Posted tagged ‘Seanad Eireann’

On the way to the Senate

April 26, 2011

If you are a graduate of the National University of Ireland or the University of Dublin, or if you are a member of the Oireachtas, or if you are an elected local authority member, or if you are the Taoiseach, then you are a voter in the second phase of the Irish parliamentary elections of 2011: the election of members of Seanad Éireann (Senate). This phase is about to conclude with the counting of votes on Wednesday of this week. The easiest vote to count will be that of the Taoiseach, who has the power to appoint 11 members of the Upper House. 43 Senators will be elected by special vocational ‘panels’; or rather that’s how they are described, but in reality they are just members of parliament and county councillors. Whether any of this makes sense is a question for another time.

What I want to focus on here is the election of six Senators by the graduates of the universities. I won’t however go into the question of whether this is justifiable at all as a way of electing members of parliament; nor will I dwell on the extraordinary contempt of the electorate shown by the political system in not extending the franchise to graduates of other higher education institutions (not least the two excluded universities) despite an instruction by the people in a referendum decades ago to do so. Nor am I going to talk about the 27 candidates competing for the three NUI seats.

Instead, I am going to look at some of the 20 candidates for the University of Dublin (Trinity College) seats. In fact, I am going to do something even more specific than that: I am going to ask what plans if any they have for higher education.  I am myself a voter in this constituency, and have just posted my ballot paper. When I received it, I was faced with having to work out what some of these candidates actually stand for. I had never heard of some of them, and I have received no election literature from 11 of the 20 candidates. However, there is always the internet.

The first candidate I looked at more closely was Marc Coleman, economics editor of radio station Newstalk and columnist in the Sunday Independent. He has made rather a name for himself criticising academic pay and conditions and pouring scorn on the value of university-led research. Funnily enough none of this makes any appearance on his election website, though it dominates the exchanges on his Twitter account. But overall it is impossible to say for sure what position he will adopt on higher education if elected.

Sean Barrett, another economist and TCD senior lecturer, is arguing the case for more investment in education, but principally earlier education rather than universities. His fairly intelligent analysis is rather let down by a website that is full or the most extraordinary typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, which might not be a good way or presenting his case.

Outgoing Senator (and TCD academic) Ivana Bacik shows a fair degree of passion about university access for the disadvantaged, but does not particularly put forward any overall higher education perspective.

Outgoing Senator David Norris, whom I genuinely admire, seems not to be presenting himself very actively for the Seanad; his website does not disclose any of his policies or plans – perhaps because his attention is now more directed at the presidential elections later this year, for which he is a declared candidate.

Barrister Graham Quinn declares on his website he wants to maintain ‘free fees’, but apart from that I cannot find anything of substance about higher education. Unusually for the candidates, homemaker Bart Connolly expresses strong views on research funding, declaring his support for it.

What is my point? It is that we are talking about an election in which candidates are standing for university seats, but really none of them appear to have any overall policies on higher education.  The manifestos are extraordinary collections of policies on this and that, but actually very little on the issue that should have driven them more than any other.

So what have I done? I have taken my role seriously, and have voted in accordance with what I know about the candidates that will be of relevance to the university sector. It has not been the easiest of tasks.

Second chamber blues

March 9, 2011

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.

Parliamentary matters

January 4, 2011

As far back as I can remember, every so often someone pops up in Irish politics and suggests that the Irish parliament’s upper house, Seanad Éireann (the Senate), should be abolished. Back in the 1980s this was suggested by Fianna Fáil grandee Martin O’Donoghue, more recently it was put forward as a new Fine Gael policy (about which the party front bench apparently knew nothing until they heard it on the radio) by party leader Enda Kenny, and now Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party have also proposed abolition. Pretty much everybody, therefore.

Indeed, it has been suggested that we may have this put to us in a referendum on the same day as the coming general election (abolition would require a constitutional amendment). This would create an interesting situation, in the sense that there would be some confusion as to whether a new Seanad could or should be elected if the electorate has just voted to abolish it, but where in the absence of implementing measures such an election may actually be required.

