Private Members Business -Seanad Reform Speech
I would like to start by taking the time to commend the Taoiseach and Tánaiste who met the leaders of the various parties and groupings in Dáil Eireann and Seanad Eireann last December to consider how best to proceed with the much needed reform of Seanad Eireann.
The vote of the Irish people to retain the Seanad last October was accompanied by a widespread consensus among the general public and Senators alike – that the issue of Seanad reform needed to be addressed. Indeed, there is no mistaking how tangible the sentiment is that the Upper House evolve into a more democratic institution which is relevant to the needs of our ever changing and developing society.
In particular – strong views exist that the Seanad should lead the reform process by facing squarely the major issues and dealing with them objectively and comprehensively.
I acknowledge the point made by Senator Katherine Zappone and the other eight Senators that no provision of Bunreacht na h- Éireann requires that the electorate in Seanad general elections should be composed of such a restricted group as elected members of county and city councils, outgoing members of the Seanad and incoming TD’s.
As such-I personally have no major difficulty with the proposal to extend the franchise for the Seanad.
Indeed it’s perfectly understandable that many voters find it hard to feel a connection to representatives they have had no hand or part in electing.
However, it must also be acknowleged that we are elected/ appointed primarily by those who have themselves been elected by the people so in a sense we are already – albeit indirectly – representative of the people.
It must also be noted that if the franchise is fully extended to the general public – the danger exists of the Upper House becoming a mini replica of the Dail.
Indeed- the noble beauty of the Seanad is that it primarily centres its discussions on the bigger picture of how to improve the lives of Irish people – without getting bogged down in parish pump politics.
Having said that – however – there is no mistaking that Irish citizens currently see a major gap between themselves and their Upper House.
As such, I think it’s important that any reform will give a much greater public legitimacy to the Seanad – while ensuring that its composition differs from that of the Dáil. In addition, it is important to enhance the prospects of people with particular valued expertise being able to make a contribution to the work of Seanad Éireann.
I would like to see a division of labour between the two Houses of the Oireachtas and to identify important jobs that currently fall between the cracks in our political parliamentary system.
Personally -I would like to see a stronger role for the House in the areas of legislative consultation. The Seanad played a significant role in the legislative process of the Abortion Bill and I think that example illustrates the importance and relevance of the Upper House’s contribution.
At this point – I think, it’s important to note that this Government has agreed that legislation should be prepared by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to implement the 1979 referendum decision which allowed the State to extend the provisions for the election of members of Seanad Eireann by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State
The Government have also confirmed that when the Heads of this Bill are ready, they will be circulated Seanad Eireann, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State, for their consideration .
Moreover, this Government has agreed that the question of constitutional reform, which would require a referendum or referendums, can be considered at a later date.
I’m fully aware that in the course of reform, difficult decisions will have to be taken involving sensitive political matters. But if progress is to be made – there is a need to accept the political reality that Seanad Éireann must be reformed if it is to evolve into a more relevant entity which makes a viable and distinctive contribution to the economic, social and political affairs of our country.
In conclusion – the decision of the Irish people last October not to abolish the Seanad has injected a new sense of purpose into Seanad Éireann and I am confident that the appropriate reform, when implemented – will empower the Seanad to make a major contribution to meeting the challenges facing twenty-first century