Seanad Éireann - Volume 142 - 29 March, 1995
Role of Seanad Éireann: Statements (Resumed).
Mr. Ross Mr. Ross
Mr. Ross: Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirleach. I have always been doubtful of the value of navel gazing in this situation. We have had this debate before, but navel gazing when there is a football match on is pretty unproductive and does not rival the alternative entertainment. I do not expect an enormous audience here this afternoon but I understand the circumstances in which we find ourselves here debating this particular subject.
I have been a Member of Seanad Éireann now for 14 years or something close to that. When I became a Member of this House first I found the procedures, motions and the composition of this House somewhat frustrating, but at the time I admit I had a different status. I now speak with a different hat on and find it easier to understand the workings of this House. That does not mean that many of us who are a part of the institutional establishment and the parties in this House do not find some of its procedures and methods frustrating and do not believe  that there is a case for Seanad reform; indeed there is.
Many of the criticisms which have been levelled at this House have come from the Progressive Democrats. I suppose it is tactless to remind them, because they do not remind us very often, being Members of this House, that one of the great pillars of their platform when they were launching themselves and afterwards was the abolition of this House. That had a particularly attractive populist ring about it, but they did not seem, when it came to the point, to find it so attractive to ignore the place.
It would only be fair to acknowledge that those who called for this House's abolition so loudly have been, paradoxically, some of the most constructive contributors to its debates. That is a paradox which they have not resolved. I presume abolition of the Seanad is an issue about which they have changed their minds in the intervening period. It would be interesting to hear a more recent revision of their attitudes to this particular issue and to hear whether they find that their own contributions to this House have been so useful that they think its existence is still justifiable. When the Progressive Democrats come to speak on this they might enlighten us about this.
The call for abolition of this House was a very hollow one. It was one which was made in the particular circumstances at the time when there was great frustration with politics and the Seanad became to some extent a target for that frustration. It shows a lack of knowledge of the activities of the Members of this House and a lack of understanding of why this House was set up; it also panders to populist prejudices. Whenever a party or an individual calls for something which knocks politicians in the public interest they are absolutely certain to touch a chord among the public, especially if they say that money is being wasted on politicians' salaries. Nobody outside political life ever disagrees with that. I do not believe that Members of either House are overpaid  — I think they are overworked and underpaid — but there is scope for giving them more constructive work to do for the salaries which they draw.
The question of whether the Seanad should exist or whether it should be improved could just as easily be applied to the other House. In many ways the Seanad plays a more constructive and less combative role than the other House. People outside the Seanad who have a startling ignorance of the purpose of the House often ask what it achieves and why it is there. Putting aside recent events in the other House. which were quite unique in that a Government changed, and laudably changed, without a general election, one might well ask before that whether there was any real point in the other House meeting three or four times a week and discussing legislation when the result of legislation was nearly always decided before it reached the Chamber. It is one of the faults in our parliamentary democracy that, by design, the Government and civil servants make decisions and the Houses of the Oireachtas to a large extent rubberstamp those decisions. It is not always true, but it is often true. The Seanad leaves an enormous amount of room for improvement and is beginning to offer room for improvement in the area of legislation and where Bills are initiated here.
It is a very good thing for the Seanad that the Government is in a minority here, which offers great possibilities for this House which are already being exploited. One of the major criticisms offered against this House was that it was purely a mirror image of the other House. It was not even a revision chamber; it was a place where patronage flourished and where legislation passed through without alteration and without notice. In the present circumstances that is patently not true. Where the Government has a minority it has to take account of the wishes of the Opposition parties and the Independents and, worse still for a Government, it has to take notice of the views of the people  within its own ranks. That is a great strength for the Seanad at the moment, because no legislation is guaranteed the same easy passage now as it was six months ago and no one is more aware of this than the Opposition and the Independents in this House.
Legislation now has to be negotiated through this House rather than rubber stamped. It has been negotiated through this House with enormous skill in recent weeks. We have had, as Senators will know, contentious and controversial legislation which has given rise to certain difficulties for Members of the House; but all the legislation has passed, because its value has been explained to independent Members and because nobody with the true interests of the nation or of this House at heart will use the Seanad merely as a platform to make political capital. If people in this new unique situation behave irresponsibly, the Seanad itself will suffer and will come under the microscope. That is exactly the sort of situation which I think was envisaged originally by those who set up at least the theory of a second Chamber, even if it did not work in practice.
I welcome the fact that the Government is in a minority. A minority situation is ideal for any Seanad because it means that the passage of legislation must be negotiated. It must take an input from those who are not on the Government side. That does not mean an adversarial system or that there has to be particularly hostile party political argument in this House. It means amendments must be negotiated, examined by Ministers and treated on their merits, but must not be rejected because they are from a certain source.
In the Dáil amendments, proposals, Bills and all types of initiatives are almost automatically rejected if they come from the Opposition. In the Seanad that is no longer the case, as has been seen on large and small matters, on amendments to legislation and procedural matters. We have seen agreements negotiated between the Government  and Opposition sides in this House, and long may that last. Legislation will be improved as a result of this quirk in the Seanad arithmetic.
