Thursday, 27 June 2013
An Bille um an Dara Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Deireadh a Chur le Seanad Éireann) 2013: An Dara Céim (Atógáil) - Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this very important debate. As we face into the referendum on the Seanad, it is important to be mindful that it is part of our parliamentary system that has faced an uncertain future on more than one occasion. The first national assembly established in Ireland following the Act of Union was a single-chambered body, Dáil Éireann, which convened in January 1919. It was only in 1922 that our parliamentary system became bicameral or dual-chambered with the establishment of Seanad Éireann. At the time, a jump from being unicameral to bicameral was an unusual move and we were alone in that sense.
However, in many respects, Ireland has always been somewhat different. While many countries enter into war, Ireland embraced neutrality. I do not follow the argument that because a system suits one country, it works for all countries. The world is more complicated instead of there being any single correct answer. Unicameral and bicameral are not one-size-fits-all solutions. Different countries require different systems. In 2013, I am proud of our system while recognising shortfalls and the need for reform. I am proud of the work our system does on a daily basis.
From the outset Dáil Éireann was resistant to efforts by an assertive Seanad to encroach upon what Deputies saw as their territory. Tensions between the two houses intensified after de Valera and Fianna Fail came to power in 1932. The manner in which the Free State Seanad was abolished and the decision to re-establish it, albeit in a different form, in the 1937 Constitution is also interesting in the context of the current debate. When the Free State Senate was abolished in 1936, de Valera clearly indicated that the idea of a second chamber was anathema to him unless it could be shown that it would be of value. He then established a commission to investigate how it believed a second chamber should function.
The commission recommended that the second chamber should have the power to regulate its own business and elect its chairman; that its members should enjoy the same immunities and privileges as Members of Dáil Éireann; that no Bill should be enacted by Dáil Éireann until it had first been sent to the second house for consideration; that the second house should not have a power of veto; and that the refusal of the second house to pass a Bill would only have the effect of delaying the passage of that Bill by three months. Many of these recommendations would have the effect of declawing the Seanad, effectively sewing the seeds of many of the greatest criticisms that it faces today.
As a Senator here for the first time, two things have become abundantly clear. First, Senators are remarkably committed, dedicated and able and bring a great amount of expertise to the House. Second, the Seanad and its ways are in dire need of reform. Senator Maurice Cummins has been complimented by the Opposition as being an excellent Leader and Senator MacSharry referred to him as the best Leader in all of the time that he has been a member and many other Senators have made similar comments. Senator Mary White would agree.
Yesterday, when the Taoiseach was present, the Leader outlined the many innovative reforms here given the constraints of being constitutionally bound to conduct business in a particular way. There was much comment that the Government would not enjoy a majority because of the Independents and Taoiseach's nominees. However, I shall reiterate an important comment that was made yesterday. The current crop of Independent Senators have been very independent. For the most part, they have voted against the Government on numerous occasions. The Taoiseach made that point but used it in favour of abolition. He has been innovative about it too. The Independent Senators must be recognised for their independence.
The Seanad has played host to many remarkable parliamentarians down through the years and I have alluded to that fact before in the House. The list included Dr. Garret FitzGerald, Mary Robinson, Douglas Hyde and William Butler Yeats. It has given rise to a host of interesting initiatives and amendments in my two years here. The Seanad has shown, even when it has been declawed and has very limited abilities to legislate, that it has had an impact on a daily basis on Irish society. It still can have an impact.
Reform is a big spectrum with many variants. Meaningful reform may not be possible because we may not all be on the same page or find total agreement before the referendum takes place. The Bill shows us the proposed referendum and how the Oireachtas will work in a future without the Seanad. Committees will be appointed using the d'Hondt method and will work to provide the balance that the Seanad is supposed to provide.
There are some other aspects to be considered. For example, I suggest amending Article 27 of the Constitution. As Members will know, the Article gives the Oireachtas the power to seek the views of the people on legislation and states, in Article 27.1, "a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained." There were many occasions where the provision could have been used to great effect, for example, the bank guarantee which has been very topical in the past couple of days. The Article could have been used on the bank guarantee legislation to slow things down and would have enabled us to adopt a more considered approach. An amended Article 27 could require that it takes one third of the Dáil and over 50% of the relevant committee to refer a referendum request to the President.
Fire alarms are not abolished because they go unused. Therefore, I cannot see the logic behind completely scrapping Article 27. Circumstances change, the unforeseen can happen and having an emergency mechanism in the Constitution is a sensible provision.
I am putting it mildly when I say that the Bill and its proposed amendments to the Constitution are very significant. They are among the most important and far-reaching that we will see in our lifetime as legislators. Self-preservation can never be a reason to fear the future and I welcome the fact that the referendum will be put to the people. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock". In this instance, the Taoiseach has stood firm on his belief that the people should decide the fate of the Chamber. He has not wavered since he made the proposal in 2009 but many others have flip-flopped on the issue, including many of his parliamentary colleagues. I welcome the referendum and the fact that the people will decide the future of this House.
In a dramatic move at a Fine Gael dinner in October 2009, Enda Kenny, then in opposition, committed his party to abolishing Seanad Éireann if he became Taoiseach. He said: "I have come to the conclusion that a second house of the Oireachtas can no longer be justified". As far as I am aware the majority of the Fine Gael Senators were as surprised as I and my Fianna Fáil Seanad colleagues when the Taoiseach made that announcement.
The argument put forward by the Taoiseach to abolish our bicameral state is unjustified and was at the time desperate attempt to court public popularity. He emphasised that the abolition of the Seanad would save the public purse €25 million and would give a good hiding to what is perceived as the political elite in Seanad Éireann. The proposal was received with great excitement in the newspapers at the time. If the guillotine had been in use the public would have cut our heads off immediately.
I must remind everyone that I am honoured to have been elected to the Seanad three times and I have been here for 12 years. I wish to put on record, and I sure that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, will agree with me that the Seanad did not cause our current economic crisis. However, there is no point in denying that the inability of the Dáil and the Seanad to hold the Government and the institutions of State accountable has been a weakness. Abolition of the Seanad will weaken rather than enhance accountability by removing the ability of Senators to contribute via Oireachtas committees and their contributions in the Chamber.
During the 12 years that I have been a Member of this House I have held public meetings at my own expense and produced two documents into child care. When Fianna Fáil was in government I helped secure the scheme to provide three years of free child care. I also produced a policy paper on a new approach to aging and ageism and one on suicide in the new Ireland. I have held public meetings at my own expense. For example, I hire halls and electronic printers and I spend thousands of pounds on printing documents.
I wish to put an important issue on the record. The Seanad has existed for 74 years having been established, as we all know, under the 1937 Constitution. Since then an enormous amount of brain power, time and energy has gone into producing 12 reports on the future of the Seanad. The last report was excellent and it was driven and delivered by Mary O'Rourke when she was a Senator and Leader of the Seanad.
I feel cross about the referendum of 1979 which dealt with the issue of university representation in Seanad Éireann. Along with the 12 reports that I referred to, in July 1979 the people voted in a referendum on the Seanad.
A referendum of the people took place to change how Senators representing the university seats are elected and it is a pity some of the aforementioned Senators are not present today to hear my comments. The purpose of the referendum was to broaden the scope of the franchise beyond Trinity College and NUI, comprising University College Dublin, University College Maynooth, University College Cork and University College Galway, to other institutes of higher education in the State. The seventh amendment to the Constitution was voted on positively by the people and of those who voted, 93% voted for change such that everyone who attended a third level college should be entitled to vote in the elections for the Seanad university seats. Tens of thousands of young Irish people who have graduated since 1979 have been deprived of the ability to vote to elect Members to the Seanad.
The current system to elect six university Senators is open to criticism on the basis that it confers a basic democratic right, namely, the right to vote, on a select group of people based solely on educational achievement. Over the past 30 years, successive Governments of all political hues, including Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have failed to implement the seventh amendment to the Constitution to reform university representation and have failed to implement the recommendations in the 12 reports. The current arrangements exclude the vast majority of third level students and over the years, the six elected Senators of NUI and Trinity College, who have represented educational institutions, have shown hypocrisy in their failure to ensure that all other third-level bodies were included. Those who were in this House over that time have failed as they could have introduced it themselves. The people passed the amendment, all Members were obliged to do was to introduce the legislation but they failed to do so. The exclusion of graduates of the University of Limerick and the institutes of technology from voting in the Seanad elections constitutes elitism in its worst form and an apology should be given on behalf of Seanad Éireann to all young graduates who have missed the opportunity to take part in Irish politics at this level.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber on what probably is the most important and significant debate in the life of this House. The Minister of State has taken a particular interest in this House and Members have noted his willingness to attend the House and to be present for debates. In the Seanad, Members generally note who are and who are not their friends.
At the outset, as Whip of the Labour Seanad group I will of course be supporting this Bill and welcome the debate I believe will ensue in the public domain on both the future of the Seanad and the wider political system. I believe that will be inevitable following the passing of this Bill and the media attention that hopefully will follow but which has not tended to follow Seanad activities in the past, which is a pity. The position of the Labour Party in its 2011 manifesto was for the matter of Seanad abolition to be brought to the Constitutional Convention as part of a broader process of reform of governance and Oireachtas structures. The holding of a Constitutional Convention was one of the commitments in the programme for Government, as was the holding of a referendum on Seanad abolition.
However, the programme for Government did not, at least on my first reading of it, exclude the possibility that the convention would discuss the matter of Seanad abolition. Given a major portion of the remit of the convention is to discuss political reform and in particular systems of voting and representation, I believe the convention was weakened by not being able to discuss how we elect those who govern us with the broadest possible remit. This view is supported by the fact that the vote which took place at the convention as to whether the matter of the Seanad should be included in the convention's remit in advance of the referendum was narrowly defeated. It was defeated after - I emphasise "after" - the convention's chair made it clear that the role of the convention was to discuss those matters which the Government requested it to do first, which did not include Seanad abolition or reform, thereby presenting a clear message to the convention's members.
It is important to bear in mind the convention is an important departure in the Irish political scene and was established to consider a number of constitutional matters comprehensively, to report to the Government on those matters and for them to be considered by both Houses of the Oireachtas. These matters include the review of the electoral system; reduction of the presidential term to five years; provision for same-sex marriage; deletion of outdated clauses on women in the home; the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution; and the possible reduction of the voting age. These are important matters in the life and future of the Constitution and as I already have stated, I believe the convention's remit to have been weakened by the failure to include a discussion on the Seanad.
I have been very impressed by the standard of debate at the Constitutional Convention at which every strand of society is represented, including a significant number of people who do not agree with my viewpoints. The debate on political reform which did take place has, from my perspective as a member of the convention, been critical of the current political system. There was a generally expressed view, for example, that the current political system is dominated to too great an extent by the largest political parties. For example, the convention voted, by a majority of 83%, for larger constituencies to ensure a more representative Dáil.
Clientelism was also seen as a distinct feature of Irish politics. Members voted by a majority of 55% that Dáil Éireann should be permitted to appoint people who were not Members of the Oireachtas as Ministers in order to broaden the field of expertise because it was perceived that the expertise among Members of the Oireachtas was insufficient. Members of the convention also expressed the majority view that Ministers, on their appointment, should resign their Dáil seats on the grounds - as expressed in the debate - that it would allow them to get on with the job and not spend their time fixing potholes and, as it were, looking after their constituency. As Members can see, the convention clearly expressed its dissatisfaction with the current process.
Reform of the political system should be taken as a whole, of which the Seanad is a part. While the Government has moved to strengthen other aspects of government, such as local government, which has been cited by An Taoiseach as a reason we can now move forward with the abolition of the Seanad, I do not believe we are there yet, by any manner of means. Meaningful local government will in time make clientelism redundant, at least in the main part, and will lead to more professional central government and more transparent local government. The process of centralising decision making within Departments and away from local authorities took many decades. I have no doubt that meaningful change will also take some time. However, let us not forget that if one looks closer at the reasons successive Governments saw fit to reduce the powers of local government, they included a concern with decisions being made for the wrong reasons and a preoccupation with parish pump politics. Reform, therefore, unless it is meaningful reform with appropriate local accountability and with local resources spent locally, will not greatly improve the democratic process. The jury is therefore out.
