Special Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution: Motion

I move:

That the Order of the Seanad of 13th April, 2017, relating to the Special Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution be amended in paragraph (c) -

(i) by the substitution of '6 members of Seanad Éireann' for '7 members of Seanad Éireann'; and

(ii) after 'Seanad Éireann' by the insertion of the following:

'and the provisions of Standing Order 81 shall not apply to the Committee'."

I move amendment No. 1:

In paragraph (ii), to delete "the provisions of Standing Order 81 shall not apply to the Committee" and substitute "the provisions of Standing Order 81(1) shall apply to the Committee save that only one member and no other member may act as a substitute for an absent member: Provided that the name of such substitute be notified in writing by the relevant member of the Committee to the Committee clerk before the first meeting of the Committee".

I thank the Leader for giving me the opportunity to put forward this amendment. The situations we have heard of in recent weeks, for example, the incarceration of young girls who have suicidal thoughts and who have sought access to abortion has again underscored the fact that the situation in Ireland today is unacceptable and dangerous and that the eighth amendment to the Constitution casts a shadow over many generations of women and needs to be addressed urgently. In respect of implementing the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly in full, it is regrettable that the establishment of the committee has been delayed by measures designed to restrict the participation of certain Senators and parliamentarians in the process.

I note the motion before us today mentions six rather than seven Senators participating and that substitution has been blocked. In regard to the clause on non-substitution, as this is a special committee, Members will not have a right, as they do in other committees, to attend and speak if they have a concern about or interest in the area. The only way to participate is through formal attendance and only those designated members of the committee will be able in any way to contribute to this process. Blocking substitution is very unusual. The only precedent for it was the banking inquiry, which operated in a quasi-judicial way, making findings against individuals and institutions and which was in no way similar. We need to move past a judicial and criminalising approach to this issue and to debate it fully as a social issue. The committee on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, chaired by the Leader of this House, is a more relevant precedent. Substitution was allowed on that committee and it did not impede its working.

The ban on substitution is against the spirit of new politics because it creates great difficulty for Independent groupings and small parties which have found constructive ways to work together to maximise and share their contribution. Those who know our group in this House know we always endeavour to work constructively and contribute. It is regrettable that it is being blocked in this case. It is also notable that those in the Dáil and Seanad affected by the ban on substitution are women who have well-known records, a history of acting on this issue, and expertise. These are people such as Senator Bacik, those in my group, those in the Green Party, Deputy Coppinger and others. They have a commitment which extends far beyond the three months of this committee and spans three decades of advocacy and work on this issue. It is very unfortunate they will not be able to contribute to the work of the committee but I have no doubt they will find, and I will endeavour to find, other ways to contribute to this debate, which is a debate in wider society.

Beyond that issue, non-substitution is a regressive practice and a step backwards in respect of inclusivity and participation in this House. It means that if a committee member has a family or health emergency, he or she cannot be substituted for. It creates a dangerous dynamic where people might be asked to choose between a family responsibility or a health concern and being present for a vital division.

It is an extraordinarily poor practice and, if it became more commonly used, could prevent those who have care responsibilities, health concerns or a disability being able to fully participate and put themselves forward on special committees in the same way because it creates an unnecessary and inappropriate tension. It denies us in the House the full body of expertise we should have. I have put forward a compromise amendment. It is not the constructive proposal for working we had hoped for before where, for example, Senator Kelleher and I would have substituted for Senator Ruane. It is a basic safeguard which proposes a single, named substitute. Every member of the committee could designate a substitute so that if an emergency or other consideration stops them attending, they can be substituted. I am asking for support for this amendment. I have great confidence in Senator Ruane, who will represent the Civil Engagement group on the committee. Senator Kelleher and I and all the rest of us will continue to contribute to the wider debate we were having in society on this issue. The most crucial thing is that we have a referendum in the spring to repeal the eighth amendment and fully implement the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. We will all be working in every way we can for this. I urge the House to think carefully about setting a precedent for non-substitution. It is a regressive step for the House.

Senator Ó Ríordáin will second the amendment. He has five minutes.

I second the amendment proposed by Senator Higgins.

