency, with graduates from all higher education institutes in the State being eligible to register.
Indirect election by local authority members would continue to be a feature and 20 Senators would be indirectly elected by county and city councillors, Deputies and Senators under the proportional representation-single transferable vote system, while 12 Senators would be nominated by the Taoiseach. The Seanad would be renewed on a rolling basis with direct elections, including the higher education constituency, taking place every five years on the same day as the European and local elections. Indirect elections and the Taoiseach’s nominations would take place within 90 days after a Dáil election, similar to current practice.
Deputy John Gormley: The recommendations include the widening of the franchise for the higher education constituency in Seanad Éireann. The current restriction of the Seanad university seats to three elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland and three by Trinity College graduates has been acknowledged by all parties as anomalous. The Seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Election of Members of Seanad Éireann by Institutions of Higher Education) Act 1979 permits the extension of the higher education franchise, in a manner to be provided by law, to other institutions of higher education in the State. The 1979 amendment was originally introduced to facilitate the intended break-up of the NUI. However, legislation was not introduced or enacted to give effect to the constitutional amendment as the break-up of the NUI did not subsequently occur.
I have previously stated in this House that I am anxious to make progress in this area as 30 years have passed since the 1979 amendment. It is time to give it effect by extending the higher education constituency. The current arrangements exclude the graduates of the majority of third level institutions despite the fact that a constitutional amendment was passed in 1979 to broaden the scope of the franchise beyond Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland to other institutions of higher education in the State. Aside from the disparity between graduates who are entitled to vote and those who are not, the system has been criticised because it confers a basic democratic right to certain people and therefore denies it to others solely on the basis of educational achievement. However, given the constitutional opening, reform should focus initially on the area of widening the third level franchise.
Clearly, the whole question of Seanad reform is a core element of the wider debate on democracy and the political process. The 2004 report acknowledged that it has considerable political implications and that difficult decisions will have to be taken involving sensitive political matters. The report argued that if progress is to be made there is an urgent need to accept the political reality that Seanad Éireann must be reformed if it is to make a viable and distinctive contribution to the economic, social and political affairs of our country.
I am anxious to see Seanad reform advanced based on all-party consensus before the election of the 24th Seanad. I chair the all-party group which includes representatives of the Independent Senators. The aim of the group is to establish, in a small number of meetings, the extent of cross-party agreement on the 2004 report’s recommendations. It has met twice, most recently in October 2008. Notwithstanding different perspectives concerning specific changes, the general view of its membership is that reform is necessary. During the course of its deliberations four possible options were identified.
One option is an enabling amendment of the Constitution to permit subsequent reform by legislation and the replacement of the detailed provisions currently in the Constitution with a simpler enabling provision which would allow greater flexibility to reform the electoral process by legislation and would be similar to the Dáil provisions. It would also avoid the requirement to gain consensus on all issues in relation to a future electoral process at this point. Notwithstanding the potential flexibility of such an approach, a number of complex issues would still need to be addressed, such as the Taoiseach’s nominations and the timing, system of, and eligibility for elections. A view would also have to be taken on the likely acceptance by the public of an open-ended referendum without a clear indication of the nature of the proposed reforms.
Another option is the expansion of the higher education constituency, which I referred to earlier. A further option is the assignation of responsibility for the scrutiny of certain senior public appointments to the Seanad. Considerable thought and development would be necessary to refine the idea of how the Seanad would perform such a role, especially the identification of the senior positions involved. The rationale of assigning such a role to the Seanad while excluding the Dáil would also need to be explained. The appointments process would also need to comply with due process and modern recruitment standards.
A final option is providing for the membership of the Clerk of the Seanad on the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. It has statutory responsibility for expenditure, staffing and services in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The group agreed to consider the four issues in consultation with their respective political parties following receipt of a paper scoping out each issue. Group members agreed to respond in writing prior to the next meeting of the all-party group. I will circulate the scoping paper to the group this week.
I look forward to receiving the views of the group and its respective parties. I will set a short deadline for receipt of these written submissions, with the final meeting of the group to follow immediately thereafter. If consensus cannot be reached it is my intention to introduce legislation by the end of this year that is as close as I can identify to such consensus. Part of such legislation will include the extension of the university franchise to ensure elections to the 24th Seanad will be conducted with an increased electorate.