As has been said on a number of occasions by previous speakers, countries of a similar size to Ireland that have only one chamber have significantly stronger local and regional governments. In Wales, for example, with a population similar to Ireland, there are four regional local authority areas. They not only collect local charges but also manage local education and policing. Regional and local authorities are significantly stronger than in Ireland. That is also true in northern European countries that were cited by An Taoiseach as examples of unicameral systems.
The Taoiseach has also indicated that to fill the lacuna in legislative scrutiny which he accepts would follow abolition of the Seanad, the legislative process, in particular the committee system, will need to be reformed and reorganised to ensure adequate legislative scrutiny and checks on Government are in place. It has been recognised by a number of persons and it has been cited on a number of occasions that the Irish Parliament is held to be one of the most Executive-dominated parliaments among parliamentary democracies in Europe and among OECD countries. I accept that the Taoiseach did accept reform would be simultaneous with the abolition of the Seanad. However, if there was to have been a meaningful debate on the issue, it should have been done and discussed in the context of the Constitutional Convention in the first instance as part of wider governmental reform. On the basis of the debate I witnessed in the Constitutional Convention, I agree with Senator van Turnhout's initial observation that having also sat on committees, it is difficult to envisage how the Dáil as currently constituted is going to carry out the functions which the Taoiseach has set out for it. It is notoriously true that Deputies have a sufficient amount of onus on them to spend as much time as possible in their constituencies. An Taoiseach will find some resistance in expanding the workload of Deputies within the current clientelist electoral system.
It is interesting to note that this Seanad is probably the strongest one in the history of the modern State. I will not go back as far as the 1920s. The choice of Taoiseach's nominees has moved away from the traditional party hacks being appointed and shows that it can be an important House. I will not name individuals. Without any disrespect to An Taoiseach's nominees, who have been significantly praised in recent days, for the sake of argument, however, I wish to mention the role of some other Members of the Seanad, for example, Senator Norris, in the work he has done, and my colleague, Senator Ivana Bacik, who championed a number of pieces of legislation, including the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act, which was passed into law and will significantly enhance the role of women in politics. She also introduced the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act. Without looking like a blushing bride, the first Labour Private Members' Bill on mortgage arrears was authored by me. It proposed a number of solutions that were subsequently adopted by the Government and made a positive contribution.
I am aware that I am up against the clock. Having had the experience of sitting in this Chamber, it does a very valuable job that cannot be lightly cast aside. With the confidence in the system as it currently stands, with a lack of a significant local government element and a Dáil that is strongly influenced by local matters and clientelism, there stands a significant danger with the abolition of the Seanad. I would like the Taoiseach to commit that if the referendum does not pass, he will refer the matter to the Constitutional Convention.
The decision as to whether the Seanad is to be abolished or retained is not ours to make within this House. We may argue within this Chamber for the Seanad's retention and against its abolition, but no matter which way we argue the decision about the fate of the Seanad is not ours to make. The people will decide that fate in early October. It is only our duty as Senators to allow the people to do just that, without any impasse whatsoever. No one in the Seanad has the right to vote against the validity of holding the referendum in October. None of us has been elected by the general electorate. In fact, I have some cheek standing up here today since I was appointed by the Taoiseach. I will let the people decide what they want to do about that.
One might ask whether we are not therefore to stand up for the Seanad. However, that is not the question. The question is whether the Seanad is able to stand up for itself and if it warrants its own reward. Is the Seanad an example of its own stance or is it an example of its own standard? Is it an example of its own reward and is it an example for its own retention? In other words, are we good enough? If the answer to all of those questions were a resounding “Yes”, perhaps we would not be having this conversation and we would not be having the referendum.
What I am arguing and what I am grappling with is not personal and it never could or should be. What I am trying to do is to separate the dancer from the dance within the context of the pending abolition Bill. I wish to argue for an institution as an institution not the individuals as individuals within it because I have profound respect for every Senator, in particular for my fellow Independent Senators with whom I walked through the gate two years ago. My argument is not directed at any particular Member.
In the 35 years I worked in third level education, I knew nothing of what went on in the Seanad. I did not have a vote. I did not know how people got into the Seanad or what they did when they got in here, and therefore I had very little interest in what happened on the inside. Would the Seanad not have been better served in the past two years, given that we all knew the referendum was coming and it was in the programme for Government of certain political parties, informing the people about itself before making good and great speeches about reform?
What of reform? The Government has given no commitment to reform of the Seanad. The people are being asked to retain or abolish the Seanad. They are not being asked about reform. If they were, do I countenance that it would actually be brought about? We have heard and been introduced to new Bills about reform of the Seanad. Reform is not what the people are being asked to vote on. More arguments have arisen about retaining the Seanad and reform will follow. Who says so? The Government certainly does not and there has been no reform for 60 or 70 years.
We have heard other fantasy arguments about votes for the diaspora and everyone in Northern Ireland who carries the relevant passport. These arguments are weak. It is as though someone off the island will make the Seanad alright and connect it, find its centrality and bed down its relevance. This will not happen.
Anyway, this is not the kernel of my point, which brings me right back to my initial question about whether the Seanad warrants its own reward, is an example of its own stance, standard, centrality, function, connection and retention. Have we really been able to do any of that with any great local, regional or national conviction? We must answer that question quickly.
Power grab is the new up-the-ladder phrase. It has been used by many Seanad reformists, and they have a right to use it. It is a Lower House power grab that the Seanad is to be abolished. The question is, what power is the Lower House grabbing? The Seanad does not have power to grab except that of a 90 day delay. The Seanad has power of communication, new Bills, intellect, alteration, addition or subtraction of existing Bills. Certainly the Seanad may look afresh at legislative procedures and unearth difficulties not noticed by the Lower House, and a second opinion is always a good thing; reconsideration is always a good thing. It is a good thing, however, if and only if the second House is not controlled by a Government majority. In the past and in my two years, the Seanad has always been controlled by a Government majority, strangled by the political parties. In my two years, the Seanad has changed some Bills but has it changed ultimate Bills? The new Seanad of 42 never previously elected Senators never sent back one Bill. Some of the Independents tried, some of the Opposition tried and some Labour Party Senator tried. Social welfare legislation, the sale of the lottery, banking, disability cuts and housing legislation - not a single Bill was sent back. We all know why.
After two years I ask myself if I have a single example to show the Irish people outside of Senator Norris of how we make a defined and defining difference. We better as new Senators answer that question very quickly. Where are the great checks and balances on the great Lower House power grabbing political Executive?
It is argued that if we all had a vote to come into the Seanad, all would be well. Not so. We all have a vote in the Lower House and all is not well. It is argued that unicameralism and bicameralism are not evenly spread around the world. There is no clear trend; some countries abolish and some retain. New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland have abolished. Poland, Romania, Morocco and the Czech Republic have adopted a second house. Norway has one election and members split into two chambers for the duration of the legislature. Bills shuttle back and forth so perhaps we might try that.
If the Government cannot be brought down by a second chamber, are the outcomes of our votes really critical? Are they not impotent? If the votes can be overridden by the Lower House, is legislation in this House reduced? Most Members of this House are driven by and dictated to by the party Whip. As a result, is there is less of a tendency to scrutinise legislation? Is there less of a tendency to become more expert in specialised topics?
What distinguishes the Seanad in the eyes of the Irish people? It is our composition, not our work, and I am part of that. Our composition is our most visible feature and is always the first target. All of the arguments in favour of retention have concentrated on that, not on our functions. In our case it is difficult separate our composition from our function.
Do I think it is too late? That is for the Irish people to decide. Is there a general clamour for reform? If there is, where is it? I only hear it from certain quarters. Where was the reform two years ago, five years ago, seven years ago, ten years ago, 14, 17, 20 or 22 years ago? There were reports but reports have nothing to do with reform. Reform is about action and it never lives on shelves. Are we beyond reform? We shall let the Irish people decide.
The Seanad is an ill-understood institution. Neither its best nor its worst features are understood by or communicated to the Irish public. The public is aware of vested interests, of Government parties. They understand the constitutional rigidity and watch our low prestige. They know why the media does not concentrate on us and when it does, it is with negative feelings. In other countries there is desire for reform but it rarely happens. We have a low profile and we are not understood. We demand less media attention and get less attention. We are not directly elected and have little power to challenge Government. The party leaders live in the Lower House, our reports gather dust, there are continual calls for reform, it is full of vested interests, constitutional rigidity, low prestige, negative feelings and unnecessary duplication.
Do the Irish people really engage with the Seanad? I must let the Irish people decide if they do or not. Where is our real urgency as Senators? Where is our real political cut and thrust? Where is our real legitimacy? Do we have any? If Senators think we have legitimacy, they must explain it. They must lay it out for the Irish people. I do not want answers about checks and balances because they are not true. The people will decide in October.
Most people in the House when they ran for election to the Seanad knew about this referendum and that the Taoiseach was committed to it. I do not see any point in debating about reform because it is long over. There were ten reports and nothing was done. The Taoiseach is putting a straightforward question to the people: do they want to abolish the Seanad, "Yes" or "No"? The people will decide.
We all agree this House cannot continue in its current form. I support and welcome local government reform and would like to see the role of a councillor being enhanced. I would also like to see greater Dáil reform. When a person becomes a national politician, he or she should represent the country and act as a national politician. If local government was better, we could leave national politicians to run the country and councillors to look after local issues.
Like the Leas-Chathaoirleach, I have a difficulty with the Order of Business. I find it very frustrating and I rarely take part in it. We do some good work in the House and a lot of good scrutiny of legislation has taken place. We have had some interesting people in here to address us. We had, however, a farcical outburst by a Senator here two weeks ago that did nothing to bolster the argument for the reform or retention of the Seanad. It had the opposite effect, and many people have said as much to me since then.
I respect my colleagues in whatever way they came into the House, be there here through the university system, as Taoiseach's nominees or candidates from nominating bodies on the panels. There is one Senator, however, who has a difficulty with me in the House. I got my nomination from the Vintners' Federation of Ireland. My family has been involved in the pub business for almost 50 years and I am continuing in that business. We are not drug dealers as was said on national radio two weeks ago.
I wanted it put on the record because he has a difficulty with me being in here. I hope we get back to the day where people can drink and will go back to the pubs to drink in a controlled environment. I have worked closely with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, as the Senator knows well, on the problem we have with alcohol abuse.
I am delighted to be a member of Taoiseach Enda Kenny's parliamentary party. I have supported the Taoiseach since the day I joined the party and I intend to continue to support him.
I shivered when I saw this lamentable Bill in print. There should have been two Bills and it was dishonest for there not to be. This Bill does one thing very specifically and clearly. It is not a Bill to facilitate the holding of a referendum; no decent person could vote against a Bill that facilitated the holding of a referendum. This Bill purports to extinguish the Seanad.
For that reason, no decent, self-respecting Senator could ever vote for it.
According to the explanatory memorandum, "the Bill provides that Seanad Éireann is to be abolished and, in consequence of its abolition, amends provisions of the Constitution that confer functions on Seanad Éireann or that are premised on the existence of that House." The word "referendum" is not even mentioned. This is the extinction of the Seanad; it is force majeureand a power grab. I am honoured that I was the first person to demonstrate that, through all the subterfuge, the Government is concealing a power grab that will also enable it to impeach the President and Supreme Court. It will get rid of this House at its peril and no emollient speeches from the other side will convince me otherwise.
The Bill is badly drafted, highly technical and deliberately confusing. It is a piece of red meat held out by the Taoiseach to distract the attention of the guard dogs in order that the Irish people can be fooled. We are witnessing the Lisbon treaty all over again. It is the same bloody tactic. People did not even read the Lisbon treaty because it was deliberately worded to confuse people. I have read legislation for the past 26 years. When I first read this Bill I thought it was inaccurate because of the way in which the Irish and English provisions were drafted. I had an expert examine the text and the person in question indicated that was not the case but the text was drafted in such a technical manner that God almighty could not make head nor tail of it. The drafting is completely and utterly deliberate.
