Review of Seanad: Statements.

I welcome the opportunity to open this debate in the Seanad itself on the reform of the Seanad. The Seanad in its current form has come in for criticism over the years. It is my belief that an analysis of the Seanad should begin with the specification of the functions of the Seanad. The form or structure of the Seanad should be the one that best serves its specified functions.

The current debate on the Seanad was begun by the report of the Constitution Review Group 1995-6, chaired by a former distinguished Senator, Dr. T. K. Whitaker. It concluded its review by recommending that a special commission be established to report on the functions and structure of the Seanad.

The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution chaired by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe decided to carry out this review itself. It commissioned a report from two distinguished academics, John Coakley, UCD and Michael Laver, TCD. Their report set forth the structure and functions of second chambers worldwide. Of the 156 unitary states surveyed by Coakley-Laver only 40 or 25 per cent have second chambers. This underscores the wisdom of examining the functions of Seanad Éireann with a view to ensuring that they are politically significant ones.

The Second Progress Report of the O'Keeffe committee which dealt with Seanad Éireann observed: "The Seanad does make a useful contribution to the democratic life of the state. .. but the Seanad is a resource that could be deployed to far greater effect if it were reformed." The report examined the functions of the Seanad and came up with recommendations for substantial changes in the composition of the House. It is clear from the Coakley-Laver study that there is a wide range of options available for determining the composition of a second chamber. So I urge once more the debating strategy that we concentrate on the determination of the functions of the Seanad because composition is fundamentally a technical political issue.

One of the aspects of modern government that does not receive adequate attention but which is of growing importance is European Union legislation. As the O'Keeffe committee puts it:

Ireland's membership of the EU has created a broad bridge over which a huge volume of EU regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions is carried out. This traffic represents how the powers ceded by the member states under the Treaties are being used. It is clear that careful checks on it should be carried out by the Oireachtas. Owing to the heavy calls upon their time Dáil Deputies find themselves unable to do this effectively.

It is clear from the results of the referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty that a substantial number of people are concerned by the failure of politicians to keep them informed about EU matters and the policies it is pursuing.

I believe the Seanad should be made a checkpoint on the EU bridge. Prospective EU legislation should be debated in the Seanad with European Commissioners present and their officials being available to provide the background and rationale of the policy measures being proposed. Irish legislation on foot of European legislation should be introduced in the Seanad. Moreover, MEPs from the North and South should have right of audience in the Seanad. It seems to me that if the Seanad were given this function and that if it tackled it with high critical ability and energy, it would be performing an important task that needs urgently to be done. Inasmuch as it would create within itself a special expertise in EU affairs it would greatly strengthen this relatively new element in our political culture and, since Europe is a growing part of political life, the Seanad would become a growing star in our political system.

As far as the composition of the Seanad is concerned I want to make two observations. First, the functions of the Seanad are fundamentally political in character and criticism of the composition of the Seanad that, for instance, it does not have a sufficient number of representatives of vocational interests is wide of the mark. Political work is for politicians, it always was and it always will be. I disagree, therefore, with the recommendations of the O'Keeffe report that the Seanad should simply be a consultative body whose Members, broadly speaking, would be non-partisan people with knowledge, experience and judgment. Having been a Member of the Seanad for almost 17 years, I would like to believe that I served with some of the most eminent public representatives in the history of the State who were knowledgeable and experienced and who showed great judgment.

I also hold the view that because Members of the Seanad cannot be returned by direct election, the obvious political way is to have them returned is by indirect election by local authority members. Since the appearance of the second progress report of the 1996-7 committee, chaired by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, which deals with Seanad Éireann, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, has made known his intention to act on one of the committee's recommendations, namely, that which recommends a referendum to give constitutional recognition to local government. This and other proposed legislation indicates the Government's determination to reinvigorate the local government system. Therefore, I oppose the recommendation of the O'Keeffe committee that a lesser number of Senators should be returned by local authority members than at present. Such recognition would be given practical political meaning if local authority members were given an enhanced role in returning Senators.

I am not in favour of seeking to establish regional membership of the Seanad by grouping local authorities into regional constituencies. On the contrary, local government would be best served if it were seen, in respect of this electoral function, as a unified instrument of national policy. Furthermore, a higher calibre of Seanad candidates would be assured if those seeking election were obliged to make their pitch to a national rather than a regional constituency.

I look forward to Members' contributions and I anticipate a lively debate. With these remarks, I declare the debate now open.

I welcome this timely and important debate. I compliment the Leader on his measured and thoughtful comments. He set a good tone for the debate, which, I hope, will be helpful in the context of Seanad reform.

In recent years there have been several debates on this topic in the House. Many of the ideas which will be expressed this afternoon were put forward in the past. We are not dealing with this issue for the first time and Members have already made a wide range of suggestions regarding how change could be effected. There is also a clear willingness on their part to accept the need for and consequences of that change. Like the Leader, I intend to concentrate largely on the principles which should underlie any change.

A question people frequently ask is whether a second House is needed. As the Leader indicated, many countries, particularly some of the Nordic states, manage quite well with one House of Parliament. It is interesting that, to date, none of the reports on this House carried out by outside experts has reached this conclusion and they all stated clearly that there is a need for a second House. They are correct to make that assertion.

We live in what is frequently referred to as the "age of the democratic deficit", which is a real problem particularly as it relates to how we deal with European matters. No matter how hard they try, the 15 MEPs, who are generally people of high calibre, are not able to do what is expected of them. They cannot ensure that there will be a full flow of information in respect of and a full debate on major issues or that there will be a proper examination of the many detailed proposals put forward daily by the European Commission, via the European Parliament and elsewhere, which will inevitably find their way into domestic legislation.

Europe is not an esoteric subject. The day to day matters dealt with in Europe affect trade, commerce and living standards in addition to the daily lives of virtually every citizen in this country across a wide range of activities. It is important that within the Oireachtas there should be a House with the time and facilities to deal with these matters, so that when a debate arises similar to that on the Amsterdam Treaty, claims will not again be made — in my opinion they were correct — about the lack of proper scrutiny and debate in the Houses of Parliament. I will return to that matter later.

There is great justification for the existence of a second House. Virtually all of the new countries which emerged after the collapse of Communist and totalitarian rule have opted for a second House of Parliament. They did so, for the most part, following a great deal of reflection. They realised that there will be needs for which a lone House of Parliament cannot cater and that groups and interests which need representation will not obtain it if only one House is established. They also recognised that there are many functions which will not be carried out by Lower Houses but which, in the interests of democracy, should be carried out.

It is instructive to consider current events in Britain where one of the aims of the Government is to transform the democratically indefensible House of Lords into a form of senate which will meet some of the needs that are glaringly obvious — and which could be dealt with effectively by a properly organised second House — to people involved in British politics. It would be foolish and short-sighted of us to abolish an institution which has not only served the country well but which, more importantly, has the potential to add significant value to our democratic process.

As already stated, Members accept the need for reform. Our electoral system must be widened to broaden membership of the Seanad. As the Leader indicated, this is a political House and it is an integral part of the political process of the State. I can do no better than recall the words of the great 19th century philosopher of parliament, Walter Bagehot, who stated "Without party, parliament is not possible." In the context of the Seanad, "party" could be taken as meaning politics. This is a political House and it is concerned with the business of politics, in its narrowest and broadest sense. What was true in the 19th century is even more true today.

Any reform of the electoral system should be based on a frank acceptance that politics is about politics and that Houses of Parliament are run on political principles because they are about the business of politics. I do not believe we want a second House of Parliament which is a carbon copy of the NESC or a similar body. We do not want to see the establishment of some form of corporate State institution populated by those who are loaded down with vested interests, individuals interested only in one issue or those who are not answerable in any democratic or accountable way and who concentrate only on serving the interests of their supporters. That would be a recipe for narrow brokering between powerful professional interests and it would represent a negation of everything parliament represents. Above all else, parliament stands for the general interests of the people pooled together in one assembly rather than professional interests fighting against each other to fulfil their selfish desires. There are many other places where such battles can be fought.

Having said that, I accept the need to change our electoral system, broaden the electorate and tighten up a number of current procedures. However, I believe that a college of electors drawn from those who are themselves elected and who are involved in local government on a daily basis is not merely defensible, it is eminently sensible as a means of electing some Members of an Upper House. It is also inherently democratic because those people are accountable to their electorates and we, the people they choose to elect here, are accountable to them. Any reform of the Seanad should retain this electoral college as a large element within its structure — I say this not because I have a vested interest in it, which I have, but on the basis of democracy. Ireland is not unique in this system. France and Spain have broadly similar structures, and in other European countries the principle of an indirectly elected House of Parliament is accepted as inherently democratic. Other groups should also have the possibility of being elected to this House, especially representatives of groups which may have something distinctive to say, and we should examine ways of bringing this to pass.

I have been vague up to now about the type of electoral system we should have and I do not believe our Constitution should go into too much detail about how the Seanad should be organised. A constitution should lay down general principles and leave the rest to legislation, and if the legislation does not conform to the constitutional principles it can be tested in court. The present Constitution goes into far too much detail about how the House should be constituted and on the type and detail of the electoral system. The Seanad of 60 years ago should not be the Seanad of today. I have been in the House for 18 years, on and off, and I know that it wants to reform but it is constrained from reforming itself by constitutional limitations. We should not have found ourselves in this position; we should be answerable to the general principles on which the House is constituted and should be free from time to time, through legislation, to make changes which are thought appropriate. Too rigid a constitutional framework inhibits the changes necessary for any institution.

