With the permission of the Leas-Chathaoirleach I will share some time with Senator Norris.
Seanad Reform: Motion (Resumed)
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The motion before the House is to be commended. The first section refers to having well informed citizens and residents from all walks of life attend the House, which is to be welcomed, particularly in a House which may face a referendum on its future next year. It would be good for the House to have links with our citizenry and people from a wide range of experiences in life, and a great exercise in parliamentary democracy.
The second section of the motion refers to inviting to the floor of Seanad Éireann on an ongoing basis appropriate leaders and representatives of civic life who have a significant contribution to make to the deliberations of this House. That is something which I also commend to the House as being in the spirit of a participating parliamentary democracy.
The final section refers to the success of a respectful North-South dialogue that has consolidated the peace process in Northern Ireland, with a peace dividend for all the communities affected by the conflict, deepening cross-Border relationships and taking a shared approach to the significant events that will arise in the next decade. The development of parliamentary democracy in Northern Ireland is one of the great optimistic developments in this country in recent times. I said in here last week that I had attended an education debate in Stormont the previous Tuesday, and it was remarkable that nobody questioned the rights of anybody to be there, or whether they were Unionists or Nationalists. Bringing this development into the Seanad is something to be commended.
In strengthening and deepening our democracy, we must bear in mind the infringements that have taken place in recent times. The bypassing of the Parliament by lobbyists such as the bankers on 29 and 30 September 2008 will probably cost us about €70 billion. The guarantee on behalf of the banking community was given by people who had right of access to the Government and senior civil servants. The success of tax lawyers and accountants in gaining access to the Government — very little discussion has taken place on these tax breaks and write-offs — has cost us €11.5 billion per year, according to Micheál Collins of the economics department in TCD.
In addition to inviting people whom we believe would strengthen the House and its democratic procedures, we should invite some of the other groups who seem to have access to the Government and who, in my view, are an affront to parliamentary democracy, given how they seem to get their way and that they have imposed such costs on all aspects of Irish society for decades ahead. This is a parliamentary democracy. Even if those people do not want to attend, they should be invited. It will tell us a lot about them if they do not attend, even if the Government has yet to put forward its proposals on the compellability of witnesses. Inviting them to explain what they thought they were doing at the time would be valuable.
The motion by the other Independent Senators is commendable, as is the Leader's amendment. It could be a very important development in parliamentary democracy in Ireland, and a very important measure in ensuring the future of this House to contribute to our parliamentary democracy. I am very pleased to commend the motion to the House.
I am grateful to my colleague, friend and former academic colleague in Trinity College for giving me some of his time. I was happy for him to speak first because I have spoken many times on this very important subject in the House. On a number of occasions, I have used it for my Private Members' time. The Acting Chairman will recall that after the Seanad elections in 2007, I tabled the recommendations of the all-party committee chaired by former Leader of the House, then Senator Mary O'Rourke. I called a vote on it, but it was voted down. That showed the absurdity of this Chamber and I regret that. We must take it seriously this time, because now it is either sink or swim. We need to take these matters with real seriousness and not make them into any kind of political football. There is blame on all sides. Nobody is excused. No Government has previously taken this Seanad seriously.
On the opening day of the Seanad I commended the Taoiseach for his extraordinarily imaginative choice of 11 Senators. They have shown that such an accommodation was justified by forming a specific group which is independent. That indicates that they will be vigorous, which I welcome.
Senator Barrett made a reference to the North of Ireland. It is possibly not the most diplomatic thing to single out anybody when the North of Ireland is mentioned, but it is an interesting development to have Dr. Martin McAleese present in the House. I do not speak of him very often. Women often object to being described as being the wife of somebody, and I am not going to insult Senator McAleese in that way, because I know well of the extraordinary work that he has done on behalf of this country, at some risk to himself of obloquy in the press and perhaps even personal physical danger. It is welcome that we have a voice for the North in this House. We have had them before. I remember Gordon Wilson, who was a remarkable contributor to this House, and John Robb, and long may that continue. We have leaders from various groups, including the arts, human rights groups and so on, so we have the opportunity, capacity, intelligence and membership to do the job in here. This time we need to do it.
I am very glad that a suggestion I have made in this area has been agreed, which is that we will not vote on this in any divisive way. Perhaps the Leader will indicate if it is correct that my proposal has been accepted that we add the Government's amendment to the motion. It does not seem to conflict in any way with the motion.
The Senator has half a minute left.
Thank you. This means that we go back to the Government with a united House, a united voice and with united recommendations.
There is a voice missing here today, which is that of my colleague and friend, the former Senator Joe O'Toole. I was always the radical and always wanted the clean sweep. Joe O'Toole always had a wise voice and I think we should revisit his proposals, because they not only strengthened the nominating bodies and enfranchised them, they also included some element of experience and some element of the parties, which is perhaps something that should be examined.
Tributes have often been paid to the Independent groups. We have a luxury of being independent and being able to speak our mind, and not being subject to the Whip. That gives us a special advantage and sometimes we get praise that might have gone to Members in the political parties had they that freedom. My suggestion is that we should look again at the nominating bodies, make sure they are the most relevant so that they cover the entire population of the country and that we then do what is necessary and enfranchise the ordinary members in some form. Let us have the nurses, the doctors, the architects, the prison officers and representatives of all other large groups in society and let them talk from their experience of legislation. This is what makes us different.
We do not need a reduplication of the Dáil. If it is only the Dáil "light", then we should get rid of it. We should either scrap it or reform it. If we do these things, then we have a good chance of persuading the Taoiseach to change his mind, as he surely would not have nominated such an extraordinary group of passengers to the Titanic.