I stated no self-respecting Senator could vote for the Bill. How could one do so? I also stated this Bill is not about having a referendum but about extinguishing the Seanad. This is not a case of turkeys voting for Christmas but being invited to slit their own throats and eviscerate and stuff themselves at the instigation of the Taoiseach. Those on the benches opposite who pose as democrats and orators should note that there is not even a suggestion of a vegetarian alternative because the Taoiseach from the west has blood on his fangs and believes the Irish people are as stupid as those who elected his Government on false promises.
We hear blather about reform of the Dáil but I do not believe a word of it. The Taoiseach should show us the colour of his money; out with it and let us see some Dáil reform. There is not a damn bit of it and Irish people would be bloody stupid to allow him to abolish the Seanad. He is pretending that, down the road somewhere, he will make a serious attempt at Dáil reform. Why would he do so when he has mutilated the Oireachtas, carved it up by one third, halved parliamentary representation and grabbed all the powers of committees? Dáil reform is not the direction in which he is moving.
The Taoiseach cites various countries such as "little" Denmark and Finland. That is great but those countries abolished their second chambers in tandem with measures to significantly strengthen local democracy and changed the regulations in parliament to provide for free votes and votes of conscience. I will believe Enda bloody Kenny when he allows a free vote on the abortion Bill. Let us see some consistency and honesty. I do not know what the Taoiseach reads but he appears to have been reading the great essay on simulation and dissimulation by Sir Francis Bacon because there is not one tissue of truth in his rotten little speech.
This is an appalling situation. If one goes down the corridor, one will see on the wall a portrait of a smug looking little politician who would get lost among the crowdeen of cábógs in here who are trying to abolish the Seanad. His name was John Foster and in 1800, no doubt in tones of lovely Augustine Latin, he pronounced the death of the Irish Parliament. He then shoved a silver mace up under his gown and legged it down the street. Foster was a liar and thief and, as far as I am concerned, whoever proposes and votes for this Bill is a liar, thief and traitor to the Irish people. If the Seanad is abolished, the portrait of Foster should be placed in the Chair as a reminder of the shame brought on this House.
We have heard that this House is useless. How useless were Mary Robinson and Owen Sheehy-Skeffington? The Government had the unmitigated cheek to enrol Mary Robinson who would be furious at the denigration of the Seanad. I know Mary Robinson better than any other Member of the House. I was also a friend of Noel Browne for 30 years. Until his death, he signed my nomination papers on each occasion I stood for the Seanad. He would be livid at the idea that some grimy little squirt from the other side had been sent out to abuse his name. While Noel Browne cannot speak for himself, I sure as hell can because I knew him intimately unlike the little bamboozlers who never knew him. Without Seanad Éireann, we would not have had the first debate on AIDS, there would not be a foreign affairs committee and the House would not have debated rendition. I handed the papers I received and work I did on rendition to the then Deputy Michael D. Higgins in the Dáil. While the other House took up the matter, it was first taken up in this House. Without the Seanad, we would not have had the civil partnership legislation, at least not for some years. How many Bills has my colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn, produced, even in this session? The Senator's Construction Contracts Bill remains stuck in the Lower House while these idiots complain about us.
The Taoiseach had the gall to stand on the plinth and ask what the Seanad had done to stop the disaster of the Celtic tiger. I will tell him what I did. I stood in this Chamber and argued against it, making a case that was clear, logical and confirmed to be right. Thanks to Deputy Mathews, I showed that certain figures were wrong and produced accurate figures. I voted against benchmarking. I placed on record the names of the bondholders and when I stated they should be burned, the then Cathaoirleach nearly broke his gavel. No one in the Dáil had the balls to do the same, including the then Deputy Kenny. Where was he at that stage? He may be puffed up and brave in challenging the Seanad now but at that time he was in the Lower House supporting the pouring of fuel on the Celtic tiger, engaging in his usual corrupt auction politics and leading his meek little supporters in to the Dáil to vote in favour of the bank guarantee. Despite this, the man has the impertinence to attack the Seanad.
It has been argued the Seanad was not reformed. I agree with Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell that the establishment did nothing for ten years.
Ten reports were published and a previous Government even had a referendum passed, yet successive Governments did sweet bugger all about them for 70 years. Senators elected to the university seats demanded reform and asked what we could do. We cannot take over the Government and force it to act. Every single Government and party corrupted this House but still this brave little ship, with its tattered sails, which was holed without being properly corked and deliberately leaked by those blaggards in their corrupt interests, sailed through the storms and held firm in its own way for the Irish people. I honour it for that.
Other countries from around the globe which have abolished their senates have been brought into the debate. It is no wonder the Taoiseach did not mention Mr. Mugabe. The first thing Mr. Mugabe did in Zimbabwe was abolish the country's senate. Perhaps the Taoiseach sees himself not only in the mould of a little Napoleon but also in another guise.
I note that even today a Bill proposed by Senator Zappone and others was accepted. The Leader started his contribution by referring to Dáil reform. That is rubbish and I do not believe a word of it. He stated 14 Dáil committees will be established. Of course they will because they will provide jobs for the boys.
Jobs for the boys, jobs for the boys, jobs for the boys. This is what the Irish people vote for - jobs for the bloody boys. The same boys who dragged us into the ruins of this economy.
It is claimed that the Taoiseach would not bring in a Bill on flimsy grounds or off the top of his head but that is exactly what he did. I was here and I saw it. I saw the face of the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. Members should ask the Minister if our wonderful, open-hearted Taoiseach ever let her know what was going on.
I cannot believe the unspeakable dishonesty of this speech. He is going to look at the Presidency and reduce the number of Members of the Oireachtas required to nominate a Presidential candidate to 14. Will he listen to the voice of the people, this wonderful democrat, this absolute democrat who would not recognise democracy if it came up and puked in his face? Despite all the manoeuvring, I got something through the Constitutional Convention which was not even allowed to discuss Seanad Éireann. I got a provision through relating to the Presidency to give the people of Ireland a greater say. That was democracy, with 97% of the people at the convention voting for it. Let us hear a titter out of Taoiseach Enda Kenny about that.
I understand that I am nearly at my limit so I will end by saying that I reiterate my challenge to the Taoiseach to come into this House, or even better, on television or radio, and debate this. I will debate it with him and will peel the layers of dishonesty and populism away from him and show the Irish people what is really being done to them so they will not be fooled another time, until they know what way to vote. They will vote against this Bill, which is a fraud perpetrated on the Irish people as gross as the fraud perpetrated by Wood's ha'pence in the 18th century and which was defeated by the oratory and writing of the great Jonathan Swift. That is where power lies sometimes - in the hands of the weak, in the hands of the people who are being battered and who are having democracy torn from them. If we let the people know what is happening, we can stymie this miserable little act of political vandalism.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am pleased that this Bill is being given adequate time to be debated in this House. I have listened with interest to the speeches already made on the issue and would like to make a number of points in response. First, I wish to address the speech delivered yesterday by the Taoiseach, which was respectfully, if not warmly, received by Members of this House. The Taoiseach spoke about the need for Government to reform politics and made reference to the fact that nothing was done for 75 years on reforming the Seanad, almost as if that was the fault of the current Seanad. He also referred to the fact that initially vocational panels were set up to ensure that we had expertise in this House and he intimated that this had not worked out very well. However, it is only fair to say, as was pointed out yesterday, that we do have expertise in this House, from Senators Barrett, Quinn and many others, across a wide range of fields in this country.
The Taoiseach also made reference to the fact that several other EU countries have unicameral systems, including Denmark, Finland, Norway, Croatia and Slovakia. However, he failed to deal with the system of government below the national parliaments in those countries. Finland, for example, has 304 local authorities and 10,000 local councillors. Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 councillors. This is in stark contrast to what is being proposed in this country under the guise of local government reform, with the number of councillors decreasing from 1,467 to 949 and with the rural parts of Ireland being hardest hit. In Monaghan, for example, the number of councillors will fall from 56 to 18, a decrease of 68%. In Tipperary, the number will fall from 100 to 40, a drop of 60% and in the Taoiseach's own county of Mayo, the number of councillors will drop from 52 to 30, a decrease of 42%. We must compare this to the numbers involved in local government across Europe. In Denmark, there is one local councillor for every 2,245 people while in Norway, there is one for every 423 people. One might ask what is the relevance of this in the context of the debate today. It is relevant because not alone do we intend to strip out the Second House of democracy, we also intend to strip out major tiers of local government. Indeed, the system of local government in this country is as centralised, if not more so, than the British system, from which it devolved. When one looks at regional governance across Europe, one sees that finance is raised locally and service provision is locally based but in this country there are no services at local level worth talking about and there is no intention, as yet, to put any new decentralised services into the local government reform Bill. In that context, it is very difficult to accept the comparisons that the Taoiseach made yesterday when he spoke of Scandinavian countries and the fact they did not have a second house of parliament and questioned why we should have one. The answer to that question is very clear - those countries have real, working regional government but we have none.
The other issue that the Taoiseach chose not to address in his speech yesterday is that of cost savings. The initial statements from the Government regarding to the abolition of the Seanad suggested that its removal would save the State up to €20 million per annum. The actual figure for the salaries of Senators is €4.2 million per annum. It has now been discovered by the pro-abolitionists that the issue of cost savings should be dropped from their agenda. My own party colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has said on more than one occasion that no money will be saved by the abolition of the Seanad because the money will be redeployed to Dáil committees. Indeed, Deputy Twomey requested that any money that is saved be redeployed to Dáil committees. The argument on cost savings has now been nullified by the Government itself.
In that context, one must ask why we are proceeding with this. Are we proceeding because a commitment was made at a press conference in October of 2009 or are we proceeding because, as some Senators have suggested, this House is not working properly and is not actually doing the job it was set up to do? No more than many other new Senators in this House, I can only judge from what I have seen in the past two and a half years. Within the limited scope of what this House is allowed to do constitutionally, I believe it is doing a very good job. However, if we want to reform the work of the Seanad, why did we choose to take the road we are on, namely, either abolition or retention? I was asked on local radio recently whether I believed there was an option B. There was apparently no option B to Croke Park II, but when it was rejected, we discovered that there was the Haddington Road agreement. There is always an option B and in this case, that should mean reform. Reform of this House should include an examination of the Whip system that is currently in place. Senators should also be given the opportunity to vote on legislation as they see fit, in accordance with certain criteria.
People say we are removed from the public and democracy and do not represent people. Some 43 Members of the House are directly elected by councillors in county and city councils. On average, each councillor who was elected got 1,500 votes. The number of votes received by successful Senators in the House, on average, is 75. If one does the maths, we represent, albeit once removed, 100,000 people on average. To say we do not represent the public is untrue.
I refer to the role of Senators outside of legislation in representing councillors who are their electorate. I, like most other Senators, receive representations daily from councillors of all parties and none on issues of relevance to them at local and national level. We use our position as Members of the House to raise those issues on the Order of Business or to bring forward the views expressed to us by councillors when legislation is being debated by the House. That is a representative role which is undervalued and unknown by many people in this country.
Most of us do not think up issues to raise on the Order of Business for the good of our health. For example, yesterday I raised the issue of unscrupulous moneylenders in this country and the fact that even those who are licensed are operating outside the law. I did not decide to raise that yesterday. I was contacted by a number of councillors who have faced this issue in their communities. As a Member of the House I took the opportunity to request that the matter be addressed by the Central Bank which is the licensing agency for moneylenders.
We in this House carry out a very important role. We should not run hastily to abolish it. The Minister of State, who was a Member of the House and was also a local authority member for a number of years, knows full well what I am talking about. It was said that the House has not referred legislation back during its two and a half years in existence. I still wonder what the right thing to do is in regard to this Bill. Maybe the debate does need an extra 90 days and perhaps I will reflect on that after the debate today before I press any bell.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ní haon locht air é nuair a deirim gur trua é nach bhfuil an Taoiseach anseo leis an díospóireacht seo a chloisteáil. Nuair a bhí mé ag caint inné, dúirt mé nach bhfuil dabht ar bith ann go mbíonn Taoiseach na tíre gnóthach, ach i ndáiríre tá sé ábalta am a fháil le haghaidh go leor gnóthaí eile. Is trua liom é nach bhfuil sé in ann bheith anseo le haghaidh na díospóireachta tábhachtach seo maidir le todhchaí an tSeanaid.