Equally, some of the suggestions for a new Seanad would, had they been enshrined in the Constitution, have proved even more restrictive than the current position. They would have ossified this institution within the political correctness of the 1990s, much of which is already out of date, and would leave our successors with an institution even more anachronistic than some people say the current House is. The worst possible thing which the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution could do would be to start prescribing the detail of a new Seanad in a way which would necessarily be fixed, rigid, cumbersome and expensive to change, with too much input from theorists and not enough from those who understand the practice, pressures, needs and aspirations of politics.

I urge the committee not to undertake a detailed remaking of a House of Parliament; rather it should lay down clearly defined principles as to what a 21st century second House should be, the categories of people who should be represented, the job the House should do and the contribution it should make to the overall body politic. The rest should be left to legislation. Constitutions should not be involved in detail or be over-elaborate. They should not reflect as fixed principles what may only be current practice or the modish whim of the day. They should lay down principles clearly and succinctly; those principles may be radical or conservative as needs be, but constitutions should not bind future generations with fixed ideas which may be out of date before they are enacted. Also, if we confine ourselves to principles, practices can be changed more easily, through legislation, without having to resort to the cumbersome, expensive and uncertain process of referendum. We could have made many more changes had we not been so constrained.

What should the Seanad do and what role should it have at this point in the life of our country? We have covered this ground in previous debates. It should do a number of things well. First, its principal job is the detailed scrutiny of legislation. We do this well at present but we do not do it well enough. We should never rush legislation; we should always allow time for reflection and consultation with other groups. We also need a greater back-up service for the examination of legislation. I accept that is a matter for parties rather than the Seanad but all parties should give it urgent consideration.

Second, we should be a wider forum than the other House. In the past, this House pioneered debate on key issues which were live for almost two decades; for instance, the efforts of the former President, Mrs. Robinson, when she was a Senator, to change the law on contraception, and issues like homosexuality, suicide and East Timor. Those issues were first brought to light in this House and attracted great attention because we had the time to deal with them in a way the other House did not. In the coming years this society will face enormous change from technology and the consequences of globalisation and the task of creating a fair society in the midst of prosperity.

There is a range of huge issues which should be discussed in Parliament on a regular basis which are not dealt with in the other House but on which this House could lead the way. The Leader referred to the European role, and there is also the matter of secondary legislation. A great deal of provisions are made law through statutory instruments and as politicians we should be hostile and suspicious of all such measures. We should examine them carefully on the basis that the Executive will always try to go further than it should — that may not be true but it is how we, as legislators, should approach them. A fixed part of our business should be the detailed examination of statutory instruments, with proper back-up services to enable us to do it. The former Senator, Professor Lee, made the good suggestion that regular reviews of Departments should be part of the annual work of this House. Time prevents me from going into the many other constructive ideas proposed in recent times.

There is an unanswerable case for the reform of the composition and role of this House. The process will only be done effectively if we can agree on the principles which should underpin the role and composition of the House and can enshrine these principles, not the details, in constitutional form. We should translate these principles into reality through legislation, always remembering that Houses of Parliament are concerned first and last with the business of politics, both narrow and wide. Let us not enter into the self-indulgence of constitutional engineering which will leave us and our successors infinitely worse off than at present.

We should listen to the professors and experts but also remember what the former Senator Lee wisely said in the last debate on this subject — it is not expertise which ultimately counts but judgment, and as politicians we above all others are called upon to make a judgment. Lawyers can tell us the law and economists can tell us about the economy, but we must make the judgment about what is in the best interests of all the people. Our job is to justify this House, and we can only do this by making it a good House. We are all agreed that is the best justification for the existence of the Seanad; let us now find agreement on common principles.

I welcome this debate on the future direction of the Seanad, its contribution and its relevance to society, which is one of several we have had since I entered the House in 1989. I applaud the Leader of the House and the leader of the main Opposition party for their very reflective and studied contributions. The report of the all party committee on the Constitution in May 1996 stated that:

The need for a system of checks and balances in the legislative process and the need to bring as wide as possible a cross section of society into the representative system suggests the Senate should be retained.

The position of the Progressive Democrats Party on its foundation was that in a unitary state such as ours there was no need for a second Chamber and we could get by without one. Indeed, there are many example of countries abolishing their second Chambers, several of which are of recent origin. However, we do not see an inconsistency between adopting that position and participating in an important institution of the State with a political dimension. It would be improper of us as practising politicians not to participate in all the institutions of State, particularly those enshrined in the Constitution.

One suggestion is that the entire system could be changed to one of popular vote which would be taken at a regular interval. However, one of the conclusions of the all party committee was that this could lead to certain clashes between the two Houses and perhaps there is something to be said for avoiding that. For the purpose of the debate, I am making a reasonable assumption that there will be a Seanad for the foreseeable future. We can be reasonably sure of its complexion and that it will exist. One of the principal reasons for this is that if one looks at the Constitution and the number of amendments or, indeed, major and fundamental root and branch changes which would be required in terms of the abolition of the Seanad, it would need to be totally overhauled and presented to the people as a single document rather than by way of individual amendments. That is a logical conclusion to draw from any decision to radically alter the Seanad, particularly one to abolish it.

The report also refers to "the arcane nomination and electoral procedure to the Seanad". A worrying aspect of modern society is that increasingly it appears that decisions fundamental to the people and the welfare of the State are taken outside of Parliament, be it the Dáil or Seanad, and that is unhealthy in a democracy. Increasingly the Executive makes decisions, which are meant to be rubber stamped by Parliament. Parliament is regarded as an inconvenience and the programme of legislation agreed by Government should just be pushed through irrespective of the wishes of Parliament. That is not healthy and Senator Manning was right when he said there should be reflection on these matters, whether they involve legislation or general policy. The Seanad could make a valuable contribution in the examination of policy as distinct from legislation. Of course, there should be studied examination of legislation as it is important, but the policy aspect of a Government's legislative programme should also be considered.

I wish to refer to extra-parliamentary decisions. For example, the social partners come to Government Buildings to negotiate directly with the Government and as a result agreements are reached which are critical in terms of the economic welfare of the country, but at the same time Parliament has no function in those matters and that is unhealthy in a parliamentary democracy. A vehicle must be found to try to overcome that deficit. It could most easily be overcome through a reform of the representational nature of the Seanad. However, this is difficult because it is a political body. It is correct that a House of Parliament is political and represents political parties, but it is difficult to reconcile that position with that of those who say there should be vocational representation and certain groups should have access.

I am not sure certain groups who wish to be represented in Parliament would accept it if they could have such representation. For example, the Irish Farmers' Association is non-party political. It is a significant national body with political influence and one reason why it has been so cohesive is that it is non-party political. I suspect that if the IFA, SIPTU or other similar bodies had the right to contest elections for the Seanad whether by county councillors, universal suffrage or its own members, they would be politicised to an extent they would not wish. I do not have an easy answer to that conundrum. This House is an important political institution of the State and if one were to try and broaden its representation into groups other than political parties, it is difficult to see how both can be squared.

With regard to the present system of election, it is most often said on the university benches that councillors are not a representative electorate. They are a highly representative electorate in that they have been elected themselves and know very well the needs of their local areas and the country as a whole. It is wrong to suggest they are not representative. The alternative is universal suffrage rather than a confined electoral college. There are difficulties related to universal suffrage. The panel system does not produce the vocational Seanad which was intended, but again the reason is that it is a political institution and, obviously, political parties will attempt to ensure its members are elected to the Upper House.

One suggestion made in reviews of the Seanad is that the Dáil and Seanad elections should be "decoupled"; just because the Dáil falls, the Seanad should not as a result. An effect of that would be to stop the criticism frequently made that the Seanad is a resting home for politicians on the decline or on the up. I do not accept that is the case and if the Dáil and Seanad elections were "decoupled", it would have a dramatic effect on such criticism. I am not prescriptive when it comes to the Constitution on other matters. It is wrong for us to be too prescriptive in terms of specifying to the all party committee on the Constitution, for example, what should be done. This needs to be debated and teased out because there are side issues which do not become evident until one gets well into the examination of the main issues. Senator Manning was correct when he said many issues should be studied by expert competent people who have academic qualifications and expertise in the area. I see nothing wrong with the Seanad being a party political House. However, there could be difficulties, in the sense that if one were to try to extend that to organisations outside the political parties they could become politicised.

It is reasonable for the Government to have a built in majority with the 11 Taoiseach's nominees. We often regard the Seanad as an alternative Dáil with which it is in competition but that should not be the case. However, one of the best Seanaid in which I was a Member was one where the Government was in a minority. That Seanad worked extremely well because everyone took a reasonable and responsible approach. The then Leader, Senator Manning, was kept on his toes to a degree which he might not have been otherwise. Nevertheless, it did improve matters. The presence of the Independent Members was an important check on the system.

Did the Senator miss me?

I am not referring to the Senator in particular — I am talking in broad and general terms. However, we always miss the Senator when he is not here.

I am not sure that I did.

