Abolition of Seanad Eireann Bill

My speech delivered on the Seanad Referendum is below:

“First of all, I would like to welcome the Taoiseach into the house for what is a most important debate today. As we face into this referendum on the Seanad, it is important to stay mindful that it is a part of our parliamentary system which has, on more than one occasion in the past, faced an uncertain future. The first national assembly established in Ireland following the Act of Union was a single-chamber body, Dáil Éireann, which convened in January 1919. It was only in 1922 that our parliamentary system became bicameral, or dual-chambered, with the establishment of Seanad Éireann. At the time, it was an unusual move to jump from being unicameral to being bicameral, and we were alone in that sense.

However, in many respects, Ireland has always been somewhat different. In the 1930s, the decade that this Seanad was established, many countries prepared to enter into war, while Ireland forged its own path and embraced neutrality. I never follow the argument that just because a system suits one country, that it works for all countries. The world is a little more complicated than there being any single correct answer: unicameral, bicameral aren’t “one-size-fits-all” solutions. Different countries require different systems and, in 2013, I am proud of our system and the work it achieves day in day out.

Tension between the two houses has always existed, and we know that they intensified after De Valera and Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. The manner in which the Free State Seanad was abolished and the decision to re-establish it, albeit in a different form, in the 1937 constitution is also interesting in the context of the current debate. When the Free State Seanad was abolished in 1936, De Valera clearly indicated that the idea of a Second Chamber was not anathema to him provided it could be shown that a second chamber would be of value. De Valera then established a commission to investigate how it believed a second chamber should function.

This Commission recommended that the Second Chamber should have the power to regulate its own business and to elect its own chairman; that its members should enjoy the same immunities and privileges as members of Dáil Éireann; that no Bill should be enacted by Dáil Éireann until it had first been sent to the second house for consideration; that the second house should not have a power of veto; and that the refusal of the second house to pass a Bill would only have the effect of delaying the passage of that Bill by three months. Many of these recommendations would have the effect of “declawing” the Seanad, effectively sewing the seeds of many of the greatest criticisms the Seanad faces today.

As a Senator here for the first time, two things have become abundantly clear. One: Senators are remarkably committed, dedicated and able. Two: the Senate and its ways are in dire need of reform. On the first note, we know what the Seanad can be.

#e Seanad 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 there. It has shown that, even when it has been declawed, with very limited abilities to legislate, it still can have an impact on Irish society – and I intend to continue that.

On the second point, the reality is that reform is a big spectrum, with many variants, and as such any meaningful reform may not be possible as we may never be able to all settle on the same page. With this Bill, we see the proposed referendum and we see how the Oireachtas will work in a future beyond the Seanad. We see that committees will be appointed by a De Hondt method, and that they will effectively work to provide the balance that the Seanad is supposed to provide. In principle, this may well prove to be a positive.

However, there are some other aspects, such as the abolition of Article 27, which I would suggest amendments to. Article 27, as you know, gives the Oireachtas the power to seek the views of the people on legislation which contains “a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained”.

There were many occasions where this could have been used to great effect. Indeed, the bank guarantee act is something where this Article could have been used to slow things down and have a more considered approach. In this instance, it would seem to me that perhaps an amended Article 27 could exist which would require one-third of the Dail and over 50% of the relevant committee to refer a referendum request to the President.

Fire alarms aren’t abolished because they go unused, and as such I can’t see the logic behind completely scrapping Article 27. Circumstances change, the unforeseen can happen and, frankly, such an emergency mechanism in the constitution strikes me as a sensible provision.

In terms of the Dail reform which is proposed alongside it, we know that this Government has already implemented a wide-ranging platform of political reforms from local Government structures to how the Dail does business. This is most welcome. These further changes to the Dail and the Oireachtas are, broadly speaking, sensible too. As a general rule all major non-emergency legislation will first be submitted to the relevant Dáil committee in Heads of Bill format. This means that suggestions for changes in legislation can be considered, and any key flaws identified, before the full legislation is even published.

As we have seen in the context of the recent abortion debate, this has proven to be a sensible route to pursue. In addition, to allow for extra consideration and scrutiny in the Dail itself, a new schedule will increase the amount of time available for legislation. In my view, four-day sittings will become the weekly norm. Again, I feel that this is a sensible route to follow and will allow for the necessary debate, oversight and scrutiny, should the people choose to abolish this chamber.

The overhaul of the committee system, whereby each committee will have twelve members and will be able to invite external experts to provide specialist input into its work, will also ensure a more considered approach. Based on my work on the Constitutional Convention, I have been impressed with the contributions of external experts, and will be interested to see if such a panel or panels might contribute to the work of Dail committees in an equally effective way.
On the whole, this Bill and the amendments which it proposes to the Constitution are greatly significant, and are among the most important and far-reaching that we will see in our lifetime as legislators. Self-preservation can never be any reason to fear the future and, as such, I welcome this proposed amendment, I welcome putting the question to the people, and I look forward to both the campaign and the outcome.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “in matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock”. In this instance, the Taoiseach has stood firm on his belief that the people should decide the fate of this Chamber, he has been unwavering since he proposed it in 2009 while many others have flip-flopped on the issue. I welcome this referendum, I welcome putting this decision to the people, and I thank the Taoiseach for coming in today to discuss it with us.

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