Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 September 2020

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business


10:30 am

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)

Several important points have been raised. Unfortunately, the debate has become more serious and the points that have been made are ever more concerning. Yesterday, representatives of human rights organisations appeared before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. At the meeting, the head of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission made the point that emergency legislation should be the exception and not the rule. There is a real and significant concern that emergency legislation seems to be becoming much closer to the rule. There is concern regarding everything being declared to be emergency legislation in the absence of standards in respect of what constitutes emergency legislation. I will come to that matter when speaking to the Order of Business.

There is also a real concern that the Government decided, and the Cathaoirleach agreed, that the Seanad should be recalled to sit in special session rather than in normal session. We have heard that the rules governing special sessions have only been invoked three times in the past 13 years. It is a very serious issue if the Government is deciding to use useful new powers that curtail debate whenever it can. As matters have evolved or dissolved over the course of the morning, a much more worrying message has emerged, which is that Senators are being told we are lucky to ever get to speak about anything and may only do so at the discretion of the Cathaoirleach. In the normal course of events, it has not been for the Cathaoirleach of the day to determine the Order of Business in his or her kindness or benevolence. Rather, it is for the House to set the Order of Business. The Order of Business is proposed by the Government and it is discussed and agreed. It is the prerogative of Members to put forward other items on the Order of Business which they believe should be discussed. In the course of a normal Order of Business, Members have that prerogative, but I am afraid that is not what we have heard today. The Cathaoirleach has stated that the legislation should be the only subject of discussion, but the Order of Business is about the topics that Members wish to discuss and how the Order of Business today is to be used. For example, Senators may wish to call in a Minister to address urgent issues such as Brexit which may not relate to legislation but do relate to the business of the House.

We need to be clear that these rights are not gifts that are kindly given to us. Rather, they are part of having a functioning State which has a Parliament and a Government. Our system is not Government without Parliament or the Government kindly allowing Members of Parliament to make statements and get some local press releases and so on. It is a system of Government and Parliament. They are separate functions with separate rules and it is very worrying if those lines are blurred.

The Cathaoirleach made the point that Senators did not ask him to recall the House. Nonetheless, Senators who have returned very willingly to the House have the reasonable expectation that normal rules of parliamentary process will be in place. At 7 p.m. last night, Senators were reminded that this would be a special session.Special sessions are not normal practice. It is a concern that needs to be looked at with regard to their use. We look right now across the world, in Belarus there are concerns about democracy. There are issues around the postal system in the United States of America. There are very concerning issues for the Uighur people in China. Democracy and parliamentary process are precious. During the interval I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and he told me that international electoral observation has been suspended during Covid, for example. We really cannot be complacent, dismissive or clever about pulling strokes on how we move things around, or in how we get things done with more efficiency. I raised on the Order of Business today the question of taking all Stages of this legislation at once. It is not allowing us. When we talk about Standing Orders, let us go a level up and talk about the Constitution. My constitutional obligation, and that of everyone in the House, is to scrutinise legislation. I am being blocked from doing my job properly if I do not get to scrutinise legislation. I cannot scrutinise legislation properly in a way that gives the Government its opportunity to respond. The Government does not have to agree with me, it may think I have a valid point or it may not. That is the Government's prerogative and we each do our piece. Legislation should not be taken at all Stages at once. That cannot continue. With emergency powers, and with Ireland on the Security Council, we must hold ourselves to standards.

I second the amendment to the Order of Business put forward by Senator Bacik. I also propose a different amendment to the Order of Business. I am happy, whichever is successful. I am absolutely open, as I was open to any of the arrangements for this week. There is an idea that there are deals and that one should have written here or there. Of course we should try to work together but, crucially, the Government has the ultimate responsibility and prerogative for where we sit. My additional amendment is that perhaps we might instead take just the Report Stage, either tomorrow or on Monday.


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