It is appropriate to examine the functions of the Seanad. It is right to review legislation. The Seanad gives more reflective consideration to legislation. It is good to see Bills being initiated in the Seanad because they are frequently better debated as a result. I can think of many instances where defects in a Bill, which had slipped past the draftsman and the Dáil, were picked up in the Seanad because Senators had taken the trouble to study the legislation line by line.

The provisions in regard to recommendations on Money Bills are archaic. All Bills should be treated in the same way. The most recent incident of a recommendation being made in the Seanad was in 1979 and it was accepted by the Dáil. Recommendations were also made on previous occasions.

The connection with the European Parliament is very important and is the area in which the most progress can be made. It is part of the Maastricht Treaty that there should be closer co-operation between the national Parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Union institutions. For that reason, MEPs should have a right of audience here, although not necessarily the right to vote here. It is impractical to expect European Commissioners to attend here on a regular basis but a Commissioner should be invited here twice a year or once in a session. Commissioner Kinnock's address was very useful.

It is very important to monitor the increasing amount of legislation, regulations and directives coming from Europe, which this House could do. It is a defect in our system that the raft of European regulations, directives and legislation is, to some extent, imposed on us without the full debate which would take place if such measures were proposed by the Government. I do not see why European measures should not be debated.

Representation from the new Northern Ireland Assembly, or from Northern Ireland generally, is important. There should be, by right, between two to four representatives from Northern Ireland. This will have to be looked at in the context of the British-Irish Agreement.

It is totally wrong that the electorate for the university seats should be confined to graduates of the National University of Ireland and Trinity College, Dublin.

Hear, hear.

It should be a much broader based electorate. There has been a proliferation of third level institutions around the country which should be able to participate in the election.

The question of providing seats for emigrants has been discussed on several occasions. I think providing such seats would be a sop. Emigrants should be entitled to vote in Dáil elections.

Hear, hear.

I have been given all sorts of reasons that cannot take place, which are to do with technical matters, registration and so forth. However, if other countries can do it so should we. Anyone who has left within a specified time should be able to vote for candidates in their home constituency. It should not be possible for all the emigrant vote to be located in a single constituency where it would affect the outcome. However, some of the bogeyism which has gone on about how these terrible people who are abroad might affect and undermine the democratic system are canards. The complexion of the Dáil would not change significantly if emigrants were given a vote. After all, if they are citizens they should be entitled to vote here and the technology should allow them to do so.

We are straying here into procedural areas, which are probably not appropriate to this debate as they do not impinge on the Constitution, but I think the question of a postal ballot does. I do not see why the recent Seanad by-election was a postal ballot. All Members of the Houses are meant to be here and I do not see why we cannot cast our ballot papers here.

It is a crazy system.

It is another relic of old decency or antiquity. Perhaps it dates back to the time when people such as Gladstone came to Parliament two or three times a year and would have thought it a tremendous inconvenience to have to go to Parliament to cast their votes in a by-election.

The issue of gender must also be attended to and is discussed in some detail in the second progress report of the committee chaired by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. I broadly agree with the recommendations in that report.

The Seanad should not be in competition with the Dáil. However, I return to the difficulty of reconciling the political nature of this assembly and the vocational ideal to which many subscribe. A major overhaul would mean a total review of the Constitution from top to bottom and perhaps putting a total package to the electorate rather than individual amendments to the Constitution. There are no instant solutions. I agree with Senator Manning that the Constitution should not go into detail; the Constitution should paint the brush strokes and the detail should be filled in by legislation.

Much of the legislation I have seen pass through the Upper House has been improved by the scrutiny it received here, which has been its main unsung contribution. It does not get widespread coverage or approval but it is important work. That work has been done pretty effectively by the House since I became a Member. Senator Manning is also correct when he says that major issues such as homosexuality, East Timor, contraception and so on have been resolved by debates in this House and society has been changed as a result.

We are just touching on some of these issues today. I hope the all party committee on the Constitution will examine these issues in detail, look at some of the practical implications of what has been said today and make proposals which could be put to the people by way of referendum. That would improve the House and make it more relevant because the criticism made is that the House should be more relevant to today's society.

I wish to acknowledge the presence in the Visitors' Gallery of former Senator, Jimmy Ruttle, and his wife, Catherine, who are here with a Blessington school. Mr. Ruttle is most welcome back to the House.

The former Senator is very welcome.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba chóir domsa bheith an-chruinn faoi rud amháin, sé sin ná go bhfuil sé in am dúinne atá ag cleachtadh na polaitíochta ar shlí éigin a rá gur beag rud sa tír seo atá níos tábhachtaí ná an pholaitíocht agus go bhfuil sé thar a bheith in am dúinn é sin a rá arís is arís eile. In ainneoin an siniciúlacht atá scaipthe ar fud na tíre ní sinne a scaip é. Tá sé scaipthe ag daoine atá ábalta magadh a dhéanamh ach nach bhfuil in ann coincheap teibí a thuiscint.

While I rarely translate into English what I say in Irish, I wish to reiterate in English at the start of this debate that I am very proud of the fact that I have been a politician on and off for the past 20 years of whatever persuasion or none. I believe in politics and I believe, almost with a degree of arrogance, that the political process is the one place where society can be changed for better or worse. Senator Manning said others can attempt to influence us, pronounce about us and introduce ideas, but politics is the only forum through which ideas, however good or bad, can be brought into societal effect. It is the only place where things can be changed.

I had the pleasure of debating with Dr. Conor Cruise-O'Brien in Dingle at the beginning of May. At the beginning of an informal discussion a number of people started by saying "I am not interested in politics, but.". He made a valid point when he replied to the effect that if one was not interested in politics one was not interested in people. While this is a little harsh because some people are detached from politics, I am not aware of any other institutional way to change the lot of people in society. However limited it might be and however much I may criticise my colleagues, I continue to strongly assert the primacy and centrality of politics in changing society. That is one of the reasons I am here.

Many of us, including myself, probably get a little too sanctimonious. Many of us enjoy politics and much that goes with it, although we suffer much to be able to enjoy it. However, we are also here because, unlike many others, we want to make a difference and we succeeded in persuading those who elected, nominated or appointed us that we had a contribution to make. Most Members make their contribution in different ways, some of which I would not be too keen on and some of which are very good.

Unlike some of the Members who sit on the Independent benches I have never besmirched people because they are members of political parties. I have often said there are different roles for different people. One is the role of an Independent Member which gives certain freedoms and limitations; the other is the role of members of political parties, which gives people the capacity to influence at a level which an Independent Member cannot reach, but which also imposes constraints.

Much of what passes outside these Houses as criticism of the Seanad is an attack on politics. For example, it is often said the Seanad is a failure because it is too politicised and because the political parties dominate it. There is nothing wrong with political parties. That is self evident, although Independent Members try to strike alternative poses. I have not been a member of a political party so far in my political career in these Houses. However, that is not to say anything other than political parties are both necessary and important — not a necessary evil but a positive part of our political process. This applies even to those political parties I believe we could do without. I will not mention names since Senator Dardis is present.

We want to stop being defensive both about this House and about politics. This House now works at least 200 per cent harder than it did when I first became a Member in 1981. It sits three or four days a week and the involvement by all Members in the committees amounts to an enormous amount of work and requires enormous preparation if people are to contribute effectively to the range of legislation that is passed.

The only difference between politicians and the rest of the world is that we must make our compromises in public. When politicians join Government and support things they do not like they are accused of hypocrisy. There is nothing hypocritical about politicians who have to make judgments about what they do or do not support. It is much more hypocritical to have people in positions of influence outside politics who omit to mention their connections with the business world, some of the things they write about and the perks and the benefits. For example, in the case of journalism these include the circuit of receptions, functions and informal contacts which are part of the natural role of journalism but which, if our little compromises are despicable, are even more worthy of suspicion because they are not declared, not identified and rarely made known. It is on that tone that we should assert ourselves.

I never had any patience with the proposal to abolish this House even though no rational person could say democracy would collapse in the morning if it was not here. It is a question of the nature of our democracy, our society and the way our politics have evolved. A large chunk of our democracy cannot suddenly be taken apart unless there is an overwhelming reason to do so, although it can be changed.

Earlier I put together a list of ideas I thought made a Seanad worthwhile. Many of them are already being done here, although some could be done better. The first, which everybody has identified, is that we are part of the legislative process. In this regard, people should not confuse influence with power. It is very uncomfortable when Ministers attending the House are put under considerable pressure because of the lack of logic, principle or thought in legislation. It is little enough consolation for any practising politician to know measures will be passed if a vote is called. There is a fundamental level of accountability involved when Ministers must justify their position to the House. The process educates them. I have seen Ministers attend the House determined not to listen to anybody but, over the period of a few years in politics, they realise such an approach is not worth it and that it is humiliating to appear before the House with badly drafted legislation, irrespective of the numbers in the House. It would be nice to have been here in the days when they were very tight, but that does not get away from the fundamental of accountability. It is a fact that we should be and continue to be part of the legislative process.

When the previous Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution addressed the legislative role of the Oireachtas its tone was a little smug. There is a sense of the inherent superiority of Dáil Éireann in terms of its ability to analyse legislation which no objective evidence would support. The committee was under-representative of the Seanad. Of the two Members of the Seanad on the committee, one was an elected Member in her first term as a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas and the other had spent most of his life in the Dáil and was only temporarily a Member of this House.