I welcome the Minister of State but I am disappointed the Taoiseach was not here for the full debate. The least he could have done to show respect to all Senators in the House would have been to listen to their views on this issue. I can understand why a Taoiseach would be unable to attend the House every day on every Bill, but as he has championed the cause on this Bill, he could have spent time listening to the points being put forward.
When Giovanni Trapattoni wished to climb Croagh Patrick, he could find a few hours for that. He opened extensions to three schools in Connemara recently, which was fantastic, and was able to spend a full day there. He was able to meet members of the tobacco industry, as Senator Crown pointed out. He is able to go to Davos and swan about with the leaders of the world. It is quite disrespectful that he is not able to come to the House and listen to 60 Senators. Not every Senator may want to contribute, but the least the Taoiseach should have done is come to the House and debate the issue with us.
Senator O'Donnell referred to reform. The Government said we have had ten different reports on reform of the Seanad but nothing has happened. It is its job to implement reform. When it comes to the health service, the Government is always telling us it is putting in place reform. It told us it would reform the VEC sector. It is reforming local government. For some reason, when it comes to the Seanad, reform is an impossibility. I do not see the logic of that and both sides of the argument do not stack up. Reform needs political will to be implemented.
It is true there has never been the political will to implement reform in this House, even with all the different reports. We need to ask why that is the case. Our role is to be here as public representatives. We are here to bring issues forward on behalf of the citizens of the State and those living abroad.
The Seanad will only be as good as the Senators in it. To be quite honest, a lot of Senators work incredibly hard, but there are a number who could probably work harder. That is an issue for their groupings. Senator Landy quite clearly outlined our limited powers. Within them, most Senators use whatever mechanisms we have to raise very valid bona fide issues. We table matters on the Adjournment, we use the Order of Business and will use the platform this stage gives us to raise issues in our communities and to talk to groups who have elected us and want issues raised. We rarely raise issues just because we come in on a whim and feel like talking about something. In general, any issues we raise in the House are brought to our attention by somebody else.
We have to ask whether we represent the full gamut of the citizens of the State, which is the crux of the issue. We do not. Maybe that is why reform has never happened. The House has been a closed shop since its instigation and has looked after vested interests and represented elites. No reform has happened because it did not suit those in power to hand power back to the citizens.
It is a retrograde step that the Taoiseach has been so stubborn on this issue that he would not allow it to be discussed by the Constitutional Convention. Sinn Féin policy, as agreed at our Ard-Fheiseanna, has been abolition of the Seanad in its current form because, as I have outlined, it is elitist and undemocratic. All citizens do not have a universal franchise to elect people to the House. We have called for reform and have asked repeatedly for the issue to be sent before the Constitutional Convention which has shown us it can play a very positive role in these types of issues. The Taoiseach has his own mind on these issues.
Before the Taoiseach made his decision, how much democracy took place in Fine Gael and the Labour Party to debate the issue and come to a group conclusion that they wanted to abolish the Seanad? I would guess very little, if any. It has been confirmed by some of my fellow Senators-----
Apparently there was no debate. The Taoiseach came up with the idea, it was imposed on the party and it is running with it because the boss said it had to. It does not sound like democracy to me and it is not how we would do democracy in our party. It shows how democratic the Taoiseach is and leads people to become very wary of the real agenda behind the abolition of the Seanad.
There is a genuine fear that local government will be much weakened with a lot less democratic representation at town and county council level. We have a Government which has a massive majority and a Cabinet which is ruled by four males in the Economic Management Council. People see that losing another layer of democracy where there is a certain level of debate is a retrograde step.
We should not shrink the democratic space in that sense.
We have also heard many arguments about required Dáil reform but we have not seen any concrete proposals on the issue. From my limited experience over two and a half years in these Houses, I know that putting forward the argument that the committees will be able to take up slack by the abolition of the Seanad is a total red herring. A number of committees on which I have sat are relatively dysfunctional, and attendance at a few committee meetings has been quite scant, as there is a regime of people clocking in but leaving without making any positive input into the work of the committee. Arguing that the work of Dáil committees will solve the problem is certainly a red herring. As Senator Landy mentioned, where are the detailed costings of the savings to be made by the abolition of the Seanad, as we have not seen them? If what we hear from Senator Landy is correct and if the approximately €4 million is to be subsumed into the work of committees, there will be no saving coming from the democratic deficit.
It is interesting to look around the Chamber when all 60 Senators are here and consider the type of representation we have. There is an imbalance between male and female representatives and where are the representatives of ethnic minorities? From what I can see, everybody here is white Caucasian and there are no members of the Traveller community. There is a bias towards the upper and middle classes, and all this means the House is not representative of our citizens. There are no representatives of the diaspora and immigrants, although we do our best to represent their issues. I am open to correction on that.
There is a politically centralised system and the Government is very much in control. The problem is not the way the Seanad works but the way in which Ministers and the Government treat the House. Ministers come in but they may as well be wearing ear plugs as they sit and smile at us, as the Taoiseach did yesterday, but nothing gets to them. Our contributions go in one ear and out the other. If the political establishment really wants to engage with the Seanad, much work could be done and good work is already done in the proposing of amendments. Such input is generally not taken on board.
The Seanad's structure is also undemocratic, which is illustrated by the fact that Sinn Féin representatives have been completely left out of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which makes decisions on how the House runs. We have seen the guillotining of Bills and a refusal to accept amendments. All of this means the Government is not serious about reform of the Dáil and Seanad, and the entire picture must be taken together. We need a reformed political system, with a reformed Seanad part of the overall picture.
There is a disconnect between the Dáil and the Government. Even when we debate issues and legislation coming to the House, we can see Members from Government parties opposing what is proposed but voting in favour of it because of the Whip system. Senator John Kelly, for example, has done much good work with the wind energy Bill, along with Deputy Penrose in the other House, but a Labour Party Minister is refusing to move on the legislation, despite it having passed Second Stage in this House. Enda is the boss and the Cabinet is in control. There are four boys in charge of the club and they are running the show, so nobody else needs to make an input because whatever they say goes. While these people are in power, they will look to keep it. That is not democracy and it is not healthy, so reform is required in that sense. The Minister should return to the Taoiseach and rethink the issue. It should be sent to the Constitutional Convention so we can have a much broader debate and include the reform agenda in that.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill in the House and I am thankful for the time allocated. Public disclosure on this matter is of the utmost importance, which is why I am strongly supportive of this referendum being put to the people. It is the purpose of any referendum to change the Constitution in a particular way. In this case, the referendum would seek to make no fewer than 75 changes to the Constitution, and it is only proper that such a radical change should be put to the people in a referendum. The public must ask whether the country would be better off without the Seanad.
It is important to recognise the right of a Government to put this question to the people. Since 2009, the Taoiseach has put on record his desire to abolish the Seanad, such that following the 2011 election, the programme for Government included the forthcoming referendum. That came from the Taoiseach stating his intentions and the contents of the Fine Gael pre-election manifesto. We can safely recognise a mandate for the Government to pose this question but as a legislator and citizen of the country, I will contribute a view regarding the proposed abolition of the Seanad.
Since a Local Authorities Members Association conference almost two years ago, I have been on record calling for significant reform of this House. In my view, the Seanad in its current state does not function as effectively as it could. Only a fraction of the people get to vote for an institution that makes decisions affecting everybody, with a cost for everyone via taxation. Even in a democracy so limited, the Taoiseach appoints almost a fifth of the House, with some voters getting multiple votes, depending on whether they occupy an Oireachtas position or the number of universities from which they earned degrees. This democratic perversion is not the fault of these voters but rather the fault of all past Governments, which have so far failed to instigate any changes in the operation of this House, let alone implement them.
In asking the people what it wants, this Government is not only fulfilling a pre-election pledge but also engaging in a long overdue process of political reform. This political reform was given pride of place in the Fine Gael pre-election manifesto and in it the party pledged to engage in genuine reform of both Houses, with measures such as the reduction by 20 in the number of Deputies, this referendum on the Seanad's future and the broadest shake-up of Irish local Government in 150 years.
Some claim that the Seanad cannot be helped and it is simply a doomed cause. However, our nearest neighbours under former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the late 1990s took on the reform of the pinnacle of elitist institutions, the House of Lords, by removing vast swathes of hereditary accession to it. In doing so, Mr. Blair opened Britain's Upper House, and we can do the same in Ireland. At the same time we must recognise the benefits of bicameral governance, with a Parliament consisting of two Houses. The primary benefit is that one House keeps tabs on the other, and a Bill that the Dáil might guillotine can be analysed better and picked apart by this House, and it can act as a filter. The Seanad has often failed in such work in the past but that does not mean it would not succeed in future following sufficient reform.
One can use the building boom and banking crisis as an example. Could the Seanad have prevented the collapse that the Dáil-based governance of the day facilitated? If proper systems had been in place, it could have done so. The Seanad could have stepped in when tax breaks for builders were passed or stopped the bank guarantee in September 2008, but it could not achieve this without reform. To reform the Seanad would give it the ability and impetus to take such action, if necessary, in future, but to abolish the House would pave the way for a lack of accountability and reprimand, which could bring about similar catastrophes. Some 529 amendments have been proposed in this House in this term. For example, we debated the Animal Health and Welfare Bill for 14 hours in the House, with 85 amendments tabled that were later debated in committees and the Dáil. The Seanad exists to provide such a filtering mechanism on a regular basis.
To take a more statistical perspective, we can consider the differences between unicameral and bicameral parliaments.
For example, The Economist ranks the top ten democracies in the world, half have one parliament, the other half have two. When expanded to the top 20 economic countries, 12 have two houses of parliament. That statistic stands and demonstrates in the clearest possible terms the democratic boost that a second house provides.
One argument for abolishing the Seanad is to save money. This should not be used as one of the arguments or as a means for the public to punish politicians. On the subject of costs, the Seanad costs €8.8 million per annum for Senators' salaries, expenses and staff salaries. That is a mere €1.70 per person per year. As a replacement measure it has been suggested that a series of 14 committees would take over the work of the abolished Seanad. Furthermore, these committees would widely consist of outside experts. Who would appoint these people? How much would these committees cost? Would the positions be full time? Moreover, in the event of a member being unable to take part at a meeting, can he or she be quickly replaced and substituted with full voting rights being restored upon the appointee?
The Bill proposes the deletion of Article 27 of the Constitution which provides for the efficient resolution of a legislative conflict between the Houses. Why does it make sense to remove this article if the Seanad is abolished since no conflict could occur in the future? What provision is made for aforementioned conflicts between these committees and Ministers? What procedure will be put in place if two of these committees disagree on legislation? These are serious and legitimate questions which have not yet been answered but which need to be answered in order that we can have a more complete and more comprehensive picture in advance of the referendum. I ask that the cost of the new committee system be put before the House and the people and if outside experts are to be appointed, will it be on a full-time basis and, if so, who will appoint them?
Abolition of the Seanad is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Like a large oak tree it will take years to grow but one reckless chainsaw can abolish this tree, when maybe a tree surgeon could have pruned and reformed the tree. If we cut the tree down we may suddenly realise that we have made a mistake and may also realise the length of time it will take to grow this tree again.
Abolition of the Seanad will lose any leash the Lower House may have had on it. It scuppers any possibility of a more inclusive and comprehensive Irish democracy that Seanad reform would promise. Instead, a programme of reform led by the will of the Irish people, as ascertained by the referendum,
should be pursued not only in the Seanad but in the Oireachtas as a whole.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. One of the more salutary experiences of the debate is that there is as much opposition on the Government side as on this side. It is one of the more extraordinary aspects of the debate which would seem to focus on the Taoiseach alone as being on a solo run. The man who is leading the Government and to whom I would give that respect to the high office that he holds, seems to think he can treat the Constitution in a cavalier manner throwing out ideas like snuff at a wake, except in this instance it was over prawn cocktails at a Fine Gael dinner that he made the decision in a rush of blood to the head, without any consultation with anybody.
