That, in the light of public criticism and of the numerous reports on the subject, Seanad Éireann requests the Government to embark urgently on the process of comprehensive Seanad reform.
I place before the Seanad tonight an urgent motion on Seanad reform. I do so because the reform and survival of Seanad Éireann is undoubtedly the most critical issue facing this House. The leader of the Opposition, Deputy Enda Kenny, in a surprising and perhaps ill-conceived move some months ago, committed his party to the abolition of this Chamber, if it is successful after the next election. He was quite unequivocal about this, even though the context in which such a decision was taken was, to say the least, obscure and open to different interpretations. Nevertheless, political stunt or not, his action has had the immediate effect of making reform of this institution of paramount importance if it is to survive. In the view of many, myself included, the conclusion is clear: reform or die.
Nothing could more dramatically illustrate the need for Seanad reform than the recent by-elections. Out of courtesy, I held my fire during the recent elections of Senator James Carroll, who is an intelligent and decent young man for whom I wish a distinguished career in politics, my old friend and valued colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, who I am happy to congratulate on his welcome return to this House, as well as Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin. The worthiness of the candidates aside, it is undoubtedly deeply distasteful to the public that for election to a seat in the Upper House of our Parliament the entire electorate consisted of a mere 227 votes. Talk of rotten boroughs. This is something that would have disgraced the most corrupt politics of 18th century Ireland. In addition, the squalid wheeling and dealing that has surrounded these types of campaign, whereby political parties controlled blocks of votes with rigid authority and, on the basis of political pragmatism, elected people who were often entirely unconnected with the alleged interests of the nominating panel, has brought the system into contempt in the eyes of the people.
There have been innumerable reports and recommendations for reform of the Seanad. On the first sitting of this Seanad after the general election I tabled an amendment to the Order of Business by putting forward a motion urging the Government to implement immediately the recommendations of the O'Rourke committee, an all-party committee sponsored by the Government. The degree of cynicism involved in this charade of Seanad reform was revealed as Members of both parties on the Government side trooped obediently into the lobbies to vote against their own proposals. Since then a committee was established, which has just completed its work, under the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, whom I welcome to the House. I attended that committee as a representative of the Independent university Senators. At the first meeting, as I predicted, it became clear that the initial target was, as usual, the university seats. I indicated forcefully to the Minister, as he will remember, that as far as I was concerned it was all or nothing — a comprehensive reform of the Seanad whereby nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. The university seats should not be uniquely targeted in a cosmetic exercise.
Meanwhile the public controversy was fuelled by inept performances from some leading Members on a regrettable "Late Late Show", during which a small proportion of the show was devoted to a demolition job on the Upper House. The programme appeared to be conceived as a populist ambush of one of the institutions of the State, in which the negative side was privileged by being given an extended soap box at the opening, during which a prepared attack was read from an autocue. No parallel opportunity was offered to the defenders who were divided among themselves, subject to scatter-gun questions from the host and then thrown on the mercy of an audience whose hostility towards politicians in general had already been ignited.
I first stood for election to Seanad Eireann in 1977. I was virtually unknown to the public but I got coverage for one remark during that campaign, which was: "That the Seanad had come to resemble a convalescent home for the casualties of the Dáil election." This remains a significant problem, although I have come to believe the presence in the Chamber of a limited number of people with Cabinet experience can be valuable. My views on this and other matters are unlikely to be widely held by my colleagues. The reason is that I am one of a small minority in this House who have specifically chosen to make their political career in the Seanad and have no ambitions to use the Upper House as a launching pad into the Lower House. Many of our colleagues, as we know, would sooner not be here. They are merely in transit from Dáil Éireann in one direction or the other.
First, whatever the difficulties concerned, the Seanad can be reformed and made a more effective element of our democracy. If I did not think so or if I thought there was a cast iron case for the abolition of the Seanad and that it served no function, I would feel honour bound to resign straightaway and not to defraud the taxpayer, especially in these difficult times. Every element of the Seanad needs overhaul, including the university seats. I am on record for many years as supporting the extension of the franchise to other third level institutions. However, I have no doubt that it is the remaining 54 seats that most need to be examined. Of these, 11 are filled by direct nomination by the Taoiseach of the day to establish an automatic Government majority. This is done without even the pretence of an election or a publicly accountable selection process. There are no guidelines and no parameters to the selection of the Taoiseach's 11. They are in the princely gift of the Taoiseach of the day.
The remaining 43 Senators are elected by a system of panels which have nominating bodies covering a wide area of Irish life. However, these groups carry no political clout and are in effect meaningless. This is because they possess between them not one single vote. In recent years one nominating body, the Royal Irish Academy, nominated its president, but he did not receive a single vote. The right to vote is confined to Members of the Oireachtas and members of county councils, thus placing the fate of every seat, apart from the university seats, firmly in the grip of the political parties. I recall seeing party officials herding Members into offices within this building so they could stand over them to ensure they put the tick in the right box. How democratic is that? Does it still happen? Should the electorate be so confined?
