Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Seanad Reform: Motion [Private Members]

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:acknowledges that the citizens of this State rejected the Government’s Constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad through referendum vote in October 2013;

recognises that all participants and parties involved in the referendum campaign were clear in agreeing that the Seanad in its current form is elitist, undemocratic and unacceptable;

notes that the Taoiseach gave a commitment in October 2013, post-referendum, to reform the political system and ensure that the Seanad is a modern and effective second chamber, yet has abjectly failed to deliver that commitment; and

calls on the Government to:

— immediately engage with all parties and groups within the Oireachtas, but also broader civic society, to consider how best to reform the Seanad to ensure that it becomes a fully inclusive, representative and accountable institution;

— introduce direct election by way of universal franchise of all Irish citizens;

— introduce northern and diasporic representation;

— introduce 50% women members; and

— ensure representation of marginalised minority groups within Irish society.
I propose to share time with Deputies Tóibín, Mac Lochlainn, Ó Snodaigh and Crowe. I welcome the Technical Group Members who co-signed the motion.

Over a year ago, the Government lost a referendum on a constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad. Its proposal for abolition was rejected by citizens of the State. Sinn Féin would have preferred voters to have the additional choice of opting for root and branch reform. We proposed that the Government hand the issue of Seanad reform over to the Constitutional Convention for discussion and recommendation but the Government rejected this and only allowed for a 'Yes' or 'No' response.

In those circumstances, Sinn Féin called clearly for a 'Yes' vote to abolish the Seanad. Sinn Féin delegates to the Constitutional Convention, of which I was one, have also called on the Irish Government and the Oireachtas to empower a second Constitutional Convention with a broader mandate to consider issues related to the strengthening of constitutional protection of human rights and outstanding political and institutional reform issues, including Seanad reform, Northern representation, and representation of the diaspora in the Oireachtas. Following the referendum on the Seanad, the Taoiseach and the Government committed to reforming the political system and to ensuring the Seanad was a modern and effective second Chamber.

However, the Taoiseach has done absolutely nothing to achieve this. This was most recently and notoriously highlighted by the Taoiseach's direct involvement in the McNulty affair and Mr. McNulty's nomination to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA. This illustrates not just the Government's attitude to the Seanad but also its lack of respect for IMMA and its total disregard for the arts and its community.

In its current form, the Seanad remains elitist, undemocratic and unacceptable as an institution of the State. It is not elected by the people but rather by a mere 1% of the electorate. It has 60 Members, six of whom are elected by the graduates of some universities, 43 of whom are elected from five panels of nominees that are supposedly representative of key elements of society, and 11 of whom are nominated by the Taoiseach. Any democratic State that would limit the franchise to people with a third-level degree cannot in all seriousness consider itself to be modern, egalitarian or democratic. There is no such place in a 21st-century democracy for such nonsense, and deciding who can vote on the basis of educational attainment is blatant elitism. Sinn Féin believes in "one person, one vote" and universal franchise. It is worth noting, almost in passing, that our group in the Seanad is also denied speaking rights. A properly reformed Seanad that is democratic, accountable and egalitarian and that works in the best interests of good governance is urgently needed.

Today's Seanad was created by the 1937 Constitution and in the decades since, with a few honourable exceptions, it has become synonymous with cronyism on the part of Fianna Fáil in particular, but also on the part of Fine Gael and the Labour Party. It has also been used as a form of safety net for those who fail to get elected to the Dáil, and there have been incidents in which Senators were stood down - particularly by Fianna Fáil - just weeks from a general election, to be replaced by others just for those few weeks. Such a brief sojourn in the Upper House would secure entitlements such as lifelong parking at Leinster House.

The Seanad has opposed the Government on occasions and some Seanadóirí have been real pioneers of change, progress and advocacy, but at no point has the Seanad acted as a real check on the excesses of this or any other Government. Since Fine Gael and Labour came to power, the Seanad has supported the Government on almost every occasion, including the introduction of the property tax and water charges. Fianna Fáil campaigned for the retention of the Seanad, but in his 14 years as part of a Fianna Fáil Government, neither Deputy Martin nor anybody else in the Government made any attempt to reform the Upper House.

Fine Gael's five-point plan tried to exploit what the party saw as a failure by the other main party. It indicated that political failure lay at the heart of Ireland's economic failure and that to fix the economy it would also have to fix the political system. This was clearly all rhetoric with no substance. Despite numerous claims over decades by all the establishment parties that it would reform the Seanad, none of them has done so. On 12 separate occasions reports were produced proposing reform, but not one finding has been implemented. In 1979, citizens voted in a referendum to broaden the Seanad's franchise to include graduates of institutions of higher education, and those results are gathering dust somewhere in Government Buildings. No Government has been prepared to allow the second Chamber to scrutinise its legislative programme in a meaningful and effective manner, and the current Government will not even allow this Chamber to scrutinise its proposals and programmes properly. As we reflect on the issue, there can be no place for an elected institution for which only a tiny minority has the right to vote. A republic is about citizenship, which includes the right to be treated equally, and it is clearly unjust that the right to vote in this case is determined by a person's place of education.

Sinn Féin proposals for genuine Seanad reform include engagement with all parties and groups within the Oireachtas and the broader specific civic society to consider how best to reform the Seanad and ensure it becomes fully inclusive, representative and accountable. The party also proposes the introduction of direct election by way of universal franchise of all Irish citizens, Northern representation and representatives from the diaspora. The proposals stipulate that 50% of Seanad Members would be women and there would be measures to ensure representation of marginalised and minority groups such as the Traveller community so they can have a place.

This motion outlines how the Seanad can be reformed and become more inclusive to represent all the people of the island of Ireland rather than just a small minority. We have the opportunity to ensure the Seanad is a place where unjust or regressive legislation can be challenged. We can make it relevant and allow the Seanad to have a positive impact on the lives of ordinary people. There is also the chance to include citizens from the North, including people from the Unionist tradition, in the political life of the State. I commend the motion to the Dáil.

1:10 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Maidir leis an McNulty affair, níl dabht ar bith i meon na ndaoine ná go bhfuil Fine Gael agus Páirtí an Lucht Oibre ciontach mar gheall ar chabhair fabhair. Cé a mhúin na ceachtanna seo i dtaobh cabhair fabhair don Taoiseach agus d'Fhine Gael? Seas suas, Fianna Fáil - ó tús an Stáit, bhí Fianna Fáil ciontach as an gcóras cronyism atá againn sa Stát seo. It developed a toxic culture, both nationally and locally, which is dangerous to the health and development of the nation. It also ensured that people who may not have had the required skills, ability or experience were put into positions of decision making, with outputs less than what they should have been. This process also had the effect of keeping generations of people out of those positions when they had skills and ability to drive the State out of problems. That would have led to better outcomes for the country.

I rith an tréimhse seo, d'fhéach muintir Fhine Gael ar Fianna Fáil agud éad ina gcuid súile. Fadó, roimh teacht lucht Fhianna Fáil sna cultacha móihéar, bhí siad ar thóir an airgid agus ag iarraidh daoine a chur isteach i bpostanna tábhachtacha sa Stát seo. Is fiú a rá go bhfuil an Teachta Micheál Ó Máirtín ina Theachta Dála le haghaidh 25 bliain anois. Bhí sé ina Aire le haghaidh 14 bliain. Níl aon taifead ar chor ar bith aige i dtaobh athchóiriú polaitíochta sa tír seo, fiú amháin sa Seanad. Ní chreideann éinne gur tháinig Fianna Fáil suas bóthar na Damaisce mar gheall ar an reifreann a bhí againn ar thodhchaí an tSeanaid an bhliain seo caite. Ní chreideann na daoine ar na sráideanna go bhfuil athrú meoin tagtha ar an bpáirtí sin.

Appointments to State boards have historically been some of the worst expressions of political cronyism in the State. Nothing has changed since 2011, and it is no great surprise that the Taoiseach has treated the Seanad and the board of IMMA with such disdain. There is arrogance in the Taoiseach, Fine Gael and the Labour Party that blinds them to the needs of the people they are supposed to serve. The dictatorial style exhibited by the Taoiseach in the past number of years can be seen even now in how he treats some of the members of his own political party. As I have indicated, the Fianna Fáil golden circle seems to have been replaced by the Fine Gael diamond ring.

In 2011 Fine Gael promised to tackle cronyism, but people in the State will be disappointed in how the Labour Party has been involved with cronyism. The party was meant to be the moral guardian or the watchdog with respect to Fine Gael, or at least it promised to be in the last election. The party promised an end to the system whereby appointments to State boards would be used as a form of political patronage and for rewarding insiders. It promised that appointments to boards would be based on demonstrable capacity to do a job.

The Labour Party promised that Oireachtas committees would consider the suitability of nominated candidates, that such candidates would appear before those committees and it would be a condition of appointment for prospective board members to come before the relevant committees. Like so many Labour Party promises, these disappeared like snow off a ditch. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Labour Party supporters are extremely disappointed by way the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, handled the McNulty affair. I have even heard rumblings among her party's backbenchers in respect of this issue.

It is time for the Government parties to engage with the political system. I am of the view that so ingrained is the level of cronyism within the establishment parties that there is a conditioning in the minds of their members with regard to what actually constitutes cronyism. It is within those minds that reform must take place in the first instance, but there is no doubt that structural reform within the Houses of the Oireachtas is also required. We need to promote the very simple premise that individuals should achieve appointments to positions in this State on the basis of merit rather than as a result of whom they know. If this approach is adopted, it will have a radical effect in the context of how this country develops, how it is guided and how it will grow in the future. In addition, the State's capacity to ensure that the correct decisions are made will improve. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, to ensure that the necessary steps are taken within his party in order that this might be achieved.

1:20 pm

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is almost 12 months since the citizens of this State voted to retain the Seanad. Many of them wanted the Upper House to be retained but not in its current form. Instead, they wanted it to be reformed. The Government promised to initiate reforms but, as we all know, this did not happen. The McNulty affair has further eroded confidence among members of the public that any reform has taken place. This is another jobs-for-the-boys affair of the type they have become so used to over the years. Last year the Taoiseach gave a commitment to the effect that he would reform both the Seanad and the political system. That commitment has not been honoured; that commitment was broken.

As this Parliament's second House, the Seanad should have the power to hold the Government to account. Unfortunately, the Seanad as it stands is undemocratic, unrepresentative and unproductive. It is simply not fit for purpose. One of the main reforms relating to this newly reformed Seanad - so-called - is that the Adjournment debate will be replaced by a commencement debate to be held before the Order of Business each day. This will allow Senators to raise questions with the relevant Ministers earlier in the day. Effectively, changing the time at which particular debates are held is one of the main suggested reforms. This is not exactly earth-shattering stuff, is it?

Real reform would involve introducing a universal franchise and giving votes to emigrants. The motion before the House outlines how the Seanad can be reformed in order to ensure that it becomes more inclusive of society, representing all the people of Ireland and not just a privileged minority. We are calling on the Government to immediately engage with all parties and groups within the Oireachtas, but also with broader civic society, to consider how best to reform the Upper House in order to ensure it becomes a fully inclusive, representative and accountable institution. We are asking the Government to introduce direct election by way of a universal franchise of all Irish citizens. We want to ensure that our citizens in the North and members of the diaspora across the globe will be represented in the Seanad and will have a voice in the home country to which they have given so much. Indeed, there are those among the diaspora who may well still be financially contributing to this State - as has been the case through the generations - and they may make a contribution in the future when, hopefully, many of them will return. Many of our citizens, particularly the young, have been forced out of their country but they desperately want to return at some stage. Why should they not be represented in these Houses? Their voices need to be heard. The current inequality of citizenship, which punishes Irish people who live outside the State, must be ended.

We strongly advocate that 50% of those elected to the Seanad in the future should be women. Women constitute the largest group of individuals who were excluded from the benefits of the Celtic tiger economy. Households headed by lone parents and older women remain at high risk of poverty. Structural inequalities continue to trap many women in low-paid part-time employment. Sinn Féin is committed to building a more equal Ireland and women's voices are essential to that. The rightful position of women in Irish society is for them to be equals in every way and they should be represented on an equal basis here. If we cannot achieve equal representation in the Dáil following the next general election, at which new gender quotas will apply, then we must ensure that the Seanad will provide, in a balanced way, a real reflection of Irish society and the real experiences of Irish citizens and families throughout the State.

We should also use the Seanad to ensure the representation of marginalised minority groups within Irish society. Creating the conditions for the establishment of an equal society means recognising that many diverse groups and sections within that society require enhanced protection by the State. We should use the Seanad to hear from the groups which represent these citizens.