Strange circumstances have given rise to the mathematics of the Seanad and the consequent welcome situation. The circumstances can initially be put down to there being 11 Taoiseach's nominees to the Seanad. That is a pity and should be looked at. The great irony of the present Seanad is that of those 11 who were appointed, a majority are now on the Opposition benches. That was never envisaged by the Constitution, because the Constitution did not envisage a change of Government without a general election.
If there had been a change of Government without an election and all 11 nominees had been on the Government side and had gone into Opposition, the position would have been untenable as the Opposition majority would have been too big and would have made it impossible for the Government to operate in the Seanad. It makes one wonder whether the thinking behind an inbuilt majority for the Government in the Seanad was good thinking. When Mr. de Valera and John Charles McQuaid and whoever else he consulted about the Constitution got together they decided it was most important for the Seanad to have a Government majority and beyond that they did not mind too much about it.
The lesson of recent times is that we do not need Taoiseach's nominees. They are used as ruthless instruments of patronage; used by all sides as a means of guaranteeing a majority and giving out party political favours to those who failed to get elected to the Dáil, who had done some service for the party or who happened to be a friend of the hierarchy and establishment of the time. They are not appointed on merit. That is not to say that some or all of them do not have outstanding achievements in their field and have something to contribute to this House. However, it means their first loyalty is to the Taoiseach or Tánaiste, or to a political party,  and that forces them to take certain actions which denigrates the value of this House to some extent.
It is not right to be totally impractical; it is important that the Seanad does not obstruct legislation willy-nilly. It is not a democratically elected body, so we do not have the democratic mandate of the Dáil. It has been searching for a function for many years and has not yet identified it. The original idea of the Seanad was that it should be a revision chamber; that it should combine the great and the good, the wise, the young and the old, who represent certain interests in society; that they should look again at legislation passed by the Dáil, discuss it and have the powers to amend it, but to use those powers sparingly.
In theory that is a worthy objective. In practice, as most Members will be loath to admit, it has become almost entirely a party political Chamber. It has become a poor reflection of the Dáil. On the whole, those who sit in this House have been happy and complacent to accept that role because most in this House, including me, have at some stage tried to be or have been elected to the Dáil. That presents a serious problem to the House in its search for a role. The actions of Members of the House are governed by that past political ambition or by other ambitions elsewhere, which means their loyalty to the original idea of this House is questionable and their loyalty to a political party is paramount. That remains unresolved.
The House will know that originally there were 43 seats on various panels, 11 Taoiseach's nominees and six university seats. Of those 43 seats which are divided into several panels and subpanels, in order to achieve the theoretical objective a large number are selected by vocational bodies. The theory is that people involved in education, farming, culture, administration — which I have never quite understood — labour, trade unions and industry should offer their expertise in those areas having qualified as candidates on the panels which demanded certain qualifications.
 That theory is worthy; but in practice, as everybody knows, the electorate which elects these people are the country councillors, county borough councillors and the outgoing Senators and TDs. The problem, as few of us are happy to admit, is that nearly all those people are members of political parties and vote only for members of political parties. Thus, the Seanad is elected with 43 Members who are political party members; the Taoiseach nominates 11 people to give him the majority, and there is a reflection of the Dáil. Suddenly, all those worthy aspirations reflected in the vocational bodies nominations are gone. I feel sympathy for the bodies who nominate people to this House because once the nomination is obtained the individuals disappear and put on their party political hats, nodding in passing to their nominating bodies.
The nominees then have inflicted on them the dreadful and absurd procedure of travelling around the country in the wind and cold to persuade county councillors to vote for them and not for another member of their party. They do not look for conflicting votes from other parties; their only objective is to dig into the pool which their party offers and to take from those who supposedly offer the same policies. They say that all they meet on that journey are liars and cheats and that it is utterly frustrating. Each person who goes on that campaign trail complains about it because they must leave their families for weeks and travel from one end of the country to the other, sometimes in a fruitless pursuit of votes. It costs them a lot of money and they spend most of the time backbiting their political opponents. It is an appalling system; it is one which, I do not believe, its creators envisaged however worthy their objectives and it should be changed.
In the end, we should not complain about the composition of the House. The only thing we can all complain about is how unfairly everyone is elected and how the wrong people, except ourselves, are elected. That is human nature. The system we have  inflicted on ourselves is inhuman and absurd. One of the problems of democracy here and elsewhere is that those who hold seats never want to change the system from which they have benefited. One only has to look at the multi-seat proportional representation system here, the obvious need to change it and the refusal of Members of the Dáil or Seanad to do so, to realise that the vested interests of those in situ always dictate that there should be as little change as possible because it might threaten their seats. That applies as much to the Dáil as to the Seanad.
