The Upper House

Today’s Irish Times carried an article by Senator David Norris in which he assessed the desirability and likelihood of reform of the Irish Upper House of Parliament, Seanad Eireann (the Senate). This included the following:

At the first meeting of a recently convened committee to examine reform, the first and virtually only target was the university element. I indicated vigorously that as far as I was concerned, it was either all or nothing. All constituencies or none should be up for review.

What David Norris was referring to was the possibility that the university constituencies might be reformed without reform of any other part of the Seanad. And he was saying that if the rest of the House was not being reformed, then neither should the university seats. So perhaps we need to explain the context of all this a little.

The Seanad is, as noted above, the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas. Under article 18 of the 1937 Constitution, it has 60 members. Six of these are elected by university graduates, three by graduates of the University of Dublin (Trinity College) and three by graduates of the National University of Ireland. The special position given to TCD graduates dates from the time when most of these would have been Protestants, so that through this device the Irish parliament would contain at least elements of the religious minority on the island; and at the time the National University of Ireland would have contained all other Irish higher education institutions. Of course since then two other universities have been established (including my own, DCU), and there are also the institutes of technology, many of whose alumni graduated with third level degrees. None of these have a vote for the Seanad.

For the past few years the Seanad has been engaged in a somewhat leisurely process of reviewing itself, and one of the issues at the heart of the discussion has been the status of the university seats. Other issues have been addressed (eleven members of the Seanad are not elected at all, by anyone , and the rest are elected by panels consisting chiefly of county councillors), but without anyone showing much urgency in these matters. And so now Senator Norris, in an attempt to push the wider reform agenda, has argued that unless everything changes, nothing should change.

There is of course a debate to be had about whether we need the Seanad at all. For most of its life, the usefulness of the upper house has been challenged from time to time, but it has remained in place. However, in 1979, in the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution passed by the people in a referendum, a framework was put in place that would allow for the election of Senators by graduates of other third level institutions also. This amendment was passed by the people 30 years ago, but absolutely nothing has happened to give it effect. At the last election it was still only graduates of TCD and the NUI that had the vote.

This position cannot be defended. And while I am a huge admirer of David Norris, and acknowledge that he has himself repeatedly called for an extension of the franchise, I cannot agree with him at all that it is acceptable to maintain the existing representation if other aspects of Seanad reform are not tackled. The people voted for change in 1979, and it is not acceptable to make the implementation of this vote conditional on other things. I hope that the necessary reform takes place forthwith – and I would suggest that graduates of universities which are excluded under the present system make their views felt by writing to their political representatives. It is a form of contempt of the electorate that this reform has still not been undertaken.

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6 Comments on “The Upper House”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    It is a disgrace that a constitutional referendum has been ignored; but it would be wrong to think that implementing it will make the university seats any less offensive. No one in a republic should have an enhanced franchised because of who they are or what they have done.

    The Taoiseach appoints 11 Senad seats and this is sometimes used to justify the university seats; I don’t understand this. This is a mechanism to give the government a majority in the Senad, we can argue if this a good mechanism, whether it serves a useful purpose, but ultimately the Taoiseach is acting by mandate, a mandate derived from a democratic process, a process where most people get a vote; resident non-citizen are excluded for some reason I can’t understand, but that is another arguement.

    The point is that University graduates get to vote for a number of seats on the Senad and this isn’t wrong in practice, as perhaps is the case for the seats appointed by the Taoiseach, it is wrong in principle because it privileges some people above others. When it comes to the mandating of elected representative, no one should be privileged above others, no matter what they have done or who they are. The obvious excellence of some of the University senators, and David Norris foremost among them, doesn’t change this, no more than the excellent rule of some king would argue for monarchy.

    It is annoying, since it is a fun and useful part of our democracy, but we must be clear in opposing the University seats and while, obviously, the University electorate should be extended in line with the referendum, we should be clear that this makes the University seats no less an offense.

    Would it not be impossible to find a new system where everyone gets a vote, but in non-geographical constituencies, of which graduates might be one.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I think Norris is correct. The only seats in the Seanad nodding at a democratic mandate are the NUI and TCD seats. And you know as well as I that if you are allowed to vote the existing seats will be divided and not any increase in the numbers of seats.
    Further, one of the main reasons for the ’37 Constitution was to reduce the Uni’ seats shifting the power to the Dail. So over all I do not see any backwards move in that area. The Parties will not see any reduction of their power which would be the inevitable effect of Senate reform. The other option is the removal of the Uni’ seats completely.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Oh, other than with Ross, Norris, Bacik, O Toole, Quinn and Lord help me, Mullen, there are not a handful in this state who could name any of the rest in the Senate. With the exception of Eoghan Harris and he does not count as one would be hard pressed to find someone he has not annoyed at some point or another.

  4. Sarah Says:

    and those TCD seats have always been held by protestants. Not sure about Bacik, but even if she is Catholic born, she is definitely on the secular agenda now…How many other protestants are in the Oireachtas?

  5. John Says:

    Good to see some debate on this issue. I would regard university representation as archaic, however to change it would be rather difficult (constitutional referendum). Enlarging the university franchise is a quick way of making the seanad (slightly) more representative of the people, as well as introducing equality among the third level institutions.

    Hopefully it will focus more attention on the upper house and herald further seanad reform.


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