Just over two years ago, this government received a strong mandate from the Irish people to take the necessary decisions to achieve economic recovery and get Ireland working again.
In electing this government, the Irish people knew too that to re-build a solid economy, a real Republic, would require real political change, real reform.
The Irish people demanded a new politics that was leaner, more responsive and more democratic – a politics that could truly meet the needs and demands of 21st century Ireland.
The last two years have shown that this government is a very different government, with very different standards, faithful to the mandate we were given.
We are radically reforming our public service – health system, legal services system, courts system, local government, child protection, overhauling welfare to work system.
Yes, we are re-building our economy.
But just as crucially, we are having to re-build the State itself.
This Government is delivering on the biggest reform of politics and public sector in the history of this State.
In line with the Programme for Government, the Cabinet today approved a bill to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad in the autumn.
If approved by the people, I am convinced that we can and will create a better, more effective political system with better accountability, better oversight and better scrutiny of legislation.
It is also intended to hold the referendum on the establishment of a Court of Civil Appeal in the autumn.
I can, in addition, confirm that the first reports from the Constitutional Convention will be debated in the Oireachtas and considered by the Cabinet before the summer recess.
The Convention is working very well and its reports will be treated with the utmost seriousness.
Political Reform & Seanad Abolition
This Government’s approach to the issue of political reform is very simple.
At a time of shared sacrifice for all our citizens, we believe that the political system must lead by example.
There is something fundamentally wrong in politicians asking others to change, to make sacrifices – and then refusing to do so themselves.
That is why we have reduced the pay and allowances of all politicians while increasing the number of Dail sitting days;
halved the cost of ministerial transport;
and introduced legislation that effectively bans corporate and political donations.
I have stated many times that our political system needs radical change and reform in order to bring it into the 21st Century…and to be more accountable and responsive to the Irish people.
Our system of local Government has not fundamentally changed since the 19th century and as a result it has grown disjointed…detatched…and inefficient as the modern State grew.
Minister Hogan has already published his plans for radical reform with
A reduction in the number of Councillors from 1600 to 950 nationally,
The merger of three county councils, and
A cut in the number of Local Authorities from 114 to 31
These changes will result in €45m a year savings and ensure that communities are better served by their local representatives.
But we must go further.
Ireland simply has too many politicians for its size.
We must question the very relevance of a second chamber. If the last decade of misrule has proven anything it is that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.
The Seanad did nothing to challenge the unattainable policies of the Celtic Tiger.
The Seanad is an outmoded institution that owes more to 1930s vocationalist ideas than it does to modern constitutional thinking.
Its elitist composition is, in my view, completely incompatible with a democratic modern Ireland, it has ceased to be relevant.
All of the Scandinavian countries have abolished their second houses.
These countries have, by general agreement, some of the most accountable and effective political systems in the world.
Other small successful countries, such as New Zealand, have shown that it is perfectly possible to establish checks and balances within a single chamber, unicameral parliament.
Successful Western European countries such as Denmark, Norway and Finland have similar populations to ours but significantly fewer public representatives.
The same is true for Croatia and Slovakia, while New Zealand, with an almost identical population, has only 121 members of parliament.
The reason why these countries have so few politicians compared to Ireland is simple. None of them has a second house.
Most of the new nations in Central and Eastern Europe have also decided that they do not need a senate. If a second house is so central to democracy, as some would maintain, why have so many of these emerging democracies decided to do without one?
The abolition of the Seanad will, when combined with the reduction in the number of TDs by 8, allow Ireland to cut its number of public representatives by almost a third.
Abolition will also save up to €20m per annum over time on the running costs of the Oireachtas. €100m per electoral term.
Along with the savings from the local government reforms, this represents very significant resources that can be used for other public services.
In re-building our State, we – the elected public representatives, leaders – must create a political system, that is leaner, more effective, responsive and more accountable to the Irish people.
Maintaining the status quo is not acceptable to an Ireland on the path to economic recovery.
This Government has already implemented a range of Dail reforms including a new petitions committee, an additional Leader’s Question Time, special sittings to allow TDs to introduce their own legislation and important legislative measures to increase the number of women in the Dail.
The new Inquiries Bill, published by Minister Howlin, will enable Oireachtas committees to once again undertake parliamentary inquires into matters of major public importance.
We are announcing today a further series of proposed changes to strengthen the role of the Dail in a unicameral parliament.
First, we will reform the way the Dail deals with legislation.
As a general rule all major non-emergency legislation will first be submitted to the relevant Dáil committee in Heads of Bill format. This means that suggestions for changes in legislation can be considered, and any key flaws identified, before the full legislation is even published.
To allow for extra consideration and scrutiny in the Dail itself, a new schedule will increase the amount of time available for legislation. In my view, four-day sittings will become the weekly norm.
A new “Pre-Enactment Stage” will be established after Report Stage and before a Bill is passed by the House. During this new stage each Bill will be referred back to the committee which originally considered it for a final examination.
A Minister will also have to revert back to the relevant Dail committee within 12 months of the enactment of a Bill, to review and discuss the functioning of the law.
Second, we will radically overhaul the committee system within the Dail.
14 Dáil committees will be established.
Each committee will have twelve members and will be able to invite external experts to provide specialist input into its work. The Government has been impressed by how the “expert panel” has contributed to the work of the Constitutional Convention and will examine how a similar-type panel or panels might contribute to the work of Dail committees.
We believe that the independence of the committees should also be strenghened. The d’Hondt system will therefore be introduced to distribute chairs of key committees on a proportional and equitable basis.
Finally, a new ‘10 Minute Bills’ procedure will be introduced to give TDs a greater opportunity to initiate legislation in the Dail.
It is my firm belief that these changes, when combined with the abolition of the Seanad, will give us an Oireachtas that is more democratic, more effective and less expensive.
The political establishment of this country, many of who now oppose abolition, has had seventy five years to reform the Seanad. Seventy five years during which not one meaningful reform was introduced.
It’s time that the Irish people were consulted and asked to render their verdict.