The Dáil system of multi-seat constituencies under proportional representation is unsatisfactory. Multi-seat constituencies put pressure on members of political parties, not so much to take votes from their opponents but from their colleagues. Any member of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael who has stood for the Dáil knows there is a quota of votes in a constituency — a pool into which they all dip. The person who gets the most votes from that party political pool is the most likely to get elected. They must overtake their “colleague” and leave their opponents alone. This system is a paradise for backstabbers and those who want to knife their friends, colleagues and those who have the same policies as themselves, which is absurd.
The other aspect of proportional representation which is objectionable is that it forces people to take part in messenger boy politics in their constituencies as a priority over legislation. The legislative burden on TDs is particularly onerous but if one goes into the Dáil when the bulk of legislation is being discussed, it is nearly always empty. The reason for this is simple. In order to survive, TDs are forced to make constituency work a priority over legislation. That means that legislation is not properly scrutinised and that TDs spend more time doing constituency work than they should. We all get on the merry-go-round of sending numerous letters and circulars and making telephone calls, many of which are absolutely meaningless,  to keep up with our colleagues. As a result, we do not know what legislation is going through the Dáil because we must look after what are, in effect, small and local problems. Those who drafted the Constitution should have looked more carefully at this and the dual mandate of Senators and TDs being members of county councils.
There is a good case for Senators and TDs getting some experience as county councillors — it should not be obligatory or mandatory — before they reach either House because it teaches them a great deal about what is happening locally. I did this the other way round; I was a Member of this House for ten years before I became a county councillor. It was a revelation to me because it taught me a lot about people's problems. There is no shame in that.
In the context of Seanad and Dáil reform, we should look again at the almost mandatory necessity for Members of the Dáil to sit on county councils. In my constituency two Senators, Senator Roche and I, are on Wicklow County Council. There were five TDs on the council, counting the late Deputy Johnny Fox. To be a Senator or a TD, it appeared that one had to be a member of a county council, but what happens then is that the work of the county council takes priority over work in the Dáil or Seanad. If a number of Members are on the county council. it puts pressure on others to do likewise. The only solution is to forbid the dual mandate in both cases so that everyone is on an equal footing and cannot use the county council as a means to get elected or re-elected to the Dáil.
I welcome the decision that, after 1998, a Member of the Seanad or Dáil cannot be the chairman of a county council. However, it does not go far enough. The next step — which the last Minister for the Environment funked — is to say that one can be a local politician or a national one, but not both. This would mean that county councils would provide a tremendous apprenticeship for Members of the Dáil and Seanad. It would mean Members would  not be compelled to spend their time doing other work while ignoring legislation passing through both Houses.
I have drifted slightly from Seanad reform which has, in recent weeks, become more topical, but only in a specific sense. There was one item of Seanad reform on which there was a constitutional referendum in 1979 but which nobody noticed because it was about the redistribution of seats which never happened and probably will not happen in the near future.
In the Programme for Government there was also a proposal for Seanad reform. This was to give votes to emigrants so that three Members of the Seanad would be elected by them. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that I think this idea is absurd. It was probably concocted in a very short time, as was the programme itself, which contains some particularly worthy reforms and ideas. Like all documents and proposals put forward in a short period, this was ill thought out and totally nonspecific.
From where did the idea of giving not just votes but seats to emigrants come? This reflected a cavalier attitude to the Seanad and a willingness to yield to loud pressure groups at a time when a Government was being formed. I would not have any objection and think it would be very good if the next Government, when it is being formed — unfortunately this will not happen because most Governments are formed in a hurry nowadays — looks long and hard at Seanad Éireann, says reforms are needed and that it could be given a useful role in certain controversial areas in a radical way and a role to give a voice to a large number of people who do not have a voice in Irish society at the moment.
I object to the piecemeal way in which it was decided by the three parties in Government to give votes and three of the Taoiseach's nominees to emigrants. Why give them votes and why three seats? This is about 5 per cent of this House. This was an utterly arbitrary figure. The decision to give votes  to emigrants was taken because the emigrants' group was presumably the last group to which somebody who was negotiating the formation of the Government spoke. There was a great deal of lobbying by this group at the time. The idea that emigrants should be given 5 per cent of seats in this House is patently absurd unless there is some hidden mystical plan, about which we do not know, in Merrion Street for the reform of this House and to give it a new status and those who are voiceless a new say in what happens in the Oireachtas. It is plain that no such plan exists.
Three seats for emigrants came out of the blue without that much pressure at all. Somebody spoke to somebody else when the ink was being put on the paper and before the ink was dry it was decided to give three seats to emigrants. We are going to have the most extraordinary concoction of people here from New York, Camden Town. Australia or wherever, speaking for emigrants who will all have votes in the country of their origin. I cannot understand where this idea came from. Apparently the Taoiseach and the Government are prepared to give up three of their seats in this way after the next election. I wonder whether this will ever see the light of day. I hope it never does unless it is in the context of serious Seanad reform.
If this was a serious proposal it might have spelt out how these emigrants' representatives are to be elected. Will Mr. Gerry Adams and Mr. Martin McGuinness be elected here by the people of Boston and New York because they cannot get in here any other way and cannot get elected to any other position in Northern Ireland or here. Will extremists be elected by people who know nothing about Ireland but have sentimental feelings about it? Will 44 million Irish Americans be permitted to express their views on who should represent them in the Oireachtas? This idea is so absurd that I am convinced it was never thought out.
