Seanad Reform

My Vision

[Speaking in the Seanad on the Heads of the General Scheme of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill ]

The question before the Government of our Republic with respect to this Bill is a very simple one: does it believe in democracy or does it not? A second question is whether all citizens of our Republic and those qualified to vote have equal rights in selecting their public representatives, or whether some have more rights than others.

In formulating the Bill, the Government is transforming its prior 35-year sin of omission into a sin of commission. The Government, in common with Labour Party and Fianna Fáil Governments in these Houses since the seventh amendment of the Constitution in 1978, sat on its hands and was guilty of a sin of omission by not instituting the reforms that had a clear mandate from the people. Since the Constitution was first implemented in 1937, all politicians in the House have committed a greater sin of omission, which was not to reform the Seanad to make it democratic. It is widely recognised that the cultural antecedents of our Seanad include vocationalism and a notion of noblesse oblige that came from the British House of Lords. Perhaps it would not have been said as bluntly as this, but some people were felt to have a greater right to determine the shape of our national Parliament than others. This is a small and grudging step in the right direction. I am going to be gracious enough not to impugn the Government’s motives for bringing it to the House at this particular time with respect to the outcome of the recent referendum.

If I had been an anti-apartheid campaigner living in South Africa before its liberation and the P. W. Botha Government had come up with the idea of extending the vote not to Africans but to people of mixed race, which would have made South Africa a slightly more democratic place but would have represented a heinous offence against democracy and fair play, I would have looked at it and said that, on balance, in the struggle to get full and free votes for everyone, it represents a chink in the armour. Perhaps this represents some advance. If the Saudi Arabians decide to introduce some limited form of representation for women or to allow women to drive cars between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. but not all day, we might say it was an advantage compared to the current situation but still an affront to the notion of decency and fairness. During penal times, if a suggestion was made by some quasi-reformer that the laws be changed to allow Catholics to have property and voting rights but only if they lived in Dublin, were over 5 ft. 6, or had not converted to Catholicism from some other religion, one might have said the upshot was a slightly more democratic solution but one that is far short of representative democracy.

The Government is embarking on a transformation from a sin of neglect and a sin of omission to a deliberate sin of commission, which has its name all over it. The Government is introducing a Bill, of which it is the auteur and the father, in which voting rights will be extended to some citizens of the Republic but not to all. The Government cannot hide behind the fig leaf of the 1937 Constitution or some Pope Pius X interpretation of what was vocationalism. This is the Government’s work, and on this work shall be its name.

We have two Bills that would address the fundamental democratic deficit in the Constitution, which deficit will remain after the Government’s Bill to implement the seventh amendment with the result that there will be two castes of people in the country, namely those who are eligible to vote in some elections and those who are not. The Government should produce, with but a fraction of the legislative effort made in the Taoiseach’s office and the Office of the Attorney General, legislation that would combine the Bill of Senators Quinn and Zappone and mine. This this would extend the franchise to every citizen and every person deemed qualified to vote, be it through citizenship or domicile. Thus, the Minister could fix the democratic deficit and leave a great piece of work as his legacy. I urge him to remember that if some of us are confronted with the choice between voting “Yes” and “No” on a Bill that extends the franchise from approximately 150,000 people to 800,000 people, we will vote “Yes” because it is better that more can vote than fewer, but it is an inadequate solution.

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