In response to Senator O’Toole, I know he has received representations, particularly from former students of the University of Limerick, and I understand that was one of the reasons he wanted to hold a meeting there. I know there is now some concern that this change will not go ahead. I thank the Senator for his representations and I assure him it will go ahead. There is no question about that. There is consensus on this matter.
Deputy John Gormley: There is not quite full consensus because certain Senators have said they want to see a whole package and not a piecemeal approach. I do not believe it is piecemeal. We can have a number of smaller reforms. It is vital to have some reform because if there is no reform, people we say we are stuck in a situation where nothing is happening at all. Once we get the ball rolling we can then see what further reforms are possible.
Senator O’Toole raised the issue of the House sitting outside Dublin. This is a matter for the House to decide. Article 15.1.3° of the Constitution provides that the Houses of the Oireachtas may sit outside Dublin. Advice may need to be sought whether one House of the Oireachtas on its own can decide to sit outside Dublin.
The Government amendment reflects the concern that there be timely progress on the matter of Seanad reform. It recognises the need for reform, notes the Government’s commitment to determining the extent of agreement and the establishment of an all-party group. Furthermore, the motion requests that the all-party group conclude its deliberations as quickly as possible. I will then report to Government on its conclusions. In that regard, I will circulate a paper to the members of the group, as requested, within the next few days and we should then be in a position to call the final meeting over the coming weeks.
I will address some of the remarks I had the opportunity to listen to, although some Senators have left the Chamber. Senator Coffey referred to a question put to me by Mr. Sean O’Rourke. It seems to be the case that the Seanad has become the whipping boy for many people and is seen as a quick solution. I am on the record as saying that I do not believe the Seanad should be abolished. When I was asked this question directly, I stated that Seanad reform was necessary. In the interview, I mentioned that we needed to widen the franchise, which was a particular reference to university panels and that is a commitment that I have given today.
Interesting proposals have been made, including those of Senator Glynn. All the matters will be considered and must form part of any package, but whether progress can be made as quickly as the Senator would like is another matter. I must be frank with the Senator in that respect.
Senator Ormonde mentioned having a full day’s debate on Seanad reform. However, I found ensuring people’s attendance at even our short sessions to be difficult. People stated that they did not receive the notification or whatever, but we ensure that the notifications go out. Rather than have an open-ended debate, let us stick to a few core issues on which there is consensus and move on them. That would be the beginning of the process. I hope that we can move this issue on because it is a source of frustration for me that little has occurred in terms of Seanad reform despite all the discussion. I am committed to ensuring some of these reforms are made while I am Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for the conciliatory tone of his speech and for his search for a consensus on Seanad reform. I have heard many misinformed comments on the modern relevance of Seanad Éireann from those who should know better. Issues such as lack of regulation in the banking sector and its financial policies were raised in the House long before the debacle in that sector came to light. Legislation is scrutinised to a greater extent in this House than it is in the Lower House.
The Seanad should be reformed. As the Minister stated, a number of reports have been made over the years, but they have not been acted upon by Governments. The Minister seems intent on reforming. I like his attitude, which views half of a loaf as being better than no bread. In this way, we will get something done.
The university seats should be retained, but they should be open to all graduates, an opinion held by the majority of Senators. The Taoiseach being allowed to make as many as 11 nominations must be questioned. The method is designed to give the Government of the day a majority in the House, but it should be used to choose people from several backgrounds and interests. Choosing two people from Northern Ireland, one each from the Unionist and Nationalist traditions, should be considered, as should choosing from groups that are under-represented in society.
The retention of the panel system is contentious. Many nominating bodies show little or no interest in the Seanad other than when they nominate people for Seanad elections. However, other nominating bodies have a real interest and made excellent submissions to the sub-committee on Seanad reform, a fact that should not be forgotten. Those nominating bodies should be examined thoroughly, but the majority of the 43 panel seats should be elected by local councillors, who are elected by the people. The question of the public voting in Seanad elections is important and should be addressed.
The recent report suggests an increase to a 65-seat Seanad, but that is not necessary. A Private Members’ Bill tabled by me has been on the Order Paper for some time. It would give the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, the right to nominate someone to contest a Seanad election in the same manner as can the AMAI and the Association of City and County Councils. The Bill would address this anomaly. However, if the Minister agrees with the principle behind the Bill, I will withdraw it.