 In the present situation, if we had three representatives of emigrants' bodies instead of the Taoiseach's nominees, they would hold the balance of power in the House and would decided whether legislation went through. Every Bill, motion and amendment would be in their hands. Would we be prepared to put up with this? They would not last very long and this would certainly mean that the Seanad was due for reform at a very early date because nobody could tolerate obstruction from those who represented people who live overseas.
It would have been more helpful if we had been told how the representatives were to be elected. It may be unfair to say that they will be elected by the 44 million Irish Americans and all the Irish people in England and Australia. This may be taking things to absurdity, but I do not know. On St. Patrick's Day, if we told grandparents and octogenarians who had never been to Ireland that they were not Irish, they would slit our throats because they feel more Irish than many of us who have lived here all our lives. They would demand the right to vote because they have Irish ancestry and the same loyalties to a past Ireland which no longer exists but which flourishes in other parts of the world. These people would demand a vote and are being encouraged to do so by this silly proposal which is being used simply to pander to the unfortunate families whose sons and daughters have left them and gone away.
This will have to be thought out again. I hope the Government will have the courage to come forward within a short period and say that the proposal in its programme for votes for emigrants was a mistake and that it has decided that the proposal will not go ahead. In the present circumstances to have three such people exercising such power is too large a proportion of the House. It would be very difficult for any Government to accept that sort of situation. To have made that promise at a time when the Government knew it was going to be in a minority situation makes one  question the speed with which its programme was assembled.
It would be acceptable if we received the indication for which we have all been seeking; that the Government was looking at the Seanad itself and to giving a voice in it to people who do not have it already. I see great value in giving a seat to the unemployed, which is running at just under 300,000. Apparently our concern for emigrants and that they be heard is far greater than our concern for the unemployed. It is not good enough to respond to that by saying the unemployed are represented because they have a vote in Dáil elections.
That does not recognise the purpose of the Seanad, which, as originally envisaged, was to give groups like the unemployed a say in this House. I cannot understand why no Taoiseach's nominees have ever included someone to represent the unemployed, who are a deprived group with serious psychological and financial problems. They are not represented because those who are elected by the unemployed to the Dáil or the Seanad are also elected by many other people. The unemployed need a spokesman and this would be an appropriate place for them to have one.
The unemployed did not have any negotiating power when either the absurdly called Programme for Competitiveness and Work or the even more absurdly denominated Programme for Economic and Social Progress were being put together. They had no say and were cut out completely by the large groups with vested interests — the trade unions who claim to represent them but do not, the farmers and industry. The unemployed have been completely and utterly ignored. In the Dáil they have very little leverage. No party could claim to represent the unemployed because, if they did, they would be seen to have done a disastrous day's work in recent years with unemployment running at over 280,000. Every party represents the unemployed when in Opposition but no party represents them  when in Government. That is the truth of the matter.
Let us not pretend that everything about this House has been bad in recent years because there have been positive aspects. It was Mr. Charles J. Haughey who originally and very daringly decided to introduce the new concept of bringing people from Northern Ireland to Seanad Éireann. It was revolutionary and it worked wonderfully. The first Members to be appointed from Northern Ireland were Mr. Séamus Mallon and Mr. John Robb, Mr. Mallon was obviously here to represent the Nationalist tradition. Mr. Robb, although a Protestant, was not here to represent the Unionist tradition and his role here could not possibly have been interpreted as such. Mr. Mallon was a great eye-opener for those of us in the House at the time because he taught us, in a way which nobody else has since, about the thinking of Northern Irish nationalism. Many people in Ireland claim not only to understand Northern Irish nationalism but also to be supporters of it. However, I suspect that some of them had never met a Northern Ireland Nationalist, while others had never been to Northern Ireland. Mr. Mallon brought us a real insight into that thinking at a particularly difficult time in the troubles there. It was an innovation which will always stand to Mr. Haughey's great credit.
Mr. Robb was a different kettle of fish because he was a Protestant who was really a Nationalist and that was confusing for people in this House and further afield. Mr. Robb also represented a Northern Ireland culture, view and outlook which was radically different to what we believed in down here and which differed also from how we had seen them.
The inclusion of such people among the Taoiseach's Seanad nominees was one of the more dramatic and useful innovations made by Mr. Haughey in his time. It showed great courage, because he needed the numbers, but he put them in and allowed them to vote as they thought fit. I had many scraps  with Mr. Mallon in this House, particularly over issues like extradition, but it was extremely useful to have a debate and to hear a point of view which was new to both of us.
That tradition continued — with Garret FitzGerald reappointing Mr. Robb and appointing Bríd Rodgers in Mr. Mallon's place — until 1987 or 1989. At that time Mr. Haughey was so tight for numbers in this House and was under such political pressure internally that he had to give all the seats in his power back to his own party political hacks. That was a shame, because a useful experiment came to an end until it was reintroduced in recent years by Deputy Albert Reynolds, who appointed Gordon Wilson. Senator Wilson's appointment has reflected well on Seanad Éireann and has provided a tremendous interest and understanding of Northern Irish politics.
