Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The Seanad Reform Implementation Group chaired by Senator McDowell submitted their report to me on 20 December 2018. The report was also published online and copies of the report and draft Bill issued to all members of the Oireachtas.
I am very grateful to Senator McDowell and all the members of the group for their work in producing a report. The report also includes four statements of position from various groups outlining their position where they did not completely agree with the recommendations of the report.
The dissenting statements were from Senators Bacik and McDowell and Deputy Noel Grealish setting out their position on the higher education constituency; from Sinn Féin setting out its position that further reforms should be made by constitutional change and how they could facilitate a modern, diverse and democratic Seanad; from Deputy Tommy Broughan, on behalf of Independents 4 Change, indicating their opposition to a reformed Seanad and stating that they favoured a unicameral option - in the absence of this, he and his group favour constitutional change and the Seanad being elected by universal suffrage, and the Seanad and the Dáil being elected on the same day; and from Senators Maria Byrne, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer and Gabrielle McFadden, on behalf of Fine Gael, calling for constitutional change as well. While being supportive of Seanad reform more generally, they do not believe that the final report will enhance the working of the Seanad.
The report will be considered by Government shortly.
Reform of the Seanad is like draining the Shannon and restoring the Irish language; it is a permanent agenda item. The default position of everybody is to set up another review. We had a comprehensive review chaired by the former Senator, Maurice Manning. That review has now been reviewed by another all-party group led by another distinguished parliamentarian, Senator McDowell, and that 130-page report is before the Cabinet.
In order that we can deal with the issue, is it the Government's intention to decide on a set of reforms that will be implemented in advance of the next Seanad election? Is it the Taoiseach's view that the general 130-page report submitted before Christmas to him by Senator McDowell is the basis for those changes? Does he accept the conclusions that there should be an open franchise to all Irish passport holders abroad as well as people in Northern Ireland to vote on the panel? In terms of a timeframe, when can we expect decisions to be made, even if the decision is that the Taoiseach will not make any reforms this side of a Seanad election?
The issue of Seanad reform has gone on and on. We need to get to a point where a decision is made, as mentioned by Deputy Howlin. We have had review after review. We have the Manning report. We now have the review of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group, which met last May and produced a lengthy report at its first meeting as well as legislation it claims will give effect to the recommendations contained in the Manning report. I understand that legislation is with the Taoiseach. Will it ever see the light of day? Is it his intention to bring that legislation to Cabinet? Is it his intention to amend or scrap that legislation?
Can the Taoiseach provide a timeframe on when we will see something of substance? If that legislation is the vehicle that is to be utilised to bring about the Seanad reform that is required, what is the timeframe for introducing it? If it is not the vehicle that will be used, what is plan B from the Government's point of view or, indeed, that of the Taoiseach?
Behind the report from Senator McDowell's group, there is a clear and hard reality which it points to in its statement. That reality is that there is effectively no way of preparing such a massive scheme for a new national and international election during the lifetime of the Oireachtas. That is clear. From a practical perspective, it seems that the next general election will involve the same system we currently have for electing Members to the Dáil and Seanad. The group's mandate was to propose an approach to implementing the Manning report and it has accomplished this. Can the Taoiseach outline the measures he proposes to take to add any extra detail regarding the core challenges such as registering member of the electorate, protecting the integrity of the ballot and ensuring that the public will be in a position to understand the process and actively engage in the election? There has been a proposal to hold a referendum on reform of the electorate for the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann and that has been delayed for practical reasons. We need a better debate on that in the House in terms of extending of the franchise if we are honest. We need to have a debate on the detail of that, how it will be accomplished, who will be entitled to vote and the whole idea of no taxation without representation. That is an old concept in many ways but there are issues that we need to reinterrogate rather than just saying it glibly and not providing detail.
It seems to me that it all points to the need for an electoral commission to be established. I would have thought that the establishment of an electoral commission, which has been long promised by the Government, over time would give one the capacity to go into detail on these questions that come forward with practical logistical responses to the obvious logistical problems and consequences of the recommendations of this report and indeed other proposals.
I again thank Senator McDowell and the Members of the Houses who participated in the group which produced a detailed report and which also provided us with draft legislation to move matters forward. The group recommended that the next Seanad should be elected in the same way as the current one. Another of its recommendations is that any changes should not apply to the next Seanad election but to the one thereafter. I accept that, for practical purposes, any major reform would not apply at the next general election but at the one thereafter, particularly in view of the need to establish an electoral commission and so many other things.
It is also worth noting that the report was not agreed by consensus. There were dissenting opinions attached to the report from Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Independents 4 Change, all advocating that we should go further and consider constitutional change. The legislation is now available and it is up to the Government, any party or any Member to bring it to the floor of the House for debate and a vote. That is not something that is solely under the control of the Government. Any Member who wishes to do so can bring that legislation before the House.
Cabinet has not discussed it yet. It is on the agenda and we intend to discuss it.
My view, which is not the view of Government because we have not discussed it at Cabinet yet, is that I have reservations about it on a number of levels. I referred to those reservations already in this Chamber. The first of them is that it would diminish the role of councillors and local authority members. I know many Members of this House will not want that to be the case. It would also reduce the number of seats that are elected by local authority members very considerably and diminish their role as a result. It would require everyone in the country to register to vote in Seanad elections. It is not even just everyone in the country but every Irish citizen in the world who wants to register to vote. People would have to choose which of the panels - the Agricultural Panel, the Administrative Panel, the Cultural and Educational Panel, the Industrial and Commercial Panel or the Labour Panel - they would like to have a vote on or whether they would like to vote for the University Members. I have reservations about that in that we may find large numbers of people not registering at all and not wanting to be part of this. Large numbers may register for one panel but not another and it would create a problem if 100,000 people registered for one panel but only 20,000 registered for another.
A further problem relates to the panels themselves, which, I understand, derive from a papal encyclical in the 1930s and which do not represent the 21st century. There is no panel dealing with science and technology, for example, but there is one which deals with administration. There is nothing in respect of sport. Those are my reservations and I have explained them to the House previously. The matter has not been discussed at Cabinet yet, so what I have outlined is not the formal view of the Government. It is open to any party that wishes to do so to put this legislation before the House for Second Stage debate and a vote. The latter is within the rights of any party that wants to make this happen.
Extending the franchise for presidential elections is something in which I strongly believe in and to which I am committed. I want us to hold the referendum in this regard in October. Our proposal is that all citizens, no matter where they may live in the world, will be entitled to register to vote for the next President. They will have to register to vote. It would be a postal ballot for those not living in this State. It would not be linked to having a passport because a passport is a travel document and there are many people who are Irish citizens who do not have passports or whose passports may be expired. As a result, it will be linked to citizenship rather than possessing a passport. While I appreciate the argument regarding no taxation without representation, I must point out that the Dáil sets taxes and passes legislation which applies to people who are resident here. The Presidency is different. The President does not set taxes and does not make laws. I would like to see a Presidency for the 21st first century that is different to that which currently obtains. I would like a Presidency that represents the Irish nation - not just the State - and that is elected by all citizens.