Transcript from the record of the Oireachtas 17th of September 2003 – Seanad Sub-Committee on Reform:

Presentation by Mr. Barry Ward.

Chairman: Good afternoon, you are very welcome. Thank you for making a submission and meeting us. We received 164 separate submissions and through a process of cross-party views and personal views, we picked a random selection. Your submission brought forward some interesting views. We have read your submission. If you wish to give a synopsis, we will follow that with a series of questions and answers. While the two main questioners will be Senators Dardis and Ryan, we can all chip in. As Members of the House, we have full privilege while you have qualified privilege.

Mr. Ward: I thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to express my views. I will run through some of the main points of my submission which looked at the role of the Seanad and how it might be changed, its vocational nature, electoral system and composition. I am conscious of the discussions that have gone on since the committee started holding hearings.

The role of the Seanad must be clarified. I favour giving it much more strength than it currently has. It is unfortunate that the Upper House occupies such a secondary position. While I understand that it has to occupy a secondary position, it is reinforced everywhere we go. It is reinforced in the Constitution, in statute and the manner of election. This is something that has to be changed if this Chamber is to gain legitimacy and the respect of these to whom it is accountable, namely, the people. This also holds for the method of election. I would see an increased role for the Seanad; it does not have enough teeth as it currently stands.

The vocational nature of the Seanad has failed. What de Valera conceived in the 1930s has not come about. It is very much a political Seanad and based along political lines. The panel system has failed in what it set out to do. The panels as they were constructed did not really serve the function for which they were established. The only part of the Seanad that has maintained its vocational nature is the university seats. They are the only seats that are, perhaps, less political than the rest of the Seanad. Other than the university Members, every Member is usually elected on a party political party ticket. The 11 nominees of the Taoiseach would also have a political stance.

The electoral system is one of the greatest stumbling blocks the Seanad has. In facing the people, the Seanad is very much a mystery and – as the Chairman said on the radio this week – is archaic and outdated. The vast majority, even those who follow politics avidly, do not understand how Members are elected or come to assume their seats. That is a huge problem. This House can never be accountable to the people until the people feel they have a responsibility for its composition. The indirect nature of the elections to this House is something that should be changed. If Members want the House to gain the interest of the people, it will have to relate directly to them. The only way to do that is by putting the trust of electing the House into their hands.

If it is decided that the House is to be directly elected, it will produce its own problems. Is it to be elected at exactly the same time as the Dáil? That would present problems in so far as there is no point in having mirror Houses. I would see a variation on a theme electorally. I would not favour a change in the electoral system. PR-STV is something that has come to be owned by the people. Even though it is a hugely complex system of electing representatives, it is something the people understand very well. One will often hear people talking about giving one vote to X and one vote to Y. Even though they only have one vote, they perceive that they have the opportunity to express their opinion across a broader spectrum than just one person. It is a fair and good system. I favour seeing its retention as a direct electoral system for this House. It could be varied either through the constituencies for which the Members will be elected or the time at which they will be elected.

The way in which the House is currently elected, whereby it is a certain number of days after the election of the Dáil, puts it very much into second place after the Dáil. Those who did not retain Dáil seats, or gain seats in the Dáil then have the opportunity to put their names into the hat for the Seanad. This gives it a secondary nature. I say this with the greatest respect to some of the committee. As long as it is like that, it retains a back seat to the Dáil. Perhaps the electoral system could be changed and there could be a four or six year Seanad term in order that it does not necessarily clash with Dáil elections. We could possibly have something like the mid-term election system in the United States, where, half way through the Dáil term the Seanad election would take place. Either way, it would vary it in order that there would be a different make up in the House. As I noted in the submission, there are possible difficulties with having a mid-term election as it would effectively become an opinion poll for the sitting Government and I do not think that is necessarily positive. The electoral system can be varied in any way. There is any number of permutations and combinations that could be used to bring about a different type of House.

I made reference to the six university seats, of which I am in favour of retaining. They are an important part of the House. However, they are outdated as I illustrated in my submission. The fact that the seats are divided in the way they are between the NUI and the University of Dublin is patently unfair because there is a much greater number of NUI graduates than there is of the University of Dublin. This is also the case for a range of graduates not covered at all such as those of Dublin City University, the University of Limerick and the largest third level institution – the DIT – as well as a range of fine third level academic institutions across the country. Some of these, like the Royal College of Surgeons, are old and totally unrepresented by the provision. While I would like this situation to change, I would like to see the retention of the university seats.

