Second chamber blues
It’s that time of the Irish political cycle again: the engines are being revved up for the elections to Seanad Éireann (Senate). For those not familiar with the Irish political system, the Seanad is the upper house of the parliament (Oireachtas). Most of its 60 members are elected by an electorate of members of parliament (including outgoing Senators) and county councillors; 11 are appointed by the Taoiseach of the day; and 6 are elected by university graduates, three each by alumni of the National University of Ireland and of Trinity College Dublin.
Let me focus a little on the university seats. First, it has to be said that it is an utter disgrace and an insult to the Irish electorate that only NUI and TCD graduates get a vote. The people voted in a referendum in 1979 to open up the electorate to graduates of other institutions, and nothing has been done. This is wholly unacceptable, and those candidates who stand for the six seats should make that a key part of their campaign.
But actually, it could of course be asked whether university seats should be there at all. In considering the question it should be noted that the Seanad was designed to represent the views and interests of various vocational groups, as an expression of the kind of corporatism that was in vogue when the 1937 Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) was adopted. The university seats were part of that particular design. It should also be noted that it is widely recognised that the university Senators have often brought a different and more independent perspective to Irish political debate. One long-serving Senator (Mary Robinson) went on to become President of Ireland, and another (David Norris) is favourite to be the next President.
Whether the university seats should be there – though in any case not in this form – should perhaps depend on how a reformed Seanad would look, in the light of a widespread belief that the upper house has not necessarily been a very effective chamber. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that all the major parties, at the last election, argued for the abolition of the Seanad, and this now forms part of the programme for government of the coalition due to take office today.
As some readers of this blog will know, I was myself a candidate for one of the TCD seats in 1987. I didn’t succeed; the conventional wisdom was you had to make several attempts to get in, and I didn’t have the staying power to do that. Many of my friends who helped with my campaign back then suggested that, despite giving me support, they felt that this was the most rotten of rotten boroughs. But while I might seriously regret that the Irish parliament never had the benefit of my views in debate, I would still suggest that a second chamber is a useful aid to democracy and to more skillful legislating; and that the university senators have been important voices in the Irish political landscape. I wouldn’t throw it all out. But I would reform it.
PS. When the election materials of all the university candidates is available I shall review them here.