Tuesday, 27 June 2017
When the people of Ireland voted in a referendum not to amend the Constitution to abolish Seanad Éireann, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, indicated at the time that he regarded this as a wallop. After a period of time he said that he would take the path of reform. Acting on foot of the programme for Government acceptance and inclusion of the Manning report, I and other Senators brought forward the Bill which was annexed to the report of the Manning committee to implement its proposals for the reform of the Seanad.
That Bill was considered on Second Stage, the Stage on which the principle of the matter is decided. When the Second Stage debate was over, the Government parties did not oppose its passage to the next Stage. At that point, I was informed that the then Taoiseach wished to address the matter in this House. He came to the House and told us that it was his intention to establish an all-party implementation group to push forward the implementation of the Manning committee report. I and others were left with the strong impression that as soon as the implementation group was formed, there would be progress on the Bill. That was a year ago and nothing has happened on the implementation group. After considerable pressure, the former Taoiseach invited various groups in both Houses of the Oireachtas to contribute Members to the implementation group, but that process appears to have stalled as well.
In the recent leadership contest in the Fine Gael Party I noted that the candidate who is now the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, put before his party colleagues the idea that a special panel would be created for emigrant voters. This is something that was not contemplated by the Manning report. He said nothing about the rest of the report. More recently, it has become clear that there is a total absence of commitment to the Manning report. Indeed, doubts were voiced at the most senior level within the Government as to whether it is wise or appropriate to proceed with the report.
In view of those circumstances, I have asked this House by way of this Commencement matter to give the Government, through the Minister of State whom I welcome, an opportunity to state where the Government stands on this issue. Has the commitment solemnly stated in the programme for Government to implement the Manning report wavered in any way?Is the alternative scenario canvassed by the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, in his leadership manifesto now being investigated by the Government? I am giving the Minister of State the opportunity to state the intentions of the Government clearly and unambiguously.
I thank the Senator for the chance to clarify the record and confirm that there is no change to the Government's commitment. We will go through the formalities. I must have missed the matter in the debate on the leadership contest.
A Programme for a Partnership Government confirms the Government's commitment to pursue the implementation of the Manning report. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Senator and reassure him that the Government remains committed to the implementation of the Manning report on Seanad reform.
Following the Seanad referendum, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, established an independent working group on Seanad reform in December 2014. The principal focus of the working group was on the possible reform of the Seanad electoral system. The working group also explored ways of reforming Seanad Éireann generally and the manner in which it carries out its business. The group examined these issues within existing constitutional parameters.
The key recommendations in the report were that the majority of Senators should be elected by the popular vote in a one person, one vote system and that this principle should be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; that there should be a review of the panel system; that provision should be made for the online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers; that there should be a greater role for the Seanad in the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation; and that an interim limitation body should be established to oversee the implementation of the changes.
The then Taoiseach welcomed the report when it was published and said there needed to be a public and political discussion and consultation on it. During 2015, Members of the last Seanad had the opportunity to discuss the recommendations in the report with two members of the working group, namely, former Senators, Maurice Manning, who chaired the working group, and Joe O'Toole. The Seanad also had the opportunity last year to debate many of the recommendations in the Manning report relating to reform of the process and system for electing Senators during the debate to which Senator McDowell referred on his 2016 Bill.
While this is not the time to go over all of that debate, on that day we discussed the significant challenges these reforms present and that there were more decisions to be made around those reforms because there was conflict in the Bill and the Manning report. All that could be teased out. We discussed the fact that it will be difficult, but that we were prepared to do that and it would take time. There would be significant implementation challenges presented by reforms, but we would have to work through that. That commitment was given on the day of that debate. I clearly pointed out that there were still choices to be made around some of the suggested reforms.
In addition to that debate, in response to a suggestion by Deputy Micheál Martin in the Dáil in 2016, the then Taoiseach agreed that the interim implementation proposed in the Manning report should be set up, comprising members of all parties and groups in the Dáil and Seanad, provided that there was all-party support for its implementation. On foot of this, he wrote to party leaders and Dáil and Seanad groups seeking agreement for the setting up of an implementation group and seeking nominees. I understand this process is ongoing, with a small number of nominees awaited. I hope that this process will be concluded as soon as possible and that the Oireachtas implementation group will be established in the very near future.
In the meantime, and for the information of Senators, I would like to draw their attention to the options paper on voting at the presidential elections by citizens resident outside of the State published by my Department last March. Many of the implementation issues that arose during the debate on the Seanad reform proposals are reflected and addressed in that paper. These include the need to modernise the process for the registration of voters, and in this context the Government decided work on that should proceed. This has commenced in the Department. It will benefit both agendas.
It is a significant and essential task, and critical to the achievement of the reforms proposed for the election of Members to the House because the system would be quite similar. Matters are progressing. I am not sure that all the nominations have been sent in because there were some delays, but I will check the situation and update the Senator.
I fully accept that the Minister of State, Deputy English, is speaking in good faith but, unfortunately, I do not accept that the Government is acting in good faith on this matter. The then Taoiseach sought nominations to the group in December 2016. To say that matters are ongoing in June, more than six months later, is, frankly, ridiculous. If there was any appetite for moving ahead with the implementation group, it would have been progressed long before now.
The Minister of State has drawn attention to the extension of the franchise to Irish citizens living abroad for presidential elections.Last weekend, I saw in the papers a statement indicating that the Government no longer intends to do that either. I am drawing the conclusion that whereas the script that the Minister of State has read in the House points in one direction but cannot explain the massive delays, the reality is that Seanad reform has been killed off and that Government Senators in this House have been assured that it will not happen. The real explanation for the non-implementation of the implementation group, if I can put it that way, is that there is no appetite for it whatsoever and that assurances were given in the course of the Fine Gael leadership contest that it would not happen.
Those groups in this House that do believe in reform are going to meet next week. We will make time available by altering the Order of Business, if necessary, to ensure that there will be reform in this House and that it will be discussed. If it is blocked here, there is always the alternative that a similar Bill will be moved in Dáil Éireann. If it comes back here and is blocked, it will become law 90 days later. That is what the Constitution states.
I did not see the article the Senator referred to about the presidential vote, but the work has started in my Department and is ongoing. We are not doing that for fun. We are committed to it and I understand that there were delays with the nominations. I cannot explain six months of delays. I will check for the Senator to make sure that all of those nominations are now included. However, the last time I personally checked that, they were not all included and that was not that long ago. I will check and let the Senator know.