Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad today. I am conscious of the fact that, at a busy time in the dying embers of the current Oireachtas, the Government has generously made 29 minutes available to me to discuss Committee and Final Stages of this legislation, legislation which would cause a fundamental reform of one of our two Houses of Parliament. When I was elected in 2011, I made a promise and a commitment in my speech at the count centre in the RDS that I would never run again for the Seanad under the electoral system which then applied, a system which I described then, and still describe, as an affront to democracy. Among the few other reforming actions I have attempted to make in my few years here, I have put a fair bit of effort, with the very able assistance of Shane Conneely, Aoife Casey, Benjamin O’Hara, Aoife O’Toole and others, into crafting a fundamental reform Bill for the Seanad, as I promised I would do.
As the Minister of State is aware, Ireland has had a problem in recent years. While I do not limit this to the present Government, we found ourselves in some difficult situations five or six years ago that largely could be ascribed to bad governance. While people were happy to blame banks and the real estate sector, the country had a problem with governance and the reason Ireland had inappropriate governance was because it did not have a good system for electing the people who applied the power and the principles of government to the Republic. In the Dáil, the principal objection that can be raised is people are elected who are greatly focused on local issues. In the Seanad, the principal problem is people are elected in a bizarre, elitist, unbalanced and anachronistic electoral system. Within the confines of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution, there is a limit to how much reform can be achieved without a referendum and Members of this House are not in a position to effect a referendum. Consequently, I put together the maximum reform package possible within the strictures of the current Constitution. This addresses the core deficit in the Seanad, which is the democratic deficit, that is, the fact that few people in Ireland have the opportunity to participate directly in the election of the representatives in Seanad Éireann.
In line with the reforms I have put forward, this opportunity would be extended to each citizen of the country, including those citizens who live outside the country. This is important because the ravages of emigration have taken a disproportionate toll in Ireland and it seems only appropriate to have a vehicle of some kind, as do many other countries, for electoral representation for Irish citizens who, through circumstances that are not of their own making, have found themselves forced to live without the Republic. The argument has been advanced that were the reforms outlined in this Bill to be made, the Seanad would become a mini-Dáil. I believe that what would happen is the Dáil would become a mini-Seanad. There would be a single Chamber, based on universal suffrage and nationally based constituencies, in which any citizen could run with limited interference from the possibility of political parties blocking their appointment. In this context, Members have all seen how much difficulty that has caused nationwide in this particular electoral cycle. Any citizen could vote in such a constituency and would not be voting for a local or sectional representative. Instead, he or she would be voting for somebody as part of a national constituency or as part of a number of national constituencies, namely, those based loosely on the existing panels. The only difference would be that one could declare one's intention to vote only for one panel and one could declare one's intention to run in only one panel, thus ending the present position in which individuals in Ireland have up to eight votes at the time of a general election because of their multiple votes in the Seanad, as well as their vote for the Dáil.
While this may appear to be a rather quixotic ideal, I believe it is entirely feasible. It is entirely possible within Bunreacht na hÉireann, would not subvert the Constitution and would not lead to gridlock. The Taoiseach's constitutional lock on appointing 11 Members to the Seanad would be retained because it is set out in the Constitution and no part of this Bill challenges the Constitution. What it would provide is a different kind of Chamber, that is, one in which Members are not focused on local issues. Incidentally, I do not for a second belittle the importance of local issues. As has been noted, all politics is local and I understand that. Local issues affect local people, who need to know they have representation in the halls of power and of Parliament. It would, however, allow for the possibility of having two different kinds of representative in the national Parliament, namely, those in the Dáil, who still would be able to look after local issues, and a collection of Senators who would be focused on, shall we say, the big picture.
For all these reasons, the Bill fixes the democratic deficit in the Seanad, which really is an affront. This was evident in the multiple and often correct objections to the Seanad raised at the time of the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad two years ago. People asked whether they got to vote in the Seanad and noted they did not. This Bill would extend that right to everyone. Consequently, as the people have spoken in the aforementioned referendum and have stated their wish to keep alive the Seanad, there is an absolute obligation to reform it. While it is not the fault of the Minister of State, it is awfully sad that a referendum was held in 1979 on a rather simple, technical issue to change the way in which one votes for Senators but 36 years later, it has not even been possible to implement it.
I made a promise in 2011 that I would not run again for the Seanad under the current electoral system. While maintaining me in this House is not necessarily a good enough reason for reform in the Seanad, it is a promise I intend to keep. There are other good and important reasons for which I urge the acceptance of this Bill, including fixing the democratic deficit in the Seanad and providing one Chamber in Parliament which is nationally focused.