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  • Senator Sharon Keogan

Senator Sharon Keogan — Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2023: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am sharing time with Senator Craughwell.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and thank her for being here for this debate. The Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2023 will be a significant step towards recognising the exceptional contributions made by women and men all over this country and around the world to the continued prosperity and culture of Ireland and the civic health and well-being of its people. While we, as a country, certainly celebrate such people, there has never been a formal mechanism for recognising the achievements of Irish citizens or others within our borders who make a great contribution to the State or our society in general. As we continue with the decade of centenaries, harking back to the formation of the State, my colleagues and I considered now to be a fitting time for Ireland to begin jointly celebrating the people who go above and beyond in helping to make this country a better place to live in and belong to.

We can go no further without acknowledging that this Bill is the singular vision of the late, great former Senator Feargal Quinn. He introduced the Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2015 just four years before his passing. Everybody in this House is aware of how great a politician former Senator Quinn was. He was also a great businessman and, above all, a great man. Admired by most and respected by all, Feargal was a genuine lover of people, which is surely the partial genesis of this Bill. He was a prolific legislator, authoring 17 Private Members' Bills during his time in this House, thereby leaving his indelible mark on Irish law. From the Irish Nationality and Citizenship and Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2003 to the Construction Contracts Bill 2010, Feargal was constantly at work to improve the running of this country and the lives of the people in it.

The precursor of this Bill lapsed in 2016, with the dissolution of the Dáil and Seanad. Feargal never got to see it progress through the Houses. Today, I, along with a selection of my colleagues from the Seanad Independent group, put before the House a Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill that is adapted in a minor way, in which we seek to realise Feargal's vision of an Irish State that explicitly celebrates the selfless contributions made every day by good people serving their communities. When it comes to recognising the achievements of citizens and others, we should not be dependent upon the grace and generosity of other nations to award Irish people who do something exceptional, including something exceptional for the State. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a mechanism to enable the State, in appropriate circumstances and using the very strict criteria laid down in the Bill, to honour, in a public and dignified way, not only the achievements of its citizens, but also the achievements of people from other nations.

I understand the Taoiseach has expressed concerns regarding the constitutionality of the proposed gradam an Uachtaráin honours system on account of Article 40.2°, which provides that "Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State". Former Senator Quinn addressed this point seven years ago through a short history lesson. In December 2015, on Second Stage of his Bill, he said:

It has been pointed out by Mr. Jim Duffy that the drafter of the Constitution, Mr. John Hearne, was careful, on Éamon de Valera's instructions, to leave open the possibility of the introduction of an honours system - that is totally unrelated to titles of nobility. Rather than ruling out an honours systems, the Constitution left the door open for a system and it could be argued that it was almost expected that an honours system would be introduced at some point. This distinction between titles of nobility and an honours system is made clear in the subsequent article 40.2.2° which clarifies that, "No title of nobility or of honour may be accepted by any citizen except with the prior approval of the Government". One of the effects of this provision is to impose a restriction on the right of a citizen to accept an honour and it makes the acceptance of an honour subject to the Government's approval. Section 11 of the Bill gets over this constitutional hurdle by giving the Government the power to accept or reject, in full, the list of candidates proposed by the awarding council.

The late Senator Quinn also rejected the notion that a republic's own honour system would in any way rehash the giving of titles by a monarch, clearly stating "the public recognition of achievement does not compromise or dilute the values of a republic".

I will now outline some of the key aspects of the Bill. Section 2 defines the terms "Awarding Council" and "Minister", which are used in the Bill. Section 3 enables the Minister to make regulations for a variety of purposes. Section 4 provides for the establishment of an honours system to be known as Gradam an Uachtaráin, GU. The system would enable the State to recognise the exceptional achievements of its citizens and the outstanding contributions of others to the State.

Section 5 provides that the recipients of honours would be presented with a medal that may be worn on formal occasions and a lapel button. The section also provides that a person awarded the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin may use the combination of letters “G.U.” after his or her name to indicate the honour has been conferred on him or her. This section also provides that the medal and lapel button must be of a design selected by the Minister following the holding of a public design competition.

Section 6, according to the explanatory memorandum, states the honour shall only be conferred upon a maximum of 12 people per year and that in any one year, a maximum of four of the awards may be awarded to persons who do not hold Irish citizenship.

Section 7 sets out the six broad areas of achievement in respect of which the awards may be conferred, namely, social and community affairs; education and healthcare; arts, literature and music; science and technology; migrant and minority communities; sport; and leadership and business.

Section 8 states the decision to award the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin shall be solely at the discretion of the Gradam an Uachtaráin awarding council and that no outside influence or interference will be entertained.

Section 9 provides that the Gradam an Uachtaráin awarding council will have nine members. The section specifies the officeholders who are to be appointed by the president of the awarding council.

Section 10 states members of the public may nominate persons to receive the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin. To preclude the possibility of political interference, as well as perceived or actual bias in the selection of candidates to receive the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin, section 10 states a serving Member of the Dáil or the Seanad must not engage with any member of the awarding council with the intention of influencing the making of a decision on the selection of a candidate. The appropriate offence is provided for in section 10 to ensure such unwelcome lobbying is minimised. Together, these provisions are intended to prevent Gradam an Uachtaráin from falling prey to cronyism, as we seek to steer clear of the favours-for-friends models of honours systems seen in other jurisdictions.

Section 11 indicates the criteria that the awarding council will be required to apply when considering the nominations it has received. The awarding council will be required to satisfy itself that a proposed recipient of the honour has demonstrated exceptional achievement at a high level or has made a valued contribution and one above what might be reasonably expected in respect of one or more of the six broad areas of achievement listed in section 7.

In deference to the requirement contained in Article 40.2.2° of the Constitution, a list of the proposed candidates selected by the awarding council to receive an award will be submitted to the Government for approval. The Government will not have the power to make or suggest amendments to the list of proposed candidates. Instead, it will have the power to accept or reject in full the list of candidates proposed by the awarding council.

Section 12 establishes January 2024 as the time of the inaugural awarding of Gradam an Uachtaráin.

As Senator Quinn said some years ago, "I am open to my Bill being improved upon in order that we can agree to a sensible honours system that is acceptable to all and one that will reflect the modern and confident society we now have". I hope that all Senators will engage fully on Committee and Report Stages so we can pass the best Bill possible.

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