Tuesday, 10 November 2020
Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House again. As the Cathaoirleach has said, we are becoming friends in the context of debates on electoral reform. I am very happy to present this legislation to the House on Second Stage. To set it in context, one of the greatest achievements in society since the foundation of the State has been the significant and dramatic growth in the number of people who have gone on to further and higher education. We have moved from a situation where college was for a small elite to a point where we now have mass participation. Given the rapid changes we are experiencing, we are all going to need to upskill and reskill, and our higher education institutions and training centres are more than up for the challenge.
At the time of the composition of the Seanad in the 1930s, only about one in 50 young people went on to university. Today, more than three in five of the relevant age cohort go on to study in a higher education institution in this State. When the number who study outside the State and those who engage in further education and training are taken into account, we have moved to a situation where further or third level education, while not quite universal, is seen as being within reach of everybody. While more can and should be done to improve access to education, successive governments deserve credit for investing in education. That investment afforded me an opportunity to go on to college, and it afforded many others that opportunity as well. Ireland is now rightly recognised as a global centre for talent, innovation and creativity.
At the time of the 1979 referendum on the Seanad universities panel, participation rates had grown to about 20% of the age cohort. The older universities had been joined by the regional technical colleges, which would evolve to become institutes of technology, the National Institute for Higher Education, NIHE, in Limerick, which had been established in 1972 and went on to become the University of Limerick, UL, and the National Institute for Higher Education in Dublin, which went on to become Dublin City University, DCU, and which was established in 1980. The plan behind the 1979 referendum seems primarily to have been to ensure that the university seats could continue if it was the case that the National University of Ireland, NUI, was to dissolve. Interestingly, there is very limited legal or academic literature on the changes to the Constitution as a result of this referendum. Clearly, given that it took place in 1979, there has been no urgency on the part of the Oireachtas to address the results of that vote of the people.
A few specific changes have been made to give effect to the referendum result, the most recent of which was a 2013 Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil Senators. The leader of the Fianna Fáil group at the time was Senator Darragh O'Brien, and I am assured that the now Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will deliver on the desire for reform that he and his colleagues espoused at the time. The principles underpinning this Bill are the same as those that underpinned the Bill initiated seven years ago.
I am very conscious of the bigger question of Seanad reform, the composition of this House and how it operates. I look forward to that debate and to contributing to that process of change. I know some believe that the Seanad should be elected on a universal franchise rather than through specific panels. I do not believe that the Seanad should be a mirror image of the Dáil. I believe that an effective second Chamber should operate in a different manner and that the Seanad is at its most effective when it provides alternative perspectives and different expertise from those of the Lower House. This Bill can be seen as a first step on the road to Seanad reform, but it needs to be taken on its own merits. In the first instance, and most importantly, it is giving effect to a vote of the people. It also addresses the anomaly whereby graduates of certain institutions are granted the right to vote on the basis that they have obtained a degree or higher education qualification and not because of the institution that they attended. To put it in perspective, of the 32,993 graduates from publicly funded higher education institutions in this State who obtained a primary honours degree in 2018, 3,023 were from Trinity College Dublin, 11,741 were from the NUI institutions - UCD, UCC, NUIG and Maynooth University, while 18,229 were from other institutions. Even if the graduates from the NUI and Trinity are combined, they are still a lesser number than those from all of the other publicly funded institutions in the State. This Bill proposes to broaden the right to vote to include graduates of the University of Limerick, Dublin City University, the Technological University, TU, Dublin, the new Munster technological university, the institutes of technology, some of which will also become technological universities in the near future, and other colleges. It provides that, in future, an institution that makes awards that are recognised as part of the framework of qualifications managed by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, can, with ministerial approval, ensure that its graduates will have a vote in Seanad elections.
The Bill currently provides for institutions in the State, but I believe that a mechanism could be found in the future that could also provide for graduates from the North, from Queen's University Belfast or Ulster University, to have a vote, and I believe that this is an issue that should be discussed as part of the work of the shared island unit in the Department of An Taoiseach. The proposal in this Bill is that we will abolish the two current three-seat university constituencies and create a single six-seat constituency. The Bill does not make specific provision for the management of the electoral register for the universities panel. It has been acknowledged by the NUI and Trinity that there are challenges with the existing registers and this issue needs to be addressed.
The Minister of State will be very much aware, as most of us will, that there are similar challenges with the register of electors generally that we use for all of our elections and referendums. I welcome the fact that the Government is regarding the establishment of an electoral commission as a high priority, and I know of the Minister of State's personal commitment to ensure that this happens. My understanding is that the heads of that Bill will soon be brought to Cabinet and we should see proposed legislation on this area in the first half of 2021. One of the key immediate tasks for this new commission will be the overhaul of the general register of electors and the Seanad register, and these need to be brought into the digital age. In the short term I would envisage that when granting the vote for the universities panel, graduates of other institutions would be required to opt in to register to vote. I believe that it would be quite cumbersome and costly to ask institutions to carry out a formal process where they try to register all possible graduate voters.
I have been fortunate to have had discussions with the Minister of State as well as the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and departmental officials, and I am grateful that there is a commitment from Government to look at the broader question of Seanad reform and that proposals will be brought from the Department next year. It would be good to see developments in this area. I am satisfied, however, that by this explicit commitment that has been given to me by Government, regardless of how far we have progressed with overall Seanad reform, during 2021 the seventh amendment to the Constitution will finally be enacted and we will have voting rights on the universities panel extended to graduates of other institutions.
The Minister of State recently took part in an excellent debate in this House on a Bill that was brought forward by Senators Ruane and Higgins that touched on the issue of political funding and campaigning. I have to say that, since my election to the House, it was probably the debate I enjoyed most because it was quite free ranging and people were quite honest, as the number of Senators who were here at the time will recall.The debate strayed into other areas that are really important: political literacy, the regulation of online political advertising, micro targeting and misinformation.
Given the importance of this legislation on an electoral commission to the underpinning our democracy and to avoid any possibility that this area of work gets delayed or bogged down at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which is also going to be dealing with some incredibly important issues, I would urge that a separate Oireachtas committee to address the electoral commission and the issues with which it must deal would be established. One of these matters very clearly has to be around the Seanad register.
I put forward this Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill in a spirit of partnership. I welcome contributions as to how it can be improved. I appreciate that the Government wishes to consider the broader question of Seanad reform, but I do welcome assurances that the next Seanad election will see the extension of the graduate franchise and, finally, in 2021, after what will be 42 years, we will enact the seventh amendment to the Constitution.
I thank Senator Byrne for bringing forward this Bill, for his work in that respect, and indeed his commitment to the ideals that he has set out. In recent days we have listened to our friends across the pond in the United States and how their Government is not listening to the will of the people by facilitating and authorising the President-elect's transition team to commence its work. We laugh and scoff at their antics. The debate tonight shows that we have little to be scoffing at, given that there have been 16 governments in this State since the passing of the seventh amendment in 1979. Sixteen administrations have failed to implement the will of the people as expressed in a referendum that was passed with a 92% "Yes" vote and where more than half a million people voted in the affirmative, and yet 41 years later we have had no movement.
It might not be or have been the most important thing on the agenda of this Government or that of any of the 15 previous governments, but it goes to the very heart of democracy in this country if the express will of the people is going unimplemented for 41 years. Furthermore, it makes a mockery of the much-discussed issue of Seanad reform. One wonders if we will ever reach such utopia if a simple Bill like this cannot be implemented. It is, of course, inherently unfair that only graduates of Trinity and the NUI can receive a vote in Seanad elections and that those from DCU, UL and institutes of technology do not, 18,229 of whom graduated last year, as Senator Byrne has outlined. I know that the programme for Government does commit to electoral reform and that there will be electoral commission forthcoming. I am not too sure, though, if this is within its remit.