When one looks for the background to that particular decision one can find no context. The only context one can find is that for some months prior to that, the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and the party in the country had been discussing reform proposals. The Taoiseach attended one of the summer schools some months prior to his extraordinary announcement to say that he was fully in favour of reform. I would like to know what happened in the interim. Unlike Anglo Irish Bank, we do not have any recorded conversations between the then Leader of the Opposition and his party cohorts as to what changed his mind. To me, it is a Damascus-type conversion, only it must have happened on the road to Mayo rather than the road to Damascus.
I am glad Senator Pat O'Neill referred to the cost of the Seanad. I want to say this to the media because I know they listen to us although they may not always report us. While they are not physically present in the Chamber, they have monitors in their rooms the same as us and they follow the debate. Yet again, a journalist in today's Irish Independent, whose name I will not mention out of deference to him, referred to a figure of €20 million as being the cost of the Seanad. He paralleled that in the context of a story he was writing about the winner of the €94 million in the lottery. I say to that journalist and any other journalist who is listening, that the Seanad does not cost €20 million but, as Senator Pat O'Neill said, €8 million. Any suggestion that there would be savings of any significance in respect of the abolition of this House is spurious and it is time he stopped reporting on the cost of this House because it has no bearing on this debate. To suggest to the people that a financial saving of €8 million can be made out of the €55 billion which the Minster of State regularly tells the people on the national airwaves that it costs to run the country, makes it an even more spurious argument.
In case we are saying this because we want to say it, I have a copy of the most reliable figures provided by the Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Mr. Kieran Coughlan, on 12 January 2012. He informed the Committee of Public Accounts that direct savings of €9.2 million, which covers Senators' salaries, allowances and staff salaries, would be made immediately if the Seanad was abolished. He went on to say that any of the other costs would be absorbed into the wider Houses of the Oireachtas. He was questioned on this point by a former Member of this House, Deputy Shane Ross, who said that one of the arguments in favour of the abolition of the Upper House is that it is very expensive to run. In his reply Mr. Kieran Coughlan said there had been quite a variable in the figures when they originally appeared. He said that the indirect costs relate to the apportionment of the support costs for the Seanad. The Houses of the Oireachtas operates on a joint staff basis and it is necessary to apportion some of the existing staff into that. That is what gives rise to the figure that emerges at €20 million.
When I was growing up, for me one of the most treasonable acts that was ever perpetrated on the Irish people was the infamous Act of Union. I have a copy of the speech made by one of the most distinguished of our Irish ancestors in the political context, Henry Grattan, Esq. I never thought I would be standing in this House referring to a debate on the Act of Union on that most disgraceful political chicanery when the rotten boroughs came into their own, the speech of Henry Grattan on the subject of a legislative union with Great Britain and resolutions against same by the Roman Catholics of the city of Dublin, the Guild of Merchants, the Freemen and Freeholders of the City of Dublin, the celebrated speech delivered on that occasion by John Philpot Curran, Esq., and the resolutions of the County of Dublin. At that time there was widespread opposition to the abolition of the Irish Parliament in much the same way as there is growing widespread opposition among civic society to the abolition of this House. Let us make no mistake about it, we are seeing a rerun of history, the outcome of which will be much more beneficial to the Irish people than this dastardly Act was at the time. I will quote one point that he makes. At the beginning of his speech he talks about the Minister of the day, the Minister from Great Britain who presided over the abolition of the Irish Parliament. He said:
The Minister has come forward in two celebrated productions; he declares his intolerance of the Parliamentary Constitution of Ireland, that Constitution [.....] he now declares to be a miserable imperfection; concurring with the men whom he executed in thinking the Irish Parliament a grievance.I could paraphrase that and remove the part about the executions and I could say that the Taoiseach sees this House as a grievance.
Let us talk about political reform. We are the only people who are talking about political reform. The Taoiseach does not talk about political reform but about putting a "Yes", "No" question to the people. Does he want this House to be kept or to go? What choice is that? As Senator Norris said so bravely and courageously in his contribution earlier - I applaud him for it and for the passion he brought to it - when speaking about the same points being made in relation to reform, he asked, what reform?
I can remember when the then Minister for the Environment, Noel Dempsey, brought forward proposals to the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party about abolishing the dual mandate that would prevent Members of the Oireachtas from being members of a local authority, which I and most colleagues at that time vehemently opposed. Here was another Minister that went off on a solo run, and we saw what happened to him - a salutary lesson for the Taoiseach in seeking so-called institutional reform.
When the then Minister brought this proposal forward, a Fianna Fail Deputy put a pertinent question asking him to outline this brave new world of reform in which Deputies would now find themselves, and if he could outline what extra and added responsibilities they would have. The Deputy was given a vague answer. We are asking the same question today and will be given an equally vague answer as to what will happen in the event of this House being abolished. Why? There are no plans. The Government and its predecessors operate in one of the most centralised democracies in western Europe. Before the collapse of the Soviet empire, I would have compared the manner in which they conducted their affairs at government level to how we did things and said our centralised systems were akin. We remained centralised and we are centralised in the reality that the Executive, the Government, makes the proposals, puts them before the Lower House and because of its numerical majority, the proposals pass.
The question to be put to the people in October needs to be put in the context of the reality of an unprecedented Government majority in the Lower House, where over 40 Members can be commanded at any one time to come in and take down any legislative proposals made by the Opposition. This Government has guillotined legislation on a variety of occasions, not just in this House but more so in the other House because it can do so. Why can it get away with it? It is because it can do it. It does it because it can and it will continue to operate that same system. The people should make no mistake that if the Upper House is abolished they will continue to have one of the most centralised democracies in western Europe.
Spurious arguments have been put forward, apart from the alleged cost of the Seanad and the arguments put forward by the Taoiseach and his tiny band of supporters who I think have been pulled kicking and screaming into the "support Enda camp" rather than coming in voluntarily. The other spurious argument that they raised was that like-sized countries were operating unicameral systems. Denmark was referred to. I wonder if research was done into the Danish system of democracy. They have three tiers of government in Denmark: the national Government, an effective and strong regional government and an equally strong and effective local council. They have more local councils operating in Denmark than we ever had in this country for its size. Unlike this country they are in control of health, education and a range of spending initiatives that are absent here. What are we doing? We are doing it in reverse, we are getting rid of the town council and there will be no elections to Údarás na Gaeltachta. We are emasculating local authorities by reducing their numbers. What is the next step? Abolish this House, lop off another arm of democracy in the country. We must ask the reason that this is being done. I cannot find an answer. I do not understand the motives behind it. If there were a logic to the proposal that is being put before this House, I would be the first to concede it.
The appeal goes out of here to the general public, it reminds them to think long and hard about how they will vote when the referendum is announced. It might be interesting if the Minister would give some indication of that date. To paraphrase a commercial that is currently running on radio and television, "When it is gone it is gone and it cannot come back".
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, to the House. He has always been very accommodating of Members. I do not wish to personalise the debate on the abolition of the Seanad. I believe the Taoiseach has made this very personal. He has made it very personal to all of us because we are all hard-working Senators and take our role very seriously.
He has also made it personal to people in this House with certain expertise, something that one could not buy. The standard of debate and contributions by Members with expertise in this House has been excellent. If people listened to them they might realise it would be worthwhile to reform this House rather than abolish it.
I also think the Taoiseach has made it very personal to his 11 nominees. When the Taoiseach announced his nominees and appointed them to this House, they were absolutely overwhelmed. I think they believed the Taoiseach valued their independent views and expertise. Within a few short months of appointing them he devalued them before they got into their stride. I think that is shameful.
The Taoiseach was in Glenties before the last election and he made it quite clear and gave categoric support for the retention and reform of Seanad Éireann. That is what we want. At the time, my party leader was riding high in the personality poles so the Taoiseach decided to go with this populist nonsense and advocate the abolition of the Seanad. That is not democracy. If that is not the reason the Taoiseach did that at that time, then what was the reason? Why did he change his view in a few short months from wanting to retain Seanad Éireann to wanting to abolish it. I would like to know the reason, but unfortunately the Taoiseach is not here today to answer that question.
During the debate in the Dáil on the abolition of the Seanad, I had to laugh as I watched party colleagues from both parties in government advocate the abolition of the Seanad when most of them, like the Minister of State who is present in this Chamber, are former Members of the Seanad. I wonder if during their term in the House they called for reform of the Seanad or abolition of the Seanad. I believe at no stage did they do so. However, they acknowledge that the Dáil needs oversight. What they are now looking for is for Deputies to have more power and resources to fund more powerful committees. Let me ask how much will be needed in additional resources. On the recent "Prime Time Investigates" programme, an expert said that the savings from the abolition of the Seanad will be €4.2 million and no doubt the plan that Deputies have will be to get €4.2 million of extra resources for themselves. We will end up with no savings. In the past we have been critical of the gardaí investigating other gardaí, but the Taoiseach and the elite four who are running this country want Deputies to be overseeing other Deputies. That is not proper accountability.
I am seeking a pledge from the Minister of State and many other Members of the Lower House who are advocating the abolition of the Seanad, that if the people see through this proposal, which I expect they will and vote to retain Seanad Éireann, those Deputies promise me and everybody else in this Chamber that they will not seek a seat in Seanad Éireann, as they consider it a useless place to work. I am not trying to save Seanad Éireann for myself because I honestly believe there will be enough casualties after the next election that I will be well down the ladder for consideration, but I believe in proper accountability.
I was also intrigued as to why the Taoiseach blamed the Seanad for doing nothing about the excesses of the Celtic tiger. I tried to analyse the wording used when he said that. The only thing he can be suggesting is that Fianna Fáil Senators of the day should have voted against the Fianna Fáil Government of the day. That is the only thing I can assume he was suggesting. That is the ideal scenario we would all like to be in, when we would have a free vote, in accordance with conscience particularly in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, but that is not the way it works. What he said was nonsense. I want to put on record that I was not a Member of this House during the previous term of government but the Fine Gael Party were represented in this House and it voted for the bank guarantee in this House. My party, the Labour Party, did not vote for it. Should we be looking for the abolition of the Fine Gael Party because of what it did and not the abolition of the Seanad?
I also want to point out, as Senator Ó Clochartaigh stated, that I introduced a Bill in Private Members' time and brought the very important Bill Wind Turbines Bill 2012 through the Second Stage reading.
It was meant to restore people's human right not to be forced to live beside massive wind turbines.
I thank the Senator. At a wind energy conference some time later, the Taoiseach declared to that large lobby group that he did not support my Bill. One man decided that he would not support it and that was the end of it. If this is how democracy works, I am at a loss. It is obvious that four people are running the country and that Deputies and Senators do not have a say.
This nonsense about the abolition of the Seanad is a diversionary tactic to distract from the real issues. It fools people into believing that if we save €4.2 million, we will somehow rectify our economy. I am looking for that amount for a project in my town. The real issue is that we put €64 billion into the banks, which is 15,238 times the cost of running the Seanad. What the Taoiseach is trying to achieve pales into complete insignificance.
From speaking to Senators, this nonsense two years into a five-year term is affecting our ability to do our work properly.
If the Taoiseach thought anything of us, he should have considered holding this referendum four and a half years into our term. We are trying to do the best we can. Let the people decide after they have seen more of our work.
Seanad reform is necessary and the Whip system that is applied in the House must be lifted. I will support putting the referendum before the people, but I will strongly campaign against the abolition of the Seanad. I compliment Senator Landy on his analysis of local government, democracy, etc. The lone town council in my county has been abolished and the 26 county councillors have been reduced to 18. Now, the Taoiseach wants to get rid of our Senators has well. We will be left with three Deputies.
When I spoke to one of the Minister of State's colleagues some months ago, he told me that he would support the retention of Seanad Éireann. He made the point that, were it not for the Seanad during the debate on the smoking ban, elderly people living in nursing homes would have needed to be wheeled out the back doors to smoke cigarettes. The Seanad picked up on a small factor that was important for elderly and sick people. It was not noticed by the Dáil because Deputies do not have the time. They even admit that. We allow time for every matter that is laid before us.
The people will see through this referendum and be fearful of a single House with a significant majority, given the related powers and dangers and the dictatorial nature of the result. I will put my trust in the people to make the right decision.
