I understand Deputy McLellan will now resume on the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013.
Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
At the present time we need more democracy, not less. The conscious and deliberate removal or shrinking of a democratic space is and should be a cause for great concern and alarm. Having said that, I acknowledge that there are serious problems with the Seanad as it is presently configured.
How could ordinary Irish people have any sense of ownership over the current Seanad when most people have never even voted in a Seanad election, with the result that the second House is seen as an indigenous version of the House of Lords, where professional elites mingle with both aspiring and failed politicians and retired business people? This in and of itself does not justify abolition. After all, why should the majority of Irish people be punished for the failure of successive Governments to implement much-promised reform measures? Why should the people be expected to pay such a high price in terms of the democratic functioning of the State? It is because successive Irish Governments failed to put in place a proper system of governance that is fitting for a modern democratic state, the plain people of Ireland must yet again pay the price and suffer a further diminution of the democratic sphere.
It is simply not good enough to argue for abolition on the basis that the Seanad is elitist and that it has no relevance for the vast majority of Irish people. It is all of these things, but then so is Dáil Éireann, and I do not hear any call for this House to be abolished.
The fact is that since the foundation of the Irish State democracy, freedom of expression and radical dissent have been subject to excessive scrutiny, exclusion, censorship, ridicule and limits. The machinery of government, as reflected in the two Houses of the Oireachtas, has not produced a system of government that has served successive generations of Irish people well. Indeed, on a regular basis the past failures of the State are debated and legislated for in this House. If the Irish State were a closet it is not an exaggeration to say it would be full of the ghosts of the past crying out for justice.
The state model that emerged in the 1930s is in essence the very same structure with which we work today. That was a State founded on the building blocks of ideological and political repression. It was shaped and modelled to reflect the world view and social conservatism of a hegemonic Catholic, nationalist middle class. Church and State divided the spoils between them and thus, while the shopocracy captured the State and used it to further its own class interests, the church was given free rein to discipline, punish and control the hearts, minds and bodies of the oppressed women, men and children of Ireland. We now know that not only did the State and its institutions facilitate this oppression, it actively assisted the church through Government institutions and social policy.
The Irish system of government and our State institutions reproduced the Magdalen laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools and a class structure that ensured the poor and the working classes were kept at the bottom of the economic ladder and that they were seen to be culturally and socially inferior. While the aforementioned institutions are now a thing of the past, thanks primarily to various campaigns, the institutional legacy of the foundational building blocks of the State is very much evident for all to see. We know that women are grossly under-represented in this House; of 166 Deputies, only 25 are female. We also know that at every level of government in this country, what can only be termed a sprinkling of women is to be found at city, county, and Seanad level. Even worse, not one Member of this House or the Seanad is a member of the Traveller community. We have no first-generation immigrants or people of colour. We have no poor here, and the dispossessed and the disaffected of Irish society are nowhere to be found. The working class, the unemployed, the working poor, the under-employed, the stretched middle class and the disabled are not here. That raises the question: if all of these people are missing, who is it that governs Ireland? The answer is that we have an Executive and two Houses of the Oireachtas that are overwhelmingly comprised of a conservative, white, middle-class male elite. This is a group of people that never or rarely questions the exclusionary basis on which its class, gender and racial privilege depends. When the Fine Gael Members talk of abolition of the Seanad and the need for the State to modernise, we would do well to keep in mind the ideological philosophy that shapes this party’s political world view.
Abolition in this perspective must therefore be seen within the broader context of a Government that not only eagerly pursues harsh and cruel neoliberal economic policies, but that genuinely believes in the social and political utility of such neoconservative-inspired programmes.
Therein lies the nub of the matter. Fine Gael's plan to abolish the Seanad is not borne out of a desire to modernise the State or to open up the formal political terrain to a greater and more diverse populace. Rather the abolition of the second Chamber must be seen within shifts in the political economy of capitalism and the pre-eminence of the neoliberal political doctrine, which this Government has wholeheartedly embraced. In this context the abolition of the Seanad is, it may be argued, a certain type of reform but it is not a progressive type of reform born out of a love and respect for democracy and dissent. It is instead a retrograde step prompted by a deliberate desire to narrow the possibilities for political opposition. In plain language it is a dumbing down and shrinking of the political sphere that will lead to an increase in anomie and apathy towards politics, politicians and political debate in general.