I do welcome the electoral reform commission, however, something that I think is very positive. I hope that when it is implemented, we will eventually see the cleaning up of our electoral registers for Dáil elections. Again, many have tut-tutted at the claims of fraudulent practices in the US. They do not have to look that far to see the potential for fraudulent practices. The potential to abuse our system as it stands is huge, such as polling cards being issued to tenants or homeowners who have long moved on from their last registered address. Our practices are rife for abuse because of the outdated methods we have, and the need to embrace modern technology when it comes to elections in this country is pressing.
I said it during the last term, I said it recently on the Order of Business and I am saying it now directly to the Minister of State. I hope he will look seriously at the concept of online voting using secure portals. We can do it for the payment of taxation in this country. To raise the taxes to fund this country, the Revenue Commissioners use such portals. We can do it with voting as well, whether by using the PPS number to access a secure online voting portal or whatever. The Bill before us is not complicated and rights a wrong by giving our graduates their entitlement to vote in the Upper House elections. Of course, if we had true reform, there would be a phrase that should not be issued within these hallowed walls then everyone in this country would have a vote in the Seanad elections. In 2018 I was a member of the Seanad reform implementation group, chaired expertly by Senator McDowell. Despite the efforts of the former Minister, Mr. Ross, to thwart his election as chairman, I am proud he was chairman. He chaired it expertly and brought together many different strands. He produced a magnificent body of work by Christmas 2018. Shamefully, it took the then Minister a further year to come into the Houses to debate something on which cross-party discussion had taken place in the compilation of that report. There was no effort whatsoever to embrace reform.
During those sessions I argued strongly for the election of Seanad Members by full popular vote of all the citizens on the same day as the Dáil general election. Not surprisingly, not too many people supported my proposition at the implementation group, but Senator McDowell gave me a very fair hearing and we had some very good exchanges. Theresa Reidy came in to brief us on issues such as that and allowing citizens who are abroad to vote, as did Joe O'Toole. Before anyone thinks it is totally mad, Senator McDowell informed me that we actually had an election of the Seanad by full popular vote in 1925 across a single 15-seat constituency made up of the entire State.
As I said, I lost that particular debate at the reform committee, but I look forward to revisiting it as part of the wider debate. For now, I am happy to have my name on the Bill and to second the proposal by Senator Byrne. It is very worthwhile legislation which shows our commitment to wanting to advance proper reform of this House and its membership by empowering our citizens. I also look forward to engaging with the Minister of State on electoral reform.
I will slightly amend the order of speakers. Senator Norris and the Independent grouping have been kind enough to allow Senator Bacik to speak now because I believe she has an important birthday celebration to attend. Her mother, Irena, is having a birthday party and I do not want to delay her further. I wish the Senator's mother a happy birthday.
I am very grateful to you, a Chathaoirligh, and to my colleagues. I hasten to add that the party will mostly take place on Zoom and entirely in keeping with regulations.
I welcome the Minister of State. I commend Senators Byrne, Cassells and their colleagues on proposing this Bill and highlighting Seanad reform so early in the term of this new Seanad. Reform is clearly long overdue as the Senators have said. Many of us who have been in this House for some time will feel a strong sense of déjà vubecause we have debated Seanad reform on several occasions. Unfortunately, successive governments over many decades have dragged their heels on it.
It is disappointing that the programme for Government does not specifically mention Seanad reform, although I very much welcome the electoral commission proposal, which is also Labour Party policy. I think the Green Party was the only one of the three coalition parties to mention Seanad reform and to commit to implementing the Manning report. The Manning report gives us an important blueprint for reform. In 2015, the Labour Party group, of which I was then leader, made a submission to the Manning process. I urge colleagues to read that submission, which made some very practical suggestions and recommendations for reform that would not require constitutional amendment and yet would introduce universal suffrage, which is clearly the gold standard.
Of course, it would also have implemented the seventh amendment and extended the franchise on the university panels to graduates of all the institutions.I do support that, as does the Labour Party, but the difficulty for me is that the reform is one that needs to be done as part of a package of reforms because, otherwise, we are going to see such a skewing of the electorate. We would have six Senators elected by 800,000 university graduates with just this Bill. Without the other much needed reforms, one would not have any reform to the electoral process for the other 43 Senators. It is clear that the 11 are contained in the Constitution and that cannot be changed.
Our proposal in 2015 was that there would be universal suffrage and that those who were graduates of any third level institution would have the option of voting for the university panel instead of one of the other panels, so that one would not be doubly enfranchised as a university graduate, but the franchise would be extended to all third level graduates for one panel. It is a simple and straightforward way of dealing with necessary Seanad reform.
Clearly, there are other big issues with the Bill in terms of logistical challenges, operational challenges and the cost of running for an election where one potentially has 800,000 electors, but those should not stand in the way of reform. I very much support the momentum towards reform. I hope we will see the great work that was done in the Manning reform process and with Senator McDowell's group, the Seanad reform implementation group, on which I was proud to represent the Labour Party. I hope we will be able to build on that in the lifetime of this Government and this Seanad, and we will be able to bring forward the package of reforms that is so badly needed, that can be done within the Constitution and that can bring about universal suffrage, including also the expansion of the university panel to graduates of all third level institutions.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan. I was a little taken aback when, as I understood it, Senator Cassells attempted to draw a comparison between the university seats and President Donald Trump. I have heard everything now. My God almighty.
I have been campaigning for Seanad reform for more than 40 years and the parties did bugger all about it.
I know the Senator did, but the parties are the ones who are responsible for it. I have been campaigning for it. Among the points I made all the time is that the University of Limerick and Dublin City University, DCU, should be included. Of course they should. I have some reservations about this business of diplomas, which I noted is not defined in the definitions section. We do not know what a diploma is or where it comes from. If one looks at the definition of a university, as I understand it, and I taught in a university for many years, it is something that takes in a universal spectrum of ideas - engineering, the arts, medicine and other such areas - not more valuable but quite distinct from a technological university. I say this despite the fact that my cousin, Professor David FitzPatrick, is head of the technological universities body, so I expect I will get a kind of Christmas card from him for saying that.
I have campaigned on this issue for many years. I ask Senator Byrne why he would take on the only democratic element in this House. We are the only democratic element. I have a constituency of 65,000 voters. NUI has 115,000. Those are constituencies. Let us compare that with the Taoiseach nominating 11 Members without even the farce of an election. There is power, and that of course is what it is all about. It is all about the vested party interests. I regard this as nothing more than a gerrymander. It may seem to be rather an unusual word to use, but it is a gerrymander intended to advantage the political parties and keep the independent voices out. For that reason, I hope it will fail.
The Bill takes one element out of the Bill that my late friend and colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn, introduced in this House. That was put together by a group of lawyers that Feargal paid for, who had damn all understanding of the university constituencies, and for that reason it was a complete nonsense.I say it is a gerrymander because it would keep out new, young blood. I think that is what this House needs. You are a very young Cathaoirleach.
I am a young 76. I think that is a point worth making. I do not know whether it is true, but I was told that neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil is supporting this Bill. We will wait to see. That would be interesting in and of itself.
