Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."It is important, perhaps, to note that on 1 February 2018 the then Taoiseach, now Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Varadkar, came to this House and endorsed the principle of the Manning report and announced his intention to establish an all-party implementation group and spoke strongly in favour of the principle of amending the way Seanad Éireann was elected. He indicated that he was going to establish a group which over an eight-month period would come forward with proposals on how, in turn, the proposals of the Manning report would be implemented.
Subsequent to that, between February and June of that year, the group was established and its terms of reference were set out by a Government decision. The group met and I was elected as its chairman. The group met over a period from June to December 2018 when it completed and presented its work to the Taoiseach. The group had the advantage that the Department of the Taoiseach paid for the retention of a skilled parliamentary draughtsman to devise a Bill that would be appended to the report. The group itself met on many occasions, deliberated on how it intended to craft a report, and received evidence about the practicality of various ways of implementing the Manning report.
The report was sent by me, as chairperson, to the Taoiseach in December 2018 and in early 2019 I noted that the Taoiseach had made somewhat dismissive remarks about the report in Dáil Éireann, in the Chamber in which we are now. I asked to see him on this issue and he told me, much to my surprise and disappointment, that he himself was an abolitionist during the referendum and that he had no particular interest in progressing the matter any further. This contrasted greatly with the impression that he had given the Seanad the previous February.
Over 12 months the situation had changed dramatically and we were then running into a general election and suddenly all interest in the Bill disappeared. I was told that the Government had no intention of introducing the Bill in Dáil Éireann, as I had recommended in my covering letter and in addition to that, I was told that it could be introduced by any private Member but the Government in those circumstances would allow a free vote and it was highly unlikely to go anywhere.
That set of circumstances smacks to me of utter cynicism. The Manning report was put in place following the rejection by the people of a proposal to abolish this House and this report was published and it became part of the programme for Government for the 2016 to 2020 Administration to implement it. Yet by early 2019 that commitment was completely thrown aside and all interest in implementing the Manning report seemed to have evaporated in a miraculous way.
My own view is that this was breathtaking political cynicism because many Members participated in the Manning report implementation group, Members who are here in this House and others, in good faith believing that they were finally taking the steps without constitutional change, to give the people of Ireland a very substantial say in who sat in this Chamber. That is what was proposed, is what the Government had committed itself to doing and is what was immediately taken off the agenda and effectively thrown into the political wastepaper basket.
We now come to the point where the question of Seanad reform simply will not go away. I want to welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for electoral reform here and I have spoken to both him and to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, about this matter. I fully empathise with the position of the Minister of State who has indicated that his party wanted to have Seanad reform as part of the programme for Government but that the other two parties showed very little interest in having it there. In fairness, that is the truth of the situation. The Minister, Deputy O’Brien, as I understand it hopes to have somebody on the Government benches move an amendment to the motion for a Second Reading of this Bill today to postpone the Second Reading until 31 December 2021 in order that further consideration to the implementation of the Bill can be given by the section of the Department over which the Minister of State has responsibility. The effect of that amendment, if it were carried, would be to put into the record of this House that the Bill would be deemed to be passed on 31 December 2021 and it would fall then to be considered whether it or other legislative proposals which the Department had come up with in the meantime would be progressed thereafter to Committee Stage etc.
As far as I am concerned, Senator Malcolm Byrne introduced legislation recently designed to implement the result of the referendum and to spread the university seats more equitably across institutions of higher education. The result of that Bill if adopted in isolation would be that perhaps 800,000, or perhaps with the passage of time 1 million or more people, would elect 10% of the Members of this House provided that those people were graduates of higher education. The remainder of the electorate, which would probably be 2 to 3 million other people - though a declining fraction as higher education is more generally available - would have no direct say and that 1,200 people, being representatives in local government and the Oireachtas would elect or select the remaining 90% of this House.
The case for reform is overwhelming. I remind the House that the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in order to try to induce the people to accept the referendum for the abolition of this House informed the people prior to the referendum vote that if his proposal to abolish this House was rejected he would not reform this House. That was also a very cynical move. He effectively was saying that he would leave it as undemocratic as it was so that the people were not to think that they would get a better Seanad, but he changed his mind when he got what he described as a wallop at the hands of the electorate in his attempts to wreck this House and the Constitution with it.
I will not talk about recent controversies but one of the functions of this House is to ensure that certain powers in respect of the Judiciary are not abused by a majority in Dáil Éireann and we have our own separate function in that respect.
We have other functions. This House has a veto on any plans to implement any measure at European level to deploy the passerelle clause, in other words, to give up unanimity requirements.This House, under the Constitution, has significant functions apart from its legislative scrutiny function.
I will continue in the short time provided for in the Standing Orders of this House in the form in which they still are. I would have had to sit down about three minutes ago if a certain thing had happened this morning. This Bill was crafted in good faith by a collective effort of Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. It was modular in form. It acknowledges that change will not happen in a big bang. It was gradual in form, in that it provided for a phased introduction of these reforms. It was a genuine, bona fide effort to finally give this House a broader base with regard to the people who select who is here. It was also designed, as the Manning report attempted, to retain a function for representatives in local government to have an input into the composition of Seanad Éireann and thereby the Oireachtas. It is a fair Bill. It is expertly drafted. It is capable of being implemented. It may cost money but it is worth doing.
Now is not the time for cynicism or further delay. The Minister of State has told me privately, and said that I was at liberty to say this, that he wants to go ahead with these reforms. This is the occasion on which to do it. I wish that we would make faster progress than the amendment, which is likely to be tabled by the Government in respect of the Second Reading indicates. I am taking the Minister of State at his word that he is genuine and bona fide committed to implementing the reform of the Seanad in the way that he has indicated in private to me. I thank him for those assurances.