September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ll be holding a public meeting, where an open discussion will take place on the Seanad and the Court of Appeal referenda. This public event will take place on Thursday Sept. 26th at 8pm at the Goat in Goatstown, Dublin 14. Also speaking at the event will be Kevin Rafter, an author and political academic, who is campaigning for the abolition of the Seanad with the One House Group.
I’m inviting people to come along on Thursday to the Goat and to share their views on the Seanad referendum. Whenever a referendum is called to change our Constitution, it’s vitally important that citizens participate in the process, not only by voting but also by being actively engaged in the issues at stake.
The role and purpose of Seanad Eireann has been debated over many years. We in the Labour Party have taken a long hard look at the Senate, and rather than maintain it on the basis of a role it potentially could have, we believe there is no function the Seanad can perform that cannot be done by a strengthened Dáil Éireann. That’s why I’m campaigning for a YES vote in the referendum.
Even those who say we should keep the Senate appear to accept that it is fundamentally flawed, forcing them to ground their campaign on contradictory, and largely unworkable proposals for “reform”.
Please come along, and spread the word about the event as all are welcome.
September 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
“There is a serious problem, not only with the amount of alcohol we drink, but also with the harmful patterns in which it is consumed.
“Our accident and emergency departments, our Garda stations and the streets of our cities and towns are in the front line of public drunkenness and alcohol-related harm.
“It seems to me that Diageo has invented Arthur’s Day as a pseudo national holiday for the purposes of marketing its products – especially to young people – thereby stimulating greater consumption of alcohol.
“Regrettably, there are too many days of the week and of the year on which over-consumption of alcohol is a real problem, and we do not need to contrive another.
The hard truth about alcohol in Ireland is that we drink too much and we drink in too harmful a way. The only safe public health message is to reduce the amount of alcohol that we drink as a nation. Doing so is the only means of reducing the harm to our health and to our society caused by alcohol.”
September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
It is telling that there are no voices calling for retention of the Senate in its current form. Even those who say we should keep the Senate appear to accept that it is fundamentally flawed, forcing them to ground their campaign on contradictory, and largely unworkable proposals for “reform”.
As we approach the question of abolition or retention, we should avoid a reversal of the logical sequence of thought. Rather than taking its existence as a given, then seeking to devise an acceptable membership selection process and constructing a set of functions for the Seanad, the question should rather be: what is the case for having a second chamber in the first place?
The fact that this question is so rarely asked indicates not so much approval for the status quo as a general indifference to both the question and the answer.
The State can do without a house of parliament that so few of its citizens know about, care about, or would miss. The role of Seanad Éireann is unclear and its composition and electoral process are utterly unintelligible to most people. Rather than engage in a futile attempt to correct these undoubted flaws, we should confront the central existential question: why, and for what purpose?
In any representative democracy there must be a parliamentary chamber made up of the directly elected representatives of the people, which chooses the government and holds it to account, and approves legislation. Article 15.1 of the Constitution refers to the Dáil uniquely as the “House of Representatives”.
The directly elected chamber, whose members are accountable to the people, must have the final say when it comes to making laws and raising taxes. A second house must therefore have some other, additional function. It must in some way contribute added value to the process. It has to justify its existence. If the justification is inadequate, then it should go.
And there is no good argument for having a second general election for a second chamber. There is no point at all in having two houses that are both directly elected by the people as a whole. Apart from anything else, if both could claim the same popular mandate, how would a difference between them be resolved?
For what purpose?
None of this is to question the skills, expertise or eloquence of those who serve or have served in Seanad Éireann. Rather, it is a question of the institution itself. Why, and for what purpose?
In a society and polity which is not federal, where the rule of law is not threatened by majoritarianism but is maintained by the Constitution and the judiciary, and which is not sharply divided along ethnic or religious lines, there is no case for separate representation of certain interests in an additional parliamentary chamber.
The vocational panels to which 43 of the 60 senators are elected are completely anachronistic. They would survive the reforms being advocated by the No side, as would the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees, and the six senators elected by third-level graduates. Why, and for what purpose?