I welcome the Minister of State to this historic Chamber. Sadly, this debate is an inauspicious occasion. The Taoiseach appointed me to Seanad Éireann, aware that I would be an independent voice. My views on the future of Seanad Éireann have been formed with an effort to be free, constructive and critical. I am grateful to the Taoiseach for the opportunity to do so. I imagine he expects nothing less.
The Taoiseach's proposal to abolish the Seanad is ill-conceived and will not only damage our democracy, but also this country's prospect of economic recovery and social sustainability.
This proposal will profoundly impact on our Parliament, our politics and the people. Even those with the most sketchy knowledge of Irish history know that a second Chamber was previously abolished for a short period in the mid-1930s, but that Seanad Éireann was reconstituted in the 1937 Constitution because of genuine democratic concerns and because bicameralism was, and remains, the best way to ensure proper scrutiny of legislation in an Irish context.
In 1935, when de Valera brought legislation before the Dáil to abolish the Seanad, James Dillon stated:
Let us in the Dáil resent the inclination to abolish the Seanad just as we would resent the inclination of the Seanad to abolish this House. Let both Houses realise that both are necessary for the liberties of the country and let us join together to improve the efficiency of both Houses rather than joining in a trial of strength between the two Houses, aimed at the destruction of one.The insights of James Dillon, Fine Gael's former leader, are as relevant today as they were more than 75 years ago. Ireland needs a reformed Seanad that can play a constructive role in guarding our liberties, rebuilding our economy and society and ensuring all voices are heard in our democratic life.
Instead, Seanad abolition will mean losing independent and minority voices. A unicameral system would necessarily mean a greater dominance by party politics and less room for the independent and expert voices for which the Seanad has been known throughout its history. This independence was largely guaranteed by the six seats reserved for university Senators. With a reformed and democratically elected Seanad, as constructively imagined through two practical proposals by three Independent Senators, there would be more room for Independents and for those who could represent the various minority groups within the diverse Ireland of the 21st century.
Surely this country has learned the lessons of the past about the severe damage that can be done by cultural closure, insular debate, intolerance and a refusal to listen to voices bar those of the majority opinion. If the Seanad is shut down, we will have a national Parliament that is fully controlled by the Whip system and the guillotine. Writing in one of the national newspapers, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, propounded that freeing parliamentarians of the Whip system would increase the influence of the loudest and best organised lobby groups. Could this really be the case? Are the people to believe that Governments, including this one, have successfully withstood the influence of lobbyists? Those with the greatest resources, particularly our banks, have always had the best organised lobby groups. Where has that landed the people?
As pointed out last week by the Independent Deputies in the Dáil and some of our own Senators this week, nearly 60% of all Bills have been guillotined during the Government's short tenure. This means that the time to scrutinise bills by the Opposition, independent voices and the Government's own backbenchers is curtailed. Amendments put forward are not taken. Respectfully, how are the people to believe the Government's reform promises of more Dáil time to scrutinise legislation once the Seanad is abolished if its own track record for openness to opposing and independent views is so poor? If the Seanad is abolished, we will have a national Parliament that is rooted in the straitjacket of party politics with no space for individual principled commitment and experts who are not fearful of saying things to upset the Government.
The Taoiseach claims that the Seanad's vocational system is a relic of the past and is not fit for 21st century Irish politics. In contrast to his proposal to pull down a pillar of our parliamentary democracy, Senator Quinn and I tabled cogent proposals that have been commended by all shades of political opinion in this House in mid-May. Our radical vision of reform is that every citizen will vote for a Seanad candidate, not to represent geography, but to represent expertise and practical knowledge in farming, education, industry, equality, human rights, labour, literature, engineering or culture. If the Seanad nominations and electorate are no longer controlled by party politics, we could unleash the power of elected expert lawmakers. Contrast this with the Taoiseach's proposals to form unelected expert panels to assist Dáil committees. This sounds like more highly paid advisers for the Government. Do the people need less politicians and more Government-appointed advisers? I think not. This will not only cost us money, it will also cost us our democracy.
Some of the main issues that Ireland must confront concern figuring out how we care for our children and the elderly and how this is balanced in a compassionate way with the real demands of markets and business.
I call Senator Comiskey and he has ten minutes.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House.
We often hear the word "democracy" and phrases like "democratic principles" and "democratic ideals". They are easy to say but difficult to establish and even more difficult to maintain. Democratic principles establish a rule of law, respect human rights and promote active politics. It should be an unwritten commitment of every public representative to uphold and foster these principles. Unfortunately, I fear, the proposed 32nd amendment of the Constitution, if passed, will diminish these principles.
I have listened to the debate on the amendment over the past few weeks. I have listened to the positives and the negatives on the bicameral and unicameral systems and I admit that I remain unconvinced by the superiority of the unicameral system. It is a system where the quality of legislation, the oversight of the Executive and the representation of each individual in the State would rest solely in one House of representatives. It is not a sufficient safeguard for these precious ideals on which the State was founded.
During my time in the Seanad I have been privileged to have played a part in two pieces of reforming legislation which highlights the benefits of the bicameral system. I am referring to the Welfare of Greyhounds Act and the Animal Health and Welfare Act. When the latter was introduced the Minister recalled his prior visits to the Seanad and cited the quality of previous debates as a reason for initiating the legislation in the Seanad. The progression of the Bill highlighted the value of the two chamber system and the legislation received considered and constructive debate in the Seanad. Legislative errors are costly and can be avoided by careful debate across the broadest spectrum possible. The presence of the Seanad contributed greatly to ensuring that the final Bill was as comprehensive as possible.
Many speakers have spoken of the fact that there has been a debate on Seanad reform for 75 years. Debate is essential but it must be acted upon. Many of these reports were published as part of the debate process and contained excellent contributions and submissions on Seanad reform by members of the public. Now all of those submissions have been deemed irrelevant and today's Bill has been promoted as offering a choice to the people. Choice usually involves a judgment decision on the merits of the multiple options. We are limiting the choices available to the people by not offering reform and a disservice is being done to the people and the democratic principles on which the State was founded.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach spoke in this House. He stated that he believed that genuine reform of the Seanad would almost be impossible to achieve. In response I have a question for him. Is Dáil reform achievable? Should we examine the matter before we embark on what the Taoiseach has called "a major change in the structure of our Oireachtas"? Do we not have an obligation to attempt reform and to ensure that proper safeguards are in place? Do we simply abolish because change is perceived as being too difficult? Is that progressive reforming politics? What kind of Government will we have in five or ten year or who will be in charge? We must reflect on these matters.
In recent years Transparency International Ireland has cited the excessive discretion in which the Executive has a number of democratic functions, especially the legislative agenda proposing a barrier to the ongoing development and reform of Ireland's system and institution framework. The abolition of the Seanad means that the legislative agenda and the scope of legislation is in danger of becoming even more constrained. The Seanad Chamber allows far more than Dáil Éireann when it comes to the contribution of diverse and independent voices and represents interests not usually represented in the Dáil. The Oireachtas website states, "Seanad Éireann can debate these issues with greater freedom." Will there be a platform for these voices after the abolition of the Seanad? People already feel a disconnect between politics and their everyday lives. Many have spoken of the 75 years of debate on Seanad reform. What about the 75 year tradition of representing people's interests?
Earlier a comment was made about elitism. I do not come from an elite sector. No family member of mine has ever been involved in politics. In my two and half years here I am the only Oireachtas Government representative that hails from County Leitrim and I set up an office in Manorhamilton to look after the needs of the people of Leitrim. From the 2007 election until my colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, was elected in 2010, there was no Oireachtas representative from County Leitrim. I know that Leitrim was unique at that time but we would not like to see the same happen in the future.
Like my colleagues, I will not oppose the Bill and object to the decision being put to the people. However, I am disappointed that the people have been given a false choice, the consequence of which may be irreversible.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House.
We often hear the word "democracy" and phrases like "democratic principles" and "democratic ideals". They are easy to say but difficult to establish and even more difficult to maintain. Democratic principles establish a rule of law, respect human rights and promote active politics. It should be an unwritten commitment of every public representative to uphold and foster these principles. Unfortunately, I fear, the proposed thirty-second amendment of the Constitution, if passed, will diminish these principles.
I have listened to the debate on the amendment over the past few weeks. I have listened to the positives and the negatives on the bicameral and unicameral systems and I admit that I remain unconvinced by the superiority of the unicameral system. It is a system where the equality of legislation, the oversight of the Executive and the representation of each individual in the State would rest solely in one House of representatives. It is not a sufficient safeguard for these precious ideals on which the State was founded.
During my time in the Seanad I have been privileged to have played a part in two pieces of reforming legislation which highlights that benefits of the bicameral system, the Welfare of Greyhounds Act and the Animal Health and Welfare Act. When the latter was introduced the Minister recalled his prior visits to the Seanad and cited the quality of previous debates as a reason for initiating the legislation in the Seanad. The progression of the Bill highlighted the value of the two chamber system and the legislation received considered and constructive debate in the Seanad. Legislative errors are costly and can be avoided by careful debate across the broadest spectrum possible. The presence of the Seanad contributed greatly to ensuring that the final Bill was as comprehensive as possible.
Many speakers have spoken of the fact that there has been a debate on Seanad reform for 75 years. Debate is essential but it must be acted upon. Many of these reports were published as part of the debate process and contained excellent contributions and submissions on Seanad reform by members of the public. Now all of those submissions have been deemed irrelevant and today's Bill has been promoted as offering a choice to the people. Choice usually involves a judgment decision on the merits of the multiple options. We are limiting the choices available to the people by not offering reform and a disservice is being done to the people and the democratic principles on which the State was founded.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach spoke in this House. He stated that he believed that genuine reform of the Seanad would almost be impossible to achieve. In response I have a question for him. Is Dáil reform achievable? Should we examine the matter before we embark on what the Taoiseach has called "a major change in the structure of our Oireachtas"? Do we not have an obligation to attempt reform and to ensure that proper safeguards are in place? Do we simply abolish because change is perceived as being too difficult? Is that progressive reforming politics? What kind of Government will we have in five or ten year's time or who will be in charge? We must reflect on these matters.
In recent years Transparency International Ireland has cited the excessive discretion in which the Executive has a number of democratic functions, especially the legislative agenda proposing a barrier to the ongoing development and reform of Ireland's system and institution framework. The abolition of the Seanad means that the legislative agenda and the scope of legislation is in danger of becoming even more constrained. The Seanad Chamber allows far more than Dáil Éireann when it comes to the contribution of diverse and independent voices and represents interests not usually represented in the Dáil. The Oireachtas website states that "Seanad Éireann can debate these issues with greater freedom." Will there be a platform for these voices after the abolition of the Seanad? People already feel a disconnect between politics and their everyday lives. Many have spoken of the 75 years of debate on Seanad reform. What about the 75 year tradition of representing people's interests?
Earlier a comment was made about elitism. I do not come from an elite sector. No family member of mine has ever been involved in politics. In my two and half years here I am the only Oireachtas Government representative that hails from County Leitrim and I set up an office in Manorhamilton to look after the needs of the people of Leitrim. Since the 2007 election until my colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney was elected in 2010, there was no Oireachtas representative from County Leitrim. I know that Leitrim was unique at that time but we would not like to see the same happen in the future.
I, like my colleagues, will not oppose the Bill and object to the decision being put to the people. However, I am disappointed that the people have been given a false choice, the consequence of which may be irreversible.
As the saying goes, "Change for change sake is a recipe for failure".
I welcome the Minister of State. I wish to dispute the statement by Lord Edward Fitzgerald that Leinster House does not inspire the greatest ideas - it most certainly does. He lived in Carton House where the Minister of State and I celebrated the long service of our local Deputy. I pass Carton House every day but I find Leinster House a most interesting, refreshing and stimulating place. If the Taoiseach came into this House more often, he might actually feel the same way.
