Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 February 2018

10:30 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach. A Sheanadóirí, I am delighted to speak to you today on Lá Fhéile Bhríde, St. Brigid's Feast Day, a date which also marks the first day of spring.   In pagan times today was known as "Imbolc" – a time for making plans and renewing strength. Today’s speech, on my first occasion here as Taoiseach, is inspired by these themes.

Instead of providing Senators with an account of the business of Government, telling you how well the economy is doing, and how we are facing the challenges of Brexit, housing and health care, issues on which you are already well informed, I want to share with you some thoughts on the renewal and reform of Irish politics.

Sometimes we have to step back a little to see how much things have really changed.  Seven years ago when Fine Gael - the party I lead - came into government with its then partners in the Labour Party we proposed a new approach to politics and proposed to do politics in a different way. This was a promising a new departure in the day-to-day running of political life. At that time we talked about a democratic revolution.  To some it might appear that those promises have not been fulfilled, or at least not fully fulfilled. The truth is that many things have changed for the better in our new politics.  "Old politics" had its charms but it was a much less palatable vintage. Three Oireachtas reform packages were introduced by the Government between 2011 and 2016 and the vast majority of these reforms have proven their worth and have been retained. As it happens, some of these reforms have made the business of minority Government easier than might otherwise have been the case, even though they were not introduced with this in mind.

I shall outline for Senators some of the reforms introduced in that five-year period. A secret ballot for the election of the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil was introduced. This ensures that the Ceann Comhairle is a creature of the House and not of the Government. I believe we should do the same for electing the Cathaoirleach of this House, as soon as a vacancy arises or the next time around. Another reform allows for the allocating of Oireachtas committee chairpersons on the basis of proportionality. In the past almost all committee chairpersons were from the Government parties. Committees, therefore, were controlled by Government also.

We have linked the funding of political parties to the number of female candidates in general elections.  That has made a real difference to the composition of both Houses. We still have a long way to go to have gender parity. Further reform is the pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills. This has opened up the law-making process like never before, and involves politicians before a Bill is drafted and published. When taken, this is a major transfer of influence and power away from civil servants and Ministers to parliamentarians.

We have also allowed Deputies an opportunity to bring their Private Members’ Bills to the floor of the Dáil and Seanad, more of which have been enacted in the last five years than the 50 years before.  These include legislation to ban fracking and an end to the ban on opening pubs on Good Friday, which was signed into law by the President this week. Those are just two examples, there are many more.

The people, perhaps in their wisdom, decided not to extend the remit of Oireachtas inquiries. While we did put forward the idea, the people also decided not to lower the minimum age from 35 for election to the office of President. I am aware that this level of reform was perhaps, for many, a case of a lot done but more to do.

Following the 2016 general election, a Dáil reform committee was established and it recommended a further package of reforms, which I shall outline. A Business Committee chaired by the Ceann Comhairle sets the Dáil agenda.  It is no longer set by the Government, but that has not stopped Deputies asking me almost daily to allocate time to debate a particular matter. A budget committee empowers the Oireachtas to play a more meaningful role in the budget cycle. An independent parliamentary budget office has been set up. There is greater use of all-party committees to seek consensus on the best way forward, such as the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, chaired so well by a Member of this House, Senator Ó Céidigh. There has also been an expansion of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser. There is an end to the use of the guillotine in debates and more time is made available to the Opposition for Private Members' business.

Some of the reforms have had unforeseen consequences, including the disproportionate speaking time for smaller parties. This can often make it difficult for Government backbenchers to have their say. There has also been a significant reduction in Dáil time available to the Government to pursue its own legislation. I believe, and I have said before, that a rebalancing is needed in this regard. I also believe that the significant increase in the number of Private Members' Bills now being published without any form of prior scrutiny or quality control is a cause for concern for all of us. There are currently more than 100 Private Members' Bills on Second Stage and 25 are awaiting money messages.  Government Bills do not make it to Second Stage without proper scrutiny from the Office of the Attorney General, pre-legislative committee hearings, the heads of the Bill published well in advance and usually published, in almost all cases, at least two weeks before a Bill is debated.  We should not accept a lower standard for other legislation from any other source.