The Taoiseach’s nominees should go since they are fundamentally undemocratic. Mr. Noel Whelan said he did not think de Valera provided for the seats to give the Government a majority in this House. However, I think he did just that. The only reason they are there is to ensure a Government majority in the Seanad in order that one does not have ping-pong legislation and the passage of legislation is greased through the two Houses. That is not a positive development for the Seanad. It should be able to question and hold up legislation and hold the Government to task and make it difficult for it if that is what it thinks it should do. With this in mind, plus the fact that the Taoiseach’s nominees are wholly undemocratic, it seems ridiculous to any right-minded person that it is in the gift of one man or woman to hand out seats as part of the Legislature. I favour changing the manner in which those seats are selected.

There has been a great deal of discussion about whether there should be an increased number of Senators. I am not opposed to such a provision. However, if one is to increase the number of seats, one must justify the reason for doing so. This review offers a great opportunity to be radical, use slash and burn tactics and make some severe changes. It is easy to make small changes but it is much braver to make large changes which are what are needed to make this House relevant and accountable to the people. I favour increasing the number of seats if it was justified by giving the House more power and accountability.

Chairman: Mr. Ward’s submission was well and succinctly put. I invite Senator Dardis to commence questioning.

Senator Dardis: I thank Mr. Ward for his submission and attendance and contribution which was thought-provoking in some senses. Will he expand on the idea of the list system, plurality and variations therein? Such solutions as a national list system, part of which would be an independent list subdivided on the basis of European constituencies, have been suggested to us.

The idea of allowing Irish graduates from foreign institutions to be considered for the university seats is a novel one which may have been suggested by Mr. Ward alone. He also specifies in his submission that the private colleges would not qualify in terms of the electorate, even though some confer degrees by recognised institutions. If one carries that argument forward, there are some very eminent third level institutions, particularly in the United States, which are private and are at the leading edge in terms of academic quality. How does one reconcile those two positions?

I realise what Mr. Ward is saying in regard to the Taoiseach’s nominees. However, would he regard the system as a possible way of incorporating groups such as emigrants and people from Northern Ireland? A name could be submitted which the Taoiseach would be bound to accept or a list of names could be accepted. There is a vehicle for introducing people who otherwise would not get here or be a part of the political process. Is it pie in the sky to talk in those terms or could something be done in the area?

Mr. Ward: There is a range of electoral systems which we could use. I favour the retention of PR-STV simply because I fear that if we introduced a new system like plurality or PR lists, it would potentially undermine the system we have for the Lower House. As I said, people understand the way in which the electoral system works. Therefore we should retain it.

When the Senator refers to having a national constituency, I assume he means that Senators would be elected from a whole country constituency rather than a group of different constituencies. That is a way of varying PR-STV which I would favour. I would favour a variety of different constituencies. I am not in favour of the panel method. I do not think it works or reflects what it was meant to reflect and I do not see a reason for retaining it. It would be more useful to set up constituencies based on provinces or otherwise. A change of the electoral system on that footing is desirable but a change in its mechanics would not be positive.

While I favour the retention of the six university seats, I would like to see them expanded to include the universities I mentioned and certainly the likes of Queen’s University, Belfast, and the University of Ulster. If one is to logically extend them, why would one not include graduates of universities elsewhere in the world, whether that is France, the United States or China?

Senator Dardis: Would that apply to Irish graduates domiciled in Ireland or could they be domiciled abroad?

Mr. Ward: They could be either as long as they hold Irish citizenship. The university seats recognise graduates and the function of having university seats is not designed to create tiers of universities and decide that one is worthy of having seats and another is not. If one is to logically extend that argument, it should apply to all Irish people who are university graduates included in that constituency. That is the reason I extended it to foreign universities. There is an obvious logistical problem with that because those universities would have to register, submit their rolls of graduates and so on. However, that could be overcome, if not for universities in certain countries, then certainly in European ones. It is another way of introducing diaspora representation which has been mentioned a lot.

It is interesting that Senator Dardis raised the issue of private colleges. When I said private colleges should be excluded, I meant smaller colleges which do not have a footing. I know that certain private colleges are well established in Ireland and some that are not represented at the moment are very eminent. Perhaps the best yardstick to use to measure which colleges should qualify for university seats would be the CAO system, rather than compiling a list. It would seem to be more equitable to apply it broadly across the board in such a manner.

I feel strongly that no matter what way one changes the provision for Taoiseach’s nominees, when one has 11 seats of 60 in this House in the gift of one person, it is undemocratic and is a retrograde step. This is a great opportunity to get rid of what is a fundamentally undemocratic instrument within this House. In regard to using those seats to do something else, it is unnecessary to decide if one is going to keep them to allocate a certain number to Northern Ireland citizens or other sections of the community. Surely it would be better to take three seats and decide they are for Northern Ireland citizens, people with disabilities, people over 65 years, members of the Traveller community or whatever group it is decided should benefit from them. It makes no sense to have 11 unelected people in this House. I know that some Senators here are in that category. It is great to have the Chairman in this House because the loss of her seat in the other House is a loss of experience. Therefore, it is important that people do not lose out in that regard. However, it is not straightforward or accountable.

