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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., To Seanad Éireann 1 February 2018


A Cathaoirleach, A Sheanadóirí, I am delighted to speak to you today on Lá Fhéile Bhríde - Saint Brigid's Feast Day – a date which also marks the first day of spring. In pagan times today was known as Imbolc – a time for making plans and renewing strength.
So today’s speech, on my first occasion here as Taoiseach - is inspired by these themes.
Instead of providing you with an account of the business of Government, telling you how well the economy is doing, and how we are facing the challenges of Brexit, housing and healthcare – issues on which you are already well informed - I want to share with you my thoughts on the renewal and reform of Irish politics.
Sometimes you have to step back, to see how much things have really changed in our politics. Seven years ago Fine Gael came into government with its then partners in the Labour Party proposing to approach politics in a different way, and promising a new departure in the day-to-day running of political life. We talked about a ‘democratic revolution’. To some it might appear that those promises have not been fulfilled.
The truth is that many things have changed for the better in our new politics. ‘Old Politics’ had its charms but it was a much less palatable vintage. Three Oireachtas Reform packages were introduced by the Government between 2011 and 2016 and the vast majority of these reforms have proven their worth and have been retained.
As it happens, some of these reforms have made minority Government easier than might otherwise have been the case, even though they were not introduced with this in mind.
Among the reforms introduced in that five year period were:
1. A secret ballot for the election of the Ceann Comhairle. I believe we should do the same for electing the Cathaoirleach of this House the next time around.
2. Allocating Oireachtas Committee Chairs on the basis of proportionality. In the past, almost all committee chairpersons were from the government parties.
3. Linking the funding of political parties to the number of female candidates in General Elections. That’s made a real difference to both Houses. We have a long way still to go to have gender parity.
4. Pre-Legislative Scrutiny for Bills opening up the law making process like never before, and involving politicians before a bill is drafted. A major transfer of influence and power away from civil servants, advisers and Minister’s to parliament.
5. Allowing T.D.s an opportunity to bring their private members’ bills to the floor of the Dáil and Seanad. More have been enacted in the last five years than the fifty before. These include legislation to ban fracking, and an end to the ban on opening pubs on Good Friday, to mention just two examples, There are many more.
The people, perhaps in their wisdom, decided not to extend the remit of Oireachtas inquiries. Though we did put forward that idea. They also decided not to lower the minimum age of the President.
However, I know that, for many, it was still a case of a lot done, more to do.
So, following the 2016 General Election, a Dáil Reform Committee was established and it recommended a further package of reforms.
1. A Business Committee chaired by the Ceann Comhairle to set the Dáil agenda. It’s no longer set by the Government, though that hasn’t stopped TDs asking me to allocate time to debate a particular matter!
2. A Budget Committee to empower the Oireachtas to play a more meaningful role in the Budget cycle.
3. An Independant Parliamentary Budget Office.
4. Greater use of all-party committees to seek consensus on the best way forward, like the committee on Water chaired so well by Senator Ó Céidigh.
5. An expansion of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor.
6. An end to the use of the guillotine.
7. More time made available to the Opposition for Private Members Business.
Some reforms have had unforeseen consequences including disproportionate speaking time for smaller parties, and a significant reduction in Dáil time available to Government for legislation. I believe – and I have said before – that I think a rebalancing is needed here.
I also believe that the significant increase in the number of Private Members Bills now being published without any form of prior scrutiny or quality control is a cause for concern. There are now over a hundred PM Bills at second stage. Government bills do not make it to second stage without proper scrutiny from the Attorney General’s office, pre-legislative committee hearings, heads of a general scheme published well in advance and usually, the bill itself. We should not accept a lower standard for other legislation.
However, the vast majority of the changes have benefitted Irish democracy, and the reforms have helped to reinvigorate old institutions.
The Oireachtas has also passed legislation to ensure greater openness and transparency.
The Regulation of Lobbying Act was a major step forward in terms of transparency. We now know who lobbied whom, when and about what.
There is also an effective ban on corporate donations ensuring that powerful organisations and the very rich can no longer use their wealth to influence politics in the way they did in the past. It’s so different - and so much better - than other countries where money has far too much influence on policy.
Senators, I believe that our 1937 Constitution has served us well. And as we move closer to the year 2037 - and its centenary - there are, inevitably elements that are outdated need renovation and renewal. There were ten amendments to the Constitution in its first fifty years. There have been almost three times as many in the last thirty, and this year’s referendum on the 8th amendment is number thirty-six.
To help us to modernise our constitution, we established the Convention on the Constitution and later the Citizens Assembly.
Both were bold and innovative exercises in deliberative democracy, even though at the time they were dismissed by some as talking shops, or as a means to long-finger decisions.
As it turned out, both allowed representative groups of everyday citizens to consider important issues facing society. Their work has help helped inform and shape our political decisions. Often, they proved to be ahead of us.
We got an invaluable insight into what really matters to people and the conclusions they would come to, when given all of the facts, and the time to consider them.
The Marriage Equality Referendum and amendment was the most transformative outcome to date.
The Government has also accepted the case for a referendum on a number of other issues – giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections; removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; amending the out-dated article about a woman’s life within the home.
The Government is committed to holding referendums on these issues over the course of the next two years.
The Citizens’ Assembly has also submitted reports to the Oireachtas on the 8th Amendment, on how best we respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population. It has finalised its discussion on the question of the manner in which referendums are held; and how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change. By the end of next month it will have completed its discussion of fixed-term parliaments.
Recognising the importance of the issue of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, the Assembly was asked to consider this item first. The Assembly’s Report was then considered by a special Joint Oireachtas Committee ably chaired by a member of this house, Seanator Noone. Government responded earlier this week.
Any amendment to our Constitution requires careful consideration. Some of these proposed are matters of conscience. So, it is crucial that debate should be respectful of all sides and all strands of opinion.
In the 18th century Montesquieu believed that a bicameral legislature was superior, because the two parts would ensure that one checked the other, through ‘the mutual privilege of refusing’. That great founding father of America, Alexander Hamilton, likewise, believed that two chambers were necessary to prevent ‘the tyranny of the majority’.
