Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013

Wednesday, 26th June 2013

As leader of the independent group of Taoiseach nominees, with Senators Fiach Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Marie Louise O’Donnell and Katherine Zappone, I begin by stating clearly that each of us has our own individual perspective on the Bill before us today. We are, as everyone knows, a group of Independent Senators in the truest sense, independent of Government and of each other in the positions we adopt in the course of our Oireachtas work. We come from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, including civil society, NGOs, the arts, education, business and human rights. It is this diversity in our expertise which prompted the Taoiseach’s choice of appointment.

Seanad Éireann was established to give a voice to different and challenging opinions in Irish society. I am confident we are fulfilling this role with honesty and integrity. On behalf of us all, we thank the Taoiseach for the privilege of the position in which he has entrusted us. We have taken time to reflect on our individual viewpoints in this debate today on the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill. I look forward to hearing the deliberations of my colleagues as the debate ensues. From this point onwards, the views I express are entirely my own.

I was greatly honoured to accept this position as Senator and at the time I was cognisant of the Taoiseach’s position with regard to the abolition of the Seanad and the commitment in the programme for Government. In trying to work through my position on the Bill, I have had to separate my role as a Senator from that as an individual citizen who will vote in the referendum. When it comes to Committee and Report Stages, I will, as I do with all Bills, consider each amendment tabled and will vote on the merits of the rationale behind it. That said, and as a matter of principle, I will not impede the passage of this Bill through the Seanad. This is a decision for the Irish people to make.

Finalising my personal position on the Bill and its ramifications has not been an easy journey, and in fact it is a journey I have yet to complete. I have embraced my role as Senator with enthusiasm and dedication. I relish the opportunities presented to me to further issues through legislative amendments and policy debates. I am one of life’s optimists but I do not wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to the Seanad. I see the flaws, I live the frustration and I understand the critics. The Order of Business can sometimes seem more like a recital of “It Says in the Papers” and all too often is dominated by local issues, making us seem more like a council meeting. I decided some time ago to participate on the Order of Business only where I believed an issue of national relevance needed to be raised and debated immediately and where there was no other channel through which I could raise it. Several colleagues remarked this decision would mean I would reduce my media presence, as it is the only part of our work in the Seanad on which most media report. I stand by my decision, as the record will show. However, these comments make me wonder how the public is supposed to get a true picture and understanding of the work we do.

Proponents of abolition have stated small countries such as Ireland do not need second chambers, which are more common in large, federal countries or countries with deep divisions. The countries cited as good models for us to follow have a strong system of local democracy. Ireland has widened the role and functions of local authorities, but very few powers have actually been devolved. Increasing powers over the years have absorbed by the Executive, and one only needs to watch Bills as they progress through the Houses to see the quality and openness of debate is really up to the approach of individual Ministers. I have sat here and watched, in dismay, as some Ministers have basically rammed a Bill through the House. Equally, I have had the ultimate privilege of being able to robustly and appropriately debate my points and amendments with Ministers who respect and engage fully in the parliamentary process. On a few occasions I have even won my point. Moving Ireland to a unicameral system is something I can understand in theory, but I am concerned we are being asked to take this decision without having any safety nets in place.

I was very interested in the proposals for reform outlined by the Taoiseach at the opening of Second Stage in the Dáil and today. There are many worthwhile proposals which are not contingent on the abolition of the Seanad so why do we not progress ahead with these reforms? George Bernard Shaw stated, “The best reformers the world has ever seen are those who commence on themselves”. This is a sentiment with which I fully concur. I respectfully put it to the Taoiseach that all of the questions we are debating about the ability for the Seanad to reform apply in equal measure to the Dáil and local government. There have been a number of reports on Seanad reform.

I imagine we could stack this room high with articles and books on all aspects of political reform in Ireland. If we were to take all decisions based on the number of reports written then I would like to know how many more reports on alcohol-related harm we need before action is taken on marketing and minimum pricing?

I have seen first-hand how difficult it is to change a procedure or a Standing Order in the Seanad. People do not resist change in principle but they do resist being changed. Is there a reason some of the proposed changes cannot be immediately commenced? What is the incentive to change for Deputies? Will the proposals get diluted as time progresses and why wait for the result of the referendum to effect wider political reform? From working in Leinster House I see the competing demands on Deputies’ time, not to mention local and constituency demands. Will they be able to free up the time needed to take on an increased legislative role? I would have greater confidence if I saw more evidence of actual change and ability to change. In the words of US President Barack Obama, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.

Considering the committee process in particular and the proposals put forward to strengthen it, we have seen a small number of Ministers bringing the general scheme or heads of Bills to joint committees for an initial consideration, which should be welcomed. I am an active member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, which is ably chaired by Deputy Jerry Buttimer; I find my work on this committee very rewarding and I believe there is scope for members to influence legislative and policy outcomes. However, holding our work up to scrutiny one can see there is only a cohort of members who regularly attend for more than 20 minutes and who actively participate. One can consider the metrics. In July, we will have our quarterly meetings with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Health respectively. One month in advance of these meetings we are asked to submit questions; I have a long list but we are only allowed to ask three questions of each Minister, so I must make a shortlist. With 21 members on the committee, one can imagine the potential range of questions. However, I note that with regard to the Minister for Health’s quarterly review meeting on 25 July, only ten of the 21 committee members have submitted questions, and even more disappointingly, only six of the 21 committee members have submitted questions for answer by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Is this because of the competing demands on the time of representatives or is it because of resource constraints? Will this be addressed by the proposed reform?

We can critically examine the important issue of the child and family support agency that was announced in the programme for Government, with an anticipated budget of €546 million. Why was the committee process not used to give the heads of Bill the scrutiny they deserve, as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for reform. I want to believe but the evidence suggests otherwise. I have on numerous occasions expressed my willingness to support and actively engage in the process to establish the new agency and yet, to date, I have never heard silence quite this loud. In any proposal to reconstruct and reform we need to ensure that there are members who are looking at issues with a national focus. We need balance in our discussions, and the Seanad has at times represented views that have otherwise been unheard.

EU scrutiny is another area in which the Oireachtas has, to date, been lacking. We are not using the red and yellow card system of the Lisbon treaty, for example. I would also have liked to address the issue of costs with the Taoiseach, as we should examine equivalent costs for strengthening competencies and resources. There is also the issue of timing of this referendum and the rush to hold it in the autumn. Why not hold it with the European and local elections in May next year? Why not introduce changes to the Dáil and local government while stepping up EU scrutiny? The heart of my dilemma is a question of why one action is contingent on another. I question the constitutional changes relating to the President, judges and certain officials like the Comptroller and Auditor General. We need a distinct debate on the constitutional impact of such changes.

I believe the events of recent years and days clearly show we need a political system that ensures we have a democracy built on accountability and transparency. We need to bolster our defences to ensure that powerful interests cannot have a free rein, and there is a clear and urgent need for political reform. My dilemma is that on the one hand I am unconvinced the Dáil will reform to the extent that is needed in order to compensate for the losses that will be accumulated through the abolition of the Seanad, while on the other hand, one must ask if a second Chamber is the most effective way to achieve the accountability, transparency and openness that we need to resuscitate political democracy in Ireland. I remain undecided