Seanad Éireann was poorly represented on that committee. Its other members were never Members of this House. It is like being a goldfish in a bowl, being analysed by people who do not know what the place is like. The wisest thing that committee could have done would have been to establish a sub-committee made up mostly of Members of Seanad Éireann. That sub-committee could report to the committee which would then decide what to do. Experts from outside politics were sought to discuss Seanad Éireann with the committee but it did not think to establish a representative group of Members of Seanad Éireann to discuss in detail how the Seanad should work. That was presumptuous and I, as a person who takes this House seriously, resented it.

The committee did, however, make some sensible recommendations such as the need to avoid institutional duplication. If we spend weeks on Committee Stage of legislation introduced here, it should be recognised as pointless to go through an equally long and tedious Committee Stage in the other House. There ought to be a way to reduce that level of duplication. It would help if when legislation is introduced in this House, one does not gain the impression that the Department is not ready to deal with any amendments and is waiting to go before the Dáil before thinking seriously about them. The Employment Equality Bill is an example of this — many of us on both sides of the House struggled for a long time to have even commas inserted. Weeks later, we discover 27 amendments were accepted in the Dáil and then presented to us to be accepted. That is not the way to balance the legislative process, it is not the way to put together proper institutional arrangements which reflect the work of this House.

The need to incorporate fundamental accountability into the way in which the European Union impinges on the lives of citizens in this State and the manner in which this House could assist in that has been mentioned. There is no doubt that Europe is regarded as remote and as something over which people have little influence. It has been good for us so far and for that reason people are prepared to ignore the fundamental lack of democracy in the way it does its business. It would be useful if we could work with Irish MEPs, agree on issues which need to be dealt with on a European level, and then have the right to initiate Europe-wide legislation, a right which only the Commission only has at present. It is a fundamental flaw in European democracy that the only body not elected by or accountable to the people, and which can be made up of people who were never elected, should be the only body with the power of initiative.

This House could feed that through Irish MEPs if the European Parliament had the power of initiative. We need to make the institutions of Europe not appear to be accountable by glossy public relations campaigns but be truly accountable meaning that if people do not like it they can change it. Accountability means the ability to change the system of government if you do not like it. If that unqualified right does not exist, there is no democracy, there is no intermediate position. Europe is not democratic at present and we could contribute to making it so.

The Seanad has a third role as a forum for ideas. Senator Manning mentioned some of those ideas and many people are astonished at the way ideas which have been raised here by individual Senators have ultimately become central to political debate in this State. That is a useful role and one which will continue.

There are as many new ideas needed now as before. We have not reached the end of history, there are new ideas the political consensus which exists to an alarming degree does not mention. One such issue is globalisation and the danger of having one country dominate the world agenda politically, economically, militarily and socially. That is not the way for global democracy to develop, to have one country's ideology and self interest become that of the entire planet.

There are other ideas. I would like this House to spend a considerable amount of time discussing the issue of immigration before we run into huge problems. All we have seen so far in regard to this issue are the signals which suggest we will make all the mistakes that were made in other countries — forcing immigrants into ghettos, making their lives difficult and abusing them for claiming social welfare while not allowing them to work.

Another area is the development of the global information network and the need to think through what this means. It is not necessarily an unqualified good thing. We are in danger of creating an isolationist society in which individuals will increasingly sit in front of a computer screen. I am not keen on the idea that you do not have to leave your house to work, shop or be educated. Sooner or later there will be cyber-based religious services so you will not even have to leave your house to go to church.

You will still have to leave your house to go to the pub.

That is a reason to sustain and defend that institution.

This House needs a fundamental structural change in terms of membership, to build into its representational capacity the representatives of civic society, the sort of people who will be represented by the civic forum in Northern Ireland. That sort of forum in this State with a proportion of members becoming Members of Seanad Éireann would be useful.

There should also be representatives of the regions, selected by the regions, as Members of Seanad Éireann. We need to transform our regional government, give it real powers and create a proper institutional link.

I am enthusiastically in favour of changing the franchise for the election of Members representing third level education, although the wording of the committee on this is peculiar. In the constituency from which I would seek election, the phraseology states that the south Munster third level education constituency centres on University College Cork. Where did the committee get that notion? Why is the university the centre of the universe? People write things like this without thinking and create a hierarchy of priorities in education and everywhere else, a hierarchy which is way out of date.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the review of the Seanad. I am the longest serving Member of the House with more then 29 years' service. I have enjoyed every minute of it and I express my gratitude to the present Leader who has allowed this debate. I sat on the Opposition benches and I thank Senator Manning for his fairness and consideration when he was Leader of the House. He conducted the Business of the House in a proper manner and allowed everyone an opportunity to express themselves.

I sat beside Senator Jan Sullivan and, while I knew her politics, I never knew her religion. As someone who comes from a northern county where religion and politics are intertwined, I cherished the thought that I did not know her religion until something controversial happened in Limerick. I told that story at home many times as an example of the good relations in the Seanad.

A mixed bag of people, including a university professor and others like myself who come from an agricultural background, represent various constituencies in the House. This is a useful Chamber for debating issues in a balanced way. I did not run for election to the Dáil or even stand for a party selection convention because I am happy in the Seanad.

I would welcome a review of the Seanad. Few mornings go by without someone raising an urgent matter in their constituency on the Order of Business. The Cathaoirleach allows Members to do this and that is of great help. However, Question Time should be introduced in the Seanad. This was proposed some time ago but the response was that it would not be feasible to have a Minister here to answer 25 questions on different subjects. We should make the procedures more formal and effective rather than using the Order of Business to raise urgent issues. This affects someone like me who comes from a rural constituency.

Local authorities must be seen to have a role in electing Members to this House. Elected representatives are constantly under pressure from the media or community groups. I support many community groups who do tremendous work on community projects. However, there is a hard core of people who believe that elections to county or urban councils are a nuisance; they want a decision making facility without the responsibility. Recognition must be given to local authorities which do trojan work. Local councillors spend the best years of their lives working to resolve problems in their areas. It is not a profession but a way of life for which they do not get paid nor are they compensated. Their role in this House should not be diminished. I question the right of universities to nominate people to the House, particularly as this puts local authorities in rural areas at a disadvantage. Every local authority should have a representative in this House.

We must review the structures periodically. Members should be represented on the constitutional review committee. There may be one or two Members on it at present but that is not enough if we want it to be effective. If a review of the Garda Síochána or the Department of Agriculture and Food was being carried out, they would have representatives on the review committee. There must be cross-party support for Seanad representation on the constitutional review committee.

I hope local authorities will be strongly represented in the Seanad. I do not want to see the day when they will not have an input to make because that would lead to an imbalance which could be dangerous. Everything is now centred on Dublin where half the population lives. People from rural Ireland are being forced to work or go to university in the city. It is now compulsory for a person who passes the entrance examination to the Civil Service to work for two years in Dublin. A magnet is drawing people into the city. It will be a serious mistake if rural Ireland is under-represented in this House.

The House should change its procedures to allow EU Commissioners to address it. I was here when Commissioner Neil Kinnock addressed the House. It was a useful exercise because I was able to ask him questions about the provision of funding for national primary routes between the North and South and valuable information was exchanged. I urge the constitutional review committee to allow EU Commissioners to come before the Seanad to answer questions of interest to the House and the country. That would help to strengthen the role of the Seanad.

I hope the constitutional review committee recognises that it is unconstitutional to ask someone like myself who is from Donegal to canvass the entire country. The cost and effort involved in canvassing is prohibitive for a new candidate. The Dáil election is restricted to a constituency and the European Parliament election is restricted to a region. It is time the House considered this serious matter. If someone does not have the means to travel the length and breadth of Ireland, they will not be elected to this House. A person would need to be a sports star or someone who is recognisable and therefore acceptable to the nation before they would be elected, or they would need large resources to travel the entire country. I ask the constitutional committee to look at that serious aspect.

There is no difficulty whatsoever in having an effective Seanad based on the European constituencies. In that way every part of Ireland would be represented in this House. That would strengthen the House and provide a better opportunity for the legislation to be seen to work for the whole country. If we allow a review of the Seanad to take place with an extension of the universities' vote to the Regional Technical Colleges, it will be at the expense of local authorities in rural Ireland and that will be a mistake. It will never be accepted.

There will always be those who call for the abolition of the Seanad. The best way to ensure the future success of the Seanad is to make it work for all the people. The Seanad is a useful forum and I want to see it continue, but it is long past time when it should look at itself and at the structures and the mechanisms by which it works.

People must have the opportunity to raise urgent matters. There must be some such procedure available to me on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I do not want to be always imposing on the Cathaoirleach of the day. I strongly urge that we look at the possibility of making such a provision.

Any review will only help to enhance the effectiveness of the Seanad. The nation could not do without the safety valve which the Seanad provides for legislation and procedure. The Seanad is an important legislative body and I can only see it improving.

I want to share my time with Senator O'Dowd.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

When a man or woman in the street asks what is the function of the Seanad and how does it differ from the Dáil, the first thing that comes to my mind is that it is a non-confrontational Chamber. Those of us who sit here cherish the fact that we can have a civilised debate. We can raise issues which the Dáil may be unable to tease out to the same degree because of the pragmatism of day to day politics. All would agree that debates are non-confrontational and that we get opportunities to raise issues of importance which may not deal with the day to day business of politics. That is because the Seanad reflects the vocational nature of its constituent parts and, although we are politicians, I do not forget and I do not believe other Senators forget, from where they receive their nomination. In the examination of legislation I, as a Labour Panel nominee of ICTU and the ASTI, try to reflect the views, issues and concerns of my nominating body. The vocational nature of the Seanad has been maintained to a degree.