This process is already well advanced and much of what passes for acceptable political debate ignores this disenchantment and disillusionment. The dominant political discourse stresses repeatedly that as a people we have no option other than to embrace, however grudgingly, the politics of austerity. The problem is that this specific brand of austerity is aimed not at the rich and well-off, but at the vulnerable, the poor, the unemployed, low and middle income workers and children. When there is opposition to these measures, such is the power and nature of the dominant ideology that the ruling political elite, the State, its institutions, and the wealthy and affluent class simply soak it up, and render it neutered. Marshall McLuhan’s infamous phrase about the manufacturing of consent is now more than ever apt, accurate and true.
There is an even greater price than austerity to be paid for conformity. Philosophers, political scientists and political activists have long understood that the disposition to disagree, however irritating it may be at times, is the very lifeblood of an open society. They have also warned us that a democracy of permanent consensus will not long remain a democracy. Indeed, a closed circle of opinion or ideas into which discontent or opposition is never allowed, or allowed only within circumscribed limits, loses its capacity to respond energetically or imaginatively to new challenges. Republics and democracies exist only by virtue of the engagement of their citizens in the management of public and political affairs. If angry, concerned, and genuine people forfeit politics, they abandon society to its most mediocre and venal civil servants.
Throughout Irish history Irish men and women have fought and died so that we could be free to determine our own future, in the interest of all our people. The current proposal to abolish the Seanad and replace it with nothing is very worrying to say the least. We already have an exceptionally centralised, powerful and unaccountable system of government where power is concentrated in the hands of the Executive. Conversely, our system of local government is weak, underfunded and characterised by a lack of any real power for local representatives. Thus we are left with a scenario where power is concentrated in the hands of a few elite senior politicians, civil servants and an oligarchy that is embedded in senior positions within the media, academia, business, and the professions. Abolishing the Seanad without reform of local government and reform of the Dáil needs to be seen for what it is: more power for Government while the people will have to make do with less accountability, less democracy and even fewer checks and balances against political corruption, abuse and patronage.
Yet again, it would appear that the people are to be presented with an either-or scenario: abolish the Seanad or keep it as it is, and that is the end of that. There is no talk of reform or indeed of the possibilities of what a reformed and reinvented Seanad could do for Irish democracy. Imagine for a moment a Chamber that was truly representative of the ethnic, racial, socioeconomic and gender diversity that is contemporary Ireland, a Chamber where real people could thrash out and debate real issues that concern all of us, where we could actually for once in our lives see democracy in action. Unfortunately, such thoughts and ideas are outside of this Government’s political consciousness.
Of course, a reinvigorated dynamic political sphere is the antipathy of the neoliberal project. It is therefore imperative that actions and policies are enacted and carried out to ensure such a space does not occur. The Government, had it so wished, had ample opportunity to explore the range of possibilities not jus for the Seanad but for extending the democratic sphere in general but it chose not to. It could have asked the Constitutional Convention to address the issue of political reform in general and, in so doing, prompt and foster wider public debate about political reform in general. Again, this did not happen.
All of this is hugely problematic. The shrinking of the political sphere and a society with a democratic deficit is especially worrying when these factors are coupled with a politics of austerity and a political philosophy that fosters the cult of the individual, the primacy of the market and relegates ideas or discussions of solidarity and the common good. Irish people need, deserve and are entitled to have a robust and informed debate about what type of society it is that we want live in. Such a discussion would obviously have to address also issues of governance and structures of government. In a mature democracy, this is the debate we would be having.
We would also set about the task of drafting a new constitution that had at its core a clear statement of what a fair and democratic Ireland would look like. The men and women of 1916 did not fight and die so that a Government of aloof and pampered politicians could cut mobility allowances to disabled people. They did not fight so that this very same elite could introduce policies and laws that are, in plain language, a deliberate and conscious rejection of egalitarianism. Sinn Féin believes, just like the women and men of 1913 and 1916, that there is another way forward. We believe that it is conceivable to have a society without poverty, if we so choose. We would do well to remember that what rich people call the problem of poverty, poor people call with equal justification, the problem of riches. In an unequal society, the conscious and deliberate shrinking of the democratic sphere is not only unfair and unjust, it is a betrayal of the people.
I welcome this Bill. The Labour Party's assessment of the case for the abolition of the Seanad was first detailed in the policy statement I issued on behalf of the party, New Government, Better Government, in January 2011 as part of a comprehensive programme of Government, political and public service reforms. That recommendation reflected a long, hard look at Seanad Éireann by Members, former Members and colleagues of former Members of Seanad Éireann.
