Wednesday, 9 October 2002
Sub-Committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann, recognising the views expressed by Members of the 22nd Seanad concerning the issue of Seanad reform, instructs a sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to be established so that proposals can be brought forward.
The Cathaoirleach indicates I may speak to the motion, but I intend to speak at a later date.
I am delighted to second the motion. The Fine Gael Members of the Seanad very much support the motion originating from the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which calls for the establishment of a sub-committee on Seanad reform and we encourage other Members to do likewise. When the committee began to debate this issue we felt that the most appropriate way forward in dealing with the issue of Seanad reform was through the establishment of a sub-committee which could work on the matter over a period of time before reporting to the Seanad.
There is one defect to the motion which I noticed only a week ago in that it describes no timeframe for reporting back to the Seanad. We need to look at that because if we establish this sub-committee without setting a timeframe the entire debate could take place over the next three to four years without any conclusion being reached. I ask the Leader and Members to consider that issue before we agree to the motion in its entirety.
When the sub-committee is established it is vital that it be well staffed by a group of people who can work to its agenda alone. The officers of the House are inundated with work and it would be totally unfair to ask them to take on this additional burden. The Leader should do everything in her power to ensure that extra staff requirements are met before the establishment of this sub-committee.
If we are serious about the issue of Seanad reform, it is important to show consensus. If one group of Senators, appointed by the Taoiseach, denigrates another group of Senators, elected by county councillors, which, in turn, denigrates the group of Senators elected by graduates, we will not get far. The only way success will be achieved is by consensus over a period of time. We must move the debate forward and provide for real reform. The debate should not become a point scoring exercise where one group of Senators attacks another group of Senators and questions the validity of its mandate. If we take that route, we will not find a positive solution.
The Seanad is vitally important in the legislative framework of the Constitution. Its Members have made a huge contribution to politics and legislative debates. There is no doubt there is a need for a second Chamber which can review and update legislation and will ensure the Government of the day, regardless of its composition, is rapped across the knuckles from time to time. That requires an independence of mind and spirit. I am conscious of this having been a Member of the other House. People do not expect us to be as party political as we were in the other House.
I ask other colleagues to reflect on that. If the House has a definite function in our Constitution to review legislation, we must not be as party political as we were in the other House. The Seanad has been successful because of its independence.
I have three problems with the current situation. The first, which all parties and Governments experience, is that there is too much legislation. Unfortunately, when a Minister decides to announce an initiative, it inevitably involves the introduction of legislation. The number of Bills proposed in the Houses of the Oireachtas in the past ten years outweighs the number proposed in the previous 50 years. That is a problem, not only in this House, but also in the other House. We must be able to quickly reflect what is happening in the country. That is the reason I raised urgent matters on the Order of Business today. If that facility is not available, the public will look cynically on the proceedings here.
Legislation is not considered enough and too few people are involved. That is directly related to the fact that a party whip operates in the House. The worst thing for democracy was the establishment of the party whip. It gives power to 15 or 16 people in the Executive who initiate legislation. That is as much a problem for the Government as it is for the Opposition. We must try to abolish the party whip if we want to reform the Seanad. The party whip may be justified in the other House because the Government of the day wants to establish and implement its manifesto commitments which the people support. However, the operation of the party whip – I include my own party – is not necessary in the Seanad because parties do not have manifestos. We do not get our support from the people, unlike Members in the other House. We need to consider this when considering Seanad reform. Could we introduce a law to abolish the party whip in the Seanad and give people the independence to speak freely and take different positions from those of the Government and Opposition? If we are just a mirror of the Dáil, we will not get the best out of the 60 people elected to this House. This proposal was contained in a document entitled, The Democratic Revolution, first published only four years ago by my party colleagues, Deputies John Bruton and Jim Mitchell. It does not benefit Parliament to have very strong whipping arrangements.
Some immediate reforms require small changes to Standing Orders. It is madness that in this day and age we must meet at 2.30 p.m. each Wednesday. I do not know where this rule in Standing Orders came from. The practice by which we sit for four, five or six hours on a day when most people are at work at 8 a.m. is archaic. Tomorrow, for instance, the President of the European Parliament, Mr. Pat Cox, will address us in the morning, after which we will ask him questions – I hope all Members will do so – and the business of the House will conclude at 12.45 p.m. That is ridiculous. We can change this overnight without much debate or the need for legislation. I ask that the sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges which is looking at this matter make these changes.
There is a need for specific, well focused debates on key issues. This is an area in which the Seanad can connect with the public. If, instead of leaving urgent matters until the following week, we responded quickly to issues as they arose, put them on the Order Paper immediately and held short, focused debates with contributions of four or five minutes, as the European Parliament does, we would have much more credibility with the public. This could also be changed without difficulty.
Every year thousands of reports appear on the Order Paper which are never debated or discussed. While I concede that some of these are best left to a committee of the House, in other cases we should hold a debate. For instance, an issue first raised in this House ten years ago by Senator O'Toole and others, namely, emigrant voting, arose again during the summer when the Minister for Foreign Affairs published an excellent report on support for emigrants. Given its party political nature and the kind of animal it is, the Dáil will never debate this report. This House has an opportunity to debate issues such as this in a very short, concise way. In this case, we should bring in the Minister to ensure a degree of accountability for the recommendations made in the report. As Senators, we can provide added value on these kinds of issues.
I propose the introduction of Question Time. While I am aware that the new Standing Order 51 allows a Minister to make a statement and then take questions, a Question Time rota in which one or two Ministers would address the House together would be useful in terms of illuminating policy on a variety of issues.
I propose that we abolish the speakers' list. These manufactured lists of speakers are one of the reasons so few Members attend the House to speak. It does not present a problem today as it contains ten or 15 Members – perhaps this is because Members are fascinated by what I have to say. The list means that if one is due to speak at 5 p.m., for example, one does not come into the House until 4.45 p.m. The Cathaoirleach should have discretion to call speakers from those present in the Chamber as it would ensure more Members come into the House and make contributions.
It is not a good sign that Members cannot make a contribution without a script. I ask the Cathaoirleach to enforce this rule. It is better to make a short contribution than to read from a prepared script. I accept, however, that there are times, on sensitive matters such as Northern Ireland—
—when Members will want to place certain facts on the record. There may well be a number of well defined areas where this could be established. Scripts are bad for Parliament. Watching Members read from scripts when the proceedings are broadcast is awful. I ask that it be changed.
My next proposal is that this side of the House needs more Government time. As the Fianna Fáil Party has 30 Members in this House, in effect, half the total number of Senators, it gets 50% of Private Members' time. There should be greater latitude in this area to ensure that the Opposition, who, by its nature, will try to hold the Government to account, is given more Private Members' time. That is something we could also change in Standing Orders.
Regarding the scrutiny of EU legislation, as the Leader of the House is aware, the European Union Scrutiny Bill, 2001, which was first proposed by the Labour Party, is on Committee Stage and I understand that Report Stage of that Bill will be taken in the Dáil next week. This Bill has the potential to be the most important legislation the House has discussed in a generation. It is the first time elected Members of the Seanad and the Dáil can be involved in the decisions our Ministers ultimately make at Councils of Ministers meetings. I ask the Leader to examine how exactly we will play a role in that. If we make this work, it will have a major significance for Members in terms of contributing to debates prior to Council of Ministers meetings. That would be significant.
I ask the Leader and the sub-committee that will be established ultimately to examine the issue of resourcing for Members and their offices. This is a point of contention for many Members on both sides of the House. There is a need for the preparation of special reports that the Seanad could sanction. One of the best improvements in the committee system in recent years has been that a rapporteur can be appointed to report on a issue and that issue is then presented by one or two Members, frequently from different parties. The Seanad could implement such a measure.
Regarding the issue of changes where legislation would be required for a number of proposals, MEPs should be allowed to attend and speak in the Seanad. I am aware of the changes to Standing Order 52, which provides that MEPs can be invited to this House. I do not propose that they should be Members of this House, but they should be able to attend and speak here if they wish. I ask the Leader to consider that proposal.
I propose that the Seanad should travel outside Dublin once or twice a year. There is a constitutional requirement that the Houses of the Oireachtas meet in Dublin, but my proposal would be a good development. The Government has done this in recent years. The Front Bench of my party has also done this. The Seanad should visit a region once or twice a year.
Yes, certainly. It is in the centre of the country. I am sure we should get a great welcome from the Leader.
The electoral college for the vocational panels should be expanded to include all city and town councillors and MEPs. In the case where people are elected to councils and given a vote for the Seanad, all town councillors should be entitled to vote in such circumstances. Voting should not be restricted only to those who are members of county councils or the three or four significant city councils.
Other Members will have other views on that and no doubt we will debate this in further detail.
Former Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to attend and speak in the Seanad, although not as Members. People who have just left or are at the margins of politics have a wealth of experience. Such people should not be given a salary but a daily rate of payment, as is the practice in the House of Lords. The same type practice should exist here for former Cabinet Ministers of perhaps ten years' standing.
If a Member of this House is elected to the other House or resigns, it is most unfair if the party of which he or she is a member is not able fill the seat vacated by that person.
A question arises on the fundamental issue of constitutional change, the third item on the list, which is whether the job description of the Seanad in the Constitution is right. I believe that, by and large, it is right. It provides that, first, we can amend or delay legislation; second, we are not responsible for money Bills, which is right as we do not have a mandate from the people; third, that the Seanad is not a mirror of the Dáil, even though in recent years we have become such, but that is not particularly healthy; and fourth, that we can initiate Bills, an area on which we need to spend more time. Many good suggestions for Private Members' Bills by Members of this House could be taken up by Government if we had a more structured time for that business.