We should not over-emphasise the great value, in democratic terms, of people being appointed from Northern Ireland. While neither Mr. Robb nor Mr. Wilson are democratically elected politicians in their own right in Northern Ireland, they are men of immense principle who reflect the culture in which they live, and they can certainly educate us about the North. We should not however — and I do not think either of them would ever expect us to — take them as representative of Protestant Unionism because they are not democratically elected in their own country. But in terms of education and understanding, they represent a startling and welcome initiative which was originated by Mr. Haughey.
I would like to see the day come when a true blue, elected Northern Ireland Unionist would come here and say, “Yes, I will take a seat in the Irish Senate. I am a representative of unionism and this is what I think.” When they do that they would be speaking with the authority of what is known as an electoral mandate and they would be recognised as such.
I apologise for speaking through the football game and I cannot understand  why the audience in the Public Gallery is so large.
There are other areas where we could improve the procedures in this House. I do not believe for one moment that there is any case for defeating financial legislation, because the Seanad was never meant to do that. Indeed, I am not sure that there is any case for a non-democratically elected body to defeat legislation at all. It can improve it by consent but not in an adversarial way.
It is a great pity that the Seanad was never given the powers to introduce constitutional reforms. In areas like the divorce referendum we are not allowed to propose the abolition of the Article which many of us find so offensive. Such initiatives should be introduced here. It is a pity that over the period when this subject has been debated so intensely, particularly since the 1980s, the Seanad has played such a minor role because we are not entitled to introduce legislation of this sort. On the other hand, let us welcome the fact that, in recent years, particularly under this Government, legislation has been introduced in this House. One of the great advantages is that in recent weeks not only has legislation been introduced here but it has also been amended because of the minority Government position in this House. This means it will also not have to go through the extraordinary procedure of going to the Dáil, coming to this House and going back to the Dáil. We are now in a position where the Government is pledged to introduce legislation here which will be changed here. We see Seanad Bills debated in the Dáil on a regular basis but the Seanad itself is now playing a more meaningful role, probably because of the numbers rather than any great vision.
With regard to the university seats, we are all very fond of criticising the way everybody else was elected to this House — and I have played my part in the past. I would say to those who criticise the distribution of the university seats, and the university seats themselves,  that Seanad Éireann was never meant to be a popular House in the sense that it was democratically elected by the people. That would be absurd. We are not terribly popular people, otherwise most of us would be in the Dáil. However, we are elected in a different way; apparently the original idea was that we should give voice to particular sectional interests. The university seats were introduced so that academics and minority groups could give voice to a point of view which was not necessarily going to be expressed by anyone else.
A great deal of fuss is always made over their being elitist and that Dublin University has more seats than the National University of Ireland per head of population. I do not think they are elitist. I do not know whether that view was expressed in this debate because people are sensitive in the present atmosphere about criticising the Independents and how they are elected, a reluctance which they never showed before they were in a minority.
There are at least — and I am open to correction — 80,000 electors in the National University of Ireland constituency which must be a fairly large and representative section of the Irish population, although it probably gives a disproportionate say to those who can afford a university education. There is often a call for this franchise to be widened to other universities, including the University of Limerick, DCU and the regional technical colleges. No one could reasonably have any great objection to extending that franchise.
However, if there are 80,000 or 100,000 electors it cannot really be claimed that this is some sort of oligarchic selection procedure. These people are from every walk of Irish life. In some ways, we might have to criticise it as being too wide a franchise because it is larger than some Dáil constituencies and as large as many others. As a result, those elected represent a very broad section of the community and do not necessarily represent any particular  interest. They are almost democratically elected politicians.
That criticism is answered by the fact that the National University of Ireland has three seats. They tend, because it is a multi-seat constituency, to send to this Chamber people who represent particular vocational interests. Teachers almost automatically take a seat in the NUI constituency, which is probably not a bad thing, and that can only happen provided it is a multi-seat constituency. It is a particularly good thing that teachers, with whom I have many personal disagreements, should be unashamedly represented in a House such as this because it is a sectional group with a vested interest whose voice should be heard.
Widening the franchise would probably make those constituencies larger than Dáil constituencies and unwieldy in terms of those who stand as candidates. However, to accuse a constituency with around 100,000 electors of being elitist is fairly absurd in a House of this sort which was never democratically elected.
The same criticism is often made of the Dublin University seats. There are historical reasons Dublin University was given three seats, of which everyone in this House is aware. There was a feeling that Protestants in the Irish State might be under-represented and Dublin University, which was at the time an almost exclusively Protestant university, was thought to be an ideal source of representatives of the minority for this House who might not get representation in the Dáil. In retrospect, that fear was unnecessary. The Protestant population in the Republic has been extremely well treated and many would say that they have been given preferential treatment in terms of their schools. The reason for that is another day's work. They do not feel they have been discriminated against in any way, and not to the extent that they need some sort of special treatment or representation in this House.
