Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Deputy Brendan Smith: The changes and deletions proposed to the Constitution in the Bill before the House run to 19 pages. Not since the adoption by the people of the Constitution in July 1937 have so many fundamental and basic changes been contemplated. I do not know of any Member of the Oireachtas who believes in a bicameral parliamentary system and does not share the view that Seanad Éireann needs to be reformed. Unfortunately, while the Seanad requires major reform, the many good reform proposals put forward in the past have not been acted on. Governments of all hues, including single party and coalition Administrations, have not carried out this necessary reform.
We should recognise that every Seanad has contributed in a positive way to our democracy. Many voices and particular interests, which were not represented in Dáil Éireann, have played an important role in national debate in Seanad Éireann. The Upper House initiated many important debates, especially on social matters and other issues of importance to citizens.
Over the years, Taoisigh have used their appointments to the Seanad to give people of outstanding ability the opportunity to contribute to the workings of the State through the parliamentary system. Similarly, people of outstanding ability have been elected in their own right to every Seanad. One need only consider the case of Northern Ireland which did not have an assembly or legislature for many years. During those dark years for the country, Seanad Éireann had people of the calibre of Seamus Mallon, Gordon Wilson and John Robb to give an important Northern context to debates in the Oireachtas and wider discussion in society. We should also be mindful of the need to protect the interests of minority groups, which was one of the major aims in constituting the Seanad, as Deputy Donohoe noted.
When one thinks of the Seanad, the names of former Senators such as the former President, Mary Robinson, W.B. Yeats and, much later, his son, Michael, who was leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Seanad for many years, come to mind. The late environmentalist and Senator, Mr. Éamon de Buitléar, was ahead of his time in trying to stimulate debate and interest in the environment, heritage and cultural issues.
The Taoiseach and Tánaiste want to avoid proper debate of this issue for specific reasons. They fear such a debate could expose how little thinking, debate, research or consideration went into the proposal to abolish the Seanad. The Government intends to put before the people a major change which would damage the Constitution but has not provided any significant supporting documentation or research in advance of the legislation being brought before the Legislature. This is the first time in the history of the State that such a proposal has come before the Oireachtas without significant research or supporting documentation.
Let us return to the fateful night of a Fine Gael Party fund-raising dinner at which the then beleaguered Fine Gael leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, announced his new policy of abolishing the Seanad. What research had he and his team done to develop this new approach? Only three months before his announcement, the then Deputy made a speech at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties in which he extolled the virtues of Seanad reform. Fine Gael has been busily trying to dismiss his comments in County Donegal by arguing that his script did not specifically refer to the Seanad. The party cannot, however, deny the content of the then Deputy Kenny’s interview on “Morning Ireland” the following day, 24 July 2009, in which he specifically stated he opposed the abolition of the Seanad, adding the following:
“I see a different role for the Seanad here. I would change the electoral system and give every graduate a vote here … There is a real need for proper scrutiny of European legislation. There is a need to have a forum for MEPs. There is a need to challenge the Seanad in the work that it does. Many people feel that it has just been a cosy house for far too long … It has got real potential but it has got to be challenged in that sense.“
I do not believe any practising politician would disagree with the views the Taoiseach expressed at that time. He indicated that giving every graduate a vote in Seanad elections was one possible change. The Fianna Fáil Party Deputy for County Cavan immediately preceding my election was the late Tánaiste, Mr. John Wilson. While serving as Minister for Education, Mr. Wilson proposed in a referendum to extend the franchise for university graduates in Seanad elections beyond graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. Sadly, this proposal was never acted on or put into effect.
The then Deputy Kenny made his speech in Donegal in late July 2009. What happened in August and September 2009 that he turned from a reformer to an abolitionist? The answer is straightforward: it was down to opinion polls and, as Deputy Tuffy said earlier, being populist. He saw his popularity rating go down while that of the Labour Party leader and now Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, was rising. He and his advisers scurried around to find a policy that might make their leader look tough, hard and decisive. We are now having a referendum on the basis of a promise made for pure political reasons. The proposal before us is not as a result of some reforming zeal or great vision. It is the product of a leader in trouble looking for something he could do or say to dispel the attacks on his leadership. Those attacks were coming from his own front bench. This is not how to make policy and it most assuredly is not a basis for playing with the fundamental law of this land, Bunreacht na hÉireann.
Deputy Donohoe rightly spoke about how Bunreacht na hÉireann has served our people so well. Last year to mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution in July 1937 and its enactment by the end of December of that year, I recall hearing a report of a major conference in University College Dublin on the importance of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Most of the attendees were constitutional law experts from outside the country, which shows the standing of our Constitution internationally. Yet, here we are with a large section of the Constitution being carved out for sacrifice upon the altar of the Taoiseach’s political intentions.
Not that the Labour Party leadership is in a much better place. The Tánaiste somehow conveniently forgets his party’s 2011 manifesto which specifically stated: “We will be proposing to the Constitutional Convention that the Seanad be abolished.” Perhaps Labour Members might tell us when they decided to ignore this commitment and ignore the Constitutional Convention. Was it at the same time as they chose to ignore all their other election commitments?
There are few areas of political reform in Ireland that have been more talked about than Seanad reform, but all we have done is talked, and that applies to every political party. Some 12 reports have examined and recommended Seanad reform over many decades, but successive Governments of all political hues have failed to act on their findings. The mistake has not been talking about reform; the mistake has been not doing it. This should not be a party political issue. Governments of all political hues have failed to act. Rather than looking to abolish the Seanad, we should be working together, both in the Oireachtas and at the Constitutional Convention, to agree a structure for a radically reformed Seanad that is truly open and accountable to the people with a franchise for the people at large and outside our jurisdiction.
Approximately 156,000 people are currently registered to vote in Seanad elections, most of these on just the university panels – but only about 35% of these ever cast their ballot. It is within our power to design a Seanad that would represent 20 times that number, a Seanad where more than 3 million people are entitled to vote, comprising people across Ireland, North and South, and those who have been forced to leave this country. As the Private Member’s Bill on Seanad reform tabled by Senators Zappone and Quinn has shown, it is entirely possible for the Oireachtas to extend the franchise for the Seanad without any need for a referendum. The problem with Seanad reform is not a lack of ideas, proposals or options. On the contrary, if anything there are too many options. The issue is with the political will and commitment to decide on a new structure and run with it.
As a Deputy who represents two of the southern Ulster Border counties, I believe we should be using the opportunity now to offer people in the North an opportunity to vote in Seanad elections. We should be seeking ways of extending politics beyond the old boundaries and limitations and reaching out to those in the North, those who have been forced to emigrate over the years and to the “new Irish” who have come to live and work among us. That was a view put forward very strongly by the Acting Chairman’s constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, when he was Minister for the Environment in 1995. What he said in the Seanad at that time was absolutely correct.