Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 9 Dec 2015

Vol. 244 No. 6

Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2015: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe.

The Minister of State is very welcome. I am pleased he is here to take this Bill because this is an issue about which I feel strongly. I was with Dr. T. K. Whitaker yesterday. He was 99 years old yesterday. I was congratulating him on that occasion and it dawned on me that he was the sort of man who had served the country well and that we should have been able to reward during the years.

The Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill proposes to introduce Gradam an Uachtaráin, an official award from the President, to recognise people of standing who have done exceptional work. Unfortunately, the State does not have a formal mechanism for recognising the achievements of its citizens or others abroad who make a great contribution to the State or our society in general. The means currently utilised to recognise great achievements are a range of more informal measures such as the conferring of honorary citizenship or the granting of the freedom of the city, the conferring of an honorary degree, people of the year awards or the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Irish abroad and so on.

While anybody should be privileged to receive such high accolades and they do, it is only right that Ireland as a mature state which is facing into the 1916 Rising centenary celebrations should have the ability to sparingly confer an honour which recognises exceptional achievement. When it comes to recognising the achievements of citizens, as well as the contributions of others, we should not be dependent upon the grace and generosity of other nations to award Irish people who do something exceptional, or people who do something exceptional for the State. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a mechanism in order that, in appropriate circumstances and using the very strict criteria laid down in the Bill, the State can, in a very public and dignified way, honour not only the achievements of its citizens but also the achievements of people from other nations.

I would like to touch on a number of issues regarding the conferral of degrees and the constitutional position. There is a myth that the Constitution does not allow for an honours system. The Constitution does not preclude the State from conferring an honour on a person. Article 40.2.1o provides that "Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State." This reference to "titles of nobility" is clearly not a reference to an honours system and an honours system does not necessarily mean a title of nobility.

It has been pointed out by Mr. Jim Duffy that the drafter of the Constitution, Mr. John Hearne, was careful, on Éamon de Valera's instructions, to leave open the possibility of the introduction of an honours system - that is totally unrelated to titles of nobility. Rather than ruling out an honours systems, the Constitution left the door open for a system and it could be argued that it was almost expected that an honours would be introduced at some point. This distinction between titles of nobility and an honours system is made clear in the subsequent article 40.2.2o which clarifies that, "No title of nobility or of honour may be accepted by any citizen except with the prior approval of the Government". One of the effects of this provision is to impose a restriction on the right of a citizen to accept an honour and it makes the acceptance of an honour subject to the Government's approval. Section 11 of the Bill gets over this constitutional hurdle by giving the Government the power to accept or reject, in full, the list of candidates proposed by the awarding council.

There is an argument that suggests a republic should not give honours. However, as other countries around the world have demonstrated, the public recognition of achievement does not compromise or dilute the values of a republic. There is nothing incompatible with the concept of a republic and an honours system. It is also not true to say the conferral of an honour on citizens is usually limited only to former Commonwealth countries. France, Italy and Austria are only some of the examples of European republics which confer honours. Many nations around the world recognise achievements through the conferral of honours and awards, including Canada, the United States, New Zealand and South Africa. It must be emphasised that we are almost alone in the world in not having a state honours system.

In 2007, prior to becoming Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny offered immediate support for the idea of an honours system; it appear, therefore, that he is in support of the general principle. Therefore, my hope is that in ironing out some details surrounding such an honours system we will achieve it. In this respect, I am very much open to my Bill being improved in order that we can come to a system that is acceptable to all.

I would like to outline some of the key aspects of the Bill. Section 1 states the first awards will not be conferred until January 2017. There is a mistake in the explanatory memorandum, as it states 2016 because I prepared the Bill some time back.

I would like to change the year stipulated to 2017. The Bill provides that it will come into force three months after it is passed by the Seanad and the Dáil. This will allow sufficient time for the various preparatory steps envisaged to be taken well in advance. This has been set at January 2016 but which I now want changed to 2017.

The explanatory memorandum states:

Section 2 defines the terms “Awarding Council” and “Minister” which are used in the Bill.

Section 3 enables the Minister to make Regulations for a variety of purposes.

Section 4 provides for the establishment of an honours system, to be known as Gradam an Uachtaráin. The honours system will enable the State to recognise the exceptional achievements of its citizens and also the outstanding contributions of others to the State.

Section 5 provides that the recipients of the honour will be presented with a medal which may be worn on formal occasions, and also a lapel button.

Section 5 also provides that a person who has been awarded the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin may use the letters "G.U." after their name so as to indicate that the honour has been conferred upon them. The section also provides that the medal and lapel button shall be of the design which has been selected by the Minister following the holding of a public design competition.

The explanatory memorandum goes on to state:

Section 6 states that the honour shall only be conferred upon a maximum of 12 people per year and that in any one year, a maximum of four of the awards may be awarded to persons who do not hold Irish citizenship.

