Posted tagged ‘Seanad’

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.