I would agree with most Senators who said that we could take more time to create a forum for projecting a philosophical view of where we, as a country, are going. Between 1989 and 1992 I remember listening carefully to Professor John A. Murphy who had strident views on Northern Ireland and many other issues: he was interested in foreign places and this is reflected in this evening's Private Members' motion on East Timor. The fact that we can look beyond the Twenty-six or the Thirty-two Counties, and even beyond the EU, and seek to raise issues of concern — such as famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan, and refugees, and a number of global concerns which are not always reported to the degree that they should be in the national newspapers — is extremely important.

On such issues as neutrality, which may be controversial at a particular time, I would hope we could debate it here without any hassle. Every time there is a referendum the subject of neutrality is tossed back and forth. This does not reflect what is neutrality, what it means to us and how we would deal with such a subject at a time when we would not be asking people to support a yes vote for the Maastricht Treaty or the Amsterdam Treaty, for example.

Any criticisms of the Seanad which I have read do not suggest that the House should be abolished; far from it. Fifty-nine out of 178 democracies have a second chamber so we are in line with modern democracies. Critics ask if the Seanad has any power and do we, as I believe we do to a certain extent, operate in the shadow of the Dáil and Government. I do not think those who defined a role for the Seanad in the Constitution anticipated the powerful Government control of the Legislature which was brought about by standing orders and the Whips system. This has led to the Seanad not having the power it should.

The Seanad should and could have new powers which do not overlap with those of the Dáil. At a time when the buzz words are openness and transparency, perhaps the Seanad could review the appointment of senior public figures. If the Seanad conducted tribunals of inquiry, we would be extremely busy. Perhaps we would not have much time to do anything else with the number of tribunals there have been in recent times. The net result of those changes would be that we would be even more transparent and accountable. I suppose that critics will say that if the Seanad, like the taxi system, is to be reformed, it should not be tinkered with but should be reformed from the bottom up.

Mention was made to extending the franchise. I raised this issue many times. There is a Bill, which has the support of the Fine Gael Members, to extend the franchise to the University of Limerick, Dublin City University, the institutes of technology and other appropriate third level institutions. Let us take the University of Limerick as an example, because it was established recently and its first graduates emerged in 1976 — there were 65 then and there are 2,207 today — and its graduates would reflect modern Ireland. I am not saying that the other universities do not reflect the views of their graduates, but the extension of the franchise to modern colleges would, in the view of the 1937 Constitution, reflect modern views. I asked for this many times between 1989 and 1992 and again recently, and we hope all Members of the House will support the Bill to extend the franchise to the University of Limerick and the other appropriate third level institutions. Dr. Ed Walsh is leaving the University of Limerick having received tributes from every corner of the country. As university president he spoke out on many issues and he was almost always controversial. He flagged markers for the kind of society we want. We may agree or disagree with him, but he is now leaving. It would be appropriate to extend the franchise as a tribute to what he has done for Limerick and for Ireland. The University of Limerick is considered a top university in the European league and has very strong links with American universities. The president-elect of the University of Limerick is Professor Roger Downer, a Northerner, who has come from Thailand where he set up a university and previously worked in the University of Waterloo in western Ontario. It would strengthen cross-border relations if the University of Limerick with its 2,000 graduates headed by a Northerner, were enfranchised. We might return to this subject at another time. I hope we do not have to wait too long for the review and in the meantime I hope we extend the franchise to people who are disenfranchised.

We must forge greater links with Members of the European Parliament and not ignore our MEPs except during European elections. They should be in the Seanad speaking to us about European legislation which influences so much of our lives.

I agree with many of the views expressed by Senators. The Seanad needs to be reformed. It has a place in the body politic because every state needs a second chamber where legislation can be carefully examined and if necessary changed.

All graduates should have a voice in the election of Members to this House. The franchise is restricted because of an accident of history. Had the newer colleges existed when the Constitution was written their graduates would have been given the vote. I would not object to an increase in the number of university Senators. Their contributions to debates are always of a high intellectual standard and balance the contributions of more ordinary people like myself and Senator Jackman.

The Seanad franchise should be extended to allow representation to emigrant groups. Hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens live abroad and it is important that we give them a voice and listen to their views. I can think of no better forum for the expression of their views than Seanad Éireann.

All shades of opinion in Northern Ireland should be heard here. Northerners should be permitted to speak on legislation which affects their part of the country. We should find some mechanism to allow representation to the mainstream political parties in Northern Ireland. Those of us who want an inclusive Ireland could not object to that.

This House could play a much more important role in European affairs. Members of the European Parliament have no right of hearing in the Oireachtas. They should have the right to address this House and take part in our debates. We have excellent debates here but they are often no more than that. Many of the issues of the day are not aired here except on the Order of Business when they are referred to only briefly. We could provide a forum for minority groups such as travellers. Those of us who are members of local authorities hear the views of our electorate but the views of travellers and other minorities are not sufficiently recognised. Their views could be heard in this House.

The Oireachtas does not provide a forum for young people. They are the country's future but we have no forum where we can listen to what they have to say. We should invite representatives of youth organisations to the House to hear their views.

We need to make our debates more open and controversial because the House can be a sleepy place. We must open our doors, allow new people to come in and make the House more relevant to public life and to the issues of the day. Our debates should include more interraction between Senators and Ministers. We could pursue subjects which have already been discussed in the Dáil more fully.

Unemployment is one of the major issues facing our society. We should invite employers, trade unions and all interested parties to discuss this problem.

I would like to share my time with Senator Fitzpatrick.

This debate gives us an opportunity to elaborate on views expressed in the House over the past ten years. During almost every Administration since I first came into the House we have debated this matter.

There is a need to look at the structures, procedures and powers of this House. This debate is timely because the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution is currently deliberating on the the future of the Seanad and on many other consititutional matters. Our interest is in the shape of the House in the new millennium. All of us agree that there is a need for change. Otherwise we will become political dinosaurs. Change takes place in every generation but change for change's sake is not a good thing. In changing institutions of state one must hasten slowly.

A number of key issues must be addressed and I hope the all-party committee on the constitution will do so before its deliberations are finalised. The report of the O'Keeffe committee, contained a number of wide ranging proposals and I wish to nail one of them. I do not believe it is in the interests of the House that there should be a change to the election procedure as outlined by that committee. It is not in the interests of the Seanad that the other House should have the right to nominate Senators, that there should be external direct elections for Senators and that the balance should be drawn from an amalgam of other interested parties, such as professional bodies and local authority members. Local authorities guard jealously their right to elect Senators and that right should remain.

Whether the panel arrangement should continue is another matter. I have no objection to the panels as they are organised. I am proud to be here as a nominee of the Library Association of Ireland, having made a conscious decision that that was the route I wished to take to secure election to the House. I have a keen interest in the public library system and my role in the House is not only as a party member but to represent and further the views of the Library Association of Ireland.

It would not be a good idea to follow the advice of some academics to allow the House to become a body purely representative of the professional organisations. The Seanad is a political body, irrespective of its make up. Senators are here as politicians taking political decisions which may have far reaching effects on the electorate. If the House were narrowly based on representative interests it would not be good for democracy. Although the Independent Senators are elected by a narrow electorate they do not take a narrow view in the execution of their duties in the House. It would not be in the best interests to have a narrowly based nomination and election procedure which would result in Members pursuing the interests of their relevant trade and representative bodies.

I agree that the role of the House should be expanded to include a European dimension. There should be more debate on EU Directives which, in many cases, receive scant attention from the Oireachtas. The House may first come across such directives when the relevant legislation is debated. The House debated a Bill yesterday on the Geneva Convention Protocols arising from an EU Directive of some months ago. The Bill involved the ratification of a treaty from 1977. The House should have a greater role with regard to European matters, not only by inviting a Commissioner to the House but by setting aside time each week to exercise a legislative role with regard to EU Directives.

The House is greatly restricted in the manner in which it can debate Money Bills, principally because it cannot table or make amendments to them. I understand that the reason for this is more hereditary than it is based on logic. In 1911 the British Government introduced such a restriction to reduce the powers of the House of Lords which was frustrating that Government's budgets. I do not foresee this House being allowed to adopt such an aggressive approach. However, I see no logic to the continuation of a bar introduced by another Administration which carried through the political settlement of the 1920s. We should make our laws for our people based on our experience.

I hardly think that if this House was given the right to draft and table amendments to Money Bills it would lose the run of itself, irrespective of the complexion of the political contributions, and go out of its way to frustrate the Administration's fiscal policies. There is a need for the all-party committee to allow the House some flexibility in this regard. The present inflexibility leads to an erosion of public confidence in the House. It is seen as being somewhat irrelevant because we can talk about money until the cows come home but we cannot table amendments which might be accepted. That situation should be changed.

The changes I suggest would improve the role of the Seanad. We are in a time of change. This and future Governments will not allow the present arrangements to continue. It is incumbent on Members not to resist change because we are afraid of it and not to be afraid of the future because of what it may hold. We must take the initiative while we can so that we might make an impact in the ongoing debate.