On the question of whether we have too many or too few Senators, I think 60 is about right. For the size of this country, I would not propose changing that number. There is justification for the appointment of the Taoiseach's nominees. It is only right that the Government of the day should be able to have a working majority in the House. However, we should establish in law various groups from which the Taoiseach of the day could pick Senators. For instance, there should a gender quota because of the low number of women in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach should pick a nominee who would represent Irish emigrants abroad. He should also pick nominees who represent the social partners. Such groups could be established in law, if there is the intention to do that.
The university Senators have done the State some service. I would not propose abolishing the election of Independent Senators. They have made a major contribution to the House. However, we need to work at a system to ensure that electorate is a fair indication of the number of graduates within the country at a given time. The distinction between TCD and the National University of Ireland existed in the 1930s because of the Protestant minorities and the need to have that voice respected and reflected in the Houses. That is no longer the case because the vast majority of persons who go to Trinity College, Dublin are Catholics.
Regarding the 43 Members elected from the vocational sub-panels, the best way to approach that would be by way of a list system, whereby parties could appoint, according to a list, a rota of people. Depending on the percentage they get at the general election, Members could be appointed from that list. Nominations for the Seanad and Dáil should be held on the same day. This would allow people who have purely legislative interests and requirements to be elected to the Seanad and not to the Dáil. By doing that, we would be able to reform the Seanad.
These are my personal views. This will be a wide-ranging debate, which I welcome. I hope that at the end of it we will have a consensus on how we can go forward rather than the endless reports we have had on this subject for the past 30 years.
While many are selected for nomination to the Seanad, it is a great honour to be a Member of this House. I was nominated by the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations. This organisation represents the Irish Bank Officials' Association, the Irish Distillers Staff Association, the Garda Representative Association, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, the Association of Garda Superintendents, RACO, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, PDFORRA – the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association – the Dublin Institute of Technology Staff Association and Citibank Staff Association on the Labour Panel. I have a mandate from that organisation to articulate its views on many issues raised in this House. I will also represent to the best of my ability – as do all Senators – the views and policies of those Deputies, Senators and councillors who elected me to this House. I believe such a nominating body has a great deal of merit. I was nominated to the Labour Panel and am a trade union member. I am also a member of other associations.
The system of nomination may, at times, be criticised, but it is quite a healthy way of selecting candidates to represent different panels. It is very difficult to gain election to this House and we are all very honoured to be here, not least you, a Chathaoirligh, one of its longest serving Members.
The Seanad provides us with an opportunity to examine our political system and institutions. I compliment the Leader of the House and the Opposition spokesperson on initiating this debate. Every organisation should review its workings and structures from time to time. People quite often say if something is not broken then there is no need to fix it.
During my term of office as Minister of State with responsibility for trade and marketing I brought many Bills before this House and was always impressed by Senators' contributions. My sentiments in that regard on the record of the House. Senators made a major contribution to the shaping and formation of legislation. When I could, I accepted Senators' amendments in the best interests of providing proper legislation. Members of this House have provided a great service to this State in ensuring our legislation is scrutinised, one of the most important aspects of its work. That work has been carried out with great distinction by Members of the Seanad.
We have before us a great opportunity for calm deliberations and deep analysis of the national issues many speakers raised on the Order of Business today. This House is a platform where major legislation, national and European, can be examined and discussed. This will be particularly important when we have an opportunity of discussing European legislation in great detail. I have served on the Council of Ministers in Europe. Many issues agreed at that level require detailed examination here. During my involvement in the negotiations on the Single European Act we had to make very speedy decisions on many issues. It would be of enormous benefit to have the advice and assistance of the Dáil and Seanad in this regard.
There are other areas in which the Seanad could function. The role of Seanad Éireann as a consultative body with knowledge, expertise and judgment over the spectrum of public affairs should be strengthened. The Seanad should present an opportunity for MEPs to engage in discussions in this House though, as stated earlier, not permanently because they would not have the time to do so. When issues regarding Europe arise we should provide MEPs with a platform on which to discuss these issues.
The President of the European Parliament, Mr. Pat Cox, will attend this House tomorrow. I thank him, in advance, for agreeing to come here and be questioned on the workings of the European Union. We will have an opportunity to invite Commissioners to this House to discuss the issues and policies they are pursuing. It is an environment in which social partnership can flourish, where organisations nominate speakers to discuss recent development in various industries. Let us provide a forum where representatives can speak from the inside out rather than from the outside in. We have a tremendous forum whereby representatives of national organisations can put their ideas to us as elected members of Seanad Éireann. That is one of the areas we should examine within the current structures.
Many of the suggestions I put forward can be carried out within existing structures and rules. We should use current structures to the maximum extent instead of waiting for a report from a committee outside this House. Such a committee should be formed by representatives of this House. The advice of former Members such as Brian Mullooly, who provided tremendous assistance to this House, could be sought by such a committee. The role of Senators should be enhanced. The hard work and dedication of those honoured and privileged to serve as members of Seanad Éireann since 1937 have been immeasurable. The wealth of experience and the cross section of society represented by Members have played a major role in the quality of legislation passed by the Oireachtas. Let us draw on this experience and knowledge and use it to serve our country.
Senators should be used as spokespersons by Departments. As a former Minister of State I understand how difficult it is for Ministers to leave the jurisdiction at the head of trade delegations to seek industrial investment for this country. As the Government spokesperson on trade, enterprise and employment I would be particularly interested to work with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland in pursuit of their policies and in attracting industry to the BMW region which is supposed to get 40% of all investment from abroad.
Yes. What could be better than having Senator Norris representing the State as a guest speaker at a tourism venue in New York on that momentous day? The James Joyce industry is major in areas as far away as Japan. The same can be said for any Senator who is experienced in a particular profession or business. The Government should avail of the services of Members of this House in the interests of industry, tourism or agriculture.
Having praised Senator Norris, I now come to an issue which some say we should not discuss, namely the representation of the universities. It is a difficult issue. The Second and Seventh Progress Reports of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution insist that university representatives continue to play a distinctive and valuable role in the working of the Seanad. I salute that work. I know that some of the university representatives are members of parties and contest the Seanad as members of their party, though they are not always successful. I have certain concerns regarding the election process for the six university seats. It is proposed by the committee to allow graduates of all third level institutions to cast a vote. I wholeheartedly support this proposal.
One of the most obvious and tremendous developments since we joined the European Union has been the rise of the institutes of technology. Surely students of these institutes should have the same rights as those of the universities. A referendum was held in 1979 in which over 90% of those who voted supported this initiative. I now call on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to introduce a Bill to legislate for such changes. I do not think that there has been any precedent where the result of a referendum passed by 90% of those who voted was not implemented by the Oireachtas. That this was left aside is rather strange on the part of all Administrations. I would respect and welcome the views in this area of the university Senators. As someone who sought their support in the election to this House, I appreciate that they might not be very happy with the views I express, but I am doing it because the people have spoken and they must be listened to. I am reflecting how I, and I suspect the majority of the House, voted in that referendum.
I agree with the proposal that there be regional meetings of the Seanad. Perhaps clarification can be given later in the debate on the points raised as no representative of the Government is present. From my knowledge of the Seanad and Constitution, I am not sure if we can hold plenary sessions in regional areas. For example, the Border, midlands and western regional headquarters are located in Ballaghadereen, County Roscommon. The Cabinet has met at Ballaghadereen and in other regions. The first place this Seanad should meet is Ballaghadereen, next door to the home of the well-known former legislator James Dillon.
That is fine, but councillors represent 3.5 million people. It is a great privilege for them. I do not want to see reform as I am quite happy with their right and privilege to vote in Seanad elections. Having been an unsuccessful candidate on two previous occasions I would still prefer the vote of councillors rather than a list system. I am not in favour of a list system, not because I am afraid that I might not get on it, but because many who might deserve to be here might not get on it. Councillors, Deputies and Senators made a decision to put us here. The Taoiseach has the right to nominate 11 Senators, a right included in the Constitution by Éamon de Valera.
He devised a system that ensures a working majority in this House, rightly so. We do not want to see this House rejecting legislation and precipitating a general election. That would not be healthy. The quality of appointed Senators since the Constitution was enacted in 1937 has been remarkably high. They have played a very important role in this House. It is a wonderful opportunity for those who have tremendous experience to be nominated rather than having to go through the selection and election process. It is an admirable approach.
I am sorry if I have been selective about the universities. Senators should remember that if we were to seek an amendment to the Constitution, the public would not be particularly interested in Seanad reform. Some might prefer abolition as it is easier to abolish things. The result of the 1979 referendum which approved an amendment to the Constitution should be honoured. I hope the university Senators understand that is the democratic right of the people. It would be impractical to review the 1937 Constitution to enact other reforms. We should be able to have reform within our institution under the Constitution. I do not recall distinguished speakers being brought to address the House when the Seanad was first formed. This is a recent innovation.
I express my deep respect for the Upper House of the Oireachtas of which I am proud to have served as a Member for a short period in 1992-93. I will endeavour to fulfil my role as a Member of the Seanad. Since its birth in 1937, the Seanad has played a vital role in our political system. I am loath to make any major changes to a system that is working very well.