The Seanad is not working. It has not worked for some time. Sinn Féin has been advocating for root-and-branch reform of the Seanad for over a decade. As already stated, the Upper House is undemocratic and unrepresentative. A reformed Seanad could serve our democracy well and act as an important check-and-balance mechanism with regard to the Dáil, which is dominated by the political parties. The people decided this; that was their real intent in retaining the Seanad. They did not vote to keep it as it is; they opted for real change. The people decided that there is a place for a democratic second Chamber in Irish politics, but they want to ensure that the representatives who serve in it will be elected by citizens, including those who live in the Six Counties and members of the diaspora. The Government is more than happy to use that diaspora for financial gain, investment, etc., but its members are not considered worthy of a vote. That is unacceptable. The Seanad should be an elected forum representative of the people and civic society, particularly those not adequately represented in the Dáil and the more marginalised sections of our community. I urge the Government to live up to its promises and reform the Seanad.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is ceist rí-thabhtach í ceist an tSeanaid agus conas é a leasú. Sin an méid atá ós ár gcomhair anois i ndiaiaidh toradh an reifrinn anuraidh nuair a dúirt pobal na hÉireann linn nach raibh siad ag iarraidh fáil réidh leis agus, as sin, go bhfuil siad sásta glacadh leis. Ní dúirt siad, áfach, go raibh siad sásta glacadh leis an tSeanad mar atá sé. Is léir é sin d'aon duine a bhí gafa leis an díospóireacht faoin Seanad ag an am agus ó shin. Iarradh leasú a dhéanamh air. Iarradh déanamh cinnte nach áit é do elites na hÉireann agus nach áit é ina déantar macasamhail ar cad tá ag tarlú sa seomra seo, seomra atá bunaithe go huile is go hiomlán ar pháirtithe polaitiúla. Ón díospóireacht a bhí agamsa le mo theaghlach féin, is léir domsa go raibh siadsan ag lorg dearcadh difriúil a bheith ar fáil sa Seanad agus go mbeadh guth ag pobal na hÉireann sa Seanad trí bealach difriúil, bealach gan páirtithe polaitiúla. Bhí siad ag díriú ar an mbunfís a bhí ann nuair a bunaíodh an Seanad. Is é sin guth a bheith ag dreamanna difriúla agus spéiseanna difriúla á léiriú sa Seanad agus é seo á dhéanamh tríd na daoine a thoghtar nó iad siúd a ainmnítear don Seanad. Ar deireadh thiar thall, go léirítear leasanna oibritheoirí ann. Sin an fáth go bhfuil na painéil ann, ins go mbeadh daoine ag teacht ó na ceardchumainn ach go háirithe. Mar an gcéanna leis an bpainéal talamhaíochta, go toghtar daoine le cúlra sa talamhaíocht ann. Ní raibh sé i gceist go toghtar polaiteoirí a bhí tar éis seasamh i dtoghchán agus a teip orthu nó iad siúd ag pleanáil dul ar phinsin. Is iad daoine atá gafa leis na ceird, leis an ngnó agus gach rud a bhaineann leis an dtalamhaíocht a toghtar. Sa tslí sin, bheadh na daoine san sa Seanad ag cur trasna na príomh-ceisteanna agus na príomh-ábhair maidir le talamhaíocht, cultúr, na healaín agus na toghlaigh eile atá ann. Níl sé sin tar éis tarlú. Fáth amháin ar sin ná an athrú a rinneadh ar an tslí ina toghtar daoine don Seanad i rith réimis Fhianna Fáil. Athrú ab ea é sin chun déanamh cinnte de go mbeadh tromlach ag an Rialtas i gcónaí nó ar a laghad go ndéanfar iarracht an tromlach sin a bheith acu trí ainmniúchán aon duine déag an Thaoisigh.

Tá sé scanallach nach bhfuil an fís sin ann, go bhfuilimid sa chruachás ina bhfuilimid agus nach bhfuil meas ceart ag an bpobal air. An fáth nach bhfuil meas ceart air ná an bealach ina bhfuil na Seanadóirí tofa. Níl vóta ag gnáthpobal na tíre seo ar na daoine atá ag déanamh cinntí ar a son sa Seanad. Ba chóir leathnú ollmhór a dhéanamh ar an toghcheantar. Ní chóir vóta a bheith ag elites ar nós céimithe ollscoileanna áirithe, muide sa Dáil nó iadsan sna comhairlí contaetha amháin. Ba chóir toghchán a bheith ar an lá ceanna céanna le toghchán na Dála ionas go mbeadh daoine ag seasamh don Seanad ag seasamh ós comhair an phobail agus go mbeadh siad tofa dá réir. Chomh maith le san, ba chóir vóta a bheith ag gach uile saoránach Éireannach. Ansan, ní bheadh an Seanad ag díriú ar cheisteanna maidir leis an Stát amháin. Bheadh díriú ar saoránaigh na hÉireann atá scaipthe ar fud an domhain. Bheadh iarrthóirí ann agus iad ag seasamh ar an ardán sin chomh maith céanna. Tá botún déanta ag an Rialtas seo mar dúradh go mbeadh leasú agus athruithe ann maidir le polaitíocht sa Stát. Ba chóir don Taoiseach, nuair a bhí an deis aige, an cheist seo a chur fé bhráid an choinbhinsiúin ar an mBunreacht seachas reifreann a bheith againn. Ghlac mé páirt i bpróiséas an choinbhinsiúin. Árdaíodh an-chuid ábhair spéisiúla agus athruithe bunúsacha ag an gcoinbhinsiún. Bheimid in ann na rudaí sin a dhéanamh ach níor thug an Taoiseach an deis sin dúinn. Sin an botún is mó a rinneadh. Má tá an Taoiseach chun coinbhinsiún nua a bhunú, b'fhéidir ansan an áit cheart chun deaileáil leis an gceist seo. Níl sé tar éis deileáil leis na ceisteanna eile ón gcoinbhinsiún ar an mBunreacht go dtí seo ná go hiomlán. Níl aon reifreann feicthe againn go dtí seo ar na hábhair a aimsíodh ann. Tá jab mór roimh an Rialtas deaileáil leis an gcoinbhinsiún féin agus deaileáil leis na leasuithe ar chóir a dhéanamh maidir leis an tSeanad amach anseo.

1:30 pm

Photo of Derek KeatingDerek Keating (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next speaker on the list is Deputy Ferris who is not present; therefore, we will bring forward Deputy Seán Crowe.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Some words and expressions will probably be reflected in all of the speeches made today. We will hear words and expressions such as "inclusive", "not being exclusive", "expanding the franchise and making it more representative", as well as "reform", "improve" and "make better". In all of the speeches made on the motion today Members will be talking in these terms.

This time last year the people voted in a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. Many of us sought a third option - root and branch reform - but the Government rejected this and only allowed a "Yes" or "No" response to abolition. The people have spoken clearly on the matter and a clear majority voted in favour of retaining the Seanad, but a significant demand for reform was obvious. Subsequently, the Taoiseach and other leaders in the country spoke in a way that reflected this demand.

It is no reflection on the current Members of the Seanad to say it is clear that the Seanad in its current form is elitist, undemocratic and unacceptable as an institution. It seeks to emulate the role of the equally elitist House of Lords in Britain. This was clearly seen in the latest Seanad election, in which the only people who had a vote were Members of the Oireachtas. This followed the recent controversy of a Member being elected to the European Parliament. This is sending the wrong message. Irish people are angry with politicians and the political system. Many believe their voice is not adequately heard or represented in these Houses and this reflects on all of us. Who could blame them, when 60 Members of one of the Houses are elected only by politicians, certain university graduates or else nominated directly by the Taoiseach?

The Government needs to engage immediately with all parties and groups within the Oireachtas, as well as broader civil society, to consider how best to reform the Seanad to ensure it will become a fully inclusive, representative and accountable institution. Power needs to be given back to the people by establishing direct elections. This is a chance for the Parliament to truly reflect Irish society and its interests. There should be permanent representation for Northern and Diaspora citizens. The Government pays lip service to reform and is refusing to live up to its responsibility under the Constitutional Convention, a matter to which my colleague has adverted. It made public its response to the convention which had voted in favour of extending presidential election voting rights to Northern citizens and the Diaspora. Citizens living overseas and in the North can vote for Seanad Members but only if they have graduated from one of the National University of Ireland colleges or Trinity College Dublin. Not only do we discriminate against citizens on the basis of whether they have a third level education but the same applies to the Diaspora. Proactive and positive measures could be introduced to ensure 50% of Members were women and that marginalised and minority groups within Irish society would have permanent representation.

It has been one year since the referendum and the people have spoken. Now we have an opportunity to ensure the Seanad will be a more inclusive place and more reflective and truly representative of Irish society. It could be a place where the excesses of government could be tackled and unjust or regressive legislation scrutinised and challenged. The longer this is delayed, the deeper the political mistrust and political apathy will be. We can all agree that this is something none of us wants to see. In recent elections we have seen a drop in turnout. Recently in Dublin South-West in one polling station there was a turnout of 20%. The people are sending a message not only to the political parties but also to the political system. They are dissatisfied. One could suggest it was only a by-election and that people had far more important things to do, but the trend is moving in that direction, which is a reflection on all of us. This House and the Seanad need to reflect more fully the concerns of Irish society. The Sinn Féin motion is putting forward the view that opening up the franchise and being more representative and inclusive should help to stop that trend. I hope it would work. I also hope the Government is listening to this debate and that we will see some reform and change coming down the path.

Photo of Derek KeatingDerek Keating (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The final ten minutes of Sinn Féin's time is to be divided among members of the Technical Group - Deputy Tom Fleming, Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice and Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly.

Photo of Tom FlemingTom Fleming (Kerry South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is now over 12 months since the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. We had a raft of promises following that exercise, including one to carry out an urgent review of the workings of the Seanad, but it has been quickly forgotten about. It has been put to bed and nothing has changed, this after 75 years during which there were ten separate reviews and reports on the Seanad.

The need for reform is evidenced by the state of the economy and its mismanagement in the so-called boom years of the Celtic tiger. At the time inadequate policies were not adequately challenged by the Opposition which was equally deficient under the current system. A Government Deputy subject to the Whip is like a cowboy without a gun; he or she cannot hold the Government to account. This is the result of the culture of clientelism, of which all Deputies are well aware. It is what we live by. It is historical and a major factor in the retention of our seats. By and large, we are all absorbed in this business rather than prioritising legislation on national policy. For all Deputies, it is a matter of survival, with time spent on more mundane matters.

Constituency matters are a priority for the survival process. That is the world in which we live. We are not giving the required time to the studious examination of policies, legislation and so forth. Members of the Seanad can give the time that is required within that forum.

There are practical and meaningful reforms whereby effective legislation could be achieved without resorting to further referenda. People sent a clear message at the ballot box last October. They clearly signalled that they wanted the Seanad reformed for the purpose of being a watchdog and a safety net, to avoid consequences such as those with which we are now faced in the case of Irish Water. That legislation was rammed through the Oireachtas prior to last Christmas and we are now experiencing the fall-out from that. It has been described by the former Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, as an unmitigated disaster. We have all seen the debacle that has occurred since then.

People are becoming more informed about politics in this technological age. They are becoming more sophisticated. They are much more aware of politics than we think. They are seeking more scrutiny of legislation and of the work of the Oireachtas. The Seanad is the ideal forum to ensure that due time is given to the process. Many things can be done. It has been suggested that the work of the Seanad can be improved immediately within the existing constitutional framework by giving it a greater role in matters such as EU legislative scrutiny and North-South co-operation. There is also the report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, under Pat Spillane, which appears to be lying idle. We have not seen any discussion of it. It is very important to the future of rural areas and it is a matter that should be referred to the Seanad immediately. The Seanad could liaise with Ministers and Ministers of State about all aspects of the report.

1:40 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Everybody in the country knows that politics is in difficulty. There is a great deal of apathy among the public and regardless of whether one is a party member or otherwise, when one knocks on doors one encounters a feeling of frustration. Politics must be done in a new way. The first opportunity for that is in the Seanad.

In the past ten or 15 years we have seen a large amount of EU legislation introduced in this country, and in my experience at different committees it is discussed with any other business. However, we must scrutinise it. We must go through it and ensure that what is being introduced is good for our people in all parts of Ireland and does not threaten their very existence. This is one function for which the Seanad could be used effectively.

With regard to the composition of the Seanad, I believe its Members should seek election in the same way as elections are held throughout the country, even if it is one person from each constituency. I also believe it should give the opportunity to business leaders, leaders in agriculture, social organisations, diaspora and all the different bodies among the public to provide an independent voice for them that will be heard. If one listens to what is being said on the ground, one can act on it.

Not only the Seanad, but this House and politics in general must change. I have a suggestion. Many good Ministers are appointed but when they take office they face a brick wall. The top three layers of the Civil Service should be in place as acting staff, like an acting county manager, for the term of a Government. When that Government's term finishes, they should return to their original positions. We must bring in a new type of vibrant person, with new ideas, when Ministers are appointed. One cannot keep playing the same song, one must change. In particular, one must give youth a chance in the Civil Service. We must bring them forward and give them the opportunity. They can make mistakes, but give everybody a chance. One learns from mistakes. That is necessary in order that Ministers can bring forward more policies in the future.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Sinn Féin for sharing its time and I compliment it on this motion. Last October, when the people refused the Government's call to abolish the Seanad, the Taoiseach said, "I am up for engaging with leaders in the Dáil and the Seanad and we will see what is the best way of putting in place a process that will lead to a more effective Seanad." To date, no reform has occurred. The rules are the same as they were and the culture has become a great deal worse.

I have in my hand a nomination paper for use by Members of the Oireachtas at Seanad by-elections. It states, "I, the undersigned, being a Member of the Oireachtas, declare that the said person is qualified for the said panel by reason of the qualifications hereinafter set forth." The qualifications listed for John McNulty in this case were businessman and board member of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In this case the undersigned Member of the Oireachtas is the Taoiseach. Those were the Taoiseach's words and it is the Taoiseach's signature on this paper. In any other country a prime minister, president or chancellor would immediately resign if it was discovered that the said person had just been appointed to that board.

As a voter in this by-election and a Member of the Irish Parliament, when the ballot paper came through my letter box I felt I was being deliberately and cynically misled. What happens here is we are given the message that this is just business as usual. A total of 84 Members of the Oireachtas still voted for the candidate. There is no reform here.