As the policy statement stressed, the decision about the future of the Seanad is one that will have to be made by the people as a whole. Following the adoption in the programme for Government of the abolition of the Seanad as a key element of the programme of constitutional reform, this Bill now paves the way for a broader public debate to commence on the merits of the conclusion that the case for the retention of Seanad Éireann has failed. I look forward to bringing the analysis and assessment underpinning that recommendation to the people as, ultimately, the decision on the abolition of the Seanad will be for the people by way of referendum on the basis of this Bill.
As I highlighted early in 2011, the Seanad's shortcomings can be summarised as arising from the fact that it is dominated by the Government, it lives in the shadow of the Dáil, and the rules for choosing its members are bizarre and anachronistic. The reality is that there is popular indifference about its future. The reasons for that are, quite simply, that no one is sure what purpose the Seanad is meant to serve.
If, as broadly recognised, maintaining the status quo is unacceptable, and I have heard no voices from the beginning of this debate that argue for the status quo, there are only two options: abolition or reform.
The fundamental determinant of conclusion in "New Government, Better Government" that the Seanad should be abolished is that it is simply not possible to identify any bodies or sections in our society that deserve - because, for example, they happen to be university graduates or county councillors - to be singled out as constituting a special and separate electorate entitled to vote for their own special House of the Oireachtas. As expressed in the neutral and dispassionate language of the political scientists, Professors Michael Laver and John Coakley, the composition of Seanad Éireann is described as "unique" with a type of vocational representation not found at national level in any other country. They characterise university representation as "unusual" and the system of Taoiseach's nominations as "without parallel".
Seanad Éireann is a vestige of a bygone era. It is a product of history that sits more comfortably among the political landscape of the 19th century than in a modern-day parliamentary democracy. The reality is that the Seanad serves little or no purpose in a contemporary context. It is neither representative of the people nor effective as a check and balance on the Dáil, and everybody knows that. Currently, the Seanad mirrors the Dáil, both institutionally and in terms of its political make-up. This leads to an unnecessary and expensive duplication of functions between two separate Houses.
The mechanism by which Senators are appointed is antiquated and erratic. Not all sectoral groups in society are represented; only ones that were important in the 1930s. Even with regard to the six Members who are selected by graduates of certain universities, there is no representation for two of the State's universities or any of its institutions of technology. Even if the system of appointment were to be reformed, it would be virtually impossible to define fair and objective criteria to determine the membership and relative weight of different groupings in society. Deputy McLellan spoke of women, Travellers or persons of colour. Who balances who should and should not be a member? There is no point in having two Houses if both of them are directly elected by the people because then one would have two Houses in conflict.
Since its inception, the Seanad has not operated as a check on the powers of the Dáil. As the Dáil is the only House directly elected and accountable to the people, it is indisputable that it should have the final say when it comes to making decisions about the force of law rather than to permit such power to be the preserve of a Seanad, with its clear democratic deficit. We need checks and balances in our system, but these should come in the form of a strengthened and enhanced Dáil. I have argued that for 30 years. It is the Dáil that currently provides the check on the main promoter of legislation which is the Government.
Many other countries have shown that rigorous checks and balances can and should be created in a single-chamber parliament. A reformed and strengthened Dáil can act as an effective unicameral parliament and hold the Executive to account. It will bring Ireland in line with other modern parliamentary democracies that have moved to a unicameral system, such as Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and, of course, Israel, which had a unicameral from the start. In Europe, Ireland is the only small unitary state with a second House.
Reform of the Dáil is currently under way and we are working towards a renewed and enhanced political system with better accountability, better oversight and better scrutiny of legislation. At the centre of this reform is an enhanced and strengthened committee system which will enable the House to adapt and meet the needs of our modern democracy. Fourteen Dáil committees will be established, each comprising 12 members. As other parliamentary committees around the world preparing for legislation do, these committees will have the power to invite external experts to provide specialist input into their work. The d'Hondt system will be introduced to distribute chairs of key committees on a proportional and equitable basis. The Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013 that I initiated in the Dáil last month represents a substantial step in securing accountability through investigations by Oireachtas committees into matters of significant public importance. Such inquiries could represent a very substantial strengthening in the effectiveness and contribution of the Legislature to our democratic system by not only helping us learn vital lessons from past events but through their recommendations identifying the legislative reforms and policy changes essential to ensuring that egregious policy errors are not repeated.
The way in which legislation is dealt with in the Dáil is also being reformed. In general, legislation will initially be submitted to the relevant Dáil committee in Heads of Bill form, allowing for committee input prior to the publication of the finished Bill. A proposed new Dáil schedule will increase time spent on deliberating on legislation. A new pre-enactment Stage will be introduced by Standing Orders whereby each Bill will be referred back to the committee which considered it at pre-legislative and Committee Stages for a final examination after Report and before the Bill is finally passed by the House.