This is an issue from which politicians - not in my party but others - have run away for many years. It took more than 20 years for the Supreme Court judgment of 1992 to be enacted and legislated for. That legislation almost brought down the Government. It forced the resignation of a number of members of that Government and a new political party was formed as a result. Senator Higgins has proposed a substitution facility whereby if somebody is not in a position to attend a committee hearing, somebody else can stand in in his or her place. It seems to be perfectly reasonable to have quite a number of people involved in the process. I agree with Senator Higgins that the formation of this committee leaves a lot to be desired. At the very least we are now talking about the eighth amendment and the potential for a referendum. It is quite remarkable that a committee dealing with this most sensitive of Irish political subjects would not allow a substitution mechanism. It is rumoured that the Leader will be the Chairman of the committee. We will see what happens tomorrow. I put him on notice that my party will not support any outcome that goes any way short of full repeal of the eighth amendment. I look forward to hearing other political parties' view on that.

Does Senator Buttimer wish to speak?

The Committee on Procedure and Privileges has discussed this and I do not disagree with the broad thrust of what Senator Higgins has expressed. It is a very bad precedent because it changes the process for committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I do not understand why the Dáil Business Committee is pursuing this. The Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges agreed the motion because we want to have Seanad representation on the committee. I have taken the view as Leader that to forgo Seanad representation is too much to ask the House. The Dáil Business Committee proceeded without Members of this House in the Committee on the Future of Healthcare and in the establishment of a housing committee. I did not want to be party to that. It is with reluctance that I move the motion because I agree with what Senator Higgins is trying to achieve. As the Senator is aware, I have facilitated a number of meetings to try to bridge that gap; unfortunately, we could not get peace in the matter.

I acknowledge that.

We got a change in representation of the Seanad as well. Regardless of who chairs the committee, it is important its work is carried out in a manner that is open to all possibilities and outcomes. It is a matter for the committee to decide upon itself and ultimately for the Oireachtas to decide on what the committee recommends. We are also awaiting the report of the Citizens' Assembly which, when published, will allow for the committee to sit in public and do its work. It is in the spirit of ensuring Seanad representation that we do not allow for a situation in which we are left behind or excluded that I propose this motion. I accept there is disappointment with the outcome of the deliberations but it is important we have Senators at the table debating, negotiating and engaging. It is in that spirit that I have proposed the motion.

Is the amendment being pressed?

I am pressing it. I want to acknowledge-----

Is nobody else speaking on it?

Nobody else has spoken.

Nobody else has spoken. They should be allowed to speak.

I came in in the middle of it. It had gone back to the Leader.

No one else has offered. I will put the question.

Do Sinn Féin Senators want to speak? Sinn Féin Senators had indicated they wanted to speak.

They did not indicate to speak but if they want to speak, I will let them.

I stand on principle because Fianna Fáil Senators will not speak at all. We spent a long time, took it seriously and deliberated on it upside down and inside out. It is an extremely important issue. I apologise but we have decided not to support the amendment. We will not support it because it will result in the dilution of the presence of a named individual, in this case a Senator. I say well done for getting Senators involved in it in the first place. We ask that someone takes complete and utter responsibility for the attendance and for listening to contributions and presentations and bringing it back to us as a political party. As a nurse working in psychiatry for a long time, I have worked with women and girls who have been refused terminations requested as a result of fatal foetal abnormality. I have watched the fallout and heartbreak of women being sent back from England because one happens to mention Ireland's laws do not permit it. That sort of stuff has gone on. Women and girls are ending up in psychiatric institutions because of it. My heart goes out to them. I wish I could be on that committee; I think most of us wish that. The repealing of the eighth amendment is a fundamental change to our Constitution and its repeal, as well as the enactment of legislation, constitute a fundamental change to the rights of women in this country. Regretfully, Sinn Féin cannot support Senator Higgins's amendment.

I do not know what type of point Senator Devine is trying to make.

It is very simple.

I sat on the council and my views on the eighth amendment are very clear. My colleagues in Fianna Fáil and I all have differing views.

I am not talking about that.

To what was Senator Devine referring?

Senator Ardagh picked it up wrong.

What exactly is Senator Devine inferring?

Senators should speak through the Chair.

What was Senator Devine inferring when she said we were trying to slip away?

Senator Ardagh should speak through the Chair.

This has been going on all day for no reason.

Members of my party all have different views. We are a broad church and everyone is welcome to have whatever opinion they like. Unfortunately we will not be supporting the amendment. We will be supporting the Government on this amendment.

Are there any other contributors? Senator Murnane O'Connor will have to resume her seat. The rule is one contribution per group and Senator Ardagh has made the contribution on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group. Is the amendment being pressed?

Yes, and I would like to acknowledge that we sought to negotiate a compromise. I appreciate the Leader's recognition that this is not a good practice.

I hope we will robustly oppose any further use of this non-substitution clause in future. In that spirit, I am pressing the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Motion put and declared carried.