Senator McGowan outlined a nightmare scenario of tramping around the country seeking votes in a Seanad election campaign. That falls to us all if we wish to be elected to the Seanad. The Senator also referred to the star qualities that would be required of candidates if the electoral arrangements were changed. I have no doubt Senator McGowan has the necessary star qualities to be elected. I am proud to be a politician and a Member of the Seanad. It is a great tribute that people think enough of us to cast votes in our favour, a tribute we should be honoured to accept.

The Houses of the Oireachtas have worked well since their inception. They were born out of the Civil War and the taking of power by the majority on the departure of a minority rule. We have managed to make the Houses work. The Seanad had its genesis in the nominations of people so that the Unionist community would not be frozen out and that its views would be represented at the centre of the Administration. It did not work and we have been paying for the failure of the political process in Northern Ireland for over 70 years.

The problem arose from a difference between what I would call the English and Irish political views. The English view is based on the people of the UK and the majority of Unionists considering the primacy of the electorate to be exercised through the House of Commons. To put it crudely, what the House of Commons says is law. The Irish political view sees the political process as the primary function. We talk about the primacy of the political process wherever it happens, even if that is not in the Dáil or the Seanad. The political process is ongoing — we must talk and listen. That is the great strength of the Irish political system.

The allparty committee's review of Seanad Éireann has a tenor of condescension running through it and it is obvious that those who carried out the review feel the political process is concentrated in the Dáil. They are right in the sense that the Members of the Dáil are directly elected by the people and are responsible to their constituents. Seanad Éireann is constituted from an amalgam of a direct election from a minority electorate and appointments by the Taoiseach. However, that should not be considered a weakness.

Causing dissent between the Seanad and the Dáil would lead to major political problems. This House can make a contribution to political life. The answer lies in the eighth conclusion of the second progress report which states:

The second major issue to be confronted is that of giving the Seanad new powers that do not overlap with those of the Dáil. These might include the review of senior public appointments or the conduct of tribunals of inquiry, as well as a number of others. The arguments in favour of doing this seem to us to be much stronger than the arguments against. The net result could well be an Irish political system that is more transparent and accountable, which almost everyone (at least almost everyone outside the core executive) would regard as a good thing. We therefore suggest that very serious consideration indeed be given to the possibility of giving the Seanad new powers that do not overlap with those of the Dáil.

We could advance the democratic process a great deal if those in powerful positions, with little accountability, were appointed to the Seanad. For example, people such as the Director General of RTÉ who is important in moulding the views of the public, and editors of national daily newspapers could discuss their views, give us the benefit of their thoughts on their mission statements and tell us how they think Ireland and the world should be run.

As I am a Member of the Seanad for less than a year, I wonder how qualified I am to comment on the role of Seanad to the same extent as other Senators. Senator McGowan spoke about his 29 years in the Seanad, while I have been here less than 29 months. As a member of the current all-party committee on the constitution, this debate is important and I thank the Leader for arranging it.

I was not a Member of the all-party committee which compiled the second progress report which was published in 1996. A number of Senators referred to the fact that only two Senators sat on that committee. However, there is a much stronger representation from the Upper House on the current committee. Members need not fear that the views of the Seanad are not represented by Senators who attend the committee regularly and are excellent contributors.

The fact that so many Senators have referred to the need for change prompts the fundamental question whether the Seanad in its current form is working. If it is not, it is perhaps failing in its role and duty and we must urgently address the issue of reform. The second progress report was drawn up two years ago and once again we are debating it. The nettle of reform has not been grasped by the previous Government or the current one.

Who will take the initiative on reform? Committees such as the all-party committee can produce erudite reports. This is a good report and the issues investigated, such as the electoral system, are also important. However, it is easy to produce reports — our shelves are full of them but where are the action and the initiative? Changes will not be easily implemented because constitutional alterations will be needed. Is the House living up to the role to which it should be living up? Is it a failure in its current form? If this is true, the issue must be urgently addressed. Who will take the initiative and when?

I wish to comment on two related issues — first, our role and function and second, representation and franchise. What is our role in 1998 as we approach a new century? I studied politics and I have experienced a Seanad election and the vocational system first hand. One would have to ask about its relevance in the current era. The vocational panel system, as devised by Éamon de Valera in the 1930s went out of date rapidly. Ireland has changed a great deal since then. Even by the 1960s that system had outlived its usefulness, having been devised in a political and economic climate which changed radically within a decade of the Second World War.

The National Social and Economic Forum gives the Government and major players in society, including unemployment, social, voluntary and community groups, a seat at an important table. Senator Ryan referred to a civic forum. However, this is a forum where groups can have an input to Government policy and are given access to Ministers. Does it take power away from where it should be or was it constructed because this House is not seen as relevant?

Should we have a system which allows not only gender balance, but social, voluntary and community groups to have a more formal electoral representative role in the Houses? We consider our electorate to be broad and we do our best to represent a wide range of interests. However, is the current system as representative as it could be? One can only conclude that it falls short in this regard.

Gender balance is important. This democracy will not be truly representative until there is a better gender balance in both Houses. How political parties promote women is a wider issue in terms of political representation. However, it is one that cannot and should not be ignored. Senator Fitzpatrick mentioned our relationship with the European Parliament and the extent to which MEPs could play a role in this House. He also said that European Commissioners could make appearances in this House. That could give us a unique role and function and could easily be taken on board. The whole issue of our relationship with the European Parliament and our role in scrutinising European legislation in particular could give us a uniqueness and relevance, particularly in the public domain. It appears there is widespread agreement on that matter which could and should be pursued.

I wish to move on to the question of the franchise and who elects Members of Seanad Éireann. There is simply no argument in relation to the universities in this day and age, considering the extent to which large numbers of graduates are disenfranchised. It could make an enormous difference if the franchise was extended and there is very little argument against doing so.

In principle, electing Members from Northern Ireland is an excellent idea and one which is currently being explored by the all-party committee. We have had a useful exchange of information with officials from the Department of the Environment and Local Government as to how that could work in practice. We should not underestimate the technical difficulties involved and obviously it has much broader political implications, but if the will is there it could be done.

The same point could be made with regard to votes for emigrants. I am disappointed that that issue has not been advanced to a greater extent. My party colleague, Deputy Howlin, when he was Minister for the Environment, was not able to advance that issue. I agree with Senator Dardis that if the will is there it can be done. Other countries manage to allow their citizens who live abroad to vote. I have received correspondence from Irish citizens living abroad who do not have a vote of any description and are totally disenfranchised.

This issue is not as current as it was because we have, in effect, net immigration. In the 1980s we had massive emigration involving young people who felt they had been forced to leave. As a result, that created a particular edge to their sense of exclusion due to unemployment and lack of opportunity. That has changed totally, however. If people leave now it is by choice to gain experience or, given the global economy, to move within a large company. Coming back is a choice they can make at any time and that has taken the edge off the votes for emigrants issue. Nonetheless, it is an important principle about which the all-party committee will be making strong recommendations. I would not limit the notion of votes for emigrants purely to this House. While we could have a role in that regard, the principle should extend across both Houses.

We should not be afraid to be different or unique, although up to now our experience in this House has shown that we do not have a different or unique role. It is an honour to be a Member of Seanad Éireann. However, on the day after being elected to this House the only question any reporter put to me was "Why would you want to be a Member of the Seanad?" and "What does the Seanad do?" In other words, I was being asked to justify my existence.

It is clear that the Dublin based national media think the Seanad is irrelevant. That is not something one picks up outside Dublin in the local media where there is an appreciation that to be a Member of Seanad Éireann, particularly in a local context, is important and relevant. It has a relationship with local government, to which other Members have referred, which is extremely important. That is sensed and understood.

We must get the message that we have to reform to be relevant. It is an urgent issue. To come back to the point I made initially, if there is an acceptance of change that suggests there is a recognition that there is a problem. There is a recognition that in many senses this House is not working. If there is a broad acceptance of that we must tackle the issue urgently. I call on the Government as a matter of urgency to come forward with a programme of initiatives for reform. The Government should work closely with Members of the House and, in particular, with the Leaders who are people of long experience. The Government should listen to your views, a Chathaoirligh, and your experience of the House. The issue should be treated as a matter of urgency and should receive the important attention it deserves.

Tá an-áthas orm go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ar ath-struchturú ar an Seanad — go b'hféidir leathnú ról agus obair an tSeanaid — a phlé anseo. Tá mé sa Seanad le bliain anuas agus dáiríre tá déanta doimhin machnamh agam go pearsanta ar an taithí atá agam anois agus na tuairimí a bheadh agam ar obair an tSeanaid agus na gnéithe a bhaineann leis anseo.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss perhaps not the changes in the Seanad but the broadening of the role of the House. I have been a Member of the House for one year so I am a relative new-comer. To some extent I have carried out my own personal review of the past year. In that regard I have been endeavouring to reconcile what might be the perception of Seanad Éireann abroad with the reality as I have found it during the past 12 months.

I have found that Senators work exceptionally hard. They take their jobs very seriously and certainly do their research. They are sincere in what they do and there is a minimum of political rancour in our debates. Perhaps that is already the perception among the public regarding Seanad Éireann and I hope that is the case. On the other hand, we should welcome the opportunity of any reform that would improve the performance of Seanad Éireann and make it more accessible.

