Abolishing the Seanad

By Michael Gallagher

Like most contributors to the site, I’m unconvinced by what little rationale has so far been offered for the abolition of the Seanad. First, no-one has seriously, or even flippantly, suggested that bicameralism is the cause of the current economic difficulties. Just what is the problem that abolition of the Seanad is supposed to solve? Second, while many do argue that the inability of the Oireachtas to hold the government accountable is among those causes, abolition of the Seanad would reduce rather than enhance accountability, by removing Senators’ ability to contribute via Oireachtas committees as well as through whatever input the house per se has. Third, if saving money is the purpose – and it’s about the only one that has been offered so far – this could be achieved through reductions of salaries and expenses of Oireachtas members rather than by abolishing the Seanad and/or reducing the number of TDs. Fourth, the move has elements of tokenism about it, giving the impression of implementing ‘political reform’ in the hope of currying some favour with the public without in fact achieving anything of substance. Abolishing the Seanad without simultaneously outlining any clear programme for strengthening the Dáil vis-à-vis the executive – and, in fairness, the Labour proposals published yesterday do contain some constructive suggestions there – can only contribute to a cynical assessment of this measure.

Having said that, while I’d like to mount a strong defence of the Seanad, it’s not easy to do that. Various Oireachtas committee reports and indeed writings of academics have, over the years, put forward suggestions for roles that the Seanad could usefully fulfil. However, if an institution that has existed for 73 years has to be defended in terms of its potential rather than its achievements, that tells its own story.

And just what is its potential? No-one would really advocate giving the Seanad as much power as the Dáil has. Outside federal countries, it’s rare to find exceptionally powerful second chambers, and the two cases of this in Europe – Italy and Romania – do not inspire confidence as models to follow. Ireland is in fact one of only three European countries that are both small and unitary and yet have a second chamber (Czech Republic and Netherlands are the other two). While roles such as scrutinising statutory instruments or monitoring EU developments have been mooted, these savour of heads being scratched in an attempt to come up with a meaningful role for the Seanad rather than constituting tasks that are so weighty that any other country has ever felt the need to dedicate a second chamber to them.

The other main possible role put forward for a renewed Seanad is that of ‘platform for the voiceless’, an arena in which groups could elect their own representatives in a process that would not be dominated by the political parties as the current electoral process is. This is not so far from the impression of the Seanad that one might get from reading the constitution – indeed, Article 19 allows for the direct election of Senators by groups or associations, though the necessary legislation has never been implemented – though the thinking now rather favours the representation of under-represented or marginal groups rather than the big battalions of sectoral interest groups as in the relevant legislation.

However, the same concerns arise here as with the close involvement of major economic interest groups in policy-making under the ‘partnership’ process: should private groups, not accountable in any way to the public as a whole, be able to make decisions that affect the whole of society? While everyone wants the voices of emigrants and the people of Northern Ireland to be, in some sense, ‘heard’, enthusiasm among the southern electorate for giving them actual power is likely to be more muted. Yet, if the body to which groups elect members does not have the power to make decisions, it becomes the proverbial talking-shop, and as such open to exactly the same existential criticisms as today’s Seanad.

If a Seanad did not already exist, I doubt very much whether anyone would now be suggesting establishing one, let alone one with the limited powers and idiosyncratic method of election of the present one. So, however cynical we might be about the underlying motives of some of those advocating abolition, anyone opposed to this probably needs to come up pretty soon with a convincing blueprint for a reformed Seanad that would justify preserving the second chamber.

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11 thoughts on “Abolishing the Seanad

  1. Michael, the FG proposal to abolish the Seanad is to take place after a public vote, which will take place after a full debate and also while the Dáil itself is reformed so that there will be no need for a second chamber to keep tabs on a not fit for purpose upper chamber.

    Also, let’s be perfectly honest, the Seanad itself as it currently stands is no more fit for purpose than the Dáil.

    So, it is perfectly reasonable that as the Dáil is reformed, to make it fit for purpose, and we can’t expect FG to know the finite details of how those reforms will work out yet, then the need for a checks and balance upper chamber will have been removed.

    When the reforms to the Dáil are taking shape, they can include changing it so that some of the TDs are elected by a form of list system, so that the quality sort of Senators would still have a place in the Oireachtas, there are probably only about 6 or 7 Senators who are of any real worth at the moment and reform of the Dáil can easily find a way to make sure those calibre of people can still have a legislative voice and by that stage hopefully David Norris will be in the Park!