Section 7 sets out the six broad areas of achievement in respect of which the award may be conferred, and those areas are as follows:

(a) social and community affairs,

(b) education and healthcare,

(c) arts, literature and music,

(d) science and technology,

(e) sport, and

(f) leadership and business.

Section 8 states that the decision to award the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin shall be solely at the discretion of the Gradam an Uachtaráin Awarding Council; no outside influence or interference will be entertained.

Section 9 provides that the Gradam an Uachtaráin Awarding Council will have seven members. Section 9 specifies the officeholders who are to be appointed by the President to the Awarding Council...

Section 10 states that the nomination of persons to receive the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin may be made by members of the public ... In order to preclude the possibility of political interference, as well as perceived or actual bias in the selection of candidates to receive the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin, section 10 states that a serving member of the Dáil or the Seanad must not engage with any member of the Awarding Council with the intention of influencing the making of a decision in relation to the selection of a candidate.

An appropriate offence is also provided in section 10 to ensure such unwelcome lobbying is minimised.

The explanatory memorandum continues:

Section 11 indicates the criteria which the Awarding Council will be required to apply when considering the nominations which it has received. The Awarding Council will be required to satisfy itself that a proposed recipient of the honour has demonstrated exceptional achievement at a high level, or has made a valued contribution and above what might be reasonably expected in respect of one or more of the six broad areas of achievement which are listed in section 7. In deference to the requirement contained in Article 40.2.2o of the Constitution, a list of the proposed candidates who have been selected by the Awarding Council to receive the award will be submitted to the Government for approval. The Government will not have the power to make or suggest amendments to the list of proposed candidates. Instead the Government will have the power to accept or reject, in full, the list of candidates proposed by the Awarding Council.

I would like section 12 to read as follows, although as explained, the explanatory memorandum refers to "2016":

Section 12 directs that, beginning in January 2017, and in January of successive years, the award of Gradam an Uachtaráin will be conferred by the President of Ireland on the candidates who have been selected by the Awarding Council.

To summarise, we are well aware that we have incredible people who have done a huge service to the State, both at home and abroad, who should be formally recognised by the State. I am sure every Member of this House could think of several people. It is somewhat ironic that exceptional Irish people are given awards for their work by other states but not by their home country. The idea of an honours system is not just to recognise achievement. It is something that could spur more people to do greater good for the nation. As mentioned, parties from across the political spectrum, as well as the Taoiseach, have previously expressed their support for the introduction of an honours system and, in the lead-up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, I hope we can get consensus on the Bill. In this respect, I am open to my Bill being improved upon in order that we can agree to a sensible honours system that is acceptable to all and one that will reflect the modern and confident society we now have.

I urge the Minister of State to give the Bill every consideration. I am very confident that an honours system is the right direction in which to go and one that will have the approval of the nation. Because of the manner in which it has been suggested and with any amendment proposed, the legislation will be improved upon in the years to come.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is an honour to second what has been said by Senator Feargal Quinn.

On Monday, in Dublin Castle, the President presented 47 Gaisce awards to young people like those who are visiting us this afternoon and seated in the Visitors Gallery. They are very welcome. The Gaisce scheme applies to people aged up to 25 years. The recipients of the awards have performed 10,000 hours in which they helped communities, developed skills and achieved personal goals. This is the 30th anniversary of the scheme.

There are other awards such as the All Star awards and the Tidy Towns competition. All of these schemes celebrate success, effort, community and commitment. For example, various counties and associations host person of the year events, Aosdána honours artists, Comhairle na Mire Gaile acknowledges acts of bravery, the Scott Medal is awarded to members of An Garda Síochána for distinguished behaviour and, as mentioned, the Gaisce awards are for people aged under 25 years. We have an honorary Irish citizenship list which includes people such as Alfred Chester Beatty, Tiede Herrema, Tip O'Neill, Alfred Beit, Jack Charlton, Jean Kennedy Smith, Derek Hill and Don Keough. We are mature enough to have an honours system. As that list of distinguished people shows, an honours system will recognise merit, contributions to this society and demonstrate how much we value community efforts.

In the past there were fears that an honours system would, in some way, hanker after a colonial era - which we do not - or it would be liable to be influenced by party politics, jobbery or other considerations. We already have a distinguished record in granting awards. As an Irish phrase says, Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. Bhuel, mol an duine meánaosta agus mol na seandaoine freisin. We should reward people for service to the community, something which has worked very well in the areas that I have mentioned such as honorary degrees and active citizenship awards.

