I thank the Leader of the House for his usual courtesy and cooperation in allowing me to resume this debate although it was the turn of the Government side. Like Senator Manning, since I became a Member of this House I have attempted to put forward proposals and opinions for the improvement of the House.
I am particularly pleased that Senator Manning holds a pivotal role in the House because he has expressed, both inside the House and outside in the course of his academic career, specific proposals on how the House should conduct its business and how it should progress in the future both in the constitutional context and in the legislative context. I would ascribe much of the inspiration for the debate on reform of the Seanad to Senator Manning. His integrity as an academic and as a politician of stature has carried considerable weight outside the House. I do not make these remarks in a patronising sense but primarily to convey the view that we in this House sometimes underestimate and undersell ourselves and, as a result, the wider public perception of what we do is downplayed. It is only by constantly reminding the public through newspaper articles and media appearances that we can convey the importance of our role as an equal member of the constitutional trinity, as it were.
I will not offer radical proposals other than to add my voice to the well researched debate that has taken place thus far. Obviously, the electoral system is an old chestnut at this stage. Irrespective of how much I look at the system, I find it hard to arrive at an alternative that would be accepted by us as Members, by the public and by the Government of the day. The Government of the day, as I have discovered since 1987, is reluctant to tamper with the Seanad. It is sometimes forgotten that any changes in the role, structure or operation of the Seanad would require constitutional amendments. I am not referring to how the Seanad orders its business. However, its role in the constitutional sense would require constitutional amendments and no Government really has the stomach for that.
Some years ago, when a new Senator proposed at a meeting that all Senators should have word processors, a former leader of our party, who shall remain nameless, rounded on him and said that if a poll was taken in the morning the public would vote to abolish the Seanad. The retort was that if a further poll was taken the following morning the Dáil would also be abolished.
People feel dissatisfied, marginalised or cynical about the political structures which govern them and most people would say that a dictatorship would be best for this country. People in developed democracies have a strange view that democracy is the worst system. Those opinions are usually expressed by people who have no experience of totalitarian regimes or have not even read history books about fascism, totalitarianism and dictatorship. Our democracy, flawed as it is, is the best system we have. I would stoutly defend its right to exist and we should build on it.
I have very little to offer in the context of electoral reform of this House. Regionalising the voting structure would be an easy road to take. As matters stand, there is an electoral college of 970 members which elects 43 Members of the Seanad through the five vocational panels; six are elected through the university panels and the remaining 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach of the day. Any debate on changing the system of election tends to focus on the 43 Members elected by the five panels. When these panels were set up they were intended to reflect in a general sense the main vocational activities in this country — industry and commerce, culture and education, labour and trade unions, administration and agriculture. Those priorities have not changed much since 1937.
I would like to see more direct input from the vocational bodies. I am a nominee of the Library Association of Ireland. There is a common error in the public mind that Senators are appointed and not really elected. These are perceived as purely political appointments where the parties in power decide who is going to be in the Seanad. I wish that were the case as it would make life much easier for us all.
I have represented the Library Association since 1987 but somehow, despite my best efforts, it feels marginalised to a degree from the political system, which is not right. It is, effectively, a lobby group and Governments' response to lobby groups depends on their importance in society. For example, farmers and the trade union movement are seen as the most powerful lobby and, in recent years, IBEC has increased its muscle. They are seen as strong lobby groups to which Governments seem to respond within minutes of an issue arising. However, there is a range of other activities and interests, from the libraries through to the voluntary sector, which do not always get the same response from the Government, partly because they are not perceived as representing major activities. However, they are important and essential to the overall life of the country.
Perhaps there could be some way of addressing this issue of a balance between the vocational and political sectors. I know that de Valera's Constitution, in its theoretical sense, thought that it had addressed this issue, but the reality is that politics took over very quickly. Any vocational body which has wished to have one of its representatives elected to the Seanad has found — cruelly, in some cases — that unless its appointee is a political activist he or she has little real chance of being elected to this House. It is a courageous action to go before an electorate, irrespective of its size. Irrespective of party or ideology, one must admire anybody who stands up to be counted in the cruellest test of all.
I remember an incident where a vocational body nominated one of its own members — I will not name the body or the individual to save him the embarrassment. It was either my first or second election and the gentleman concerned embarked on a very sophisticated marketing and advertising campaign to local councillors. Enormous sums of money were spent on this mail shot. I am not sure if he went around the country shaking hands and meeting councillors. If he did, I was not aware of it, although he was on a different panel to me and, as Senators will know, they are five separate elections. At the end of the day an enormous amount of money, time and energy were expended and he got one vote, which was probably from his mother-in-law or a personal friend. He is a very able individual in his chosen profession, which is why his professional body nominated him. They must have been cruelly disappointed that not only was their man not elected but he got only one vote in what was supposed to be a vocational election. I do not wish to labour the point but there is a need to balance the needs of the vocational sector and the political realities. How the two can be married is a question which we may need to debate separately.
I am on record as being in support of votes for emigrants. I am unequivocally and unambiguously in support of the right of emigrants, with certain conditions attached, to have a vote in our elections. Having said that, I fully understand — perhaps better than most — the fear particularly of TDs, of enfranchising thousands of the Irish diaspora.
The Tánaiste made a very telling comment that he would hate to be waiting for the results from the box in the Bronx to decide the outcome of the election in north Kerry, He was not joking as, after all, he was elected with only four votes to spare in a recent election. My colleague, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, told me at the height of a debate on this issue some time ago that when she was in Boston during her ministerial stewardship she was told that there were more people in Boston from the Galway West constituency than were living in the constituency. Most of them were emigrants who would be eligible under a ten or 15 year rule if the legislation was introduced.