Yes, it was reborn under the Constitution passed by the people. It is up to all of us to make it more meaningful. By making it more meaningful to the people we will ensure the work continues and its Members will be held in respect. I am glad there are so many young people in the Visitors Gallery listening to this debate. In time, I hope the young ladies present will be Members of the Seanad, involved in politics and play a part in the workings of the State.
Give him six minutes. I am delighted with the enthusiasm of the Fianna Fáil Front Bench for the reform of the Seanad. When I listen closely, I realise it is the reform of the university constituencies about which they are concerned. I first stood for election in the early 1980s. At that time I proposed that every graduate of a third level college should have a vote in the Seanad elections. I was elected in 1987, 1989, 1992, 1997 and this year. On each occasion I have made the same proposal. Every single Member of the university panel whom I have sat with in this House has been in favour of what Senator Leyden proposed. If we are to make the House meaningful to our guests and anyone else, let us give them a vote. The difference between the university Senators and Senator Leyden is that we are prepared and want to extend the franchise to each graduate of every third level college on this island. That is our position.
We want greater participation on our panel. I guarantee the Senator that no Member on his side of the House will state that the franchise on their panels should be extended. The reason is that 900 county councillors, various local authority representatives, Senators and Deputies elect 43 Members to the House. If I am correct, I have seven votes in a Seanad election. Why should I have seven votes when most members of the population have none? That is disgraceful and it is not something we should countenance.
As it stands, this House is unrepresentative and undemocratic. My comments are not to be seen in any way—
It is undemocratic because if 900 people in Albania were entitled to elect three quarters of the Members of a House of Parliament there, we would condemn such behaviour as totalitarianism – whether it arose under a dictatorship or a communist regime – and we would be right to do so.
If the Senator believes my comments are focused in any way on local authority members he is wrong. Others will inform him that I defend them all the time and I am of the opinion that they do excellent work. I am utterly supportive of local authority members. I believe they are treated badly, are not afforded enough respect and are not given enough authority or adequate budgets.
Let us consider the position of Senators Mansergh and Ó Murchú who were elected from the Agricultural and Cultural and Educational panels, respectively. There are two ways to be nominated to those panels, one of which, as in the case of Senator Ó Murchú, is to have one's name put forward by bodies such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. I am in favour of this, but there is another way to gain entry to the panel, namely, to be nominated by four Members of this House or the Lower House. There are, therefore, two groups of people who can be nominated to the Cultural and Educational Panel. Why would it not be possible to have those nominated by Members of the Oireachtas elected by members of county councils, as is currently the case? A total of 50% of the Members of the panel would, therefore, be elected by the local authorities and there would be what I term the "distillation" of democracy which could be justified because the other 50% would be elected by properly registered members of the various nominating bodies such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In the case of the Agricultural Panel, people who were not nominated by Oireachtas Members but were put forward by the various nominating bodies would be elected by the registered members of those bodies.
If we followed the approach I advocate, we would involve a huge number of ordinary people and, as a result, every fisherman or farmer would have a vote on the Agricultural Panel, every trade unionist would have a vote on the Labour Panel, etc. This would ensure that people throughout the country would be involved in electing the membership of the Seanad.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I support the idea of Taoiseach's nominees. I do not want us to have, as is the case in Washington, a second House which can run into gridlock or one which can subvert the will of the people as articulated in the Lower House. The Seanad's role is one of modification, consolidation, of dealing with topical issues and of providing added value.
It is important that we should extend the franchise. Everyone on the Independent benches is in favour of extending the franchise on the Universities Panel. There is no argument about that. If all that emerges from this debate is consensus about that single point I will not be surprised but I will be disappointed. I do not believe there will be any changes other than that which I have outlined.
I wish to highlight a point missed by the previous speaker but which I hope others will bear in mind. It is true that it took a constitutional amendment to facilitate what I and Senator Leyden have proposed. The constitutional amendment of 1979 gave the Government power to extend the voting franchise on the Universities Panel to other colleges or universities. The position is, therefore, that what we are proposing can now be done. By couching matters in those terms, it appears we are saying that there were no constitutional amendments in respect of the other suggestions I have put forward. There is a good reason for that, namely, that constitutional amendments are not required in this regard. All that is required to extend the vote is a change in the law. Voting on to the other panels is not restricted by the Constitution in the same way it was on our panel. That is why a constitutional amendment has never been required.
We are talking about giving the House relevance by extending the franchise. There are many other steps we could take, but I believe we should listen to what people have to say. It has been stated that we should seek more power or influence for the House. That is not necessary because the constitution of this House, should we choose to use it, contains enough power and influence. Any Member who wants to make a point can do so – an individual, a member of a party an Independent representative or whoever. It would be wrong for this debate to become lost in attempts to increase levels of power and authority, because they are not needed.
It is correct to state that as long as people are not able to vote to elect Members of this House, they will not have the same interest in its affairs as they do in those of the Dáil. The Cultural and Educational Panel, the Agricultural Panel, the Industrial and Commercial Panel, the Administrative Panel and the Labour Panel are all representative of Irish life. Should one wish to do so, one could extend the voting franchise to every member of the population in some form or another under one of those categories. Even if one did not wish to do so and wanted to preserve the vocational nature of the electoral process by restricting it to the registered members of the nominating bodies, a huge number of people would be entitled to vote. In terms of the Labour Panel, 750,000 people would be enfranchised if the approach I have outlined was adopted. There is no difficulty in extending the franchise. It would give new life to the House and I request that it should be done.
I would love to see a situation arise where farmers and fishermen would be entitled to vote on the Agricultural Panel, where musicians and teachers could vote on the Cultural and Educational Panel, etc. So much could be done, while maintaining the importance of local authority members by allowing them to elect people on the inside panel. Of the 43 elected Members of the House to whom I referred earlier, 21 or 22 would, therefore, be elected by one or other of the methods to which I refer and a further six Members would still be elected by the universities. The number of people on the register of the National University of Ireland is well over 100,000, while there are almost 50,000 people on the Trinity College register. There are approximately 150,000 people who are entitled to vote on the Universities Panel, which is quite an extensive franchise.
In my opinion, it is wrong and elitist and helps to preserve a sort of cadre in society to see university graduates as being above and beyond and more important and special than other members of the population. It is open to any Member to state blithely – they are in a position to do so because they know they will not be affected – that the vote should be extended to every third level graduate. However, this merely maintains the environment of exclusivity. Why can people state so easily that the vote should be given to people who have graduated from a third level college or university, but that it should not be given to anyone else? The case must be made that there are people in every walk of life who may not have attended university but who should have an input into what we are doing in this House. I ask Members to give serious consideration to this matter. I would like to see the Seanad electoral process develop in the way I have outlined.
Should the people be asked to voice their opinions on this matter? I believe they should. The Leader of the House will have to play an important role in trying to raise the stature of the House in terms of its relevancy because we are somewhat behind the game in that regard. This House was never intended to be a place where one could deal immediately with issues that might arise on a particular day. There is a difference between issues of the day and topical issues. General issues of the day should be discussed here, not issues which may arise on the morning of a sitting. That is an extremely important point.
It is a special feature of this House that, although Members are divided, in the main, into party groupings, there is a less confrontational approach. There is no argument against extending the franchise in the university sector. Equally, there is no argument against widening the franchise to those who are not university graduates or Members of the Dáil or Seanad or members of local authorities. That should be taken on board in moving forward and looking at a different form of election in which the people would have an involvement and the House a greater relevance.
There are other points I would like to make, but I am conscious of my time limit and have concentrated on the core issues. By extending the franchise we would also raise the involvement and interest of ordinary people. We would do ourselves a huge favour, even if this Seanad did nothing more than bring about that change. I ask for an open debate on the matter. As an indication of credibility, I suggest that Senators begin by considering what changes are appropriate in their respective electoral panels. Those who focus on one particular panel are simply taking the easy way out.
I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing time with me. While I welcome the establishment of the sub-committee, I do not expect that very much will happen as a result. This issue has been discussed throughout the entire period of my membership of the Seanad. The same discussion takes place after every election, but nothing ever happens. There is really very little to add to what has been said, but perhaps I can make it a little more explicit. It is obviously unrealistic to expect huge changes. First, there is an element of political patronage involved. The parties dictate who will be elected, quite apart from the Taoiseach's right to nominate. We should be perfectly honest about this. It is common knowledge that the political parties issue blank nomination papers which are signed and filled in subsequently. This is freely admitted by members of political parties and a violation of democracy.
It happens in the Senator's party also. It is illegal, but members of the Senator's party have told me it happened in the last election. For example, Senator Manning was denied the opportunity to stand for re-election to this House at the behest of a non-elected cabal within the Fine Gael Party. A former Cathaoirleach who had been an unsuccessful candidate in elections for the Dáil and European Parliament was subsequently nominated to the Seanad. A Leader of the House who stood for election to the Seanad and was rejected was then nominated to this House.
Yes – historically. The issues to which I have referred need to be addressed. I agree there is no argument against extending the university panels. I have previously suggested that Dublin City University and Dublin Institute of Technology should be included in the Trinity College Dublin panel and that the NUI panel should also be extended to include other relevant institutions. That would preserve the trite difference between them in so far as Trinity College has traditionally been a Dublin centred constituency and the NUI has been a somewhat more broadly based constituency. If they were all rolled into one mega-constituency of six seats and graduates of all third level institutions are enfranchised, that would involve an electorate of at least 500,000. In practical terms, how would one electioneer in that situation? Even now, there is an electorate of about 40,000 in my constituency and 120,000 in the NUI. It is very difficult to maintain contact with one's electorate, particularly in view of the extent to which people are dispersed. It is dangerous for representatives to be too far removed from their roots. I welcome the suggestion of coinciding the dates of elections.