Senator Dardis: Mr. Ward also pointed to a lack of knowledge in the Seanad. To what extent does he think it is a product of the electoral system or are there other reasons for it?

Mr. Ward: Examining bicameral systems around the world, it can be seen that it is inevitable that the lesser House will engage the electorate less. However, to the extent that it is a product of our system, it is due to the fact that realistically, the vast majority have no say in who is elected to the House or what is said here. For that reason, its proceedings are much less reported in the media than those of the Dáil. If the House were updated to make it directly responsible to the people, it would gain their respect and, therefore, their interest.

Senator Ryan: I thank Mr. Ward for his submission, which was thoughtful and thought-provoking. Increasingly, I wonder about the claim that people do not know about the Seanad or are cynical about it. This is one of the more visible manifestations of a disaffection with politics rather than a symptom of something inherently wrong with the way we do our business, although Mr. Ward’s suggestions or variations on them could help.

As an example, consider how much the average citizen knows about the European Parliament, which is quite a powerful body. I am sceptical about whether the average citizen of Munster could name its four MEPs – who happen to be competent and experienced people. I am absolutely certain that most of the citizens of Connacht-Ulster could not name the three current MEPs from that region, as distinct from those who are elected, because one of them is a second substitute on one panel.

Mr. Ward has answered one of my questions, which was to be about private colleges, and I agree with him on that matter. How would we construct a Seanad in accordance with the stipulation that a second Chamber should not be a carbon copy of the directly elected House? What qualities are desirable in a Seanad that is reformed in the way Mr. Ward has suggested, qualities that would distinguish it from the Dáil?

Mr. Ward: It is certainly true that apathy about politics is a problem now, but to compare this House to the European Parliament is to use a false comparison. This House and its activities are in theory covered to the same extent as those of the other House; every night when this House is in session it is covered on RTE television. That is not the case for the European Parliament: Ireland only has 15 seats out of 626. Here we have a House made up of Irish people, which sits within walking distance of one million people in this city. It is covered in the newspapers, on television and on the radio. Although the European Parliament is not covered to the same extent, it receives a similar level of interest. This is mainly a result of the fact that Irish people do not have a role in the House or an opportunity to decide who sits here, and as long as that is the case they will not have an interest in the House. I understand the Senator’s point, but there is a much greater opportunity for people to take an active interest in what goes on in this House than in the European Parliament, and still they do not.

I said in my submission that the vocational nature of the second House was laudable, but also that it was a failure. I would very much like to see a vocational House, made up of sections of the community whose members do not normally get an opportunity of expressing their views. I would love to see seats in this House reserved for members of the Travelling community, for example. There is a huge problem whereby discrimination against members of this community is still seen as acceptable – it is certainly not considered as bad as discrimination against others sections of society – and it is still acceptable to make remarks about them. It would be an extremely positive move to take steps to address this by creating seats in this House for members of that minority. Similarly, seats could be reserved for people with disabilities or those over 65 years – the latter group will make up a large proportion of the population in the coming years. There is an opportunity to create groups in the House to represent the people concerned.

It is the duty of this House to hold the Dáil to account. Everybody who sits in the Dáil represents a constituency and must, therefore, represent local interests – I do not think that is how it should work, but that is the way it is. Here, there is an opportunity of creating a House that represents different types of interests, from different constituencies and members of the community. I see the role of this House as one of questioning what comes out of the Dáil. We have already seen an example of this recently, when Senator Ross took issue with the Bill that was to ban opinion polling during election weeks. He pointed out a small technicality in the Bill, but one that would undoubtedly have been exploited. I see a role for the Seanad in this area, but overall it should have more teeth and more ability to question what the Dáil is doing. It does not do this to the extent it could or should.

In the end, the Seanad is a political House, which mirrors the political make-up of the Dáil. There is a Government majority here, which is designed at the beginning of each Dáil session to ease the passage of legislation through the two Houses. I am the last person to propose ping-pong legislation, and do not think that simple and important Bills should be held up because one part of a House is just being awkward, but I do not think that would happen. If a system was created in which the people sitting in the Seanad represented more diverse, unheard and unusual opinions, it would be of much greater benefit to the Oireachtas as a whole and to the body politic than its current incarnation, in which it reflects the Dáil’s make-up and legislative functions.

Chairman: Mr. Ward obviously has a huge interest in politics, does he not?

Mr. Ward: I studied politics in UCD.