We should invite distinguished people from Ireland into the House, in order that we can learn from them and they can learn from us. I would like to see the representatives of the ECB and the IMF in here and I would like to hear what they have to say and how they will explain themselves to the people. We are not being governed from either House, but from financial institutions that are undemocratic and which were never voted in. I would like to take the opportunity, with the greatest courtesy, to try to transmit to the German people the message that we are rescuing their banks. Money is coming in from these institutions and going straight back out to save German and other banks who took a punt on our property bubble, which is why our public services, special needs assistants, hospitals and schools are suffering. We all need to communicate in a polite and diplomatic way. A revitalised Seanad can do that.
You have exceeded your quota, Senator.
I beg your pardon.
I will try not to exceed my time. However, I am heartened by Senator Norris's enthusiasm and for the perseverance shown by various Members of the House, before some of the new Members arrived, in the pursuit of change and reform. Perhaps it is easier to do this now that the notion of reform has extended well beyond the House and that the public is now pressing for it. We appear, in a moment of harmony, to accept this motion, as I do. However, I urge a note of caution. I am sure we will seek to invite people to the House to talk and to offer advice, their opinions and experiences. We should not do so to ensure they are in our likeness or that they are safe.
We should not invite them as some kind of favour, telling them that they can come to the Seanad to make their point. We should not dress up the idea of change or reform that we know the public wants. That is the first word of caution and I suggest we take advice from Vincent Browne, a man some of us in this room know well. Recently, on his television programme, he made a public appeal to have new people on his programme. He recognised that the same voices are saying the same things in a roundabout and slightly different way. He was looking to be challenged and have challenging voices, thought provoking and energising voices, including people who would disagree as opposed to being disagreeable. I ask that we ensure that when we look for people to come to the House, we make sure we are going to include those who disagree with us and those who genuinely have something new to say.
As a journalist for many years, I have talked about rounding up the usual suspects and I do not want to see the usual suspects in here. Some will be welcome but we should not fall back on those.
The battle for light versus heat is at the heart of every debate and it should not favour heat. It is easy to look for heat because it is always a moment of car crash television. In return, I will offer Vincent Browne the advice that on occasion he prefers heat to light. I like to believe this House, in the pursuit of light, should not become just a wider talking shop. In inviting people, we should not produce an alternative outlet for egos. I do not want to see that here and no one else does either. In inviting people, we should not close down real debate by sucking time and energy away from important matters. We should not just appear to be busy and appear to be reforming by inviting in other people. I am sure this was far from the minds of the Taoiseach's nominees when they drafted the motion but I urge caution on this point.
Debate should always be based on principles, theory, evidence and analysis. It should always aim to reach a verdict. To disagree just for the sake of it cannot be the only reason to do so and if people wish to rebut they should do so with theory and evidence. Decision-making in the political process should always be based on evidence. That should be the holy grail. Decisions are often made for political reasons or for the protection of the status quo or both. The holy grail will remain that it must be based on evidence. Many appointments are made in the political system based on who one knows not what one knows. The idea of a meritocracy is something we are pursuing in this society and in this country. In a way, we could have debates with people we know rather than based on what we know. In the new spirit of reform and unity, I urge that we keep that central at all times.
We have set ourselves a major challenge. "Love" is a four-letter word and "change" is a six-letter word and it is an awful lot easier to say than to do. From my time at the doorsteps during the general election campaign, I never heard a word used so often has the word "change". In truth, people find it extremely hard to do and to accept. While we will beat ourselves up over time about the things we have failed to do, there will be a greater queue outside willing to beat us up for the things we have failed to do. We must remember that change is slow. Senator Norris has provided evidence of this, telling us how long it has taken reform to come to the Seanad. The Seanad should be in a constant state of reform but it will be slow and difficult. The public believes us to be out of touch and unaccountable. In part, this is because it is hard to see change. In this small moment of change, we should celebrate it and say that in this unity there is cause for hope.
There is much we can do as Senators in encouraging new people to engage in politics, engaging with people who do not care about politics and making a genuine effort to bring politics into schools. I see the curriculum in schools and it is a disgrace to say it touches on the political system. One of the questions in the junior certificate exam last week asked students to identify a number of houses, one of which was the White House. A young gentleman in the Public Gallery is nodding in agreement. I hope he got the answers correct. Surely that is not enough in terms of educating our young people, who will someday sit somewhere in this House, in this building, I hope, and govern. It is not sufficient to ask them to identify the White House from Áras an Uachtaráin or Leinster House. We must work harder as legislators to ensure there is some improvement in the curriculum in future. We have much to do outside the walls of this room but within its walls, if we believe truly that we are interested in reform, when people come here who are not in our likeness but who challenge us and those who are not safe people come to talk about true change, then we will listen to what they say. We will not suggest their words end up, as countless reports have done, on dusty shelves. We must heed them and make sure the Government heeds them also. Otherwise, we are engaging in a fancy piece of window dressing and I do not wish to be part of it. I welcome the motion with those caveats and I welcome the amendment. I am delighted to speak on this motion.
The names that appear after this motion, which I welcome, are those of people who are non-politically active in parliamentary politics. This is no reflection whatsoever on them. I join with those who returned to this House in saying that the collective wisdom of those who have been elected and nominated has considerably enhanced this House. They will be of particular value in promoting the view that the second Chamber should continue to play an effective role in our parliamentary democracy.
I do not take any umbrage with the wording of the motion and I do not oppose it. This Upper House of our parliamentary democracy is primarily a political Chamber, one that is charged with providing the checks and balances required of our parliamentary system to ensure the Government is brought to account through legislation. That is its primary aim although it is not the only function. In order for it to continue to be relevant in our society, it must further enhance its political and parliamentary role in the context of legislation. All of the other issues have, at one time or another, been introduced in this House. I do not suggest the motion is reinventing the wheel but, for those of us who have been here for some time, some of its elements suggest that. We had distinguished visitors to this House on a regular basis.
Not last year.