It is proposed that a Minister will revert to the relevant select committee within 12 months of the enactment of a Bill to discuss and review the functioning of the law and to allow for a debate from members and stakeholders as to whether the legislation is fulfilling its stated purpose. Additionally, a new ten-minute Bills procedure will be introduced to give Deputies a greater opportunity to initiate legislation onto the floor of this House.
The abolition of the Seanad should be seen in the context of these broader reforms. It is a stepping stone on the path to a dynamic parliamentary system that enjoys the confidence of the people it represents. The Dáil derives its legitimacy from the people who elect it. Whatever Members may say about the composition, male or female, colour, gender or religious viewpoint, we are the elected representatives of the people chosen in constituencies throughout the breadth of Ireland. The existence of the Seanad undermines public confidence in the political system because of the way it is chosen. It is hostage to political insiders, and operates without popular mandate, clear purpose or efficacy. It is not possible, nor should we try, to identify certain bodies or sections in our society that deserve to be singled out as constituting such a special and separate electorate that they are entitled to vote for their own separate House of the Oireachtas.
I believe, after careful consideration and approaching this issue with a completely open mind, that the existence of the Seanad can no longer be justified. I ask a simple question. We should not turn logic on its head. The question should be, "Is there is a role that is so unique that we must have a Seanad to fulfil?", rather than, as now seems to be asked, "Can we create a role for the Seanad?" When I hear Members say that we could give it European legislation to deal with, I say European legislation is Irish legislation that has the force of law here and ask why should any Chamber, other than the directly elected Chamber of the people, determine European legislation. We need to give European legislation better scrutiny here rather than hive it off to some other area because we are too busy to deal with it.
We need to be responsive to the needs of a modern democracy and adapt accordingly. An enhanced, more effective Dáil that is efficient in law-making and accountable to the people is the way forward.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. While listening to some of the contributions that have been made over the past couple of days on this, there might be a temptation to forget that we are debate a Bill to allow a referendum. That is the most important point. I am sure the debate on the merits or otherwise of the decision that will be taken afterwards, and the debate that will take place in public, will be energetic and those on opposite sides will have their say.
The Bill before the House is in keeping with the programme for Government and it is also in keeping with the manifestos of the parties in government.
Some people may find this Bill has caused shock and awe but that arises from the Government keeping a promise. These people are entitled to take issue with the fact that the Government is doing what it stated it would in the programme for Government but there are people in this House who take issue with everything the Government does or, in some cases, has not been able to do until now.
I stood for the Seanad and it was a fairly enlightening experience. I hope I never have to repeat it and, to be perfectly honest, I would not wish it on my worst enemy because of the manner in which the Seanad is elected, how candidates seek a nomination and the way one must traverse the Twenty-six Counties to meet local authority representatives. Anybody who comes through that system has a massive achievement under his or her belt because when one is dealing with professional politicians, who make up the bulk of the Seanad's electoral college, it is no easy achievement to come out the other end. It has been mentioned that some very good people have come from the Seanad and there have been some exceptionally notable speeches and contributions. That is all well and good but the Government, as part of an election manifesto, gave a commitment which is being partially fulfilled now. It will be up to the people as to what happens to the Seanad.
There is an issue with the decision being taken by the people, particularly with the mechanism put in place when the debate starts. There is a ludicrous position in this country whereby every democratically elected Member of Dáil Éireann can be in favour of an issue but when it is put to a referendum, 50% of debating time may be given to people with no representation in here, or in some cases practically no representation in here. Such people have 50% of the available time in which to formulate erroneous, spurious and sometimes outlandish commentary and reasons for people to vote against an issue that would be in the common good. I have mentioned on Second Stage of previous Bills to amend the Constitution that the Government must examine this issue of media coverage being given on a 50-50 basis without any cognisance being taken of the Dáil's make-up. The debate allowed in referenda should be covered by the referendum commission, which should be placed on a more permanent basis, and the rules should be proportional to the representation in the Dáil. It should certainly be proportionate to the Deputies in favour or against issues that come before the country by way of referendum.
It is ridiculous that referendums are used as a "Lazarus-type" effect by people whose political parties have gone up in smoke or into cold storage. This will happen again in the case of Seanad abolition, and we will hear from people whose political parties no longer exist trying to reinvent themselves. We will have to forget that in 1992 these people were the first to advocate abolition of the Seanad as they have now gone the road to Damascus and seen the Seanad as something that should be retained. They will get 50% of the debate, along with their colleagues, to bombard RTE, TV3, The Irish Times and the Irish Independent. It will be the oxygen desired by some people in trying to get back to the Dáil. That is a cynical use of the original intention to provide balance in a constitutional debate, and there may be no bearing on the issues at hand.
