Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
Senator Flynn has summed up, in essence, what we are trying to achieve. I take on board all the comments. It is also important to state that during my attendance in the Seanad in recent weeks, I have been deeply impressed with the level of debate. I thank Senators McDowell, Higgins and Craughwell for bringing forward this Bill. I also thank the members of the Seanad reform implementation group, which was chaired by Senator McDowell. Its work led to the creation of this Bill, alongside the contribution of the 2018 report.
Before I comment on the Bill, it is worth reflecting on the background which brought us to this point. An independent working group on Seanad reform, under the chairmanship of Dr. Maurice Manning, was established in December 2014. Its principal focus was on possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system. The group published its report, known was the Manning report, in 2015 with an accompanying Bill. The key electoral reform recommendations in the Manning report were that the majority of Seanad seats would be elected by popular vote in a "one person, one vote" system; that this principle would be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; and that provision would be made for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers.
Moving forward to 2018, and with the agreement of all sides in the Seanad, the reform implementation group, chaired by Senator McDowell, was established and it published its report in 2018. The implementation group departed from the Manning report in a small number of areas and those changes are reflected in the Seanad Bill 2020. The main areas of change include some adjustments to the numbers of Senators who would be elected from the five vocational panels by citizens and public representatives. The Bill proposes that 34 of the 60 seats be directly elected by citizens, while the Manning report recommended 36. The Bill also proposes that 15 seats be elected by public representatives, which is more than the 13 seats recommended in the Manning report. The downloading of ballot papers by voters, as recommended in the Manning report, is no longer proposed. The use of ordinary post instead of registered post to issue ballot papers and combined candidate election literature, rather than separate items of literature for each candidate, was also recommended by the implementation group and that is included in this Bill.
Moving to the substance of the Bill, it largely mirrors the recommendations of the Manning report, starting with the electorate. The Bill proposes to widen the electorate at Seanad elections to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those Irish citizens living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport. A conservative estimate of that electorate under these arrangements is some 5.3 million people. There is no doubt there will be operational and logistical challenges in dealing with such large numbers of postal ballots, so careful planning and adequate resources would be needed. It is worth restating that widening the franchise for Seanad elections in this way means that the franchise in the State for Seanad elections would be wider than for Dáil elections. The scale of the electorate is a point which I will come to in a moment.
The Bill proposes that a register of Seanad elections be established. This would be separate from the electoral register maintained by local authorities for all other elections and referendums, and it would be maintained by a new Seanad electoral commission. However, we estimate that nearly two-thirds of those who would be entitled to be on the Seanad register are already on the register of electors maintained by local authorities. The argument put forward in the report from the implementation group on having a separate register requiring voters to voluntarily apply for inclusion on the Seanad electoral register would mean the register would be largely populated by members of the electorate who have demonstrated an interest in participating in Seanad elections. It is anticipated that, under these arrangements, rather than there being a rush to register, the growth of the register would take place gradually.
The group also anticipates that the number of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, as well as those living outside the State, who would exercise their right to register would be much lower than the total number entitled to register. However, I do not believe that this is necessarily a given, as it is likely that the uptake of the register of Seanad elections could be quite high in Northern Ireland by Irish citizens resident in the state. In any event, I believe it is important that we design a system of electoral reform which accommodates the full potential of the electorate, rather than some anticipated reduced uptake of registered electors.In regard to the establishment of a Seanad electoral commission, as I have previously outlined in this House on a number of occasions, work is also well under way in my Department to prepare the general scheme for an electoral reform Bill. This includes the provisions to establish an electoral commission. As it is intended to have the commission established by the end of 2021, it does not make sense to have two parallel commissions in place. Again, a detailed examination of this issue is necessary.
On the university franchise, Senators will recall that this issue was the subject of the Private Members' Bill brought forward by Senator Byrne last week. The Bill before us today proposes a single six-seat constituency, the franchise for which would be extended to other institutions of higher education apart from the National University of Ireland and Dublin University. This would give effect to the 1979 referendum on this point. However, it is worth noting that the group did not all agree on this proposal and for that reason, an alternative proposal was recommended by some group members. This option would divide the university constituency into three sub-panels, each of which would elect two Members. I know some Senators would favour this option. As I indicated last week, a detailed examination of how the election of university panels would work and how Senator Byrne's Bill fits with this Bill needs further consideration.
There are a number of other Seanad electoral reform proposals that still need to be teased out more fully. For example, it is proposed that when applying for inclusion on the register of electors, a voter would choose the constituency in which he or she would rather vote at Seanad elections. This could give rise to some constituencies having significantly more voters relative to others and relative to the respective numbers of seats. This Bill does not appear to make any provision for balancing constituencies and this needs to be addressed.
I also note that there is provision in the Bill to place a time limit on the period a person has been resident outside the State in order to qualify to be registered in a Seanad election. This would limit the overall number of electors based overseas. However, there are some questions to be addressed. For example, what period of time should be allowed and how would that work in practice? We do not formally track the movement of our citizens in and out of the State and so these issues also need to be given further consideration.
Another matter that would need careful examination is the use of a passport as evidence of citizenship. A passport is not currently a declaration of requirement to citizenship and to link one directly to an electoral right based on citizenship would not be in keeping with the primary purpose or function of a passport, which is as a travel document. In addition, the attachment of a cost - that is a passport fee - to the right to exercise franchise in an election may have an impact on the ability of certain citizens to do so and may have unintended consequences in that respect.
I have pointed out some of the issues with the Bill which require further consideration and it is also worth mentioning some of the alternative views that were expressed by the Seanad reform implementation group report, which may also merit some examination. For example, Sinn Féin members believe that further reform could be made by the Seanad examining the current constitutional provisions and how they can be changed to facilitate a modern, diverse and democratic Seanad. Fine Gael members state that real, meaningful and tangible reform, leading to a modern 21st century Seanad Éireann can only be achieved through constitutional change and through the holding of a referendum. An Independent member of the group also states that reform of the Seanad into a fully democratic body within the terms of Articles 18 and 19 of Bunreacht na hÉireann is not possible.
As I have outlined to this House twice in the past week, I am prioritising the implementation of the Government's electoral reform commitments. This will be done by advancing the electoral reform Bill as soon as possible. Long overdue and significant changes will be introduced in that Bill by the modernisation of the electoral register and the establishment of an electoral commission. The Bill will introduce other reforms but these are the two areas that would most impact on Seanad reform. For reasons I have already stated and against that background, as I have indicated last week during the debate on the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020, more time is needed to allow further consideration of the Seanad reform proposals being proposed in both Bills. I hope to be in a position to advance this work in 2021, following the completion of the Government's electoral reform plans.
I also note that I have a timeline of the electoral reform processes down the years. I am conscious of the frustration and impatience of Members of this House at times for this reform process. I have listened carefully to Senators' deliberations this evening and I remain personally committed to achieving this reform with them over the coming years. I also want to say that I recognise the need for action and I want to emphasise that this amendment is a measure to allow an agreed approach, not an exercise in kicking the can down the road. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has indicated that he will engage with Senators before Christmas on how to approach the issue and aims to come before the Seanad by May 2021 with proposals to ensure that progress is made. I hope these commitments are to the satisfaction of Members. I reiterate our commitment to ensuring this happens and I thank all of the Senators for their contributions.