"That Seanad Éireann:
in the light of All Party agreement, repeated promises by Government to provide openness, transparency, accountability and democracy as well as the unanimous support of professional commentators and constitutional experts, expressed during the 2011 Presidential election;
in the light of clearly demonstrated public support; and
in the light of the fact that a less significant matter i.e the term of office of the Presidency has been referred to the Constitutional Convention;
calls on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to immediately bring recommendations to Government to implement the recommendations contained in the 1998 Third Progress Report of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution relating to the procedure for nominating a Presidential candidate; or
to bring proposals to Government to refer the recommendations contained in the above mentioned report to the Constitutional Convention for consideration.".
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, to the House.
The matter for debate in Seanad Éireann this evening concerns the highest office in the land and, therefore, must be taken seriously and treated with respect. For some considerable time it had been recognised virtually universally that the process of nomination for the presidency of Ireland is undemocratic and unfair and is specifically and deliberately geared in favour of party candidates. Of the nine Presidents since the foundation of this State not one has been fully independent of party affiliation nor has any candidate won without the support of at least one of the major parties and its machinery.
This is not in any sense to cast aspersions on the holders of that office. The Irish presidency is in fact one of those rare exceptions that proves the rule. In this case the rule being the old legal precept that the fruit of a rotten tree must also be suspect. We can be justly proud of every single President this country has produced from the first President Douglas Hyde in 1938 to the current incumbent. The current holder of the office, President Michael D. Higgins, got off to a flying start, with a clear and decisive result and has demonstrated a remarkable dynamism and enthusiasm. His status has increased every day with every speech and every event he has graced with his presence. The Irish people could not have made a better choice. I say that with the authority of someone who sought that office in the same election.
I wish it to be understood in this matter that I have no personal axe to grind. Under no circumstances do I dispute the result of the presidential election. I fully acknowledge that I entered this race knowing and accepting the prevailing conditions. However, this does not mean that I thereby forfeited the right to challenge those conditions. Throughout the presidential election, I made it clear that I had a concern about the nomination process and with every day that passed that concern increased. Moreover, this concern is virtually universally shared. This is shown by the reaction of the public and by the clear statement of every major party in the State on an historical basis.
So far there have been nine Presidents. The first President, Dr. Douglas Hyde, was installed by the political establishment without consultation of any kind with the Irish people. On no less than six occasions no attempt was made to allow involvement of the people of Ireland, namely, in circumstances affecting two-thirds of the presidencies the candidate was successful either by agreement between the parties without an election or by uncontested self-nomination. Prior to 2011, the last contested election was in 1997, which meant that no one under 30 had any experience of a presidential election or had the opportunity to vote in one. Had there not been an election in 2011 we would have had a situation whereby no one under 40 had the opportunity to take part in the election of the first citizen of this State. This almost happened. It is widely known and was reported generally in the press that there were significant moves by the parties to avoid the expense of a presidential election and secure the nomination of an agreed candidate thereby again bypassing the will of the people. A number of excellent and outstanding names were mentioned in this regard. Such efforts might well have been successful had I not intervened at an early stage and demonstrated that there was very considerable support among the electorate for someone with an independent background.
During the 1990s an all-party Oireachtas committee was established to review the Constitution and among the elements to be considered was the office of president. I made a submission to the committee suggesting a reduction in the term of the presidency from seven to five years on the basis that we had modelled our presidency in a number of regards on the French presidency, which country had already made such an amendment in relation to term of office. Before this matter was considered there was a change of Government and almost inevitably the matter became a party political football. In 1997, former Fine Gael Deputies Jim O'Keeffe and Paul McGrath initiated a Bill entitled the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 1997, which was presented to the Dáil on 24 of September 1997. Under the 1937 Constitution there are two methods of nomination to the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann. One is nomination by no fewer than 20 persons, each of whom is at the time a Member of one of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and the second is nomination by the councils of not less than four administrative counties including county boroughs as defined by law. Deputies O'Keeffe and McGrath added a third method which is nomination by no fewer than 20,000 citizens each of whom is entitled for the time being to vote in an election held under this article for such nomination to be made in a manner prescribed by law. In supporting the Bill, Michael McDowell stated that while the democratic legitimacy of the office was enhanced by the fact that the majority of the people have the opportunity to vote:
Democratic legitimacy is circumscribed currently by a nominating procedure which is seriously restrictive. The bald fact is that not everyone can become President. Until this year it had been, in effect, necessary for any prospective President to obtain the support of one of the three biggest political parties in the State. As a result, no previous election had more than three candidates and several had only two. The candidates in contested elections were almost always party politicians and invariably men. It is clear that many people want to look beyond the political parties to find suitable candidates.
