I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, for his presence. The proposed 32nd amendment to the Constitution provides the opportunity for the people to have their say on this debate. Given the current Government's commitment to have this discussion and this referendum in 2009, followed by its inclusion in the election manifesto of a number of parties, I see no difficulty in putting this question to the people to ascertain what the response will be.
However, I have a number of reservations about the manner in which this debate is taking place and on the basis of the discussion. For instance, my colleague has just alluded to this point and I cannot help but think this is putting the cart before the horse somewhat, as the debate is not being held on what it is proposed to put in place of the Seanad or the alterations to the behaviour of the Dáil or the Oireachtas in general. Surely that should have been a debate to have been held followed by a discussion on whether the referendum was called for in the first place. That said, it is a commitment the Government has given and, as I noted, it was included in a number of election manifestos, including those of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and, I understand, the Labour Party. Moreover, it is front and centre in the programme for Government.
Since 1936, the Seanad really has been a political football. I refer to the reform agenda initiated by de Valera in 1936, which provided for 11 appointees by the then Taoiseach. This was to deal with the issue of the majority of the Government, which up to that point did not exist - certainly not in the Free State Seanad in any event.
The result was that it diluted the opportunity for the Seanad to have a meaningful say in the legislative process, effectively creating a second House that was a mini-version of the Dáil. In other jurisdictions the role of the second House is to have a say in and even veto legislation if it believes it will not add anything to life in that particular jurisdiction, whereas in Ireland it can only delay it, almost delaying the inevitable.
I refer to the method of election. I found an interesting reference to the effect that the vocational system used to nominate candidates for the Seanad was inspired by the Roman Catholic social teachings of the 1930s and in particular the 1931 papal encyclical, which was news to me. I further read that apparently it has socialist overtures. Given their abject failure across the world, that is a great example of something that should not be left without reform.
In May 2011, an article in The Sunday Business Postwith regard to the Seanad stated: "University representation is a system so bizarre that it is rivalled only by the hereditary peerages in the British House of Lords as an anachronism in modern democracies." That sums up the reason we should be looking at reforming the method of election in terms of the individuals who are permitted to put themselves forward for election to the Seanad rather than the straight question of whether we should have one in the first place.
I preface my remarks by saying that this discussion is not about any individual Senator past or current. The difficulty is with the panel structure in that we give a vote to an elite within society. College educated individuals within the small number of universities which have a vote in Seanad elections can be considered an elite, and certainly a minority, but the candidates themselves do not have to come from the same minorities. We have a rather peculiar scenario, therefore, where a certain number of individuals within society elect individuals both for political reasons as well as in terms of former classmates or whatever. That no longer has a place in society. A 75 year old system that has not been reformed despite ten reports since 1936 and 12 reports in total since 1919 shows that this issue has been treated like a political football and kicked down the road in the hope that someone eventually would take responsibility for it. On that basis, I understand the reason the Taoiseach has chosen to put this to the people for the final say on the matter.
As I outlined earlier, the purpose of the Seanad was to see legislation dealt with on an expertise basis in that individuals would bring their particular expertise to the table for discussion in an attempt to add to legislation. It was not simply to throw it out for political reasons but to attempt to understand what an item of legislation was trying to achieve and make it more fit for purpose. Again, that has not been the case and it is a rare event that Seanad amendments are accepted because it is done on the party Whip system, which does not take those matters into consideration.
As has been seen by the number of individuals who have come out in the weeks and months since this debate started, there is a genuine appetite on the part of the sitting Senators to reform the Seanad. However, they do so in a vacuum because ultimately they do not decide the scope of the Seanad. Invariably, that is decided in the Department of the Taoiseach, and while they may have the best will in the world to attempt to amend the operation of the Seanad by introducing different sitting times, as was done in the Dáil and as alluded to by the previous speaker, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, often it has not worked to the benefit of the House or the people.
The previous two Governments had no reform agenda with regard to the Seanad. A little over two years ago, it favoured putting the question to the people. I do not need to read into the record the 2011 Fianna Fáil manifesto but I take issue with the fact that Fianna Fáil has changed its tune and is attempting to say it was saying something different in its manifesto. Ink does not lie, and I have it before me. That speaks for itself.
Another individual who has been particularly vehement in his dislike of the decision of the Taoiseach to put this to the people is Michael McDowell, who is on record as saying the Seanad is like a cross between a political convalescent home and a crèche and is used as an ante-room to Dáil Éireann to house would-be newcomers, temporary absentees and as a consolation prize for those who have lost their seats, yet in recent weeks he has come out with the terrific soundbite that it is a power grab by the Government. That is a major indictment of that individual, but I will move on from personal criticisms.
This is not an affront to democracy, which was stated by Members of the Opposition. It is an opportunity to exercise democracy in a decision that ultimately comes down to the individual person, the ballot paper and a pen. They get to decide whether this constitutional amendment is passed. The referendum will give the public an opportunity to have its say in respect of democracy and is a good measure of public opinion as to whether the people believe the Seanad is worth reforming.
This debate should be about what we are proposing to put in place of the Seanad because the people will demand that in the coming months. I hope the date for the referendum will be set before the summer recess or shortly thereafter to allow us make our decision as to the way we, as individuals, will vote. I support the decision to put this issue to the people and I hope we will have a robust debate about the price of democracy in this particular instance.