I am always intrigued by the procedural gymnastics in which we must all engage each morning on the Order of Business in order to avoid the benevolent and watchful eye of the Cathaoirleach and ensure we might be able to make what we would regard as an important and relevant point. On the Order of Business we have raised such diverse issues as civil rights abuses in East Timor, nuclear testing in India and Pakistan, the death penalty in the US and the good news that Killarney will have an increase in jobs. The Cathaoirleach has been exceptionally patient with us in that regard. It often struck me that it was a pity we did not consider that in some way we would be able to elaborate on those contributions as statements of urgency. I do not mean it cannot happen as it is but I am talking in the context of reform of the Seanad.

We should have an opportunity of informing and reflecting public opinion as a matter of urgency. Items raised in the Seanad are very topical. Usually Senators hear about issues by listening to a morning radio programme or reading about them in the newspapers. It is important that a representative body like the Seanad would make a developed, reasoned and thoughtful contribution to the debate because it could play an important role in the way that debate would develop subsequently.

The composition of Seanad Éireann is based on the vocational principle. Those of us who had to garner votes from public representatives know that we stand for a particular brief by way of our nomination, background or experience. I was on the Cultural and Educational Panel and, therefore, see myself being on the front line on matters related to those headings. I have discovered that people who approached me to make representations, subsequent to being elected, generally dealt with the brief which I believe that I have.

Bearing all these issues in mind I believe we could consider a reform of the Seanad. We live in an age of required transparency and accountability. I see no reason an interest group, however it may be selected, could make a contribution here followed by a debate by Members. This suggestion might sound radical but I do not see anything wrong with radical reforms of the Seanad which would make it more relevant to community needs. For instance, the concerns of Gaeltacht areas can only be expressed by individual Senators or Deputies. A representative group from several Gaeltacht areas could make a submission here directed at the Seanad. Likewise, an international representative group, while observing procedures, could present themselves here to make a submission for subsequent debate. In that way we would create a definite link with the constituency we represent.

I would not disagree with the university franchise in regard to electing Members to the Seanad. Some people have reservations in that regard. Senators elected by university panels bring with them an experience and point of view in an era where education is so important and we cannot deprive the country and ourselves of the opportunity of hearing those views. Indeed, their representatives are quite eloquent in many ways.

We have often paid lip service to the Irish diaspora and yet there is not a single representative here. We would have a more informed, assertive and successful assembly if our diaspora were represented. The same would apply if we had representatives from the Nationalist and Unionist communities in the North. We talk about breaking down barriers but in an era of instant communication I see no reason we should not invite representatives to attend from the Nationalist, Unionist and Irish diaspora communities. It would provide us with more informed debates. It is within our power to do this by way of constitutional change or otherwise and it would give much greater meaning to this House.

We are also told that Europe is the main legislator. At times we feel subservient to Europe and there are many changes which affect the quality of life here. This is the price we must pay for the grant aid we receive, but there is so much legislation coming on stream and there is no opportunity for Dáil Éireann to debate it properly or to process it in any conclusive manner, that we are dealing with abbreviated versions, newspeak and the single page handout. Yet we are committing this country, our welfare, our future and legislative powers to Europe. It would make a lot of sense if the type of Seanad I suggested, which would include representatives from the North and South and the Irish diaspora, could debate European legislation. We could analyse it and pinpoint the difficulties, weaknesses, dangers and strengths that might exist. I do not know who would object to us doing that. I believe we could use our time exceptionally well in the context of European legislation because of the calibre of Senator, coupled with the minimal political rancour which exists in this House.

Sometimes people suggest that the Seanad is a system of checks and balances on the legislative process. We are to some extent but I would like to think the Seanad is much more than that. I would not like to think we were always the second line in the legislative process because the debates I have heard here do not suggest to me that we are an inferior part of the Oireachtas. When major issues arise which provoke cynicism among the public regarding politicians, whatever the new and fresh scandal might be, the Seanad could become a tribunal of inquiry in its own way. I do not mean to hand out sentences, indictments or whatever but if we could discuss issues here without political rancour and create a transparency we could remove a lot of the cynicism which exists.

I criticise the media for its treatment of this House. On the one hand the media highlights the cynicism which exists about politicians and, on the other, it gives very little coverage to the debates in this House. Increased coverage would give Senators an opportunity to indicate that they are playing a full and meaningful role in the democratic process. In my opinion, the media may be misjudging or underestimating the public's demand and hunger for proper information.

I have never accepted that the majority of people are slaves to alarmist headlines. The majority of people exercise discretion and discernment, they want to know the full facts and they want to be helped to make up their minds. Usually one is obliged to consult the newspaper editorials to obtain an inkling of the essence of current news stories. I invite the media to give more attention to Seanad Éireann and to this debate in particular.

I have not heard Senators state that the Seanad is beyond reproach or that it is a perfect institution. In a time of change, the House must review its procedures and performance. Many suggestions on possible reforms have been put forward and I hope they are considered as a matter of urgency. I would like to believe that today's debate marks the beginning of a larger process. Following the summer recess, I hope the Leader will make it possible to lay aside two to four sessions over a period in which we can breakdown the various contributions of Members and consider the documentation from the review committee on a section by section basis. I do not suggest that the House try to take control of the reform process but we must show we are prepared to initiate, encourage and be part of such reform. I intend to suggest to the Leader that we continue this debate by taking on board the various points made today and the content of any subsequent contributions, including those made by the public.

I wish to add my views to the arguments already made about the restructuring of the Seanad. The report of the review group — I do not agree with everything in it — is not concerned with politicians or the standing of this House as a political institution. It focuses instead on proper representation of people from all walks of society in the House, such as those representing voluntary groups and educational groups and, from a legislative point of view, barristers and solicitors.

I have been a Member of the Seanad for a number of years. I might not be one of the most elegant——

Charming.

——speakers and I might not be inclined to waffle on about a particular point, but like other Members, such as the Cathaoirleach, who has been here as long as I, I recognise the value of the Seanad. It is not easy to accept that some people believe they know it all and that they can make statements in reports but how did we do our work before these reports were published? I would like that question to be answered. The people who write these reports point out what is being done in other countries but Ireland is doing just as well as those countries. They ask if there is a need for a second House but I would be very careful about posing questions of that sort. They state that Portugal and other countries have only one House of Parliament but at the same time legislation in those countries provides that another House can be established after general elections.

I have no difficulty in stating that there is a need for a restructuring of politics and of the Seanad. It must not be forgotten that the committee system was not introduced until 1984. Have things improved or have we introduced reforms or developed better legislation since the committees were established? Would we be better off if people from the groups and professions to which I referred at the outset were Members of the Seanad? I do not believe so.

I have taken part in six Seanad election campaigns. I am conscious of the fact that each vote I receive in an election actually represents 1,000 votes. The authors of the report recommend that people from other walks of life should be permitted to seek election to this House. In my opinion, a Member of the European Parliament should not be allowed to be a Member of the Seanad. However, they should be made accountable to this House because they represent the people. They should also be made accountable for the five years they spend in the European Parliament.

The European Union is important to Ireland and we have obtained exceptional benefits as a result of our membership. Debates on Europe have taken place in this Chamber which could never take place in the Lower House. I could speak for a month on the way the Seanad works in comparison to the Dáil. However, all I will say is that Members of this House are far better placed to question Ministers on particular details than are their counterparts in the Lower House. I can make approaches to Ministers in the Seanad in a way Deputies cannot do in the Dáil.

We have had many great debates on legislation with Ministers in this House and our amendments have been accepted without any great difficulty. I have won many arguments with Ministers and I have done exceptionally well in having amendments accepted. Regardless of the side of the House from which amendments are tabled, if Ministers believe them to be important they will be added to the legislation before it is sent to the President for signing.

No one has made the argument about what the Seanad means to Members. I make no apologies for the fact that I am not concerned whether members of the media cover the proceedings of the House. What does concern me is that the legislation we pass is important to the people. I do not care whether what I say is reported or whether my photograph appears in the newspaper.

On the Order of Business Members referred to the photograph of a suicide victim which appeared on page 3 of a particular newspaper. If newspapers are not accountable for their actions, someone should ensure that they will be in the future. We are the legislators and if the actions of certain newspapers cause people to lose their lives they should be made to answer for them. We debated this issue for 40 minutes this morning on the Order of Business and Senator Ó Murchú was correct to state that we should not be obliged to do so. Action must be taken on this issue; perhaps this House is the place to initiate such action.

I wish to turn to legislation which has been introduced in the Seanad. The Companies Act, which took two years to complete its passage, was initiated in this House. The Criminal Justice Act, 1984, was also introduced in the Seanad — it was amended in the Lower House — and Members voted against the Government in respect of it. I am no expert on criminal justice but when the Act completed its passage through the House every Member was well versed in that area. The blend of Members in the Seanad is different to that which obtains in the Dáil. I intend no disrespect, but the Lower House is responsible for ensuring that the lights on our streets are lit. If they are not, Deputies will lose votes. That is the nature of local politics.