The vast majority of the changes, however, have benefitted Irish democracy and the reforms have helped to reinvigorate our Parliament, our Oireachtas and old institutions. The Oireachtas has also passed legislation to ensure greater openness and transparency. The Regulation of Lobbying Act, for example, was a major step forward in terms of transparency. We now know who lobbied whom, when and about what. This was clouded and opaque for many decades.

There is also an effective ban on corporate donations ensuring that powerful organisations and the very rich can no longer use their wealth to influence politics in the way they did in the past.  It is so different and so much better than other countries where big money has far too much influence on policy.We have also had a major reform of the public appointments system with an open call through www.stateboards.ieand the appearance of chairpersons designate before the relevant Oireachtas committees.

We have also embarked a major programme of constitutional change and reform. The 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, has served us well.  As we move closer to 2037 and its centenary, however, there are, inevitably, elements that are outdated and which require renovation and renewal.  Whereas there were ten amendments to the Constitution in its first 50 years, there have been almost three times as many in the last 30 years. This year's referendum on the eighth amendment will be the 36th such proposal.

To help us to modernise our Constitution, we established the Convention on the Constitution and later the Citizens' Assembly. Both were bold and innovative exercises in deliberative democracy even though at the time they were dismissed by some as mere talking shops or as a means to long-finger important or difficult decisions. As it turned out, both allowed representative groups of everyday citizens to consider important issues facing our society.  Their work has help helped inform and shape our political decisions. Often, they proved to be ahead of us in terms of opinion. We got an invaluable insight into what really matters to people and the conclusions they would come to if given all of the facts and the time to consider them. The marriage equality referendum and amendment was the most transformative outcome from that process to date.

The Government has also accepted the case for a referendum on a number of other issues, namely: giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections; removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; and amending the outdated Article on a woman's life within the home. The Government is committed to holding referendums on these issues over the course of the next two years.

The Citizens' Assembly has also submitted reports to the Oireachtas on the eighth amendment and how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population.  It has finalised its discussion of the manner in which referendums are held and how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.  By the end of next month, it will have completed its discussion of fixed-term parliaments, which is an interesting proposal. It would certainly change the culture of Irish politics as it stands if parliaments were for a fixed term.

Recognising the importance of the issue of the eighth amendment to the Constitution, the assembly was asked to consider this matter first.  The assembly's report was then considered by a special joint Oireachtas committee, ably chaired by a Member of this House, Senator Noone.  The Government responded earlier this week. Any amendment of our Constitution requires careful consideration.  Some of these proposed amendments are matters of conscience and, as such, it is crucial that debate should be respectful of all sides and strands of opinion, and never personalised.

In the 18th century, Montesquieu believed that a bicameral legislature was superior because the two parts would ensure that one checked the other through the mutual privilege of refusal.  That great founding father of America, Alexander Hamilton, likewise believed that two chambers were necessary to prevent a tyranny of the majority. Nonetheless, many countries, particularly small ones, get by just fine with only one chamber.

Following Independence, our forebears decided that two chambers were needed in Ireland and the Free State Senate in particular brought together a diverse collection of men and women, poets and thinkers, specialists and innovators.  There was also a deliberate effort in the Free State Senate to ensure that minority views were represented, especially Protestant and unionist voices.  The Senate was a place where courageous and outspoken things were said. In fact, the Chamber was threatened by anti-treaty forces during the Civil War and 14 Senators were targeted with assassination. Many had their houses burnt.

Times changed. In the 1930s, there was much debate about whether a second chamber was needed in Ireland and the Free State Senate was abolished by Fianna Fáil. Éamon de Valera claimed in 1934 that he had not heard a single good argument to convince him that a second chamber was either necessary or fundamentally useful. However, he was prepared to listen to other arguments and the proposal for the Seanad was included in the 1937 Constitution.  It very much followed the corporatist model which was fashionable at the time, deriving from a Papal encyclical, with panels representing industry and commerce, culture and education, labour, agriculture and administration. Members of this House will be familiar with these panels. The idea was that the Seanad would not duplicate or impede the Dáil.  In fact, the Constitution is very clear that the Government should be accountable to the Dáil. It does not say that about the Seanad.

The Seanad's true role is to be a check and balance on the Dáil.  Éamon de Valera said he believed the Seanad could be a revising Chamber, taking up measures, criticising them from an independent standpoint and with as great a variety of viewpoints as possible. Interestingly, he admitted that he worked on the basis that "even if we cannot get an ideal Seanad, then a bad Seanad is better than no Seanad". In 2013, when the question was put to the people, a majority felt the same way. They rejected the Government's proposal to abolish the Seanad but they did not endorse the status quoeither. I believe they wanted reform.