My views are not as extreme as they once were. I sometimes described this House as a retirement home for disabled politicians. However, it can be extremely useful to have the benefit of the wisdom and experience of those who have served in Cabinet. The present Leader of the House, who has had a very distinguished career, is a classic example. The House will benefit from her presence.
I agree with the mechanism brought forward by Senator O'Toole in relation to the Oireachtas sub-panels, whereby 50% of the places would be filled by the more partisan vote of county councils rather than the less enfranchised members of the nominating bodies. As I have said repeatedly, the system in relation to the university seats works reasonably well because the ordinary members of the nominating bodies are enfranchised. I recall an occasion when the president of the Royal Irish Academy was nominated by the academy but did not receive a single vote. The seat was taken by a person whose claim to fame on the Cultural Panel was that he was a modest exponent of the saxophone. Such situations hold the system up to ridicule, as do the electioneering practices in which candidates have to engage.
I have great friendships with colleagues in all parties and my heart bleeds for them at Seanad election time when they are sent up hill and down dale in a dreadfully demeaning search for votes. There can also be considerable danger involved, especially when elections take place in winter and candidates have to drive all over the country in a desperate effort to reach as many county councillors as possible. This is a serious concern. Senators will recall that a former Cathaoirleach of the Seanad was killed in a car accident. Having travelled in his professionally driven State car from one funeral to another, he ended up tragically at his own. That was a shocking situation. Candidates are being exposed to real hardship and danger in an electioneering system which is not based on real issues. That is regrettable.
With regard to the attendance of MEPs in the House, it should be by invitation only. On the question of initiating Money Bills, I disagree with Senator Hayes. In our different ways, we are elected by the people and I do not share the Senator's hesitation. It has certain crucial effects, not just in terms of getting amendments accepted. Even when Ministers agree that amendments are good, they are still ruled out of order. I am also concerned at the exclusion of Senators from certain Oireachtas committees. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, but, as a Senator, I am excluded from participation in certain matters dealt with by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I regard it as a great weakness in the system.
The Government should be much more flexible in accepting legislation from sources other than the Government benches. If this House is to be seen as a legislative body, it should receive proposed legislation from the Opposition parties and the Independents. I and several of my colleagues, including Senator Henry, have put legislative proposals before the House. I have clear proposals in the area of the recognition of domestic partnerships and it would be helpful, in terms of the Government's programme, if that legislation came from this House, not least from a practical point of view.
In terms of the dignity of this House, it is necessary to accept legislation from sources other than the Government benches. In order to facilitate this, there should be some sifting mechanism so that the House can decide at an early stage that it is presented with a serious Bill which addresses a significant issue. Once the legislative proposal passes that hurdle, expertise should be made available to the person or group wishing to produce the Bill. As it stands, we do not have access to draftspersons and we should have such access. If we have serious proposals, we should be allowed to put them in a professional form so they can be placed before the House with some hope of success.
I wish the committee well and I am glad it has been established, but I do not expect too much from it. As Senator O' Toole said, the real signal of its success will be if, instead of merely looking at the university seats which are in need of change – we are happy to run with that change – it looks at the entire system honestly and preserves what is best in it and increases its impact in all areas.
Tá áthas dáiríre orm go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ag tárlú. Nuair a bhí díospóireacht againn ar an ábhar seo cheana tháinig smaointí dearfacha chun tosaigh ach níor tharla aon rud ina dhiaidh sin. Tá dífríocht ann anois mar tagann an rún seo ó choiste atá tábhachtach cheana féin agus atá lárnach don struchtúr féin.
Ní aontaím le mo chara atá díreach tar éis labhairt nuair a deir sé nach bhfuiltear ag súil le morán, mar ceapaim go bhfhéadfaimís a lán a dhéanamh.
Tá díomá orm mar cé go bhfuil an díospóireacht thar a bheith spreagúil, go bhfuil sé teoranta agus dírithe ar an módh toghcháin atá againn anois. Tá i bhfad níos mó ná sin i gceist, maidir le hath-struchtúrú an tSeanaid. Ins na laethanta atá romhainn tá súil agam go mbeidh sé ar ár gcumas an díospóireacht a leathnú amach.
Tá an chuid rudaí maithe le feiceáil sa tuarascáil a foilsíodh ag an gcoiste a bhí ag plé na gcúrsaí seo. Ach foilsíodh an tuarascáil díreach comhgarach don toghchán agus is beag díospóireacht a deineadh air. Cosúil le han-chuid tuarascál eile tá eagla orm go bhfágfar an ceann seo ar leataobh, cé gur caitheadh an-chuid ama agus an-chuid airgid air.
Tá mé dóchasach toisc go bhfuil an díospóireacht ag tarlú go luath i saol an tSeanaid agus toisc go bhfuil aird an tSeanadóra Uí Ruairc dírithe ar an ábhar seo. Dá bhrí sin beidh treoir le fáil againn agus tá súil agam go bhféadfaimís tosú ar an mbonn dearfach seachas ar an mbonn dúltach.
I compliment the Leader and the Cathaoirleach in being so expeditious in bringing forward this debate.
I will come to that in a moment – this has come from Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Most importantly, it has been brought forward for early discussion. It puts down a marker for all of us to avail of the opportunity not to engage in point scoring or waste time justifying our own existence. We know there is a gap between perception and reality and we can deal with that in a positive manner. There has been an element of that in today's animated discussion but the Official Report will show that most of the time was spent on the method of election. That is important, but the question of reform is more fundamental. As far as the public is concerned, the justification for our existence is whether we have looked at the bigger picture and put the Seanad in a contemporary context rather than that of when it was first established.
We must put it in the context of recapturing the character of the body politic. If there is a feeling abroad that there is something rotten in the state of politics, we must genuinely confront it in a methodical, open and radical manner. I do not accept that everything can be achieved within the current constitutional framework – we may need to be more radical. For example, I raised an issue on the Order of Business about three Irish citizens in a foreign country, in captivity and pilloried by a large section of the media. There are times that may not seem politically correct but should we always be politically correct? Are there not times when we should at least endeavour to reflect concerns, even if those concerns do not seem fashionable?
I referred earlier to the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and an Opposition Senator suggested I said something other than I did. I was saying that, as a country with a sovereign Government, we have a responsibility to our citizens when they are still regarded as innocent until proved guilty and this is a fundamental aspect of sovereignty. We saw what happened in cases I mentioned, such as the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Winchester Three and the man from Clonmel who was found innocent and released three months ago having serving 27 years. His life was ruined. In another case, a young jockey is in prison in England and I have grave doubts about the trial. The view that pertained in the past that a particular justice system could not be wrong to such an extent has proved incorrect.
I raised that matter on the Order of Business by coming up with a formula of words which circumvented the rules of the House. The House must address those issues on an on-going, daily basis and the regimental strait-jacket which has been handed down in an archaic fashion from one generation to the next must be shaken and the cobwebs removed.
In the meantime, because we do not have the methodology or structures to enable us to respond quickly to those types of issues, we create a vacuum for the media, which fills it with sensational headlines, often with no substance. Stories gather legs and, by the time we are able to respond and react, it becomes difficult to correct the situation. That is not good for the body politic, the morale of the country or the country's interests.
I could have raised many other matters on the Order of Business. I raised one regarding a terrible tragedy some years ago when a young woman was murdered and her two children drowned in a particular part of the country. Within two days, before those people were laid to rest, sections of the media speculated on the relationship between the husband and the wife. It was outrageous sensationalism. We should have been able to have informed debate to bring stability and sensitivity back into such a case. We can do that.
When I first came into this House I had my own perception of what the Seanad was like. That perception has changed radically. The standard of debate, the humanity, the compassion and the lack of personality assassination have impressed me. I do not take from the Dáil but the make up of this House has enabled us to focus on the issues rather than the personalities. "Oireachtas Report" and other sections of the media have often depended on this House to bring balance back into debate. We should focus on that and with a sense of urgency assert that position by restructuring where necessary so that we can address the issues relevant to the lives of the people.
On the Order of Business we discussed the need for debate on Northern Ireland. We have had numerous debates on that issue, each of which was worthwhile. I believe we made a contribution to the peace process, the fulfilment of the Good Friday Agreement and to the promotion of harmony among the different traditions of this island. We should go a step further and not just have debate in isolation from the situation in the North. When I watch debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on television it seems like another world and I am sure that when they watch "Oireachtas Report" it must seem another world to them. Never the twain shall meet, but why not? Although it might seem anathema to us at the moment, I see no reason why there should not be regular attendance here by elected representatives from the north of Ireland to participate in discussions where we have a joint interest.
We have cross-Border bodies and they work exceptionally well. For instance when the first cases of mad cow disease happened here I remember John Taylor and the Reverend Ian Paisley saying they should not be subject to the same restrictions as Britain because the cattle were Irish cattle. On numerous occasions they have gone to John Hume and MEPs from here to help and support them in the European Parliament. Why can they not come here? We are all Irish people, Republicans, Nationalists and Unionists. They should come to this House and see the incisive debate and the vision which exists for the island. They would see different views showing democracy working as it should. This is the place for them. They should not have to depend on little snatches of debate on television or in the letters column of a newspaper. Let us be radical and show them we want to be open. They could then say whatever they wish to us and we could respond. It would be done in a gentlemanly or ladylike manner. That is the opportunity we have. It is not about who elects this House but about the potential we have at our disposal.