This House is responsible that proper amendments are made to legislation. For example, let us consider the recent child care legislation passed by the House a number of months ago. Some Independent Members would not allow the Bill to pass unless amendments were made, and in the end the Government agreed they were right. That would not have happened in the Dáil but it happened here because we took more time over it; we were able to speak to the Minister, and no Member was in a hurry with the Bill. Politicians do not recognise this in themselves. I have always given credence to the person who says the right thing, irrespective of who they are or who they represent and it is important that this House does not lose that tendency. We should not demean ourselves because the media or other people do so. We do not have to look up to someone because he is a journalist — he means no more to me than anyone else. That is what the public expects of us.

This House is important for our people. Who thought we would ever have decriminalised homosexuality? This House made significant amendments to that legislation. I did not attend the debate but I listened to it in my office and learned from it. The Acts on legal aid, companies and setting up the Environmental Protection Agency were also important; they were raced through the other House but not through the Seanad.

What would people say if we kept the District Court and the High Court and abolished the other two courts? We should always have a second option. Would anyone argue that there is no need for an appeal from the District Court to the Circuit Court or from the High Court to the Supreme Court? It is the same argument as saying there should be only one House of the Oireachtas.

In politics we should move carefully because we are speaking for everyone, not just a particular group. Different lobbies speak to us but this House acts in the interest of everyone. I do not deny the need for restructuring and I would be the first to do it — I am a motivated person and I want to get on with the job — but we should not give the impression that a new person would be better than the person he replaces, because that is not always the case.

I have spoken with people who can be extremely constructive, sometimes more constructive than I, who give me their first preference vote because they think I deserve it. Those people have served this country very loyally for very little, unlike some of those who report to us and give the impression that they know it all. I have listened to people who have spent 45 years in public life and have been in no hurry to leave them. I have also listened to people who have spent five years in public life and who are learning. I have just listened to a person who has been in the Seanad for 12 months and has learnt what this House is about, and I thank him for acknowledging it. I remember one Member who said, when he first came here, that the Seanad should not exist; today he said that in no circumstances should it go. That is a change but I am prepared to accept it because when people come here and see what happens, they realise that under no circumstances should we allow one legislative body to decide everything.

There should always be another avenue and the example of that is in the courts. A person involved in a District Court case should have the right of appeal to the Circuit Court. Politicians make the most constructive decisions which suit everyone because they have to do it. People have found that legislation does not allow them to do certain things, and now politicians have to restructure, at local, national and international level.

The importance of this House should not be undermined. I am proud to have received votes from the people who elected me and I will not allow anyone to demean me for that because that demeans those people also. Those who vote for me have been elected by the people. I have heard from people who have never knocked on a door for a vote but who seem to know everything. I am not trying to run down people who produce reports, or those in this House who gave the impression that it should not exist. The other House thinks it knows everything but that is not true. No House knows it all and the proof of that is in the courts. Cases ultimately go to the five judges of the Supreme Court who will decide what is right.

Are people saying that the other House can debate all aspects of health, say, on a particular day? Members of this House can do what Deputies cannot do — we can put down a question for a Minister at 2.30 p.m. and receive a reply at 8 p.m. Perhaps politics or voting arrangements do not allow a Minister to do that in the other House, but he has to reply to an Adjournment matter here. What we have in this House is unique and we should not waste it. A Senator has the right to put a question to a Minister on behalf of any organisation, and he will get a reply before 8.15 p.m., but that does not happen in the other House.

We should not have to apologise to anyone because we are not on television or in the newspapers. The most important thing we can do is to represent everyone. I do not refer to North or South — we should have a proper blend. I have no objection to Senators from the North but Senators should be representing us in the North also.

Just because journalists question us, that does not mean they know everything and we see the proof of that today. Lives will be lost because of what is in a newspaper owned by a monopoly, and we should condemn that at whatever cost.

I am delighted to be a Member of this House and appreciate my experience since I was elected last August. I have learnt greatly from others and some of what I learned has not been for my own good. However, I appreciate one cannot win them all.

I am still on a learning curve with regard to the work of this House. I looked up the definition of "senate" in the dictionary and it stated that it was "a council of wise old men". Happily, that has changed. The men are not that old and I do not know how wise they are, but there has been some form of gender balance in the House in recent years, but obviously not enough. Women comprise 51 per cent of the population and this is not reflected in the number of female Members in the House. I appreciate there is a possibility of reform because the vocational panels and nominating bodies reflect the ethos of the time they were formed.

When the Constitution was drafted women mainly worked in the home. It was not until the 1950s that there was growth in the work patterns of women. The marriage ban was not lifted until 1972 and the ability of women to gain the experience that would allow them to receive a nomination was exceedingly limited. I do not have any problem with the nature of the vocational panels given the increase in the numbers of women in the workforce and access to education to women. The people elected to these panels bring with them the requisite skills. I deeply resent the notion that because people are politicians they do not meet the requirements of the panels. I do not know of anybody on a nominating panel who does not have the required experience. The House benefits from the wealth of experience Members have professionally and politically. It is something to be proud of and it should not be hidden.

There should be visible encouragement of women into the Upper House. I referred to the council of wise old men but it would not be as wise as a council of wise old women. The life experiences of women and men are similar in many ways and totally different in others and this provides a good balance to debate in the House. There is nothing wrong with having an Upper House and I am very happy to have been elected to it. I do not understand the cries we have heard. When there is little else happening there are calls for Seanad reform, whether it is to do with not having a system to elect emigrants or the removal of the Trinity three on the University panels. I appreciate life is about change, which can be good and bad. If Seanad reform is to take place one hopes it is constructive not destructive.

We should be fair and equitable in terms of the representation of graduates. All graduates should have the right to vote, as I and many others have. If I attended the University of Limerick I would not have that opportunity. I acknowledge that the reason for three Trinity graduates was to make sure there were no excluded minorities. That was wise and sensible but by retaining three seats for them when there are only six we are excluding people. It should be opened up to graduates of all third level institutions. I may possibly annoy my good friend, Senator Norris; but he is not here and I doubt if he will read the report. We cannot be partisan on behalf of certain colleges. For example, I contacted UCD and was told 40 per cent of graduates entitled to vote for NUI candidates come from UCD and we would discriminate against them if we opened up the six seats to all graduates. That is not right. If one attends college and obtains a degree one should be entitled to vote in Seanad elections. It would make the list of candidates more interesting, exciting and less predictable. Finally, submissions could be sought from groups that would reflect the role of women more than is currently the case on nominating bodies.

I have learned a great deal about legislation since I entered the House 12 months ago, but nevertheless the public perception of the Seanad is not what it should be. Our job is to make the House more relevant and to try and improve its structure through reform. One of the criticisms levelled in the press is that we spend too much time debating issues, but the press does not give us any coverage. I receive more media coverage when I speak for five minutes at meetings of Ballina UDC than I receive speaking in the Seanad over a six month period. There is something amiss when such a situation prevails. The same could be said for other urban councils as they attract more local media interest than the Seanad. I would find it much easier to get coverage in the Western People for a speech to Ballina Urban District Council than I would for a speech in Seanad Éireann. We should work to change that.

One way to make that change would be, as some Senators have suggested, to get interest groups involved in our work and to provide a platform for such groups to give their views on different aspects of Irish life. In that way we might be able to identify niches which need attention and areas which need urgent examination. I am sure it would be possible to provide such a platform as part of the talked about reforms. For example, Senator Ó Murchú referred to Gaeltacht interest groups.

I do not think Senator Cregan's comparison of the Seanad with the courts is very relevant. One of the obvious failures of the Seanad is its lack of power to change anything, which certainly could not be said of the courts which have authority to reverse decisions.

Reference was also made to the virtual impossibility of raising matters of topical interest on the Order of Business because of the time restraints, while there is considerable padding of speeches during the rest of the day. I know the Cathaoirleach must attend to his duties and that the Order of Business as it is constituted at present does not allow for such matters. However, a platform should be provided in the mornings whereby issues of national and local interest could be raised. We would attract media attention by so doing because the journalists leave the Chamber after the Order of Business. That area badly needs to be reformed. The Cathaoirleach should be given latitude to allow Senators raise relevant and topical issues.

I know there are mechanisms for raising matters of concern but that procedure can sometimes be somewhat off-putting and the designated time at the end of the day's business may not suit Members. There are severe restrictions in that area which need to be reformed. Senators would utilise time far more effectively if they had those opportunities rather regurgitating speeches made in the other House and engaging in what journalists call "padding". We need to have an opportunity to raise issues which could be very relevant and which might receive media coverage, given that we are all talking about the lack of attention paid by the media to the Seanad.

It is good there is a climate of opinion in favour of change, although we will have to wait to see how radical and far reaching these reforms will be. Not enough time is being allocated to this debate because it will probably be our only opportunity to contribute to this reform process. We can blame only ourselves afterwards if we do not agree with the end result.

Senator Ridge referred to the need for gender balance. We would all like to see more women Senators because their contributions are always very relevant. I have spoken to women's groups, especially in County Mayo, which are interested in public life but had no idea of the functions of Seanad Éireann. They were very interested in hearing about the composition of the Seanad and how it operates. It is good to see such groups emerging but they do not get the necessary opportunities. I know of a group which is very articulate and involved in many local development issues, and which would welcome an opportunity to present its views to a forum such as this and to receive some public recognition for its work.

As I said, I am amazed by people's lack of knowledge about the operation and functions of Seanad Éireann. I hope this ongoing debate, which I welcome, will result in some worthwhile and overdue reform.

Sitting suspended at 5.30 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.