In 1998, the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution stated the honours system issue had been raised "in a desultory manner by governments since 1930". Various people have mentioned along the line that a system has always been pending. Mr. Michael Finucane suggested there should be an Irish honours system when Christina Noble received an award from Prince Charles. A number of Irish people have received British awards such as Daniel O'Donnell, Niall Quinn, Pierce Brosnan, Pat Eddery and Orla Guerin. Can we be as optimistic, happy and generous towards people who have been generous towards us and leave behind fears of cronyism or post-colonialism?

This society is comprised of many splendid people. I am sure, with all-party agreement in this House, that we will put a scheme together. Look at the various distinguished Presidents who have run the Gaisce awards in conjunction with the Duke of Edinburgh. For those from a different tradition on the island, we can extend it. President Hillery started it off and he was followed by Presidents Robinson and McAleese. I am sure President Higgins will continue the tradition if this House, on an all-party basis, supports Senator Feargal Quinn's Bill to establish an honours system. The idea has been around for a long while. Let us reward the distinguished service given on a voluntary basis in this society. The Bill must be commended and I am honoured to be the seconder.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the Bill presented by Senator Feargal Quinn. I agree with him that there should be a civic honours system in Ireland whereby we can recognise the merits of people who have achieved phenomenal things for this island of ours, not just at home but throughout the world. I cannot understand why we do not have an honours system, particularly when there is one in the United States, France and Italy, just to name a few countries. Why can we not have one?

I have a few friends who received honours in their respective countries. Lord Coe and Sir Roger Bannister received honours for obvious and good reasons. Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and even the great Sir Ian Botham received awards of the highest calibre. Another great man, John Walker, a former Olympic champion in 1976, was honoured. He was a gold medalist and a great competitor of mine throughout the years. A number of years ago, at the same time I was fortunate enough to be nominated to the Seanad by the Taoiseach, which was quite a shock for me, John Walker was knighted in New Zealand and became Sir John. We had a brief conversation on the telephone. I congratulated him on being knighted and becoming Sir John and he congratulated me on becoming Senator Coghlan. I said I was only a Senator, but he said I was a Senator in the Irish Government and that that was a phenomenal achievement. I said to him that the bottom line was that I would only be a Senator for a very short time in my life but that he would be Sir forever. He proposed that perhaps Senators might keep their titles for life. He said he would always refer to me as Senator Coghlan.

That is a great idea.

It is a brilliant idea.

This is the awards season. I have been at numerous sports awards and banquets in the past week and even today there are The Irish Times awards. Next week the Irish Independent awards will be announced. We will have the RTE awards and the BBC sports personalities awards. We will even have the Queen’s list coming out in the new year. Only last week, we had the People of the Year awards in Dublin, which I watched on television. I was proud of the achievements of the people involved who made phenomenal contributions to the country.

Some of the higher awards that recognise people in this country include the freedom of the city, be it Dublin, Cork, Galway, Belfast or wherever else. A number of years ago, the Lord Mayor’s award was initiated in Dublin. I was one of the first recipients of the award and very proud of the honour bestowed on me by the Lord Mayor. There are also the Gaisce awards. However, those awards come and go and people forget about them. I believe we need an awards or honours system in this country where people can gain tremendous recognition for their achievements. I accept that it will not be easy to do that because there will be many different views on who should receive such an award. People will also have different views on who will make the award and who will form the membership of a committee to establish a national awards programme.

I never paid much attention to a national awards per se until I had to speak on the subject today. I decided to carry out some research on why we did not have such an awards system in this country. It was easy to find the answer. All I had to do was google Wikipedia and the information was before my eyes. Irish republicans were opposed to the British honours system. Irish nationalists were opposed to its Britishness and there was republican opposition to its monarchist underpinnings. Now I know why. I searched further on Wikipedia and discovered Article 5 of the 1922 Constitution which states:

No title of honour in respect of any services rendered in or in relation to the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) may be conferred on any citizen of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) except with the approval or upon the advice of the Executive Council of the State.

I began to wonder why that was the case, but I soon found out.

In the early 1920s a system was introduced relating to the Order of St. Patrick but that came to an end when in 1928 the council decided that the order being moribund should be allowed to completely disappear. Efforts were made by numerous people throughout the years to restore it. Éamon De Valera and Seán Lemass both considered reviving those awards, as did Brian Lenihan Snr. in the 1960s. Following the Belfast Agreement, the media reported suggestions that the order might be awarded jointly by the President and the British monarchy but nothing ever came of it.

Many attempts have been made to establish a national honours system but no conclusion has been reached and such a system has not progressed. I would like us to find a solution. The former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, wanted to award Pádraig Harrington a special honour when he won the British Open. I wonder why that win prompted him to bring up the matter again. The former Taoiseach also stated it was unfair that an Irish person should go abroad to receive an award rather than receive one at home. We need cross-party co-operation on the matter. Attempts to introduce a national honours system failed in the past. It is time to get the right people around the table to discuss the matter. It is important to identify who will decide on the system and what committee we can form. Should the President, the House or the Council of State decide whether we will have an honours system?