It is said it is just a talking shop. Let me quote from Isaac Butt at the College Historical Society in TCD, which was the first debating society in the world. He stated said that:
From this Society great things will be produced; we will draw around us the youthful talent of our country, and train them in that power which may enable them to benefit her. The glory of days gone shall return with more than pristine splendour.....I do believe that the time will come when faction shall flee away and dissension shall be forgotten; when Ireland's orators and Ireland's statesmen shall seek only their country's good; when laws shall be respected and yet liberty maintained.It is good we discuss things here. It is a brilliant debating Chamber with the best Order of Business in town, which I am sorry the Minister of State is not able to attend. We have brought forward Bills, two of which we are discussing with the Minister of State's Department. Yesterday another Minister sent me a draft Bill seeking my views on it. The Taoiseach said we should sit on one of his committee's. For years I sat on the National Economic and Social Council where I tried to raise issues such as banking, the collapse in the public finances and so on, and I will give the Minister of State the correspondence in that regard. In this House, the Leader and the Cathaoirleach listen and we get to debate issues. Relying on the committee system is no substitute. Deputy John O'Mahony is the Chairman of the committee on which I sit. One State company said it did not feel like turning up and asked for another four weeks while another asked if we could send it the list of questions in advance so that it could prepare. That is not democracy.
Part of the problem is referred to in a press release today from one of our committees. The press release stated: "Oireachtas and Northern Ireland Assembly committees resolve to tackle inadvertent roaming charges." This is inadvertent roaming by the Taoiseach. He does not know what he is doing and he has not thought it out properly. The kindest thing I can say about him is that he is guilty of inadvertent roaming.
The Taoiseach did not refer to the universities or to Northern Ireland yesterday. I am the 71st person to represent Trinity College in Parliament since 1603. We have served under 124 Lord High Treasurers, which I gather were before Prime Ministers, 58 British Prime Ministers and 12 Taoisigh but only one of them has tried to get rid of us. All the Trinity College voters will be voting against the Government on this. We have served in Parliaments in College Green, Westminster and here splendidly, and I include former Senator Mary Robinson, Senator David Norris and former Senator, the late Trevor West.
When I was in Enniskillen recently, the dean in the cathedral there told me that the Sunday after the Remembrance Sunday bombing - there had been funerals all week in Fermanagh - when he went into the cathedral, the late Senator Trevor West and the late Gerry Fitt, a Member of the House of Lords, were in the front row. He said that did so much to bind up the wounds. We have been doing that all the time in our constituency. This inadvertently roaming Taoiseach deprives my constituents in Finaghy, Belfast, Portstewart, Cullyhanna, Lurgan, Cultra, Ballyclare, Lisburn, Castlerock, Maghera and Rathfriland of votes because the Taoiseach is intervening to stop Northern Ireland people voting in the TCD constituency. They do not have a vote in the referendum to abolish their voting rights.
Did the Taoiseach think of Northern Ireland? Why did he not mention it yesterday? I am proud of the connections between TCD and our northern voters. A man called "Mervyn" walks on 12 July but is proud of his Irish passport and of his vote here. We invited the Orange Order to the House. I thought we were making progress. Why is the Taoiseach depriving northerners of a vote in my constituency? It is a disgrace. I will campaign throughout Northern Ireland with the Unionist parties and Sinn Féin, which have done a splendid job promoting democracy. Here is a man demolishing a House of Parliament but Sinn Féin and the Unionist parties have erected one. It is splendid that they have done so and I commend them warmly for so doing.
Grattan's Parliament was mentioned earlier. I think bribes of £40,000 were paid. It was sold to the bank for £50,000 and Dublin Castle made a profit. This time we are demolishing a House of Parliament to pay bank debts of €64 billion. History is repeating itself and I stand by Henry Grattan, to whom Senator Mooney referred.
It was said this proposal is in Fine Gael's election manifesto but I will tell the Minister of State what is in the programme for Government. It states: "We will reduce the size of the Department of An Taoiseach, transforming it in the equivalent of a Cabinet office that oversees the delivery of a new Programme for Government." When the Taoiseach came into office, there were 187 people in his Department but there are now 200 - nearly three times the number of Senators - whose average pay is in excess of that of a Senator. In addition to visiting this House the odd time, the Taoiseach should run his Department and account for it. Why has he allowed a contradiction?
The programme for Government committed to reducing the size of the Department of An Taoiseach to a small Cabinet office. When the Constitution was framed in 1937, there were 21 people in that Department but he has increased it to 200. Very wisely, the Constitution limited the number of Senators to 60. We did not account for the vast explosion in public expenditure but the Taoiseach's Department did. It is now ten times bigger than when the late Éamon de Valera was in it. What were the people in the Department doing then? They were keeping Ireland out of World War II, writing a Constitution, which I admire greatly, and getting the treaty ports back. The Taoiseach should explain why he has recruited more people at higher pay than Senators in direct contradiction to the programme for Government. It is not credible to me to say he is implementing his programme for Government.
I refer to the €65,621 paid to Senators. The average pay in the Taoiseach's Department is approximately 7% higher, at €65,950. This bloated Department, which had 20 people when the Constitution was written, now has people earning €65,950. The number of Members in the Seanad, which the Taoiseach is trying to abolish, has stayed at 60, each earning €65,621.
I refer to the Book of Estimates, which the Minister of State brings to the House and, in particular, to the quango section. Fine Gael promised to abolish quangos but it never happened. The average pay in the Irish Film Board is €96,800. The average pay in the Citizens Information Board - work which Senators do - is €72,100. The average pay in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which we will discuss next week, is €69,700. The average pay in the Family Support Agency, around which Senators do much work, is €73,500. We should compare these rates of pay to the €65,621 paid to Senators.
The Taoiseach is impressed by New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden. On average, it is between 45 and 50 years since their second chambers were abolished. This is sort of unicameralism for slow learners. When I go to New Zealand, I see very impressive rugby and a most impressive agriculture sector. If I go to Sweden and Denmark, I see very impressive people who read the small print about the euro and did not join. It is a pity we did not do that. The Taoiseach is impressed by the wrong things in Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand when he becomes an advocate of unicameralism. Our briefing states that of 161 public submissions to the Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform in 2004, none recommended the abolition of the Seanad. This is the real definition of a solo run if ever there was one.
Between 1997 to 2000 the number of senior civil servants grew by 82% while the number of civil servants, as a whole, grew by 27%. There was a managerial growth in spending which the Government has not tackled but the number of Senators has stayed at 60. That is a very useful protection.
The antagonism towards Northern Ireland contrasts with what Mr. Blair's Government did in 2003. He renewed the free transfer of every book published in the United Kingdom to the library in Trinity College Dublin so that the citizens of this country could avail of it. Many other universities in the United Kingdom wanted that concession. Mr. Blair's friendliness towards this country must be contrasted most unfavourably with the hostility of the Taoiseach towards my constituents in Northern Ireland.
Those who sit on the other side should oppose this Bill. We have already spent €2.1 million in preparing the Bill according to the Book of Estimates, and it will cost another €21 million to have a referendum according to the Minister for Finance. The pay of Senators comes to €3.9 million per year. I do not know if anyone else will be fired, other people will be doing the work, so about half that money comes back in tax. Even as a purely economic proposition, this is silly.
On the abolition of university seats, if we are not wanted here, we will find plenty of things to do. That contrasts with what the Wright report found on the Department of Finance, that 39 out 542 staff had qualifications in economics at masters level or above. That is 7%. My university rates eighth in Europe in terms of research and 49th in the world, so it is fine if we are not wanted. Perhaps the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny is right and all the other Prime Ministers in Britain and previous Taoisigh were wrong but we have served this country splendidly.
I ask those opposite not to be Jesuitical and say that the Bill should pass so the people can decide; we have already committed €23 million which could be used for any other purpose. Do not indulge the Taoiseach. The statues of two people stand outside the front gates of Trinity College. One of them, Oliver Goldsmith, said parliaments do not intervene, rich men make the laws. Rich men are certainly advocating this one. The other, Edmund Burke, said for tyranny to prevail, all we need is for good men to do nothing. Those on the opposite side of the House should not do nothing, they should state their opposition. I commend Deputies Joanna Tuffy, Bernard Durkan, Arthur Spring and all the wonderful Deputies who support us. The Government side should put its opposition where it counts and not let this run. I came into this Seanad at a time when the country was bankrupt to help as best I could. I fear this is a case where the might of the Government and all its PR machine will prevail over democracy.
There is a crisis here similar to that when John Kells Ingram wrote about 1798:
They rose in dark and evil daysDo not let might conquer right on this one ladies and gentlemen. We must oppose this Bill.
To right their native land;
They kindled here a living blaze
That nothing shall withstand.
Alas! that might can vanquish Right -
They fell and passed away;
But true men, like you men,
Are plenty here today.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. A number of years ago, I promised him a No. 2 vote in a Seanad election, which at the time was as good as a No. 1 vote. I made it clear who I was giving my No. 1 vote and why giving the Minister of State a No. 2 vote would be as good as giving him a No. 1 vote. Little did I think when I was marking that ballot paper that I would be in here speaking about the abolition of the Seanad and the Minister of State would be dealing with it on behalf of the Taoiseach. He is very welcome here. As he knows it is very difficult for some from Cork to vote for someone from Dublin but we made an exception on that occasion.
We are discussing the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill. I am in favour of the Bill because I contested the general election and signed the party pledge. Part of policy then and now is that there would be a referendum. That does not mean I am in favour of the abolition of the Seanad. I have already been misquoted in one newspaper where a quote I gave was taken out of context. I have clearly said there is an urgent need for reform if we want to retain the Seanad. Even a simple thing like how the Seanad is elected shows a disconnect between the ordinary person in the street, who feels he has no part in Seanad elections. As a result he believes he has no influence over the make-up of the second House of the Oireachtas.
There is a need for major reform of how we do business. As someone who served for a brief period in the European Parliament, I was on the committee that drafted a directive that entitles people to travel to another member state if there is an undue delay in getting health care in his own country or if that health care is not available. Each member of the committee had a substantial say on the contents of that directive. On Committee Stage, 400 amendments were tabled. Everyone played their part and it was not a case that because one party said one thing, the other party would say the opposite. We all sat down to decide what was best for Europe and the health care of European citizens. That directive was subsequently passed and came into effect in 2011. It is unfortunate that we have 30 months to implement it, which brings us to October of this year, yet I have not yet seen any discussion or legislation on it.
That emphasises how an institution with Members from 27 member states has a huge influence regarding the contents of the final document. It is very different here. If an idea does not come from a Department, it is put on the shelf. I have been involved in the drafting of two Bills, one of which, the Health (Amendment) Bill 2012, follows on from a Bill published by the current Minister for Health when he was in opposition in 2009. At present, the Minister of State cannot drive a car without insurance and I cannot practice as a solicitor without insurance but there is no law requiring a local GP to have insurance. In 2009, the then Minister promised that by January 2010 the Department would deal with the issue and there would be legislation in place. Three and a half years later there is no sign of that legislation. I published by Bill in December 2012. It was debated here and there was a lot consultation but if it does not come directly from the Department it must be parked. The ordinary members of the public are the losers in that process.
The second Bill followed on from a report of the Law Reform Commission and relates to missing persons. If someone drowns and the body is not found, no death certificate can be issued, even if everyone knows that person is dead. I published a draft Bill to address that and I believe that there should be movement on the issue. That is how Senators can play a constructive role in the legislative process. For too long we have had a policy of parking issues raised by Private Members' Bills, which is totally different from my experience at European level. There is even a reluctance to take amendments on board. There has been some improvement in the last two years but much more could be done. No matter what area of life people are from, everyone has some expertise to contribute to a debate and to legislation. We are too resistant to taking people's concerns on board. We must review how we do that. We urgently need to take on board the concerns of all Members in the Seanad.
I will give another example I have focused on over the last two years. We are offering six month contracts to more than 50% of junior doctors employed in the health service and we wonder then why so many junior doctors leave the country.
We still have made little or no progress in that area. Every contribution I have made has been constructive in trying to find the solution to an existing problem. It costs €75 million each year for the 600 medical students who graduate from our universities. Within 12 months of qualifying 50% of that investment in medical graduates has left the country. Let me put it this way: if the IDA built a factory in the morning costing €75 million which was demolished within 12 months there would be uproar. We are not taking the issues I have raised on board, because if a directive does not come from the Department, the problem must be parked.