Pat Leahy said recently that one can judge the sincerity of real political reform in Ireland by whether it devolves power and decision making. Deputy Eoghan Murphy of Fine Gael proposed that the whip system be relaxed at times, but the Taoiseach said this could not be done because it would undermine international confidence, as international investors might think the Government could collapse at any time. Let us think about this. The Taoiseach is saying that elected Members of this Parliament should not be allowed to think for themselves because foreign investors might stop buying our golf courses. That is the reason government Deputies are not allowed to think for themselves on any vote. The only thing the Government is thinking of reforming in the Seanad is the election of the six Independent Senators. What a shock.

The motion before the House is very similar to the Seanad Reform Bill proposed by Senators Zappone and Quinn. The Bill would give emigrant Irish citizens the right to vote in the Seanad elections. It would require gender balance in the Seanad and would extend the elections for the university panels. It would allow candidates to appear on the ballot paper as a result of public nomination and would allow the public, via petition, to put matters before the Seanad for debate. It would give the Seanad powers to scrutinise ministerial appointments to public bodies. This is how reform sounds and looks. The only question is whether this Government has any intention or ability to achieve any of that. I think not.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:"welcomes the fact that:

— through the Leader of the Seanad, the Government has presented a package of reforms to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges to improve the operation and effectiveness of the Seanad; and

— the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government published earlier this year, for public consultation, the general scheme of a Bill to give effect to the 1979 amendment of the Constitution allowing the State to extend the provisions for the election of members of the Seanad by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State and that the Bill is expected to be published next year."

Before setting out in detail what the Government has done on these and other initiatives, I will address the motion as presented. While some aspects of the motion are worthy in principle, part of it is inaccurate and many other aspects lack the substance required to make them workable. It would have been much better if they had been given more thought and greater detail had been provided. Other parts of the motion appear to be unfeasible without further constitutional amendments by means of referendums. We have before the House a wish list, albeit one which includes some worthy objectives. The motion does not have regard to whether the proposals contained therein could or should be implemented in some cases. These proposals raise policy and constitutional issues that have not been properly addressed in the text.

Citizens made their decision on the future of the Seanad in October 2013. Their decision was clear and all Members of the Oireachtas fully accepted it. Some Deputies, including me and the Minister of State seated beside me, Deputy Paudie Coffey, have had the honour of being elected to Seanad Éireann. When I appeared in the Seanad in the first week following my appointment as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government I made it clear that I hold the Upper House in high regard. I am committed to seeing the House play a full and effective role in our democratic system and while I am also committed to Seanad reform, I will not agree to the proposals before us as they cannot be delivered. I must be realistic.

While the Government does not support the motion as presented, this debate presents the House with an important opportunity to discuss the future role of the Seanad. It is equally important that proposals for reform are credible, substantial and detailed and have the potential to be effective. We must know how a policy proposal can be implemented in practice and how much it will cost. This is the approach adopted by the Government. Notwithstanding a number of worthy elements in its motion, Sinn Féin has taken the opposite approach.

The motion comprises two parts, the first of which sets out a commentary while the second consists of a list proposals set out in bullet point format. The opening paragraph makes a series of rhetorical points, with reference to commitments made by the Taoiseach in October 2013. Following the referendum, the Taoiseach addressed the Seanad on 23 October 2013. On that occasion, he invited ideas and proposals on reform. The Sinn Féin motion as framed does not reflect the content or tenor of the Taoiseach's comments at the time. I believe he is being misrepresented and I urge Sinn Féin Deputies to read the statement he made in the Seanad. At that time, the Government made a commitment to listen to the views of all parties and groups on the reform of the Seanad and to legislate and reform the Seanad university constituencies. We have made progress on both counts in the past 12 months, as reflected in the amendment I have proposed.

The motion calls on the Government to engage with all parties and groups as well as wider civic society. This process has been ongoing for the past year. As Deputies will be aware, the Taoiseach and the then Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, met the leaders of the different parties and groupings in the Dáil and Seanad in December 2013 to elicit their views on what areas of the Seanad should be reformed and how we should proceed to develop and implement appropriate reform proposals. These meetings produced a very good discussion with all parties and groups, and all of those present were given an opportunity to express their views, which have been taken on board. It was agreed that a number of operational and procedural reforms could be implemented quickly by amending Seanad Standing Orders. It was also agreed that the parties and groupings in both Houses, including the Government, through the Leader of the Seanad, could submit their proposals for reform to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges. It would then be a matter for the committee to consider the proposals. Arising from this, the Government, through the Leader of the Seanad, presented a package of Government proposals on Seanad reform to the committee in the first half of 2014. I will elaborate on these proposals in more detail presently.

It is clear that a good deal of debate on Seanad reform has taken place in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I have personally engaged in some of it. In the past year alone, three Private Members' Bills have been introduced on Seanad electoral reform, and the Government's general scheme on the revision of the university constituencies has been debated. The observations made by Members of the Oireachtas and submissions received from stakeholders and members of the public as part of the consultation process on the general scheme are informing the further development of this draft legislation as we speak. There has been no shortage of consultation and engagement. Moreover, the Government has taken a lead in presenting its proposals for operational, procedural and legislative change.

The motion calls for the introduction of direct elections by way of universal franchise for all Irish citizens. Whatever the merits of this proposal as an idea, it needs to be acknowledged that when the Constitution was framed, provision was not made for elections to the Seanad by universal franchise. If this had been the intention, the constitutional provisions on the election of Members of Seanad Éireann would have mirrored those of the elections of this House. That was not the case and we must deal with this fact. The Constitution stipulates that Members of the Seanad are elected by secret postal ballot. This cannot be changed without holding a further constitutional referendum. The consequence of this provision and of not amending it are sometimes overlooked when Seanad reform is addressed. This is not the first time I have made this point. Arising from this constitutional requirement, ballot papers are issued to voters by registered post. The Sinn Féin proposal does not address how a universal franchise would be implemented and how exactly a secret postal ballot on this grand scale would be conducted. Perhaps a further referendum is also envisaged to change this provision. My general point in this regard is that Sinn Féin must spell out its proposals in much greater detail.

It is also important to point out the cost of running a Seanad election with a universal franchise. Without a referendum to amend or remove the postal ballot provision in the Constitution, these costs could be significant. Based on 2014 postage rates, it would cost €6 to send each ballot paper. This gives an indication of what it would cost to send a ballot paper by registered post to 3.1 million voters, the number currently entitled to vote in Dáil elections. This figure does not include voters from Northern Ireland or among the diaspora, whom the motion envisages as being included in an extended franchise, nor does it include the cost of administering the election, counting the votes or a number of other processes.

Apart from the cost of administering the elections, there is the matter of how candidates might fund a campaign on such a scale, as not all of them have deep pockets. These are important considerations when contemplating the introduction, without further constitutional amendment, of a universal franchise for the election of Members of the Seanad.

The motion calls for the introduction of Northern and diaspora representation in the Seanad but does not specify how this might be done. I note the recent Sinn Féin policy document on the role of the diaspora, which also includes this proposal, is similarly lacking in detail. Leaving aside the desirability of having representation of the diaspora in the Seanad, there is a question as to whether this could be done within the parameters set down by the Constitution. The Constitution provides for the nomination by the Taoiseach of 11 members of the Seanad and the election of six members by the National University of Ireland, the University of Dublin, namely, Trinity College Dublin, and what are referred to as "other institutions of higher education in the State." The constitution further provides for the election of 43 members from the five identified vocational panels of persons having knowledge and practical experience of what are termed the "interests and services" covered by the panels. Article 18.7.1 of the Constitution lists these panels as covering national language and culture, literature, art, education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel; agriculture and allied interests and fisheries; labour, whether organised or unorganised; industry and commerce, including banking and finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture; and public administration and social services, including voluntary social activities. While there is scope under Article 19 of the Constitution to vary the vocational panels by law, it cannot be assumed that a diaspora panel could be created with reference to this article.

2 o’clock

We need to see exactly what is being proposed and if another constitutional referendum is envisaged or required to give effect to the proposal, and it is likely it would be.

The Sinn Féin motion calls for the introduction of 50% female Members in the Seanad. On the matter of gender balance in national politics the Government has led the way. We have legislated for gender balance in candidate selection at Dáil elections through the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. Part 6 of this Act links the State funding of political parties to the achievement of a gender balance in candidate selection at all general elections.

In order to receive full State funding, a qualified political party will have to have at least 30% female candidates and at least 30% male candidates at the next general election. After seven years from the next general election this will rise to 40%. By any measure, this is far-reaching, radical and necessary legislation. It should be recalled that the matter of applying these gender balance provisions at Seanad elections was addressed during the passage of the legislation through the Houses. In fact the Bill that subsequently became the 2012 Act commenced in the Seanad where it was given a thorough examination by its Members.

State funding is provided under the Electoral Acts to qualifying political parties which contest general elections. Payments are based on the performance of the qualifying parties at general elections. There is no link between these payments and elections to Seanad Éireann, therefore the provisions in the 2012 legislation could not be applied to Seanad elections. Furthermore, the nomination process for Seanad elections is very different to that for Dáil elections. It would not be feasible to apply the gender balance provisions to a registered nominating body for the vocational panels, for example. Where a body has the right to nominate one candidate it would be impossible to achieve a gender balance with this one nomination. One is either male or female, I suppose.

It would similarly not be possible to enforce a gender balance requirement on an individual who nominates a university candidate. I am sure one can see the practical issues. Again, I would like to see how exactly the proposers of the motion plan to address these points without having a constitutional referendum to alter the composition of the Seanad. The same observation can be made on the proposal in the Sinn Féin motion to ensure the representation of marginalised minority groups within Irish society in the Seanad. There is no question but that broader representation in politics is a good idea and an important and worthy aim that we must all strive to achieve. The Houses of the Oireachtas should better reflect the composition of society. The issue is how this can be done in an effective and fair way that is compatible with the Constitution.

There are two types of approach which can be identified as a means to promote the participation by groups that are under-represented in political life. These are described as the mandatory opportunity measures and the mandatory outcome measures. The gender balance provision introduced by the Government is a mandatory opportunity measure. It incentivises political parties in the selection of candidates, in other words it provides opportunities. There is, of course, a sanction for non-compliance. This is what makes the incentive effective. A mandatory outcome measure involves seats being reserved in Parliament for certain groups. Mandatory outcome measures are considered to be particularly problematic in constitutional democracies, for obvious reasons.

There is a fundamental question of whether it would be feasible to introduce such a measure within the parameters currently set out for the election of Members of the Seanad in the Constitution. The question to be answered is how representation cane be improved in an effective and fair way that is compatible with the Constitution. We need to acknowledge that the Government's track record on this point has been strong. It is widely acknowledged that the Taoiseach's nominees to the current Seanad have added to its diversity in a significant way. This was done without recourse to constitutional or legal change. In fact, the Constitution does not provide for the nomination process by the Taoiseach to be regulated by law. In contrast, the Constitution does provide for elections for the five panels and for the university constituencies to be conducted in a manner provided for in law.

The Government has shown itself to be imaginative and practical in advancing greater participation by women and other groups in national political life. This is in direct contrast to the motion before us which contains no specific proposals. The motion before the House implies that the Government has failed to put forward any proposals for reform of the Seanad. Of course, this is not the case and I am glad to put the record straight for the benefit of the Deputies who have tabled today's motion.

I mentioned that the Government has submitted proposals for operational and procedural reforms in the Seanad. While the implementation of these proposals is a matter for the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges, it is useful to recall what the package contained. The proposals focused on the legislative and vocational roles of the Seanad, while also acknowledging its role in EU scrutiny, which is particularly important. The proposals also suggest ways in which the Seanad can engage with Government, within the parameters of the Constitution, as well as work jointly with the Dáil through the Oireachtas committee system.

On its legislative role, the package proposed that the Seanad should be involved in the legislative process at an early stage. It should play a key role in improving legislative proposals before enactment. The package said the Government would initiate more Bills in the Seanad, especially ones that deal with interests and topics on which the Seanad vocational panels are based. It also proposed that the Seanad will have a role in the new pre-legislation stage for non-emergency Bills. Oireachtas committees that have carried out pre-legislative reviews of heads of Bills would provide copies of their recommendations to both the relevant Minister and the Seanad. The Seanad will then be able to ask the committee Chair to appear before it to discuss the committee's findings and can subsequently submit its own recommendations to the Minister. This process of course would have to include an appropriate deadline so as not to delay unnecessarily the introduction of the Bill. The package put forward by the Government also proposed that the Committee Stage of non-emergency Bills of a detailed or technical nature will be restructured, to allow better consideration of Seanad amendments, which I welcome. The Government also proposed that more Seanad time be given for Private Members' Bills.

In regard to the Seanad's vocational role, innovations such as the Seanad Public Consultation Committee have enabled the Seanad to develop its work in this area. The Government supports the continued enhancement and development of the Seanad's vocational role within the existing constitutional framework. The Seanad should also review and debate reports of public bodies covering matters related to the vocational areas on which the Seanad electoral panels are based. The Government proposed that the Upper House would play a more enhanced role in North-South relations. The Seanad should review the work of the North-South Ministerial Councils and the British-Irish Council, and Ministers should make statements to the Seanad after attending such meetings. It was proposed that the Seanad should review the work of the North-South Implementation Bodies and continue to engage with minority and other special interest groups from both North and South.

The Seanad should continue to invite high-profile individuals to address the House, as well as develop other initiatives, such as the Young Senators Initiative to enhance its parliamentary and democratic role. In terms of the Seanad's engagement with the Government, it must of course be recognised that the Government is responsible to the Dáil under Article 28 of the Constitution. However, it is appropriate that the Seanad should engage with the Government of the day in regard to policy matters within the parameters of the Constitution. The package proposed, therefore, that the Government would outline its annual priorities to the Seanad in the same week that it outlines them to the Dáil.

