Democracy Matters criticises Government for slow Seanad reform

‘We haven’t gone away you know’, says Noel Whelan

From left, Feargal Quinn, Senator Katherine Zappone and Michael McDowell SC, at a Democracy Matters event in Dublin last September. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill /The Irish Times

From left, Feargal Quinn, Senator Katherine Zappone and Michael McDowell SC, at a Democracy Matters event in Dublin last September. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill /The Irish Times

Mon, Jan 13, 2014, 13:28

Democracy Matters, the campaign group established to oppose the abolition of the Seanad, has criticised the Government for delays in implementing what it described as real and meaningful reform of the Upper House.

At a press conference today to mark the 100th day since the referendum proposal was defeated, the group unveiled a paper outlining its proposal for reform.

Entitled ‘If there is a will to reform there is a way’, the paper sets out six “consensus principles” which it said could lead to reform. The first was an entitlement for every citizen to vote in Seanad elections, as opposed to the current electorate made up of elected politicians and graduates of TCD and the National University of Ireland colleges.

It also set out the principal of one-person-one vote whereby each citizen would only be allowed to vote once, be it on a vocational panel or on a university panel. At present university graduates who are also councillors or Oireachtas members can vote on multiple panels. The other principles include gender equality (where there be an equal number of men and women elected); a vote for citizens living in Northern Ireland; a vote for citizens in the diaspora; and an enhancement role in the scrutiny of legislation and EU proposals.

Opening the proceedings today, barrister and columnist Noel Whelan said of the group: “We haven’t gone away you know.” He said that the group had paid a total of €49,000 in the referendum campaign, a small fraction of Government party spending, and would launch a summer campaign to remind people of the need for reform.

“We have to win this phase by the strength and power of argument,” he said. The three main speakers were: barrister and former tánaiste Michael McDowell; Senator Katherine Zappone and Senator Feargal Quinn.

Mr McDowell gave a summary of the paper, which he said was a scoping exercise. “This paper designed to make the point that there is a job of work to be done and to query if there is some problem in carrying that job of work or reform through.” He pointed to the provisions of Article 6 of Bunreacht na hÉireann which gives the people of Ireland the right to choose their own rulers. He said there was no foundation in logic or law or in history, or “nothing in the Constitution that is contrary to giving every citizen in the country a say”.

Ms Zappone said there were some confusing messages out there and emphasised that it does not need a referendum and could be done with a Bill. In response to question that asking citizens to self-select one of the five vocational panels was arbitrary, Ms Zappone said it would spend the 100 days of this campaign to inform and educate people about the panels. Mr Quinn emphasised the good work that had been done by the Seanad, especially by independent senators, and the potential for greatly extending its scope.

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