A previous speaker from Sinn Féin is no longer in the Chamber but she machine-gunned the Government and Fianna Fáil with a litany of insults, personal and otherwise, which cannot go unchallenged. She referred to the dominant ideology of this House but that does not fall from the sky; it falls from ballot boxes and it is insulting to the people who voted for me, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and other Deputies in the House to have somebody suggest somehow that we should not be here. She implied that because I am a member of Fine Gael or others are members of the Labour Party, they should not be here.
The idea is that because people voted for Deputy O'Donovan, there must be something wrong with him. I find that personally insulting and I am sure the people who voted for me find it insulting as well, as my party and I have a mandate. With the Labour Party we have a bigger mandate than the other parties in here, and it is to govern. We are putting this electoral promise made by us to the people.
The Deputy also questioned local government reform. I do not know where the soundbites in her speech came from but Sinn Féin has also opposed local government reform. Nevertheless, when the party crosses the Border, its members seem to inhale some sort of toxin that changes their minds, as they are in favour of local government reform in the North, along with the abolition of certain councils, PSNI stations and small schools. They are also in favour of local taxes and water charges in the North, despite their opposition to such issues down here.
It irks me that the initial attack launched on the Government this evening referenced the church and the provisions of the 1937 Constitution but it failed utterly to make any reference to the fact that Sinn Féin is a recent convert to this process anyway. The party spent most of its political past, certainly in my lifetime, trying to subvert not just certain aspects of the Irish Constitution but the Constitution in its entirety. It has used every mechanism in its arsenal to ensure the provisions of the 1937 Constitution would be subverted and, in some cases, attacked in a military fashion.
The 1937 Constitution has served us well and its authors - Fianna Fáil was in Government at the time - should be commended. Europe was in a troubled position at the time and the Constitution has, by and large, served the country well. It is insulting, to put it mildly, to impugn this Chamber, which is directly elected by proportional representation with a single transferable vote. I know Fianna Fáil tried on two separate occasions to use its popularity to introduce a straight vote in the hope of achieving a British-type scenario of massive majorities but the people rejected those. It is insulting to every person in here to suggest that we are somehow not democratically elected and the next time the good Deputy has the opportunity to stand on her feet, she might apologise to those of us whom she openly insulted because we represent different ideologies.
The Deputy referred to us as being aloof and pampered but there is only one group of people I know who are as aloof and pampered as the Deputy described, and they are the abstentionist Members of Her Majesty's Parliament at Westminster. They have no problem taking the Queen's shilling in expenses but they will not take their seats to represent the people who elected them in Northern Ireland.
This issue is about giving people the opportunity to have their say on a commitment given both in the programme for Government and the manifestoes of both parties. There will be a vigorous debate, which I welcome, and there is an opportunity for everybody to have their say on what happens in the Seanad and what could have happened if there had been a reform as outlined in one of the many reports commissioned but which never got anywhere other than on a shelf to gather dust. It may be a pity but the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is correct in that this goal is not unique to Ireland, and the process has been done before. Other countries have gone this way and the Minister referred to New Zealand: I have never heard of it being referred to as an axis of anti-democracy. The Government is giving the people an opportunity to have their say and I am sure even Sinn Féin would agree that democracy and referenda are not something to be afraid of. This is an opportunity for people to have a debate and for the Government to advocate a platform of political reform at national, local and the regional level, which is often overlooked. It is badly needed.
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan is sharing time with Deputies Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Mattie McGrath and Patrick Nulty. They will have five minutes each.
There is no doubt that political reform is needed. I am here just over four years and I can share the frustration, disappointment and anger at how business is done. On the one hand we have rushed legislation, with increasing use of the guillotine, and on the other hand it can take an inordinate amount of time to get business done. One answer was to increase the size of the committee system but I must ask how productive that has been.
We also see serious inequalities when it comes to representation. There is a lack of democracy vis-à-vis the Independent Members of this House because we do not have the same rights and opportunities as the members of political parties. Most glaring of all is the lack of detailed, comprehensive discussion on reform of the Seanad. It is as if political reform equals reducing the number of TDs and abolishing the Seanad, without adequate discussion and that will tick the box on political reform.
