Thursday, 7 November 2019
Report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group: Statements
I would prefer to retain the current system rather than embark on implementing the findings of this report. I represented the Independents 4 Change technical group on the Seanad reform committee. I strenuously objected to the main proposals in the draft Seanad Bill, which I believe are unworkable, unwieldy, prone to manipulation by wealthy vested interests and fundamentally not in the interests of developing Irish democracy.
On page 21 of annex 4 of the report 4 I set out my views in a statement of position. In it, I recall that from the start of the group’s proceedings I had expressed my opposition to the recommendations of the working group on Seanad reform published in 2015 and also known as the Manning report. Ironically, I was a teenager in Professor Manning’s politics class when I first visited Seanad and Dáil Éireann. I was struck by the vibrant debate we witnessed between some of the great men and women of the era in Dáil Éireann, with many dynamic speakers. I was then very disappointed to walk to a mostly deserted somnambulant Seanad which had all the atmosphere of an old boys’ club. Likewise, when I regularly visited the Seanad as a Deputy with visiting classes of schoolchildren and constituents, my view that the Seanad should be abolished steadily hardened. For example, in May 2003, I wrote to Mr. Peter Finnegan, our current Secretary General of the Oireachtas, who at that time was secretary of the then Committee on Procedures and Privilege sub-committee on Seanad reform, and urged that the Seanad should be abolished as it was a totally undemocratic, unrepresentative and failed institution. I added that if the Seanad was reformed into a truly democratic body, it would be a rival to the Dáil or function as a second Dáil and issues about the appointment of Ministers from the Seanad and financial and other powers would surely follow.
I have always acknowledged the outstanding contributions of some Senators through the years, such as my former colleagues in the Labour Party like Joe Costello, the late Pat Upton, Michael D. Higgins, Mary Robinson and Senator Ivana Bacik. Distinguished Independents such as Senators Norris, Ruane, Higgins, Black and Dolan also immediately spring to mind. I also closely follow the contributions of Senators Ged Nash, Kevin Humphries and Aodhán Ó Ríordán. Many outstanding Senators were subsequently elected to Dáil Éireann, or in one instance to the Presidency, or should have stood for Dáil Éireann.
I was opposed to the austerity Government under Deputy Enda Kenny and former Deputy, Eamon Gilmore, cutting the size of Dáil Éireann and producing more huge multi-seat constituencies. The current significant expenditure on Seanad Éireann - €10.3 million directly for 2020 in the three-year Oireachtas spending envelope - would be much better spent on elected mayors and executives for our major cities instead of relying on bureaucrats, which would greatly enhance democratic local government. Alternatively or additionally, the money could be put towards a larger Dáil Éireann with a possible representation of one Deputy per 25,000 population, which would result in 20 additional Deputies. In general, Deputies are very good value for money. In my Dáil speech on the Thirty-Second Amendment to the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill in 2013, I estimated the full cost of the Seanad to be €20 million per annum or €100 million over a full Oireachtas term. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission’s three-year budget framework 2016-18 gives a direct Seanad spending outturn of more than €26 million for that period.
In my statement of position on page 21 of the implementation group report, I referred to an amendment I proposed which was very brusquely and unfairly ruled out of order by the chairperson of the group, Senator Michael McDowell. The key section of my amendment declared: "the Seanad Reform Implementation Group is of the view that Seanad Éireann cannot be reformed as a truly democratic chamber within the terms of Articles 18 and 19 of Bunreacht na hÉireann". In other words, constitutional change is required. It continues: "The Implementation Group consequently recommends to the government to propose amending the Irish constitution to permit the direct election of sixty senators by all Irish citizens resident in Ireland. Such an amendment will stipulate that Senators be elected alongside and on the same franchise as members of Dáil Éireann representing geographical constituencies closely aligned with contemporary Dáil constituencies with approximately one senator elected with each three TDs." It concluded by asking the current Oireachtas to legislate to permit the content of the amendment to be put to the Irish people on the day of the local and European elections a few months ago.
