Thursday 29 September 2016

Kenny must act soon on Seanad reform

When the Oireachtas resumes in the autumn, there are about 20 weeks to enact legislation

Feargal Quinn

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

Senator Feaergal Quinn
Senator Feaergal Quinn

Ninety weeks have passed since the people voted in October 2013 to retain Seanad Éireann. That afternoon, when the referendum result was announced, Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke in Dublin Castle. While acknowledging that he had received a 'wallop' from the electorate, he spoke frankly of how he recognised the will of the people expressed in the vote, and that he would "reflect upon the best way" in which the Seanad "could make a contribution to change in politics".

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Many who, like myself, had opposed the abolition of Seanad Éireann and campaigned for its reform, were happy to take the Taoiseach at his word in the hope that real and substantial reform could be achieved.

We, of course, knew, as the Taoiseach did, that Seanad Éireann could not continue to function with any credibility on the basis of the narrow mandate it currently has, where most of its members are elected only by councillors, outgoing senators and incoming TDs.

We also knew, as the Taoiseach did, that real reform of the Seanad and how it was elected, could be achieved by legislation. It just required real political will.

Before the October 2013 referendum, I, along with Senator Katherine Zappone, had published a comprehensive Bill on Seanad reform. Under the bill, every person over 18 living in the island of Ireland would have had a vote in Seanad elections on the basis of 'one person one vote'. It would also have extended the right to vote in Seanad elections to Irish citizens abroad. The Bill also allowed citizens to nominate a person to become a candidate in a Seanad election.

Initially, it seemed the Taoiseach's proposals for Seanad reform were minimalist. A couple of weeks after the referendum, in late October 2013, he announced an intention to produce an Act, which would replace the existing arrangement where there are two third-level constituencies in the Seanad - one for graduates from the National University of Ireland and Trinity College respectively - with a single constituency in which all third-level graduates could vote and elect six senators.

This change would have been welcome. It would have implemented a reform endorsed by the people in a constitutional referendum on July 4, 1979. It is hard to believe that, although on this Saturday, it will be 26 years to the day since the people voted for that, change still has not been implemented.

Expanding the basis for third-level representation in the Seanad would not, of itself, of course amount to real reform. That is why in late 2013, I asked the Taoiseach to also set up an all-party commission to explore wider reform.

After a further delay of another year, the Taoiseach did indeed set up a working group chaired by the chancellor of the National University, Maurice Manning, himself a former leader of the Seanad, to recommend proposals as to how senators, other than the third-level representatives and the Taoiseach's nominees, could be elected.

The working group chaired by Maurice Manning included other former senators from across the political spectrum, together with some academic experts, and Tom Arnold, the former chairman of the Constitutional Convention. This working group published its report on April 13 last.

It recommended that all citizens, including emigrants and Northern Ireland residents, should have a vote in Seanad elections. It did retain one 13-member panel to be elected by councillors, but its proposals were still very dramatic.

It is disappointing, of course, that even if enacted now, the Manning group proposal could not operate for the next Seanad election which is due early next summer at the latest. However, passing an Act based on the working group's proposals would at least ensure that real reform would be on the statute book usable in the election after that.

Again, it looked initially as if a process for reform was on track. Early in May, Maurice Manning and former senator Joe O' Toole came to Seanad Éireann to present the working group report as part of a Seanad debate. The working group also published a draft Bill to expedite the process of implementing their recommendations.

Nothing has happened since, however, and even those of us who have invested confidence in the Taoiseach's commitment to achieve Seanad reform are beginning to doubt whether there is any real commitment there at all. As the weeks pass, we are entitled to fear that the Government may merely have been involved in a process of running down the clock.

The Dáil and Seanad will rise for the summer recess in about three weeks' time and there is no prospect of the Government bringing the Manning group's Bill or its own Bill to either House before then. Once the Oireachtas resumes in the autumn, we have, at most, just about 20 weeks or thereabouts left to enact this legislation, even if the government runs full term.

There will have to be a government announcement on this very, very soon if Seanad reform legislation is to feature in what will no doubt be a busy legislative programme before the general election comes, whenever that is.

Speaking in the Seanad on May 5, I called again for real implementation of Seanad reform and suggested that the report of the working group was a map that points the way.

I believe, given the circumstances and the timing, the Taoiseach and his Government are now uniquely positioned to deliver what none of his predecessors had the leadership or the vision to deliver - real and substantive Seanad reform.

The people spoke on the Seanad in 1979 and again in 2013. Must the cock crow a third time for anything to happen? Enough talking. There should be legislative action now. Time is running out.

Senator Feargal Quinn is an Independent member of Seanad Eireann

Sunday Independent

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