I have campaigned over many years for reform of the Seanad and I would like real reform, that is, reform of the entire institution. I think that is unlikely for the reasons I have stated, but there we are. In any case, we did manage to save this House. It is a very good thing for this country that we did. With that, I will sit down and leave the debate to my colleagues.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who has responsibility for heritage and electoral reform. I support the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020 that has been brought forward by my colleagues, Senators Malcolm Byrne, Pat Casey and Shane Cassells. We are very fortunate to have experts such as the Senators who have spoken ahead of us, nominated through the Seanad university panels. Everybody here in the Seanad brings different perspectives and value. We all add to the informed debate in this Chamber.
Currently, only graduates from NUI colleges – NUI Galway, UCD and UCC - and TCD can vote for university panel Senators. Students with qualifications from the new technological universities, such as the proposed Connacht Ulster alliance, cannot vote for these positions. They would also give a regional perspective. Currently, we have two universities from Dublin. I am not exactly sure how much regional perspective there is, although I know many people from across the country also attend those universities.
As has been indicated by Senator Cassells, it is more than 40 years, 1979, since people voted in favour of a referendum to extend voting rights to all graduates. On that occasion, 92% of people voted "Yes" to the seventh amendment to the Constitution, allowing the State to determine by law which institutions of higher education would be entitled to elect Members of the Seanad.
In 2014, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, appointed a working group to examine and make recommendations on reforms to the Seanad electoral system, its powers and functions. As Senator Bacik mentioned, the group was chaired by then Senator Maurice Manning. The working group on Seanad reform included former Leaders of the Seanad, former Ministers and academics. In 2016 a campaign called Graduate Equality was launched by Marian O'Donnell of the University of Limerick, UL, students' union, Lysette Golden of the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, students' union, and Domhnaill Harkin of DCU students' union. These students came together to ask why their vote did not count, why their degree was worth less than others and why the Government was undermining the value of their degree. The current inequality among third level graduates is unfounded and unfair.
In the current system the turnout is low. It is roughly 30%. That could be linked to the challenges with the electoral registers, as mentioned by Senator Byrne. We need to increase our impact and visibility on the work that we do in the Seanad. We need to show our country the value that we bring to developing policies and legislation. That impacts on every single man, woman and child in this State.
Graduates want their voices heard. They want to see the reform that was promised after the Seanad was saved from abolition. This Bill paves the way for the reform of the Seanad. We need to make it more accessible and inclusive for all.
It is noted that the Minister will decide which institutes or students are eligible. We are looking at graduates in particular with NFQ level 6, diploma level, which means we are opening it up to institutes of technology and universities. I also call for the inclusion and the focus on further education to reflect our aims in this Government, in particular given that we have established a new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and we are looking at putting those on an equal footing.
I would also like to ensure that funding from the Department allows for the administration of these panels. We have heard about the challenges with the electoral registers. I am happy to hear from Senator Byrne about his focus on bringing this into the digital age. I would encourage that as well. As far as I am aware, the current system is postal and many ballots are returned unfilled. It is understandable that it is difficult to keep the register up to date as people change address. That is understandable.Currently, the university franchise is 177,000 voters. With this Bill, we will be increasing it to 800,000 citizens. I want to see Seanad reform. This is just the very first step. With this Bill, we are fulfilling the amendment to open up voting to all third level institutes. I thank my colleagues for bringing the Bill forward. It is really important that we do this as soon as possible. With the Minister of State's remit over electoral reform, I know this will be a priority for him as well.
The year 1979 is such a long time ago. Some of us were not born and others will remember the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. We had the horrific loss of life in Warrenpoint and Mullaghmore. On a less serious point, Monaghan won their first Ulster title in 41 years in 1979, and the Boomtown Rats were raging No. 1 in the charts with "I Don't Like Mondays".
We really stand indicted today that we do not like reform. Where have we been since? Senator Norris is correct that we stand indicted as a democratic body - Upper and Lower Houses. We did not reflect the will of the people who voted for change in 1979. It is quite astonishing that a challenge was not brought seeking declaratory reliefs and other reliefs from the court, insisting that we were brought up to scratch.
I will be supporting tonight's Bill. I commend Senators Byrne, Cassells and Casey. Let us not get carried away with ourselves, however. It is reforming the most democratic working aspect of the House, but in doing so, it implements the will of the people. There is always room for improvement and it is achievable. To make the working of the Seanad more accessible to people is irresistible as we try to fulfil the potential of this House. This House has such potential but it is largely unfulfilled. This will be a signal, not a silver bullet solution, of the great work that can be done and to extend the franchise.
I have a lot of respect for and I listened carefully to the elected Members from those two big constituencies. We already had addresses from Senators Bacik and Norris, and I am sure Senator McDowell will speak. Senator McDowell was one of the Attorneys General at the time who saved this House. I am convinced that, with a few days to go, the intervention of ex-Attorneys General at the time was pivotal.
This House has a huge potential, and I know I am talking to the converted. The potential to give a franchise to graduates in the North of the island of Ireland could bring people together. I am not sure what exactly Senator Norris meant by referring to gerrymandering. This is not a gerrymandering, and Senator Norris, of anyone, has no fears from this opening up of the floodgates. He will probably get an even bigger vote and he is a veteran of a national election to be President of Ireland. I know it will cost more money but we are talking about democracy. It will be a huge constituency. After the wait from 1979, I will not turn down any opportunity that comes my way. If two buses come after waiting on a bus for several months, I will encourage both. This is the first bus that has come in this direction in so long, and I do not think it was fair to say it is a gerrymandering approach. Maybe Senator Norris said that tongue in cheek. I look forward to the reply as the movers close the debate in response to that, because it is not gerrymandering. I associate that with the past and with a different world when Northern Ireland was a very cold place for the nationalist community. There was gerrymandering in constituencies. This is a celebration of democracy. It opens it out for so many more people. There is a great chance for reform coming now. We should grasp this moment and progress all opportunities.I stand reserved in judgment about how far we will get because if one looks at the abysmal track record, it would not encourage one that there will be a massive breakthrough any day soon. I am more hopeful than anything else. There is litigation in the High Court, which would focus people's minds on this issue. Senator Byrne is aware of that.
I would like to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. Perhaps I should have done so at the outset. He is a party colleague and it is wonderful that he is here.
I encourage Members not to feel threatened by this Bill. I know one could say something better is coming but can we afford to wait when this will do a bit of good in an area that is probably the proudest aspect of the Seanad with the huge constituency it has? It opens the franchise out to so many more people. It will win much more accessibility into the workings of this democratic system, it will demystify it and people will be able to feel a sense of ownership of this Upper House.
I commend and thank the proposers of this Bill. It will get the support of the Green Party.
Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill. I have to ask, however, why we are here on the Private Members' business time of a Government party not debating the Seanad Bill that was produced by the Seanad reform implementation group? That was a group that involved a cross-party selection of representatives that worked painstakingly for months and that delivered a good Bill at the end of that process. That Bill would legislate to radically reform elections to the Seanad and it includes this very proposal of a single six-seat university and higher education constituency. It would also legislate in order that 43 seats would be elected across the five vocational panels and of that number, 28 seats would be elected by the people of Ireland, Irish citizens from the North and the South who would choose and register to vote on their vocational panel of interest. A regrettable departure from the Manning report and the Seanad Bill from the Seanad reform implementation group is that the Bill before us does not include 15 seats that would be elected by Deputies, outgoing Senators, city councillors and county councillors. Under the Seanad Bill from the Seanad reform implementation group, the 11 nominees of the Taoiseach would remain for now and continue to be nominated by the Taoiseach as it would require constitutional change to alter that but when doing so, as proposed by the Seanad reform implementation group in an amendment passed by me and Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach would factor in and take into account the gender balance and the diversity of representation following a Seanad election.