In the Nice debate 16% of people said they understood what the treaty was about. That same 16% will tell us they know nothing about the institutions of Europe. Why is that the case? Just as in the case of the North, if people see snatches about the institutions on Sky or RTE television from time to time it is like another world to them and it is left to others to look after it. When it comes to making a choice people have difficulty because all they are normally fed is some juicy gossip from Europe. Except for fundamental legislation which is changing the lives of this generation, what opportunities are there?
I welcome the address to be made by President Cox, who is an excellent speaker. We will have a civilised debate here tomorrow but we need more than that. I see nothing wrong with giving MEPs the opportunity to come into the House to discuss with us what is happening in Europe. People may throw up their hands and say that is another institution but why not be radical and bring about change?
We have the same situation in regard to where we stand in the world. At the first sitting of this Seanad I asked for debate on Iraq and I thank the Leader for her response on that occasion. I feel helpless and vulnerable when I hear the drums of war being beaten. I know those drums will find an echo in this country. I am not happy with the way the situation is developing, that veiled threats are being made to the United Nations by the United States, although I am pro America. I cannot be otherwise because we are like sister nations as a result of the number of Irish there. There is much more at stake however. When Madeline Albright was asked on television if she could justify the deaths of children in Iraq she said she could. Nobody can justify the unnecessary death of 500,000 children if all the outlets and opportunities of diplomacy have not been used. The United Nations has been playing on the basis of diplomacy but America has been playing on the basis of armed conflict. We need to discuss that. One might say it is the case of The Skibbereen Eagle lecturing the Tsar but it is not.
An echo of what we say will always be found on the world stage. We should be saying it here and should not try to push it under the Order of Business. We should be able to debate new developments on a regular basis. We should also be able to reflect Government policy where we would have a bilateral approach. We must be able to show that the address the Minister for Foreign Affairs gave to the United Nations General Assembly on 13 September is what we believe. It was one of the best addresses I have read and it proved conclusively that we are a neutral sovereign country and that, for all the good relationship we have with America and the role we want to play among world nations, we remain sovereign. We should be able to back up the Minister's address here the same day it is given in the United Nations. On both sides of the House people would have informative contributions to make. Because that opportunity does not exist we keep an eye on the Cathaoirleach, come up with a formula of words and rush through ten sentences. The media will pick up just two of those sentences afterwards.
The same is happening in regard to the Middle East. What is being done to the Palestinian State is outrageous. We have made our position as a sovereign nation clear and our Minister has done an excellent job. We should be able to back him up, particularly in this House, and take a stand on behalf of the Palestinians. At the moment we are all receiving correspondence from the Red Cross looking for contributions to alleviate suffering in what is a disaster zone. We are not able to talk about it or express ourselves because time will not be given until three weeks or two months down the road.
There is a crisis in Africa, where a nation is threatened by famine and millions of people suffer from AIDS. Owners of patents for medical products will not allow them to be used to alleviate the pain of AIDS sufferers. Although we are a lucky and supposedly civilised nation, we seem prepared to stand by as millions of children and adults die.
Regardless of whether we represent the Labour Party, Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, we should stand together to address these issues. It is possible for us to revitalise and rehabilitate the body politic in this country by doing so. We could receive a level of acceptance from an increasingly cynical public, including many idealistic young people who march against globalisation. This House can give young people the guidance they seek, as no other forum seems capable of leading the way. It is in our hands.
I move amendment No. 1:
After "brought forward" to add "and that the sub-committee first of all makes proposals which ensure that Seanad Éireann in its structures and procedures observes both the letter and the spirit of equal status legislation particularly but not exclusively with regard to discrimination on grounds of age."
This amendment is being moved on behalf of Senators Ryan, O'Meara, McCarthy, McDowell and me. Senator O'Meara will speak on my amendment when she seconds it.
I agree with those who mentioned the valuable role of councillors in Seanad elections, as I feel councillors are closer to the people than other public representatives. The link between the Seanad and local government is valuable and should be strengthened and used more often. The contribution of councillors from all parts of Ireland in Seanad elections gives Senators a national mandate which is important, instead of a geographical constituency base.
As someone who has been elected to this House for the first time, it worked out for the best that I was unsuccessful in my attempts to be elected to the Dáil. I am pleased to have run for the Seanad and to have been elected to make a contribution to this House. It was enriching and worthwhile to meet public representatives throughout the country. All Senators fought to be elected and it is up to us to fight equally hard to be effective in the Chamber.
It is important that this House is seen to be different from the Dáil. We should have a broader scope, for example. This has to be borne in mind when we consider reform, which I accept is needed. Nobody is apolitical or non-partisan. This is different from being a non-party or Independent Member. I value the role of Independent Deputies and Senators in the system. A large percentage of county councillors are not aligned to the main parties and their votes are important during Seanad elections. Reform is needed to ensure that as many people as possible are involved in electing Senators, and involved in the work of the Oireachtas. It is important to ensure that the vocational aspect of the Seanad is strengthened.
Discrimination in university panels should be removed by involving institutes of technology and other educational establishments. Those who have received diplomas and certificates at third level should have the same voting rights as university graduates. Seanad reform should ensure that people cannot have two votes in Seanad elections, as local representatives and as graduates. It is unfair to allow people to vote in the same election in two different capacities.
I agree with those who have argued that the role of Senators is as important as the means of election to this House. Our powers as Senators should be pushed to their limit when we reform the House, even if that requires a constitutional amendment. It is important that we have fair play in a genuinely democratic Seanad.
The amendment I have proposed is intended to address the preferential treatment received in this House by the Independent group on the basis of accumulated seniority. I believe that such preferment discriminates against Senators on age grounds and is entirely contrary to the spirit of Seanad reform, which advocates new blood and wider representation. This ageist mechanism means that new Senators cannot participate as fully as more senior Senators. If such logic were extended to the Dáil, we would not have any new or young Ministers. Discrimination on the ground of age is wrong, regardless of whether it is against younger or older people.
I second amendment No. 1 to this motion. I support Senator Tuffy's articulate comments and there is not much I can add to them. I hope our views will be taken on board and that our reasonable amendment will be accepted. I ask that the matter raised in the amendment be discussed by the sub-committee which is to be established by this House. I do not believe it to be an unreasonable suggestion.
It strikes me as interesting that we are talking about reform of the Seanad at an early stage of the life of the new Seanad. Criticism of this House, such as that directed to its electoral process, is most often heard during Seanad elections, when an increasingly cynical media spotlight focuses on it. I hope the media's ideas will not drive the reform process to be undertaken by the sub-committee. Both new and experienced Members of this House should examine proposals for reform in an honest and open manner. I do not wish to repeat the findings of the all-party committee which examined Seanad reform, as they were discussed by the last Seanad. I urge the sub-committee, however, to examine carefully the findings of the report. A great deal of work went into the report which contains many valuable suggestions, not all of which gained the approval of Senators.
One could not argue against the extension of the franchise, particularly on the university panels, as the current election process does not stand up to scrutiny in an era of widely available third level education. It is not right to exclude those who attend institutes of technology rather than universities and the rules must be changed. As there appears to be a consensus on this matter, it should be placed at the top of the agenda so it may be dealt with speedily.
The extension of the franchise to graduates who have moved abroad should also be examined. While the economy has performed well in recent years, during the 1980s the vast majority of graduates emigrated, a significant number of whom have not been fortunate enough to return to Ireland. A friend of mine has resided in London for the past ten years and when I spoke to him during the summer, he considered it unreasonable that he could not vote in Seanad elections. He should have a vote, but he is no longer on the register. He also felt work needed to be done in regard to the register for the University Panel. For example, until this year, my own vote was sent to an address at which I have not resided for more than 20 years.
The relevance of the vocational panels to modern society – a delicate matter – must also be examined. The panels, as constituted in the 1930s, went out of date quickly and at this remove in the new century must be examined in terms of reform. The sub-committee should examine this issue as a matter of urgency.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Tuffy, in regard to the role of county councillors. The views of councillors are reflected in the House in that the Members elected by them genuinely reflect their wishes. We know from our own experience of travelling around Ireland that councillors will make their own decisions about who they want to represent them in the House.
It is often remarked upon that the Seanad is used by aspiring Deputies on their way to the Dáil and retiring Deputies on their way out of the Dáil. That is a reflection of the electoral system and our political culture. Whether it is right or wrong, it is a product of our electoral system and if anything needs to be changed, it is the electoral system. The people do not wish to change the system of proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies.
I support the comments of previous speakers. I fully accept the provisions for the formation of the Seanad under the Constitution. Reform of the University Panel should also take into account graduates of the University of Limerick who are not eligible to vote. The Taoiseach's nominations should also be examined. I would like our friends in Northern Ireland to participate in the House because that is important. When the sub-committee examines reform of the House, it should take on board all the views expressed in the debate. Just as local government was reformed in the past two years, there is no doubt the Seanad should be reformed over the next five.
Seanad Éireann was established 65 years ago in 1937 and many would say it has stood the test of time. Usually when Seanad elections are held, certain commentators ask whether the House should be abolished. A number of journalists, for example, believe it is undemocratic, but the opposite is the case. The primary criticism regularly levelled at the House is that its Members are not directly elected by the public. I, with many other Members, was elected by county councillors who, after all, are elected by the people. Therefore, the public indirectly has a say through local authority representatives.