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, for being present and I look forward to hearing his remarks. I congratulate Senator Feargal Quinn on introducing the Bill to the House today.

Cuireann sé an-áthas orm aontú leis an mBille seo agus molaim go hard an Seanadóir Feargal Quinn. Tá sé thar a bheith soiléir go bhfuil machnamh domhain déanta aige air. Mar dhuine a bhfuil clú agus cáil air cheana féin, tuigeann sé go maith díreach cad tá i gceist anseo. Tá seans againn anois sa Seanad agus ceapaim-se gur chóir an díospóireacht a bheith anseo againn sa Seanad. Ní fhéadfainn díospóireacht mar seo a shamhlú agus í ar siúl i nDáil Éireann.

With all due respect to Dáil Éireann, I just could not imagine this type of discussion taking place in that House because it would be overtaken by cynicism and partisanship. That is the reason the Seanad is the place where this matter should be discussed. Tá seanfhocal ann: "You are never regarded as a prophet in your own land". That is one of the reasons this Bill should be given careful consideration. It is very interesting the number of Irish citizens who have received Nobel peace prizes, for instance. People of Irish extraction appear on the Queen’s list. One of the reasons for that is precisely we do not have the type of award which is being recommended in the Bill. It is also clear from the amount of detail in the Bill that Senator Feargal Quinn foresees what the negative reactions might be. He has covered all of them particularly well. There could be no question of letting this slip into a political mode.

Senators Eamonn Coghlan and Sean D. Barrett correctly outlined all of the other awards in the country. That is why this award must be different. It cannot be similar to a person of the year award or anything of that nature. Like Senator Eamonn Coghlan, I too received the Dublin Lord Mayor’s civic honour award, as did Gay Byrne, Jack Charlton and others. I felt a particular pride on the night precisely because it was happening in this country but even that in itself is a regional-type award, although we all welcomed it and saw it as some form of imprimatur or acknowledgement of the work we were doing. Small though it is, I cannot think of any country in the world that is more suited to the type of award being proposed. When one looks at our place in the world, whether in sport, literature, good works of charity or in education, we are among the top and certainly punch above our weight. There is no question about that.

An honours system is important not just for the person receiving the award but also because it designates role models for another generation. By doing that, the State, with all the apparatus behind it, agus an tUachtarán chomh maith, in addition to the selection committee which would act in an advisory role, would be indicating the respect we have for the service of the person who had been selected. At the end of the day, it is about service and achievement. I do not think Senator Feargal Quinn has omitted anything in the categories he has outlined.

Again, that is an indication of the detail which has gone into this. I am delighted we in the Seanad have an opportunity to debate it. I have no doubt the Minister of State could name 20 people in Wexford who would be entitled to this award already because a huge body of people could be considered. How often has it been seen, when people are presented with an award that they are magnanimous and say, "I am accepting this on behalf of all those who have supported me" or, if it is a team, it is accepted on behalf of the whole team, and so on? That would be the ethos attached to an award like this.

Of course, fine tuning may be required with some of it but, graciously, the Senator has made that very point. It is the one area where we need consensus. If there is not consensus in initiating this award, then to some extent it is tarnished as it goes forward. Having examined it here and had the opportunity to make a presentation on it, and by putting it into a kind of gestation period, I have a feeling that, when it goes to Dáil Éireann, it will be debated in an entirely different way. Any of us here today could make smart remarks about what it might mean going into the future but that is not the spirit of the debate. Fianna Fáil and I personally fully support this Bill. I believe any Senator who comes in here, irrespective of party affiliation, will approach this in the spirit in which Senator Feargal Quinn approached it. I believe he is doing a great credit to this House by bringing it forward. While we will always have the cut and thrust of politics and different ideas on legislation, I cannot see us having any different opinion on the intrinsic element of this legislation. I hope it will be wholeheartedly accepted and embraced by the Government and that we act urgently on it. It is timely because of the commemoration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising next year.

I welcome the Minister of State. I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for initiating the Bill as it is great to be discussing something positive. There is a very interesting debate to be had around the merits of the system and I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute on the topic today. I recognise the positive intentions of Senator Feargal Quinn in proposing it. There are many Irish citizens who have made important contributions to society and the Irish have historically made a contribution to the world far above our relative size and these achievements should, of course, be celebrated. The idea that there could be an official system by which we recognise and celebrate these people and their achievements is noble and worthwhile.

Under the Government, an awards system for the achievements of the Irish abroad has already been established. This was announced in 2012 by my Labour Party colleague, the former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. Since its establishment in 2012, it has honoured people such as George Mitchell for his important contribution to peace and reconciliation through his key work on the Good Friday Agreement, Chuck Feeney for his work with Atlantic Philanthropies and Sally Mulready for her tireless work with the Irish community in Britain, among others.