Nonetheless, many countries, particularly small ones, get by just fine with only one chamber.
Following independence, our forebears decided that two chambers were needed in Ireland, and the Free State Senate brought together a diverse collection of men and women, poets and thinkers, specialists and innovators. There was also a deliberate effort to ensure that minority views were represented, especially Protestant and unionist voices. The Senate was a place where courageous and outspoken things were said. In fact, during the civil war, the chamber was threatened by Anti-Treaty forces, and 14 senators were targeted with assassination. Many had their houses burnt.
Times changed, and in the 1930s there was much debate about whether a second chamber was needed in Ireland, and the Free State Senate was abolished by Fianna Fáil. Eamon de Valera, claimed in 1934 that he did not hear a single good argument which would convince him that a Second Chamber was either necessary or fundamentally useful.
However, he was prepared to listen to other arguments, and the proposal for the Seanad was included in his 1937 Constitution. It very much followed the corporatist model that was fashionable at the time with panels representing industry and commerce, culture and education, labour and agriculture and administration.
The idea was that it would not duplicate or impede the Dáil. In fact, the Constitution is clear that the Government should be accountable to the Dáil. It does not say that about the Seanad. The Seanad’s true role is to be a check and balance on the Dáil. De Valera said that he believed the Seanad could be a ‘revising Chamber – taking up measures, criticising them from an independent standpoint and with as great a variety of viewpoints as possible’. Interestingly, he admitted that he ‘worked on the basis that even if we cannot get an ideal Seanad, then a bad Seanad is better than no Seanad’.
I believe that in 2013, when the question was put to the people, a majority felt the same way, they rejected the government’s proposal to abolish it, though I also believe they wanted reform.
Many formidable individuals have served in this House since its creation, and it has provided a platform for some of the most articulate and determined voices across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the Seanad has fulfilled its role as a revising chamber, nor as an independent voice, sufficiently in decades gone by.
In 2013, I supported the referendum to abolish the Seanad, as I was not convinced by those who argued that it would be possible to reform it. I did not believe that this would happen, as those opposed to abolition were not united on what a reformed Seanad would look like, or how it would function.
However the people have spoken and the matter is now settled. It will not be revisited.
As is so often the case, everyone it seems supports reform, but they are much less enthusiastic about change!
As Senators know, an independent Working Group on Seanad Reform was established by my forebear in December 2014 to examine possible reforms of the Seanad Electoral system within the confines of the constitution.
The Group, ably chaired by a distinguished former senator, Dr.Maurice Manning, reported in 2015. The Programme for Government commits us to pursue the implementation of the Report. I am happy to do so.
I want to give reform a chance and I want to see what we can do to implement, on a phased basis, the Manning recommendations.
I have decided that a Seanad Committee should be established, with an eight month mandate, to consider the Manning Report and to develop specific proposals to legislate for Seanad reform.
It is proposed that this Committee should comprise members of the Oireachtas with the assistance of outside experts as appropriate.
So, I will write to party and group leaders inviting them to nominate members for that Committee. It’s important that all groups are represented and also that it be representative. This will be done as soon as I can find a Chairperson acceptable to all sides.
The proposed timeframe is to put in place changes that will be used to elect the Seanad after next.
Among the recommendations to be explored is the idea of giving the vote in Seanad elections to all Irish citizens, wherever they reside in the world. There will be universal suffrage using the panel system, allowing people to choose which one suits them best. There is provision for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers. However the Constitution requires a secret, postal vote election.
The university panels will be retained. They have served us well, although they should be reformed to enable the decision of the referendum in 1979 to be implemented. This will open up the franchise to graduates of all higher level institutes of education.
The Taoiseach will continue to nominate 11 senators as that is also a constitutional requirement.
Councillors will still elect members to the Seanad, but not as many as they do now.
The logistical complications of requiring everyone to register to vote and to select a panel is significant. It will require a major public information campaign. A global postal election will be expensive and cumbersome.
So I do not underestimate the difficulties.
People will have to decide which panel they want to register for, with the most important principle that you can only have one vote, so you can only join one panel.
However I have absolute confidence that it will be possible to find ways of implementing the resolutions, or find workable alternatives. Of course, the Committee may also recommend other changes and these too will be explored and debated.
When defending the principle of a second chamber, John A. Costello praised Senators for ‘unselfishly placing their experience and their knowledge’ in the service of successive governments and of the country. Throughout history, the great strength of the Seanad has been the diversity of that experience and knowledge. For me, that is your shining quality.
I believe we should look to elect senators from Northern Ireland -from both nationalist and unionist communities - so that the Seanad has an all-island dimension and provides different voices on issues which concern us all.
As Ireland takes its place among the nations of the world – an island at the centre of the world – the voices of Irish people around the world should also be represented and heard. I support the election of more senators to represent our diaspora, to add to the good work of people like Senator Billy Lawless.
One of the finest people to sit in our upper chamber was W.B. Yeats. When defending the Senate from its critics, he said ‘if you are to create and preserve a habit of service, you must trust that habit and be ready to prefer integrity to every kind of weight and measure’. It is time for us to do the same.
In ancient times, people on the feast of Imbolc would look for signs of what the weather would be like in the months ahead.
If a serpent, or a later badger, came above ground, then it was a sign of bad things to come. This tradition crossed the Atlantic and is now celebrated in the United States and Canada as Groundhog Day.
When we talk about renewing Irish politics in a general sense – or reforming the Seanad to give a specific example - it can often feel like Groundhog Day. It seems like we are condemned to do the same thing over and over, often repeating the same mistakes, with little or nothing changing.
I believe in 2018 we have an opportunity to break that cycle.
I believe we can build a new political landscape which will renew the relationship between Irish people and their Oireachtas.
And I believe that we can achieve the kind of genuine reforms that people in this chamber have been advocating for a very long time.
A Chathaoirligh, a Sheanadóirí, inniu cuireann Lá Fhéile Bríde tús le tréimhse athnuachána agus leasaithe dúinn. Le linn an ré Págánaigh, tugtaí ‘Imbolc’ ar an lá seo – an uair sa bhliain a bhíoch leagtha amach chun pleananna nua a dhéanamh agus a láidreacht a mhéadú.