Chairman: It is clear from what he said that he follows the proceedings under the present system. Senator Brian Hayes and I are new to the Seanad, although I was here many years ago; the other Members present have been here for some time. If Mr. Ward looks back at the last 12 months of proceedings in this House and considers the flavour of the debate on many issues, he will see that it is not a “Yes, Minister” sort of assembly, as it might appear from his contribution, in which those on the side of the reigning party are bobbing their heads and those in opposition are shouting “yeah, yeah, boo, boo” to everything we say. Many of the sessions were not like that. Of course, there were set pieces, but in many cases people of party persuasion, particularly those who were Taoiseach’s nominees, had very strong views on matters such as third level education fees, the war in Iraq and various other issues. On many occasions, those who were supposedly on the Government’s side were well able to present their views in a fully rounded way, without looking over their shoulders at whoever was paying their salaries.

I do not mean to take issue with Mr. Ward, because I found his presentation and replies to questions very interesting, but I must say that what he described in his comments is not the way the business of the House is carried out on a normal day. There are set pieces, but there are also speeches which shake the system from time to time. They may not be reported but they are happening here and in many cases are infusing our thoughts when we speak. The House is not exactly a “Yes Minister” on one side and “Yeah, yeah, boo, boo” on the other scenario; often the way we express ourselves is cross-party, sometimes in agreement with the Government and sometimes not. Our job is to process the legislation, on which we are quite clear, but of all the Bills which became Acts in the last 12 months, more than 60% were initiated in this House. They were not initiated in the Dáil and sent here, they were initiated here and sent there. Some Members are more talented at discussing legislation than others but they are given a rare chance in this House to get to grips with it. That is what happens, as distinct from appearances.

Mr. Ward: I would not for one minute suggest it is as black and white as that, but there are lost opportunities. The sub-committee will agree that there were questions that were not debated to the fullest possible extent and perspectives that were lost through not having a more varied membership. The reason they were not reported to the same extent as would happen in the Dáil was that this House does not have the same relevance to ordinary people.

Chairman: I accept that and agree with it. The vox pop of people in the street does not surprise me at all. It is a House of mystery.

Senator O’Toole: And mystics.

Chairman: Yes, Mystic Meg. It is a House of mystery to many because they do not know how we got here. They can cavil at Dáil Deputies but 60% still vote when the time comes to re-elect them. I accept the point that the veils of mystery must be lifted and the business of the House must be made more applicable to people.

Senator B. Hayes: The parliamentary committee system was not mentioned. The question of relevance also applies to committees and ordinary back benchers in the Dáil who feel they have no relevance or input.

In the terms of the functions of this House, we must ask what input we can have in the decisions made by the Government. As long as the Government has a majority, legislation can be railroaded through and, no matter what Members on the Government side say, they will always vote for the Government. Was there any examination of a system whereby the Seanad could change its procedures in order that the Government would have to take cognisance of what was said in the Seanad before a matter was rushed through? We are simply a reflection of the Dáil on Second, Committee and Report Stages of all legislation.

The views expressed about the disconnection of this House and the public, however, could be made about the disconnection between ordinary Members of the Dáil and the public. The problem exists because of the centralised nature of the Executive and our party political system. Was there any consideration of how we could boldly go where no one had gone before to hold the Government to account?

Mr. Ward: I do not follow how my argument that this House is not accountable to the people could be applied to the Dáil.

Senator B. Hayes: I mean in terms of relevance to and perception by the public.

Mr. Ward: I still do not accept that the arguments are applicable. At the end of the Dáil term every Deputy must stand up and answer for what he or she has been doing for the past five years, everyone must put his or her cards on the table. Every single voter in his or her constituency can say that a given representative did not do one thing and did another and that is the reason he or she will vote for that person again. No one has an opportunity to do that in this House. With the exception of the university seats, all Members of this House are elected from a constituency of 900 elected representatives or they are appointed by the Taoiseach and, from that perspective – with the greatest of respect to Members of the House, because I do not dispute that it is a hardworking House that puts in a great deal of effort – no one here is really answerable to the electorate in the way Deputies are. That is a problem.

The opportunity to go boldly where no House has gone before lies in taking a forthright step by representing minorities, be they ethnic or those who are disadvantaged or under-represented such as members of the Traveller community, those with disabilities or even immigrants. That presents an opportunity for reform of the House that has not been seen elsewhere in the world and would totally change the make up of this House and the way it views legislation.

It would also change the way this House holds the Government to account. Although questions are asked and there are those who rail against the system and question legislation, this House has not held up much legislation to any great extent. There are exceptions but this House does not shock the system or get itself into the newspapers because it brings down Governments. If that is to happen and this House is to be truly accountable, it must be accountable to the people and there must be a change in the way it is made up. That is how the House can go boldly where no other House has gone.

Chairman: I thank Mr. Ward for his presentation which was extremely interesting. We thank him for making a written submission and coming in. There is no doubt that we will reflect on his views when we compile our final report.

The witness withdrew.

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