One would often think that the Oireachtas is unique in that it comprises two Houses, but at least nine EU member states have two Houses in their legislatures and in five of them one House is not directly elected by the people. Ireland is not unique in that respect. When Éamon de Valera established the Oireachtas in 1937, he had double vision regarding the Seanad as he looked upon it as both a legislative examiner and an advisory body. Many of us will be Members for a short time and we should try to effect change in the House. I hope something tangible and concrete results from the debate on Seanad reform.
Many look upon Senators as representatives of those who elect them. For example, I was elected to the Labour Panel. However, we are also expected to reflect the views of our constituents. In responding satisfactorily to our constituents we can avail of the Order of Business and the Adjournment debate, but I would like Senators to be in a position to table written questions similar to their counterparts in the Dáil on specific issues in order that we can respond effectively to our constituency duties.
I was a Member of the Dáil for 13 years before I was elected to the Seanad and can compare my experience in both Houses. I was in a position to assess debates in the House when I was in the Dáil and there was a great deal of spontaneity involved. There were many good contributions. That happened because there was an absence of scripts. When I was in the Dáil, many speakers made contributions using prepared scripts lasting 20 minutes which they had not written. I regularly expected a Member to finish his or her contribution by saying "ENDS". All that mattered was the quantity, not the quality of the speech. Analysis of Dáil contributions is carried out by a Sunday newspaper every Christmas and if one was in the top ten in terms of words uttered, it looked good, but the quality of the contributions was not reflected. I agree with Deputy Deasy's comments on this issue.
When the people elect an individual to Dáil Éireann, they expect him or her to be able to make a speech on the basis of notes. Many Members seek debates in the House that go on for weeks, but when one analyses the content of the debate, they contain a great deal of huffing and puffing. Contributions in the Seanad are more meaningful and spontaneous. The profile of the House would be enhanced if scripts were abolished. There may be certain circumstances in which scripts would be allowed, but the abolition of the use of scripts would be a positive step.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution made proposals it felt would improve the Seanad. Let us look at those proposals and make the Seanad a meaningful Chamber. Often Senators are disappointed when journalists call for the Seanad to be scrapped. When one considers the contributions made in this House and the interest in the media in what is happening here, it is unfair to call for its abolition without even studying its operation or content.
There is merit in the Seanad as it is currently composed and, having spent 13 years in the other House, I look forward to enjoying my time here and doing my best to enhance the profile of the House and the constituency that I represent. The Seanad has a meaningful place in politics and has stood the test of time. There is nothing, however, to stop us from assessing areas in which improvements can be made.
The motion calls for the establishment a sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to make proposals on Seanad reform and we have already heard many laudable suggestions in this debate. Many commentators talk about reforming the Seanad when there is not much other news. It would be presumptuous of me, as a new Senator, to speak at length about reform when I am still trying to learn the procedures followed in the House but I compliment Senator Hayes on the large number of proposals he has made.
This House must respond in a relevant fashion to outside events. We must hold debates dealing with the issues of the day on a more regular basis. This debate should not degenerate into a slagging match about who was elected by councillors or by graduates; it would be regrettable if reforms dealt only with these areas.
There were suggestions that the House should meet outside Dublin and if that is practical it should be done. Ballaghadereen, the headquarters of the BMW region, has been mentioned as a venue. If that were to happen, we would have to meet in Waterford, the headquarters of the south-east region.
Senator O'Toole suggested that councillors should vote on the Oireachtas panels and those on the nominating bodies should vote for people working in those areas. That is worth consideration. My nominating body is the Irish Conference of Service and Professional Associations, which covers a wide range of business, service and representative associations.
The level of debate in this House is very high. I have enjoyed the contributions of every Member since my election. The House has much to offer and its Members have a relevance in the State. I agree that we should establish a sub-committee and that it should report as soon as possible. The House should be reformed in some areas.
I believe reform is vital if we are to have a meaningful Seanad. The promotion of awareness is important. Many county councillors and candidates for the Seanad were unaware of the functions of this House. If candidates do not know, what does the man in the street think are the duties of the Seanad? We must raise awareness throughout the country and we should meet in other venues. I welcome the fact that Roscommon has been mentioned as a venue.
Graduates of the institutes of technology who have been left out of the franchise should have a meaningful role in the system. This is a good forum for raising issues. Today I raised decentralisation and Senator Ó Murchú raised the issue of the three Irish citizens in Colombia.
One of the greatest experiences of my life was to go on a Seanad campaign. I may have had to travel 10,000 miles but I met some great people from all parties who have a sense of duty and loyalty. To discuss the meaning of politics over apple tart in a kitchen late at night was fascinating. Until the campaign I did not realise that there is a republican wing in Fine Gael.
It was very evident in my travels but it has been suppressed over the years.
I am very conscious of the Irish diaspora. If we cannot allow our immigrants to vote in general elections, there should be a forum in which they could be represented. I intend the Seanad to be relevant to all people and will speak on every occasion where I feel it appropriate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
I wish to share time with Senator White. I compliment the Leader of the House for initiating this debate which raises many important issues. The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, chaired by the Leader's nephew, has produced a report which needs to be worked through, and I will talk about one or two of the matters raised.
I compliment the leader of the Opposition, Senator Hayes, on an excellent speech and, though I do not agree with every single point in it, I agree with the spirit in which it was made. Within the broad framework of the party system, this House needs to be a reflective and independent voice. Irrespective of rule changes or reforms, this House will be primarily what we on all sides make it. We have people of good calibre all around and a great opportunity, and there is absolutely no shortage of great work to be done if we decide that we are going to do it.
I would not go so far as to think it is practical to remove the party whip, which is of course always a seductive suggestion, when made from the Opposition benches. The party system in Ireland goes back to Parnell, and the reason it was instituted was to get things done. To achieve that you need discipline, system and organisation. The other system was tried. Isaac Butt had 40 or 50 independents each speaking their mind and voting in all directions, but it was not a very effective method.
The question of Northern Ireland was raised on the Order of Business. In wishing to be relevant, we should concentrate on being thoughtful and reflective rather than go for the instant soundbites that are going to hit the "Six-one". We have a role we can exercise in depth and I see that as the priority. It is curious that there is no system of questions in this House, which is very unusual in the second houses of other legislatures. I can well imagine, as I am sure the Leader can, that, looked at from the perspective of Ministers, questions in this House are needed like a hole in the head, but it is a gap and one day a week would be quite sufficient and enable us to put down written questions. It is a serious piece missing from our armoury that we cannot do that now.
There has been some discussion about the composition of the House and methods of election. The way I put it after trekking around the country and having been fortunate and honoured to get elected is that we 43 Senators from the panels are elected by the people whom the people elect. I do not accept for one instant that it is not a democratic method. It is not a direct democratic method; it is an indirect democratic method.
There is much to be said for bringing in the councillors who are not included as the basis for discriminating between different sets of them is not obvious to me. I enjoyed going around the country talking to people, I was impressed by them and there is no cause whatsoever for some of the supercilious tones used here when referring to certain classes of elected representatives. We have high calibre local representatives who are very far from the caricature. They are on the ball and extraordinarily well informed.
A particular reform in relation to the universities was mentioned and it is important to remember that of the people who were elected as Senators, we did not fire the first shot on this. The person who temporarily occupied the Cathaoirleach's chair at the beginning of this session let loose on the subject. A reform has been passed by the people and it is inexcusable that it has not been implemented. Without prejudice to anything else we do, I fully agree with suggestions that people from all third level institutions should be among the electorate and I pay full tribute to the contribution that has been made over the years.
The point of my intervening in this debate is that there is an important section in the report referring to Northern representation in the Seanad, which in a way connects with what I have been saying about the universities. Undoubtedly, in 1937 university representation was a method perhaps more needed then than now of giving a minority a voice and my sister's godfather, Senator W.B. Stanford, fulfilled that role very well over a 25 year period.
On the Order of Business the question of having a debate on Northern Ireland was raised and this is the House where we should have an institutionalised Northern voice. There have been some very good Northern voices here over the years. One thinks of people like Senators Seamus Mallon, John Ross, Gordon Wilson, Maurice Hayes, Bríd Rodgers and more besides, going back to Denis Ireland. There are many pressures on every Taoiseach, particularly in these days of coalition. It may or may not be possible for the Taoiseach to nominate individuals, which is a case for having up to four representatives from the North who are full Members of this House. I will not debate how that should be done as it is a matter for discussion in committee.
The report says that the role of the Dáil and the Seanad is primarily to represent the State and its people, but there is a distinction in our Constitution between "the State" and "the Nation" and if anything it was perhaps widened in the referendum on Articles 2 and 3. In addition to representing the State we could have a role in relation to the Nation, since it is not within our power to overturn the will of the directly elected assembly of the people. In the scenario we have now where it looks as if the Northern institutions are going to break down – I hope it is not for too long – this is one formula to put forward. The ideal thing would be to have a North-South forum, but by definition if the Assembly is not sitting the basis for that forum falls away.
This is why we had both the New Ireland Forum and the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which both worked very well. There is a place in this House for such representatives as it is far more suitable than the Dáil. I would like a firm system allowing that to emerge from this process of reform.