  2. I agree that the abolition of the Seanad as a standalone reform proposal, as has recently been mooted, would not be nearly enough, and that it’s not as important as fixing the Dáil-Government relationship and other problems. But the inadequacy of abolishing the Seanad is not a good reason for voting against such a proposal. From the point of view of those (such as myself) who favour abolition, the only significant danger I can see in the passage of such a referendum proposal is that it would provide an excuse to put further changes to the political system on the long finger. I think there’s a greater danger, however, that the rejection of a standalone abolition referendum (for whatever reason) would be used as an excuse to delay, or not to introduce, other (more important) changes. Moreover, those who favour the retention of the Seanad in its current form could exploit the failure of an abolition referendum by claiming that the electorate had endorsed the institutional/systemic status quo, especially with regard to the Seanad itself. We might thus get neither abolition nor reform.

    For those of us favouring Seanad abolition among more important changes to the political system, the better option, I think, would be to vote “yes” at any abolition referendum, and then hope for the best. This might stall the political reform movement, but doing the opposite might have worse consequences. Thankfully, it’s looking unlikely now that there will be such a referendum under the present Government, and so the chances are greater that a question on the future of the Seanad will be put to us after the election as part of a more comprehensive reform programme.

  3. Michael, you have expertly outlined the task that faces those of us advocating a second chamber. I have already attempted to explain my position in a previous guest post ‘ The Case for Reinventing the Seanad’ on the 6th December, and will try here to summarise the kernel of that argument.

    Our current political system and institutions owe a great deal to the political party despite the fact that nowhere in our constitution is the political party mentioned. The nature of political parties has changed dramatically in pluralist democracies. They no longer act, inter alia, as social identifiers, policy-formulating organs or most importantly as fora in which interests are aggregated and their competing demands subjected to partisan mutual adjustment. Elections have become contests between potential governors rather than a competition of alternative policy platforms. This results in a gap between the legitimacy of the governors and the legitimacy of their actions.

    It is to these actions and to that gap that all sorts of oversight and critical sovereignty are attempted in a variety of innovative ways including blogs like this. All of this scrutiny, opposition and questioning is part and parcel of democratic behaviour but taking place outside of the political party and the political system. In addition the disaggregation of interests from the political party has the potential to lead to what James Galbraith has described as the “predator state” where wealthy elites dictate public policy.

    My central argument, and in advancing it, I owe much to Pierre Rosanvallon and his 2008 work “Counter Democracy-Politics in an age of distrust”, is that our formal democratic design must recognise the deliberation and democratic activity that is taking place outside of those structures. In formulating such a democratic design we should be confident that democratic legitimacy is derived from ‘impartial judgement’ and ‘moral universalism’ as well as electoral representation. The result would be what Rosanvallon describes as ‘democratic dualism’ a combination of ‘assembly of the people’ and ‘tribune of the people’ so to speak, to use terms and concepts borrowed from earlier democracies. The actions of our governors need to be adjudged on an ongoing basis by the broadest possible amalgamation of our civic society as manifested and represented by its economic, social, cultural, ethnic, demographic and other dimensions. Given the centrality of economics in all of this discussion it is probably necessary to point out that such a system need not be expensive and could be confined to legitimate expenses.

    In essence, the reality of democracy has changed and so too must our formal architecture. The alternative is a dangerous level of distrust and alienation.

  4. Why not think out a new role, b=new way of filling seats in Senate?

    Perhaps it could be called a House of Institutions. Seats would 1. Be filled with representatives from universities, non-profits, law enforcement, social services, certain professions and key industries such as energy, health, finance, hospitality, agriculture, media, manufacturing (including foreign firms) and a few others, .. 2. 5-10 experts from universities, consulting, etc. .. 3. Elected representatives from Irish community in NI, Scotland, England, Wales. … 4. Elected representatives from five Irish regions rather than counties. … 5. Elected representatives countrywide.

    3. New Role: 1. Form committees to provide guidance on issues to other house, executive. Also publish brief reports/comments on web. 2. Propose legislation to other house. 3. Comment on Constitutionality of legislation, policy. Not a final say, of course, just an opinion that would be read by judges in any related cases coming before them. 4. Call Constitutional Assembly when needed.

