The publication of the Seventh Progress Report of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution deals with the Houses of the Oireachtas. Its treatment of the functions and composition of Seanad Éireann marks an advance in debate conducted with increasing intensity since the publication of the 1996 report on the Constitution Review Group, a report which raised the sunrise issues of whether the Seanad should continue to exist.
The seventh progress report and the second progress report on the Seanad which preceded it came, resoundingly, to the conclusion that the Seanad was an important element of our constitutional institutions but that it needed reform to ensure its progressively more significant and vigorous role. The 61 Bills initiated in the Seanad in our time, a Chathaoirligh, have changed our function. The taking of Committee Stages of Bills in committee confirms the important new role played by the Seanad in the passing of Bills under the current Administration.
The foundations for an organisation's significance and vigor derive in the first instance from the quality of the tasks undertaken by it. The O'Keeffe committee considered that Seanad Éireann should be a consultative body where people with knowledge, experience and judgment over the spectrum of public affairs should be available in a broadly non-partisan way to help the Dáil to carry out its functions more effectively and efficiently. It saw the scrutiny of EU legislation and the carrying out of examinations of the work of Government Departments as new and important functions which should be entrusted to the Seanad. However, it tended to take a limited view of the Seanad's legislative role. In debates on the role of the Seanad, Senators identified the scrutiny of EU legislation, statutory instruments and the investigation of the operation of the public services as areas in which the Seanad should take a more effective role.
The new report also recommends these additional functions for the Seanad but emphasises that the Seanad's key role as prescribed in the Constitution should remain the processing of legislation. In a debate on the role of the Seanad in December 1999, Senators expressed widespread satisfaction with the increased volume of legislation being initiated in the Seanad and at the more frequent attendance by the Taoiseach and Ministers during debates on Bills.
The seventh progress report also suggests that the Seanad might develop a particular interest in developments in Northern Ireland and in the North-South and British-Irish institutions established by the British-Irish Agreement. Everybody will agree that a Seanad carrying out the functions now identified could contribute immeasurably to the deliverance of services which the Oireachtas provides for the people. One only has to reflect on the value that a sustained focus maintained by the Seanad on EU legislation and business would add to Ireland's political debate.
The hard work and dedication of those honoured and privileged to serve as Members of Seanad Éireann since 1937 has been immeasurable. The wealth of experience and the cross-section of society represented by the membership of this House have played a major role in the quality of legislation passed by the Oireachtas. The composition of this House has been debated many times. An organisation also derives its sig nificance and vigor from the quality of those who carry out its functions.
The committee's second progress report presented a scheme by which the composition of the Seanad might be derived. The current Seanad is formulated as follows: directly elected members, 15; indirectly elected members, 28; university/third level representatives, six and the Taoiseach's nominees, 11. The seventh progress report presents a different scheme for consideration: 48 of the 60 Senators to be elected by proportional representation on a national list system on the same day as a general election to the Dáil; 8 to be nominated by the Taoiseach and a further four members to be nominated also by the Taoiseach in accordance with a procedure specified by law to represent citizens resident in the north of our island.
It is obvious that schemes for Seanad Éireann could indefinitely engage the attention of political theorists. I profoundly disagree, in principle, with the proposal by the seventh progress report that 48 Members of the Seanad should be elected on the same as election to the Dáil by way of proportional representation on a national list system. The current formulation of the Seanad is and has proven to be very successful. The old saying should apply – if it is not broken, do not mend it.
Next Wednesday, I will have served 20 years as a Member of Seanad Éireann. I can honestly say one will not find finer people, more qualified, more experienced or committed to serving the interests of the people of Ireland in a more dignified, respectable, courteous and meaningful way than the women and men who have served as Members of Seanad Éireann for the past 20 years. In a unitary State such as ours there is a major problem with how one derives the membership of the second Chamber. If both Houses are returned by universal suffrage they have an equally valid mandate from the people and, inevitably, issues about the respective powers of each House will arise. The seventh progress report seeks to overcome this difficulty by providing a different mechanism for election to both Houses. However, what is being transferred by each mechanism is the right to represent the people. Since that right comes directly from the people in both cases there cannot be a difference in the character of the right.