I devised the amendment because large parts of the draft Seanad Bill 2018, which is included in the report, are undemocratic and hastily conceived nonsense. Chapter 3 of the draft Bill is the most problematic and downright unworkable. It extends the Seanad franchise for 34 seats not just to those with Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland but to all Irish citizens living outside the State and, by implication, all those entitled to Irish citizenship. Up to 50 million people in the UK, USA, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere could, if they so chose, vote for the election of 34 Members of Seanad Éireann. The organisation of such a voting register and electorate would be a logistical nightmare and open to incredible manipulation and abuse. The soothing words in section 6 of the report about this voting register, such as there only being 813,000 current passports in circulation, do nothing to ameliorate these concerns. A few years ago, the former Deputy Eamon Gilmore was unable to tell me how many Irish passports were in circulation - it could be far more than 1 million. I presume they are all outside Ireland. Likewise, the comments in the report of Senator McDowell, who should know better, on ordinary postal voting, which he terms entirely practical, are woefully poorly researched. Is he not aware of the longstanding controversy in the courts on the delivery of fixed charge notices for penalty points? The Leas Cheann-Comhairle is certainly aware of it, as are most Deputies. Serious abuses in postal voting in the UK and elsewhere have been discovered. In some cases, people were brought into a room and signed their voting papers together, led by the local branch of a political party. The cumbersome and ludicrous voting system envisaged in this report would not survive a single Seanad election. It is pointless for Senator McDowell and others to compare the overseas voting registers of hugely populated democracies such as the UK, France or the US with the situation which this report and draft Bill would create in Ireland. The domestic voter registers of such larger countries hugely outweigh votes from their citizens abroad, as for example in the case of the United States, whereas Ireland’s history of emigration, with 8 million or 9 million people emigrating within 60 or 80 years, has created a vast worldwide diaspora of which we are very proud, but which is much larger than our domestic population. Senator McDowell’s claim that there is no likelihood of some massive or overwhelming imbalance on the register has no basis in reality.
Of course, I agree with the majority of the implementation group that there should be a single third level constituency of six Senators for graduates of all third level institutions.
In my statement of position on page 21 of the report I refer to my support for the proposal for a unicameral Irish legislature in the Thirty-Second Amendment to the Constitution which was very narrowly defeated by 51.7% to 48.3% on a turnout of less than 40% on 4 October 2013. Had a more popular Government been in power, the amendment would have been easily carried. Abolition of the Seanad was supported by the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, the Socialist Party and many Independents. Indeed, 15 Dáil constituencies voted to remove the Seanad from the Constitution. In 2013, I pointed to the exemplary democracies in unitary states similar to Ireland which had abolished delaying and pointless second chambers or never had such institutions. These states include Denmark - I once sat in the former Danish Senate, which is now the room for its Social Democrats, its equivalent of the Labour Party - Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greece, Portugal, New Zealand and a significant number of other countries. I argued that in those countries, the people are effectively the second house and any available resources are correctly applied to very strong local and regional government structures. In my statement of position I reiterated my view that the Manning report, the report of the Seanad reform implementation group and the draft Seanad Bill 2018 establish five potentially massive and unwieldy Seanad constituencies with unknown registration and election costs and dangers, as well as the very real possibility of favouring wealthy candidates. I noted, “Even the single six seat University Constituency has potentially many hundreds of thousands of an electorate.”
Up to the current Dáil, the Oireachtas has been largely controlled by the Executive of the day and the Seanad historically had little input into legislation going through the Oireachtas. I accept that in the current unique Dáil and Seanad, with the confidence and supply agreement between the minority Fine Gael Government and Fianna Fáil, there has been more scope for legislative and other initiatives on the part of Members of both Houses. Even Senator McDowell concedes, in the letter to the Taoiseach which accompanies this report, that Dáil Éireann can override the Seanad irrespective of the Seanad’s make-up after 90 days on any legislative matter. Therefore, very fundamental questions remain about the efficacy of an expensive second Chamber in any small unitary state.
This woolly, cumbersome and ill-thought-out report before us cannot and should not be implemented. It is a very expensive recipe for disaster. The Chairman should not have ruled out my amendment A. I favour an early second referendum on such a proposal just as I hope our British friends will have their early second referendum on the European issue and they will actually remain in the European Union. If, however, the Seanad cannot be abolished, the only responsible workable and democratic option is for our people is to elect all 60 Senators by universal franchise on the same day as and in similar constituencies to a Dáil election.
Even the statement of position on page 23 of the report by our four Fine Gael colleagues, Senators Byrne, Paddy Burke, Buttimer and McFadden, reflects the great unease of many of the members of the implementation group on this report’s proposals and a feeling on their part that it would be better to leave the current Seanad structure alone rather than embark on the type of Mad Hatter proposals championed by Senator McDowell.