There are arguments that could made made either way as to whether a bi-cameral legislature is necessary or is (or isn’t) a better way of expressing democracy. In a country such as Ireland where, to be frank, the lower house doesn’t exactly exercise an independent voice, the abolition of the second chamber could raise questions. On the other hand, the current composition of the Seanad (with 11 members appointed by the Taoiseach) is weighted towards government support, so perhaps its survival should depend on fundamental reform. An upper house composed of people other than aspiring or rejected politicians could be an interesting proposition, for example.

But whatever position is taken in this, it should be based on proper analysis and consultation. So far it is difficult to see what is driving the proposals for abolition, other than pseudo-populist instincts and the assumption that it would please an angry electorate to get rid of some political institutions. That is not a good basis for decisions on the nature of our parliamentary structures. Doing all this hastily, to coincide with the March election, is not sensible. Democracy deserves a little more attention than that.

So while I could perhaps be persuaded either way, if this turns up on the March ballot paper and we haven’t had a really informed debate nationally, I shall be voting against the proposal.

One last NUI-related issue: the Seanad seats

January 22, 2010

As has been mentioned before in this blog, it is now more than 30 years since the electorate voted in favour of a constitutional amendment allowing the franchise for the university seats in Seanad Eireann (the Senate, or Upper House of Parliament) to be widened beyond just graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. Over all that time, nothing whatsoever has been done about it (a kind of contempt of the electorate on the part of all political parties that have been in government in that time).

Now that the NUI is to be abolished, something will presumably have to be done about this issue. The choices are simple enough: (a) compound the contempt of the electorate already shown by restricting the franchise to TCD and graduates of the newly separate former NUI colleges; (b) against all the odds, do nothing, so that only those who will have graduated from TCD and the NUI can vote (i.e. only Trinity graduates in future years, with the remaining NUI graduates still voting but gradually dying out); (c) extend the franchise to graduates of all the universities; (d) extend the franchise to all third level graduates (meaning that these seats will soon have a constituency of about half of the entire population in Ireland and a good many abroad); (e) abolish these seats altogether without any other reforms; or (f) undertake a wholesale reform of the Seanad so that the university Senators (who are generally thought to have been very good) might find other likely constituencies.

Of course there could always be the option of abolishing the Seanad, as Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny suggested in his solo run last year. We haven’t really heard much more about that.

In the end, absolutely everything is local

October 23, 2009

It has been interesting to monitor the reactions to Enda Kenny’s proposal last weekend to get rid of the Seanad (the Irish Senate). Although the Fine Gael party has now endorsed the move, this was not achieved without some heated discussions along the way. But amidst all the objections that have been raised, from within Fine Gael or from elsewhere, I am not sure whether the one from Senator Paudie Coffey was the strongest. Here’s what he argued:

‘But [the Seanad] does have a role at the moment. If the Seanad was abolished in the morning that would be one less voice for Waterford. I have mixed feelings to be quite honest.’

Hmm. You may try a guess as to which proud city Senator Coffey comes from. And of course I have no problem with a strong voice, or set of voices, for Waterford. But lobbying for Waterford is not one of the Seanad’s key functions. Indeed, if we look at it strictly, that’s not a function for the Seanad at all. It might, under its constitutional framework, be seen as a chamber that considers the issues of the day from the perspective of the vocations and interest groups that are supposed to nominate senators; or else we might say it should take a national perspective. But it is definitely not there to provide partisan support for Waterford.

Of course local communities deserve representation and support, and it is right and proper that TDs (members of the Dáil, the lower house) should take their representational role seriously. But in Ireland all too often whole national issues can dissolve in the glare of local interests. It may be that the time is now right for us to think again about how we give political expression to these. And perhaps the Seanad, if it survives, should be one place where there might indeed be ones less voice for Waterford.

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.

The Upper House

May 7, 2009

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.

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.