The Bill to achieve all of this is ready and we should be here discussing the Seanad Bill as proposed by the all-party Seanad reform implementation group. It was set up by the Taoiseach and it met weekly in the Department of the Taoiseach. I and my Sinn Féin colleagues engaged with it in good faith. It is one of the things I am most proud to have been involved with in my term in the Oireachtas. Sinn Féin called for the group to be extended to examine constitutional issues such as the abolition of Taoiseach's nominees, the calling for Seanad elections, as Senator Cassells has mentioned, on the same day as elections to the Dáil, the abolition of a requirement for postal votes, the provision of equal gender representation and the representation of marginalised groups.
We will support the Bill today. It is regrettable on a number of fronts that it divides those who want reform. It perhaps pitches the Trinity Senators against those who are in favour of reform and the Trinity Senators are in favour of reform. It will potentially be a distraction from the Seanad Bill itself, should the Government decide to run with this Bill and use this to show it is reforming the Seanad.That would be a distraction from the Bill. I call on the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to bring forward the Seanad reform Bill, as proposed by the Seanad reform implementation group. The report group recommended that the Taoiseach bring forward the Bill in the Dáil. I dug out the letter from the chairperson of the group, Senator McDowell, to the then Taoiseach, which accompanied the report on its delivery to the Department of the Taoiseach. The chairperson stated he believed "the Bill should be introduced to Dáil Éireann rather than into the Seanad and that reform of the Seanad is not a matter best left to the initiative of the unreformed Seanad but is a matter on which the will of the people, as expressed through the Dáil, should be ascertained and implemented".
I want to make two final points concerning the Bill.
My next two points refer exactly to this Bill, and, in fairness, they were touched on by Senator Byrne. If Irish citizens in the North are entitled to vote across five vocational panels, then surely Irish citizens should be allowed to choose their university or higher education constituency. Mention was made of Queen's University, and I am thinking of St. Mary's University College, Ulster University, the Open University and Stranmillis University College. As I read it, that would require an amendment to section 7 to remove "in the State".
I would also like to see an amendment to allow anyone who has achieved a level 5 qualification a right to choose to elect Senators from the university and higher education constituency. We will be supporting this Bill, but the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and the Government must bring forward the Seanad Bill.
I support the extension of the university franchise and I have done so for a long time. In that context, of course, I cannot but support the Bill and its proposals. I specifically commend several choices which were made. I support seeking a wide single six-seater university panel. That is important. Another decision which I support, and which was something I and Senator Warfield pressed for within the Seanad reform implementation group, is the idea that it should be inclusive of those with diploma-level qualifications.
I support giving the vote to as wide a pool of graduates as possible. It is the fulfilment of the spirit of the 1979 referendum. We also had a referendum in 2013, however. Members of the public, most of whom did not have a vote for this House, then chose to retain this House. I believe that choice was made on the basis of the promise that the Seanad would be reformed and that people would have a say in it. I am very keen, therefore, that we have legislation that will reflect that mandate from 1979, and it is a disgrace that it has been that long. The Tánaiste has been around longer than this mandate. This has been a very long time coming, but we also have a mandate from 2013. It is a disgrace that the last Seanad, the 25th Seanad, which only existed by the grace of ordinary voting members of the public of every kind who voted and chose to say that they believed reform is possible, did not deliver that reform. The reason it did not deliver was a lack of good faith from the Government, unfortunately.
That is why I have a couple of notes of caution and expansion regarding how we need to be more ambitious about this and similar legislation. Along with 11 other Senators, I introduced a Seanad reform Bill on my first day in the Seanad in 2016. I did that because I was passionate about it. I know Senators Byrne and Cassells, who also served on the Seanad reform implementation group with me, are also passionate about this matter. We brought forward that Bill in 2016 on the first day the last Seanad sat. We were implored to set that legislation aside and to engage in a cross-party process which would involve all parties, all of which would put forward representatives.That is why I have a question regarding an explicit commitment. There was an explicit commitment in the last programme for Government, which committed to implementing the Manning report. We engaged in that process and we set aside our legislation. We worked for many months, and we hear the sincerity expressed by Senators Cassells and Warfield when they speak about it. There was major and genuine engagement and co-operation to produce that Seanad reform Bill. It did not contain everything we all wanted, but it was agreed cross-party. It was agreed as the starting point and as legislation which everyone stood over that had emerged from a cross-party committee. It was requested by and sent to the then Taoiseach. It was then ignored.
As I think was mentioned by Senator Cassells, after it was ignored it took a year for the relevant Minister to engage. The legislation was also dismissed by the then Tánaiste, who really rolled back on the very basic principle of the Manning report. The part on which he rolled back and on which he expressed questions concerned whether we want to take any power away from councillors and if we really want to have the public vote happen. That was the part which was questioned and that is why I am concerned. While I believe in the absolute sincerity of the Senators proposing this legislation regarding the university franchise, I know for a fact that there are those in government now and who were in government previously who actively opposed the extension of the franchise to the wider public.
I am interested in steps forward, but those steps forward cannot be into a cul-de-sac. This cannot be something that gets framed as Seanad reform, following which we are then told there was Seanad reform, and the issue then gets parked for another 30 or 40 years. I am supporting this Bill on Second Stage and I am genuinely delighted that there are Members across the House who are passionate about this issue. I will, however, be seeking to widen the ambition of this legislation and to amend it on Committee Stage to ensure arrows and pointers are built into this legislation to ensure the widening of the franchise. I refer to the other 43 seats and how they might be approached. It will be crucial for me that the other aspects of that agreed cross-party Bill are either included or are set on a hard timeline, because there must be steps forward.
When we talk about first steps, we need to be not just walking but running at this stage. I was concerned about what will happen when the proposed electoral commission comes to be, something so many of us supported and I was among the many who called for it. I do not want it, however, to decide that it will lead with only university panels. I want the electoral commission and it is a good idea that there would be a separate committee to look at it. It will need to look, though, at all those other issues which were mandated in that agreed Seanad reform legislation. That is vital.
I do not want us to miss the biggest train moving through this area, the electoral commission, because we are taking small steps. This concerns raising our collective ambition and delivering on reform. It is unfortunate also that one of the smallest measures, the measure which the Government has the most control over, regarding the 11 senators, cannot be changed without a referendum. Our committee, however, recommended that the Taoiseach's 11 nominees be used to insert a diversity of voices into the Seanad. We actually had a step backwards, however.
The last few Governments had nominated five independent Members representing a cross-section of society. Those Members did not necessarily come only from NGOs, but also from business, the arts and the area of children rights. I do not want to disparage any Member who was nominated. There had been a precedent, however, that five of those 11 senators would come from different perspectives in society, but that was reduced to one Senator in this Seanad and that is regrettable. I am delighted that the one selection is Senator Eileen Flynn, who is making an excellent contribution to this House. It is a loss, however, that there is only one such Member and not five. If six Members are affected by this, then that will represent 10% of the House and that will not be enough. We need universal suffrage. I want all graduates to be able to vote, but I also want all citizens to be able to vote. Our proposals were clear. They do not cut across or conflict with the Dáil.It is a very different purpose. It is not a geographical but a thematic House. It is, in the end, constitutionally in terms of money, legislation and so forth, subject to the other House. There is no danger of replication or overlap of powers in that regard. The work put in by Dr. Maurice Manning and others and the resulting legislation was entirely constitutionally compatible. It was expertly drafted. It was agreed, it exists, it is on a shelf in the Taoiseach's office, and it is widely available.
I echo what Senator Warfield said. Let us have the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, bring forward that legislation. I am sure Senators Byrne and Cassells, if they saw momentum coming around that agreed collective legislation that addresses those issues they are addressing, would support that.