It also proposed that the Seanad should consider the reports of Oireachtas joint committees and, if it wishes, make recommendations to the relevant Minister. The Houses of the Oireachtas jointly scrutinise EU legislative proposals and much of the detailed work on this is done through joint committees, which are best placed to undertake this task. However, the Seanad can provide a high-profile forum for public debate on the work of the joint committees, and on EU matters in general. This is something I have advocated for many years since I was in the Seanad.

The Government is proposing that the Seanad should review the reports of joint committees on EU policy proposals and also that it should debate motions for reasoned opinions from committees on compliance with subsidiarity, the so-called yellow card motions. In 2013 two such motions were passed by each House, without debate in either House. The Government also proposed that the Seanad should debate the European Commission's annual work programme.

The Government believes it is important that the sittings of joint committees, the Dáil and the Seanad should be organised in a way that enables members to attend to their duties in their respective Houses and in the committees. The Government package therefore proposes the rescheduling of Seanad business to accommodate this. The Government proposals recommend that the Adjournment debates be replaced by commencement debates, to take place before the Order of Business. This will allow Senators to raise issues in a more high-profile time slot.

The Order of Business and Leaders' Questions in the Dáil have already been rescheduled to take place between noon and 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Rescheduling the Seanad Order of Business to take place at the same time would mean that Oireachtas committee meetings could be held between 9 a.m. and 12 noon and after 1 p.m. on those days. This would improve the running of both Oireachtas committees and the Houses. These reforms can be implemented within the existing constitutional framework and without the need for legislation.

I understand that some people have also submitted proposals for operational reform to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges and that these are under consideration by that committee. We look forward to early implementation of proposals for practical and workable reform of the Seanad. The motion before the House sets out a series of statements and a list of issues. The real challenge is not to identify problems that we all know exist, but to come up with solutions. On this count, the Government has a strong record, not just in regard to the Seanad but in regard to political reform in general.

Since taking office in 2011, the Government has introduced radical and significant reforms to the financing of the political system. I have already mentioned the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012, which contains the provisions on gender balance. This Act also brought into force restrictions on corporate donations and considerable reductions in the maximum amount that a political party or an individual can accept as a political donation. In implementing recommendations from the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals, it demonstrated the seriousness of the Government in learning lessons from our difficult past.

In 2010, the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption, known as GRECO, published a report on political party funding in Ireland. It identified particular problem areas and made recommendations to address these. In December 2013 a final report on the implementation of the recommendations made by GRECO was published. This report recognised that the regulation and transparency of political funding in Ireland had greatly improved. To quote directly from the report: "Ireland has engaged in a reform process by which virtually all concerns raised by GRECO have been taken on board." This is not a case of the Government blowing its own trumpet. These are the comments and considered judgments of a respected international body.

A number of other political reform measures have also been introduced. The Government legislated for a reduction in the number of Deputies, which will result in the number of Deputies falling from 166 to 158 at the next general election. We provided that the writ for a Dáil by-election must now be issued within six months of the vacancy occurring. As Deputies are aware, during the lifetime of the previous Dáil, there were significant delays in calling by-elections. The result of this measure was clear for all to see last week, when vacancies that arose from the European Parliament elections in late May were filled. The spending limit for candidates at a presidential election was reduced from €1.3 million to €750,000. Reimbursement payments to candidates were also reduced. The spending limits for the 2014 local elections were reduced across the board and the legal provision restricting a person who is bankrupt from being a member of, or standing for election to, the Dáil or European Parliament was repealed by legislation enacted in the past year.

The Government has taken a proactive approach to reform and the system for regulating politics in this country has been transformed. However, there is further work to do, not only on Seanad reform, but on the administration of our electoral system. Hence, the statement of Government priorities published in July of this year states: “Preparatory work for the establishment of an Electoral Commission is being advanced with a view to bringing forward legislation for the establishment of such a Commission in early 2015.” This will involve detailed and considered work. Issues for consideration include: international best practice; the commission's structure and functions; whom it reports to; its relationship with other bodies currently involved in electoral administration; and the approach to be followed in regard to the extensive legislation that will be required, as well as practical matters including staffing and funding arrangements.

The statement of Government priorities also provides for the enactment of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill. I mentioned already that the general scheme of the Bill was published earlier this year for consultation. It provides for a six-seat constituency for institutions of higher education; for all holders of a qualification of ordinary degree level or equivalent to be entitled to register to vote in the constituency; for every voter to have only one vote in the constituency, no matter how many qualifications he or she holds; for an updated nomination process; and for new arrangements for the filling of casual vacancies, to be modelled on the replacement candidate provisions for European Parliament elections.

The general scheme was presented in the Seanad for discussion in March 2014 and a total of 22 submissions were received as part of the public consultation process. A technical working group was set up to examine and make observations on operational matters, including the register of electors, the administration of elections and costs arising. To date, the group has met on four occasions and good progress has been made in developing the Bill further. I look forward to its enactment. I believe this approach represents a good and effective way of dealing with legislation. We have consulted widely and brought key stakeholders around the same table. The observations of Members of the Seanad, the input from the technical working group, and the issues raised in the consultation process are now informing the further development of the general scheme. I look forward to coming before this House to debate the Bill in the near future.

This Private Members' motion criticises the Government for not delivering on its commitments. However, the Government has been delivering on what it said it would do. This is evident not only in regard to the Seanad, but also on fundamental political reform generally. The Government has brought about real and lasting change. For the reasons outlined earlier, it makes sense to enhance the way the Seanad operates within the current constitutional and legislative frameworks. The Government has put forward a package of proposals designed to achieve this outcome and I look forward to the endorsement of these proposals by the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

All sides of the House should get on with the process of reforming the Seanad. Unlike the various reports and recommendations on Seanad reform since 1937 that remained on the shelf, this time there will be action. We need to see reform that is implemented appropriately. Reform will largely depend on the Members of the Seanad working closely to develop reforms and working with the Government towards implementing these reforms. I believe we can all work together to bring Seanad Éireann into the 21st century and I am committed to doing that.

It is good that we are having this debate today, but the motion before us leaves us with more questions than answers. It raises expectations, but lacks the substance to back them up. It does not stand up to detailed scrutiny, particularly in regard to constitutional requirements. The Government cannot agree to the motion in its present form and that is why we are moving our amendment. I thank our colleagues for putting forward this motion.

2:10 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank my colleagues in Sinn Féin for introducing this motion, which is timely, as it is almost 12 months since the referendum which sought to amend the Constitution and abolish the Seanad, a referendum supported by Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin. We have put forward amendments to the motion and I urge the Government to consider those amendments seriously.

It is interesting to hear the Minister talk about the commitment to reform politics and the Seanad and to hear him talk about reports by various committees and groupings within the Houses in the intervening period. However, all of that counts for nothing since the Government proposal in regard to the amendment to the Constitution was defeated. The hollow talk of reform in the meantime beggars belief. Despite the fact that the Taoiseach got a "wallop" from the electorate on that issue, it seems the wallop was not sufficient for him to come forward with real and meaningful proposals to address the way people voted on that occasion or the way they rejected outright the effort to grab power on the part of the Government by attempting to abolish Seanad Éireann.

The only proposal put forward by the Taoiseach after that failed bid falls far short of what is really needed. Simply pandering to university graduates, as much as they are entitled to vote, is not what the people would have expected, considering the wallop they gave him.

The Minister talked about political reform, new politics and the democratic revolution evident in himself and his colleagues since taking office. Unfortunately, this is against a backdrop of a serious failure by the Government to introduce real political reform across the board as regards how we do politics. The Government's record has been a smokescreen, with changes making for a greater centralisation of power in fewer and fewer hands. In Dáil Éireann, for example, the Government has completely broken its promises of new politics, which is a damning indictment of its stated intention to bring about reform. The record will show that it continues to systematically break the pledge in the programme for Government that it would not guillotine the debates on Bills. The debates on some 63% of all legislation which has passed through this Dáil to date have been guillotined. Nowhere is this more obvious and more pertinent than when one considers the guillotining last December of the debate on the legislation that was rammed through the House to give effect to the setting up of Irish Water and how we have suffered as a result of that direction from the Government. As the Minister's colleague, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, said recently, that whole sorry process has proved to be nothing short of an "unmitigated disaster".

It is not only backbenchers who now see the folly and realise they should not have taken the direction that was foisted on them last December, when they were denied the opportunity, as we were, to properly and adequately scrutinise the legislation before the House and the implications of what was contained within it. We now wonder why it is there are so many outstanding questions that cannot be answered by Irish Water. We wonder how the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government, past and present, can try to deflect the obvious and say there is a communications issue within Irish Water in not selling its message to the people. These four people and their colleagues in government, as well as backbenchers, are the very ones who walked through the lobbies but who had failed to adequately and effectively question and scrutinise the legislation. They might have had the opportunity, as many others would have had, to allow us to improve on it and not to leave us in the predicament we are in today.

That is the sum total in just one case in respect of the new politics, the democratic revolution, the new way of doing business and allowing committees to play a greater role in how politics is done and how government can become more effective. I am a member of the environment committee, as was the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey. We have sought in the past two or three months to have the officials and executives of Irish Water come before the committee but to no avail. Despite this, I picked up the newspaper this morning to read that they were with the Labour Party last week and Fine Gael two weeks previously. Even having had these executives before them, however, they could not extract the information that bonuses were being paid. The Taoiseach said the opposite on 7 October. That is the reform we have had under the Government in how we do politics, how legislation is scrutinised and how Members who are representatives of the public and have the privilege to scrutinise legislation are not being allowed to do so.

The Government has failed to implement its programme for Government commitment to allow a period of two weeks between Bill Stages in the case of 78% of the Bills that have been brought forward. The Topical Issues debate has been completely undermined by the failure of relevant Ministers to turn up, which has proven to be the case in 40% of cases. As we all know, the Friday sitting is a farce and mere window-dressing to bolster the number of sitting days, without any real debate and votes being allowed on the day on which Bills or motions are brought forward. The Government continues to engage in cronyism in State board appointments, ignoring the open public process it promised to introduce. It cannot hide behind the facts which in that instance are that just one in five appointments has been made through the public process, to which the recent controversy bears testament. The recent raft of Dáil measures taken without consultation will, in reality, disempower the Opposition and give more time to the Government for back-slapping by its own backbenchers who only now, 12 months on, realise the folly of their actions in the case of Irish Water.

It is time for real and meaningful reform. It is time to wake up and face the reality of the result of the referendum last October. We are committed to finding common ground in developing a consensual approach to reform of the Upper House. We have had the Democracy Matters proposals, while Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, as well as Senator John Crown, have put forward separate Bills on how to revamp Seanad Éireann. It is imperative, at this late stage, that the Government use this as the starting point for introducing genuine reform, not just the severely restricted Bill it has published on broadening university graduate voting rights. Reform must encompass a broader approach to all tiers of the State in order to reshape the structure of politics to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. As I said, we have published detailed documents on reforming the Dáil and the system of local government. This holistic reform is critical if we are to genuinely change how we do business.

In regard to the Seanad, I will read what we advocated during the course of the debate that led to the referendum result. I do this in the hope it will be taken seriously and that the Government might take seriously its own responsibility, having lost its wish to grab power and take it from the Seanad. We propose that the seats of Taoiseach's nominees be set aside for minority groups and that the vote on the university seats should be open to all third level graduates. There should be 43 vocational seats, the vote on which should be opened up to the entire electorate, not just councillors, thereby enabling the people to have a strong voice. We should broaden the electorate, even from that base, to encompass the Diaspora and Irish citizens living in the North of Ireland.

We have said any group of 500 citizens should be allowed to make nominations to be a candidate for the Seanad. Obviously, there should be spending limits for elections, along the same lines as those in place for all other elections. In the case of nominations for replacements, they should be filled by the next unelected candidate in the original count, not just the person selected by the Government, as is currently the case.

We look for a gender quota system to be agreed between all parties and included in such proposals. Such a system would have our support.

The people's rejection of the ill-thought-out Seanad referendum that was supported by all other political parties underlines the need for new political reform by the Government which has continually failed to deliver on its promised package of holistic political reforms. Fianna Fáil published legislation that put forward a series of measures the Government could immediately implement to empower the Seanad and which would not require a referendum. They could be put in place in a legislative format. They would give all citizens a vote, which must be the foundation for any such reform, and broaden representation across minority groups, which is most important. A overhaul of the political system is needed if we are to tackle the problems in government. This is the time for real reform and the Government can start by engaging with proposals for change, the proposals put forward in the motion by Sinn Féin and the amendments proposed by Fianna Fáil, and beginning a process whereby it would take account of the wallop, the people's wishes and the fact that they did not want to abolish the Seanad. They wanted it to be reformed. The Government has failed to respond to this decision since, but it is never too late and I hope it will grasp the two main points that emanated from it - that the Seanad should act as a check on the Government's power and scrutinise national and EU legislation, as it should and must do. That is its primary role and what it should always be.

The Government must broaden representation to provide a voice for groups not heard in Dáil Éireann. Obviously, the electorate must be expanded to take in not only citizens living in the State but also those living in Northern Ireland, as well as the Diaspora. Every effort should be made to accommodate this. I hope to see worthwhile proposals emanating from the Minister of State who has been given the responsibility to act as a conduit for this sector. I hope he can play a role in bringing forward effective legislation to take account of the people's wishes. It was their wish to use it rather than lose it and it is up to the Government, together with Fianna Fáil, other Opposition parties and the Independents, to bring forward legislation that will do what it says on the tin. We might then be able to allow the Government to use the mantra that it has created a democratic revolution in some shape or form because it has shut down democracy in respect of 63% of Bills that have passed through this House. As I said, nothing is more evident than that which became apparent through the debacle associated with the setting up of Irish Water and the accompanying legislation.