As my colleague, Senator Coffey, mentioned, Fine Gael today made proposals on the radical overhaul of the Houses. We suggest that 20 of the 60 Senators should be elected by the people along European Parliament constituency lines. Those elections would occur every five years on the same day as the local and European elections and Senators should sit for fixed five-year terms. As my time has almost concluded, I will not encroach on Senator Coghlan’s time.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I thank Senator Cummins for allowing me to share his time. I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his interest in this subject. I also thank Senator O’Toole for initiating this debate and for provoking everyone into action. Yesterday evening, my party met to discuss this matter. I am delighted with the Minister’s agreement on the Seanad being a vital component of our system. Everyone accepts that some reform is necessary. Unfortunately, the people are apathetic. If asked, they would probably want to abolish the Dáil as well as the Seanad, particularly given these difficult times. Over the years, the House has been acknowledged as being less partisan and more objective than the Dáil.
There is so much to be covered, we will not have enough time to go into it all. My party does not agree with the recommendations in the last report. For example, we do not agree with increasing the number of Senators to 65, as the number should stay at 60. Senators Cummins and Coffey outlined some of our considerations in this respect. The increase is not a part of our agreed position, which was adopted yesterday evening.
Much more could be done. As Senators mentioned, there is no reason for the Seanad not to debate Northern Ireland issues more often. As the Acting Chairman and other Senators stated, we could reform our Order of Business. We should not restrict ourselves during the most topical part of the day. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges should examine the matter.
Before addressing my party’s proposals, the electoral college comprising local councillors and Members is an ideal voting bloc. I respect other Senators’ comments on the people in question. Each Senator represents 1,000 electors or more. As the Minister knows, several countries use indirect methods of election. We should not condemn this system outright. I agree with the Minister in that reform should only be conducted on an all-party basis. I commend him on the way he has set about trying to achieve it, on the meetings he has held and on the further meetings he intends to hold.
Fine Gael believes that the right of address in the Seanad should be conferred on MEPs, but someone pointed out that this right already exists. It should also be conferred on former taoisigh. Under the Leader and some of his predecessors, European Commissioners and others have attended the House. Fine Gael wants to provide the Seanad with additional powers to review proposed EU legislation, take presentations from the public on matters of national importance and initiate constitutional referenda on matters of public importance. Fine Gael wishes to empower the Seanad to write to the President to test the constitutionality of a Bill under Article 26. It wishes to empower the Seanad to interview applicants for various prescribed public positions, such as that of Comptroller and Auditor General, Ombudsman and so on. I see no reason not to extend the right to receive written answers to parliamentary questions to the Seanad. Moreover, its Members are prepared to take on much of the workload that is performed by some of the committees at present. As the Minister is aware, Fine Gael has proposed a reduction in the number of committees from 19 to nine.
Senator Dan Boyle: Members of the House have expressed their satisfaction at the approach being taken by the Minister in seeking to achieve consensus to bring about Seanad reform and it is preferable that such consensus can be achieved. However, the House should further welcome the point that consensus is not being defined as obstructionism. Throughout its history, this House has seen 11 reports on Seanad reform and the 23rd Seanad should make a commitment that a 12th report will not be introduced and that Members finally will initiate a process of change that has not yet been initiated during the 70-year or so history of this House.
When Seanad Éireann was established in its present incarnation in 1938, its original 60 Members were elected on the same basis as obtains at present, whereas Dáil Éireann then had 138 Members. I accept the points made by other Members regarding extending the size of the House, especially given the present economic and financial climate. However, the complete absence of change since 1938 reflects badly on our political system and shows a lack of willingness on the part of this House to reform itself. I am more than encouraged that in his contribution tonight, the Minister stated that in the event of a failure to reach consensus, he will take it upon himself to define as closely as possible how such consensus will be reached. He also stated that legislation will be produced by the end of this year and that by the election of the 24th Seanad, there will be an extended electorate for the university franchise at the very least.
As part of the concluding process of the group that is meeting at present, Members should examine other areas. While Members are constitutionally bound in a manner that restricts the number of changes that can be made in one fell swoop, I am encouraged by the consensus that exists already within the aforementioned group to the effect that beyond the 24th Seanad, efforts should be made to have an all-embracing constitutional change to replace the pages of the Constitution that are devoted to the election of Seanad Éireann with the single clause that exists in respect of the election of Dáil Éireann. Wide-ranging and deeper reform of Seanad Éireann will not take place until this constitutional change happens. Although that is beyond the life of this Seanad, Members should set it as a goal.