The issue of the cost of the Seanad has been raised. The cost of the Seanad is €2 per annum per person living in the country. It is less than the cost of two cans of coke or a half glass of beer. That is a very cheap price for democracy in real terms - €2 per annum per person. I have been to countries which have a government, but no democracy. We have a democracy and we should support and improve it. The Seanad can play a far more constructive part in dealing with this.
I attended the Committee on Health and Children this morning in which an EU Directive on health care was coming through. Even if we had a concern about the issue, the date by which to make our concerns knowns had passed.
On my first day in the Seanad I said the Seanad could play a role in regard to European Union legislation and directives. I suggested that two days per month would be set aside for dealing with these issues. The European Commission publishes its agenda for the following year in November of every year. Last year some 129 new proposals were included in the European Commission programme for 2013. Have they been discussed in this House or in the Lower House? The answer is "No". We do not know about it because something that starts this year will take two to three years to come through the system. The Treaty of Lisbon provides an eight week gap in which to make observations, but we are not using that eight week period because there is no procedure for doing it.
Another issue I raised in respect of the health committee, was the directive on medical devices. We were being asked to give a stamp of approval to this directive. I asked a simple question, namely, if anyone had consulted with the medical devises companies in this country before we signed off on it. It turned out there was no consultation. I refused to allow it to go through the committee. As a result, in fairness the committee administrative staff wrote to the representatives from the industry and found they did have concerns with the directive. The Seanad could play an important role in ensuring the checks and balances are considered in EU legislation. We need to set aside specific time every month to look at those issues. That is the background to my position on the referendum
It is part of Government policy to put the question on the abolition of the Seanad to a referendum of the people but we must look to see if there is a third option, to put a question on the reform of the Seanad. That should be taken on board.
Article 2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann states:
The most fundamental right of any citizen is the entitlement to vote, yet Ireland did not allow Mary McAleese to vote for herself in the presidential election in which she was elected President. Those living in the North and overseas, referred to in Article 2 of the Constitution, are refused the right to vote, the very entitlement of any citizen of any nation. Some 1.8 million people in the North are entitled to be Irish citizens, yet they are not entitled to vote. Some 800,000 Irish passport holders living overseas are entitled to be Irish citizens but they are not entitled to vote. The Irish diaspora of 70 million people are not given a say either. They are referred to in Article 2 of the Constitution but we do not give them a vote. We deny 800,000 Irish passport holders living overseas the right to vote because the establishment would not allow such a significant number of people to hold the balance of power in the Dáil and to decide who would be in government. We will not give people in the North a vote in the Dáil. The 800,000 Irish passport holders living outside the State is the equivalent of the population in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford combined. Can one imagine excluding those citizens from voting in the Irish State? Of the 33 countries in the Council of Europe, only four countries, like Ireland, do not give its citizens overseas the vote. The Seanad is the Chamber in which they could be given a say and the political establishment might allow them to have a voice within the system of Government and yet, the Government is saying "No" and has suggested it has a better solution. In fact, it has no solution. We will continue to deny Irish citizens the right to have a say.
It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.
We have appointed great people from the North to the Seanad. Their names have been mentioned already, people such as Séamus Mallon, Gordon Wilson and others from both traditions. Is this not the place that those people will have a say? I believe this is the House in which they could have a say. That is a significant national democratic deficit. It is a disgrace. Other colleagues have pointed an even greater and equally worrying democratic deficit, when one considers our treatment of EU legislation. This is nothing short of scandalous, a deficit unparalleled. Let us just imagine that the first piece of organ transplantation legislation in the history of the State was signed by a Minister on 28 August last year, without reference to the Dáil, the Seanad or the Committee, despite being asked to do so. If one speaks to Mark Murphy, the chief executive of the Irish Kidney Association, he will say that if the legislation had been better, lives would have been saved. That is how important the scrutiny of legislation is. It is an example of how important EU directives are.
Let us consider how badly we do legislation. In one year there was 1,291 EU regulations introduced, 594 statutory instruments, without any scrutiny by any legislator and 164 EU directives brought in a similar manner as the organ transplantation legislation was brought into this county. That is a total of 2,049 laws, regulations, directives. How many laws were the Oireachtas responsible for in a year? Just 47 Bills were enacted by the Oireachtas, amounting in terms of quantity to just 2% of the EU legislation. Were we allowed to scrutinize the EU directives? No, we were not. The Ministers did that themselves without scrutiny by anybody. A former Taoiseach said that the number of officials in Departments who look at EU regulations is very small. Who is looking at the 164 EU directives? They are simply being plucked and transposed straight into Irish law without anyone really looking at them.
The Government knows this is a problem. Let us consider what Deputy Paul Keogh, now the Chief Whip, said when in Opposition. Even in respect of those statutory instruments which are laid before the House I believe that Members do not ever read them. There were 594 statutory instruments. Have we a national democratic deficit? Is the way we treat legislation in this country broken in the same way as our economy and bank are broken? It is. Yet, we are certainly not fixing it, we are making a bad situation worse. We have no proposal to fix our national democratic deficit or to give citizens in the North or those overseas a vote in the Parliament. Let us consider how hard Daniel O'Connell had to struggle to give Catholics the vote, how hard women struggled to get the vote and how those in the North struggled so hard to get the vote.
They achieved that over time, and yet as a nation we deny votes to 1.8 million people in the North and 800,000 Irish passport holders overseas. One in every three persons entitled to be an Irish citizen is denied a vote and the Government's solution to the problem is to make the problem worse.
I thank Senator Daly for sharing time. In 2008, at the start of our economic difficulties, I recall one Senator saying that the first casualty of an economic crisis is democracy. Last week, I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Its first depiction was of the national socialists coming to power in Germany in 1932 where they dismantled the Reichstag, which had disastrous consequences. There is a similarity in that the economic turmoil in Germany at that time was such that people did not have money and were dying of hunger as they were unable to access food. There are similarities here with the downturn in the economy. I am concerned that we are moving in that direction. Some have made the analogy between, say, the final solution and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 which is before the Houses. I have been struck and I have made the comment in the House during the past 12 months or more on the totalitarian tendencies that I have seen from the Government. It has manifested itself almost weekly in the Dáil and also in the Seanad where important Bills which have a significant impact on people's lives are guillotined as a matter of routine. I can understand that a Government which has a 60 seat majority can use it to bulldoze whatever it wishes through the Houses. However, I do not think that dismantling the second Chamber, one of the institutions of the State, is in the interests of the public or in the interests of holding the Government to account. Governments, when held to account, invariably perform much better than they do if not held to account. While certain Ministers are reluctant to come to this House, the same was true when Fianna Fáil was in power. On the guillotining of Bills, the property tax legislation was guillotined in this House at section 5, yet it had 57 sections. Subsequent to that, issues came to light in the media which should have been highlighted and debated in this House. That did not happen.
It is not just the guillotining of Bills. The control of business and speaking times are other issues. The rigid Whip system is applied in all circumstances, even in issues of conscience. We have a situation at present where Members in Government in the Lower House are concerned about the pressure being brought to bear on them, which in some instances is tantamount to bullying, when those at the head of their parties try to whip them into line to ensure they vote in a certain way. Seeking for people to abrogate their conscience flies in the face of democracy but it is also not in the interests of the public. What these Houses must do is hear contrarian views and debate them in a strong and robust manner in these Houses. That is the essence of democracy. We dismantle democracy at our peril.
What is needed is reform of both Houses and probably of all three Houses, as it were. The Presidency should also be looked at as part of this reform. Of all the Houses, the Lower House is in urgent need of reform. A system has evolved where 15 members in Cabinet prescribe the business of the House, the time to be allocated for it, which is done through the Whips, and what is on the agenda. That has proven not to be in the interests of our people. In fact the groupthink which took place throughout the last decade whereby both Government and Opposition parties all wanted to spend more and wanted to reduce taxes has, in a significant way, contributed to the current difficulties which every citizen is experiencing.
There is also the dismantling of local government and particularly town councils. The Minister was in New Ross last Saturday and witnessed the improvements the town council has made to the town. I spent 30 years on New Ross Town Council and 25 years on Wexford County Council. While Wexford County Council has more resources, I can honestly say that the input of members of the town council was far more constructive and had a much better influence on the lives of people than Wexford County Council. In the Houses, we see what influence we really have, given that those 15 people prescribe the business of the House. We had a situation last year where four Cabinet Ministers complained three or four days prior to the budget that they had no idea what was in it because the Economic Management Council, made up of three former schoolteachers and one former trade union official, were dictating the way the economy would go, backed up by people in the public service who never worked in the private sector. The issue of EU scrutiny has been mentioned.
This House has a proud record of making contributions to debates. It has many independent voices which have spoken and enhanced not just the legislation and the debate but have had an influence on the lives of people in various ways. I would like to think we would move from a position of abolition to reforming all the Houses in the interests of the people, because that is why we are here. We are not here to serve ourselves. We are not here for greater devolution of powers on to ourselves or on to the small and elite. This is a democracy. We dismantle it at our peril.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It was a great honour for me to have been nominated by the Taoiseach to the Seanad in May 2011. It was perhaps the greatest honour bestowed on me, more so than any other sporting achievements I have received during my 30 years involvement in athletics. In GAA terms, I got in through the back door. I did not have to go through what the university panel Senators had to go through and, unlike the other Senators, I did not have to go through the county councils in order to sit in this House, which is a privilege when one considers all the great Senators who sat here in the past.
I was never involved in politics. Coming here from a world of sports and business, I knew it would be a daunting task. I did not know how many Senators were in the House. I did not know how Senators were elected and, as a matter of fact, I did not know the real function of the Seanad. The majority of people I have met in social circles ever since my arrival in the Seanad probably do not know the above either. Yes, the Government wants to radically reform the public service, the health system, the legal system, the courts, local government, child protection, etc. The Government is planning to deliver the biggest reform in politics and the public sector in the history of the State. I am in favour of the Bill being put to a referendum for the people to decide whether the Seanad should remain or be abolished. I cannot necessarily say that I will vote "Yes" in the ballot box.
I agree that Ireland has too many politicians for its size and that there is far too much bureaucracy in the way of completing what should be the simplest of tasks. Abolishing the Seanad to reduce the number of politicians serving our country is not necessarily the way to go. While the Scandinavian countries abolished their second houses and New Zealand, on the other hand, has shown that it is perfectly possible to establish the checks and balances with a single chamber, I have identified that a number of emerging democracies are introducing bicameral systems. At the same time I wonder where the notion of abolishing the Seanad came from. Was it over a cup of coffee? Was it over a pint? Did it come from an individual, perhaps in the Civil Service who had some influence over the Taoiseach and he decided to go off on a whim with it?
Having been a Member for two years, I fear the abolition of the Seanad. I would like to see a reformed Seanad, capable of independently scrutinising legislation, effecting change and holding the Government of the day to account. I would not like to see another proposed committee system.
The proposed abolition of the Seanad completely alters our Constitution and how the various powers vested in the Oireachtas work. The abolition of the Seanad would involve a comprehensive restructuring and rewriting of our Constitution. I do not believe the public really understands this.
I have to admit that since arriving here in 2011, I have been confused and somewhat frustrated by the way things are achieved in the Seanad, the Dáil and the Civil Service. There are roadblocks and hurdles in the way of achieving goals and success. One spends half of one's time ducking and diving. Most of the time a good idea is shot down for the sake of disagreement. Every day I come in here I question the function of the Seanad. Sometimes I think it is a joke, but most times I clearly see through the debate, the scrutiny of legislation, the intellect within it and the powers of force that are truly represented here for the people of Ireland.
There is no doubt that a lot of time is wasted in the Seanad, in particular during the Order of Business with free-for-all questions to the Leader and the opportunity for Senators to be heard. I wonder what it achieves. An average of 33 questions are asked each day on the Order of Business, or about 100 questions a month, yet I still fail to see what action is derived from them. The Order of Business should be used for matters of national importance and not for comments on news items in the media or local issues.
I welcome the Government taking the issue of abolishing the Seanad to the people of Ireland. It should be based not on cost and efficiency, but rather who is best to provide the proper checks and balances when it comes to representing the people of Ireland. That is best done in the Seanad.