It has also been suggested that a reformed Seanad should deal with EU legislation. But it would be unacceptable for a body other than the “House of Representatives” to be handed responsibility for a vitally important source of so much of our law.
The Dáil needs to mend its ways, and to give this aspect of its work the priority it needs. But our laws are made – and must continue to be made – by the directly elected representatives of the people.
In 1937 de Valera attributed to the then opposition the view that “some Seanad, the best Seanad we can get, even though it may be adjudged a bad Seanad, is still better than no Seanad at all”. On the contrary, a bad Seanad is very much worse than no Seanad at all. It engenders cynicism, and brings the political and parliamentary process into disrepute. It gives the impression – a kind of false comfort – of providing checks and balances, where it does nothing of the kind.
There is a fallacy inherent in the accusation of a “power grab”: power cannot be grabbed from an institution that has none.
In the necessary process of democratic renewal under way there is no convincing case for retaining a second chamber. The case for its abolition literally is that there is no case for its retention.
September 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
The case for abolishing the Senate is that there is no case for keeping it.
We do not need two chambers in our parliament. One properly-functioning, directly elected chamber is perfectly sufficient in a modern democracy such as ours.
The State can do without a house of parliament that so few of its citizens know about, care about, or would miss. The role of Seanad Éireann is unclear and its composition and electoral process are utterly unintelligible to most people.
Some are now arguing for a directly elected Senate. But there would be no point at all in having two houses that are both directly elected by the people as a whole. Apart from anything else, if both could claim the same popular mandate, how would a difference between them be resolved?
There is a view that the Senate acts as a brake on government power and should therefore be retained. But it is nothing of the kind. It replicates the Dail in practically every respect, especially in regard to its political make-up. It was constructed precisely to ensure that it would not be a rival body to the Dail, which is the “House of Representatives” according to Article 15 of the Constitution.
As we look to our future, after the economic catastrophe of the banking collapse, we need to renew our democratic institutions. A strengthened Dail is essential, but there is no convincing case for retaining the Senate.
September 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
Alcohol is associated with many aspects of Irish social and cultural life; it’s central to so many of our social occasions. But we cannot deny the truth – that there is significant misuse of alcohol in Ireland, and that as a society we must be concerned about the damage of this misuse, especially amongst our younger generation.
Our difficulty with alcohol is that its consumption for social enjoyment is so often overshadowed by the harm and health problems it causes when it is misused or consumed in a harmful and hazardous way. We are all too well aware of the damage that problem drinking can do – harming the individual him or herself – but regrettably also harming the lives of families and even a wider circle of colleagues and friends. As a society, we have to rethink our relationship with alcohol.
Since my Department produced the report of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group in February of last year we have been working to bring to Government for decision a package of measures which, taken together, will help to reduce our societal levels of alcohol consumption to an OECD average. Principally these measures will tackle major drivers of alcohol consumption namely price, access and availability, marketing and promotion.
Let me remind you of four findings reported by the Substance Misuse Steering Group last year: Alcohol
· Was responsible for at least 88 deaths every month in 2008;
· is a contributory factor in half of all suicides and in deliberate self-harm;
· cost an estimated €3.4 billion in 2007 to the healthcare and justice system, the economy, and through alcohol-related road accidents;
· 1 in 4 deaths of young men were estimated to be due to alcohol in 2008.
This evening I’d like to focus a little on the merits of Minimum Unit Pricing. This initiative is a key part of our strategy to deal with alcohol misuse. Minimum unit pricing is a mechanism that imposes a statutory floor on price levels for alcohol products that must be legally observed by retailers. It works by increasing the price of alcohol that is cheap relative to its strength. The objective of this measure is to reduce overall consumption by targeting risk levels of alcohol consumption, especially by those who drink in a harmful and hazardous way. It will also impact children and younger adults by discouraging them from purchasing alcohol.