However, the representatives of Trinity College, Dublin — and I do not wish  to indulge in any praise for my predecessors or, even less, for my colleagues —have represented a liberal point of view which was lacking in this and the other House. We only have to look at the names of many of those who have represented Dublin University to realise that there was a common trend running through their philosophy which was almost unanimous throughout this period.
I do not believe that, in 1969 when Mary Robinson was originally elected, she could have possibly been elected to the Dáil. Indeed, she stood for the Dáil twice, in 1976 and subsequently, and was defeated. She found her original platform in a Dublin University Seanad seat. She had a liberal attitude which at the time was certainly not shared by many people in this House and was definitely not shared by many in the Dáil. That is a monument to the value of this House.
Owen Sheehy-Skeffington was also a representative of Dublin University. He was earlier than Mrs. Robinson although I think that they overlapped for one year before he died. He presented a point of view which would have prohibited him from getting into the Dáil at that time, just as it prohibited Mrs. Robinson, but which would now be shared by a large number of young people. Senator Norris would have had enormous difficulties getting elected to Dáil Éireann at the time he was elected to Seanad Éireann. Indeed, I do not think Senator Norris harbours any such ambitions, although one never knows with him. Since he came to Seanad Éireann, as a representative of Dublin University, he has led, and often been ahead of, public opinion on many issues and has shown courage which would have obstructed him from receiving a purely democratic mandate elsewhere.
I do not want to go into a litany of praise for others, but the university seats, as reflected by ex-National University Senators like John A. Murphy and current Senators like Joe Lee and in Trinity's case by Noel Browne, Conor  Cruise O'Brien and many others, have reflected a point of view which has not been reflected in its day elsewhere in Irish parliamentary democracy. If there is no other justification for Seanad Éireann, and there may not be, these people have justified it in themselves. A very large public platform had been given to those people to promote a liberal agenda which horrified the rest of the parliamentary population of this country at the time, which in itself is justification for the existence of Seanad Éireann.
That does not mean — I do not hesitate to say this — that Seanad Éireann does not have room for improvement. There is enormous room for improvement. But I have been encouraged, not only in this welcome present minority situation but in other circumstances, to see so many amendments accepted by all Governments in this Chamber and I would like to see more of this happening.
The Companies Bill was introduced in this House in 1977-78 by Deputy Reynolds and Deputy Séamus Brennan of the Fianna Fáil Government. After it had got through Second Stage, the Government of the day, because of the less contentious attitude in this House, came back and amended that Bill radically in many stages and forms and cut out many sections. In particular, it amended the rules on insider dealing in the Stock Exchange. It introduced penalties which are stricter that that of any of our overseas counterparts. It recognised the weight of the argument made by many of the Members of this House about the state of our company law and company practices.
Similarly, the Coalition Government, under Garrett FitzGerald, introduced the Control of Clinical Trials Bill in this House as a direct recognition that this House had people who could offer expertise in this area to which not only the Minister was willing to listen but so also were his civil servants, who either listened on their monitors or read the scripts. In a direct recognition of that,  the Bill was again altered radically having gone through Second Stage. That was very important, not only for the legislation — it was vital because it was highly sensitive legislation about experimentation on individuals by doctors — but also for this House, because it was a recognition of what can be done here, without any rancour and problems, between the parties. That is what happened that day. After Second Stage — its mechanics were a little petty in that amendments were not accepted from the Opposition or the Independents — the Government introduced its own. It did this because it liked to; Governments tend to be excessively vain about these matters. They were introduced in direct response to Opposition and other Senators' pleas.
That is the type of Seanad we wish to see, a Seanad where party political divisions are reduced but legislation is improved, a Seanad where there are few votes and little political capital to be made but where we can improve legislation and leave the rough and tumble of politics to the very appropriately named Lower House.
Mr. McGowan Mr. McGowan
Mr. McGowan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject, but in so doing one has to wonder about the effect this debate will have.
I am honoured and proud to be a Member of this House — I have been elected six times — and I have listened to a lot of criticism of the Seanad and its Members. I always reply to that by saying that one can only qualify as a critic after one has become elected. I have travelled from Cork to Donegal seven times in my effort to get elected to the Seanad. I know what it is like to be elected. Some people find it easy to criticise the Seanad; they call it a place for defeated TDs. I have found the Members of the Seanad to be totally committed people. If Seanad reform went to a vote, the vast majority of Members would vote in favour of it, although we may differ in the range of reform.
 A different situation existed when this House was initially established under the Constitution. I listened to Senator Ross with great interest. He has a perception of the Seanad which I would not share. Senator Ross referred to local authorities. However, he has not had the groundwork or the value of being an active member of a local authority, otherwise he would not talk about them in this way. He also talked about the value of a university seat. When the Constitution set up the Seanad, the nation consisted of a semiliterate public and there was a necessity to have an input from the elite or educated classes, which is why the universities were given block representation in this House. We have long since moved away from this situation. I do not have any hard feelings towards any university Senator, but the day has come to look at the contribution the Seanad can make.