There are undoubtedly merits to extending such a system to the achievements of people in Ireland. However, I also have a number of concerns, which are not criticisms in any shape or form, as to how this is taken forward. There is a constitutional ban on the awarding of titles of nobility by the State. I appreciate the distinction that Senator Feargal Quinn makes between his proposed system and the awarding of titles of nobility. However, I suggest an honours system may be closer to this than he suggests. He proposes that awardees would be entitled to have the letters GU after their name, which of course brings the UK honours system to mind. The distinguished awards system for the Irish abroad is explicitly not an honours system. Perhaps it is by staying closer to this structure that we would better serve both the public and those who are to receive these awards.

I also have a slight concern about the dangers of populism in regard to such an award. There is a provision in the Bill for the awarding council to receive nominations from the public, which is welcome. However, I would need further reassurances from Senator Feargal Quinn about how frivolous nominations would be batted out of the process and prevented. I do not want to go down a road where we would celebrate awards for rock stars and personalities but that it would be solely for people who have made a key, lasting and proper contribution to shaping and changing Irish society. If those concerns are taken on board, it would be a very positive system.

I have some questions about the groups Senator Feargal Quinn proposes would make up the awarding council. Of course, they are all excellent organisations and I am not in any way suggesting they would not be entirely capable or that they would not perform the task to a very high standard. However, I suggest the groups are perhaps too narrow in terms of representing the true diversity of Irish society. I propose that groups such as migrant communities or councils be included and that sports organisations and community groups further round out the council. I also suggest that having some Northern representation would be very important.

It is also important to prevent such an honours system from becoming an outlet for political patronage. On that point, Senator Feargal Quinn and I completely agree and it is good to see he has a provision in the Bill in this regard. I hope he will consider the points I have raised, as well as the other very positive comments from Senators. I look forward to further debate on this issue as it advances to later Stages. I believe that, as Senator Quinn wishes, he will gain consensus on this Bill, which is a very positive contribution to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State. As it is my first time to address him in the House, it is a particular pleasure. I think it highly appropriate that Senator Feargak Quinn is the person to bring this Bill before the House. Nobody anywhere could accuse him of being partisan in any way. He is one of the most independent, free-thinking people in this House and has crossed all party lines to facilitate Bills and to argue against Bills; therefore, there is nothing political in this. He has gone out of his way to ensure the awarding of the honours would be as far as possible removed from the political arena, on which I compliment him.

I believe the Bill is a great idea and it is high time we had this. Senator Eamonn Coghlan should not worry as he will perhaps receive an award from the State which would in some way be superior to his senatorial appointment. I agree with Senator Máiría Cahill that one or two of the criteria might be changed. Senator Feargal Quinn's list suggests all of the fine things about Irish society, albeit that some of them are a little capitalist and we are missing the labour movement in there. I offer one or two amendments to the Bill to ensure we have a fair representation and in addition to having IBEC, I would like to see ICTU in there arguing its corner also.

I ask the Minister of State to accept the Bill. We can amend it on Committee Stage if there are serious amendments to be made. It is high time we put down the cross we have been carrying for our colonial masters for over 800 years. As they will be gone nearly 100 years next Easter, it is time to forget them. The Irish memory is too long; it is time to forget that. There is nothing in the Bill that suggests it is in any way associated with the monarchy we threw out of here 100 years ago, although I am hoping I might get an old knighthood myself at some stage. I ask the Minister of State to accept the Bill which is brought forward in the best and truest Irish spirit. I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for it.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am very happy to be associated with this initiative by Senator Feargal Quinn. During the years of serving with him, I have always admired his imaginative approach to legislation. We can always be assured that when he brings a Bill before the House, there will be plenty of meat and drink in it and that it will not be just a common or garden Bill.

I had the pleasure of taking part in the 1996 debate in this House on the National Cultural Institutions Bill.

Interestingly, that debate was taken by the then Minister for Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht and the current President, Michael D. Higgins. Former Senator Joe Lee and I argued the toss about the merits or otherwise of merit systems. I was of the view, which I still hold to a certain extent, that it was a pity, as Senator Gerard P. Craughwell noted, that the revolutionary fervour of the Young Irelanders in the new State swept away all of what they believed to be the vestiges of colonial power. It was not just in the context of nobility awards. Some of the fine houses of Ireland were burned out and much of our heritage was lost in the immediate aftermath of 800 years of colonial rule. Perhaps, from this remove, one cannot be critical of the people and what they did at the time because they had their reasons. However, I always drew parallels with what happened in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution when the revolutionaries - the sans-culottes - did not destroy anything of the nobility that was left. They kept the houses, the presidential palaces and many of the titles.