There is evidence that harmful and hazardous drinkers tend to purchase disproportionate amounts of cheap alcohol – irrespective of the income level of the drinker. Increasing the price of such cheap alcohol using minimum unit pricing should lead to a reduction in the consumption of alcohol by such harmful drinkers.
The Scottish Executive have placed Minimum Unit Pricing at the heart of their strategy Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action.
And while they have faced strenuous industry opposition, they have recently won a High Court challenge to the policy by the alcohol industry which presumably sees it as a threat to their sales and underlying profits. The High Court judge opined that it was not an aim of minimum unit pricing to eradicate alcohol consumption; nor was it an aim to increase the cost of alcohol for all drinkers. Rather, the measures are intended to strike at alcohol misuse and overconsumption and to get people to form a “healthy and sensible relation with alcohol”.
Turning now to the measures on marketing and promotion of alcohol and sponsorship by the alcohol industry of major sporting events. Sport has always made a positive contribution to the health of our people. However, I believe that alcohol involvement with sport and the pursuit of excellent sporting performance are simply incompatible. We must aim to extract alcohol from sporting experiences.
Parents and teachers tell our children that alcohol can be dangerous and must be approached very carefully. Yet children are constantly exposed to advertisements on television, and in cinemas, and elsewhere at all hours of the day telling them that drink is fun, is consumed by cool and good-looking young people, and is an essential part of social success. How do we expect children to receive a clear message?
Sports coaches tell our children and teenagers that good sporting performance and good health are generally incompatible with significant alcohol consumption.
Throughout our communities there are massive billboards – ads on bus stops, on buildings and on buses – representing booze as an experience that helps you transcend your mundane life and enter a world of beautiful people, sporting success and happiness. Meanwhile throughout these communities there are supermarkets, off licences petrol stations and even newsagents selling ‘naggins’ of vodka for a fiver and bottles of beer for less than 50 cent.
There is a clear disconnect between what we as a society tell our young people about alcohol, and what they are actually hearing and seeing in their everyday lives.
Last year the drinks industry spent over €39m on advertising alone in the Irish market. This takes no account of their ‘below-the-line’ promotion spend or specific drink advertising/promotion by the major multiples. National sports bodies have indicated that alcohol sponsorship is valued at somewhere in the region of a further €30m. If that figure is correct, it might suggest that the Drinks Industry is allocating 40% of annual marketing and promotion budgets to sponsorship – clearly a significant instrument in their marketing strategies.
Government is considering the measures I’ve discussed here this evening and other recommendations in the Substance Misuse report launched last year. We have consulted and negotiated intensively with other Government colleagues. Of course we have to weigh up all of the different arguments before proceeding. Governments across Europe and elsewhere have already taken measures; others are considering measures that we are also addressing. It is my earnest hope and expectation that we will reach agreement on a finalised package of measures shortly.
It is very encouraging to see so many representatives from the community and various organisations who obviously care about the dangers of alcohol misuse that we face in our modern society. I wish you well in your endeavours to raise public awareness and, working together, we can successfully achieve our goals.
September 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
Labour Party TD for Dublin South and Minister of State for Primary Care, Alex White, will be Labour’s Director of Elections for the two upcoming referenda to abolish Seanad Eireann and to establish a Civil Court of Appeal.
Minister White, who served in the Seanad from 2007 to 2011, will be Labour’s chief spokesperson throughout the campaign.
Speaking ahead of the campaign, Minister White commented, “The abolition of the Seanad is one element of our package of reforms to change the way politics and government works.
“The role and purpose of Seanad Eireann has been debated over many years. We in the Labour Party have taken a long hard look at the Senate, and rather than maintain it on the basis of a role it potentially could have, we believe there is no function the Seanad can perform that cannot be done by a strengthened Dáil Éireann.
“For that reason, we will be running an active campaign over the next four weeks, arguing the rational case for the abolition of the Seanad. Our campaign will be formally launched next week and will be supported by Labour Party representatives, activists and members, throughout the country.”