2:30 pm

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next slot belongs to the Technical Group and the next speaker is Deputy Finian McGrath who I understand wishes to share time with Deputy Catherine Murphy and Deputy Shane Ross. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Before I say my few words about Seanad reform, I want to use the opportunity to congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, on his elevation to office and wish him well in the future.

The motion about reforming the Seanad is a very important one. I support it because it is very reasonable, sensible and inclusive, as most people on the island want reform and change. That is what we all voted for in the last general election.

Sadly, the Taoiseach and the Government seem to have nothing but contempt for the Seanad. Their mindset needs to change and this issue needs to be faced. They need to change. While the people voted to save the Seanad, they want to see it reformed. The Government needs to get this as a matter of urgency. I was one of those who campaigned to save the Seanad which at the time was not very popular, but we won the referendum. At all times, however, we emphasised the need for reform, accountability and an end to elitism and the undemocratic nature of elections. That was part of the debate, which nobody should forget. Doing nothing was never an option, which is why I welcome the motion, as it deals with the core issues and sets out clearly what needs to be done.

First, the citizens of the State rejected the Government's constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad through their votes in the referendum in October 2013. That was a very important statement because it showed that a substantial sector of the electorate believed in democratic accountability and the need for a second Chamber. They also told us during the referendum that they wanted to get rid of any elitist or undemocratic system. They want to open and broaden it to include citizens of the State and the state next door. The political system should ensure the Seanad is a modern and effective second Chamber, something at which we must also look.

I strongly support the wording of the motion which calls on the Government to engage with all parties and groups in the Oireachtas and civic society. This includes many Independent Deputies and Senators who are making a fantastic contribution to this Oireachtas. They and the members of the Technical Group are putting forward policies that are inclusive and representative and, above all, demand accountability. That is the kind of reform for which we are looking.

There should be direct election by way of a universal franchise involving all Irish citizens. We then have the other issue, a very important one, namely, Northern representation. It is very important because there is a mindset in the State and the House that Ireland ends at Dundalk and that people "up there" do not have a right to be involved in politics on this part of the island. I ask those with this mindset to look at our history and that of their own parties. A divided Ireland was always a weakened Ireland. If we had a Seanad which represented all voices on the island, it would present an opportunity. I remember, in particular, the late Gordon Wilson and the massive contribution he made when he was nominated to the Seanad. He was one of the ones who kick-started the peace process. It is important to acknowledge that voices such as his need to be heard.

We also need to change the mindset of many elected Members, particularly many newly elected Members, who seem to believe Ireland comes to an end at Dundalk. That is an issue to which we should face up. With that mindset Members cannot come into the House and talk about Connolly, Tone and Collins. Ireland played Germany the other night and it was a fantastic result. I use the opportunity to congratulate the Irish team, particularly John O'Shea for scoring an excellent goal.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Deputy should not take his colleagues' time to do so.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

He is a Waterford man also. The real point was missed that night. There were two Irish teams playing. Would it not be wonderful if there was one all-Ireland football team? Would we not have a stronger and united team composed of Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters? We should not run away from these issues because genuine sports fans would accept it.

I welcome the motion and commend Sinn Féin for bringing it before the House. I will be supporting it.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Now that citizens have spoken and decided to retain the Seanad, it is essential that it be reformed. The recent by-election which had a total electorate of just 220 Deputies and Senators exposed how numerically limited the electorate was. I take the opportunity to congratulate Senator Gerard Craughwell on his election. Some of us signed his nomination papers because we believed there was a need for a contest. It should not have been just in the gift of the Taoiseach; it was cronyism that led to the downfall of the Government-nominated candidate.

There is a lot said about the university panels which comprise just six of the 60 Senators.

Extending the franchise to the other universities is a relatively straightforward issue because at least there is a sizeable electorate on the university panels. It is less straightforward to deal with the 43 Senators currently elected by fewer than 1,000 people who happen to be councillors, Deputies or Senators, and the 11 Senators who are nominated by the Taoiseach. An interrelationship between our political institutions and the diversity that could become a refreshing feature is suggested in the White Paper on local government, which concluded that there was a need for a regional tier of government. In the near future, we will be seeing a cobbled together regional tier, with most citizens unaware of its existence or purpose. They will have no direct role in electing its members because each city and county council will nominate two or three people, probably from the largest groupings.

We need to stop talking about balanced regional development and start to develop institutions that can deliver it. Balanced regional development includes not only the built environment but also the social, cultural and economic development of our regions. There is an opportunity for a small number of powerful regions to be directly elected, with direct links with the Seanad. Such linkages have made a great difference to the development of cities like Barcelona. The 43 Senators could play a role in the regional process in speciality areas such as culture and leisure; transport and planning; or industry and commerce, where they might be able to attract investment directly. The vocational nature of this work could develop a practical side to the Seanad.

Water services could have been delivered on a regional basis. Much has been made about the concentration of 43 local authorities into a unitary Irish Water but the pipes are still located in the local authority areas. The White Paper might have offered us a different way of managing this change by connecting our institutions. The Seanad could deliver that kind of change and I support the call in this motion to engage all parties and groups in the Oireachtas, as well as civil society. This must be seen as an opportunity to refresh and renew our institutions. The White Paper was drafted at the conclusion of a long process of consultation and contained a considerable number of recommendations that could have been implemented. Political parties need to stop using the Seanad as a play thing because it discredits the institution and politics in general. Most of all, it is a wasted opportunity to renew it in a way that links it to balanced regional development and decentralising the country in a meaningful way.

2:40 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Last September, I joined Members from a cross-section of political parties in attending a meeting at Government Buildings which the Taoiseach had called in order to involve all parties in what he described as reform of the Seanad. That was a hopeful move and, as far as I recall, it was decided that our great reform movement would meet again in February. It is now October and nothing has happened. We were promised that there would be reform of the university seats but no legislation is pending. If that is the extent of the Government's commitment to Seanad reform, we can forget it. An enlarged university constituency has democratic appeal and I have no quarrel with it. However, it gives the impression of reforming elitist ways of electing people to the Seanad while leaving all the patronage in place.

There is a fanfare about the new reforms and radical measures to change semi-State bodies and patronage by the Government that are to be introduced on 1 November but the greatest haven of political patronage will be left untouched, at least until the next general election, and a system which is recognised by all parties and the electorate as rotten is being fastidiously preserved. As has been pointed out by other speakers, 11 Senators are directly nominated by the Taoiseach through naked patronage. That does not exclude the fact that some have turned out to be very independent, to the surprise of the Taoiseach of the day. The 43 Members who are the chosen proteges not just of the Taoiseach of the day but also the leaders of the other political parties will also survive. That system involves insiders electing insiders from the parties concerned. The party leadership and headquarters give the signal to the people in these Houses and to councillors on who they want elected. They are not automatically elected but the result is usually that the leaders of political parties get their own people elected. It becomes a reward.

What I heard today from the Minister was a reflection of that reward. His speech set out a charter for cronyism. He was utterly misleading when he claimed that the Government had proposals to reform the Seanad. Then he gave us a list of nonsensical and minor reforms which would not make a bit of difference to the way in which the Seanad operates. It was insulting. The purpose was to give the Seanad something to do. When the Seanad is in trouble about what it should be doing it asks to be tasked with reviewing EU legislation. That was on the Minister's list. He also suggested that it review the work of the European Commission. The Commission does not give a hoot whether the Irish Seanad can review its work but it would give the lads something to do because they are really in the Seanad as a reward for what they have done in the past and what they are expected to do in future.

The primary problem with the Seanad is its electorate. Everyone has their own proposals and I have no monopoly on wisdom but I believe this problem could be solved very quickly by keeping the nominating bodies and changing them somewhat. The idea of vocational representation is totally acceptable because the Seanad should not be a straight reflection of the Dáil. Why do we not allow the nominating bodies to nominate candidates for 54 out of 60 Senators but ask the wider electorate to make the final selection in a demonstration of popular democracy?

Photo of Tom BarryTom Barry (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. The Seanad has an important role to play. There have been issues in the past but the Taoiseach got very little recognition for his appointees. They made up their own minds and refused to vote with the Government on a number of issues. It is unfair to criticise him when he is trying to make a difference. The referendum has opened up discussion on the Seanad. We had to find out whether the people wanted it.

It was an astonishing result in a lot of ways because in a time of economic woe people asserted their faith in the political system. It put a great deal of responsibility on our shoulders. How do we do it? We need to have a proper discussion. Today's discussions quite interesting. While all third level people should be included, where does it stop? There are third levels across all areas of society. Do we include people who go to agricultural colleges? We need to discuss this.

The Seanad should act as a reservoir of talent. There are many people in the country who have a great deal to contribute in their particular areas, but we must have a reasoned debate. We must debate it among ourselves to establish clarity before opening it to a wider audience. A balanced talent pool representing the many sectors that are out there today is important. We are living in a different Ireland from the one in which the Seanad was established. There are now SME groupings, agricultural groupings, tourism groupings, health groupings and information technology groupings. We need to figure out what we want to have there. Is it better to have a reservoir of talent inside the House rather than go to consultants who may have ulterior motives in their advice? Of course we need a gender balance, but we also need a youth and an elderly balance. Those people also have unique insights into Irish life.

I have always found the sitting hours strange and we need to look at them. There are people who would gladly contribute to the Seanad but cannot because they are running a business or have a family. We must see if there is a way to accommodate these people to access their expertise and their vision of where we should be going. The election of people to the Seanad is open to discussion. However, we need to know what we want to achieve here. It is no good to stand up and criticise all of the wrongs; we must discuss ways to create an institution that is reformed, that works and that is seen to be working. A reformed Seanad could certainly deliver a lot of success for us. It is more difficult to answer the question of how to get there than it is to criticise what is not working at the moment. That is the challenge and it is one I look forward to debating with everyone here. If we get to a point at which we have reformed the Seanad successfully, it will be a credit to everybody in the House.

2:50 pm

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I acknowledge the fact that Sinn Féin has tabled this motion and Fianna Fáil has tabled an amendment to it. I would have thought at this particular time in our history that we had more important issues to debate in the House. I speak as someone who spent almost five happy years in the Seanad.

My first observation is that when it comes to the Order of Business in the Seanad, all the elected public representatives have an opportunity to raise issues of concern for both themselves and their constituents, or for the country. It is unlike what happens in this House. A person in my position as a Government backbencher receives very little time to raise such issues. Certainly, we do not get any opportunity on the Order of Business to raise them. One receives adequate time in the Seanad and may seek a more positive result when one does raise something there. One has an opportunity to follow it up afterwards.

There is a real role for the Seanad. I have always subscribed to that view. In speaking about reform, however, I would have expected Members across the way to be more anxious and to concentrate their energies on the reform of this House in ways which would provide us with better opportunities to represent our people and raise issues in the way I have just described. I look at the five items on the Sinn Féin motion. The first one calls for immediate engagement with all parties and groups within the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach did that following the referendum in October 2013, when he consulted with all parties and groups in December of that year. If Deputy Stanley is upset about that, he should have a word with his Whip. The package of reforms was to be introduced and discussed by the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges to reflect the Taoiseach's engagement with groups, parties and individuals.

We must be very careful about how we reform the Seanad. We speak about the diaspora. Let us look at similar bodies in the USA and Canada. There is an example of a successful appointments system in Canada, where the Upper House is an entirely appointed body which capably represents a vast range of territories, including the interests of Quebec, where there is a struggle for sovereignty which might be loosely compared to what we have in Irish nationalism. It is a parliamentary monarchy based on the British system, and Deputy Stanley will be delighted to know that Senators there can serve until they are 75 years of age. It could be argued on foot of the appointment system and the term Senators have that the Canadian Senate is elitist. However, it can be contrasted with the US Senate. Due to direct election and the way the House is formulated, the US Senate cannot introduce finance or appropriations Bills. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives must pass such a Bill before it becomes law. Senators are elected for a six-year term in first-past-the-post elections by the general electorate and elections are staggered so that one third of the seats are contested every two years. The question is how well it functions. Every two years, the administration in power commits immense resources to trying to win or maintain control of the Senate. These are very substantial resources which could be allocated to legislation rather than partisan gridlock. If this is what Sinn Féin is recommending here, it would result in stalemate in the Seanad and the Government of the day would not be able to function and put through necessary legislation.

When I entered the House today and listened to Deputy Barry Cowen's contribution, I thought the debate was about Irish Water. While many of his concerns about Irish Water are justified, does the Deputy want to leave the situation as it was after his party had been in power for almost 20 years? We have a water system that is unusable, with boil-water notices all over the country and the problems we see in Roscommon. We have a dysfunctional water system across the country. Should the Government have ignored that and proceeded as though nothing was wrong? No. It had to take action and it did. We acknowledge that there are difficulties, but the problem will be remedied and the people will have the water supply to which they are entitled. Something similar will happen with the reform of the Seanad, but we must give constructive thought and criticism to the matter and come forward with radical solutions that improve the lot of the Members of the Seanad and the people.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I begin by commenting on the comments of Deputies Shane Ross and Catherine Murphy. Deputy Shane Ross mentioned insiders and Deputy Catherine Murphy referred to patronage. They were talking about the manner in which the Seanad is elected in part by Deputies, Senators and local authority members. They include themselves, as Deputies Shane Ross and Catherine Murphy are part of that electorate. If a Labour-Party-aligned elector votes for a Labour Party candidate, it is democracy, not patronage. The same goes for all other parties and independent candidates when they vote for themselves. In a general election to the Dáil where there is a universal franchise, the majority of voters vote along party lines rather than for independents, and that is their choice. It is democracy, and that is reflected in democracies all over the world. Multi-seat constituencies in the Dáil, the Seanad and local authorities provide voters with a choice as to which candidate to choose, be it a party representative or an independent person.