That is a reflection on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges rather than anyone else because that is the method whereby one suggests it. Convention dictates that one does not raise a proposal on the floor of this House to invite an individual to this House. It is done through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, as laid down in Standing Orders. Many of these initiatives have already been undertaken but that is not to suggest that the wording of the motion and support for it by all sides in this House should not continue to embrace that notion. We should not be concentrating on the method of election to the Seanad but on the function and effectiveness of the Chamber. The constitutional committee which ironically in the context of recent events, was chaired by the late Deputy Brian Lenihan came up with a number of proposals on how Members should be elected or access this House. It was suggested that the Dáil would elect a number of Senators and other Senators would be elected by universal suffrage. I suggest there is an inherent weakness in a directly elected Seanad, it was highlighted by Eamon de Valera, who abolished the first Seanad because its independence, according to him at that time, frustrated the Government's programme. The Members were seen as being too independent and the programme that the Government had been mandated by the people to implement, in the eyes of the then Government and his own, was being frustrated. However, interestingly, he reintroduced a Seanad under the 1937 Constitution. To this day we continuously have arguments as to its relevance, its retention, method of election and whether it has a representative mandate. Yet, the Seanad is here so many years later and it will be the sovereign right of the people to decide whether the Seanad should continue.
To repeat, I do not believe we should get too hung up on the method of election. We could expand the electoral college. We could have some Members elected directly and it is not beyond the capacity of the collective brains of society or of this House to devise an election that would be practical, workable and acceptable.
The abolition of the Seanad makes wonderful headlines and in the present economic climate any measure that in any way indicates the Government can save the money of the hard pressed taxpayer is seen as a populist move. By abolishing the Seanad, we will save about €25 million, the figure the media is using, but I have not gone into the detail as to whether it is true. This is not money to be thrown away life snuff at a wake. It is a significant sum, especially if one is trying to live on €180 per week. In the context of a Government budget of almost €50 billion, for a Government to suggest that the saving it will make by this will impact positively on the lives of those living on €180 per week is ludicrous. There are many other areas of Government waste — I use the word waste advisedly — that could be investigated, where savings considerably in excess of the €25 million it costs to run this House could be made.
Any debate on the future of this House should focus on the consequences of its abolition. The reduction in the number of elected members to the Dáil, as proposed by the Government, in addition to a reduction in the number of committees and the number of members on each committee will I suggest place enormous pressure on the Opposition to call the Government to account. Anybody who visits the Dáil on a sitting day remarks on the number of Members present. The way that parliamentary democracy works is that the Opposition appoint party spokesperson to shadow the various Departments and they make the case on behalf of the Opposition. All Deputies stand for election in multi-seat constituencies, causing the vast majority of Deputies to be more concerned with ensuring that they respond to their constituent's needs. Call it parish pump politics, if you wish, but woe betide the Deputy who does not look after his or her constituents. In the greatest democracy in the world, Tip O'Neill, the former speaker in the US House of Representatives said that "All politics is local" and anybody involved in active politics in this country knew exactly what he was talking about. The Government has a massive majority and this has resulted in an Opposition that I suggest is so irrelevant that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte referred recently to dissent in the Labour Party as the real Opposition, while the Labour Party collective in the Cabinet now regularly refer in the media to the "National Government". This is conveying the impression that there is a general consensus in Leinster House on the Government's programme — in other words, there is no opposition. It is a national Government after all. We are focused on our objectives and we will not dissent. That is not what parliamentary democracy is about, nor, I suggest, should be about. It should be about effective opposition. How much more important will a second Chamber be in this new dispensation? Who will watch the Executive: a pliant media, a media that have been giving the Government a honeymoon? I suggest, and it is a partisan point, the media has an obsession with ensuring that not only did Fianna Fáil go out of government, but its entire destruction as a political party. The media is hardly going to turn around in the immediate future on into the far future and say that there are questions about the accepted wisdom of what the previous Government did or did not do or what it was responsible for. I suggest to the Members of this House and the worthy Member who have put forward this motion, for whom I have the most enormous respect, for the contribution that they have made and continue to make to civic society and to those who will continue to make that very important contribution and represent the various areas of Irish life in this House, that in the future, when we return to this subject that we look at the consequences of possible abolition and the impact it will have on our parliamentary democracy and how we as a people will call the Executive to account.
I welcome the motion tabled by the new Independent group. I commend them for tabling it so early in the term because it is very important that we commence the study and examination of a future role for this House. I think the future role should begin now. We need to show that we are serious about reform and how the House can be beneficial to the entire community and civil society as well as carry out its important legislative functions. Everything I will raise today is against the background of the need for political reform of our entire democratic institutions, that includes the Dáil, Seanad and committee structure.
The central theme of the motion tabled by the Independent group, as I read it, is engagement. It is engagement with the ordinary citizen, the community leader, the peace makers and the policy experts on as wide a range of topics as possible. Senator McAleese spoke about the open space and I liked that concept, that the Seanad can be an open space, where we represent what is outside this House and where we take from here and reach out to the people. That it an inhouse perspective and an out of house perspective, or an outreach perspective. This is what I was aiming for in my first contribution in the Seanad, when I requested the Leader for a change in the Standing Orders in order that we can publicly engage with people from outside the House in this House. Since then many others have made the same point. The previous speaker was correct to speak about the important legislative functions of this House and the importance of the checks and balances. I argue that if those checks and balances had been in place in our banking system, if we had had proper regulation we would not be in the mess we are in today. Let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Democracy is a very fragile flower and we can see that in countries, such as Libya or other countries across the globe, how much they would value what we have. Of course, the Seanad must give value for money, but I will outline how I campaigned during the recent elections to the Seanad, how this House can deliver value for money to the Irish citizen.
We must start with universal suffrage. It must start with every Irish citizen having the right to vote for elections to this House. Until that is the case, the Seanad will be seen as elitist. Of course, that is not the case at present, but that is a fundamental basis for reform. It is not to put down the current voters, because I received significant support from that electorate. It is upsetting to see the extent to which councillors can be put down by people in various sectors of society. The electorate for many councillors is between 800 and 3,500 people, which is not to be scoffed at.
