Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 and 16 together.
The report of the Seanad reform implementation group was noted and discussed by the Government at its meeting on 30 April 2019. The Government also noted that the report includes four statements from various groups outlining why their position was not in line with the recommendations of the report, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and some Independent Members. The Government will reflect on the views of the Houses of the Oireachtas in considering the next steps to be taken following statements in both Houses. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, will liaise with the Chief Whip and the Business Committee concerning the scheduling of time for a debate on the aforementioned report in this House.
In his final published article, the late and very much respected Feargal Quinn, who served as a Member of Seanad Éireann for 23 years, directly called on the Taoiseach to respect the commitment in the programme for Government on Seanad reform. He asked the Taoiseach to acknowledge that "significant reform is now long overdue" and urged the Government to pursue the "implementation of the Manning report" as a priority. The all-party committee report on Seanad reform published last December has not been acted on. We are now talking about facilitating another debate but I have a very simple and direct question. Does the Taoiseach intend to simply talk these things out or will he have the recommendations, or something like them, implemented in the lifetime of the current Dáil and Seanad?
While the Taoiseach has "noted" the report and said that it will be reflected on and discussed, he seems to have no appetite to act. I know from speaking to people that although the Seanad for all of its importance may not be the stuff of excited conversation on a daily basis in the real world-----
-----nonetheless there is a general sense that Seanad reform is a bit like rural broadband, namely, something that is spoken of at length but which never happens. I question the political will of this Government to deliver reform. The Taoiseach has expressed strong views on proposals for reform and that is all very well and good but given reform of the Upper House has been a matter of debate, contemplation and reflection for decades now, we must ask if it is going to happen. If the answer to that question is "Yes", then I ask the Taoiseach to tell us when but if the answer is "No", the political system should simply own up to that. The Government should state that clearly and we should stop having conversations about something that the Government has no intention to deliver.
The Taoiseach should take the honest position and admit that he has no interest in pursuing Seanad reform within the context and parameters of the Manning report and the work of Senator McDowell, who feels that he has been hung out to dry by the Government's, and Fine Gael's, approach to this issue. The honest thing to do would be to say that the Government is not committed and has no interest in pursuing this. The people of Ireland voted to retain the Seanad; Fine Gael wanted to abolish it. The alternative to abolishing the Upper House was clearly to reform it and a template was provided for same. Seanad reform is in the programme for Government but it is there in name only. There is no deeply held commitment. The Taoiseach is against reform and if he was honest, he would say so. He should abandon the commitment and take it out of the programme for Government so that we are all clear on the matter. He should stop wasting people's time.
The core lesson of the plebiscite on the Seanad, when Fine Gael sought to abolish it, and recent plebiscites on mayoralties is that people want significantly more information about how major political changes will operate in practice before making a decision. Just as Opposition parties predicted, there was a public backlash against the reasonable idea, which I supported, of directly elected mayors. Nowhere near enough information was provided on the practical details of what was being proposed. I pointed this out to the Taoiseach two or three months before the plebiscite. It sums up the hyper-partisan nature of this Government that the Minister responsible has stated repeatedly that his failure is the fault of the Opposition. His objective seems to have been to squeeze out a win rather than obtain wide legitimacy. We could look to London as an example. When London held a similar vote to create a unified mayoralty, detailed implementing legislation and budgets were prepared and 72% of the people voted in favour. The obvious lesson of this reform proposal, as with the Seanad proposal, is that we need a return to the past practice of preparing detailed White Papers, legislation and budgets before seeking public support for changes. What has been going on here in recent times is bread and circuses - produce a nice-sounding idea for a bit of reform to keep them going until the autumn, with no detailed work put into it.
Earlier the Cabinet apparently discussed the extension of the presidential franchise. I ask the Taoiseach to give us a commitment that he will publish not just a general proposal but a full implementation schedule, legislation and a budget before seeking approval for that proposal. That is what people need and deserve. A referendum on that proposal should be held separately from local, general or European elections because it is serious enough to merit that. The Government is going to the people for a decision and should treat that with the respect it deserves.
Our intention is to hold the referendum on extending the presidential franchise to Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland and around the world later this year, most likely concurrent with the four by-elections, the writ for which must be moved within six months of the vacancies arising. If four constituencies are going to the polls anyway, it makes sense to have the referendum at that time. Legislation will be introduced in this House before the recess. We have a detailed paper on how it is going to work, running to approximately 100 pages. The short answer to the Deputy's question is that we will put out as much information as we possibly can.
A policy paper was published on the plebiscites for directly elected mayors. There was an information campaign-----
-----led by a judge. There were also campaigns on the ground and it was passed in one city. Limerick city and county voted in favour of having a directly elected mayor and will now have one. That will act as a demonstration project and other parts of the country will see how successful it is and in time, they will want the same. I would like Dublin and Galway to vote on the matter in 2021 but there will be a Dublin citizen's assembly before that, which needs to examine the wider issues of local government in Dublin, how it should work and where the mayor would fit in. The decision of the people of Limerick to vote in favour gives them a real chance to get ahead of other cities and regions and I am determined to see that new office work. I deeply regret that Cork narrowly voted against having a directly elected mayor.
When a vote is defeated narrowly, one sees many different things that could have been done differently or better that might have changed the result. One such thing would have been Deputy Micheál Martin actively campaigning for a yes vote.
-----in Limerick who showed real leadership, actually took part in the campaign, and helped to secure the passage of the plebiscite, as did the Green Party, the Social Democrats, and Labour in some parts of the country. I am sorry to say that it is my sense that the Deputy secretly wanted the plebiscite to be defeated in Cork because he hoped it would make the Government look bad.
The Deputy really let down his city in this regard. He showed a lack of leadership, unlike Deputy Niall Collins, who showed much more leadership on this matter by supporting the plebiscite in Limerick and helping it to get across the line.
With regard to the Seanad, as I have said before, I supported its abolition. Many countries, including New Zealand, Finland, and Portugal, have unicameral systems which work well, but I accept the referendum result. The people have decided that the Seanad will remain. That matter is now settled. Whether that was a vote for reform or not is a matter of debate, as is whether the people were fixed on any particular type of reform. If we are going to proceed with reform, it needs to be the right reform. I have expressed reservations about the Manning report in the past. I do not believe the reforms in it go far enough, largely because they retain the institutional panel structure, which does not befit a modern democracy.
With regard to the all-party report, we should not forget that dissenting reports attached including dissenting reports from Fine Gael Members, Sinn Féin Members, university Senators, and many Independent Members. Unlike many other all-party reports, this did not have all-party support.