Many formidable individuals have served in this House since its creation and it has provided a platform for some of the most articulate and determined voices from across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the Seanad has sufficiently fulfilled its role as a revising Chamber or as an independent voice in decades gone by. In 2013, I supported the referendum to abolish this House as I was not convinced by those who argued it was possible to reform it.  I did not believe this would happen as those opposed to abolition were not united on what a reformed Seanad would look like or how it would function. However the people have spoken, the matter is settled and it will not be revisited.

As is so often the case, everyone it seems supports reform, but they are much less enthusiastic about change; reform being the philosophy and change being the fact of it happening. As Senators know, an independent working group on Seanad reform was established by my forebear in December 2014 to examine possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system within the confines of the Constitution. The group, ably chaired by a distinguished former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, reported in 2015.  The Programme for A Partnership Government commits us to pursue the implementation of the report.  I am happy to do so. Senators will know that both Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance are keen to press ahead with this. I want to give reform a chance and to see what we can do to implement, on a phased basis, the Manning recommendations.

As such, I have decided that a Seanad committee should be established with an eight-month mandate to consider the Manning report and develop specific proposals to legislate for Seanad reform. It is proposed that this committee will comprise Members of the Oireachtas with the assistance of outside experts, as appropriate. I intend to write to party and group leaders inviting them to nominate members of the committee. It is important that all groups are represented and also that it be representative. In composition, therefore, it may follow the model of the Committee on the Future of Healthcare and the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. This will be done as soon as I can find a chairperson acceptable to all sides. The proposed timeframe is to facilitate changes that will be used to elect the Members of the Seanad after the next one.

Among the recommendations to be explored is the idea of giving the vote in Seanad elections to all citizens wherever they reside in the world.  There could be universal suffrage using the panel system allowing people to choose which one suits them best.  There is provision in the Manning report for online registration of voters and the downloading of ballot papers.  However, the Constitution requires a secret, postal vote election and that creates a complication.

The university panels should be retained as recommended.  They have served us well, although they should be reformed to implement the result of the 1979 referendum and open up the franchise to graduates of all higher level institutions of education. The Taoiseach will continue to nominate 11 Senators, as that is also a constitutional requirement.  Councillors will still elect Members to the Seanad, but not as many as they do now.

The logistical complications of requiring everyone to register to vote and to select a panel are significant.It will require a major public information campaign and a global postal election will be expensive and cumbersome, so I do not underestimate the difficulties. People will have to decide for which panel they wish to register, with the most important principle being that one can only have one vote and so can only join one panel. However, I have absolute confidence that it will be possible to find ways of implementing the resolutions or finding workable alternatives. The committee may recommend other changes which will also be explored and debated.

When defending the principle of a second Chamber, John A. Costello praised Senators for "unselfishly placing their experience and their knowledge" in the service of successive Governments and the country. Throughout history, the great strength of the Seanad has been the diversity of that experience and knowledge. That is its shining quality. We should seek to elect Senators from nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland in order that the Seanad has an all-island dimension and provides different voices on issues which concern us all. As Ireland takes its place among the nations of the world, the voices of Irish people around the world should also be represented and heard. I support the election of more Senators to represent our diaspora and add to the good work of people such as Senator Lawless. One of the finest people to serve in the Upper Chamber was William Butler Yeats. When defending the Seanad from its critics, he said, "if you are to create and preserve a habit of service, you must trust that habit and be ready to prefer integrity to any kind of weight and measure". It is time for us to do the same.

In ancient times, people on this day, the feast of Imbolc, would look for signs of what the weather would be like in the months ahead. If a serpent or, later, a badger came above ground, it was a sign of bad things to come. The tradition crossed the Atlantic and is now celebrated in the United States and Canada as Groundhog Day. When we talk about renewing Irish politics in a general sense, or reforming the Seanad to give a specific example, it can often feel like Groundhog Day. It seems we are condemned to do the same thing over and over, often repeating the same mistakes, with little or nothing changing. In 2018, we have an opportunity to break that cycle and build a new political landscape which will renew the relationship between the Irish people and their Oireachtas. We can achieve the kind of genuine reforms that people in this Chamber have been advocating for a very long time.


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