In addition to our important legislative functions, we must also consider how we can reform the House during this term. I campaigned for the Seanad on the grounds that it is capable of a wider role that can be relevant to every Irish citizen and work to the benefit of the public if we have the will to make it happen. Such a role could involve an expanded programme of work to include scrutiny of European legislation and directives, which have an enormous effect on the lives of Irish people. Some 75% of the legislation that passes through the Houses of the Oireachtas originated as EU directives. I remind Members of the furore that erupted recently over the bogs and the impact of special areas of conservation, SAC, orders. Approximately 75% of Connemara, which lies in my constituency, is designated as SAC. We had inserted into the Lisbon treaty a clause which gives us eight weeks to accept or reject a directive from Europe. We should use this House to debate these directives thoroughly. A group should be formed from Members on all sides of the House who are willing to scrutinise European legislation. As the committee on EU scrutiny has been removed from the committee structure, we have to be careful about these directives given their significant influence on our lives. People in Connemara, for example, are currently experiencing difficulties simply in building homes because nearly every square foot of land is in a special area of conservation. These are people who were born and bred in the area. How can a directive intended for the EU's entire population of 500 million be suitable for every country?
The second area in which the Seanad could play a valuable role would be to debate the concerns of the Diaspora. We need to represent, in a structured way, the voices of the generations of emigrants who have contributed to the building of other countries and the rebuilding of ours. We also have to rebuild Ireland in view of the fact that 1,000 of our young people are leaving our shores. We cannot disregard the Diaspora and our emigrants.
The third role, which has been mentioned by other speakers, is peacemaking and North-South relations. We are fortunate to have the benefit of Senator McAleese's expertise in this area. The Seanad could also offer oversight of balanced regional development on the island of Ireland. A quarter of the population currently resides in the greater Dublin area. With that comes the resources, opportunities and attendant problems. What about the rest of the country? How can it be healthy to focus all our resources in one area? What about the balance between east and west and who has oversight on this matter? The Seanad could play a constructive role in this regard.
We could also engage expertise from outside the House, although we need to be careful about who we invite. We should focus on amending the rules of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges so that we can invite the heads of organisations, such as the CEO of NAMA, the Ombudsman and the EU and IMF people to whom Senators Barrett and Norris referred.
Our guiding principle must be to find ways of better serving the people in order that we are relevant, accountable, alive and providing value for money. If we meet those tests, the people will vote to keep us. However, there must be universal suffrage for future elections in order that everybody has a say. The result will be that the House is no longer elitist and people will believe this is truly a participatory democracy.
When I made my maiden speech in the Seanad, I noted that I was highly honoured to have been appointed to the House by the Taoiseach. We have on numerous occasions been referred to as the Taoiseach's 11 and I have been trying to understand whether we are seen as a soccer team or a hockey team. Given that a group of seven Independent Members proposed the amendment, perhaps we are a basketball team and we are here to bounce the ball. Being appointed to the Seanad was a daunting experience because, coming from a sporting and non-political background, I had no idea what to expect. On being told about the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and the various joint and sub-committees, I did not know whether I was coming or going. I did not know the appropriate language used in different places and I found it difficult at first. In the past few weeks, however, I have become less intimidated because everybody has been very friendly and, on most occasions, agreeable.
When I was appointed to the Seanad, many of my friends in the world of sport and on the streets of Drimnagh, Crumlin, Walkinstown, Porterstown and Castleknock congratulated me but warned me that I would only be in the job for another year because they believed the Seanad would be abolished. When I asked whether they knew what the Seanad does, they responded that they did not have a clue other than it costs the taxpayers a considerable amount of money. My experience of the past three weeks has taught me that we carry a serious responsibility to inform the people about what we do and bring the Seanad to the people of Ireland so that when they vote in a referendum they will decide on the basis of our work rather than our cost.
Our focus for the next year should be on the value of the Seanad instead of on its abolition. We provide the checks and balances for the people of Ireland. Our debates have been about how we can achieve value. In his first contribution to the House, Senator Crown stated that we cannot decide the future of the Seanad but we are all agreed that the Seanad requires reform rather than abolition. The proposal from the Independent technical group will send a signal to the people that we are bringing value to the citizens of Ireland. The caution advocated by Senator O'Keeffe is perhaps appropriate but we will not show that we mean business if we proceed with caution. We will mean business if we proceed with risk.
I dtosach báire, ba bhreá liom tréaslú leis na Seanadóirí neamhspleácha ainmnithe ag an Taoiseach as ucht an rúin an-úsáideach seo. Is fiú go mór an bun-mholadh atá laistigh den rún a chur chun cinn. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil an Teach, má thuigim i gceart é, ar aon intinn faoin mholadh lárnach — go dtiocfadh daoine ciallmhara le taithí ar ghnéithe éagsúla an tsaoil anseo go rialta agus go ndéanfaidís díospóireacht linn faoi chúrsaí reatha, polasaithe agus reachtaíochta. Creidim go mór gur fiú go leagfaí béim ar an ról a d'fhéadfadh a bheith ag an Teach seo maidir le dul chun cinn an próiseas síochána, mar shampla. B'fhiú go mór go mbeadh ról ar leith ag an Seanad maidir le díospóireachtaí agus cainteanna idir daoine ón Tuaisceart agus daoine ón Deisceart. Measaim go gcuirfeadh sé sin go mór le leas na tíre.
I wish to be associated with the essential proposals in the motion, which I commend. It is an excellent motion and it is only wise and proper that it would attract support on all sides of the House. It should be a part of the future of the Seanad that arrangements would be in place to allow us to engage with what has been described as well-informed citizens and residents from different walks of life and leaders and representatives of civic life. I particularly welcome the emphasis on North-South dialogue. I know it was not the intention of the Independent Senators proposing the motion and I mean no disrespect to it when I say that if that was all we achieved in terms of reform we would not manage to change the public's view of the Seanad very much. I do not say anything particularly contentious in that regard.
