Waving good-bye to the Senate?

As I have disclosed here before, I once briefly flirted with a role in politics: in 1987 I was a candidate for a seat in Seanad Éireann. The Seanad, or Senate – for readers from outside Ireland – is Ireland’s second parliamentary chamber, or the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas. The Seanad was established by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, article 15 of which provides that the National Parliament (Oreachtas) is to consist of the Ptresident of Ireland and ‘a House of Representatives to be called Dáil Éireann and a Senate to be called Seanad Éireann.’ The English language terminology suggests that this model was taken from the United States, but in practice both the composition and role of the two Houses is very different from the apparent US counterparts.

The composition of the Seanad is set out in article 18 of the Constitution. There are 60 members: 11 appointed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), 6 elected by graduates of some of the Irish universities (I have covered this previously), with the remainder elected by members of the parliament and of local authorities. The latter group are elected from five ‘panels’, and the candidates under each ‘panel’ are expected to have expert knowledge of the areas covered. The panels are (i) National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education; (ii) Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries; (iii) Labour, whether organised or unorganised; (iv) Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture; and (v) Public Administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.

For those familiar with 20th century history, this has an immediate resonance: the idea of the panels draws on the vocational interests concept that was popular with some branches of fascism in the 1930s, particularly in Portugal and Italy. In practice, the ‘panels’ are meaningless, as the candidates are without exception serving politicians, often those who have failed to be elected to the Lower House, Dáil Éireann. Notwithstanding that, and perhaps in particular because of the university representatives (even if the latter are elected on an unacceptable basis, as I have argued), there is a widespread view that the Seanad has carried out a useful role in assessing legislation and providing an alternative forum for parliamentary debate.

However, we are in hard times, and now the Fine Gael party has declared that if it enters government after the next election it will proceed to hold a constitutional referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. I confess I have some doubts as to whether it really would proceed to do this, as the process for getting to a referendum would be complex and probably acrimonious, and it would be costly and take up much parliamentary time. But let us assume that it would proceed with this measure – indeed, the Labour Party may be moving to support it. Fianna Fail, on the other hand, appears to want to support a continuation of the existing system.

There are, I suppose, two questions here. How secure and workable is a democracy that uses only a single parliamentary chamber? It is not at all without precedent, but the Anglo-American version of parliamentary democracy which on the whole we use is built on the premise that there will be two chambers. The second question is whether a reformed second chamber would have more utility and political support.

I confess that I am in general terms a supporter of a bicameral system of parliamentary democracy, but I believe that a debate on the Seanad would be healthy. I also believe that even if we are to retain the Seanad, then a review both of its composition and its terms of reference would be desirable. The purpose of the second chamber should be to offer a forum which is clearly different from the Dáil, but which on the other hand has clear democratic credentials. In that sense, therefore, the Fine Gael initiative is welcome, and I hope that it will lead immediately to a lively debate.

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9 Comments on “Waving good-bye to the Senate?”

  1. Sionnach Says:

    Enda Kenny must be the most boring political leader in the history of Irish politics – but I have to say this is a no-brainer. Why the Seanad exists is a mystery. What they actually do is a mystery. What is not a mystery is the enormous cost – basic salary of E70,000 + a collective 5.6 million in annual expenses. Money we can’t afford, given away gratis to mostly already wealthy individuals who use it as a part time gravy train, to supplement their real incomes. Pat Rabitte actually said “it did have a small number of outstanding senators.” but didn’t elaborate unfortunately. I hope he’s not confusing “outstanding” with “pompous” – which is the adjective which springs to my mind whenever I hear Eoghan Harris, David Norris, or Ivana Bacik spout on.
    We all know what reform FF would deliver. The only answer is abolish this elitist travesty.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    Dr von P – anyone defending the Seanad has to come up with one item per year in the last decade materially influenced by the Seanad. Half-points for anything from the ones with a pulse (D Norris, F Quinn)

    For too long the Seanad has been abused as a dumping ground for the decrepit (Mammy O’Rourke), the losers (especially of coalition partners – some of whom campaigned on abolition) and as training wheels for the likes of Brian Crowley and Billy Kelliher. Furthermore, it has no love from DCU or UL graduates who should have had Seanad votes since 1979.

    I would rather the entire Seanad be put to the sword (figuratively) than reduce the number of TDs, but instead enhance the powers of Dail Committees so that the 166 there can do more useful work.

  3. My argument (made this morning on my blog) is that we don’t need to abolish the Seanad, just abolish the salaries paid to senators.

    Cost saving alone is not a good enough reason to abolish the Seanad. Those who see it as irrelevant should consider, using the same argument, the relevance of the Dáil. Abolishing the Dáil would save a few million, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

    The Seanad should be reformed, but not abolished. Reform would also mean we don’t necessarily need the expense of a referendum which would also detract political and media attention from more important issues currently facing the State.

  4. Aidan Says:

    I agree with you that an upper chamber is desirable for a parliamentary democracy following the Irish model. What clearly needs to be reformed is the composition of the house in Ireland and not its existence per se. The difficulty would be in effecting reform without undue political influence.

    • I think that sums it up, Aidan.

      I think that one of the issues is that the second chamber needs on the one hand to be party political – it really does need to reflect the distribution of political preferences in the country – and on the other hand not, so that it doesn’t just add another layer of me-too debate to the issues. Getting that right is tricky. The existing framework doesn’t, but there are ways.

      • Niall Says:

        How about electing the second chamber on a national basis with the whole country as one constituency. This would oblige the electorate to vote for policies rather than for parochial reasons (favours done or expected)

  5. Vincent Says:

    With the Senate you have to ask what it was trying to prevent rather that what it was trying to achieve. Then, and using those criterion, you would have to say that the Senate has been remarkably successful.

    God help us but it is far far far better that many of the cannon are now safely tied in a fan facing Donie’s hair than firing off in all directions.
    Also, it is fascination to listen to the plum of the Dublin University fellows ease somewhat over the years. There was a time when you would swear they were atop a horse.

  6. the principle of whether or not the Senate should be abolished is not the issue. The issue is complete political reform. Abolish both houses and start again, from a non controllable and totally transparent perspective.

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