3 o’clock

It is not undemocratic. As well as being in their interest, it is disingenuous of independent representatives to say it is.

Neither is the manner of indirect election to the Seanad undemocratic, unique or unusual. We have it in the Dáil in how we elect the Taoiseach, and in county councils in how they elect their mayors. In Israel, for example, the parliament also elects the country’s president. If one is going to use indirect election, then there should be full coverage of the electorate. The county council franchise for the Seanad elections is properly equal. Councillors are elected not just by every citizen but by every resident. All of the country votes for councillors, who in turn elect the Seanad. The same cannot be said of the university representatives in the Seanad. Its electorate is partial, comprising graduates of only some of the universities, namely the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. To eradicate that main inequality in the electoral system, the Government should broaden the university Seanad franchise.

I am favourable to other Seanad electorate reforms but I am not sure whether it should be elected in the same manner as the Dáil. For example, elections to the German Senate are decided by local government. It is good to maintain the tie between the Seanad and local government. The Constitutional Convention should consider what is the best electoral process for the Seanad - for example, whether it should be directly or indirectly elected. All political parties, with the exception of Fianna Fáil, campaigned to abolish the Seanad in last year’s referendum. I do not believe they have taken on board the fact that the mere existence of the Seanad is of value to our democracy. Many of the voters who voted to retain the Seanad did so on that basis. People informed me last year that they wanted the Seanad to keep an eye on the Dáil. Their number one issue was not whether it would be reformed.

Another issue that emerged during the referendum campaign, as well as in today’s debate, is how we find new business for the Seanad. Its constitutional function is to legislate and, in that way, it plays a vital watchdog role over the Government. The whole idea is that legislation should go through two parliamentary processes to give longer time for scrutiny and more time for controversial aspects of it to come into the public domain. That is an important role, similar to that of the President’s. We do not need to find extra business for the Seanad, as that role in itself is fundamental. I am wary of this idea of trying to find business for the Seanad.

It is not true to say the Seanad has never been reformed. Most recommendations of the 12 reports on Seanad and general constitutional reform, with the exception of the 2004 report, have been implemented, including the extension of the franchise. Originally, the Seanad’s franchise was much narrower. It was first extended through the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947, while further modifications were made in 1954 and 1972 legislation. A proposal that could be further examined is Article 19 of the Constitution, which allows for the substitution of election by panel with election by vocational body or institution. The question of who decides nominations for Seanad by-elections could also be examined, as this is done by law and is not prescribed in the Constitution.

3:00 pm

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As someone who stood several years ago for Seanad election and missed out by less than quarter of a vote - some would say I was lucky, or unlucky, depending on what way one looks at it - I welcome this debate on Seanad reform. The people made up their minds and decided to keep the Seanad last year. No one, however, wants to keep it in its current format. Accordingly, can meaningful reform be introduced within the confines of what is permitted in the Constitution, or will it require greater constitutional reform in a series of measures that can be brought to the people?

As an Oireachtas Member and a university graduate, I have two votes in Seanad elections. In my estimation, it is grossly undemocratic that a person can get a vote on the basis of an academic qualification. It harks back to a measure of which the apartheid regime in South Africa would have been proud, or the Ulster Unionists in the old Stormont assembly. It basically means that because someone has an academic qualification they are in some way better than somebody else. That is repugnant to democracy. I would like to see a referendum that will remove academic qualifications from future Seanad elections. A person with a third level qualification is no better or worse than someone with no qualification whatsoever. It harks back to everything that the State symbolised in the 1930s, namely a copycat measure of the House of Lords when the 1937 Constitution was adopted.

I discussed this issue with Senator Maurice Cummins and Deputy Eoghan Murphy at lunchtime. We agreed that Seanad elections should take place on the same day as the general election. Deputy Shane Ross - like many other Members, he might be happy to return from whence he came - spoke about his concerns about naked patronage and the Taoiseach’s nominees. This could not be further from the truth. If the Taoiseach had gone down the road of naked patronage, the Government would not have the problem it has with its majority in the Seanad now. The Taoiseach did not go down that road. Did he get any credit for not doing so? No. I did not hear any Opposition Members praise the Taoiseach for appointing 11 independent Seanad Members, achieving a gender balance at the same time, and for not appointing cronies. Of course, one never gets credit for doing things right around here.

The Constitution only lays out the names of the Seanad electoral panels. It does not state how they have to be constituted or whether they are required to have fixed numbers, can be ascribed to geographical areas, can use the European Parliament constituencies or can be composed of particular affiliations or age groups. There is nothing to stop this type of Seanad reform. Some Members are of the opinion that allowing councillors only to vote is a bad development. I draw their attention to the Belgian and German Senates, which are elected by regional assemblies. What is wrong with people being indirectly elected by people who are themselves directly elected? In fact, it is probably a truer representation of what happened on the day of the local elections than what happened on the day of the general election. The Opposition parties might wind up gaining from it compared to what they might get if there were Seanad elections on the same day as a general election.

I agree with Deputy Joanna Tuffy that we should not ask what business we can give the Seanad. Under the Constitution, it is a House of the Oireachtas; therefore, it has a legislative responsibility. The Constitution is specific that it cannot initiate money Bills but it can initiate any other legislation it so wishes. Ultimately, such legislation will come back to the Dáil, which is the right process because this is the directly elected forum. Suggesting we need to give the Seanad something to do is demeaning the work that many good Seanad Members have done in the past and do now.

I do not agree with Deputy Shane Ross on the patronage element of Seanad elections.

What is wrong with a Fine Gael councillor voting for a Fine Gael candidate in the Seanad? What is wrong with a Sinn Féin councillor voting for a Sinn Féin candidate? I know we have a different attitude to discipline, if some people drift away and do not vote down the line, but we just have to get over it. Sinn Féin might have a different way of approaching that. From my point of view there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is indirect democracy. Essentially, the person who puts the ballot paper into the box on the day of the local elections is electing an elector who becomes a member of an electoral college who subsequently elects a Senator. There is nothing wrong with that.

3:10 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is the way the President of the United States is elected.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Deputy is correct; that is way the President of the United States is elected. I do not see anybody here jumping up and down about that. Article 19 of the Constitution states:

Provision may be made by law for the direct election by any functional or vocational group or association or council of so many members of Seanad Éireann as may be fixed by such law in substitution for an equal number of the members to be elected from the corresponding panels of candidates ...
There is scope in that article for this to be examined. All I am saying is that we should not throw out the baby out with the bathwater, as there are many good things that can be done. In the absence of a concrete debate that includes all elements, the proposed reforms would be unfair to the current Senators and those who went before. The Seanad has a lot to offer and can make a difference going forward.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a few points. I am sorry that my vote seven or eight years ago was not enough to give Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, Councillor O'Donovan at the time, the extra quarter to have him elected to the Seanad. I too have been a member of the Seanad and have seen how it operates. I agree with some of the previous comments, particularly those of Deputy Noel Coonan, who mentioned some of the freedom that is available to Senators to raise topical issues. The operation of the Seanad on a day-to-day basis is much freer than this House. On the Order of Business one can raise relevant national and local issues and get a direct or sometimes an indirect response to the concerns raised. This House would do well to reflect on how it does its business and make itself more like the Seanad in that regard at least.

The most interesting thing in the whole debate is that everybody who has contributed here has a different view as to how the Seanad should be reformed. I too have a different view. There does not appear to be any agreed mechanism by which the Seanad should be reformed. Some of the previous speakers may be right that a wider body, such as the Constitutional Convention, could be usefully engaged in designing the shape of the Seanad into the future. I am not convinced of the desirability of having a completely directly elected second Chamber that is merely a mirror of this House. I do not see the point or the purpose; it would be a duplication of the Dáil. The Seanad has an important function.

I shouted across at Deputy Patrick O'Donovan earlier when he mentioned how the indirect election process works already for those on the vocational panels in the Seanad. That is the mechanism by which the President of the United States is elected. Most people think it is a direct election, but it is not. It is an electoral college system with an indirect election. That is what happens. There is nothing wrong with a Sinn Féin, a Fine Gael or a Fianna Fáil councillor voting for whomever they wish. When I was elected by 0.15 of a vote to the Seanad in 2002, it was the elimination of a Fianna Fáil councillor from Kerry and a No. 11 vote that came, I think, from a Fianna Fáil councillor in Kilkenny that successfully elected me, rather than another Fine Gael candidate. It is not right to assume that everybody votes down the line according to their own parties. It is a secret ballot and they do not always do that. The notion that Deputy Shane Ross has put forward is a bit rich. It is hard to listen to a lecture about cronyism from a man who inhabited for more than 30 years the most twisted form of electoral system that there is in this country, namely, the Trinity College electoral panel in the Seanad, which can hardly be said to be a truly fair, reflective and open system of election. Yet he has the temerity to come in and criticise the Taoiseach, who appointed a number of Independents who have voted more often against the Government than with it in this Seanad.

There are two schools of thought as to how the Seanad should be elected, one of which is to retain the indirect system. That is the option I prefer, but there is merit in the argument for a wider electorate for the vocational panel; for example, the agricultural panel, of which I was a member for nine years, could be elected by people who are directly involved in agriculture.

There is no doubt that, whatever system emerges, we need to ensure the Seanad is more representative of the general public and more representative of different groups that are not represented in the Oireachtas. I agree with the Sinn Féin proposal in relation to the diaspora. It would be a useful mechanism to allow representatives of the diaspora to be members of the Upper House.

We mention frequently in this House and in other places the lack of women in politics. The Seanad is not particularly representative of the general population in terms of the number of women who are Members. It is certainly not representative in terms of the number of younger people who are Members. Whatever system is drawn up needs to reflect that.

Deputy Stephen Donnelly mentioned that the Government reforms focused on what he termed the six independent Senators. He meant, of course, the six Members of the two university panels. On several occasions, including at present, individuals on those panels have been members of parties, not independent Senators. I do not know if it was a Freudian slip on his behalf, but in the history of the Seanad there have been many people, not least Deputy Shane Ross, who was a member of my Party on at least one occasion on which he was elected as a member of the Seanad.

Deputy Barry Cowen made a flippant comment earlier that I think he did not particularly mean. He spoke about the people rejecting the abolition of the Seanad out of hand. To reject something out of hand implies a rejection without any thought or study. I can safely say that when it came to the referendum on Seanad abolition, much talk, thought and study went into it. A total of 51.7% of the electorate voted "No" and 48.3% voted "Yes", so it was quite a narrow result, but it was clear that the people wanted the Seanad to be retained. Now we must have legitimate proposals for its reform.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Dessie Ellis is sharing time with Deputies Sandra McLellan, Brian Stanley, and Michael Colreavy.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Ba mhaith liom an Bille Chomhalta Phríomháidí seo a mholadh. Tá sé an-tábhachtach do gach aon duine, agus go háirithe do dhaonlathas na tíre seo, tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo.

In the run up to the general election in 2011, Sinn Fein was unconvinced that the potential merits of a bicameral system in Ireland were strong enough to maintain a structure that was profoundly democratic and served little purpose. That structure was and remains the Seanad. We believed that radical reform could make it beneficial, but we doubted it would happen under another conservative government. We were proved right that this reform was not achievable, at least up until now. What has changed is the will of the people. When the abolition of the Seanad became more than a soundbite and a cheap political slogan, people rejected it.

The political class have spent the last two decades sowing complete distrust among the general public, especially in working class communities, which has become much more vocal since the economic collapse.

This has meant that every proposal from the political class has been met with distrust, from Oireachtas tribunals to children's rights. The Seanad referendum showed clearly that people believed if the political establishment was saying X, then Y must be the right choice.

Some might see it as bizarre that people chose to show their distrust by retaining an institution that, in its current set-up, embodies all of the worst of the political establishment's excesses and abuses. In reality, it was an aspirational vote by the people. They believed the Seanad could be something better, they resented being given no option and they wanted to punish the Government for failing to do so.

A better second House is possible. A more democratic and representative House is possible. The rejection of the referendum should be seen by all on the "Yes" side, including us in Sinn Féin, as an opportunity to explore the expansion of our democracy and engagement and participation with the public. True, valued political reform can only happen when democracy is allowed to flourish and we have a very limited expression of democracy in this State. Voting every five years for councillors or Deputies is not the be all and end all of democracy but the bare minimum.

A reformed Seanad could be a wholly democratic body but, in contrast to the Dáil, one that sets out to address structural problems in our society and to promote equality, pluralism and co-operation. This can be done in part by some of the recommendations in the Sinn Féin motion. A Constitutional Convention hearing on Seanad reform, which would fill the first bullet point criteria, would be positive. The people have been impressed by this structure and felt it has represented their views and presented arguments for real change, particularly its proposals on social and economic rights.

Direct election of Senators by universal suffrage would begin a renewed interest in democratic engagement and give all citizens ownership over the reformed body and political reform as a cause. Northern representation would present a wonderful opportunity to give voice to a people left out of the narrative of the Ireland of the Oireachtas and could give great insight for political leaders into the nuts and bolts of the peace process, which continues to unfold today. Having 50% women Members would further advance the cause of gender equality and show that the Government is serious on the issue, as well as providing a new generation of role models for young women who want to be involved in public life but see nothing but men at the top tables and policies that dehumanise them in a society that objectifies them.