It is only my third day in the Seanad, but I want to give my reaction to the proceedings. I concur with the views expressed by Senator Brian Hayes on the overuse of prepared scripts. Many of the presentations during the Nice debate lasted 15 minutes but were repetitive. People who were not here at the beginning of the debate came in and repeated what had already been said. That is disorientating. I want to make a relevant contribution. We should consider the question of lengthy prepared scripts and Members should be told not to repeat what has already been said, particularly on issues such as Nice.
As an observer of the proceedings in the other House and in the Seanad on television, I do not understand why few Deputies are in the other House when the Taoiseach speaks. I am also surprised at the number of eloquent speeches here. Every speaker makes a brilliant contribution. I am a novice at public speaking, therefore I am nervous.
I am an action woman rather than a public speaker. I am amazed that few people listen to one another speaking.
I would have loved a full discussion today on the current crisis in Northern Ireland. Nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland look to us to represent them. I do not agree that we cannot speak on this sensitive issue until the discussions are complete. Many of us could articulate our views about what is happening, such as the antics of the Ulster Unionist Party and the feuding among loyalists.
There should be a forum where politicians and parliamentarians can give their opinions about what is happening to the Nationalist population. The Ulster Unionists demeaned the Nationalist population in Northern Ireland when they walked out last Saturday week. I was at the all-Ireland football final between Armagh and Kerry and I was amazed that David Trimble was not there. It would have been a great display of leadership if he had attended, given that his constituency includes Portadown in County Armagh.
The Seanad has been in existence for the past 65 years and I am sure changes have been made during that time. However, it must be difficult to reform an institution from within. Will outside consultants be employed to consider how it should be reformed? Can people reform themselves? If one wants to become more aggressive in business, one must bring in outside people to look unemotionally at what is being done. Reform is needed. During the election campaign, some people said that the Seanad is not relevant. If people think that, it must be reformed. However, we need an international consultancy group to examine how it and its democratic representation can be improved.
I have been advised by Senator White that I should not be repetitive. I was here for most of the debate as I was in the Chair. It is worthwhile pointing out that we can watch the debate on the monitors in our offices. That gives us the opportunity to shout abuse at whoever is speaking if we do not agree with what they are saying.
It is worth repeating the few points which have been made about scripts. The Standing Orders of both Houses state that Members should not speak from scripts. It was delightful to hear everyone speaking today without scripts. Scripts are a bore because I often think of better things I should have included. When I deviate from them, I usually cannot find my place again. It is better not to have them.
There was great concentration on the university Senators, who everyone agreed are a delightful bunch. We have made a tremendous contribution to the House. The franchise should be extended, as provided for in the 1979 referendum, to all third level graduates. However, one problem is that if constituencies get too big, it will be impossible for Independents to service them and they could be taken over by the political parties. That would be a pity.
Senator O'Toole's comments about allowing members of the nominating bodies to elect some of those on the panels are worth considering. That would not be difficult to do. Senator Ó Murchú, who spoke in Irish, said he was optimistic about the fact that we would introduce some reform. My Irish is not great but that is what I understood him to say. However, I am not quite as optimistic. Nevertheless, it is good to have a good discussion on the subject.
As regards the university seats, a complaint was made about addresses not being up to date. That is the person's own fault. Each person must update his or her address with the university and ensure he or she is on the general electoral roll. One is told to check the notices in the newspapers before every election. The same applies to the university seats.
I brought up on the Order of Business an issue which is dear to my heart. Reports are laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas, but not a blind bit of notice is taken of them. I asked on the Order of Business that the report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals be discussed. These reports have been compiled at considerable expense, time and effort since the early 1970s. Until I managed to have that report discussed here in 1995, it had not been discussed in either House of the Oireachtas.
Some 30,000 people are admitted to mental hospitals every year, of whom between 2,000 and 3,000 are admitted involuntarily. It is not difficult to understand that this is an extremely important part of the health service. I do not know how many people have read the reports, but they are extremely good. Each year since then I have had to use my one Private Members' time to get the report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals discussed in the House. The only exception was when Fine Gael gave me one of its slots. It has not been discussed yet in the other House. That shows how shabbily reports which are laid before both Houses are treated.
I am not asking the Leader to go through the various reports of the Employment Appeals Tribunal and household budget surveys, although those could be interesting. What about the forum on fluoridation? Why can we not choose some of the important reports which have not been discussed in either House and make them the business of the House? If we do not speak for more than half an hour or everyone says they are boring, that is fine. However, perhaps they will be important issues.
I would like the report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals to be discussed in Government time this year before it becomes an historic document. It is a serious document. We introduced a new Mental Health Act last year, but it has not been implemented, apart from the establishment of the commission a year after the Act was passed. This is a serious area. Such reports could be discussed in the House in a non-party and non-confrontational manner. There is not a party political atmosphere in the Seanad and that is useful. Senator Finucane mentioned the different atmosphere during debates in this House. This is one of the elements I would like to see and it does not require reform. It will be necessary that we take notice, read the contents of the Order Paper and decide among ourselves which matters are important. We could then allocate 30 minutes, an hour or whatever is required to discuss them.
Bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an díospóireacht, agus leis an méid a bhí le rá ag an tSeanadóir Ó Murchú, ach go háirithe. Aontaím leis. Speaking about the electoral aspect of the issue is easier than speaking about real reform and what the agenda of the House should be. Undoubtedly the Seanad is a very good forum for the scrutiny of legislation. During my first term, which was in the previous Seanad, the debates were far less partisan than they tend to be in the Dáil. As a consequence, legislation gets better and perhaps more objective scrutiny than is the case in the other House.
For some time I have felt that the composition of the House needed reform. Like any institution in place for many years, the Seanad needs periodic review. As noted by Senator White, self-appraisal may not be the best route to reform. While I accept the process should start in-house, others who hold views which would enhance the deliberations of the sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges should be recruited.
I assume the recent Seanad election campaign is still fresh in people's minds. It would be useful to examine aspects of that campaign. For example, the vocational panels, which no doubt served a very useful purpose in 1937, are nowhere near as relevant today as they were when the House was first established. Travelling 26 counties in the pursuit of votes may not be the most productive focus for candidates. If one abolished the panels, one could usefully examine regionalisation and I suggest the committee should consider that possibility.
I do not favour completely disenfranchising councillors. Senator Brian Hayes's proposal to extend the vote in Seanad elections to town councillors as well as city and county councillors could be considered on a regional basis. I propose that some 24 Senators be elected in this fashion.
I also suggest that the nominating bodies be refined, given that some of them do not exercise their right to make nominations. These bodies, rather than the Oireachtas sub-panels, should be the conduit through which people put themselves before groups of councillors. The role of the Oireachtas sub-panels in that regard should, therefore, be abolished and assumed by nominating bodies. This could correct the current position in that the various external bodies, all of which have a major contribution to make to society through their various roles, would still have a say in the composition of the membership of the House.
I am reluctant to get involved in the debate on the universities as I am aware of how proprietorial Senators feel about their role. It is indefensible, however, that all graduates do not have a vote in the election of the Seanad. To some people, this may seem to reflect an element of elitism. However, over the years the contribution of the university Senators has been such that it warrants the protection and continuation of this feature of the system. I suggest we increase the number of seats on the university panel to eight and that all university graduates, including graduates of the institutes of technology, should be given the vote. I am not certain whether there should be a single panel or one which is subdivided. While I accept the truth of Senator Hayes's comment that there has been a change in the composition of the student population of Trinity College Dublin, nonetheless I am attracted to the partial retention of this feature of the system.
These proposals would give us 32 Members. In addition, at least eight Senators from Northern Ireland should be elected. They should not be selected at the behest of the Taoiseach of the day or anybody else, but instead should be in the House as of right. Despite the political difficulties my proposal may present, I suggest establishing a system in Northern Ireland akin to the one we have here. This would entail local councillors in Northern Ireland electing Senators or the creation of a list system to be voted on at the time of the Assembly elections.
From discussions with many unionist councillors and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I am aware that for obvious political reasons they would be reluctant to expose themselves to joining the Seanad as a single unionist representative or with just one or two other members of their community. I am reasonably confident, however, that if there were sufficient numbers from the unionist tradition, say four or five, we would be successful. All of that is essential to the maturing of politics on the island as a whole. While I would obviously prefer some reciprocity in this regard, I would be inclined to facilitate the election of a certain number of Senators from Northern Ireland – perhaps eight – as of right, irrespective of whether a reciprocal arrangement was introduced in the Assembly. They have a contribution to make.
Incidentally, I also propose that the 24 Members elected by local councillors, the eight from Northern Ireland and the eight from the universities serve for a fixed, five year term. I do not see any reason for the Seanad to fall when the Dáil falls. This proposal would provide a degree of continuity. The balance of Senators would then be elected at the same time as the election to the Dáil. I am putting a figure on each proposal purely to flush it out and give it a level of reality. While the figures are obviously open to change, it is important that the principle be accepted.
I deny and contradict the charge often made that we are not representative of the people as a whole. Our connection with the wider public is that people who elect us have a mandate from the public. Electing 12 Members at the same time as the Dáil election would probably assist in giving the Government an in-built majority which is essential if legislation is not to be thwarted.
I propose reducing the number of Taoiseach's nominees from 11 to eight. Acceptance of my proposal to have some form of direct election from Northern Ireland would make 11 nominees unnecessary. This would still leave the House with 60 Senators which is, as other Members have stated, about right. The Government would also retain its working majority.