I thank Senators for bringing forward their Bill. I will support it today on Second Stage. I hope to engage actively on it between now and Committee Stage, but I also hope that between now and Committee Stage we see the Government stepping forward, delivering the agreed Bill on Seanad reform and bringing it to us.
I welcome this Bill. I also welcome the Minister of State and thank the three Fianna Fáil Senators for proposing the legislation. I will be supporting the Bill, first, on the basis of equality among third level graduates. I would have received correspondence in the past from graduates of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, or DCU who would be very affronted that they do not have a vote in a Seanad election. On that basis, this Bill regularises that. It changes that system and that is to be commended.
On the basis of equality within society, this increases the proportion of the electorate who have a vote in a Seanad election, and that certainly is welcome. It results in more democracy, but of course not full democracy. As has been pointed out, it does make the election process for six seats more democratic but it does nothing for the remaining seats, including the seat occupied by me at the moment. I would equally have received a view even today from an individual who would be absolutely affronted that now that we are proposing to change or reform something that has been in place since 1937 and is of its time, we are still not doing anything about those who are not third level graduates, who will not have a vote, and who will not be able to participate in the process.
I am a graduate and as, up to this, a former councillor and former Deputy and, at the next Seanad election, an outgoing Senator, I will have five panel votes. With a vote on the NUI panel, I will have six votes, and maybe there are some people in the House who will have seven votes if they are also a Trinity graduate. This is assuming this Bill does not come into play, not that I can predict when the next election will be, of course, or how fast this process might take place, or what the end result will be. Those are the anomalies that people see, however. In the referendum on the Seanad in 2013, I know of some individuals who were voting to retain the Seanad because they had a vote as an NUIG graduate and they wanted to protect that vote that others did not have. They felt it was something of added value or something that made them different, separate and stand out, which is unusual.
On the Taoiseach's nominations, and I know it is straying into other areas, but again I believe it is important that, whoever the Taoiseach, he or she can ensure that there is a Government majority in this House. I know others would disagree, that that should not be the case, but I believe it is important because if a Government cannot get its legislation through, then that creates problems. That is not to say that this House is an obstructing House, but that is being honest, and that, I think, was the reason that the measure was put in place at the time.It is important that a Government is able to push through legislation as if it could not, the democratically elected element in the other House would be superseded or at least impacted by this Chamber.
The role of councillors is also important. This is a positive element as councillors through this have a link to the Oireachtas. They have a link with Deputies in their constituencies but they also have a link directly to this Chamber because they elect Senators. It is an important link. There is the question of population. If every graduate uses each vote, the figure is 800,000, which would put the six seats on a level similar to a European election. I hope it would not be as costly as a European election but it raises the question. The current system of Senators running for the Dáil or former Deputies running for the Seanad - I put my hand up for that - is often criticised but politics is a precarious life. Having experience in either House and contesting election for the other is beneficial. I do not see an issue with it.
This Bill is the right step but it is not perfect. It makes the process for graduates more democratic and every graduate would have a vote. There are people who have not been lucky enough to gain entry to university, either in the past because of finances or their position in life, or who may start a college course and drop out. There are people who did not achieve the required points total or for whom college was not the right fit. They are still disenfranchised and it is a matter that the Seanad reform debate took in before. In my time as Government Chief Whip, although we went through much legislation, the matter was not brought forward. This is an important measure but it should be part of a wider package of reform.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank Senator Cassells for his very generous encomium, which is not entirely deserved. I reiterate my thanks to him, along with Senators Warfield and Higgins, for their enthusiastic and totally committed support of the Seanad implementation group process.
If we are talking about between 800,000 and 1 million people as part of this electorate for six seats in the Seanad, we should bear in mind, as Senator Byrne has said, that this is an increasing proportion of the population all the time. This also means 70% of the elected seats and seven eighths of the seats in the complete Seanad would be elected by 1,200 people. The entire purpose of the Manning process was to end that totally anomalous position.
I fully accept the proposition that we cannot discriminate now - and there is no reason to discriminate - between the various universities and institutions of higher education, including technical universities and the like, and the university I represent, which is the National University of Ireland. From that perspective the principle of this Bill is something I wholly support. The Cathaoirleach has ruled that the other Bill, which has been published and is available to be moved in the House, is not under consideration today. This is very much like Banquo'sghost as we are dealing with a proposal that would enfranchise between 800,000 and 1 million citizens over time but which at the same time would leave between 2 million and 3 million citizens disenfranchised with no direct say in the composition of this House. We must bear that in mind.
Various people claim to have saved this Chamber but the late Feargal Quinn, above all others, did so.I want to pay tribute to his memory. I remember standing on Shop Street in Galway and in various other places, Athlone and the like, with him and people flocked to him wondering why he was on their street. He handed out leaflets to people who had no vote in Seanad elections saying please save the Seanad. It was his triumph, above all, that this House was saved. His posthumous last article pointed out a few things which, I think, sometimes should bear repetition here today.
The present programme for Government does not mention the reform of Seanad Éireann even though the Green Party, in fairness to it, attempted to insert it into its programme for Government. The second thing is that we have to go back to the attempt to abolish this House to remember that those of us who were opposed to the abolition of the House said it should be reformed. As an effort to trample down their idealism leading members of Fine Gael, including the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said there would be no reform and if one voted to keep the Seanad one would be voting for an unreformed Seanad in order to scupper that argument. It was only after Enda Kenny got his wallop that he finally, about a year later, began to talk about reforming the Seanad and establishing the Manning report, to which Senator Higgins referred. The Manning report was established and came forward with workable proposals within the Constitution for the reform of this body and the way it was elected. Its report was given to the Government but nothing happened. It was ignored.
Seanad reform legislation was proposed by Senator Higgins, myself and others as soon as we could in 2016. In the 2016 election, let us remember, it was necessary to recruit Independents to support that Government one of whom was our former colleague, Katherine Zappone. She insisted that the implementation of the Manning report would be included in the programme for Government in 2016. She was given that commitment and it was scandalously reneged on by cynical people. Nothing happened under Taoiseach Enda Kenny. When he was succeeded by the present Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, what actually happened was that after a lot of humming and hawing, and a lot of procrastination, the Seanad reform implementation group, which I was privileged to chair, was established. It had terms of reference that envisaged that the Manning report would be implemented. It was decided upon by that Cabinet in its entirety. We worked from June to December 2018. I should say for some people's guidance here today, in case they have forgotten it because they probably never heard it, that at our first meeting some Members who were totally opposed to the idea of reform proposed that we should visit New Zealand, a country that had abolished its Senate and proposed, at the same time, that we should extend our timeframe to accommodate such foreign travel. I just want to remember those things.
When we presented the report nothing happened. Senator Warfield has referred kindly to my covering letter to the then Taoiseach saying that this Chamber is not the place to propose reform and that such a proposal must come from the Dáil if it is to have any chance. I eventually sought a meeting with the present Tánaiste, then Taoiseach. I just want Members to know what happened at it. I came to his office and said, "What is happening to our report because you have made some very cool offhand remarks about it in Dáil Éireann?" What did he say? He said he had no interest in implementing my report, our report. None whatever. He said that if some private Members of Dáil Éireann wish to move that report then that was their business but there would be a free vote on it and he assured me it would not command majority support.So the Members of this House, including Senator Cassells and others, had slaved to produce this report. We had, at the taxpayers' expense, an expert draftsman draw up the legislation that was there. We, and this must be emphasised, had provided that the reform could be implemented in stages, that it was not all going to be big bang. I had assured Members of this House that they were not turkeys voting for an early Christmas, that they would have at least one more election - most of them - under the old regime. That was not good enough for them. The cynicism was absolutely there. When the 2020 general election took place, all mention of Seanad reform evaporated from the political discourse. Now that is really shameful. The people involved - two successive taoisigh, Enda Kenny and the present Tánaiste - bear the personal blame for that. In fairness to the present Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, he did encourage Senator Cassells to participate in the hope that there would be Seanad reform, but unfortunately it has evaporated completely in the meantime.