I believe, therefore, that membership of Seanad Éireann must be returned by indirect elections. The obvious electorate for indirect elections is one already used, namely, members of local authorities, members of the outgoing Seanad and Members of the newly elected Dáil. Members of local authorities are the product of election by the people. The recent referendum formally recognising local government in the Constitution will ensure its democratic mandate is always lively and fresh.
Local authorities have always been the keystone of the electoral system for the Seanad. It seems prudent and sensible to maintain that key stone. The local authority members of Ireland, who have served the people since the foundation of the State in a voluntary capacity, know the problems of all the people whether in the towns, cities or most rural parts of the country. They are the experienced politicans who elect the membership of Seanad Éireann. Who is more qualified to assess and judge the ability of those placing themselves before the electorate for their approval than the experienced electorate of the local authority, the newly elected Dáil and the outgoing Seanad?
Under this system over the years, local authority members have served voluntarily every Monday, whether on Westmeath County Council or any other council. They have placed themselves at the disposal of the people of their parish who were possibly first to instigate their nomination for council elections. It is they who make a judgment on those whom they wish to have as their representatives in the Upper House.
The seventh progress report proposes that provision should continue to be made for the appointment of a certain number of Senators by the Taoiseach. It is clear that a unitary State, the House to which the people's representatives are elected, should have the exclusive power to hold the Government to account. It appears reasonable that the head of the Government, the Taoiseach, should have the power to appoint a sufficient number of Members to the Seanad to ensure a majority there for the Government. I am sure Senator Manning will agree with those sentiments as he presided, very successfully, over a Seanad where he did not have full and outright control of the membership. This can create enormous problems with legislation with which the Government wishes to proceed. It follows that there is no problem in principle in providing capacity for the Taoiseach to appoint representatives from Northern Ireland or representatives who can cater for groups such as our emigrants. All Taoisigh, certainly all those since I became a Member, including Charles J. Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, Deputy Albert Reynolds, Deputy John Bruton and the current Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, have recognised and acknowledged the importance of appointing representatives from Northern Ireland. They include former Senators John Robb, Seamus Mallon and Bríd Rodgers, Senator Maurice Hayes, the late Senator Gordon Wilson, who served honourably and well, Senator Edward Haughey and many others who have served on behalf of Northern Ireland and made a big contribution to life as it existed in that part of our island.
University representation is a more difficult issue. The second progress report of the all-party committee proposed that six seats should continue to be allocated to third level representatives. It recommended that all graduates of the institutions that fell within the remit of the Higher Education Authority and the then National Council of Education Awards should form the electorate for the six seats. In the debate on the report in this House on 30 January 1997, most Senators agreed with this recommendation. The seventh progress report of the all-party committee shares the general view that the university Senators have played and continue to play a distinctive and valuable role in the working of the Seanad. I wish to salute their outstanding and valuable work which they are carrying out and have carried out over many years. However, the all-party committee goes on to say that in a root and branch reform of the Seanad it would not be possible to justify continued representation for graduates. The very practice is rooted in historical British political experience which gave representation in the House of Commons to representatives of Oxbridge graduates. The practice is no longer followed in Britain.
University representation in the Seanad derives from that experience and it aimed particularly to give representation to predominantly Protestant graduates of Trinity College, Dublin. In view of the composition of Trinity graduates today, that disposition has lost political validity. While it is difficult in theory to defend university representation, in practice the university representatives in the Seanad have contributed out of all proportion to their numbers. They have made an enormous and valuable contribution and are much appreciated by parliamentarians, Members of the Dáil, local authorities and organisations throughout the land for the good work they carry out.
I thank all those who served on the committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Brian Lenihan and on the previous committee under the chairmanship Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. There never was a more opportune time for the Seanad to be proud of its achievements and the hard work it has done in recent years. I see an opportunity for more EU legislation to be deliberated on and reports discussed here.
The role of a Senator today, compared to that of a Senator up to 15 years ago, is practically full-time, three days and sometimes four days per week. Taking that into account, the extra workload will have to be looked at. I look forward to the time when we can start at 9.30 a.m. and conclude at 7.30 p.m. As many Senators have said on a number of occasions, sitting late into the night until 11 p.m, 12 midnight or 1 a.m. is not good for family life. Perhaps we can have a look at that in the review process.