I also share the view that the Seanad should extend its representation, if we are to allow all our universities, including the University of Ulster and third level colleges, to nominate people to the Seanad. This could be carried to the point where it becomes impossible to include all of the different structures. Not all of them can have the privilege of nominating and electing Members to the House.
I share the concern of Senator Ross with regard to the granting of votes and three Seanad seats for emigrants. It is impractical and impossible. Anybody involved in elections and maintaining a register of voters finds it nearly impossible, even at local authority level, to keep a register, given the number of people who have died, have left the area or have changed their addresses. Approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the register of voters in local authority and national elections are invalid. Given this, how is it possible to prepare a register of electorates for emigrant voters? Where would one begin — in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, France, Germany — and end? How long would it take to compile and how would it be put together, covering as it would every part  of the world? For, example, would we include the countries which the President visited recently?
It is not possible to proceed with this, and those who propose it have not considered the matter fully. I say this, knowing how difficult it is to compile the register of electors, even on a county basis, and make it efficient. The voting register is not compiled properly even at national level. For this reason I have not given serious consideration to the proposal to give votes to emigrants. It is not possible and it will never happen.
The Seanad should be reformed to the point where somebody from County Cork does not have to travel to County Donegal or where, for example, I would not have to visit County Cork, because I will only return to make contact with the same voter at the next Seanad election. There is no element of communication or representation in this. The structures should be regionalised so that elections take place on a regional basis, employing, for example, the system of constituencies in use in the European elections. This must be considered sooner rather than later, because we will never get away from talking about reform of the House if some Government does not do something about it. Regionalising the vote is a first step and one which I strongly urge.
There are approximately 18 Oireachtas committees. This is almost an impossible number given the need to attend them while at the same time being an effective Member of one of the two Houses. Until the public becomes more familiar with the work we undertake, it looks good to establish committees, to be more efficient, more effective and sit more days, including during the summer. However, deliberations by committees must be implemented by this House and the other House and the process then becomes difficult to operate.
We find it necessary to establish 18 committees, yet every second month — if not more frequently — there are demands in the House for a debate on the North of Ireland. Given this, and  given the proposal in the Framework Document for cross Border institutions, the Seanad should be representative of all Ireland. It would be sensible and practical to proceed on this basis. Members from the North of Ireland have been involved in the Seanad going back to its formation, including Willie Sheldon and various nominated Members. They have been active and major contributors to the House, up to and including Senator Wilson and Senator Haughey, two active participating Members. They have not been less efficient because they are from the North of Ireland or of different religions and they have indicated that there is a possibility of building a cross-Border bridge. From this, we can have a Parliament in Stormont and in Dublin, with a Seanad that undertakes less controversial business.
Reform of this House could make it an all-Ireland Seanad. If we are to do anything other than tinker with the structure of the Seanad, we must be imaginative. We are a small island and, whatever the present problems, we must look to the day when this island will be administered as one unit, and I could enumerate endlessly on the benefits of this. Some people will revolt at the thought of it, but in a European and world context we are far too small an island to endure division.
I was recently at the launch in Killybegs of a boat for the fishing industry which cost £32 million, but yesterday a representative from a union in the shipbuilding industry in Belfast was on the news programmes advising that Harland and Woolff was about to close down as it had no business. We are losing the skill and the knowledge of building ships on this island and are going outside the EU — to Norway — to get all of our major fishing boats built. We must get rid of bigotry and shortsightedness; economic necessity will force us to be practical and to look to ourselves. We will have to do more of this, because the large amounts of EU funding will not continue and the economy of the  day will force us to look to the business institutions which must survive.
The Republic of Ireland can help to sustain and maintain employment in the shipbuilding firm of Harland and Woolff in Belfast. It is a company which had a name in the past of employing those who were, perhaps, religious bigots. A view of the firm, as shown on film, indicates that this has changed somewhat. It will change more, and we will get away from thinking about where people went to church on Sunday. I have sat with the Acting Leader of the House in this Chamber for the past two years and I would not have known her religion but for a controversy involving her and the Bishop of Limerick.
Religious persuasion does not make me or the Acting Leader of the House different people. As I always say during a religious debate, if a person goes to a bank manager for a loan of a few thousand pounds he does not wonder whether he is a Protestant or a Catholic or if a person is undergoing a serious operation he does not wonder if the surgeon is a Protestant or Catholic. In Dublin the question of religion and bigotry does not arise. However, where I come from one has to be aware of it; that is the reality. Psychologically one is thinking of where a person comes from. I say that for a reason — I honestly believe it is slowly but surely disappearing from this island.
There are not many Members here today — we are keeping the House going while the other Members are enjoying the match. Nevertheless, I suggest that this island could progress if we could secure agreement or move towards an agreement on an all-Ireland Seanad. At first we might have difficulty getting people to agree to participate. However, I believe it is on the cards. It would be an appropriate step while we are talking about cross-Border institutions that might or might not be accepted and the political connotations of such bodies.
