Posted tagged ‘Oireachtas’

Waving good-bye to the Senate?

October 18, 2009

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.

My life in politics

December 3, 2008

Twenty-one years ago I made my first (and only) foray into electoral politics. At the time I was a Lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, and also a member of the Irish Labour Party. I had always been interested in politics, and had been active in several (all left-leaning) parties in three countries. But in 1987 I felt the time had come to see if I could put any votes where my mouth was, and so in the general election of that year I stood for one of the TCD seats in the upper house of the Irish Parliament, Seanad Eireann (the Senate).

There was a general consensus amongst my family and friends that this was a truly rotten borough. As all Irish readers of this blog will know, Trinity College graduates elect three Senators, the same number as are elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland (which has three times the number of graduates). Other graduates don’t get to vote for anyone at all. While TCD Senators have often made huge contributions to political debate and public life, it would be impossible to defend the system with any objectivity.

Indeed, not only was it a somewhat strange constituency, it was a totally weird election. It was clear to almost everyone (to be fair, including me) who the three successful candidates were going to be: Mary Robinson (outgoing Senator, who was shortly thereafter to become President of Ireland), Shane Ross (also outgoing Senator) and David Norris (a noted gay rights campaigner, who in fact went on to become a very distinguished member of the Senate and who has been an important voice of reason, tolerance and culture in Irish public life). But I pressed on anyway.

There emerged, from left field, a candidate who upset everyone’s peace of mind. He was in fact someone I knew well, having been in the same class as him as a student. He was a solicitor called Ben Rafferty, who stormed in using modern canvassing tools, had assembled a cohort of supporters to assist him, and who was wholly brash and ambitious. For much of the campaign everyone wondered whether he might make it. In the event, he didn’t.

All of us had to cope with this most unusual electorate, who were scattered all over the world. The only way to reach most of them was by writing to them. All candidates received the names and addresses on the register, and a free mailshot to them. This may have been ‘free’ in the sense that it involved no payment of postage, but it was still very expensive: we had to print an election address (in the days before easy and cheap desktop publishing), buy envelopes and address them. I was running the campaign on a very fragile shoestring, and depended heavily on a small number of friends (one of whom reads this blog) and family to write and stuff envelopes. Even with all that, I think I only managed to reach about a third of the electorate.

I did however get some phone calls from potential voters; one of these rang me several times, each time telling me he would not vote for me, the stated reason being that he ‘hated dentists’. He always hung up immediately after saying that, so I was never able to assure him I wasn’t a dentist or ask him why he thought I was. A very sweet sounding lady from Peterborough in England rang to tell me she would vote for me if I could get the local council to put up proper street lighting on her road. It was an insane waste of my scarce campaigning time, but I did write to the council, and copied my letter to her; and I very much doubt that they paid any attention at all.

But the highlight of weirdness came in the form of the man who called me to complain that I was impersonating him – I declined to get into a conversation with him, so I never found out what was driving him, but from his expletive-laden conversation I don’t think my impersonation of him was very true to life.

Readers of this blog may already have guessed that I was not elected, though I am proud to say that I did get a good vote for a first time candidate; I was advised by a veteran ex-Senator at the count that if I persevered I would certainly be successful the next time. Alas, there was no next time, because at the subsequent general election I already knew I was bound for a new job in England. But the 1987 campaign was enormous fun, and was one of the highlights of the more public part of my life. And it allowed me to inhale the exhilarating oxygen of glorious failure, on which so much politics is based. I highly recommend it.

Taking the case for fees to the Oireachtas

October 9, 2008

Another day, another discussion about tuition fees – this time in front of the Oireachtas (parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science. Five of the university Presidents attended, as well as the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association (IUA). The discussion was lively and occasionally sharp, but also respectful and good humoured. But it was also clear to me at least that some politicians still believe there is an easy way of funding universities with public money and thereby avoiding tuition fees. It was suggested to me in one exchange that tax increases would be preferable to fees – notwithstanding the obvious point that no government would be willing to go to the people and tell them their taxes would be increased in order to give money to universities, and that we would have no certainty anyway that all or even any of such increased exchequer returns would come our way.

However, it was a valuable exercise, as it is important that politicians are informed about the increasingly dangerous state of university finances around the country and the urgency of a solution. As we now expect the Book of Estimates next week to involve a major round of cuts to funding for third level education, it will become difficult to protect students from an erosion of quality in teaching programmes and of the availability of student support services.

There are clearly tough times ahead for everyone – but we need to ensure that the universities are still able to offer the programmes and the research that will make possible an early recovery in the economy.