Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank the Senator. The day might come but the weather will be considerably changed in this country when it does, I suspect. An Leas-Chathaoirleach agus an Aire Stáit, fáilte romhat.
When I think of this Bill, I am reminded of the story that all of us have heard many times about the old man in Connemara who is asked the way to Dublin when a motorist stops his or her car and the old man replies, "If I were you, I would not start from here at all." I say that with great respect for Senator McDowell and the former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning. Both of them have done Trojan work in trying to craft a very honourable and creditable proposal to bring about a Seanad reform that everybody with a titter of wit can see is long overdue and greatly needed. The problem is that they were presented with a mandate that required them to produce a proposal that is very unwieldy and difficult. I say that while fully acknowledging that this is very carefully prepared and intelligent legislation. However, it is hopelessly constrained by the requirement that these proposals must operate within the current constitutional arrangements.
It is worth taking a step back to consider how we got here. This whole chapter on Seanad reform we are dealing with has its roots in the proposal by the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad, which he also proposed when in opposition. Many people criticised the then Taoiseach's proposal. I stated at the time that it was a crass reach into the cookie jar of popular ideas to present a proposal that would signal to the public that we were going to clean up politics, get rid of wastrel politicians and wasteful public institutions and make democracy simpler by having only one House of the Oireachtas. Thankfully, the voting public saw through the proposal.
For some reason, when the people voted down the abolition of the Seanad that was interpreted, rather conveniently and cynically, by the then Government as meaning that what we now must do is reform the Seanad within the existing constitutional arrangements as though the holding of one referendum and its failure meant that it was not logical or right to hold another referendum to reform the Seanad. The stupidity of that is very obvious when one realises that the then Taoiseach proposed to change our political institutions radically by having a referendum so there was no reason for future necessary change and reform. It was rightly interpreted that the public had not voted to leave things as they were but wanted reform. Somehow, cynically and rather too conveniently for the political establishment, the view was taken that there was a need to reform the Seanad but that this should be done without changing the Constitution. That happened while all sorts of other referenda, good and bad, were being proposed arising out of the Citizens' Assembly process. That was deeply cynical because the ultimate motivation for offering to continue to scrutinise the issues and come forward with a proposal, but without having constitutional change, was to force upon people like former Senator, Dr. Manning, and Senator McDowell the obligation to prepare something that just would be very difficult to work. That is my honest belief.