The Republic of Ireland is pretty close to being unique in the European context in not having a state merit system. The Fianna Fáil Government that took power in 1932 was full of revolutionaries who had a particular agenda and who were virulently anti-colonial. As a result, the 1937 Constitution reflects this. I am not sure if Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú referred to this, but in the debate surrounding awards in 1996, we argued that it was at least partly due to the 1937 Constitution that Ireland had no formal honours system. The explicit provision of Article 40.2.1o of de Valera's Constitution seems to have been at least partially motivated by calls at the time of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress that an official honour be conveyed on the papal legate to Ireland. The new Fianna Fáil Government was strongly opposed to the conveying of such titles of nobility based on the experience of such patronage titles under British rule. The initial draft of Article 40.2.2o of the 1937 Constitution stated that "Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State". However, it also stated "Orders of Merit may, however, be created". Unfortunately, that draft did not survive, which was probably due to the ideological approach Eamon de Valera and his Government took at the time. They wanted to remove any vestiges of colonial power.

Even at this remove, I think that was a mistake. At the time of the debate we had on awards in 1996 in respect of the Cultural Institutions Bill, I said that there was an argument for restoring the Order of St. Patrick, a singular honour that was abolished in 1921 on the foundation of the State. Those who have an interest in it will find the family flags of those who were conferred with the Order of St. Patrick in St. Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle. I thought we could have reintroduced that. The then Minister and current President, Michael D. Higgins, was not particularly enthusiastic about even that approach; therefore, we agreed to disagree on it. Matters have moved on. Senator Gerard P. Craughwell is right. It is almost 100 years since the British left Ireland. We are a sovereign independent republic. One of the highest civilian honours the US President gives to a civilian is the Order of Merit, while France has the Légion d'honneur. Many other countries have state honours.

The main argument for me - I do not know whether Senator Feargal Quinn has reflected on this - is that we now have a plethora of awards in this country. They are all well-meaning. We have the Person of the Year award and various other awards. I saw on Google that various institutions had merit awards for their members. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with that, but the bestowing of so many awards at a national level dilutes the impact of such awards. All of this could be addressed by the State - specifically in the person of the President - taking on the role envisaged and outlined in the proposals contained in Senator Feargal Quinn's Bill. I do not for one moment have any fear that it would be politicised.

If one considers the merit system in Great Britain - I am not suggesting we go down that road - one can see that it is not the Queen who decides. It is decided by a panel of mostly anonymous civil servants who proceed on the basis of submissions received from the general public. Anybody can write in and say that, for example, Senator Rónán Mullen is entitled to receive an award because of the great work he has done or that Senator Eamonn Coghlan should receive one because of his contribution to athletics and the arts. Members of the general public write in, all of the material is collated and the decisions are made by a group of people. I do not think there has ever been any suggestion in Great Britain that there is a political motivation behind it, even though it is a very complicated system. I know the Prime Minister awards his or her own titles but that is separate.

I thank the Acting Chairman for indulging me on this. I fully support the concept behind the Bill. I also support the detail of the Bill because it covers all the angles and I see no reason we should not proceed along the lines outlined in it. I give the Bill my full and enthusiastic support.

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I am delighted to see the Seanad progress this Bill and I hope we can get it through this Chamber and on the Statute Book in order that it does not die in the event of the Government not being returned. I see tremendous merit in this. It is something I called for in the wake of the retirement of Henry Shefflin this year. I argued for it on the international retirement of a great Limerick man, Paul O'Connell. It is needed. While we can confer honorary doctorates and degrees from universities, it does not quite equate to an honour given by the State. The non-political office of Uachtarán na hÉireann is exactly where the power to bestow such honours should be placed.

Senator Feargal Quinn is a recipient of honours from the Vatican and France. He may be putting himself in line for an honour here. I would not be surprised. There are so many people who would be deserving of such awards. I recall Christine Buckley when she came here to meet us. She was somebody who had done tremendous work in uncovering the scandal of large-scale abuse in industrial schools. She was a terrific woman. Brother Colm O'Connell could be honoured for the work he has done for athletics in Africa. Fr. Charlie Burrows has not really been recognised by anybody in the State, but he does a huge amount of work in the area of social justice. He is somebody about whom we do not know much, but the work he does in Indonesia is remarkable. He has built roads, hospitals and schools. He runs his own social bank to give money to people who cannot afford to go to college and start a business. The contribution of the fiddle player, Martin Hayes, to traditional Irish music is second to none. The work done with the homeless in our cities by Sister Stanislaus Kennedy is another example. These people should be recognised for the very hard, dedicated and often voluntary work they do. This type of work highlights all that is good about being Irish. As has been said previously, it gives us role models. We need these very positive role models who have always fought the good fight and spoken about truth, justice and reconciliation.

These are the types of people we should be putting up on pedestals and this is a great way of doing it.