When one talks about political reform, it is first important to look at the underlying reasons for introducing it, that is, the principles under which it has to happen. For me, it has to happen on the basis of greater democracy, more transparency and more accountability. A reformed Seanad could play a significant role in providing greater democracy, accountability and transparency. However, the Irish electorate is not being given a real choice here, a wider choice which includes the option of a reformed Seanad. If the referendum is carried, the Senate is gone but if it is lost, it stays as it is. I do not think anybody wants it to stay as it is.
I wish to acknowledge the work of the Seanad in the scrutiny of legislation. The perspectives of Senators have added to legislation and debates and produced worthwhile amendments. It must also be acknowledged that the Senate has a greater representation of women than the Lower House. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of Senator David Norris in initiating the first ever debate on AIDS, introducing the Civil Partnership Bill and calling for a special committee of inquiry in to the use of Shannon Airport for rendition flights. The latter move was later subverted by a group of local councillors in the Shannon area. The Seanad also saw the first resolutions against cluster munitions and Members did challenge the Celtic tiger and the bank guarantee.
There is no doubt about the need for reform and the first area is in the way in which members of the House are elected, which is not democratic. There has been a long debate over many years on the need for reform and many Governments, of varying political hues, have had the opportunity to do something on reform but did nothing. One must ask why and the answer is that it suited the political parties because of the way they used the Senate. While not wishing to be disparaging to individual members of the Senate, we all know the way the parties used the House as a training ground for new recruits or a reward for service. Maybe that did produce good Senators. Indeed, I am sure it did but the process was extremely restrictive and undemocratic. I have never seen such a complicated and convoluted system of electing people as that which operates through the panels. As a university graduate I have a vote on the university panel, but I do not see why, in a democracy, one citizen should have an extra right because he or she happened to get a third-level education.
I am one of the independent members on the Convention on the Constitution and one of the topics for consideration by the convention is Dáil electoral reform. Most people at the convention believed that we really should have been looking at political reform and Dáil reform that is not just confined to electoral reform. I cannot understand why reform of the Senate was not on our agenda. An attempt was made to include it more recently but I understand the reasoning of the Chairman, Mr. Tom Arnold, that the convention could not really add any more topics to the eight that it was given. It was suggested that it could be added later but there is no point in it being considered under "other relevant constitutional amendments" because by that time it could be abolished. One must ask why it was not included in the first place. Independent members have played a very significant role in the Senate, as have the Taoiseach's nominees this time around, who did not fall in along party political lines.
I am all for doing more with less, as long as that is applied to everybody. One of the arguments against the Senate is that it is too costly but costs will be involved in what is being presented as the alternative, that is the wider committee system. Furthermore, those countries with one chamber also have a much stronger and better-resourced system of local government, so that will involve a cost too. I believe there is a role for reformed, more democratic elected Senate, perhaps smaller than the one we have now. The Senate could play an important role in scrutinising EU legislation because I do not think the Oireachtas committees have the time to do that properly. It could also play a role in revising Government programmes, furthering public consultation and direct democracy, as well as in reducing the highly concentrated power that lies with the Executive in this country. Tá sé riachtanach go mbeidh níos mó díospóireachta ann maidir le hathchóiriú an tSeanaid in ionad é a scriosadh ar fad.
I will be voting in favour of abolishing the Seanad. If this Bill passes, with the help of my vote, I will certainly be voting in the referendum to abolish it. I have heard many saying that people should be given more of a choice, that it should not just be a straight choice between abolition or keeping it the way it is. I would agree with that point of view but if I was given that option, I would vote for abolition anyway because I have full confidence in the people of Ireland and the Dáil system which allows ordinary people to go out and vote for other ordinary people to get into this House. If engineers or computer programmers want to be represented in this House, let them go out and run for election. This is not an exclusive club. If one goes out and burns a hole in one's shoe leather, listens to people, knocks on doors and tells people one's ideas, they vote for one and one gets in here. I really do not see any problem with the system if we get rid of the Seanad. I do not think anyone would be left out and if people feel that is the case, they should wake up to the fact that anyone can run for election. It is a challenge but one can do it.
I find it interesting to see some of the characters that are involved in trying to keep the Seanad, such as the former Minister, Michael McDowell of Democracy Now. I suggest that group should change its name "Democracy When it Suits", because it seems he is interested in democracy one minute and is not interested in it the next. If he wants to represent the people, let him go out and look for votes. He got his answer the last time and I would imagine he would get the same answer again because people have not forgotten the damage he did to this country. I must say that I am delighted that he is on that side of the campaign. Most of the people I have spoken to in Roscommon have said that any thoughts of voting to keep the Seanad are now gone out the window because of his involvement. It is good, in that sense. I am glad to see he is finally achieving something.
