Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
Senator Norris said it last week in the debate. Unfortunately, I did not have time to contradict him but I will do so today. The Senators who are elected by local authority members around the country are democratically elected Members of this House. They are indirectly democratically elected in exactly the same way as the Taoiseach. Nobody ever suggests the Taoiseach is not democratically elected. He is, however, elected by a college of elected persons in the same way the 43 Senators in this House are elected by a much larger college which is spread throughout the country and represents local communities. I absolutely resist any suggestion to the contrary. The danger with making that suggestion or challenging it in debates like this is that it becomes part of the popular discourse that, somehow, this is not a democratic Chamber. It is a democratic Chamber. That argument could perhaps be made in respect of the 11 nominees.
Senator Craughwell stated that the Seanad is not as it was envisaged by Éamon de Valera. That is not true. The Seanad operates exactly as de Valera envisaged it; it is powerless, divided and deals with legislation in a way that is subservient always to the Dáil. That is exactly what he wanted and it is what he got. The Seanad is, therefore, the way the framers of the Constitution envisaged it would be. Perhaps the clearest sign that that is the case are the 11 nominees because their stated purpose is to ensure the Government maintains a majority. It is far from the idyllic House Senator Craughwell describes, one populated by academics and experts. I am not necessarily suggesting there is a lack of academics and experts in this House, far from it.
It was always intended that there would be an Opposition and a Government side and it has always been thus. Even if that were not the case, the Seanad could not operate because the lack of certainty would create a malaise. The absence of agreement and of parties and structures in the House would end up merely delaying the passage of legislation. I have great respect for Senator Craughwell who is a friend and near neighbour of mine but to suggest there should not be politics or politicians in a House such as this completely ignores the value of the contribution politicians have to make.
A feature of modern society is that we simply dismiss the skill set politicians have. In many cases, this has been developed over years of local government and other types of political activism involved in making decisions that are saleable and transmissible. I can give any number of examples of people who came into politics in this country, sometimes high office, without training or serving an apprenticeship. The difficulties they had when they got there became clear because they had not had the benefit of sitting in a council chamber or working in an organisation or political party. Having served such an apprenticeship and having gone through that process, I know that in my 11 years at Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council I learned much about how chambers such as this should operate, how decisions should be made and, more importantly, how to make decisions and bring people with us. It is not the job of the Legislature or, indeed, the Executive to impose decisions on people that they cannot or will not wear. Part of the job of a political assembly, the Seanad included, is to make decisions that bring people with us and include them.
I baulk at the suggestion that this is not a democratic Chamber. We represent people all over this country, not just the councillors who elect 43 Senators or the thousands of university graduates who elect the National University of Ireland, NUI, and Trinity College Dublin Senators or the Taoiseach who appoints 11 people to this Chamber, but the people of this country. We are amenable and available to all those people in a way, I suggest, members of the upper houses in pretty much all other European countries that have them are not. I suggest that Irish politicians are closer to the ground than the vast majority of their counterparts in western democracies. We have the benefit of that and it is due, in no small part, to the fact that most Members of this House are elected by grassroots activists, local politicians and hard-working councillors who are incredibly close to their electorate at local level. There is enormous benefit in that.
I do not want it suggested that I am degrading the 11 Taoiseach's nominees because although de Valera may well have intended their role to be one of ensuring a Government majority, they have also been used to identify gaps in the representation of this House. I say that knowing a number of them are here and I particularly acknowledge Senator Flynn in this regard. Former Senator Billy Lawless is another example, as is former Senator Ian Marshall. They are people who have represented views in this House that are not widely held in this country. There are also elected Members who do that as well.
The Seanad has a measure of democracy which goes beyond the mere geopolitical physical representation one gets in the Dáil. I disagree with Senator Craughwell that this House is a mirror of the Dáil; it is quite the opposite. If we look back through the work the Seanad, including in this term, has done in identifying flaws in legislation that has been passed in the Dáil, we see that, on a number of occasions, Senators have said "Hang on a minute; there is a problem with this section." We do not get enough credit for that but it happens because we have a House of informed, hard-working people who listen to people on the ground. Having said that, Senator McDowell is correct that the case for reform is unassailable. We need to reform and we all want to reform. I will reluctantly support the Government's amendment because it is important from the point of view of facilitating reform. Reform is coming, however, so let us make sure we are all part of it.