Thursday, 2nd May 2013
I welcome Ms Harkin to the House and acknowledge her long-standing involvement in EU affairs. From her career in the European Parliament and the Lower House, one notes the diversity of policy areas in which she has made written declarations. She has an extremely strong record on human rights and equality issues which she demonstrated again today. I would single her out for her work on volunteerism and raising its profile both within Ireland and at European level. When she was rapporteur for the European Year of Volunteering, she singularly spearheaded the campaign to raise the issue of volunteerism. We both had the pleasure recently to attend the launch of the European Volunteer Centre’s employee-volunteering network. The centre stated that without the work done by Ms Harkin in laying the foundations for volunteerism, it would not have been able to launch its employee recognition programme.
I am concerned there is a perception that the deal has been done on the multi-annual financial framework. I understand the Parliament is not happy with this. This is all being played out behind the scenes. I am concerned that the framework agreed in the end will not be fit for purpose and will need to be amended each year. In fact, we are being disingenuous to the people. The EU is telling Ireland how to set budgets yet there is a significant issue for the EU as to how it sets its budgets.
Ms Harkin referred to the programme for social change and innovation which comes into effect in January next year to support employment and social policies. Is there a balance in this programme between employment enhancement measures and social inclusion and protection measures? One of the previous component parts of the programme was progress. It looked at the recognition and role of civil society and supported children’s rights networks to work in the area of child poverty. While jobs are important, I am concerned the programme maintains the right balance between that and social protection and inclusion.
I agree with Ms Harkin’s proposals on the role of the Seanad and welcome any prospect of closer co-operation between the Seanad and the European Parliament. Bicameralism is the most efficient form of democratic representation. In the case of this Oireachtas, however, the distribution of power between the Houses severely limits the contribution of the Seanad. Reforms in line with Ms Harkin’s proposals would make a contribution to filling a new equilibrium and provide the Seanad with a renewed energy, as well as a sense of purpose which would suit modern Ireland.
I am concerned that, despite the general consensus existing on this topic for several years, we have seen little progress being made to promote this mutually beneficial arrangement. I am very mindful of the fact that similar propositions were made almost a decade ago by the Committee on Procedure and Privilege’s Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform. Its report concluded:
The Seanad should be given a new role in EU affairs with responsibility for —
i Assessing legislative and other proposals going before EU Councils;
ii Reviewing draft EU legislation of major national policy importance;
iii Providing Irish MEPs with a domestic forum to discuss EU issues and account for their work;
While the engagement we are having with MEPs is a welcome development, how would Ms Harkin progress the other two goals? As she said, we need enhanced co-operation between the Seanad and the European Parliament. For that to work, we need to probe a little more into how such co-operation could take place. I welcome the engagement we are having with MEPs as it gives us an opportunity to engage with European issues which will impact later on Irish citizens. We must be mindful of this two-way process as seen in the multi-annual financial framework discussion.