I just want to say this: the implementation group's report, which is more elaborate than Senator Byrne's Bill, was designed to give effect to the will of the people. I am 100% behind the idea that no third level institution, be it a university or an institute of higher education, should be left out of the process or discriminated against. I do not see, however, why the farmer's wife, or the farmer, for that matter, or the bricklayer, or the construction worker, or the taxi driver, or all of those people who are citizens of an equal Republic stand with no votes in our present system.
Whereas I commend the Senators on giving life to and resurrecting the prospect of equity as between universities as envisaged by the 1979 referendum, which, by the way, was not envisaged to widen the franchise but merely to facilitate the dismemberment of the NUI, which was then in contemplation, and I will support this Bill, because it is the principle of the Bill that we are debating now, this is not enough. It is simply not enough. It is utterly inadequate.
I want to make one final point about democracy. If there are between 800,000 and 1 million voters for six seats in this House, then the quota for election will be one seventh of that, which is well over 100,000 votes. To become a university or higher education Senator will require five to ten times the level of No. 1 votes required to get into Dáil Éireann.
I want to make one point and it is not being glorious at all. I asked a researcher in my Independent group to quantify how many Deputies got fewer first preference votes than I did in this Chamber, and it was in excess of 102 got fewer, and Senator Mullen, in fact, got even more votes. I am making the point that if we are going down the road of saying that it takes 100,000 people to put in one university Senator and people in Dáil Éireann, representing some constituencies in Dublin, and some of whom have very high office, have 3,000 or 4,000 votes, that is not democratic.
The time has come to consider every citizen in this country as having an entitlement to participate in the Upper House in their democracy. The time has come to dismantle elitism. I welcome this Bill in so far as it is a small step in that process.The fundamental issue is that this House needs to be radically reformed. All the promises have been made, and have been shamefully traduced by cynical people who asked Members of this House, and of Dáil Éireann when Senator Cassells was a Deputy, to participate in a process which they cynically threw into the bin before congratulating themselves for having delayed the process for another couple of years. That is shameful. While I will be positive about the Senators' Bill tonight, I have to say it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to acknowledge that forces which have no commitment to reform of this House constantly succeed by pretending to be concerned with the issue, while doing nothing about it.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to take part in this Second Stage debate. It has been a very informed and wide-ranging debate so far. I thank Senators Byrne, Casey and Cassells for introducing the Bill, which enables us to debate and consider the relevant issues around extending the franchise of the universities panel of Seanad Éireann to all citizens of Ireland who are over the age of 18 and hold an appropriate third level qualification from an Irish institution of higher education.
Before I get into the body of my response, it is important to say that we have a robust, if somewhat imperfect, democracy. This House contributes greatly to that, largely due to the people who are elected here. We must defend and stand up for our democratic structures and those who choose political life as a vocation. It is also important to note that the diversity of both Houses, and councils around the country, is not reflective of the diversity of wider society. It took a Taoiseach's nomination to put forward Senator Eileen Flynn, who has already made an immense contribution to this House. We need more of that diversity within our democracy at every level - at local level and in both Houses.
The proposal is set against a background of Seanad reform and it is important that this Bill is considered in that wider context. I welcome the rich contributions of all Members who have spoken this evening. As Senators will be aware, Seanad reform has been on the agenda for many years. Despite numerous reports over the years, we have not succeeded in achieving all-party agreement on substantive reform of the Seanad. There have been many reports on Seanad reform, dating as far back as 1943 and most recently in 2018, but none of these programmes has led to radical reform.
Since the defeat of the 2013 referendum to abolish the Seanad, two key reports have been published. These reports included recommendations for the extension of the university franchise at Seanad elections to graduates of other institutions of higher education in the State. The first of these reports was published in 2015 by the working group on Seanad reform, under the chairmanship of Dr. Maurice Manning, a former Senator, who has been mentioned here this evening. The main electoral reform recommendations of that report were that the majority of Seanad seats should be elected by popular vote in a one person, one vote system; that this principle should be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport; that provision should be made for online registration for voters and the downloading of ballot papers; and that there should be a greater role for the Seanad in the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation.
The second report was published in December 2018 by the Seanad reform implementation group, which was established under the chairmanship of Senator Michael McDowell, who did an incredible job, and had cross-party membership. This group's main term of reference was to consider how to implement the recommendations of the Manning report, and whether any variations to those recommendations were needed. In addition to this report, the group published an accompanying Bill to implement its proposals. One of the features of the implementation group's report was the lack of consensus among the group. The report set out different statements of positions from members of the group who had dissenting views. These ranged from re-examining the constitutional provisions with regard to the Seanad, with the aim of achieving more meaningful reform, to having an electorate composed only of residents in the State.The group's report highlighted the difficulty in achieving consensus, where there is a variety of views on complex and multifaceted issues.
While Programme for Government: Our Shared Future does not make an explicit commitment on Seanad reform, as has been highlighted, it is recognised across all parties that there is a need for substantive change. The issue of the university franchise, which has been outstanding since the seventh amendment to the Constitution in 1979, is among those we must address as part of Seanad reform. On this basis, the Government is not opposing this positive Bill. I am happy to work with the Senators on progressing the intent of this specific legislation next year. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on this issue with a view to bringing forward proposals to the Cabinet in due course on Seanad reform following agreement with the coalition partners by 2021. The issue of the university franchise will be explicitly dealt with within that. I know that the Senators will play an active role in ensuring the intent of this legislation is kept alive in next year's measures. On this basis, I hope this Bill can be adjourned on Second Stage and this work can be allowed to proceed following the completion of our electoral commission plans. The Senators can, of course, move forward with the Bill in the future if they believe that sufficient progress is not being made within a specific timeframe.
The Government's immediate goals with regard to a general electoral reform Bill are set out as a substantive reform agenda in Programme for Government: Our Shared Future. I am prioritising these electoral reform commitments and my Department is finalising the general scheme of an electoral reform Bill to give effect to these commitments. The Bill will provide for the establishment of an independent statutory electoral commission; provide for the modernisation of the electoral registration process; introduce new regulatory provisions to ensure transparency in online, paid political advertising; and facilitate the holding of electoral events during Covid-19-type restrictions. These significant reform measures are the result of the culmination of many years of work, and I am determined to deliver them as a matter of priority.
The plans to establish an electoral commission are at an advanced state within my Department. In accordance with the commitment in the current programme for Government, it is intended that an electoral commission will be in place by the end of next year. My Department is working to meet this commitment and is confident that it can be met.
On the modernisation of the electoral register, I know that the register is a matter close to the hearts of Members. It has been mentioned here this evening. This area has been in need of reform for some time. The modernisation of our electoral registration structures is well advanced. Through the electoral reform Bill, my Department proposes to create the legislative framework for the introduction of rolling, or continuously updated, registration; the simplification of forms and the registration process, including an online option; a single national electoral register database; and a move to a system of verification using PPS numbers.