Some people have argued that if we did not have the Seanad, we would not have brilliant people like David Norris in politics. However, I believe that if David Norris ran in an election for the Dáil he would be elected. I would vote for him if I was in his constituency because he has proved himself to be an excellent parliamentarian and an excellent contributor to debates. I do not think anyone should be afraid of that.
The down side of abolition is the belief that there will be less oversight because the people in the remaining House, the Dáil, just would not have the time to scrutinise all of the legislation properly. However, there is a way in which we would have the time and that is if people were not poking their noses in a failed local government system all of the time. I am sad to say that the reforms being suggested for local government will not do it. I had six years experience in local government but the reforms being proposed are very disappointing. I do not think the Seanad provided much accountability anyway but if we are going to take away even a thin layer of accountability, we need to put something else in its place. The biggest benefit of having proper local government would be that we could spend every last minute of our time in here crossing the t's and dotting the i's on legislation. I must be honest and say that if we had proper local government, I probably would not be here anyway. I would prefer to be in local government with real power to help local communities and to use the money that is there at a local level to benefit those communities. There would then be a better selection of people who would come in here who might be more suited to scrutinising legislation.
I will be voting for the Bill before us and will be voting to get rid of the Seanad. I will be then be hoping that the rest will be reformed and while the news is not good on that front, I am certainly not changing my view on the Seanad because of that.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill tonight but I am disappointed that the debate is so rushed. The Bill will probably be guillotined. I have only been given five minutes to speak on it, during which time I am expected to represent the views of the constituents who spoke to me, both for and against abolition of the Seanad.
This Government promised reform, change and a different way of doing things but it is the most autocratic Government since the foundation of the State. It is guillotine after guillotine. It is bullying and intimidation. It is regressive legislation all of the time. Our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, whom I wish him well in many aspects - I respect his position and I voted for him as Taoiseach - adopted this as his pet project. He did it out of despair because the last Taoiseach was so popular.
He told his beloved he would abolish the Seanad. If he succeeds it will be about the only promise he has ever made that he will have honoured. If all of the people in his own party and the Labour Party who I feel are saying they are against it are honest, they will oppose it and he will get nowhere.
When the previous Government was in power I saw the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, standing on this side of the House objecting to the guillotine and rushed legislation, some of which was dangerous legislation. The present Government took the mantle like a relay torch and ran with it. It also guillotines and rushes through legislation, including on banking and the promissory notes. It is a most undemocratic Government. Several minutes ago I saw the Chief Whip on the news on the television. He is in the United States getting a torch and bringing it back to Wexford. He has a torch here and is burning legislation and not respecting the Whips of our group or anybody else. They will not allow us as party leaders to have our say. People will have a choice and will say "No" to this.
Comments have been made about the former Minister, Michael McDowell. I certainly was not a fan of his but he went for election and was not afraid to face the people. When he was rejected he came back again. I suggested to the Technical Group I wanted to be a substitute at the Constitutional Convention, but I say to my colleagues Deputy O'Sullivan and Deputy Murphy that I have not once been invited to participate. They are great democrats when it suits them, but they want to keep everybody else down and bully their own ideas on others. I am too old-fashioned and they want modern legislation. This is democracy. They can speak about democracy all they like, but they do not mean it because it is not practised in my group. It is as simple as that and this is how it happens.
A reformed Seanad would be very beneficial but will we get it? We will not. This is Enda's ego trip, with all of his Ministers clapping him on the back. Some of them were Senators. I have never been in the Seanad and never canvassed for it. However, I want to see checks and balances on the legislation we introduce. The Taoiseach has broken all of his promises. He wants to keep this one but the public will decide. The Constitutional Convention is a bit of a charade. Why did the Taoiseach not leave the issue there? He is afraid somebody else might decide something else.
We need a reformed Seanad and should possibly allow our emigrants and diaspora to vote on it and have it democratically elected. We should have checks and balances and we should be allowed time. A company law reform Bill, on which I recently spoke, was 1,400 pages long. How could I, as an elected politician with limited resources, check it? It was in gestation for 20 years and they wanted us to pass it in a short number of days. We need proper accountability and proper respect for the people who vote us in here. If we asked tomorrow whether we should also get rid of the Dáil I am sure the people would do so, and I would not blame them because they have been sold down the river, particularly by this and previous Governments. We need accountability, honesty and openness. When people are picked for positions they should have a chance to participate and not be blocked out. This Government is the most autocratic of all time. Thankfully the people of Ireland elected a President who is ready, willing and able to speak on issues about us kowtowing to Europe, other discrepancies and the lack of democracy.