In the meantime, there are small areas that Members can consider. For example, they could consider the composition of the vocational panels or their electorates. I refer to their extension to all public representatives and the possible use of votes by the nominating bodies. Moreover, the nominating bodies themselves should be examined in respect of which bodies participate in the process and which do not. Members should ascertain whether bodies exist that are not deemed to be nominating bodies within existing legislation but which should be. These constitute small and narrow reforms that can and should be entertained in legislation that could be produced this year. It will be necessary to achieve such balancing on one side of the reform of this House to counteract the major reform that will occur in respect of the university franchise. I am confident this can happen and that the goodwill exists for it to happen.
However, I also take on board the views of Members of this House that reform is not only structural but also pertains to the system of work in which Members engage. Measures to which Members should have access, such as written questions to Ministers, would improve the role of accountability of this Chamber. I also refer to the possible involvement of people who have served the State with distinction, such as former taoisigh and tánaistí. Such areas also should be addressed in the legislation and if agreement can be reached and if the Minister is in a position to define that agreement within the timeframe he has allowed himself, the Seanad Éireann that will be formed after the next general election could be one of the most radical Houses to have been elected since 1938. Members should set themselves that goal because to do otherwise is to play into the cheap commentary that exists at present about the need for and value of a second Chamber.
Senator Dan Boyle: This is the norm in most functioning democracies and this Seanad more than justifies itself in the manner in which legislation is dealt with in detail. Moreover, Members should not be afraid to state at every opportunity that the style and tone of such contributions reflect well when compared with the other House. However, to win the respect this House deserves and needs, Members must send a clear signal that reform is necessary, possible and will happen by a certain date. When that happens, there will be a greater recognition of the importance of Seanad Éireann and the people will respect this House better because of that.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to the House and I commend my colleague, Senator O’Toole, on tabling this motion. I recall my own words in my maiden speech on my first day in the Seanad in which I expressed my hope that at the next election, I would not have the embarrassment of meeting graduates whose degrees were as good as mine but who were not in a position to vote for either university panel because of an outdated system of election. The Minister is to be commended on appearing to be ready finally to bring this issue to a head and to introduce the necessary reform. He has stated he will introduce legislation before the end of the year and that the next Seanad election will involve the election by a wider constituency of university graduates of the six Senators to be elected from the university panels.
I commend the work that has been done by various people over the years in bringing forward this issue. I commend the work of Graduate Equality, which was founded by a former Member of this House, Mr. Seán O’Connor, who worked very hard on this issue. I also wish Mr. Colm Hamrogue well, from whom all Members have heard recently, and who is newly responsible for Graduate Equality. I am sure they will be highly satisfied by the Minister’s announcement this evening, and rightly so.
The motion tabled by Senator O’Toole looks to the need for a wider approach to reform and I share that view in respect of the reform of the other vocational panels elected by local authority members and so on. However, given the complexity of that issue, Members should not delay by a single day the necessary reform in respect of the graduate panels. The debate on Seanad reform must continue well beyond the debate about how university or third level graduates elect. While graduates of the institutes of technology, the University of Limerick and Dublin City University should participate as soon as possible, I seek further reform. I question, for example, the appointment of Senators by the Taoiseach which may offend against the spirit of the separation of powers. There should be a debate as to whether the President would be a more appropriate person to nominate people to the Seanad.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I also wonder at the proposal to have a Cathaoirleach who is automatically re-elected. It makes much sense in the context of the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, who is unable to undertake the normal day-to-day constituency work that is a particular feature of Dáil Members’ work. However, given the role of the Seanad, the idea that the Cathaoirleach would be re-elected automatically does not appear to me to be quite so compelling.
In the time that remains to me, I wish to note that Members must not simply discuss reform of how the Seanad is elected but must also talk about reform of how it does its business. I was involved in a debate last Friday with the director general of IBEC who came up with the rather glib view that the Seanad simply should be abolished. That is an example of the kind of pub talk that is going on about serious issues at present.
Senator Rónán Mullen: However, to avoid eating into the time of my colleague, Senator Ross, I will conclude on this point. As we seek to reform how the Seanad is elected, we must also reform the work we do here. This is vital in terms of addressing the weak parliamentary system in this State which is militating against proper scrutiny by elected representatives of legislation and Government policy.