Given the ongoing debate about the Seanad and its proposed abolition by the Government, or at least the putting of that notion to the people in a referendum, and the fact that there have been many reports about Seanad reform in the past, any Senator re-elected will have had occasion to think quite a bit about the Seanad and what its roles and functions should be. A couple of observations are worth making. I have said that I would welcome people from outside coming into the House to engage in debate and dialogue with us. We need to consider that in the context of what currently goes on with the joint Oireachtas committees. I was a member of the joint committees on social protection and European affairs in the previous Seanad. It can be the case that people come to discuss matters with the elected representatives of the people but not much light is shed on issues. Very often it can be due to the way the debates are structured. The existing practice may change, as has been proposed in terms of the operation of some of the committees. I presume it will be a matter for each individual committee how it orders its business.
Previously it has occurred that an expert group, advocacy group or one from civil society has come before a committee, made a presentation and each politician present got an opportunity to put questions. Party representatives are the first to speak and everyone gets a chance to put a few questions. At the end the invitee is expected to respond in some way to all of the questions. That is something they never managed to do. They did not manage to give any kind of comprehensive response. What I have not seen happening very much in most of the committees — there may be exceptions which one is sure to see on "Oireachtas Report" — one rarely sees an dá taobh ag dul i ngleic lena chéile, ag cur is ag cúiteamh, the close, intense questioning and the back and forth aspect of such questioning that is sometimes necessary to bring out the truth and get accountability.
It behoves public representatives that if we are to seek the opportunity for a more enlightened approach to the questioning of invitees that there would be a corresponding obligation on us to be well mannered because the temptation of many politicians is to grandstand and try to get media publicity so as to be seen as the person who causes the row and puts it up to the unpopular invitee. There is a challenge facing us because if we want that kind of fruitful exchange with external invitees we are going to have to up our own game as well in terms of our level of research going into the process and how we conduct ourselves during such exchanges.
I would like to see the Seanad in some sense leading the way on that in a manner that I hope does not just duplicate what might be possible at committee level. However, if it is to be successful we will have to think through very carefully how we order such exchanges. I do not relish the idea of it somehow being a boast of the Seanad that we had some buic mhóra istigh anseo inniu ag plé linn. There is no credit in that. There is no credit in having the big name person in. It may attract a certain amount of headlines but unless we are attending the debate with ideas in our heads that we have researched and with the opportunity to engage with the invitee then we will not achieve very much.
The second issue that occurs to me is that perhaps a more important obligation on us in the Seanad is to try to convince the Executive of the importance of our role as scrutineers of legislation. The relevant constitutional provision states simply that the Government shall be responsible to the Dáil. We need to change that situation to introduce mechanisms where the Government can be seen to be accountable to the Seanad as well. There is no reason, for example, why we could not have parliamentary questions or their equivalent in this House. I do not see that the current practice of raising questions on the Adjournment, where some civil servant has a day to draft a prepared answer and some Minister who has nothing to do with the brief comes to the House and reads it out dutifully, permits us to hold the Government to account in any way. Simply because we are not directly elected is no reason we should not have the capacity to hold Government to account in significant ways.
I will conclude on this point. If I play my cards right I might get away with a lot. If we are to be effective scrutineers of legislation, we need the resources to achieve that. We should not be afraid to say to the people of this country that we may envisage there being fewer Deputies and Senators in the future but we should make no apologies for asking for the resources we need in order to be effective scrutineers of legislation. I know a certain amount is achievable through the expenses system that is currently in operation.
I have had experience of tabling amendments. On one occasion I tabled amendments to the Broadcasting Bill on which I was seeking the introduction of a heritage channel in the context of the new digital era in RTE. There was support on all sides of the House for what I proposed but the Minister did not have to do any great intellectual spadework in order to take on my suggestion or be seen to engage with it. He knew, first, that there would be no great media coverage of the proposal so one did not have the fourth estate backing up the Legislature as it sought to challenge the Government to take a new direction. Second, the Minister had the entire Civil Service at his disposal. He knew that this legislator, and others, did not have such equality in terms of preparing and checking out proposals.
We need a change of heart in the Executive in order that it starts to relate to us as legislators. There is a great onus on Senators on the Government side to take that message to the Government very strongly and say it will have our votes when it comes to being whipped. That is essential to the smooth running of a democracy. However, our votes will not always be guaranteed. We must insist on the right to be legislators, and we need the Government side to lead the way. That will ultimately be the test of whether the Seanad achieves credibility in the eyes of the public. The Government Senators in particular must lead the way and say "Yes, we want to be legislators." We must be able to guarantee a certain coherence in the legislative process while reserving the right to think for ourselves and consider legislation actively. One thing that will enable us to do that is the provision of resources, which is not just a question of money but also - I know it is not a good time to be making this proposal - --the allocation of certain resources from the Civil Service to help us achieve that. It should not be the case that Ministers or Ministers of State get lots of people from the Civil Service to help them run their constituencies, while elected representatives of the people get no allocation to assist them in their work as scrutineers of legislation or, Heaven forbid, proposers of amendments to legislation which the Government might have to take seriously. I hope those considerations will be dealt with in our discussions about the necessary political and Seanad reform that is to come.
Is an-thábhachtach an rúin atá os ár gcomhar. Aontaím leis an rún agus ba mhaith liom caint faoi anois.
I support the motion, which is a worthy one. It has received consensus around the House and I have not heard any Senator speak against it. In striving to strengthen our parliamentary democracy——
Does the Senator wish to share time?