He further stated:
It would be invidious and unacceptable if individuals were denied a nomination as a result of the nomination procedure which currently applies. There is a powerful argument for extending the nomination capacity.
I can find no one who disagreed with this position. Brian Lenihan, however, expressed unease at the fact that Fine Gael was stealing a march on the constitutional review committee by issuing a pre-emptive strike in the form of this Bill. He stated:
I took it that there was an all-party agreement on this subject that when the committee was re-established after the general election, that the all-party committee would look at the Presidency and that a political party would not take unilateral or a stroke approach towards this question by introducing a measure in Private Members' time on the subject. I was very surprised to discover that our former chairperson of the committee is the Deputy proposing this Bill to amend the Constitution.
Thus, it is clear that the Presidency and the question of the nomination procedures had become a political football between the two principal parties and this is a matter of great regret. However, it is even more significant that despite this politicking there was still unanimous agreement that the nomination procedures were too restrictive. It was pointed out that an opportunity did already exist through the county council route whereby if one or more of the major parties abstained on a nomination of an Independent, that person could secure a nomination. However, during my own attempts to gain a nomination it was made clear to me in Longford County Council that Fine Gael had issued explicit instructions not only that they were to abstain but they were to vote against me.
I say this simply to illustrate the contrast between the theoretical and ethical position adopted by the parties and the pragmatic reality of their political practice. Doubts were also raised at this stage about the problematic nature of verifying the signatures of the then proposed 20,000 members of the public. However, the recent years have seen extraordinary advances in the use of computer technology and there is no doubt that this would now be a comparatively simple matter to secure. The Bill was defeated. The matter returned for consideration by the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution. This body published its third progress report in 1998 and it is significant that it stated clearly, unanimously and unambiguously that, "The Committee agrees with the Constitutional Review Group that the Constitutional requirements for nominating a Presidential candidate are too restrictive and in need of democratisation." It suggested a clear alteration to the nomination process, the reduction from 20 to ten Members of the Oireachtas as nominators, and a provision for popular nomination. However, this entailed also continuing to bear in mind that the dignity of the office of President must be preserved against the possibility of frivolous or inadequately qualified candidates. Nevertheless, they made a recommendation that a figure of 10,000 would be appropriate as requiring widespread but at the same time achievable support for a candidacy. This takes into account the fact that the timescale for achieving this number is a mere 60 days. These recommendations have since lain dormant. During the election I consistently raised this issue and it met with a great degree of public support. Subsequent to the election I considered introducing legislation but on account of the technical difficulty that the Seanad is precluded constitutionally from introducing a referendum Bill, it was not possible for me to introduce this legislatively.
However, on 2 December 2011, Deputy Catherine Murphy introduced in the Dáil the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2011 which would have addressed all these points such as: reducing the number of Oireachtas members necessary for nomination from 20 to ten; providing for a popular initiative of 10,000 citizens; and reducing the presidential term of office from seven to five years, among other more technical matters including amending a mistake in Article 12 of the Constitution with inappropriate reference to proportional representation. Once more there was very considerable support and the matter was argued very finely and with intellectual distinction and a considerable degree of reference to constitutional authorities such as the late Professor J.M. Kelly. Deputy Murphy was supported by Deputy Barry Cowen of Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin also gave general support to the Bill.
In response, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, who is in the House today, appeared to express some qualified support but queried the timing of the Bill. He and other contributors appeared to believe that despite the present process, everyone who had declared a serious interest in running was ultimately able to get onto the ballot paper, despite the nomination process. This is incorrect. The Minister of State's own brother withdrew from seeking a nomination.