Senator Feargal Quinn's Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2015
Wednesday, 09 December 2015

On 9 December, I was pleased to introduce my Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill 2015 to the Seanad. The Bil would facilitate the conferral by the State of an honour to be known as Gradam an Uachtaráin to recognise the exceptional achievements of its citizens and the outstanding contributions of others and to provide for related matters

I said: The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I am pleased he is here to take this Bill because this is an issue I feel strongly about. I was with Dr. T.K. Whitaker yesterday. He was 99 years old yesterday. I was congratulating him on that occasion and it dawned on me that he is the sort of man who has served this country well and the sort of person we should have been able to reward over the years...

The Gradam an Uachtaráin Bill proposes to introduce Gradam an Uachtaráin, an official award from the President, to recognise people of standing who have done exceptional work. Unfortunately, the State does not have a formal mechanism for recognising the achievements of its citizens or others abroad who make a great contribution to the State or to our society in general. The means currently utilised to recognise great achievements are a range of more informal measures such as the conferring of honorary citizenship or the granting of the freedom of the city, the conferring of an honorary degree, people of the year awards or the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Irish abroad and so on.

While anybody should be privileged to receive such high accolades, and they do, it is only right that Ireland as a mature state which is facing into the 1916 centenary celebrations, should have the ability to sparingly confer an honour which recognises exceptional achievement. When it comes to recognising the achievements of our citizens, as well as the contributions of others, we should not be dependent upon the grace and generosity of other nations to award Irish people who do something exceptional, or people who do something exceptional for the Irish State.

The purpose of this Bill is to provide a mechanism in order that, in appropriate circumstances and with very strict criteria laid down in this Bill, the State can, in a very public and dignified way, honour not only the achievements of its citizens but also the achievements of people from other nations.

I would like to touch on a number of issues regarding the conferral of degrees and the constitutional position. There is a myth that the Constitution does not allow for an honours system. The Constitution does not preclude the State from conferring an honour on a person. Article 40.2.1o provides that "Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State." This reference to "titles of nobility" is clearly not a reference to an honours system and an honours system does not necessarily mean a title of nobility.

It has been pointed out by Jim Duffy that the drafter of the Constitution, 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 an honours systems out, the Constitution left open the door for a system and it could be argued that it was almost expected that an honours would be introduced at some point. This distinction between titles of nobility and an honours system is made clear in the subsequent article 40.2.2o 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 this 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.

There is an argument that suggests that a republic should not give honours. However, as other countries around the world have demonstrated, the public recognition of achievement does not compromise or dilute the values of a republic. There is nothing incompatible with the concept of a republic and an honours system. It is also not true to say that the conferral of an honour on citizens is usually limited only to former Commonwealth countries. France, Italy and Austria are only some of the examples of European republics which confer honours. Many nations around the world recognise achievements through the conferral of honours and awards, including Canada, the United States, New Zealand and South Africa. It must be emphasised that we are almost alone in the world in not having a state honours system.

In 2007, prior to him becoming Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny offered immediate support for the idea of an honours system, so it would appear that he is in support of the general principle. Therefore, my hope is that in ironing out some details surrounding such an honours system we will achieve it. In this respect, I am very much open to my Bill being improved so that we can come to a system that is acceptable to all.

I would like to outline some of the key aspects of the Bill. Section 1 states that the first awards will not be conferred until January 2017; there is a mistake in the explanatory memorandum, as it states 2016 because I prepared the Bill some time back.  I would like to change the year stipulated to 2017. The Bill provides that it will come into force three months after it is passed by the Seanad and the Dáil. This will allow sufficient time for the various preparatory steps envisaged to be taken well in advance. This has been set at January 2016 but which I now want changed to 2017.

The explanatory memorandum states:

  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. The honours system will enable the State to recognise the exceptional achievements of its citizens and also the outstanding contributions of others to the State.

  Section 5 provides that the recipients of the honour will be presented with a medal which may be worn on formal occasions, and also a lapel button.

Section 5 also provides that a person who has been awarded the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin may use the letters "G.U." after their name so as to indicate that the honour has been conferred upon them. The section 5 also provides that the medal and lapel button shall be of the design which has been selected by the Minister following the holding of a public design competition.

  The explanatory memorandum goes on to state:

  Section 6 states that 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 award may be conferred, and those areas are as follows:
(a) social and community affairs,

(b) education and healthcare,

(c) arts, literature and music,

(d) science and technology,

(e) sport, and

(f) leadership and business
Section 8 states that the decision to award the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin shall be solely at the discretion of the Gradam an Uachtaráin Awarding Council; no outside influence or interference will be entertained.

  Section 9 provides that the Gradam an Uachtaráin Awarding Council will have seven members. Section 9 specifies the officeholders who are to be appointed by the President to the Awarding Council...

  Section 10 states that the nomination of persons to receive the honour of Gradam an Uachtaráin may be made by members of the public ... In order 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 that 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 in relation to the selection of a candidate.

An appropriate offence is also provided in section 10 as well as to ensure that such unwelcome lobbying is minimised.

The explanatory memorandum continues:

  Section 11 indicates the criteria which the Awarding Council will be required to apply when considering the nominations which 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 above what might be reasonably expected in respect of one or more of the six broad areas of achievement which are listed in section 7. In deference to the requirement contained in Article 40.2.2o of the Constitution, a list of the proposed candidates who have been selected by the Awarding Council to receive the 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 the Government will have the power to accept or reject, in full, the list of candidates proposed by the Awarding Council.

I would like section 12 to read as follows, although as explained earlier, the explanatory memorandum states "2016":

  Section 12 directs that, beginning in January 2017, and in January of successive years, the award of Gradam an Uachtaráin will be conferred by the President of Ireland on the candidates who have been selected by the Awarding Council.

To summarise, we are well aware that we have incredible people who have done a huge service to the State, both at home and abroad, who should be formally recognised by the State. I am sure that every member of this House can think of several people. It is somewhat ironic that exceptional Irish people are given awards for their work by other states but not by their home country. The idea of an honours system is not just to recognise achievement. It is something that could spur more people to do greater good for the nation. As mentioned, parties from across the political spectrum, as well as the Taoiseach, have previously expressed their support for the introduction of an honours system and, in the lead-up to the centenary of 1916, I hope that we can get consensus on this Bill. In this respect, I am open to my Bill being improved upon so that we can agree upon a sensible honours system that is acceptable to all and one that reflects the modern and confident society that we now have.

I urge the Minister of State to give this Bill every consideration. I am very confident that an honours system is the right direction to go in and one that will have the approval of the nation. I believe that because of the manner in which it has been suggested, and with any amendments that are proposed, the legislation will be improved upon in the years to come.


For the full text of the debate, please click here.

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