That Seanad Éireann, in the interest of even handedness, urges that legislation be introduced to enfranchise graduates of the new universities in future elections to the Seanad.
I welcome the opportunity to propose this motion. I understand this is the first time this has been debated in the Seanad. I welcome the chance to do so and I also welcome the Minister. I mentioned this morning that there was an error on the Order Paper which omitted the names of Senator O'Toole and Senator Lee who also support this motion. To the best of my knowledge every University Senator, at least for the last ten years, has also supported this motion.
This motion urges the early introduction of legislation to enfranchise graduates of the new universities in future elections to the university seats in this House. I deliberately cast the motion in general terms because the ways and means of implementing this idea would obviously have to be a matter of wide and detailed consultation between the various interests involved.
My main reason for proposing this motion is the belief that the present situation is nothing short of a national scandal which brings our Constitution into disrepute and, by extension, brings this House into disrepute. Colleagues will be aware, but the public may not be fully aware, that the Constitution was amended in 1979 on this very issue. The Constitution as originally enacted by the Irish people in 1937 reflected the university situation as it was and did not envisage any future changes.
The Constitution originally provided for six university seats, divided equally between the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland. There was an important signal in that division of seats because in 1937 one of those universities. Trinity College, was an almost totally Protestant university while the National University of Ireland was an almost totally Catholic institution. The farmers of the 1937 Constitution were making a point when they proposed equal representation for Protestant and Catholic graduates even though the numbers involved were not equal. This was a laudable approach in the circumstances of the 1930s. The generosity of spirit behind it would commend itself to the present generation as we approach discussions on the constitutional framework for the future of this island.
As far the university franchise is concerned, things have moved a long way since 1937 and have changed dramatically and irreversibly. This is why we are discussing this motion. In 1979 an amendment to the Constitution was passed by the people of Ireland which provided for a more flexible approach to the election of university Members. This was precipitated by the expectation that the NUI colleges would eventually become individual universities in their own right. In that situation the electoral structure as envisaged by the Constitution would not fit in with the reality. A constitutional amendment was proposed and enacted by the people in 1979.
The amended Constitution is the framework within which we now have to work. In effect, the amended Constitution now says that out of the 49 elected members of the Seanad, the number of University Senators will remain at six. The total number of University Senators is not, therefore, for discussion under the existing Constitution and neither is it an issue. The Constitution, as amended, provides for total flexibility as to how the six university seats are to be elected.
The Constitution states that provision may be made by law for the election of Senators representing not only the National University of Ireland and Trinity College but also — to quote Article 18.4.2ºi —"any other institutions of higher education in the State." The Constitution leaves as a matter for legislation how exactly the seats could be divided between all these institutions. This was a wise move since it avoids the rigidity of the original proposal.
I apologise for subjecting the House to this historical review but it is necessary in the context of what I am about to say. I want everybody to be fully aware that I know the background of the original constitutional provision and the 1979 amendment.
If we stand back and look at our Constitution, I contend that Article 18.4 is sending a clear message. It envisages that the university seats will be representative of all graduates of higher education institutions in the State and not just the two originally mentioned. Our Constitution clearly says that the issue is representation for graduates, not the representation of a particular subgroup of graduates.
I am proud of our Constitution. There are clearly some fundamental problems which history has now caught up with. However, it is a broadly based, largely liberal Constitution and in many ways a farseeing document that is highly regarded among international students of constitutional law. It is in short something of which we can rightly be proud.
I personally challenged the constitutionality of a provision in Article 44. This Article provides that we may not pass any law which discriminates on the grounds of religion. I challenged that and won a case in 1970. That particular Article is one which is highly valued by many constitutional lawyers around the world.
I am pleased that the Constitution does not intend any old fashioned inequality. On the contrary, to the layman's eye, it seems to be encouraging the legislators to be even handed in our approach to the enfranchisement of graduates. I am not, however, as pleased with what we have actually done with the Constitution because we have done nothing.
The original break up of the NUI did not take place as envisaged in 1979. However, something of equal significance did take place. Within the last decade this State created two entirely new universities: the University of Limerick and Dublin City University. I mention them in that order because we, in Dublin tend to put Dublin first all the time which we should not do.
These two universities are a fine addition to our national educational heritage. In the academic world, there is no question of them being other than first class. In the academic marketplace, the names of the University of Limerick and Dublin City University are every bit as revered, valued and prized as those of the older universities. Nobody in his or her right mind could possibly argue that they are not at least on a par, yet our present law discriminates against our graduates by disenfranchising them in elections to Seanad Éireann. That, as I stated baldly at the outset, is nothing short of a national scandal.
It is a scandal not least because there are no good excuses for it. We cannot hide behind the Constitution. It not only permits what I suggest, it also provides the strongest possible hint that we should do it. We cannot hide behind practicalities either. Of course there would be difficulties in finding a formula to enfranchise all the graduates and, no doubt, we will hear more about those difficulties tonight. The size of the constituencies, which have already grown to an extent that is increasingly unmanageable for candidates and is therefore possibly discriminatory, is just one of the difficulties. These difficulties, however, are there to be overcome and they are not insuperable if a modicum of goodwill is brought to the discussion. They are certainly not a good reason for leaving in place the discriminatory and indefensible status quo.
The motion mentions only the new universities. However, what about graduates of the regional technical colleges? They should be included too; indeed some of those graduates are already enfranchised because their degrees are awarded by one or other of the present enfranchised universities. Trinity College has awarded about 4,000 degrees to graduates from Bolton Street, Kevin Street, Sion Hill and to other Dublin Institute of Technology graduates.
We should aim to be totally inclusive. We should seek to include all graduates rather than simply broadening the list of institutions. Ideally, we should be talking about enfranchising the universities in Northern Ireland also. Unfortunately, however, that is not permitted under the Constitution. I hope that before very long, in a wider context, we will have a new Constitution that will permit representation from Northern Ireland universities.
I doubt that anybody who accepts the idea of university representation can make a good case against ending the present discrimination in the electoral system. I realise that many people have reservations about the concept of separate representation for graduates. Opposition to change will come from that quarter. I ask them to look at the Seanad as it exists and to look at the history of university Senators — I exclude myself from this — and see the fine work that has been done by them.
The Seanad now is very different from the corporate structure that reflected fashionable thinking in the 1930s. I have no problem with that because I believe in the evolution of our institutions. I have no problem with the fact that this House is overwhelmingly political in the narrow sense of the definition. However, this House and the Oireachtas has greatly benefited and continues to benefit from the different perspective contributed by University Senators.
What we bring to the party, to coin a phrase, is very precious. Let us remove the discrimination and clean up our act. Even more importantly, let us say to the generation of graduates emerging from the new institutions that we recognise their degrees, their qualifications and their education and that they are every bit as good as those received from the other fine institutions which just happen to have been in existence a little longer.