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Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage

"I welcome the Minister of State and thank Senator Cassells for his very generous encomium, which is not entirely deserved. I reiterate my thanks to him, along with Senators Warfield and Higgins, for their enthusiastic and totally committed support of the Seanad implementation group process.

If we are talking about between 800,000 and 1 million people as part of this electorate for six seats in the Seanad, we should bear in mind, as Senator Byrne has said, that this is an increasing proportion of the population all the time. This also means 70% of the elected seats and seven eighths of the seats in the complete Seanad would be elected by 1,200 people. The entire purpose of the Manning process was to end that totally anomalous position.

I fully accept the proposition that we cannot discriminate now - and there is no reason to discriminate - between the various universities and institutions of higher education, including technical universities and the like, and the university I represent, which is the National University of Ireland. From that perspective the principle of this Bill is something I wholly support. The Cathaoirleach has ruled that the other Bill, which has been published and is available to be moved in the House, is not under consideration today. This is very much like Banquo'sghost as we are dealing with a proposal that would enfranchise between 800,000 and 1 million citizens over time but which at the same time would leave between 2 million and 3 million citizens disenfranchised with no direct say in the composition of this House. We must bear that in mind.

Various people claim to have saved this Chamber but the late Feargal Quinn, above all others, did so.

I want to pay tribute to his memory. I remember standing on Shop Street in Galway and in various other places, Athlone and the like, with him and people flocked to him wondering why he was on their street. He handed out leaflets to people who had no vote in Seanad elections saying please save the Seanad. It was his triumph, above all, that this House was saved. His posthumous last article pointed out a few things which, I think, sometimes should bear repetition here today.

The present programme for Government does not mention the reform of Seanad Éireann even though the Green Party, in fairness to it, attempted to insert it into its programme for Government. The second thing is that we have to go back to the attempt to abolish this House to remember that those of us who were opposed to the abolition of the House said it should be reformed. As an effort to trample down their idealism leading members of Fine Gael, including the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said there would be no reform and if one voted to keep the Seanad one would be voting for an unreformed Seanad in order to scupper that argument. It was only after Enda Kenny got his wallop that he finally, about a year later, began to talk about reforming the Seanad and establishing the Manning report, to which Senator Higgins referred. The Manning report was established and came forward with workable proposals within the Constitution for the reform of this body and the way it was elected. Its report was given to the Government but nothing happened. It was ignored.

Seanad reform legislation was proposed by Senator Higgins, myself and others as soon as we could in 2016. In the 2016 election, let us remember, it was necessary to recruit Independents to support that Government one of whom was our former colleague, Katherine Zappone. She insisted that the implementation of the Manning report would be included in the programme for Government in 2016. She was given that commitment and it was scandalously reneged on by cynical people. Nothing happened under Taoiseach Enda Kenny. When he was succeeded by the present Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, what actually happened was that after a lot of humming and hawing, and a lot of procrastination, the Seanad reform implementation group, which I was privileged to chair, was established. It had terms of reference that envisaged that the Manning report would be implemented. It was decided upon by that Cabinet in its entirety. We worked from June to December 2018. I should say for some people's guidance here today, in case they have forgotten it because they probably never heard it, that at our first meeting some Members who were totally opposed to the idea of reform proposed that we should visit New Zealand, a country that had abolished its Senate and proposed, at the same time, that we should extend our timeframe to accommodate such foreign travel. I just want to remember those things.

When we presented the report nothing happened. Senator Warfield has referred kindly to my covering letter to the then Taoiseach saying that this Chamber is not the place to propose reform and that such a proposal must come from the Dáil if it is to have any chance. I eventually sought a meeting with the present Tánaiste, then Taoiseach. I just want Members to know what happened at it. I came to his office and said, "What is happening to our report because you have made some very cool offhand remarks about it in Dáil Éireann?" What did he say? He said he had no interest in implementing my report, our report. None whatever. He said that if some private Members of Dáil Éireann wish to move that report then that was their business but there would be a free vote on it and he assured me it would not command majority support.

So the Members of this House, including Senator Cassells and others, had slaved to produce this report. We had, at the taxpayers' expense, an expert draftsman draw up the legislation that was there. We, and this must be emphasised, had provided that the reform could be implemented in stages, that it was not all going to be big bang. I had assured Members of this House that they were not turkeys voting for an early Christmas, that they would have at least one more election - most of them - under the old regime. That was not good enough for them. The cynicism was absolutely there. When the 2020 general election took place, all mention of Seanad reform evaporated from the political discourse. Now that is really shameful. The people involved - two successive taoisigh, Enda Kenny and the present Tánaiste - bear the personal blame for that. In fairness to the present Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, he did encourage Senator Cassells to participate in the hope that there would be Seanad reform, but unfortunately it has evaporated completely in the meantime.

I just want to say this: the implementation group's report, which is more elaborate than Senator Byrne's Bill, was designed to give effect to the will of the people. I am 100% behind the idea that no third level institution, be it a university or an institute of higher education, should be left out of the process or discriminated against. I do not see, however, why the farmer's wife, or the farmer, for that matter, or the bricklayer, or the construction worker, or the taxi driver, or all of those people who are citizens of an equal Republic stand with no votes in our present system.

Whereas I commend the Senators on giving life to and resurrecting the prospect of equity as between universities as envisaged by the 1979 referendum, which, by the way, was not envisaged to widen the franchise but merely to facilitate the dismemberment of the NUI, which was then in contemplation, and I will support this Bill, because it is the principle of the Bill that we are debating now, this is not enough. It is simply not enough. It is utterly inadequate.

I want to make one final point about democracy. If there are between 800,000 and 1 million voters for six seats in this House, then the quota for election will be one seventh of that, which is well over 100,000 votes. To become a university or higher education Senator will require five to ten times the level of No. 1 votes required to get into Dáil Éireann.

I want to make one point and it is not being glorious at all. I asked a researcher in my Independent group to quantify how many Deputies got fewer first preference votes than I did in this Chamber, and it was in excess of 102 got fewer, and Senator Mullen, in fact, got even more votes. I am making the point that if we are going down the road of saying that it takes 100,000 people to put in one university Senator and people in Dáil Éireann, representing some constituencies in Dublin, and some of whom have very high office, have 3,000 or 4,000 votes, that is not democratic.

The time has come to consider every citizen in this country as having an entitlement to participate in the Upper House in their democracy. The time has come to dismantle elitism. I welcome this Bill in so far as it is a small step in that process.

The fundamental issue is that this House needs to be radically reformed. All the promises have been made, and have been shamefully traduced by cynical people who asked Members of this House, and of Dáil Éireann when Senator Cassells was a Deputy, to participate in a process which they cynically threw into the bin before congratulating themselves for having delayed the process for another couple of years. That is shameful. While I will be positive about the Senators' Bill tonight, I have to say it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to acknowledge that forces which have no commitment to reform of this House constantly succeed by pretending to be concerned with the issue, while doing nothing about it."

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