Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the opportunity to debate Seanad reform for the second time in as many weeks. In 2013, when I was not a Member of this House and never dreamt that I would be, I did everything that I could during the referendum campaign to ensure that this House would survive. When I was elected to this House, I was deeply honoured, and I am as honoured and as privileged today as I was in 2014 when I came in here. Many of my colleagues have said to me that in my support for this Bill, I am committing political suicide. If this is what I have to commit political suicide for, I will gladly go to my political grave, because this House desperately needs reform.
I have been told that no county councillor will ever support me again for supporting this Bill. I believe our county councillors are far more discerning than some people in this House give them credit for. In 2015, I addressed a meeting of county councillors from all over Ireland on the issue of their pay, terms and conditions. They were told at that meeting that it was bad that this new Independent Senator had brought their pay into the public domain, and that people were working in the background on it and would sort that out for them. It is 2020 now and it was not sorted out. Maybe the county councillors would get much more from the 15 people they have elected here than the 43 who have failed to deliver for them in the entire life of the Seanad. I am talking about the time since 1937.
I commend my colleagues, Senators McDowell and Higgins, and indeed Senator Warfield. They all sat on the committee that Senator McDowell was talking about and came up with this draft. It is an ideal Bill. In an ideal world, it would be the Bill that would come to reform the Seanad. It should be the last Bill that this House ever needs because it should bring this House to be what it was envisaged to be in 1937. What have we done with it? We have turned it into a replica of the Dáil. We have a Government and an Opposition side. In the current Seanad, we have a rubber stamp. Anything that comes here is passed. We do not give legislation the right scrutiny that it should get in this House. This House was never meant to have Government and Opposition. This House was meant to be populated by academics and vocational experts who would put legislation through its paces and recommend that legislation be returned to the Dáil if it was deemed to be faulty. That does not happen and we have Government and Opposition.
The Bill is ambitious and, if passed, as my colleague Senator McDowell has said, it does not have to be implemented in one fell swoop. It can be implemented in a modular way that would allow for a less disruptive implementation. I know that the Minister of State's party is committed to Seanad reform but I am afraid, if the boat sails today, that it will sail forever. I do not understand why we have to wait until 31 December 2021. There would be nothing wrong with passing this Bill through All Stages in this House and letting it go from there to the Dáil to remain in the Dáil for whatever length of time it takes to pass through the Dáil. There is no need to do what is happening today. Were this Bill passed, it would radically change the Seanad. It would radically change vocational representation in the Seanad. From my perspective, it would deliver much better representation for the vocational groups that we are here to represent.
Having 28 Senators here who are elected under a general franchise by members of the public would give this House the credibility it deserves. Far too often, and the Minister of State is no different, I have sat in company and people have said the Seanad is a rest home for failed politicians or a warm-up home for those who want to get to the Dáil. It is treated with nothing but disdain by many people in this country. As an Independent Senator who was fortunate enough to be elected, I would be the first person to admit today that my election in October 2014 was a fluke. It was a good fluke because it led to other Independent Senators coming in after me. It led to a realisation by independent county councillors around the country that they could elect Independents to this House.
When I look at the history of this House, the great things that happened in this House were all initiated by Independent people. I look at my colleague, Senator Norris, one of the great orators and legislators in this House. I think of Feargal Quinn and of John Crown, who left this House saying he would never return because it would never be reformed. We have to take our courage in our hands and reform this. If this is my political death, and an end to my political career, I will walk out of here proud because at least I tried, but I am so disheartened.
This House was formed in 1937. In 1942, there was an amendment to the way this House does its business. Other than that, it has sat in the doldrums. It is difficult not to see the public view that it is simply a rest home. It is difficult, with this Government, to see that we have moved away from having people from civil society among the Taoiseach's 11 nominees. There is one such person, Senator Flynn, and I am delighted that she is here. In the previous Seanad, there were six Independents, and there were Independents in the Seanad before that, all great Senators.
As a former postgraduate from the University of Limerick, I welcome the expansion of the university panel. As the Bill passes through, there will be amendments, probably looking at the cost. At the end of the day, we need to make the Seanad answerable to the people of Ireland, who pay our salaries.
When I saw the amendment tabled last night, my heart sank into my boots. I saw that nothing has changed. Cute hoorism is alive and well and is living in Ireland. Not one of them would have the courage to come in here and actually vote down this Bill.What they will do is adjourn it until 31 December 2021. I have a written speech and I really just cannot go through it because I am so bloody disheartened by what I see. I see cute hoorism working its way through. This is the second or third time since 2014 that I have seen this. We had the wonderful Manning report but it was only the fourth or fifth report. We have had three pieces of legislation come through this House yet nothing has happened.
The ball is at the feet of the Minister of State and I plead with him to not allow what they are trying to do to this Bill. I thank my two colleagues, Senators Higgins and McDowell, for the marvellous work they have done in bringing this Bill before the House.