I would have a small concern about the abbreviated title, GU, which brings to mind the first half of an acronym that is well known in Leinster House. All sorts of unwelcome images are conjured up when one adds the letters BU to the end. It is welcome that the awards will be secular and essentially rewarded by the Republic. The Bill is particularly timely, given that the centenary of the 1916 Rising is almost upon us and it is appropriate that the State should honour its citizens in this fashion.

Senator Paschal Mooney said it was 100 years since the British had left Ireland, but there are many people living on this island who would disagree with him and argue that there are still some British here who should go home.

It is welcome that the award will be non-partisan, secular, non-political and have an input from the public. I welcome the Bill in its entirety and thank Senator Feargal Quinn for putting it to the House. I hope it can become a reality with the blessing of the Minister of State.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Seanad on this Private Member's Bill, Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2015, proposed by Senator Feargal Quinn. I thank the Senator for his work on the Bill and raising the issue. He has served with distinction in this House since 1993 on the National University of Ireland panel. In his 20 years of service he has always seen the role of a Senator as that of a legislator. This Bill is the latest in a long list of legislative proposals that he has brought before the Oireachtas. Since 1993, Governments involving different political parties and led by five Taoisigh have considered legislation proposed by him. Some Bills have passed into law and others have been opposed, but each Bill has highlighted an issue deserving of debate.

The House will be aware that Article 40.2.1 of the Constitution provides, inter alia, that titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a mechanism to facilitate the conferral by the State of an honour to be known as Gradam an Uachtaráin, to recognise the exceptional achievements of its citizens and the outstanding contributions of others and to provide for related matters. The Government is not opposing the Bill, although that should not be taken as implying acceptance of all the details of the Senator's scheme.

The Bill proposes the establishment of an honours system to be known as Gradam an Uachtaráin, which will be marked by the presentation by the President of a medal which may be worn on formal occasions and a lapel button. The award recipient would be able to use the letters GU after his or her own name. An awarding council of seven persons would be nominated, comprising the Secretary General to the President, the serving presidents of the National University of Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy, IBEC and the ICA and two current lay serving members of the Council of State, nominated by the President. A maximum of 12 persons would be honoured per year and not more than four of the awards may be conferred upon persons of a nationality other than Irish. There would be six broad areas of achievement for which the award could be conferred: social and community affairs; education and healthcare; arts, literature and music; science and technology; sport; and leadership and business. The award would be conferred in January each year beginning in January 2016 and candidates to receive an award would be nominated by members of the public or the awarding council. The Bill would prohibit a serving Member of either House of the Oireachtas from engaging with any member of the awarding council with the intention of influencing the making of an award. Failure to comply with this prohibition will incur a class A fine.

The issue of an Irish honours system has been considered on a number of occasions in the past and efforts were made to reach a political consensus on it. However, none of these efforts were successful. As far back as 1963, the then Government approved in principle the idea that a State decoration of honour be instituted and subsequently, the then Taoiseach wrote to party leaders. However, general consensus was not reached and the matter was not pursued. The issue was revisited in 1991 when the then Taoiseach wrote to party leaders inviting them to exploratory talks. However, the talks did not take place as the political climate was not right at the time. Again in 1994, the then Taoiseach wrote to Opposition party leaders asking for their views on the introduction of an honours system. The issue was not progressed as it did not obtain all-party agreement.

The introduction of an honours system has been raised on a number of occasions since the Government took office in parliamentary questions in the Dáil on October 2011, May 2012 and November 2013. A further parliamentary question was tabled on 31 March this year by Deputy Derek Keating. Following that, the Taoiseach wrote to all party leaders to establish if all parties would be willing to engage in discussions on a national awards scheme. Only one party has responded. The Taoiseach has repeatedly said all-party consensus is required before considering an awards scheme. The timing of any such consideration would have to take cognisance of other political priorities.

It should be noted that there are already in existence a number of award schemes through which the State recognises and awards merit, distinction or bravery in particular areas. Gaisce which is also known as the President's Award is a scheme to challenge young people to use their leisure time for positive development and the betterment of their communities. Gold, silver and bronze medals are presented by the President as recognition of achievement. In 2012 the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad was introduced. The award is presented by the President to persons living abroad, primarily Irish citizens, those entitled to Irish citizenship and persons of Irish descent who have made a sustained and distinguished service to Ireland or Irish communities abroad. Ten awards are made each year.

Aosdána is a scheme to honour artists whose works have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland. The scheme offers a basic level of financial security to those who need it to enable them to devote their energies fully to their art. The National Bravery Awards are awarded for deeds of bravery. The Deeds of Bravery Council awards gold medals, bronze medals and certificates. Another example is the Scott medal for bravery. This is in the gift of the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána and awarded by the Minister for Justice and Equality. The Volunteer Ireland Awards are presented to recognise people who are unsung heroes and have given time volunteering throughout Ireland. The President is patron of these awards. Nominations can be forwarded by members of the public and the categories for awards include arts, culture and media, sports and recreation, health and disability, children and young people, campaigning and awareness raising, community, education and training, social work, animals and environment, and international development.

