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.

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9 Comments on “Second chamber blues”

  1. Al Says:

    The parties subverted the upper house to their own ends. Tis a bit rich that they finish off something they corrupted in the first place.

  2. Vincent Says:

    The actual vote is not automatic. One could easily mistake that the conferring of the degree acted as an entering of ones name upon the rolls. Not a bit of it.
    Still, I expect I won’t be over disturbed from last time. Unless Joe, Feargal and the other fellow are retiring.
    All the same though, if you are banging on about the undemocratic nature of the University Senators. Those six have one hell of a greater mandate than any of the others.

  3. Vincent, Joe is retiring.

    I look forward to the review!

  4. anna notaro Says:

    It might be useful to rember when discussing second chambers how the Abbé Sieyès, one of the chief theorists of the French Revolution, viewed its relationship with the first ‘If a second chamber dissents from the first it is mischievous; if it agrees it is superfluous!’ One could draw some conclusions…

    • Vincent Says:

      And being a priest not a grinding of an axe in sight, eh

    • But that is to view a second chamber’s role as being confined to merely dissenting or assenting when revision, refinement, addition or subtraction are real possibilities too. What we need are two chambers within a single parliament elected by differing means so as to broaden the discourse.

  5. There are several ways one could reform the Seanad:

    Hold the election on the same day as the Dail, eliminating the failed TD problem where candidates rejected for the lower chamber get a second chance

    Give the vote for the panels to groups active in those areas – let the unions elect the Labour Panel and so on. This would bring the ‘Social Partnership’ idea into the legislature

    Elect it on a national list system. This would become essential if the Dail (lower chamber) changed from multi-seat to single seat constituencies, because that change would exclude small parties from winning seats in the DAil. A Seanad elected on a national list would also allow parties to recruit capable candidates who did not have or did not want to cultivate a constituency base by going through the grind of fixing planning applications for people.

    I’m sure there are more options, but any of these would improve our democracy and be better than the simple abolition which the incoming government rather thoughtlessly tossed into their programme. I think over he next few years those of us who believe in political reform must preach this message as often and as widely as we can.

  6. Al Says:

    Taouseach nominees:
    Eammon dunphy
    John giles
    Liam Brady
    Bill o herihly
    George hook
    Brent pope
    tom mc gurk

    and the seanad should be televised!

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