I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am very glad that the Ministers and Ministers of State (Successors) Bill has reached Second Stage. A lot has happened since I first put the Bill forward. It seems like an age has passed in the history of the country since the Bill was tabled way back in the middle of the lockdown.
We had a very strange situation following the general election. We had a period of 140 to 150 days when the political establishment got involved in a slow set, a merry dance, a very slow political process of trying to form a government. During that time, we had a Taoiseach who lost a general election. We had Ministers who had lost their seats and had no mandate themselves. We had a Dáil that was unable to legislate. We were in the middle of one of the most severe health crises in the history of the State. A pandemic was rolling across the world in our direction and we had a political system that was in effect completely broken.
We were not able to make life-or-death decisions in Leinster House. Eleven Senators could not be selected because the Taoiseach had to be the Taoiseach elected by the new Dáil before the Senators to be nominated by him could be selected. As a result, the Seanad was in abeyance. As we know, the Oireachtas needs the two Houses to function properly and deliver legislation. On plenty of occasions emergency legislation was necessary and we had a political system that was flailing about, trying to get its act together and get things done when it needed to most.
One of the most striking images was that of the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, who was in Government Buildings designing and developing one of the most rigid and restrictive plans that any Government in the history of the State had ever developed. That was done in Government Buildings. He got into his ministerial car and drove to RTÉ to deliver the contents of that plan. Here we were, the elected Deputies who had a refreshed mandate - some of them had a new mandate - at Leinster House at their desks twiddling their thumbs not really sure what the content of that plan was and with no opportunity to feed into that plan, no opportunity to block, stop or amend any elements of it whatsoever. All they could do was pick up their remote control and listen to the speech the Taoiseach was going to deliver in RTÉ. They were, like the rest of the citizens, helpless.
If that type of political dysfunction had lasted so long anywhere else in the world, there would have been uproar. If President Trump were completely to ignore the Houses of Congress and take all the power within that democracy into the hands of just a small executive, ignoring the freshly elected representatives, it would be all over the news. People would be shouting from the rafters and hammering the action if that was the case. However, that was what was happening in Ireland. There was a breathtaking subversion of democracy in that period. We are a republic and the most important element of how this republic functions is the democratic system. The idea that citizens are sovereign and are in control, and that we legislate on their behalf at their will, is a key element of what a democracy is and yet that issue was subverted for a long period of time.
The Government parties seemed to make this issue personal at the time. When I raised this there were three Ministers who had lost their seats in Cabinet at the time. There is nothing personal about the Bill and nothing personal about the desire to see the actions of the people implemented as soon as possible in any new Dáil in future. I imagine some of those Ministers found it very difficult to have lost their seats. It is a very difficult personal experience and they had to remain in that role at a very difficult time. There is nothing personal in this; it was not an insult.
However, many people at home were asking how such a person was still a Minister. Did that person not lose their seat? In fact, many of the citizens of this country saw it as an insult to them that these Ministers were staying on. Many people on the street felt that here were Ministers who having had a certain number of years in office had achieved pensions for their particular roles and if they made it to June, those pensions were going to increase. Obviously with the process of Government formation taking so long, many of those saw their ministerial pensions increase.
A couple of things were at the heart of this crisis. Society had a sense of urgency.
The body politic was in a bubble and was detached from that sense of urgency. I believe it was full of its own self-importance with regard to how to proceed. Any political establishment that takes nearly 150 days to get together to negotiate is radically detached from the reality of people's lives. That detachment underlined the subversion of democracy and the idea that a person serves only by the will of the people.
Obviously we have a Constitution, which is the basic law of the State. That Constitution makes provision for a caretaker government after an inconclusive election for the period in which political parties are negotiating with each other but I am not sure that anybody here can say that the writers of the Constitution honestly felt that a government formation process would take 150 days. I am not sure that anybody would have thought that a ministerial office would be a blank cheque that could last for such a length of time. There is no doubt in my mind that 150 days is not the longest period of government formation we may witness in our lifetimes. We are living a far more fractured political environment than we have ever seen before. With the way things are going, it is likely that we could see 200 or 250 days of negotiations on government formation in the future.
