Seanad Reform: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Seanad Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Senator Cáit Keane: Information on Cáit Keane Zoom on Cáit Keane] The Leader spoke about that issue.

  I also support the recommendation that the Seanad have responsibility for examining public service appointments and reviewing the performance of all Departments and State agencies. We need a review of State agencies, as demonstrated last week. Another reform measure implemented over the past two years is opening up the Seanad to the wider community and bringing various groups into the Seanad. The Leader deserves credit. It is envisaged that this offers a real opportunity for building bridges with citizens. The Leader spoke about MEPs. As a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I agree that this is another area that could be considered.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I ask the Senator to conclude.

Senator Cáit Keane: Information on Cáit Keane Zoom on Cáit Keane With regard to the Whip, the issue of stability is very important. We need to send a message of stability to the international community, as well as to the people. One person's crisis of conscience may be another person's finest opportunity. Everyone has his or her own idea about how to define conscience. Social issues are hugely important in conscience matters and I have had a crisis of conscience over many things. It would not want to lead to legislative paralysis.

Senator David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane I thank Senator Katherine Zappone for raising the issue in Private Members' time and allowing the Senators to discuss Seanad reform. I also thank her for keeping the issue on the agenda and Senator Feargal Quinn and Democracy Matters for their very good and constructive work in campaigning on this issue and listening to a range of ideas, voices and opinions in formulating policies and ideas on Seanad reform, which is very useful for all of us. Sinn Féin published proposals on Dáil reform and Seanad reform today. There is a range of opinion and much common ground between the issues that arise when we examine all the voices seeking real reform of the Seanad.

  We must accept that we had a referendum in October and the people had their say. While it was the Government's intention to see the Seanad abolished, the people voted for reform. I think they voted for radical reform as I doubt many people who voted "No" were voting for minimalist reform. They wanted real and radical reform and they want to see a second Chamber that is fit for purpose, democratic and representative of citizens of the State and that can play a more powerful and valuable role in the overall running of the State and the Oireachtas. During the campaign, some of us turned up for the debate and some did not. We saw what happened when the Taoiseach failed to properly debate the issue. It had an impact on the outcome of the vote. There were many voices campaigning to save the Seanad and calling for a "No" vote on the basis of reform. While I campaigned for abolition because it was a simple proposition put to us, I always wanted to see the option of reform put to the people.

Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan We knew the Senator's heart was not in it.

Senator Sean D. Barrett: Information on Sean D. Barrett Zoom on Sean D. Barrett The same is true of the Senator.

Senator David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane We always want to see the option of reform put to the people and one of the consistent calls made by my party and others outside the political system was that the Constitutional Convention be the mechanism and conduit, which we can still use, to properly tease out, debate and ventilate the range of ideas on Seanad reform.

  The first thing the Government should do is to commit to real and radical reform. I have not seen any evidence from the Government that it has that intention. I was part of a delegation from Sinn Féin, as the Minister and the Chief Whip know, when the Taoiseach invited party leaders to a meeting to discuss his views and his approach. It seemed to us at that meeting, and from everything we heard since, that the Government would go for minimalist reform. The only reform option we have seen is to extend the university franchise to all citizens. That is not radical and it does not go far enough.

Senator Paul Coghlan: Information on Paul Coghlan Zoom on Paul Coghlan It was approved by the people.

Senator David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane It is not real reform. The Constitutional Convention is meeting this weekend and may discuss the future of the Seanad. The Taoiseach and the Oireachtas should give the Constitutional Convention a fresh mandate to properly examine Seanad and Dáil reform in the wake of the referendum results. We should properly ventilate all of the ideas and return with proposals and then the Government can examine the proposals. In doing so, it would be appropriate for the Government to set clear parameters and guiding principles that will underpin Seanad reform. The first guiding principle in reforming the House is universal franchise - one person, one vote - for all citizens. We cannot continue with the method of election to Seanad Eireann that we have had for far too long, in which people are elected by city or county councillors or if they are fortunate enough to be members of certain universities. That has to stop, as it is elitist and undemocratic. If we want citizens to have real value in the Seanad and a real connection to it, we must give them a vote. My view is that we have one person, one vote, and holding Seanad elections on the same day as Dáil elections is the best way to proceed to something I would like to see. That is one of the core principles that should underpin reform of the Seanad.

  There is consensus on giving a voice to the Irish Diaspora and citizens in the North from either side of the community. If we want to build bridges and work toward unity in the country, we must give a voice to people across the island of Ireland. Far too many people living in the North of Ireland are Irish and are disenfranchised. They are not seen or valued by the State as part of the Irish nation. If we give citizens in the North a vote in Seanad elections, it would be a very good and useful step towards Irish unity. It would also be the right thing to do.

  We should have equal gender balance. That is difficult to achieve, but we should aim for 50% representation of women in the Seanad and the Dáil. I am one of the people who supported the Government's gender quotas and the instruments the Government brought in to help achieve increased gender representation in the Dáil. We must also do so in the Seanad. There should be representation of marginalised minority groups. The Seanad can examine this point.

  I did not get a chance to discuss the powers of the Seanad, one of which should be to scrutinise EU legislation. There is consensus on that point. We are up for real and radical reform. I hope the Government and the Taoiseach are, too. I do not want to end up in a situation after the next Dáil election in which we elect Senators in the same way as we have done for decades. That would be a failure of the political system. We need to get this right and to push for as much reform as possible. I commend Senators who have been active on the issue and have pursued it relentlessly. They have used their Private Members' time on several occasions to ensure we have proper debate in the House.

Senator Catherine Noone: Information on Catherine Noone Zoom on Catherine Noone I commend Senators Katherine Zappone, Feargal Quinn and John Crown and others for bringing this matter forward for debate. It is important to acknowledge that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste met party leaders in December, as mentioned by Senator Ivana Bacik and others, and are taking a consultative approach, which is welcome. The vote of the people to retain the Seanad last October was accompanied by a widespread consensus among the public and Senators alike that the issue of Seanad reform needed to be addressed. There is no mistaking how tangible is the sentiment that the Upper House should evolve into a more democratic institution relevant to the needs of our ever-changing and developing society. In particular, there are strong views that the Seanad should lead the reform process by facing squarely up to the major issues and dealing with them objectively and comprehensively. I acknowledge the point made by Senator Katherine Zappone and the other eight Senators that no provision of Bunreacht na hÉireann requires that the electorate in Seanad elections be composed of such a restricted group as elected city and county councillors, outgoing Seanad Members and incoming Dáil Deputies.

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