Dá bhrí sin, táim ag breith ar an deis seo chun mo phleananna do athnuachán polataíochta na hÉireann agus ár ndaonláthas a neartú.

Tá cuid mhaith athruithe tábhachtacha tagtha ar an saol le blianta beaga anuas, .......... rialú ar bhrústoscaireacht agus cosc ar bhronntanais chorparáideacha san áireamh.

D’oibríomar chun an Bunreacht a chur in óiriúint don lá atá inniu ann.

Cabhraigh saoránaigh choitianta ina ndreamanna ionadaíochta leis an bproiséas chomhairlithe agus socraithe pholaitiúil.
Ní mór dúinn machnamh cothrom a dhéanamh ar na leasuithe don Bhunreacht a mholfaimid i rith na míonna agus na mblianta atá amach romhainn. Ceisteanna coinsiasa - cuid acu atá á mholadh. Dá bhrí sin, tá sé ríthábhachtach go pléifear an t-ábhar agus mór meas a thaispeáint do ch’uile taobh agus barúil éagsúil den cheist.
Níos luaithe sa tseachtain, socraigh an Rialtas go mbeadh Coiste Seanaid bunaithe chun moltaí áirithe a reachtú i gcomhair áthchóiriú an tSeanaid.
Táimid ag plé ceist an áthchóirithe go ró-fhada:.......... anois tá an deis againn chun é a bhaint amach.
Creidim go bhfuilimid ar ár gcumas tírdhreach polaitíochta a mhúnlú a athlasfaidh an baint idir muintir na hÉireann agus an tOireachtas.
Go raibh maith agaibh