Seanad Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer: ‘Enhancing parliamentary democracy’
Fresh from his widely acclaimed speech during US President Joe Biden’s address to the Oireachtas, Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, Jerry Buttimer sits down with Ciarán Galway to discuss diversity in the Seanad and enhancing parliamentary democracy.
Elected to replace predecessor and current Leas-Chathaoirleach, Fianna Fáil Seanadóír Mark Daly, as part of the agreed tri-party coalition government rotation in December 2022, Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer became the first openly gay Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann in its 100-year history, having defeated Seanadóir Victor Boyhan by 35 votes to eight,
Discussing the symbolism of his election, the Cathaoirleach emphasises its significance “in the context of the evolving nature of our country”. Referencing the Damascene journeys taken by many in relation to same-sex marriage, he adds: “I made this point in my speech to President Biden that on celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we moved away from violence and towards peace. Equally, I made my point that 25 years ago, we did not have marriage equality.
“The intervention of President Biden was a transformative moment. It helped shape the opinions of other who went on a journey of change, and I would reference former Taoiseach Enda Kenny as a strong example of that.”
Elaborating on the theme of diversity and inclusivity within the Oireachtas, Buttimer asserts: “It is important that we continue to strive for the Oireachtas to be a diverse, representative, reflective body that is aligned with the society and community that we live in.
“As parliamentarians, we must continue to uphold and enhance parliamentary democracy
Seanad Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer
“We have a lot of work to do as a parliament, and as a body politic, in terms of encouraging people from diverse ethnic background to run. We have seen it in local elections. It would be great to see more inclusivity and diversity in our national parliament.”
Simultaneously, the Cathaoirleach highlights the establishment of a parliamentary caucus of LGBT+ members, alongside the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, and the advocacy of individual members such as Senator Eileen Flynn from the Traveller community, and Senator Martin Conway “who is visually impaired and does a huge amount of work in championing disability”.
Enhancing parliamentary democracy
Against the backdrop of the establishment of the EU scrutiny committee – which began work in April 2023 – Buttimer is adamant that “the primacy of the Houses of the Oireachtas must always be upheld”.
“The primary focus for the Houses of the Oireachtas – particularly from a Seanad point of view – is that we must continue to enhance parliamentary democracy,” he asserts, elaborating: “It is an opportunity for members and for me as the chair to allow the voice of the people, who are represented by the elected members, to hold government to account, to scrutinise legislation.”
Allied to this, the Cathaoirleach indicates, is an opportunity to develop interparliamentary relationships. “Alongside the Ceann Comhairle, I am eager to continue developing the parliamentary friendship groups because it is through engagement – real, meaningful visits and meetings – that we can bring change to the world.
“When I was in Bahrain for the 146th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I was really struck that it was through sitting down with parliamentarians that you get a sense of what is happening in their world, and in exchange they get a sense of what is happening in our society. We can help formulate opinion changing, gathering of facts and information which are extremely beneficial to the work of parliamentarians, while also ensuring that we can represent people and we can learn best practices from each other.”
Discussing the virtues of the Seanad as a “forum to allow people from the wider stage to be part of our deliberations”, he signposts forthcoming addresses to the house by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union, Mairéad McGuinness MEP, and the incumbent Governor of Massachusetts, Maura Healey.
“If you look at what we are aiming to achieve in the context of parliamentary democracy, then it is important that our friendship groups work in tandem with us,” he says, adding: “When we see an active return to a Northern Ireland Assembly, MLAs will come to Leinster House and TDs and Senators will go to Stormont, work together to build relationships and create a stronger association. This must be nurtured, because it is important that we work with fellow parliamentarians on the island.”
Discussing the proposed widening of the Seanad franchise amid the March 2023 Supreme Court ruling in favour of University of Limerick student Tomás Heneghan – who contends that the 7th Amendment of the Constitution provided for the mandatory expansion of the franchise to other universities – the Cathaoirleach is reflective.
“I think there is a huge need to [widen the franchise]. I am open to debate, and I have not got a set opinion, but I do believe that it is important that the Seanad should be reflective of the society that we now live in.
“How we achieve that is a matter for government to look at and I am sure An Taoiseach and the ministers in the Government will look at the challenge of Seanad reform in the context of the recent Supreme Court judgement, but also in terms of how we can make it a more diverse and inclusive upper house, mindful of where it has come from and where it is going to in terms of our changed nature since its composition 100 years ago.”
Reflecting on the centenary of Seanad Éireann in December 2022 and looking to the next 100 years, continued relevance, Buttimer contends, hinges on “how we carry out its business, by our composition, and by the way through which we hold government to account”.
Suggesting that parliamentarians must demonstrate “that we do play an important role in Irish society”, he believes that the upper house has a “critical role in not just addressing the challenges of our changing world”, but also in engaging with and being the point of intersection between the electorate, government, and state bodies that impact of the daily lives of people.
Having sat in the Oireachtas for 16 consecutive years, including in the 23rd, 25th, and 26th seanaid, Buttimer observes that while “our work is consistently about people and representing them”, social media has made “a profound change on how we do our work”.
Amid fractious political trends globally, the Cathaoirleach insists: “As parliamentarians, we must continue to uphold and enhance parliamentary democracy because the alternative – as President Biden reminded us in April – is autocracy, and that is not acceptable.
“We must continue to be that voice; we must allow ourselves the opportunity to work for people and, through the medium of our work, make the parliament more people-friendly, attracting more women, and more people of diversity and colour into elected office. We must also ensure that in our debates and our deliberations, we are respectful, mindful of who we are and where we are, but also – through our language and our actions – that we represent our people with integrity.”
As well as continuing to “reach out to different organisations, build bridges in the North, and represent Ireland at home and abroad”, the Cathaoirleach is determined that Leinster House becomes “a symbol of the evolution of society” during his term.
As well as advocating for the establishment of a Leinster House commemoration of Fine Gael Senator Billy Fox, a victim of ‘the Troubles’ who was killed in 1974, Buttimer indicates that the Seanad intends to mark the centenary of WB Yeats becoming the first Irish recipient of Nobel Prize in November 1923.
Overall, the Cathaoirleach aims to enhance how the role of the Seanad is perceived, ensuring that it is “at the heart of what parliament is about”, including legislative scrutiny, public representation, government accountability, and “ensuring that the peace that we have developed continues and that we build relations with MLAs in the North but also across the water in England”.
“The other ambition is ensuring that the Houses of the Oireachtas are accessible to the people, and I am content that in my job and my role, I am continuing to do that,” he concludes.
Profile: Jerry Buttimer
In December 2022, Jerry Buttimer was elected as the Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, having previously served as Leas Cathaoirleach in the 26th Seanad and Fine Gael leader in the 25th Seanad. From 2011 until 2016, Buttimer had previously represented Cork South Central in Dáil Éireann, simultaneously serving as Chairperson of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. He was also a Senator from 2007 until 2011, and prior to that, was a member of Cork City Council from 2004 to 2007. Buttimer is the founder of Fine Gael LGBT. Beyond representative politics, Buttimer is actively involved in the GAA, having served on its National Marketing Committee, and as chairman of the Bishopstown GAA Club in Cork city.