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Independent Senator Katherine Zappone, alongside colleague Fergal Quinn recently brought forward the Seanad Reform Bill 2013. For Senator Zappone, abolishing the Seanad is not an option because although the upper house is in need of reform, it nevertheless ensures a democratic system of governance and “provides effective checks and balances to the power of the Dáil, the power of the cabinet, the power of the foremen at the centre of cabinet”. The alternative, a situation where there is no room for a genuine debate and diversity of views “to influence the outcome of law making” can, in the Senator’s opinion, be “dangerous” for democracy.

The role of the Seanad

In conversation with Senator Zappone she makes clear her belief that “all power

centralised in the Dáil is dangerous” and despite her agreement that the Seanad in its current format is not “as effective as it could be”, she still believes that it is “unique” and provides “checks and balances and a diversity of views”. The Senator draws attention to the fact that the Seanad has also made substantial amendments to laws over the last couple of years, one example being the Personal Insolvency Bill, a piece of legislation that will affect many Irish citizens. The Seanad imposed an amendment during its scrutiny of the personal insolvency legislation in order to ensure both a minimum standard of living and also a manner through which this could be determined. This, the Senator states, “protects a lot of people and not just inter-generational poor but the new poor, people of middle class who move into poverty because of the crash and the fiscal crisis”. It shows, she says, that the Seanad “is already doing a job checking mistakes, and that the Dáil does not do it all”.

Possible amendments

While the Senator does not agree with those opposing a retention of the Seanad she admits that it may not have reached “the potential that was originally envisaged for it”. With regard to amending the current situation, an ideal scenario proposed by the Senator would be two houses, one with representatives elected based upon geographical boundaries i.e. the Dáil, and another with representatives elected based primarily upon their expertise and practical knowledge. “A house where people are representing through a geographic choice matched with a house where representatives are voted in on the basis of expertise.”

In this way the upper house would be formed through the relatively new term, “constituencies of interest”. And, having worked for years in the social partnership arena where policy was negotiated on the basis of communities of interests as well as sectoral interests, the Senator believes that, in this context, “we could potentially have people being genuinely voted in because of their sectoral interest”.

For this reason, Senator Zappone is keen to not only retain the nominating bodies but to expand them. She recently hosted an evening for potential nominating bodies in the Central Hotel where a number of groups from the human rights and equality sector were in attendance. Interestingly, most of these groups had never even thought that they could qualify to become a nominating body. The Senator believes however, that the importance and benefit of including bodies from this sector cannot be ignored; if they do nominate a candidate, she explains, “they are more likely to pick someone who is a leader in the civil society context and who maybe even has that leadership capacity because he or she is actually experiencing whatever the issues are”. Whether it be that the person is disabled and can therefore speak for people with disabilities or unemployed and therefore represent those who are challenged by poverty, this type of candidate would no doubt bring their unique identity to the role. This is something that would be highly beneficial as it would simultaneously provide a “check on the power while also offering the provision of knowledge and expertise to enable us to move forward”.

Government plans post referendum

Should the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad fail, does Senator Zappone think the Government will commit to implementing reforms? “Some Ministers are saying there is no plan b”, yet, despite this, those advocating to abolish the Seanad “have not developed very strong rationale at all”. The Senator feels that in some ways the Government is “almost insulting the intelligence of the Irish people by saying it is either get rid of it or keep it the way that it is”. She says that the Government has adopted an attitude of “If you choose to keep it then, well maybe we’ll think about reform” – “how bad is that?”.

This stance is all the more surprising if you consider the fact that there have been numerous reports advocating for a reform of the Seanad since its establishment. Government has not offered the people “an appropriate choice”: the choice is between abolition and retention, when it should have been between abolition and reform. “If the Government really was concerned about developing the best form of governance, they are not offering the correct choice”.

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

Having served as a Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Senator Zappone has a strong opinion on another specific area of governmental reform – the merger between the current Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority to form the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC). Would this enhance human rights and ensure equality? According to the Senator, the new body has the potential to achieve success in this regard, “as long as the legislation is right”. She explains that prior to the merger taking place, Senators had received heads of this Bill and offered their views, particularly around the appointment of a new Chief Executive. One of the key areas at stake however, is how to “define the role of this new Commission”.

This is something that “was not adequately defined” in theHeads of the Bill. The new body, is a merger between the Human Rights Commission, the primary goal of which is “to protect and promote human rights”, and the Equality Authority, the main aim of which is “to ensure the protection of all the people who fall within the grounds of concern in terms of equality law.” “In order for it to be an effective body, they have to find a way to successfully amalgamate and understand how they will protect and defend the human rights of everyone with a very particular way of understanding that those rights are promoted and protected differently depending on your identity”. The Senator points out that the current definition of equality is “very weak, as opposed to the definition of human rights”.

Other projects and interests

Current goals aside, what else does the Senator hope to achieve during her time in Leinster House? As the only country in Europe with no legislation to enable people to change their gender and to be recognised to ensure gender recognition under law, the Senator intends to pursue this and urge for this legislation in Ireland. The one benefit of being so late in drafting legislation on this issue, the Senator remarks, is that we now have the opportunity to do it right and follow the models of best practice that are now firmly in place.

Additionally, the Government,she says, has been “dragging its feet” in relation to reform of immigration legislation and so this is another key issue the Senator will pursue. She would hope that any new immigration law will incorporate an independent appeals mechanism. In many ways this is an issue which draws many comparisons with another of the Senator’s projects – the call for the establishment of an independent social welfare appeals system. In line with the reform of immigration legislation, the Senator would also like that a provision for family reunification either be included within the law or alongside it.

The Senator has also worked in the area of early childcare and education having founded An Cosán – one of the largest community education and enterprise centres, located in Tallaght. In this regard, and in light of recent evaluations, the Senator stresses the importance of training for those working in childcare.

However, as many of those entering the childcare profession will not receive funding to do so, difficulties will remain in terms of training “unless the Government finds resources to ensure that those people who are going for a third level degree in childcare have access to resources”.

Biography

Born in Washington State, Katherine Zappone became an Irish citizen in 1995 having been resident in Ireland since 1983.

She was educated at Boston College where she earned a Doctorate in Education and Religious Studies and subsequently completed an MA at the Catholic University of America and an MBA at Smurfit Businesss, University College Dublin.

Ms Zappone was appointed to the 24th Seanad by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny upon the recommendation of Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on May 20 2011. Senator Zappone has held a number of high profile positions throughout her career to date: she was appointed as a Commissioner with the Irish Human Rights Commission by the Minister for Justice in 2001; served as CEO of the National Women’s Council of Ireland; lectured in Practical Theology at Trinity College Dublin and on various other subjects throughout Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States; and co-founded An Cosán, one of the largest community education and enterprise centres, located in Tallaght West.

The Senator’s most recent endeavour is to co-found the Centre for Progressive Change Ltd.