With regard to the regulation of online political advertising, the electoral reform Bill will provide for the compulsory labelling of online, paid-for political advertisements commissioned for, and during, electoral periods. It will provide for the clear display of specified information, or a link to that information, in a transparent and conspicuous manner. In doing so, it will apply similar but enhanced requirements for online political advertising during electoral periods to those that apply to traditional poster-type advertising.
The last reform issue that will be included in the electoral reform Bill is the provision for legislative amendments to electoral law to facilitate the holding of polls during times of Covid-19-type restrictions. Measures include holding a poll over more than one day to facilitate social distancing at polling stations and providing appropriate arrangements for special voters. We are mindful that a significant election took place in recent days in the United States during a Covid-19 event.
Having outlined my priorities for electoral reform, I would like to return again to the Bill that is before us, which deals with the university franchise at Seanad elections. While it is a short, four-section Bill, and on the face of it might seem straightforward, it is a complex proposal and a number of questions arise. Apart from how this proposal will fit into any overall reform of the Seanad, many issues need to be considered in detail. Section 6(1)(c) of the Bill appears to give the Minister the power to address many of these issues by way of making regulations. However, this may not be the most appropriate way to proceed, and it may be more appropriate to address these issues in the Bill itself. While l do not propose to outline every detail that would need to be addressed, I will point to a number of issues in the Bill that require more analysis and consideration.For example, there appears to be no clear definition in the Bill of what is meant by "institutions of higher education in the State", which is the term used in Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution. This would have to be defined. Detailed consideration would have to be given to what third level qualifications should be recognised as confirming a right to vote. Should it be a degree and a diploma from an institution, as set out in the Bill? If that is the case, then should a holder of a certificate from an institution also be granted a right to vote or should only the holders of a degree be permitted to register? A related question arises about what type of appeal process should be in place for determining whether a qualification is adequate. Would there be a difficulty with third level courses undertaken in Irish institutions of higher education by Irish citizens but where the awarding authority is not Irish? These are not straightforward questions. They are complex and need to be teased out further.
At present, there are two university constituencies of three seats each, both of which have their own register of electors. With a widening of the franchise and the proposal in the Bill that there should be a single higher education constituency, should each institution hold its own register or should there be one centralised register? How would the logistics of managing the electoral register work in practice? At the very least, consultation with these institutions of higher education would be necessary.
I have also some questions about a returning officer for the proposed new higher education constituency. There is no provision in the Bill for a returning officer. Who should fulfil that role? Should there be a single returning officer for the entire constituency, and who should that person be? The Constitution provides that Seanad elections must be conducted by postal ballot. Extending the franchise as is proposed would lead to a significant increase in the number of postal ballots. This would certainly present logistical challenges, although not insurmountable, and careful planning and adequate resources would be required. I note that no costings accompany the Bill, and there is no doubt but that there would be an additional cost to the Exchequer to implement these proposals. An assessment of these costs must be carried out. The point about what price we put on our democracy was well made. That is important.
In conclusion, these questions and issues are not exhaustive. I raise them not to find fault with the Bill but to demonstrate the range and complexity of the matters that would need to be addressed in detail before the Bill could be advanced further. That is both from a legal point of view and from the point of view of practical implementation and operability. These are issues that must be considered and addressed in the coming months as part of Seanad reform measures, subject to Cabinet agreement in 2021. I welcome the debate that has taken place. It has been very useful and I give a commitment that we will work collaboratively to advance the reforms that we all agree are absolutely necessary.
By order of the House, we must conclude by 7.15 p.m. Four Senators who have indicated they wish to speak have been here for some time and I am anxious to include them. Senator Ward has been here for a long time. Are you willing to share time with your colleague, Senator Conway, and, similarly, will Senator Chambers share time with Senator Craughwell?
I understand that. I explained in the House earlier today that we asked Members, through the Whips, to indicate when they were going to speak so I could put them on the list. They do not necessarily have to be here. We are not finishing the debate as it is adjourning, but I am making sure to include the Members who have been here since the start. Next is Senator Ward and he can share time with Senator Conway, with four minutes each. Then it will be Senator Craughwell and Senator Chambers. I will let you contribute on another day, Senator Mullen.
I welcome this Bill and I commend Senators Byrne, Cassells and Casey on bringing it forward. The Minister of State has said he will support it, and I welcome that. I welcome him to the House. He has a very interesting portfolio and I am looking forward to much of the work he outlined in his speech this evening.
It is not true to say that everybody welcomes the Bill. We heard speeches from other Senators who have not welcomed it, but I believe it is a progressive initiative.It is true that it does not achieve everything we would want in terms of Seanad reform, but it makes progress. In listening to this debate, I recall 17 September 2003, which was the first time I came to this House. I was here to make a presentation to a committee that was chaired by the then Senator Mary O'Rourke on Seanad reform, so I am not a newcomer to this debate. The submission I made on that date addressed the panel of university Senators and on that occasion I suggested that it should be widened beyond the institutions in the State, which I recognise would require a further constitutional amendment, to include Irish graduates of any university anywhere in the world or of any institute of higher education. I believe it is doable, but I acknowledge that it is beyond the remit of the current constitutional framework.
When I look back on my comments on that date, it is interesting to consider how much my views have changed in some respects and have not changed in others. On that date I lamented the fact the Seanad had largely taken second place in the Houses and was largely irrelevant in terms of public discourse. The issues that have been identified by other Members are clear in terms of its lack of general public and universal franchise in that regard. I remember that I was followed on that day by my late friend and colleague, Noel Whelan, who contributed to the committee as well. He was a great commentator and a great supporter of Seanad reform. I note how much my views have changed. For example, on that occasion I suggested that the vote should be removed from councillors. Having spent 11 years as a councillor, I now recognise the great importance of that franchise, and obviously I was elected on foot of that.
I do not believe that is a fair comment from Senator Mullen because I have always supported this House and have always been a strong supporter of Seanad reform. I listened to what Senator McDowell said about his first preference vote. I am not being vainglorious in saying that of the 47 panel Senators and the six university Senators elected earlier this year I got the lowest first preference vote of any. I was also the most transfer friendly candidate in the election, so there was a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
I am in no way a small parcel. However, Senator McDowell is somewhat comparing apples with oranges when talking about the different votes because the electorates and the size of the electorates on each panel are very different. There is a danger of suggesting that this House should be elected in the same way as the Dáil is elected. I doubt that anybody is suggesting that, but we do not want a mirror of the other House. One of the great strengths of this House is that it is a reforming Chamber. It looks at things from a different perspective. The six university Senators in the House are, perhaps, the strongest advocates of that, and have been for many years and certainly since I have been following politics. They are Members who come with an alternative perspective that is tremendously important.
In conclusion, it is astonishing that we have waited as long as we have. The referendum that was passed in 1979 was during the Fourteenth Seanad. This is the Twenty-sixth Seanad and it has been 41 years since then. While acknowledging that it does not do everything we would like to do in Seanad reform, it behoves us to make the changes that were voted for by the people in 1979, whatever that motivation was. I acknowledge what Senator McDowell said, but the reality is that we have been given the power to make these changes, and we should do so. The provisions that are artfully put together in this Bill, in terms of not trying to define or corral them, give the Minister the power to make those regulations to expand the franchise to everybody.
I finally note that there is power in the Bill to include not just degree graduates and graduates of universities but anybody who attains a certain level in terms of a qualification, which also includes green certificate recipients, who are farmers, and other people. I take the point Senator McDowell made that we need to widen the franchise to the greatest extent possible to include people. That would benefit them and this House.
I thank Senator Ward for sharing time. I was listening to the debate in my office. In the first instance, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. I do not know him very well, but I have followed and always admired his career. I look forward to working with him on an interesting portfolio.