In addition, as the House will be aware, there are commercially sponsored awards ceremonies which recognise contributions to sport, business and charities. Examples include the Rehab Person of the Year Award, the Irish Film and Television Awards, The Irish Times Intertrade Ireland Awards for young innovators and small businesses and the RTE Sports Person of the Year Award.

As I said, the Government will not be opposing the Bill. However, it should be noted that not opposing the Bill does not necessarily imply acceptance of all the details therein. As mentioned previously, the Taoiseach has made the point on several occasions that all-party support is required before considering an awards scheme.

I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for putting the Bill to the House. The Government will take on board its contents and will not oppose it.

My apologies for being late, but I was at a meeting. Unfortunately, I was not in the Chamber to hear the Minister of State's contribution in full, but I am delighted to hear that the Government is not opposing the Bill which I support because I believe the extraordinary contributions of ordinary citizens in this country to their communities, families and so on should be recognised. I understand the reason some people are reluctant to have an honours system, which I think is based on our history in terms of the abuses of nobility here in the past. However, that is not a reason, as a republic, we should not have here a mechanism, similar to that in place in other countries such as France, through which the outstanding contributions of ordinary citizens are recognised. For this reason, I am anxious that Senator Feargal Quinn's Bill be supported by this House.

I commend the Senator for introducing this legislation and thank the Minister of State, on behalf of the Government, for not opposing it. I look forward to its speedy passage through the House.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe. I support Senator Feargal Quinn's Bill which proposes the putting in place of a mechanism that should have been put in place many years ago. I agree that, like many other countries, we should have in place a mechanism to recognise the outstanding contributions of people to this country. I have no doubt that there are many Senators who have made outstanding contributions to it. Very often it is the unsung heroes who go without recognition and, sometimes, do not even seek it. I know of many such people within my own field of music, including Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, who does terrific work for Irish traditional music in this country. While not wishing to single out particular people, I know that Senator Feargal Quinn has also done great work on behalf of the country.

It is welcome that the Bill provides that people will be awarded this distinction on the sole authority of the appointing council, membership of which will not include political appointees. That is important. I agree that the use of the abbreviated title, GU, after a person's name warrants further consideration.

I congratulate Senator Feargak Quinn on bringing forth another excellent Bill. I am delighted that the Bill is not being opposed by the Government. Leaving aside the fact that there are a few issues with it that need to be ironed out, I wish it a swift passage through the House.

I appreciate the Minister of State's remarks and welcome that the Government is not opposing the Bill. I was anxious that we would have a good Second Stage debate on the Bill and that has been the case. It is welcome that there is all-party support for the Bill. I am confident that this is the right direction in which to go and I am pleased with Senators' contributions on the Bill.

I believe in honouring people who have given a lot to their country. I believe also that this recognition should not be limited to any one area, as in the case of the People of the Year and other awards. I would very much like to see the Bill complete its passage through the House prior to the forthcoming general election. The construction contracts Bill which I put forward in 2011 which is now the Construction Contracts Act, passed Final Stage in the Seanad 12 hours before the previous Government was dissolved. The incoming Government then took it on board and it has since become law. Given that this Bill has all-party support, I would very much like if it could be passed by this House between now and the calling of the next general election.

I accept that there will be some necessary changes to the Bill. Senators James Heffernan and Mary Moran have mentioned that the abbreviated title of GU after a person's name might not be popular, which I understand. However, that is a relatively minor issue. The title "An Post" was first proposed during my time as chairman of that organisation. Many people were totally against that change, but it has been very successful. I am a great believer in teasing out issues to see what can be achieved. In regard to the concerns around the giving of titles of nobility, we must ensure the impression is not given that we are giving such titles. What will be given are awards of recognition based on what people have achieved.

When I drafted the Bill some months ago, I referenced in it the date of 1 January 2016. As it is highly unlikely that it will be possible to do anything between now and 1 January 2016, that reference will have to be changed to 1 January 2017. I propose to table an amendment in that regard on Committee Stage. I accept that as outlined by the Minister of State, there may be a need for other amendments. I am open to them.

I am confident, based on the cross-party support expressed for the Bill, that this is the right direction for us to go. It is welcome that the Government does not propose to oppose the Bill and I thank all Senators who have contributed to the Second Stage debate and, in particular, the Minister of State, for their support for it. I urge the Minister of State to ensure all that is possible is done to ensure the Bill passes all Stages in the Seanad prior to the calling of the general election, following which it can be taken up by the new Government in the Dáil.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 15 November 2015.
Sitting suspended at 4.10 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.