Senator Shane Ross: I am in agreement with other Senators that this House must be reformed so that it can capture the public imagination and obtain public support. It certainly does not enjoy these advantages currently and this is presumably reflected in the negligible public response to today’s debate. Other Members have referred to their own experience. The first action I took upon first being elected to this House in 1981 was to table a motion on Seanad reform. Unfortunately, very little has been done in this regard since then.
I fully support the motion. In his speech, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, sets out various deadlines for future action. We must be careful to ensure there is no hidden agenda in this. I would like to see the Minister’s vision long before I see his legislation. I suspect his vision and legislation will be so far apart they will bear little relation to each other. I suspect his vision of Seanad reform involves all types of extremely high-minded ideas that he will be unable to implement. I assume he envisages something like what was contained in the report which came to the Seanad some years ago which offered a vision of the type of mix that would exist in an ideal second House. This would include Members elected democratically by the people, with others elected by councillors, universities, various panels and so on, together with a number of Taoiseach’s nominees. We can all select the aspects of which we approve and disapprove in this proposed mix.
My fear, which may or may not be justified, is that having established what he wants to achieve, the Minister will find it cannot be done because of the power wielded by the political parties in this House. For reasons everybody can understand but not approve, they will not want to see the reform of the seats that elected them. That is perfectly natural. Therefore, I anticipate a start will be made, which will undoubtedly be a positive development in itself, but the start will also be the finish. The only specific reform the Minister mentioned was the extension of the university franchise, of which I thoroughly approve. It is a reform that must be implemented. However, he must not stop there. That is only a minor aspect of the required reform. We must look at the big picture. As such, the committee charged with considering these issues should agree that all reforms must come at the same time. If they do not come at the same time, they will not all be implemented. The political reality is that we will most likely be presented merely with the lowest common denominator, which is all-party agreement that there be reform of the university seats. That change will be followed by another 60 or 70 years in which nothing happens.
As I said, I agree that the university seats must be reformed by extension of the franchise. We would welcome that. However, the Minister must also take this opportunity to reform the electoral process in respect of every seat in this Chamber. That would be a tremendous achievement. Reforming only one aspect of the electoral process would not be an end in itself and would not be worth doing. I suspect, too, that it would be the end of the reform process. Instead, the entire system must be reformed.
Senator John Ellis: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the subject of Seanad reform. I was first elected to this House in 1977 under the panel system. I returned to it in 2007 as a Taoiseach’s nominee. Therefore, I have seen it from both sides. I am strongly of the view that there is room for reform. However, are we talking about real reform or merely reform of the panel system and the other methods of election and selection?
There have been suggestions that membership of the Seanad should increase to 65. Electoral commissions have had the opportunity to increase the size of the Dáil from 166 to 168 Members in the last two or three revisions but have decided not to do so. The reason is that the public has no appetite for an increase in numbers. Likewise, I expect there is no appetite for an increase in Seanad numbers. If such a proposal were put to the public in a referendum, it would be absolutely hammered.
Senator John Ellis: I have no gripe with university representation in the Seanad and I would welcome an extension of the franchise. However, if we are to extend it to all third level institutions in the State, we should also consider extending it to institutions in Northern Ireland. Students at those institutions should be allowed to vote if they hold Irish passports, as many of them do. This would be a helpful gesture to the people of Northern Ireland. If this is done, there should be an open election, with no categorisation of the different panels. In other words, six Members would be elected by graduates of all the third level institutions, North and South. Moreover, any graduate who is a resident of the State and making PRSI contributions should have the right to vote. In other words, those people who were obliged to leave the State to obtain their educational qualifications should have the right to vote.
I hoped to say more but my time is almost up. We must be very careful in making changes to the panel system which has afforded various groups the opportunity to be represented in this House. Councillors — who, we should remember, are democratically elected — should continue, along with Deputies and Senators, to have the right to cast their vote. There is a proposal that 20 Members should be elected under some type of national system. If it is agreed that there is a shortfall of representation throughout the State, why should we not address it by instead increasing the number of Dáil seats by 20?
Senator Jim Walsh: I thank Senator Ellis for sharing time. The Seanad, like any institution, can be improved and changed. However, we must recognise also that its contribution to legislation and public debate on matters of national importance has been second to none. A substantial amount of legislation has been introduced in the Seanad. Various Ministers have said to me on different occasions that they prefer bringing legislation to this House because it is more likely to meet with an objective, impartial and incisive debate. That is less likely in the other House because of the greater tendency for an intrusion of partisan politics into areas where it is unnecessary.
