First of all, I would like to welcome the Seanad Bill 2013 and commend both Senator Zappone and Senator Quinn for the work they’ve done here. This Bill ensures that every Irish citizen at home and abroad a stake in our democracy will have a vote in Seanad elections. It establishes a truly gender equal chamber with both males and females represented accordingly. It maintains the integrity of the vocational system. It reduces the costs of the Seanad, by way of Senators receiving a reduced salary while giving additional powers of scrutiny over Ministerial appointments and EU legislation.
In short, it does a great deal. This represents real political reform for Ireland and I hope that, in passing this, we will be able to give Irish people a real choice between abolition and the genuine reform that is presented here.
Today represents perhaps the beginning of the end of the current Seanad as it is constituted. Indeed, if we go back into history, we can see that the Seanad – in addition to playing host to a cast of great Parliamentarians – has also had a fascinating history. It has played host to many remarkable parliamentarians down through the years, not least Garret Fitzgerald, Mary Robinson, Douglas Hyde, William Butler Yeats, Lord Glenavy, Seamus Mallon, David Norris, Noel Browne and Dr. James Ryan.
It has given rise to a host of interesting initiatives and amendments in my two years here. And yet it can do so much more, and I am confident that this Bill puts us on the path to being able to do more – real scrutiny and oversight of EU legislation, in particular, is something that I feel is genuinely worthwhile. In addition to this, the Bill also confers a range of additional powers on the Seanad in areas such as the scrutiny of legislation, the examination of public appointments as well as the holding of inquiries. All of which, I believe, are things which the Seanad is more than capable of doing.
In terms of the proposed composition contained within Part 2 of the Bill. Section 6 sets out clearly that the cultural and educational constituency would have 8 members, the agricultural constituency would have 9 members, the labour constituency would have 10 members, the industrial and commercial constituency would have 8 members and the administrative constituency would have 8 members.
I would have some minor reservations with these details, and would be concerned as to how they were reached. It would seem to me that the industrial and commercial constituency should now have more members, and that perhaps the five vocational panels should have equality here, though I admit this is a minor detail. The Bill also includes a six-seat constituency for the universities and other institutions of higher education in the State and includes the Taoiseach’s right to nominate 11 members.
I am happy to see both of these provisions, as I believe the current crop of Taoiseach’s nominees have shown that nominees can contribute greatly to this chamber and don’t necessarily have to be party political appointments. I believe the Taoiseach doesn’t get enough credit for this.
Further to that, I think that it is vitally important for the future of the Seanad that the franchise for voting for third-level candidates is extended to all institutions, and it is shameful that this was not done in 1979.
Another minor reservation I would have is in relation to the proposed electorate for the reformed Seanad – with emigrants getting votes, would this require a separate voter register?
Finally though, the key part for me is Section 21, which seeks to confer upon the Seanad a new role in the scrutiny of draft legislation which emanates from the institutions of the European Union. Our Chief Whip, Paul Kehoe, is on record as having conceded that ‘‘the scrutiny of EU legislation is not adequate, there is only one Committee charged with examining what is a large volume of proposals, and that in itself is a failing’’. It is clear that this is an area that can be improved upon, and as a solicitor and somebody with a great interest in European Affairs myself, I think that this would be a great improvement in a reformed Seanad.
Ultimately, this Bill is a very clear and concise piece of work. I am glad that we are supporting it. I am glad that we have the capacity to support it. I am thankful for Senator Crown’s work which preceded this and believe that that should be acknowledged as we work towards passing what will be an historic Bill. As the former leader of Fine Gael once said: “Let both Houses realise that both are necessary for the liberties of the country and let us join together to improve the efficiencies of both Houses rather than joining in a trial of strength between the two houses, aimed at the destruction of one”.