I forgot that I must share time and that I will not be able to say all I have to say, in deference to the Minister. I wish to share four minutes of my time with Senator Colm Burke.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
In striving to strengthen our parliamentary democracy, we must ensure we do not try to re-invent the wheel. This is my first time in the Seanad, but I believe there have been 12 reports on Seanad reform. We must take the best from what has gone before and consider what we can add to it because, if we do not do so, and if we do not change, we deserve to be abolished. I will try my level best to ensure this House acts and conducts its business in the way it was set up originally to do. I hope we can hold the Government to account and scrutinise legislation, because there is a need for these things.
As well as the people we invite in, the functions of the House are important. We will have to devote some time to addressing the issue of inviting people in, perhaps in committee, and decide how it is to be done. During the 20 years I spent in local government, we invited experts and learned people to contribute to the strategic policy committees. It was worthy debate and we learned a lot from it, but it is important to remember that we must act on things as well as listening.
The question of the abolition of the Seanad will be answered by the people in a referendum, as the Taoiseach has said. People have said to me that they would prefer the question to be put in a so-called preferendum rather than a referendum — that is, with three questions rather than one question — because otherwise the issue may not be understood in full. However, I believe there is some constitutional issue with this, although I am open to correction. The committee on the Constitution might be asked to consider it.
The Government has been proactive in introducing change, including the changes in the Easter and summer recess periods, the reduction in the number of committees, which is to be welcomed, and the appointment of the 11 Taoiseach's nominees. People have said that after the next Seanad reform there should perhaps not be any nominees at all — that everybody should be elected to the Seanad by the people under a totally different electoral system. That is another proposal that could be considered. The Government has also said it intends to reduce the number of Deputies and Senators after the publication of the 2011 census, which is to be welcomed. There is a general public desire for progress on reform issues.
I wanted to speak on bringing EU legislation into the House but I will skip that because Senator Healy Eames mentioned it. North-South connections have been mentioned a lot in the House and I compliment Senator Martin McAleese in this regard. However, there is a lack of connection between local government, the Seanad and Northern Ireland bodies. A North-South body existed at local level, followed by the North-South Confederation of Councillors and the Confederation of European Councillors; however, there was no connection with the Seanad, whose Members are partly elected by councillors. In considering Seanad reform, we should discuss the possibility of a North-South Seanad and local electoral body. I was elected previously by 60,000 voters, which at local level is not to be sneezed at. Much of the North-South groundwork was done with local people by the Senators I referred to previously.
There is also an educational role for the Seanad. Senator Bacik said that in the last ten years, of 30 Bills passed, ten were initiated in the Seanad. Do people know this? No, they do not. We do need a bicameral system of Parliament and we would be unique in western Europe if we did not. Only Norway, Sweden, Finland, Portugal and maybe a few other principalities have a unicameral system. The people will speak. They will be given a choice, and they will choose. However, they must be educated on what goes on here. There is much negative publicity — sometimes rightly so — but much good is done here, and that should be brought to the fore. We get only one term to consider this, and this is it.
I wish to follow on from the comments of my colleagues, particularly those of Senator Healy Eames, with regard to European legislation. As someone who worked in the European Parliament for two years I am conscious of the volume of legislation that goes through that Parliament. People may not know that we have 90 permanent representatives based in Brussels, watching new legislation and regulations that are coming through. The volume of legislation is such that 90 civil servants are required to monitor it. The protocols included in the Lisbon treaty set out clearly the role of national parliaments. We have an eight-week time period in which to respond to new proposals. That is very short, but it means we have a part to play. The protocol on the role of national parliaments in the European Union states: "Desiring to encourage greater involvement of national Parliaments in the activities of the European Union and to enhance their ability to express their views on draft legislative acts of the Union ...". The role of national parliaments is clearly implied here, but I do not think we are fulfilling that role in the present structures, and we need to address this.
I welcome this motion because it is important that we consider the people who have particular issues. It is interesting that the European Parliament, which represents 393 million people, offers a facility for people to express their views. I have been there when international leaders have appeared before the Parliament to give their views, which did not necessarily coincide with the views of each member state. We also had a procedure whereby Members of Parliament who had distinct views appeared before various committees within the European Parliament structure. We do not seem to have the same opportunities here.
This motion is welcome and I support it fully. This is the way we need to go. We are here to govern, but it is also important that the people for whom we are elected to work have an opportunity of presenting their views. Even if we do not always agree with them, it is important that they are given that opportunity. I support this proposal.
Gabhaim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim buíochas leis as bheith anseo chun éisteacht leis an phíosa cainte seo. Seo an díospóireacht is suimiúla a bhí againn sa Seanad go dtí seo. Tá mé féin iontach bródúil as bheith i mo Sheanadóir. Rud nach bhfuilimid tar éis díriú air sách dlúth ná an ról atá againne, go pearsanta, mar Sheanadóirí. Táimid ag caint faoin ról atá againn mar ghrúpa ach tá dualgas agus ról againn mar dhaoine aonair. Is iontach go deo an phribhléid í sin agus tá mé ag baint an-sásaimh as an phribhléid sin.
This is probably the best debate we have had so far in the 24th Seanad and the one I have enjoyed the most. We have focused on our group role as Senators but have not examined our personal role. Being a Senator is an absolute privilege. I feel delighted and honoured to be sitting here in the Chamber today with such distinguished Members. I am delighted to be one of only 60 of 4.5 million who have the privilege of being here and who are paid to speak on behalf of their communities. Senators have an amazing role to play. I am only here several weeks but I can see the difference we can make as Senators in our local communities. If I daresay and with respect to the Minister of State, Senators have a much more enlightened role than Deputies as we are not tied down to a geographical area. I can speak on behalf of all Irish-language speakers on this island and abroad. I can speak on behalf of rural communities across the country as well as for those from Connemara and west Galway.
We are very much in danger, however, of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and should stop talking about abolishing the Seanad. We need to start talking about what we need to do and focus on as Senators. If we focus on that, people will then focus on what we are doing. Instead of talking about the "A" word, we should be talking about the "W" word, the work we do as Senators. That is what will stand to us. If the Seanad ceases to exist, it will be no fault of ours because we will have done everything possible to keep the Seanad and make it relevant.