We should not underplay the role of this House. Now is an opportune time for people to denigrate politics and its various institutions. However, as Senator O’Toole stated, we have seen how such attitudes in the past led to serious consequences for Europe. Playing that particular game is the last route we should take. Those in the media who are playing that game may well live to regret it if the entire system is undermined. That is not to say that there is no need to deal with the following issues. It was suggested that we should move partially to a list system. How will people get their names on the list? My experience in other jurisdictions is that someone at the top of the party decides who will be on the list. Perhaps someone can explain to me how that is more democratic than a system where locally elected representatives, with a mandate from people within the constituency, exercise their franchise in electing people to the Upper House of Parliament. I need to be convinced that there is democratic underpinning of the list system and I have difficulty seeing how it would operate in practice. That is an important consideration.
There may be a need to examine the necessity of the vocational system. A number of Members have alluded to this. Perhaps this should be considered according to the constituencies of the European Parliament rather than the vocational system but there is merit in the vocational panels. This could be examined.
I agree with the extension of the university panel to all third level institutions. There might be merit in extending this to all third level institutions on the island. With regard to the Taoiseach’s nominees, there is a need to have a built-in majority for the Government of whatever hue so that legislation can be passed smoothly. An omission in our original report should be addressed. There should be reasonable representation from Northern Ireland. Some of the problems we face there exist because, whilst the peace process has been bedded down over the past ten years and no one wants to see any return to what happened for 30 years, we want to see more North-South involvement. A mistake was made in changing the North-South bodies proposed to the six bodies for North-South co-operation under the agreement. We now have North-South bodies that do not register on the public psyche. By having reasonable representation of Unionists and Nationalists in this House we could play a pivotal role in the development of understanding and mutual co-operation on this island. The Seanad is ideally placed to do this.
Senator Alex White: I will take two minutes. I do not wish any discourtesy to my colleagues but I have not been able to follow this debate because I was at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. I am unable to respond to anything else that was said in the debate.
I wish to respond to something Senator Norris has repeatedly said in his robust defence of the university representation under the Constitution. Some of his contribution was teasing but he set up the question of university representatives against the local authority elected representatives, of which I am one. The 43 Members elected by local authority members are elected by way of an indirect system of election. It is not unknown in many countries to have indirect elections, even for the presidencies of some countries. It may not be perfect and it may be an issue for public debate or a constitutional amendment in due course but at least it is universal. The relationship between an ordinary citizen and a Member of this House is indirect but it is the same. Once one has the franchise at 18 years of age, one can vote for local authority members and they, in turn, can vote for a Member of this House. Although it is indirect and imperfect, it is universal.
University representation is the opposite of universal. People do not like the term elitist but I have used it now even though I did not intend to use it in a pejorative sense. University representation is limited to a certain body of persons in a position to vote for candidates. I am a graduate, one of the privileged, lucky people who can vote for representatives of universities in this House. The question of university representation must be revisited and justified anew in this century. The justification that existed in the 1930s no longer exists. Members such as Senators Norris and O’Toole and many who have gone before them make a valuable contribution to public life but I do not see why we need to maintain the fiction of their being elected to this House through universities.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Reform is necessary and structural reform of the means of getting here is necessary. I welcome the reforms proposed by Deputy Hogan, the Fine Gael spokesperson, and by Senator O’Toole in this motion. Whatever methodology we use, be it Senator Glynn’s proposal to extend the franchise to town councillors or the vocational panel system that has served us well, there must be reform. More urgently, we must change how we do our business.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: The House has done much work since I was elected and we must change. Through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges we should seek the ability to table written parliamentary questions to Ministers. It is imperative that we have that status.
Senator Nicky McFadden: The issue that the public has most problem with is how we do our business. We should extend the working hours of the Seanad to four days a week as proposed by Fine Gael. We should invite former taoisigh or MEPs to address the House and have a consultative role, especially if we are abolishing committees. This would give more power to the Seanad. The value of the Seanad is that we tease out legislation. In doing so we have excellent debates and the reason we do not have more injunctions and High Court challenges is that legislation is teased out in this House.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I thank all Senators for an excellent debate. I do not have time to respond to every Member but I have made a note of issues raised by various Members and I wish to deal with these in a positive and proactive way. I agree with the points made by Senator Alex White. The university panel is elitist and its continuing existence is credible in the context of being a vocational group, where every other citizen of the State also has access to a vote for the Seanad. In that regard this fits well with the philosophy that is contemplated in the Constitution, that the university graduates are a group as long as every other citizen has the same access.