This cowardly Taoiseach will not allow a free vote on a serious constitutional issue. I will not call the other Bill before the House by its name, which mentions protecting mothers and nothing else. It is a Bill to introduce murder and slaughter into this country, yet the Taoiseach will not allow his own party people to have a free and conscientious vote. Where is the democrat? He is hiding and running but the people are waiting for him in the long grass and they will pay him back in good time. Democracy means nothing to him. He has no respect for it, but he should have because he has been here for much longer than I have, something on which I compliment him.
The Taoiseach will not allow a free vote in his own party. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding from? He wants to kowtow to the Labour Party on this issue when he has destroyed it on many other issues. When he finishes here he will probably go to Europe with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and the other fellows. The country will not forget Fine Gael and the so-called democrats in my group who will not allow me attend the Constitutional Convention for one day.
I welcome the Bill. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor Dermot Looney on South Dublin County Council, with whom the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, is familiar. He tabled the original resolution at the Labour Party conference demanding the abolition of this archaic undemocratic 1930s relic of an institution. Without his strong campaign on this issue the Labour Party may never have supported the referendum. It is important to put this on the record.
My comments are in no way a reflection on any individual Senator, many of whom make very fine contributions and I have the utmost respect for them regardless of their various political perspectives. We need a serious debate on this. What is the function of the Seanad in our modern democracy? As has been stated, countries such as Denmark, with very similar demographics and profiles, function perfectly well with a democratically elected House elected by all of the citizens. Contrast this with the Seanad where not one single Member is elected in an election open to all citizens, as is the case with constituency elections. I am a graduate of Trinity College and the NUI and as such I have a vote in both elections. I find it abhorrent that graduates of several particular institutions have a greater say in our democracy than anybody else. What about the outstanding graduates from the institute of technology in Blanchardstown? What about people who are unemployed? What about carers?
Our right to participate in democracy comes from one principle only, which is the fact we are citizens of a republic. No other factor should come into play. Any election should be based on equal citizens engaging in democracy. Our democracy is imperfect due to the influence of corporate forces, but it is a democratic system. The Seanad is something which we simply do not need. What about the Taoiseach's nominees? This is no reflection on any individual person, but on what basis should someone serve in the parliament of a country because they happen to be in the good books of the Taoiseach or Tánaiste of the day rather than seeking to put themselves before the people and be elected? This is profoundly and ridiculously undemocratic.
The point is being made about the need for political reform. As a first term Deputy I can say that the need for reform is stark. Look at the time of day at which we are debating this issue. How difficult would this be for a Deputy who is a lone parent or has a range of other commitments? It is completely family unfriendly and needs radical overhaul to allow participation.
The point has been made about the Government's overwhelming majority. We have a unique situation whereby the two largest parties in the country are in coalition together. This never happened before and is unconscionable. The obvious government was a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael government as they are in complete agreement on most key questions. It would make perfect sense for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which share the same ideological outlook, to form a government so we could have a genuine right left debate in the Dáil. Unfortunately, and much to my disappointment, this did not happen but this is democracy and we must accept it.
There has been much talk about the party Whip system in the Dáil. I can speak with some authority on this as someone who lost the party Whip. Political parties are entitled to impose a Whip if they wish. They should have more nuanced Whip systems such as those in the House of Commons and other chambers, but at the end of the day individual Deputies need to stand up and be counted and if they feel they need to break the Whip on a particular issue they should do so and stand over their actions.
One thing for certain is that removing the Seanad is not a power grab. It is removing an irrelevant institution based on 1930s corporatist Europe and not on 21st century democracy. The idea that the Seanad, which has people not popularly elected but elected by local authority members and university graduates or are the friends of the Taoiseach, should be able to provide a check on the people elected through universal suffrage is a farce. I look forward to the referendum if this legislation passes and I will campaign for a "Yes" vote to scrap the Seanad and remove it.
I call Deputy Tuffy. Only half a minute remains but Deputy Tuffy will resume when the debate resumes.
As a short amount of time remains I will add to the point made by Deputy Nulty on Councillor Dermot Looney's motion at the Labour Party conference. The motion was never taken and was disposed of by way of referring it back to the executive. The party leadership was not sure how the motion would fare and whether it would be passed. There was a strong possibility it would have been defeated. South Dublin County Council voted on a similar motion last week and it was defeated.
Unfortunately I did not read that in Time magazine.
Did the Fine Gael councillors vote the right way?