Many theatrical metaphors were thrown around last week. Initially I thought when I was going to make my contribution today it would be act 2, scene 1 but now I feel it is act 2, scene 4. The first act usually gets people going with them coming in with a sense of excitement. There was certainly that energy to last week's debate. It is a little more difficult, however, after a boozy interval – not that I am suggesting anyone has had one – to get speakers going again.
Senator Fiach Mac Conghail spoke of a citizens' hour. It is important we get to hear the voices from outside. As someone who worked in the media for some years, I know the media is looking for a different angle with new people in the Chamber listening to what we have to say and for us to hear what they have to say. That is no harm because we all have to work with the media and find ways of bringing the media into the Chamber.
Yesterday, I attended an interesting debate on the arts in Galway hosted by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. The one theme running through all contributions was that we need to hear dissenting voices. We tend to push people in the arts into a box that fits the State agenda. Yesterday, artists were saying they do not need to be told what to do but given the space to do it. I am afraid with this Private Members' motion that we may get too many grey suits sitting in the Chamber when we need dissenting voices, creativity, imagination and culture. We need poets, artists and imaginaries who will inspire us, as well as the grey suits to tell us what the policies are. We need a lot of leadership as well as inspiration. I would like to see the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, take this on board when it chooses those who will be asked to attend the Seanad. At the moment, we have an eclectic mix of dentists, doctors, dreamers and doers.
We do have a few of them as well. Members can decide what specific category they fall into but we all need to be doers too.
The only limit to this Seanad is the limit of our imagination. Within certain constitutional limits, this Seanad could reinvent itself in any way it wants. The CPP can change Standing Orders or the Government parties can ask the Government to make whatever changes are possible under the constraints of the Constitution. There is nothing to stop us making changes except ourselves and our imaginations. I call on all Members to open their imagination.
I call for a change in Standing Orders regarding groups. I agree with Senator Susan O'Keeffe who said we must include those who disagree with us. There is, however, a certain contradiction in the House when the Sinn Féin group has not yet been recognised. Will the CPP revisit its decision and recognise us as a group? While we are a dissenting voice and may not agree with everything the Government parties say, we have a valid point and mandate. If the House is to live up to the ethos of this motion, the CPP should consider this issue as quickly as possible.
It is said that when it came to their appointees to the Seanad, many taoisigh were clever in keeping their friends close but their enemies closer. The current Taoiseach's nominees have been very vocal in their positions outside of the Seanad and in the groups with which they worked. I would hate to see that vocalism stifled in any way in this Seanad.
Sinn Féin welcomes the North-South element of this motion. Dialogues, reaching agreements and implementing them are the key lessons we have learned from the peace process. The all-Ireland structures of the Good Friday Agreement should be developed and enhanced. It would be proper that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister from the North would be the first to address the Seanad, thereby promoting dialogue between North and South.
There is a need to allow space for communities affected by conflict to take part in the political process, to be heard and to have a role in delivering change. This is true of working-class loyalist and republican communities, including those victims and survivors of conflict and state violence. Much work is going on at community level between working-class loyalist and republican communities to deliver change, to challenge inequality and to tackle sectarianism. We feel this should be part of a much wider general conversation on political reform.
It has been argued we need to give space to whistleblowers. Will the CPP consider asking certain individuals to attend the Seanad who could act in a whistleblower capacity while having the privilege of the House conferred on them? If this had happened in the past, some of the dissenting voices trying to draw our attention to the oncoming economic crisis would have been listened to more.
Is iontach an onóir dúinn ar fad a bheith anseo. Is fúinne atá sé. Caithfimid éirí, teacht isteach anseo agus gníomhú ar son ár bpobail, ar ár son féin agus ar son mhuintir na hÉireann. Má éiríonn le gach duine den 60 duine atá anseo é sin a dhéanamh beidh fiúntas déanta againn agus beidh meas ag an bpobal orainn dá réir. Ní dhéanfadh sé aon difríocht muid a bheith ag caint fúinn féin agus ag caint faoi leasú anonn is anall, ach an obair fhiúntach a dhéanfaimid, agus as lámha a chéile, agus gan a bheith ag labhairt as dhá thaobh dár mbéil. Caithfimid gníomh agus beart a dhéanamh de réir ár mbriathar.
I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom comhgairdeachas agus moladh a thabhairt leis na Seanadóirí Neamhspleácha as ucht an rúin atá ar an gclár. Tá sé oiriúnach dúinn anois mar tá morán cainte déanta ar an ábhar seo. Tá sé in am dúinn rudaí áirithe a chur i mbun tar éis na díospóireachtaí a bhí againn an tseachtain seo caite agus inniu.
I concur with many of the suggestions that have already been put forward by other Members. It is important to ensure that the best ideas and suggestions be implemented. In that context, I welcome the response of the Leader and the receptive way in which he has, to date, taken such suggestions on board. I also welcome his aspiration to ensure that the Seanad will be an effective instrument of the State. That is a view which I support.
It is obvious that this and the Lower House are inhibited in a number of ways. I have a deep conviction that the challenges the country has faced during the past three years have to some extent illustrated the significant structural weaknesses in the Oireachtas system. I am of the view that the control and influence exercised by the Executive in both Houses has unintentionally contributed to the development of the weaknesses to which I refer. There is a need for radical reform. It is my opinion that there is a far greater need for such reform in the Lower House than in the Seanad. I have not seen an indication of any desire regarding or any movement towards change in the Dáil. That is a real pity.
The idea that the Seanad should be abolished is very simplistic. When it was put forward, this suggestion certainly garnered headlines and that may well have been the intention. It also directed the focus away from weaknesses which might have existed elsewhere. It is interesting that much of what occurred in the Lower House — to which many Senators referred as being partisan politics — is coming back to bite those who were previously in opposition but who now form the Government. Those to whom I refer are being obliged to face up to real issues and to make the type of decisions to which they would previously have been completely opposed. Despite the fact that there might be a tendency to do so, I hope my party will not move in that direction.