Representation of marginalised groups would also be invaluable. Members of the Traveller community, other ethnic minorities, the LGBT communities and others have an important voice, which is either unheard or under-represented. Constitutional reform is urgently needed and the Seanad needs to be more democratic. It must be a House that people feel enhances our democratic processes and values. The people have spoken and they want to keep the Seanad. I commend the motion to the House. The cause of political reform is one we all cherish.

3:20 pm

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. It is timely we discuss and debate it. One year ago, in October 2013, the Government's proposal to abolish the Seanad was rejected by the citizens of the State. During the referendum campaign, Sinn Féin campaigned for a "Yes" vote. We voted "Yes" because no option was available that would have allowed for root and branch reform of the Seanad. The decision by voters to retain the Seanad does not mask the fact that what is needed now is fundamental reform of the Upper House to make it more democratic, representative and accountable.

Following rejection of the proposal to abolish the Seanad, it was business as usual and carry on regardless. In its current form, this archaic institution, which is modelled on the equally unrepresentative British House of Lords, can be justifiably labelled elitist and unfit for purpose. It is an affront to the democratic process that only 1% of the electorate are afforded the right to cast a vote for the Senators who sit in an institution that should form one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

The Sinn Féin motion before the House sets out to rectify that aberration by introducing the reform of the Seanad so that it is reconstituted in a way that is better able to serve the common good. We have tabled the motion because the Government, despite its repeated promises of a democratic revolution, has failed to implement the type of constitutional reforms that would ensure a modern and effective second Chamber that is in step with 21st century Ireland. In our efforts to transform the Seanad, Sinn Féin believes it must become a fully inclusive institution that safeguards and acts in the best interests of our citizens. It must therefore have the powers and autonomy to exercise political oversight of our Legislature in a way that has never happened since the formation of the State. Anything less undermines our democratic process. If we fail to ensure that the Seanad acts as a real and effective check and balance to the power of the Lower House and the Executive, ultimately we are failing to protect properly the rights and entitlements of our citizens.

The failure of Fine Gael and Labour to fulfil their promises to reform our political system is unsurprising, particularly in light of the Taoiseach's recent attempt to manipulate an appointment to a public body for the sole reason of enhancing the CV of a Fine Gael candidate contesting a Seanad by-election. The appointment of Mr. John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA, regardless of his suitability for the role and despite the fact his candidature would have prevented him from sitting on the board, is typical of the type of stroke politics that has besmirched and shamed our political system. It is bad enough that the Taoiseach's role in this unseemly affair discredits him personally but it also brings the Seanad and arts into disrepute and is a reminder of how Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour have all used the Upper House to further their own narrow political agendas. The crass appointment of Mr. McNulty to the membership of a body charged with managing and supervising a national institution shows that cronyism and a sense of entitlement is as much embedded in the political DNA of Fine Gael as in Fianna Fáil. The McNulty debacle also provides conclusive proof that this Government treats our arts and heritage, language and culture with a level of contempt that is quite staggering. The abuse of the Seanad shows that reform of the Upper House is long overdue and what is needed is a democratic, accountable and egalitarian second Chamber that works in the best interests of good governance.

I emphasise the importance of having in place procedures that address the unacceptably low percentage of women who sit in both the Dáil and Seanad. The Sinn Féin proposals include the introduction of a list or panel system that guarantees 50% of people elected to the Seanad are female. If proof were needed that this type of measure is needed to end gender inequality in Leinster House, we only need look again at the track record of this Government, where in recent months capable female candidates were denied the opportunity to contest a Seanad election and overlooked for ministerial positions. If we continue to do what we have always done, nothing will change. We need to act now and we need real reform.

This motion sets out to end the elitism, cronyism and political manipulation that has prevented the second Chamber from having the power to scrutinise the Government's legislative programme in a meaningful way. Its proposals set out a framework to reform the Seanad so that it is inclusive and representative of Irish society, with voting rights extended to all citizens, including those living in the Six Counties and the Irish diaspora.

Today, the Government has a chance to demonstrate it is serious about implementing real reform of our political system by allowing this motion to pass unhindered. I ask that all Members support the motion.

3:30 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this very important motion. Deputy Coonan wondered about the wisdom of today's debate and argued there are more important issues to be addressed but his Government felt this matter was important enough to put to a referendum and included it in the programme for Government. Little has happened 12 months after that referendum. I sat here most of the afternoon listening to the Government Deputies and I was interested in what they had to say. Deputy Patrick O'Donovan indicated he had two votes for the Seanad but he actually may have ten votes if one considers there are five panels. There are people on the street who do not have one vote in Seanad elections, which shows how ridiculous is the process.

Since the defeat of the referendum to abolish the Seanad, there have been a number of proposals to radically reform it which have come from all sides of the House, inside the Seanad and outside Leinster House. Unfortunately, the Government appears to have gone in a different direction from its position of wanting to get rid of it altogether to leaving it exactly as it is. We wanted the Seanad radically reformed rather than kept was it was. What has happened to the Taoiseach's proposed reforms a year after the referendum? He indicated he would work with others and some Deputies argue that he is doing so. My understanding is that people were summoned to one meeting in Government Buildings to discuss the issue, and that was almost a year ago.

Our motion proposes reform of the Seanad by increasing representation of women and broadening the franchise to allow representation of Irish citizens in the North. An Irish citizen from the North ran for the most recent by-election to the Seanad, Ms Catherine Seeley, although she was not elected. She could not vote for another candidate or herself, which indicates how ridiculous that election was. We would like to see Members of the other Chamber elected through direct elections involving all registered electors. I would include people over 16, as we saw recently with the Scottish referendum on membership of the United Kingdom how people aged 16 and over had a vote and were capable of using it.

There are 17 European countries with second chambers and the members of these chambers in Belgium and Poland are elected by direct elections. Spain had a dictatorship until fairly recently so it is a fairly new democracy, and it directly elects 80% of its second chamber. Spain came through a difficult period in getting into a democratic process and some, particularly those in the Basque region and other areas, might argue it still has a bit to go in this regard. Half of the members in the Czech second chamber are elected by universal franchise. There have been proposals by others, including the Government, to broaden the franchise and include all those who are third-level graduates. This does not go far enough and there are proposals to include broader representation from community groups, including people involved in sports, arts, the Irish diaspora and so on. All that would achieve, without reform of the electoral system, would be to make the system more representative in a token fashion, as it would not fundamentally address the question of how people get inside the four walls of the Seanad.

In its response to the rejection of the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, the Government proposed to give all third-level graduates a vote in Seanad elections. This would be an improvement but we could not accept it as a meaningful attempt to genuinely reform the second Chamber. It cannot be seriously considered as an attempt by the Government to address its own commitment in the wake of the rejection to radically democratise the Seanad. There is only one meaningful way to create a truly democratic republican second Chamber. We live in a republic, and although I would like to see it extending to Ballycastle, this is as much as we have for now. If we are to have a proper democratic republican second Chamber, we must allow full and inclusive voting rights for people on this island right up to Ballycastle, across to Derry and taking in all the citizens of the country, as well as the Irish diaspora.

Deputy Coonan and the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, wondered about potential expense, as it costs €6.50 per envelope in the electoral process. Other governments can work out such matters in allowing their diaspora to vote and people here queue at embassies to vote in elections in their native countries. People could also go to regional centres, and there is nothing to stop us doing that in Boston, London, Leeds, Liverpool or anywhere else. If people cannot go to embassies or centres to vote, other mechanisms could be established to allow people to vote. The Minister also labelled our motion a wish-list but I do not see anything wishful, fanciful or way out in space about asking for democratic rights or that the Upper House should be truly representative of the people who elect it. That should not be beyond us. We should make these changes.

This issue should be passed to the Constitutional Convention, as some of the Government Deputies indicated, which is to be welcomed. Some Government backbenchers seem to be ahead of Ministers in this regard, as they have argued it should be passed to the Constitutional Convention for consideration so it can formulate genuinely democratic proposals and we can have a broader discussion, involving society and community representatives. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach and others around the Cabinet table have blocked such efforts to date. I call on the Government to honour its commitment and reform Seanad Éireann.

I asked a member of the public who visited Leinster House approximately a year ago what she thought of the Seanad. She told me the plasterwork of the ceiling was very decorative and the chandeliers were fantastic but she did not have much else good to say. When people see the Seanad on the television, they can see chandeliers and fancy plasterwork. Unfortunately, the Seanad is meant to represent people and it is not doing that. It must be changed and the Government must honour its commitment. It got an answer from the public on whether it should be retained but the public wants it radically changed.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I dislike speaking near the end of a long list of speakers as most of what I want to say has already been said at least once if not a number of times.

Photo of Peter MathewsPeter Mathews (Dublin South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I know that feeling.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Yes. What is wrong with the Seanad? Its first problem is that it does not have any clearly defined purpose. People have been scrambling around the place looking for a purpose for the Seanad but we must consider what it is supposed to do before we can even begin to examine what it does. We must ask what we want of the second Chamber.

Its second problem is that it is elitist, undemocratic and even anti-democratic. I imagine that in ten or 20 years, people will look back and wonder how we tolerated a position where only degree holders would have a vote. That is discrimination, and if we discriminated against women or any other particular group, it would be labelled as such more readily. The voting practice is elitist. A qualified plumber is not entitled to vote in a Seanad election but a qualified plumber is. The guy making false teeth may not be entitled to vote in an election but the dentist is. Politicians are entitled to vote in these elections because we are favoured in being in this place.

The third problem is that the Seanad, as it is currently constituted, is a clone of this House. There is a kind of built-in majority in the Upper House such that when members of the Government parties speak on something, the majority of Seanadóirí will nod their assent. They are like the little dogs one sometimes sees in the rear windscreens of cars, with their bobble heads going up and down. The Seanad is a clone of Government party structures. It is only when something goes wrong - as happened in recent weeks - or when a Seanadóir goes walkabout and cannot be found, that the Government's wishes are thwarted in the Seanad. It is a mirror image of this House and 99 times out of 100 it will deliver the answer the Government wants. We again saw evidence of this in recent weeks. The membership of the Seanad club is open to all sorts of favouritism and cronyism and thus the privilege of the inside few is perpetuated. This has not changed. We were promised change but it is clear it has not been brought about.

If what I have said defines the problem properly, what has been the response of the Taoiseach and the Government? Prior to the most recent general election, the current Taoiseach made a headline-grabbing announcement to the effect that he intended to abolish the Seanad. It was a simple statement, it produced great headlines and it was a dramatic and populist move. What he did showed that he was the leader who could make the tough choices with which everyone would be impressed. The Taoiseach held a referendum in which the people were asked whether they wished to keep the Seanad in its current form or abolish it. We argued that real reform of the Seanad should also have been included as an option but "Action Man" said "No". He wanted to be seen to be decisive and strong. We went to the people, therefore, and they voted to retain the Seanad. Why did they vote to keep a dysfunctional Upper House? The first reason is because they do not trust the Taoiseach or the Government parties and the second is because they believe, quite rightly, that it is not possible to reform something which has been abolished.

I will deal with the Government's amendment to the Sinn Féin motion. In the first instance, it is an abuse of language to call it an amendment because it only contains two words from the original motion. It is, therefore, a counter-motion rather than an amendment. Of course, in this House we are used to saying things we do not really mean or that do not mean what they appear to mean. If the Government's amendment is an abuse of language, then its response to the debate is an abuse of the intelligence of those who put forward the original motion, those who will support it and the members of the wider population who clearly see a need for fundamental reform of the Seanad. The latter also want fundamental reform of the Dáil, but we will leave that matter until another day.

During his contribution, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, made a number of points. He commended Sinn Féin on tabling the motion and stated that while it had some good points, some of our proposals were either incompatible with the Constitution or were not set out in sufficient detail and would require further thought, that it raised as many questions as it answered, that the Government is moving forward with a scheme to extend voting rights to degree holders from all higher level institutions and that the Seanad Committee on Procedures and Privileges is considering proposed reforms to improve the operation of the Upper House. We can all sleep well now. The Minister also indicated that some of the proposals are not well thought out, that further detailed consideration would be required in respect of them and that they had the potential to be very expensive to administer. That is disappointing.

Sinn Féin does not claim a monopoly of wisdom in respect of this matter. Our motion calls on the Government to "immediately engage with all parties and groups within the Oireachtas, but also broader civic society, to consider how best to reform the Seanad to ensure that it becomes a fully inclusive, representative and accountable institution". Amendment No. 1 is, I presume, the Government's response to that call. The nature of the response indicates to me that the Government does not want real change or reform. In fact, I am of the view that it would fear such change or reform. The response is similar to that of a person who owns a clapped-out old car which fails the NCT and who says: "Let us spray it a different colour and it will be grand on the day of the re-test." It is wrong, and this will remain the case ten, 20, 30 or whatever number of years from now, that we continue to have the elitist anachronism we call the Seanad, which still has no clearly defined purpose, which remains a mirror image of this House and which is still open to cronyism, favouritism and privilege. The Government's so-called amendment shows it has no intention whatsoever of bringing about its much-vaunted democratic revolution.

3:40 pm

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputies for their contributions to this debate. I welcome this opportunity to remind the House of the very real and significant political reforms initiated by this Government since it came to office in 2011. We have been carrying out our radical programme of reform at the same time as we have been bringing about a remarkable transformation in the country's economic fortunes. We have embarked on what can be fairly described as the biggest programme of political reform since the passing of the Constitution in 1937.