The key question is whether a Minister who does not have any democratic mandate should be able to spend billions of euros of people's money. Should a Minister with no more of a mandate than my four year old son be able to make key decisions relating to people's lives, rights and entitlements? My instinct is that he or she should not. There has to be a logical deadline by which we replace those Ministers.
The Constitution says that Ministers stay in place until the Dáil chooses successors to replace them. My Bill creates a deadline of six weeks. The existing Minister has an opportunity to function, to tidy up his or her office and to make sure that issues which have to be dealt with quickly are dealt with but, after those six weeks, a decision would be made to select a new Minister. The names of the Ministers would be put before the Dáil to be voted on. The new Minister, who would have won an election and would have a democratic mandate, would then function within the Chamber. It is a very simple process and I believe the six-week element of this Bill will be radically helpful in the future. It will create a deadline for government formation because parties in a caretaker government that are part of negotiations will not want to go before the Dáil to seek a replacement Minister because they will know that there will be political challenges in doing so. Minds will be focused on trying to form a government within that six-week period. That is simply what this Bill does.
This proposal means that if one wants to be a Minister in this country and if one is going to act and exercise the authority democracy gives a Minister, one must first and foremost have been democratically elected. Democracy is not just for Christmas or for the good times. It is not just some kind of appendage or add-on which we do our best to get around to at some stage. Democracy is sacrosanct. Nothing built in this Oireachtas should be built on anything but a democratic foundation. Any effort to do otherwise means ignoring the people and shows how separate the elected representatives in this Chamber have become.
There is also a practical element to this Bill which relates to the junior Ministers. A vote of the Dáil is not necessary to replace a junior Minister. They can be replaced on the will of the Taoiseach so there is no real difficulty in replacing them after six weeks. In that situation, junior Ministers would be able to attend the Dáil to answer questions. A situation arose here where newly elected and newly minted Deputies wanted to ask the then Minister of State, Senator Kyne, questions at the start of this Dáil term. In fairness, he wanted to answer those questions in the Dáil but he could not.
A Minister without a mandate was making decisions while completely unaccountable to the Dáil. At the very early stages of the confused situation we were in, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, was coming to the Chamber to answer questions for Senator Doherty. One of the problems I have with Irish politics is that it was an accountability-free zone for many years. One of the only tools we have to hold people accountable is democracy. Everybody here knows that if we do the wrong thing, there is a good chance we will not be elected at the next election and will not be able to continue our work. We all have clinics to go to every week where we listen to the people and make sure we understand what is happening at a grassroots level and in real people's lives. If one is a Minister who has already lost one's seat, however, one is not threatened by the possibility of losing that seat. That key element of accountability is lost in that situation.
It is also incredible that, at the start of this particular Dáil, there was a Minister who basically said that she did not want to answer certain questions as they were questions for the next Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. There was an attitude among Ministers who were being fully paid and whose pension entitlements were increasing that they did not have a responsibility to answer Deputies' questions.
There is also an economic cost to the current situation. At present, 160 Deputies must be elected but Ministers without mandates must also be paid a certain amount. The current process therefore costs the State approximately €40,000 a week.
The key issue, however, is one on which we must really focus and which must be at the heart of all we do here. We need to find a mechanism to make sure the democratic deficit that existed and the crash in democracy that occurred at the start of this Dáil does not happen again. The best way to do this is to introduce a deadline and to use the skills and energy within the Dáil to fill those ministerial seats. Some people will say that certain Ministers are fantastic even though they lost their seats, that they have great experience and that people would have to read themselves into their ministerial briefs to be able to deal with them. There is a serious problem if we are saying that we do not have the political and technical skills necessary to do these jobs within Leinster House and that we have to rely on people who are not elected representatives to do them. We need to make sure we do not divorce the actions of this Dáil from the accountability and oversight inherent in the democratic institutions.
Some people may disagree with the six-week time limit and perhaps with the selection of Ministers. They may feel the responsibility should be passed to an existing Minister, as has happened under previous Governments. That is fine but this Bill should be allowed to grow on Committee Stage. People should be allowed to table amendments to improve it, if necessary. We should not, however, lose this opportunity only to find ourselves in another crisis in three or four years' time seeing 200 years of the will of the people ignored.