I disagree with Senator Norris’s views on indirect election. The concept of indirect election by local authority members or one tier of democracy is well established worldwide. My objection to it is the overwhelming number of Members elected through that method. The proposal by Fine Gael today or the report of the reform group is the way to go.
I agree with the point made by Senator Glynn on urban and town councillors. If we allow the concept of indirect election this should include all those elected on that first tier. I said this before when urban and town councillors made their contribution to the reform group in this Chamber four years ago.
To three or four Senators who referred to this, I wish to point out that there is no mention of a list system in my motion. When I draft motions I take trouble to examine what will alienate people and what will not. I did not mention a list system.
Senator Joe O’Toole: That is for another day and other people rather than me. I did not put numbers into it as that would also have alienated people. I made it easy for people to support this motion but people found reasons to oppose it that were not relevant to it in the first place.
The point was made by Senator Dominic Hannigan regarding university as opposed to universal voting. He did not grasp the point I was making. University Senators and the university constituency sits very well in a scenario where every member of the community — every citizen — has a vote in the election. It is another vocational group and there is no problem doing that. As long as graduates have nothing above and beyond another ordinary citizen, it is justifiable. If it is any other way, it is not justifiable, although it may have been in the days when the system was established. That day is long gone.
An issue was touched on by Senator Dominic Hannigan that I was going to include in the motion but which I thought a step too far. As the Senator mentioned it, I will deal with the issue. In extending the vote universally and in line with the view of the Constitution that the Upper House is different, it would be a good place to experiment and give a first shot to voting rights for 16 year olds or 17 year olds. This is the reduction of the voting age for those who can vote for candidates in the Upper House in the extended panel. We could try that out as there is a view internationally that we should be looking in that direction. The matter is not in the report but we should look at it.
The panel system was referred to by Senator Boyle. It would take a constitutional amendment to do what I am suggesting and give every citizen a vote. It would not take a constitutional amendment to do something very close to that within the vocational panel. We could leave an internal panel being maintained and elected under the current form, nominated by Members of these Houses and voted on using the indirect method. The external people could be voted in using people registered as teachers for the educational panel, farmers for the agricultural panel and IBEC’s crowd on the industrial panel, etc. Every Member could be brought into the process.
The point raised by Senator Ellis could be accommodated within the 1979 amendment to the Constitution, where as long as a person is a citizen, it should be possible in legislation to allow a person who graduated from a third level university in Northern Ireland to be accommodated. Graduates of Northern Ireland universities who are not Irish citizens would not be allowed in. That issue was considered at some length by the reform group. It cuts across the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement to give votes to citizens of the other jurisdiction in elections to these Houses. That is an issue we needed to look at.
We should have these debates and deal with the issues raised by Senators Bacik, Mullen and others in terms of internal reform, as well as matters raised by other speakers. We can act internally. What are we about? I am about winning back the trust and confidence of people in the political system. I am about diluting the cynicism with which people approach politics today and we can look at that issue.
There is the idea of proposing a sitting outside Dublin. I have suggested the University of Limerick, as it was the first college outside Dublin to be established that would come under this idea. It is a gesture towards contact with the community. Perhaps we are in the hallowed halls but we can do other things at another time.
I will list nine names — Catherine McGuinness, Mary Robinson, John A. Murphy, Professor Jim Dooge, Dr. Maurice Manning, Professor John Kelly, Gordon Wilson, Eamon De Buitléar and John Magnier. These are three groups of three; the last three were nominated by the Taoiseach, the second three were elected by the indirect system and the first three were elected in the university system. This illustrates how good people can come through all the systems. I value all the systems and we should hold on to them, but there is an imbalance.
In all the couple of hundred submissions we received two or three years ago, only one asked for the Seanad’s abolition. The rest looked for something different. I was not a Member of this House when the debate on contraception was initiated by Mary Robinson as I was elected after that but I was a Member when we were the first House to consider the issues of AIDS, IVF, chlorofluorocarbons and climate change and stem cell research. We are having energetic debates on that on these benches and I could speak about many more issues.
The value of the House is beyond dispute. I ask people to be brave and confident about this, move it forward and get a result on the issue. We should show Irish people that we are here to serve, contribute and give political scrutiny. We are here in the spirit of the Constitution.
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