This is an open House where there is no impediment to anybody's political or religious beliefs and we must be seen to  be open, fair and honest in tackling the problems of the country. North and South. Every month there is a request in this House to debate the North. Often debates overlap into discussions of problems in the North of Ireland. In fact the problems of the whole island are affected by the current difficulties in the North of Ireland.
I will urge my party colleagues and my colleagues at senior level in the party to look at the possibility of making the Seanad an all-Ireland institution. I am sure I could persuade the Acting Leader of the House, Senator O'Sullivan, to think in the same terms. If one looks into the future one can see the need to be outward looking and the need for that progressive approach.
I could speak at length about how Senators are elected; I could speak favourably or unfavourably about Senators representing the universities but, ultimately, there must be a review. The Seanad was established 70 years ago. A newspaper printed 70 years ago is out of date today. The Constitution under which this House was established did tremendous work and had a stabilising effect on the nation at the time. However, it must be re-examined and altered. This House is crying out for change. All of us have a contribution to make and I will continue to advocate that we examine the concept of an all-Ireland Seanad. It will be a hard sell and will take a long time. However, I see a future in which this House will be recognised by and will receive participation from everybody on this island.
I do not know how the electorate will be organised. That is another day's work. The issue can be researched; there might be more representation through the universities. However, local authorities can never be ignored. Their members carry the burden, even though they are under-financed, for the services they must deliver. The elected members of local authorities are the grassroots of political life and they must never be ignored. The people elected by councillors are worthy of being in this House.  I am elected by local authorities. I have no difficulty with that and I do not consider myself a less favourable Member of this House than other Members. I am elected by the grassroots; I am not here through the universities or by nomination.
Whether I am the most eloquent or least eloquent person who was ever in the House does not affect my strong commitment to the House. This House can do much better. We have reached the stage where we need reform and I would like to see such reform implemented in the near future.
Ms O'Sullivan Ms O'Sullivan
Ms O'Sullivan: There have been good and wide ranging contributions to this debate. However, I pay particular tribute to the previous two speakers who offered interesting and strongly felt opinions. Senator McGowan's concept of an all-Ireland Seanad is not possible under the present Constitution. However, it gives us food for thought and should certainly be examined in the context of our discussions on Northern Ireland.
Senators have discussed comprehensively a number of aspects of the Seanad that could be reformed — its composition, its structures, its procedures for debate, the facilities for Members and how Senators are elected. Obviously we are limited by the Constitution in the reforms we can contemplate although, as Senator McGowan said, there is discussion at present about constitutional reform. Perhaps the Seanad might be part of that discussion.
Some Members referred to calls that are made from time to time for the abolition of the Seanad. I am glad to see there is no serious call for its abolition at present. The most important functions of the Seanad include the initiation of legislation and discussion of legislation with a view to amending and improving it. Senator Ross made a good point when he said that because the Government has a minority in the Seanad there has been greater focus by all sides of the House in discussion of legislation. The fact that the Government has a minority has focused our  minds more clearly than was the case in the past on the need to take on board all views in the House. In addition, the fact that the Seanad is probably less confrontational than the Dáil makes it easier to amend legislation without being party political or contentious about it. That is an important function of the House.
Other speakers referred to facilitating the questioning of Ministers. Although that occurred recently, it is not common practice. Members suggest that it might become a more common occurrence. It was also suggested that we might vary the length of speeches to allow different and fuller participation and debate.
Many suggestions have been made about the composition of the Seanad. That is a matter for the Constitution. Already representation for emigrants has been proposed, although Senator Ross believed the proposal to have been made at short notice without adequate forethought. This was also suggested in the last debate on reform of the Seanad, which was before I became a Member. In the synopsis of the recommendations at that time, votes for emigrants was mentioned, so this is not a new concept dreamed up in the consultations on the make up of the present Government.
Senator McGowan said there should be more Northern voices; other Senators referred to the fine contributions from Northern Members at various times. There have also been fine contributions from various university Senators through the years. It has been advocated that we should extend the franchise to graduates of the newer universities and the regional technical colleges. Other suggestions were made about Oireachtas committees; that would not be a voice for this House alone but for the Oireachtas as a whole.
Content of debates was discussed and Members felt there should be more emphasis on European and foreign affairs. Some said minority voices and views should always be heard in this House. I mentioned earlier that young people have only a slight interest in the  political process and perhaps the Seanad should take their views on board and be more accessible to them so that they would feel they participated in the political process.
We have had a wide ranging discussion. On the last day the Leader proposed setting up a committee to examine all the proposals put forward in this and previous debates on reform of the House. This will probably be a subcommittee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges as the full committee would be too large. Those proposals would then come before the Seanad for consideration.
This has been a good debate and the recommendations will not be left on the shelf; once the committee gets to work action will be taken on the proposals. I thank all who contributed, particularly those who spoke today when there were other calls on our attention.
Sitting suspended at 3.35 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.
Seanad Éireann 142 Role of Seanad Éireann: Statements (Resumed).