Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I will speak to the amendment later. I am glad to co-sponsor this very comprehensive legislation at 104 pages. While I am one of the co-sponsors, this legislation is not simply a product of those who are putting it forward today. This is the agreed legislation that came from the Seanad reform implementation group and the points made by Senator Warfield are important because there has been a suggestion that this is a magic impossibility and that we cannot find agreement. In fact, this legislation is the proof that agreement can be reached. It is testimony to that. Like Senator Warfield, I had proposals that I brought into this. I would have liked a different balance with more people elected directly from the public than by councillors. Compromises were made. People brought their best ideas. They were debated with expert testimony and expertise in, as Senator Cassells stated, one of the longest Committee Stages on legislation ever. There were months of Committee Stage and every single line was going through. We each had our say and brought our proposals. People engaged in good faith and some proposals were successful and others were not. In the end, the legislation was published and there was a unified report. There are annexes with different opinions that people have, as they do with any legislation, but there is no minority report. To be clear, this is the report of the implementation group.

People have different views on different issues, including on issues they feel should be subject to constitutional change in the future, such as the idea regarding the titles of the panels, mentioned by Senator Fitzpatrick, which requires constitutional amendment. That was not within the scope. People parked the wider ideas they had around political reform and other issues they were interested in and engaged in a disciplined way with the task at hand, namely, to look at how the recommendations of the Manning report would be implemented. It was a task that reflected the programme for Government commitment directly, which was not a commitment to look at Seanad reform but a programme for Government commitment in the last Oireachtas to implement the Manning report. We were that far along the stages that we were looking at having the recommendations already and this was the tool to implement them. That is what we bring forward and what does it mean? It means every citizen over 18 in this State would have a vote. They would be able to vote on one of the panels but only one, so that we would move away from the situation for university electors sometimes having two votes. They would each be able to vote on one of the panels, according to the theme and subject matter that was most passionately important to them. For example, they might say education is a huge issue for them and they would use their vote on the education panel. We would benefit from not simply the different persons who may put themselves forward as candidates - many excellent people already put themselves forward as candidates for the Seanad elections. We would benefit from the expertise, insight and knowledge of the electorate who would express what they know and consider to be important. Those who voted in 2013 to retain the Seanad because they wanted it reformed, as an expression of good faith, were telling us they wanted to have a say in the Seanad. They would have a say in the Seanad, an input into who enters this Chamber and direct representation. That was the promise made and I was part of the campaign in 2013 to retain and reform the Seanad. I take that seriously. We have talked in the last week about the 1979 referendum. The 2013 referendum is an equally important mandate.

That is the legislation we put forward. It is detailed, comprehensive and entirely compatible with the Constitution. It is expertly drafted and it was cynically disregarded. The then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, came to speak to us after asking us to leave our legislative proposals aside and work together, as we did. He told us after all that he was not interested in it whatsoever. I asked him if he was sincere. I am afraid to say the clear message he gave was that he was not sincere in relation to Seanad reform. There was a question about the mysterious reasons that Seanad reform is not happening. It is not happening for a number of reasons but one clear reason is that two Fine Gael taoisigh in a row and a Fine Gael Minister who occupied the role, now occupied by the Minister of State with responsibility for Government reform, Deputy Noonan, chose not to follow through on their promises in a programme for Government and on the Bill they had commissioned and requested.We lost two years because of a cynical desire to put it aside. That is why I am very concerned. I do not accept that everybody is on the same side on this. There are those who do not want Seanad reform. There are those who wanted the Seanad to be abolished, and as it was not abolished, they are quite interested in seeing it being ineffective and not reformed. I say that having engaged in good faith with all parties over a number of years.

It is the case, however, that the Taoiseach has previously expressed an interest in Seanad reform. In fact, in 2014, following the 2013 referendum, Deputy Micheál Martin brought forward legislation to suggest there should be one person, one vote in the Seanad, the same idea in the Bill. That is what the now Taoiseach brought forward as a private Member six years ago. I accept the Minister of State's bona fides in expressing interest in moving forward in the area of Seanad reform. A senior Minister has also expressed that he is committed to moving forward with reform in this area. They now hold that power and responsibility. In this case, the Taoiseach, the relevant Minister and the relevant Minister of State are members of Fianna Fáil or the Green Party. I rarely mention parties in the Chamber and try to avoid it, but it is relevant in this context. The other party in the coalition had its opportunity over an extensive period. It had the Ministries and the power as taoisigh but it chose not to move forward with Seanad reform. That ship has sailed. It is now the responsibility of those with that brief to work with all parties and ensure this is delivered.

I cannot accept the amendment to postpone the Bill and will have to oppose it. As Senator Cassells noted, the Bill has had many Second Stages and upwards of 100 hours of Committee Stage debate. The intention of the amendment to postpone the Bill by not just 12 months but to the very last day - New Year's Eve - of 2021 is to stall the Bill further. It would basically provide that we would not come back to it until 2022 when, I remind the House, the rotation of Taoiseach will occur. It is now the responsibility of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party not to bounce this ball back out of their area of control and not to allow this legislation and progress in the area to be stalled until 2022, when the authority will be with the person who will then be Taoiseach, who has expressed in the Dáil Chamber that he does not believe in this legislation.

I have proposed an amendment that will instead provide that the Bill should be read again in May. It will allow time for a springtime engagement in advance, a summer between Second Stage and Committee Stage, a proper conversation and engagement, and it would mean we had progressed the Bill this year. I urge the Minister of State to consider accepting my amendment to move the Bill past Second Stage on 31 May instead.


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