Undoubtedly, the Seanad is primarily a legislative assembly. We saw fine examples of this during my last term in the House. I have no doubt, given the level of debate both on the Nice treaty referendum and during today's debate, that we will be proud of this Seanad at the end of its term. I hope it, too, will last for five years.
As well as its role as a legislative assembly, it is important, as many others have pointed out, to make some connection with Europe. The Seanad could play a much stronger role in scrutinising not only regulations and legislation emanating from there but the activities of the EU. I would not exclude from that Council of Ministers meetings, Commissioners' activities or the European Parliament. The Seanad could have a role whereby MEPs, as a right, would have an audience before this assembly on a regular, scheduled basis. That is important in order that parliaments not only in Ireland but in other EU countries keep themselves fully au fait with what is happening at European Commission level.
There is a deficit of information flow. In part, much of the current debate in this country is as a consequence of that. That needs to be addressed across the Union and not only in Ireland. We could be an important component of achieving that.
Making contacts with other countries within the European Union is important. This will be particularly important as the Union enlarges to include 25 to 27 countries. The Leader of the House will be aware from her experience that Ministers cultivate and develop personal friendships which, in turn, translate into benefits nationally, but the Parliament could play a role in that regard. Perhaps the Seanad could on, say, a monthly basis invite a member of another European Union parliament to address it on EU issues of concern to that parliament or to us or on internal matters. If such debates were properly reported in the media, they would bridge the information deficit in this area that currently exists. That would make the structure of the European Union, which often seems remote, more relevant to people. Many people talk about Europe as if it is over there rather than appreciating that we are part of it. That type of mental approach needs to be tackled.
I mentioned that we should have Senators from Northern Ireland. There should also be some formal arrangement, if possible, between the Seanad and the Northern Ireland Assembly which would enable us to have exchanges and interaction with the members of that Assembly and freely debate issues of common importance to both parts of this island.
Debates on relevant issues of public importance generally arise on the Order of Business as a result of Senators having studied the headlines in the newspaper. That is not the best way to decide to the agenda for the day, but it is a great way of getting publicity, and, to an extent, we are in the business of getting that. Perhaps the statements and motions that are before the House periodically give us an opportunity to debate issues of public importance, but the Leader and the proposed sub-committee could productively examine a structured way of dealing with issues of national importance. I am not saying the headlines in the morning papers reflect the issues of national importance; often they may not bear any relevance to what is in the national interest but are designed to sell newspapers. Rather than react, we should act and lead in certain areas. That is a role we could usefully play.
A hobby horse of mine is a belief that the Oireachtas should participate in inquiries to an greater extent than it does. The decision on Abbeylara is probably a setback in that regard, but we should not be deterred. The matters before the Flood tribunal needed to go through the full legal process and to be the subject of a public inquiry by way of a properly conducted tribunal. There are many other areas that effectively could be inquired into by these Houses. We could examine how that is done to good effect in other countries.
There is Question Time in the Dáil, but the business of this House is structured differently. When one raises a matter of national or local importance on the Adjournment, regardless of specific points one might make in putting forward the matter, the relevant Minister gives a set reply. That almost makes the exercise useless from the point of view of extracting any information other than what it is decided should be given when the motion is tabled. That practice should be examined with a view to making the debate more meaningful. One may make pertinent points on an issue when putting forward a case, but they may not be responded to. The response given often does not answer the matter raised. The Leader and the proposed sub-committee might address that matter.
I agree with Senator White's point that self-appraisal is important to a point, but we all become a little subjective and we need to broaden the structure. We should examine best practice in other countries. If one is making a decision in business, one examines best practice elsewhere, one does not try to reinvent the wheel. We should examine best practice elsewhere and source one or two people from overseas parliaments who have done this type of reform to good effect within their jurisdiction and from whom we could usefully learn.
Senator Norris and some other speakers said that we have talked about reform but have never embarked on meaningful reform. Whether one is a member of the local GAA club, soccer club or the Seanad, one should try to make a contribution to enhance the organisation of which one is a member. It falls to us as a body to do that during this term. I would like to think that we will make serious, meaningful and beneficial reforms in respect of the business activities of this House.
We are off to a good start. While I have not been present in the Chamber for all the debate, I have listened to most of it. It is obvious there is a collective determination that at long last we will do our business collectively and in a consensual way, as Senator Hayes said, and that we will see Seanad reform take place during the lifetime of this Seanad, hopefully at an early stage. The fact that many people have been avidly awaiting an opportunity to contribute is an indication of the determination of all and sundry that now is the hour and this is the moment for such reform.
This Chamber has a long and distinguished history. Its role is legislative and deliberative. We should not imitate the other Chamber because we have been distinctive in many ways. We have been distinctive in terms of our composition, our modus operandi and our results. The Seanad has acquitted itself with considerable distinction over the years.
I note the point made about the tyranny of the script, but any Member of this House or the other House will testify that unless one produces a script one will often not get a mention or a syllable in any of the national newspapers. That leads to another question. Why are the media not here today? I pay tribute to The Irish Times, the only newspaper which covers, albeit in a very truncated fashion, the deliberations of this House. We should seek more publicity and try to meet with editors to secure more meaningful, comprehensive and fair coverage of the deliberations of this House.
The issue of panels has been raised. The qualification requirements for the panels is that one must have knowledge of and experience of agriculture; knowledge of and experience of administration; knowledge of and experience of industry and commerce; knowledge of and experience of culture and education; knowledge of and practical experience of labour. Many would testify, following scrutiny of the qualifications, that there are people on all panels who do not necessarily meet the spirit of the initial legislation as drafted. Many people do not have knowledge of or practical experience of the particular vocational sector they represent. A good example is the Labour Panel where, up to now, the rigors for qualification were quite stringent. In the wake of the general election, there was a court challenge by Kathryn Sinnott regarding her qualifications for the Labour Panel. I do not wish in any way to disparage or denigrate her qualifications but looking at the court judgment in the context of the rigorous scrutiny of qualifications for the Labour Panel up to then, it is obvious the Labour Panel has been thrown wide open. We need to look, in committee, at the vocational sectors we are supposed to represent.
I have advocated the opening up of the university seats for a considerable time. When we spoke about reform during our first day back in session I was amused by a university Senator, who shall remain nameless – he is a former member of our party – who was extremely open-minded and receptive to the idea of opening up the university panels. I distinctly remember, as education spokesperson, drafting a short Private Members' Bill in that regard. The Senator in question took considerable umbrage at the fact that we seemed to be taking away, opening up or making more democratic the university panels.
It is patently wrong that the institutes of technology which are now producing third level graduates should be disenfranchised. Let us take Dublin City University and Limerick City University as an example. They are two top universities, formerly NIHEs, which hit the ground running and set such a standard that traditional universities were left floundering in their wake and had to change the manner in which they conducted their affairs. Limerick City University, DCU and the Sligo Institute of Technology should be included.
I concur with the role of councillors and the acknowledgement by everybody here of that role. We do not do so to curry favour with them. They play a very valuable and completely under-estimated and under-rated role. Their superb work is largely unrecognised and was, until recently, financially unrewarded. I pay tribute to the previous Minister for the Environment and Local Government for acknowledging the role of councillors. The issue of providing pensions for councillors has been raised. Why not? These people are filling a very valuable democratic role at local level. All politics is local and should be acknowledged in tangible terms.
One of the hang-ups I have is the failure by some committees to acknowledge this Chamber. The Committee of Public Accounts does tremendously valuable work in holding to account the various institutions of the State regarding efficiency of public spending. Members of this House should be appointed to that committee and the foreign affairs committee. Senators serve on the Council of Europe, which consists of over 40 states, many of which are potential EU accession countries. Others will never accede to the EU. The Council is at least a forum where people are pooling their ideas on an international basis. Often it debates unrecognised but important topics. Only two weeks ago, the Council of Europe held a very invigorating debate on Iraq. Why should not Members of this House, serving on the Council of Europe, be automatically ex officio members of the foreign affairs and European affairs committees?
Senator Browne touched on the issue of questions. Senator O'Rourke can testify to the fact that Question Time can be very taxing. I am not suggesting that we haul Ministers in here to answer questions. The sub-committee on Seanad reform should look at the possibility of introducing a system whereby Senators could raise matters by way of written questions. I availed of the procedure for written questions on a regular basis. It can be a very valuable device for prising out information and using it.
It is right that the discussion on how we go about our business should commence in this House. It will finish in this House also because whatever report eventually emanates will come back here for final ratification. I agree with Senator Browne that we will not be able to do this on our own. We should bring in outside expertise. I would go further and suggest we hold public hearings. We should advertise our existence and our purpose and invite in various interest groups who might feel they are not represented by a particular panel.
Yes. I strongly advocate that we hold public hearings and bring in outside expertise to assist the committee in its deliberations.
The composition of the Seanad is an issue which will be central to who should be involved. I have held the view for a long time, by virtue of the fact that we have our much cherished diaspora overseas, that there should be some overseas representation. Successive Taoisigh have, generally speaking, used their 11 nominations discerningly in terms of bringing together both sides of the community in Northern Ireland – people with particular cultural and artistic backgrounds – in order to infuse different viewpoints and degrees of expertise to the debates here. I am at a loss to know why all Taoisigh have failed to recognise the existence of Irish communities overseas. It is 20 minutes by plane, if one takes what Senator O'Rourke's good friend Michael O'Leary—
Let us take for example the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain which does excellent work. A place in this House could easily be found for the President of Irish Societies. He could arrive here on Thursday morning and be back in Britain that evening.