Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
Thursday, 20 June 2013
I speak as a former Member of Seanad Éireann and am privileged to have served there. I recognise the importance of the House and of a second chamber. It is important that we look at the whole issue of bicameral chambers within a parliament and recognise that, whether we like it or not, the system we have, in respect of elections to the Seanad and how it operates, is broken. Ultimately, the people will decide on this. In reforming our political structures the Government recognised that our political class had lost its way prior to the last election. The Bill before us is an example of a commitment by the Government to follow through on a promise made by several political parties whose members are now jumping through hoops to reclaim different positions on the political spectrum.
Deputy Harris made an interesting point about Friday sittings, with which I agree. If one looks at how this House debates certain issues on a Friday, it happens away from the glare of political heat that is present on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in particular. I refer to the example of last Friday’s Bill about access to the countryside, on which there was a measured debate between those in favour of the proposition, such as Deputy Dowds, and those against, such as Deputy Ó Cuív on the opposite side and Deputies Lawlor and Kyne on our side of the House. It was a very good debate.
I attended the Constitutional Convention in Malahide during its last two sessions, which dealt with electoral reform. I made the point on local radio and at the convention that electoral reform is one thing, but we ourselves must look to how we can reform this House in particular, and how we do our business. We are the shop window of politics to the wider society. What happens within the Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly in the Dáil and in the committee system, is the view people get of how the political process and the system work. Very often that view is tainted by media coverage but also by the way in which we present our cases and our ideology.
The world has changed enormously. I echo the point made by Deputy Dara Murphy. I very much welcome the reform of local government and hope that in time, whoever is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government – one hopes it is the present Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan – will allow in the city and county of Cork a joined-up super-local-authority with a directly elected mayor to serve the best needs of the capital of and gateway to the south. Cork is recognised in the national spatial strategy as the gateway city and hub for the development of the south. We need to look at local government to see how it can serve the people. I was privileged to serve on Cork City Council. We need to give a meaningful role to local authority members rather than taking away their role and duties. In some local authorities there is now no accountability or responsibility and, as I am sure Deputy Barry Cowen will agree, one cannot even get answers to questions at times. That needs to stop. All of us, whatever level of the political ladder we are on, are there to represent the citizen and make the case and advocate for the community in which we live and, at a national level, enact policies that have the betterment of the people at their core.
The Bill we are discussing will ultimately go to the people. That is correct, and I am happy to support its passage through the House to the people. They will make the decision but they will not be listening to any argument put forward by celebrity commentators, politicians or former politicians. They will decide on the benefits and merits of a bicameral system, which is as it should be.
In this debate Opposition Members have accused the Government of populism and of making a power grab.
Sinn Féin’s manifesto called for the abolition of the Seanad in its current form. Fianna Fáil stated in its manifesto that second chambers are not an essential part of parliamentary democracy and “it must be stressed that during the last decade the Seanad did not play a substantive role in challenging unsustainable policies.” The parties opposite are now challenging themselves to find the next cause to join. When I heard Deputy Martin speak about wind farms yesterday, I wondered if he was the same man who championed different policies during the 14 years he was in Government.
The new practice introduced by this Government of bringing the heads of Bills before committees for discussion has had very positive outcomes. I do not say this solely because I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children but the committee system had a light shone on it over six days this year. To be fair to Deputies Kelleher, Ó Caoláin and Healy and Senator van Turnhout, as well as Government members of the committee, nobody pursued party politics or adverserial engagement. Generally in committees, we do not play politics. The six days of hearings in January and May on the A, B and C v.Ireland case and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 shows that we can act in a positive and constructive manner, with assistance from Oireachtas officials who demonstrated the brilliance and prowess of our public service. Our politicians were able to show what is good about politics.
We need to give teeth to our committee system. All of us remember the cost and length of the various tribunals and we saw what happened with Ken Starr in America. If reformed, our committee system can play a pivotal role in the transformation of Parliament and how it is viewed. It will ultimately become more valued by the population at large. This Government is bringing change and reform. It may be slow and incremental but it is happening. People’s cynicism about the Seanad is partly because of the number of reports on reform that are gathering dust. As a political class we must see how we can reconnect with the public. When the report of the Constitutional Convention comes before the House, I ask Members to read it and heed the views of the citizens. I support this Bill and look forward to a referendum campaign which will bring value and positivity to our electoral system.