If I may, I shall give a clear practical demonstration of some of the dangers of confining voting to county councillors. In a previous Seanad I managed to persuade the then Leader to establish a formal committee of Seanad Éireann to inquire into rendition flights passing through Shannon Airport. The committee was established and about to begin its deliberation when a delegation of local authority members from the Shannon region made a pilgrimage to Dublin, leaned on the Government and was able to have the committee of inquiry dissolved. To prevent people having access to the truth about what was occurring because of parochial and political self-interest was a day of shame in the political life of the country.
I have always been able to maintain that the university seats were democratic because these two constituencies were unique, in that they enfranchised the ordinary members of the nominating bodies. In both NUI and Trinity, it is the graduates who, as a corporate entity, form the nominating body and it is the graduates who vote, in the case of Trinity over 50,000 and in the case of NUI over 100,000. Those are real constituencies. Why not do something similar with the other constituencies? First, we would need to examine the nominating bodies to ensure that all walks of life were represented, therefore giving a degree of universality, and then allow the ordinary members of each group to play a role by voting.
Consider the richness of talent that would be brought into public life — doctors, lawyers, farm workers, trade unionists, fishermen, nurses, dentists, building workers, architects, business people, people from the world of culture, the arts and entertainment. If we let their representative bodies become nominating instruments and allow the ordinary membership to vote, we would have people talking from the depth of their experience with knowledge and technical capacity on matters with which they were particularly qualified to deal. We would mobilise the resources of wisdom and experience. Moreover, were such a scheme to be properly devised, the entire island would be covered in a way that did not slavishly duplicate the Dáil. There is little point in having geographical constituencies that mimic arrangements in the Lower House. Why should the taxpayer pay twice for the same act? We could then do what I have often suggested and make the dates of the Dáil and Seanad elections coincide.
I spoke on the subject of Seanad reform and on whether the Seanad should be retained at all at a meeting of the Dublin South-East Labour Party branch on Monday night. Among the usual questions — interestingly, the general feeling of the meeting was overwhelmingly that the Seanad should be retained and reformed — two struck right to the heart of the matter, namely, why should we have a Seanad at all, and what is its justification and how many successful Bills had originated spontaneously, so to speak, on the Seanad floor from Opposition parties or Independents. The second, at heart, related to the question of whether the Seanad is merely a rubber stamp for Government policy and an ineffectual talking shop. The two questions link. There is nothing wrong with being a talking shop. That is just another name for a think tank, a commission or any of those other bodies that have become so fashionable and are seen as being valuable in providing a catalyst for new ideas and new approaches to public life. That is certainly a part of the function of the Seanad that is not shameful and should be vigorously defended.
We are traditionally and constitutionally a revising and amending body. The Seanad operates effectively in this area. I can list a number of amendments that I have secured and I was also happy to second important amendments of Senator O'Toole to the NAMA Bill, a significant achievement by the House. There are even more frequent occasions on which the Minister will accept the principle of the argument and introduce a Government amendment subsequently. In these circumstances and even though the amendment cannot be directly claimed by a Member, such an amendment would not have been made without intervention in thisHouse and the Seanad can legitimately claim the kudos of the impact it has had upon such legislation.
The amending function of the Seanad is not assisted when, as occurred several times recently in terms of important legislation, amendments that were tabled in good faith by Members were neither reached nor discussed in either House of Parliament, allegedly because of time constraints. This despite any disclaimer by the Leader represents the effective operation of a guillotine.
The second question concerning legislation is interesting. Let it be said that every single Member of the Independent university group has placed at least one item of legislation before the House for consideration within the last session. The fact that none of these has passed into law is regrettable, but it does not mean they have not had an impact. Often, the House acts as a catalyst and the Government eventually takes over and implements ideas that originated here. The matter of civil partnership, for example, which is a current issue in the Lower House, was first placed before the Seanad in 2004 and it was several years before first the Labour Party and then the Government took up the issue with serious political intent. There can be no doubt, however, that this House played a significant role in that area, as it has also done with items such as AIDS, climate change, broadband, embryonic stem cell research etc. by the depth and knowledge of the debate that took place here.
It would be futile to deny that a large part of the impact of individual Members is extrasenatorial. For example, Senator O'Toole has made a considerable contribution to the life of this country by his involvement in the trade union movement and the social partnership talks. Senator Ross has made a real impact on the awareness of the public on financial matters, principally through his editorship of the financial section of theSunday Independent and his recent book. Both men have undoubtedly found the status of being a Senator valuable, but their major impact on life so far has been found outside these walls. This is perhaps sadly inevitable in the present circumstances.
There is virtually no media coverage of the doings of Seanad Éireann. I look forward to the day when the proceedings here will be streamed live to those who are interested rather in the manner of American television's C-Span channel. In the meantime, we are dependent on the broadcast and print media. Apart fromThe Irish Times, the Upper House is virtually completely ignored by all newspapers. Even the coverage in The Irish Times is often pitiful. This is not due to lack of effort on the part of the correspondent Jimmy Walsh, who is universally respected. Even in The Irish Times, the doings of the Seanad are eclipsed by every other activity within Leinster House such that sometimes all that survives is a couple of shorn paragraphs. “Oireachtas Report” on RTE makes an attempt and I certainly cannot complain of not being covered, but it is indicative that the coverage of the proceedings of Seanad Éireann is invariably placed at the tail end of the report after everything else, including reports of committee meetings.