There is a need for us to be responsible. The first obligation of Members of these Houses is to the people and not to their parties. If we, as politicians, fulfil that obligation, we will bring about a major change in the existing mindset. We will also restore the respect which politics enjoyed during much of the time I have been involved with the profession. It is only really in the past couple of decades that politics has been tarnished. I do not entirely blame the political system for this. A great deal of blame must be ascribed to the media in respect of what has occurred. There has been a rush to the bottom on the part of the media in this country. That fact has been recognised by serious, objective journalists and by the National Union of Journalists, NUJ. At a conference in UCD — which was organised by the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, which dealt with changes in the defamation laws and in respect of which journalists were interested in exerting an influence on shaping the outcome of the debate that took place — the secretary of the NUJ acknowledged that there had been a very significant lowering of journalistic standards, not just in Britain but also in Ireland. Most politicians are afraid to say that because they believe they might be vilified by the people reporting their words.
One of the great strengths of this House is that I and many other Senators have never felt inhibited with regard to commenting on particular issues because we do not really have any influence over the electorate before which we are obliged to go. That is an aspect which should be taken into consideration when we are considering reforming the House. I accept that it is populist to say that the people should decide. The people decide who are their representatives. Those representatives are given access to a broad range of responsible decision-making processes which impact on the lives of people in many significant ways. Allowing the people to make a contribution with regard to who should represent the country in the Upper House would be entirely commensurate which that which I have outlined and would mirror what happens in other republics. France is a notable case in this regard.
There is a need for a great separation between the Executive and the Houses of the Oireachtas. This significant structural change must take place and I am of the view that in its aftermath there would be greater accountability. I wish to make a criticism which I believe will be borne out over time. The Government has made changes in respect of reducing the number of joint Oireachtas committees. This was a populist move supported by the media in the absence of any great intellectual evaluation of the consequences involved. As a result of what has been done, many extremely important State functions will be grouped together under committees on which large numbers of Members from both Houses will serve. This will dilute rather than improve the accountability of those committees. If the flaws which have become apparent during the economic downturn illustrate anything it is that there is a need for even greater scrutiny and accountability in respect of policy-making.
I have gone against the party whip on at least one occasion. In that context, I am of the view that the rigid application of the whip system in this House, in particular, is not conducive to bringing about real or representative decision-making. The whip system gives rise to a herd mentality in some instances and does not encourage the type of objective and constructive decision-making which should form an essential part of any democratic institution.
I urge the Leader to consider the use of special select committees of the House. The Members of the current Seanad possess a great deal of expertise. If we were incisive with regard to choosing one or two areas of policy in respect of which a select committee of the House could bring to bear a new, dynamic form of thinking, this would be a good development not only for the Seanad but also in respect of policy formulation.
I concur with the concept of bringing before the House people who possess expertise in areas such as sport, those who are involved with cultural organisations and individuals such as economists and EU Commissioners. I am of the view that the Chinese ambassador to Ireland should be invited to come before us. China is going to become the foremost economy in the world within the next decade. It has a major influence on world trade and will have a major impact in the context of, if possible, assisting in avoiding a double-dip global recession. The Chinese are just embarking on a five-year plan and it would be good for Senators to be informed about that. The House could also engage in a debate on the EU's Food Harvest 2020. All of this would bring an entirely new dimension to the workings of the Seanad.
One individual who should definitely be invited to come before us is Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, ECB. The ECB has played a fundamental part in creating the difficulties in which we now find ourselves. However, it is also an absolutely essential component in the context of discovering a solution to those difficulties. A debate relating to that organisation, which would be enhanced by having its President come before the House to outline what are his plans, would be good for Ireland and for the Seanad.
I thank Senators for their support both today and when the debate commenced on Wednesday evening last. I also thank them for expressing their views in conversations we have had in the corridors of Leinster House in the intervening days.
During the debate a large number of proposals and ideas relating to reform — many of which I endorse — were put forward. Senator Mooney stressed the fact that the Seanad has an important political and legislative role. Our intention, in the form of the motion, is to try to underpin and inform that role and to ensure that the Seanad remains connected. The motion is not in any way designed to diminish that role. It would also be important to discuss wider political reform but today is about taking a first step in changing our way of work and our engagement, inside and outside the House. It is about putting words into action.
Last Wednesday evening, I heard the Leader, Senator Cummins say: "The amendment is to ensure the implementation of this motion without delay." Therefore, the Independent group agrees with the amendment. Following the approval of the motion I will request a meeting with the Leader to discuss the mechanisms that can be put in place to ensure that its intentions are realised. I do not wish to pre-empt these discussions or those of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges but I stress the need for the actions outlined in the motion to be in place by July.
The motion is an enabling motion. We believe it will realise what we have all reflected in our comments during the debate. It is about enabling the House to engage directly with people from all walks of life. These people can inform us, challenge us and even inspire us. It will provide us an opportunity to invite to the floor of Seanad Éireann appropriate leaders and representatives of civic life. It will also ensure that the arrangements are in place for the hosting of respectful North-South dialogue, deepening our cross-Border relationships and promoting a shared approach to the significant centenaries that will arise in the next decade.
We welcome the appetite demonstrated for reform and the wealth of ideas proposed in the debate. During the debate, a saying repeatedly came into me head. "Well done is better than well said." I used to think my mother had invented the saying but I since discovered it should be attributed to Benjamin Franklin. This motion is about doing. It proposes small steps, albeit important ones. Let us join together around this motion. Let it be a shared motion, as suggested by Senator Norris. I believe I could place the majority of Senators' signatures below this motion. I take it as that.
I ask Senators for their wholehearted support in endorsing the motion. By working together to realise our vision, let the Seanad be the place that lets Ireland know what is going on in Ireland.