For every approach which has been made to me because of my continuing contacts with emigrant welfare groups in the UK asking about the vote, I have received other representations from long term emigrants saying that they do not wish to have enfranchisement. In other words, they do not want power without taxation as they live in their adopted country and do not want to be involved here.
I am raising this mainly because it is relevant to this Seanad and, under the proposals put forward by the Government, it will become even more relevant. I understand why the Government responded in the way in which it did. On one hand, it did not wish to ignore what it saw as a very significant, relevant and powerful lobby, as every family in this country has somebody who has emigrated. On the other hand, it has taken a soft option in channelling it into this House.
The last thing people lobbying for representation ever thought was that they would be represented in the Seanad. They want direct voting rights in this country. In the order of their priorities, Dáil elections come last on the list because they recognise the PR system and its vagaries. Their first priority is to have the right to vote in presidential elections and I see no problem with that. They also seek the right to vote on constitutional amendments, which might open a different debate.
I am not sure three Senators, purportedly representing emigrants' interests in the House, will go even a short distance towards satisfying the lobby which is primarily made up of young emigrants, those who left this country in the last ten or 15 years. The older the age profile among emigrants, the less likely they are to look for voting rights. In narrowing it even further, the main thrust of the lobby comes from our near neighbour and the Irish in Britain, who are closer to what is happening here because of better and less expensive access in recent years. They now see their sojourn in England as of a temporary nature and even if they decide to live there for a considerable length of time, they can fly back to Ireland.
We all know of people who regularly fly home or take the ferry. They are in constant touch through Irish newspapers, local and national, and as a result of RTE's initiative, people across Europe can now receive that station as clear as a bell if they have a satellite channel; they can hear the news on the radio and there are plans to broadcast RTE television programmes through the European satellite network.
A mix of Irish television programmes will be available to the Irish diaspora in Europe; this is happening already in the United States. The world has become a global village perhaps much faster than even McLuhan recognised. There is a clear split in the Irish diaspora between the younger element, who are looking for enfranchisement, and longer stay emigrants, who do not care one way or the other. I am not sure that the Government's proposal is a good idea and it may take time to reflect before the move is implemented.
Apart from votes for emigrants, there are other more mundane matters. The right of audience has come up in this House on several occasions. Some years ago, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in its wisdom introduced limited right of audience for distinguished visitors but I would like it to go further. I do not understand why this House should not be in a position to invite distinguished visitors to the country, not just to sit in the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery but to address the House. There is no reason this cannot be done; it has happened previously in the Dáil. As Members know, the Protocol is that a Head of State addresses a joint sitting of both Houses, while a Prime Minister, who is not a Head of State, addresses only the Dáil.
In a sense, this marginalises the Seanad. It happened during my time in the House, where distinguished visitors have addressed only the Dáil because of their status in their own country. Why cannot the Seanad invite people to address the Seanad? It may be that, in the normal event, the invitee would be asked to address the Dáil. It does not necessarily follow that it would have to be the Prime Minister. It could be a Foreign Minister or anybody who would enhance the workings of the House by their presence, and their speech would inform, educate and hopefully entertain us. There are many areas that could be examined in this regard.
In the context of Europe, there is no reason an initiative could not be introduced which would allow Members of the European Parliament a right of audience and a right of contribution in the House. Why not have a European question time? There is no facility at present, nor has there been since the first directly elected Parliament in 1979, to allow right of access to MEPs beyond the barrier in Dáil Éireann and the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery in the Seanad, even if they were former Members of the House.
This is an area the Committee on Procedure and Privileges should examine. It is a decision that the Government would have to ultimately make because it would involve a change which might not be within the remit of the House. However, of all the points I have raised, the question of MEPs being given a right of audience could be addressed in a practical manner. It would enhance the House because so little about events in Europe is filtering through to the average person. I am not sure if Senators remember the most famous survey of all carried out during the Dublin South-Central constituency by-election, in which the current Taoiseach, Deputy Bruton, was identified by a percentage of the population as a Member of the European Parliament. Other well known politicians were similarly identified but I use that as an extraordinary example of people's indifference to what is going on in Europe.
They consider it as that far country, which Chamberlain once talked about in the context of Czechoslovakia. It is still endemic in this country that foreign affairs are foreign and do not matter. However, what happens in Europe matters greatly, and what will happen in Europe matters even more. One way of addressing this problem is to ensure that MEPs come into the House and give an account of their stewardship in their areas of expertise, and there could be a short question and answer session. This could be done not every week but perhaps once a month. This might be within the remit of Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
On a completely different level, there is the question of facilities provided for Senators. I understand that a number of my colleagues, Senator Cassidy in particular, have already requested that Senators be provided with similar secretarial facilities to TDs. As the matter stands in most cases, a Senator is entitled to a one-third share of a secretary. This is inadequate. Senators have an enormous amount of constituency work, and I mean constituency in the broadest sense. Our electorate is national and we must respond to it. I am a career Senator and I value this House. I am honoured to be a Senator and I have no aspirations to be elsewhere.
The current position is no longer acceptable if a Member is to achieve what I believe a Senator should in responding to his or her constituents, such as county and municipal councillors, TDs and the myriad of lobby groups now writing to us because of the increasing amount of legislation initiated in the House and the increasing number of debates on current topics. It is unacceptable that a Senator should have only a one-third share of a secretary. We should have the full facilities which are available to TDs. This matter may not necessarily come under the reform of the House but it should be put on record; I know Senator Manning would not be against the idea if it were within his gift.
To summarise, I do not agree with the proposal regarding Seanad representation for emigrants. I agree in principle but it is not the way to proceed. The status of MEPs arises in the context of right of audience for distinguished visitors. There is an obligation on them and on us as legislators to continually update ourselves on what is happening at European Parliament level. Facilities for Senators should be on a par with those of Members of the other House.