My first time to attend this House was in the mid-1990s when Maurice Manning, who was my then lecturer in UCD, brought us to the House.I am not sure if Senators Byrne or Higgins were there at that time, when we all soldiered together in UCD. The big discussion then was Seanad reform. No Seanad reform has taken place since that day back in 1995.
This Bill is welcome. The important distinction in the Bill is that it is giving weight to the decision of the people in the 1970s. The people actually voted for this. This was a specific question that was put to the people and these Houses have not accommodated that decision, so it is somewhat different in that sense. The Bill very much reflects the decision of the people at the time.
I always believed that we should look at the positives that the House, in its current and previous structures, has. I look at people like the former Senator Sean Barrett and the immense contribution that he made between 2011 and 2016 during my first term in the House. I also agree 100% with Senator McDowell about the late Feargal Quinn. I think he had more Private Member's Bills in this House than anybody, certainly in my time. They are two people I served with who stood out, and many current colleagues have impressed me enormously. This House does make a difference. I look at the work you have done, a Chathaoirligh, through the Seanad Public Consultation Committee, groundbreaking work where we shone a light on areas in this country that needed a light to be shone on them. The structure that is there at the moment does need to be changed. We do need to extend the franchise. About that there is no argument.
On the role of the county councillor, we should bear in mind that the county councillors who vote for many of us, including me, get their mandate from the people because they are directly elected by the people. I have described them as the professional electorate in the sense that we walk into each and every one of their homes and engage with them, bearing in mind that they have been elected themselves. They bring a vast array of experience and myriad knowledge that is quite remarkable. The give feedback to you, a Chathaoirligh, me and our other colleagues in terms of the work we do every day, and there are the ideas, the suggestions and the wealth of experience and opinions. Sometimes there are daft ideas, but a lot of the time they are very much on the money, seeing around bends and curves before other people do because they are on the ground where they receive their mandate. Many of them have been on the councils for decades. They know this country. They know every fibre, every move of this country and every move within their communities.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and I understand he is under pressure. There have been 13 review reports and three Bills - four, if we include this one - and another Bill is coming in the next few days, and nothing has happened.
That is fine. I compliment the two Senators on bringing forward the Bill and admire their honesty. I particularly admire the honesty of Senators Cassells and Kyne who opened up the real issues that annoy the people of this country.
One such issue is the 11 senators nominated by the Taoiseach, where we could bring in people from diverse backgrounds but do not. Rather, we bring in our own political party representatives. Despite what has been said during the debate, the Chamber is a replication of the Dáil, which is totally wrong. There are vocational panels. Every piece of legislation coming through the House should be viewed through the prism of the vocational panel that we stand on.
We do not need a Government majority in the House. We did not have the pleasure of that in the previous House-----
-----and legislation was ruthlessly scrutinised and it did not bring down a Government when it failed. That is the sort of Seanad that I want to be a party to. I want to be here to look at legislation from the labour perspective, which is the panel I am on, and comment on it based on how I think it will impact on labour.My colleague, Senator Martin, spoke about two buses passing and that one has to get on the third one when it passes. There is no point in being on the bus if it is going in the wrong direction or landing at the wrong terminus. That is of no value whatsoever. We need a Seanad which is based on the Manning report or as close as we can possibly get to it.
We have had a lot of talk about the role of councillors. We have not served them well in this House. I first raised the issue of their pay and PRSI in 2015. We have done sweet damn all for them during that period of time. Let us not try to fudge the issue of county councillors.
A universal franchise is needed for a section of this House. I support the increase in university participation. However I will not, on principle, support the Bill. I regret that, and I know Senator Byrne is a decent and honourable man, but I see the Bill as tokenism. We cannot cherry pick reform. We either reform the House and, if we cannot reform it, we should have another referendum and let the people decide what they want to do. We have let them down sorely since 2013.
In 2013, I was a citizen and watched people like Senator McDowell and the late Feargal Quinn at work. On the day former Senator John Crown left the House he said he would never return because we did not reform it. Former Senator Katherine Zappone was another Independent Senator. Really and truly, if we want reform let us come here with a proper Bill that allows us to reform.
Other people want to speak so I will end my contribution. I hope I will soon get a chance to address these issues. The Minister of State has a huge job ahead of him. I want to support him and be at his and everybody else's back. I want the reform that the people of Ireland want, not tokenism. I apologise for saying that because I know Senator Byrne put a lot of work into the Bill.
I commend Senators Byrne, Cassells and Casey for bringing the Bill forward. If nothing else it has facilitated debate and conversation around this topic. I am happy that we are discussing reform rather than abolition of the Seanad. That was the last big debate. I was utterly opposed to abolition because we offer an important check and balance on the work of Dáil Éireann. We also do our own work in terms of policy development, legislation and the scrutiny of legislation coming from Dáil Éireann.
I have served in Dáil Éireann and I do not think I have seen a Deputy get to his or her feet to criticise and denigrate their own House. We should not do too much of that. There are many positives about this House. We do things better, in some regards. There is far less parochialism, from what I have seen. The university Senators, in particular, are less burdened by constituency work and have more time to engage with legislation, scrutiny and policy development. There are many fine things about the House.
Reform of the vocational panels is needed because they were born in the 1930s, which was a different Ireland. There is a very positive link to many stakeholders across all of those panels. One of the very positive things about the vocational panels is that one must qualify in order to stand for election. That is why there is such diversity in terms of our experiences and qualifications across the House. There are lawyers, teachers, farmers, horticulturists, educators and academics. Many in the House have skills. Every single person that has contested the elections for the House has some qualification or experience behind him or her to support that candidacy. That is a positive.
Let us be positive about the House and the things that we do well and, sometimes, better than Dail Éireann. Let us have a little less of the criticism. I fully accept this is a small element of the reform that is needed and much more is needed. I concur with Senator McDowell's very finely put argument that we need to expand the franchise. Every citizen should have a stronger link to the Seanad. I do not agree that there is no link, because I agree with Senator Conway that there is a direct link through county councillors whom people elect. We are all, of course, open to taking phone calls and emails from any citizen of the country. I welcome the debate because we are moving in the right direction of reform rather than abolition.
There is no question that if one is going to engage in the piecemeal reform that this Bill involves, that is, reform of the university franchise, then a six-seater constituency is the way to go. One anomaly that it would get rid of is those who are graduates of Trinity College and NUI have two votes in the Seanad Éireann election. It is obvious that if we are going to give a vote to graduates then every graduate should be able to take part.It would seem to me to be a completely unfeasible and a very costly election. That is why we must consider broader change. The fact that this is such a minimalist change proposed, it is really down to the fact that we have stopped thinking about the necessity for constitutional plus legislative change here. I find no fault with former Senator Maurice Manning or with Senator McDowell with the implementation group. They operated within the remit they were given. If change is worth doing then it is worth doing right. I believe that what needs to happen is to have a national lists system for the election of Senators with every citizen having a vote. It would also get away from the excessive localism that can sometimes accompany the choice to be made in the Dáil election. An open system, such as they have in countries like Belgium and Austria, could really serve our democracy well.
Is something going to happen? Senator McDowell closed his speech with a reference to the cynicism underlying so many calls for reform from people who do not have any interest in the Seanad being reformed. It seems to me that the only way forward is to say that we are going to have a change and to set a date, that we will have a referendum in two or three years' time, and then put it back to the political process to come up with and to force us to a decision about what such change would look like. If one was to ask any sensible betting person about whether change is likely in the foreseeable future, let us just say that I do not think he or she would be putting money down.