I will begin with the Constitution. The Government has held six referendums in its three years of office: on the powers of Dáil committees; judicial salaries; the Treaty on Stability, Co-ordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union; children's rights; the establishment of the Court of Appeal; and the abolition of the Seanad. This is a much more intensive programme of constitutional reform than has ever been attempted by a Government since the 1937 Constitution was adopted. The Government is committed to continuing its programme of constitutional reform in 2015.

Following the Seanad referendum, the Taoiseach committed the Government to working to improve the operation of the Upper House and make it more effective. Earlier this year, the Government, through the Leader of the Seanad, submitted to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges a package of measures designed to do this. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, has outlined these proposals to the House. They focus on the Seanad's legislative and vocational roles, while also acknowledging its role in respect of EU scrutiny. The proposals suggest further ways in which the Seanad can engage with the Government, within the parameters of the Constitution, as well as work jointly with the Dáil through the Oireachtas committee system.

The Taoiseach also committed the Government to bringing forward legislation to implement the 1979 amendment to Article 18 of the Constitution on the election of Members of Seanad Éireann by institutions of higher education in the State. Earlier this year, the Government published the general scheme of a Bill to achieve this. Again, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, set out the details so I will not repeat them, except to say that it is a poor reflection that the amendment to the Constitution which enabled this to take place was passed in 1979 - some 35 years ago - when one of the parties opposite was in government. Following public consultation on the general scheme, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government expects to publish the Bill to extend the university franchise next year.

It is proper, when discussing reform of the Seanad, that we should reflect briefly on Dáil reform. As Government Chief Whip, I play a central role in advancing the Government's ambitious agenda in this regard, which is being introduced on a phased basis during this Administration's period in office. The Government has brought forward extensive packages of reforms since it took office in March 2011. The first phase of Dáil reform was introduced in 2011 and included an additional Leaders' Questions session on Thursdays; monthly Friday sittings to give Deputies the opportunity to have their Private Members' Bills debated in the House; replacing the old Adjournment Debate with the Topical Issue Debate; and a procedure to allow Deputies raise issues with the Ceann Comhairle regarding replies to parliamentary questions.

The reforms also included several measures to improve the effectiveness of the committee structure. They included reducing the number of Oireachtas committees from 25 to 16 and introducing the pre-legislative review process to involve Oireachtas committees at an early stage in the development of legislation before a Bill was published. We established Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, chaired by a member of the Opposition, and allow MEPs to attend Oireachtas committee meetings. In 2012 the Oireachtas committee system was reviewed and further reforms were introduced to improve its effectiveness.

The second phase of Dáil reform was introduced in September 2013 and included a broad range of additional measures, including an expansion of the pre-legislative stage, an annual outline to the Dáil of Government priorities by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, followed by a detailed debate, and additional time for legislative debate in the standard Dáil week to help to reduce the need to guillotine debates on legislation.

In parallel with these ongoing reforms, the number of Dáil sitting days has been significantly increased since the change of Government by reducing the length of Dáil breaks at Christmas, Easter, bank holiday weekends and during the summer and by the introduction of regular Friday sittings. Any Deputy who has further reform proposals should contact me to discuss them and they will be considered as part of the ongoing process of Dáil reform.

In addition to progress in the area of political reform, the Government, through the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, has been pursuing a wide-ranging programme aimed at delivering open, accountable and ethical government. Many of the commitments in the area of political reform set out in the programme for Government and the public service reform plan are now in the delivery phase. Real progress has been made on several fronts, including extensive reform of freedom of information legislation, the introduction of legislation to protect whistleblowers, the provision of a detailed legislative framework for parliamentary inquiries and the extension of the Ombudsman's jurisdiction and powers.

The motion tabled by Opposition Deputies calls on the Government to take several steps to bring about Seanad reform. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has outlined what the Government is doing in this area. The Opposition motion suggests the Government has not delivered on the commitment to reform the political system and ensure the Seanad is a modern and effective second chamber. However, it is fair to say the reforms of the Seanad put forward by the Government and outlined today, together with the ongoing programme of constitutional, Dáil and legislative reform, clearly show that the Government has delivered and continues to deliver on its promises of reform. As I stated at the beginning, it has been doing all this work while bringing about the dramatic recovery in Ireland's economic and fiscal position, as was demonstrated in the budget announced on Tuesday.

3:50 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin who will be followed by Deputy Jonathan O'Brien.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will speak before Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is the Deputy giving one minute of his time to Deputy Peter Mathews?

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Yes.

I wish to address certain points since the Minister of State responsible for Dáil reform is in the Chamber. He outlined some of the reforms introduced and while some of them are welcome, including publishing the heads of Bills and the pre-legislative phase, and certainly work well, others have been an abject failure. For example, when I first came into the Chamber, as an Opposition spokesperson, I was able to ask a Minister ten or 11 questions at Question Time. Now I would be lucky to put two or three every five weeks. That is not progressive; it is a regressive reform that the Government has implemented.

I have listened to some of the contributions on Seanad reform and a common theme is how the Seanad is elitist. This is not to say Members of the Seanad are elitist as individuals, but the system of electing them could certainly be described as such. Only recently there was a Seanad by-election in which one candidate, whom we had nominated, was unable to vote for herself because she lived on the wrong side of the Border. That is elitist. Some people because they are graduates or have an academic qualification, as Deputy Patrick O'Donovan stated, have greater rights than others who perhaps slogged hard for many years to gain a trade. That is not fair and is elitist. We need to subtly separate the argument that the Seanad is elitist from the perception that we are referring to the individuals who serve in it. They are not elitist, but the system used to elect them certainly is.

One of the first things we should do is to give the Seanad some respect. Regardless of whether people admit it, there are many Members in this Chamber who have little respect for the role played by the Seanad. We need only reflect on the by-election last week when several Members of this House did not bother to cast a vote to fill the position. It is not as if they had to trudge to a polling booth in the rain. They only had to sign a bloody form on the kitchen table, put it in an envelope and send it back. They had so little respect for the Seanad that they were not even able to do that much. Those of us who are Members of this House should start by respecting the other House. How can we expect the public to respect an institution when certain Members of this House and members of the Government do not? That much was evident from the scam pulled by Fine Gael in the candidate nominated. No respect was shown to the other House in that case.

There are many fine Senators in the Upper House. I sit on committees with some of them. They are articulate and can make concise well thought out contributions, but when it comes to legislation, they do not have the opportunity to debate points with a Minister on Committee Stage. They can debate in the Seanad, but if we are discussing real reform, let us start by at least giving the other House some respect.

Photo of Peter MathewsPeter Mathews (Dublin South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputy Jonathan O'Brien for one minute he has graciously given me.

I support Sinn Féin's motion which has been well thought out. It would give scope and a framework for the start of the reform process. I acknowledge Fianna Fáil's efforts to make a statement on the matter, but it is unnecessary. As for the Government's amendment, I agree with Deputies Jonathan O'Brien and Michael Colreavy that it is not an amendment but an obstructive act of malevolence. It is a symptom of über-majorititis - if I can term it in that way - whereby the Government's majority is too big and it reaches an arrogant stage which causes trouble and rot.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Minister of State and Government Chief Whip, Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Wexford, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Deputy would be welcome to come back to us at any stage.

Photo of Peter MathewsPeter Mathews (Dublin South, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I support the motion. I am pleased to have heard the contributions of Deputies Michael Colreavy and Jonathan O'Brien, although I am sorry to have missed some of the earlier contributions.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is mór an onóir dom tacú le beartas Shinn Féin maidir le leasú ar an Seanad. Teastaíonn athrú bunúsach go géar. Caithfimid an Seanad a chur ag obair dúinn agus do ghnáthmhuintir na tíre seo.

On 4 October last year the Government held a referendum on a constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad. Citizens of the State were offered a "Yes" or "No" choice and rejected the Government's proposition. Sinn Féin would have preferred if voters had been given a further option of fundamentally changing the Seanad. Unfortunately, the Government chose to present the public with a simplistic either-or proposition. Sinn Féin has long believed the way in which Seanad membership is constructed is inherently undemocratic and it was on this basis that we called for a "Yes" vote to abolish the Seanad.

4 o’clock

Following the public's rejection of the Government's proposal, both the Taoiseach and the Government promised reform of the Seanad. There has been little progress towards that aim in the intervening period. However, we have seen the Seanad and the political system in general further abused by the Taoiseach and Fine Gael in a grubby case which shows Fine Gael is just as adept as Fianna Fáil at stroke politics.

The Seanad is an undemocratic institution that is not elected by the people but by 1% of the population. In a modern republic it is entirely unacceptable that the vast majority of the population is disenfranchised. Simply put, the way the Seanad currently functions suggests that all people are equal, but that some are more equal than others. Six Senators are elected by the graduates of universities, 43 are elected from five panels of nominees and 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach. Is the Government afraid of giving a real voice to the public on the composition of the Seanad?

Throughout the life of the Seanad we have seen it abused and misused by consecutive Taoisigh as a reward home for some and a launch pad for others. However, I agree with Deputy O'Brien that many current and previous Members of the Seanad have been people of the highest calibre, with very good motivation and intent in terms of contributing to debate on the issues that matter. While the ideals and aims of the Seanad, as a check on the actions of the Dáil and a forum of consideration by specialised groups, are to be commended, it rarely functions in this way. During the lifetime of the present Government the Seanad has voted with the Government on almost every occasion, with one or two notable and newsworthy exceptions.

I note that Fianna Fáil campaigned for the retention of the Seanad, but also that in 14 years in government no effort was made by Fianna Fáil to reform the Seanad. To do so might have cost it, by losing some of the perks it could dole out to its political friends.

We can no longer support an institution that is based on such an unjust system of appointment. Sinn Féin proposes that the Government meet and discuss with all interested parties and groups affected, along with civic society in general. We support the introduction of universal franchise for all future Seanad elections. We also support a guarantee of 50% women members. The old boys' club mentality must end. We would also increase all-Ireland and international links by introducing Northern and diaspora representation. We would break the elitism of the Seanad by ensuring representation of marginalised minority groups within Irish society. Sinn Féin calls on all Members of this House who believe in fair and democratic representation for our population to support us in this effort to reform the Seanad.

With regard to the amendments, Fianna Fáil has proposed its own version of Seanad reform. As I have already said, it is a great pity that this is something it did not find the time to do while in government. It had an unprecedented opportunity to do so over an unbroken term of 14 years. In its amendment Fianna Fáil continues to support elitism. It would continue to deem university graduates more suitable to take part in the democratic process than their non-university graduate peers. It would continue to have the helpful situation, for it, of Taoiseach's nominees and would only open a proportion of seats to universal franchise. This should hardly surprise us.

The Fine Gael and Labour Party Government also has "a plan" for Seanad reform. Associating its plan with genuine reform of the Seanad is nothing short of baloney. Fine Gael has shown no more respect for the recent referendum result than Fianna Fáil did during its years of inaction.

I do not share the Government's minimalist views of the reforms that are necessary. Its reform plan is nonsense. Fine Gael has done worse than nothing to realise the commitments it made regarding the Seanad in the wake of the referendum. It has been an insult to the electorate that voted against the simple abolition of the Seanad. As recently as the latest by-election, we have seen Fine Gael misusing appointments in an effort to get its man elected to the vacant Seanad seat. In doing so, it has run the risk of the population losing all confidence in the Seanad and in politics in general.

The Government reform plan is pathetic, while Fianna Fáil, which failed to do anything when it had the opportunity, would now hardly change a jot. Government Members will recall that the final report of the Constitutional Convention, upon which the Government has yet to make its position known and Dáil time available for debate, recommended the establishment of a fresh convention with a comprehensive constitutional reform mandate, to consider a range of issues, including Seanad reform. Indeed, Seanad reform was one of the priority issues the convention short-listed for emphasis during its final deliberations, as a mark of respect to the people's recent verdict in the referendum. The Government should demonstrate by its actions that it respects the convention and, by extension, that it respects the people, and establish a second Constitutional Convention with an explicit mandate for Seanad reform. I hope the Chief Whip will share my serious proposition with his colleagues in the Cabinet. Hopefully, he will be an advocate for such a step to be taken. There is unanimity across the House on the value of the Constitutional Convention process. That has been well demonstrated and acknowledged. A reconstituted Constitutional Convention with an explicit mandate to address Seanad reform would make a worthwhile contribution to this overall project.

Given the pathetic track record of all the establishment parties on this issue, we would have much greater confidence in the ability of citizens to formulate Seanad reform proposals that are meaningful, workable and can command broad popular support. Certainly, we have no confidence that the other parties have the will to do so. Why refer the matter to the Constitutional Convention when Sinn Fein has its own proposals? If Sinn Féin were in government, we would take our lead from such a citizen-dominated body. Through this and other fora, we would engage with the citizens directly and seek their views on the sufficiency of our reform proposals. While we are confident that our plans stand up to scrutiny, we equally recognise that ordinary citizens can make their own astute observations and contribute valuable additional ideas, perspectives and nuance that can enhance the proposals we have formulated. We would welcome such input. We are not afraid of the people.

We therefore once again urge the Government to mandate a fresh Constitutional Convention, comprised of a demographically representative citizen majority and an elected representative minority, to deliberate and make its considered recommendations on Seanad reform as an issue of fundamental public importance. The Government must now act on Seanad reform in a meaningful way. The first thing it could do is withdraw its amendment and support the proposition in the Sinn Féin motion. Tacagaí linn Seanad níos cothroma a chur ar fáil.

Amendment put:

The Dáil divided: Tá, 56; Níl, 41.


Tellers: Tá, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Amendment declared carried.

Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."

The Dáil divided: Tá, 57; Níl, 41.


Tellers: Tá, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Question declared carried.