  5. What about this – Randomly pick 1 person from the register of electors similar to picking someone for jury service for each Dail constituency – The person could only serve one term, could not be a party member and the constituencies would have the power of recall – as well as that have elections in the European parliament constituencies to vote 3 reps for each constituency where people can vote for either a party with a list or named independents

  6. The essential problem with the Seanad is that it is undemocratic in its current foremat. The vast majority of voters can not cast a ballot for any candidate, and have little or no influence on who is selected as a candidate. The fact that some members of the Seanad are appointed (basically to help ensure a Government-friendly majority) is a further step away from the concept of democracy. The Seanad is seen by many as a talking shop for failed or in-training politicians. Abolishing the Seanad needs to be part of a very far-ranging political system reform in Ireland involving how candidates are selected, how TDs are elected, and how the Dail operates.

  7. Abolition of the Senate will do little to resolve our situation. The inability of the Oireachtas to hold the Government accountable could be resolved by abolition of the party whip system which in my view is contrary to Article 28 of our Constitution which states that “The Government shall be responsible to the Dail” TDs should be able to vote in the Dail in accordance with their electoral mandate and their conscience. Unless the Government loses a vote of confidence in it or a budget vote, there is no good reason why it should fall. Future candidates for election could be obligated to sign an agreement with their electorate to behave accordingly. We, the electorate need to minimise the power given to our supposed elected representatives binding them to behave as OUR representatives and not the government representatives.

  8. The current debate on the Seante is political populism at its worst. A number of reports on its reform have been ignored. Actual reform would be to have both house elected by the citizens. I never attended third level and do not have the honour of voting in Senate elections. I am currently funding two offspring in third level. As thing stand they will have a vote in future Senate elections and I will not. Something is wrong with this type of elitism and should be addressed.

  9. I do agree that a second chamber is by no means inevitable in well-functioning democracy. In theory our current Seanad is supposed to be primarily a legislative chamber, a quieter more genteel body with members far less constrained by demands of constituency work, or the need to angle for Dáil positions (committee chairs, ministerial positions etc.), and which can be somewhat less politicized because of its lesser powers, and maybe represent other sections of society through its vocations panels and other electoral/nomination procedures. Of course it doesn’t work out that way in practice.

    After a radical reconfiguration of our political setup I might then actually be quite happy to let it vanish. However, looking at FG + Labour policy documents, it seems we’re more likely to just get a retuning of the current setup, no major structural changes. And TDs will still have to contend with a heavy constituency workload. A constituency electing 2 Labour or 2 FG candidates this time may not be as favourable next time.

    Of course Labour’s constitutional convention may come up with something more radical, but that’s yet to be proved. Under those circumstances, I think we’d be better off keeping a reformed Seanad, even if for nothing more than the legislative manpower 60 extra political representatives might provide.

    The simple and boring way to reform the Seanad would be to just give it a more universal franchise. Many possible options and configurations possible there. And even a modest increase in powers might suffice to make it more more useful. Changing its power of delay in non-money bills to a year would give it powers roughly comparable to the House of Lords. Enough to be a real annoyance and have enough leverage to get useful amendments through or make a government think twice (especially if a government majority isn’t automatic) but still wouldn’t hinder a government getting through its programme over a five year term.

    But there could be more interesting and imaginative ways to reform the Seanad. I had reservations about extending panel systems to a more universal franchise. How would such a panel system be adminstered? Would any panel categorization seem artifical? But some of the posters on this site have made such a setup sound more plausible to me. But I’d still like to see such proposals worked out further to be fully convinced.

    Also like ideas based on juries (such as Ian mentioned above) and random selection of citizens. Some of the proposals for a reformed House of Lords were based around such ideas. Not sure if such a chamber could be a practical legislative chamber. But it would be a fantastic way to make public appointments. A large jury of randomly chosen citizens advised by expert panels (perhaps nominated by politicians or independent) would be an excellent non-political and unbiased means to appoint judges, Gardaí and make other senior public appointments. Or if not able to actually legislate, such a body (maybe with a 2/3 majority) might be usefully given the power to refer bills to the people for a referendum. If we ever get a political setup with citizens’ initatives, such a randomly selected jury might be a useful way to screen initiatives. Perhaps an initiative would only be put to the people if at least 25% of such a body was in agreement with the proposal.

    Another option would be to take away the Taoiseach’s power to nominate 11 members and instead give it to an independent body in order to make non-political appointments, maybe something along the lines of the House of Lords Appointments Commission in the UK. Or even better, allow a random jury of citizens to vet and choose from among candidates suggested by such a body.

  10. The problem with the Seanad is the people who populate it. If it was not possible for a person who was defeated in the Dail election to be nominated it might become what was intended rather than a prize for failed politicians. The valued contributions in the Seanad have come from the University Senators. I propose the the graduates should have one third of the seats.

  11. Stop Enda! DONT appoint any surplus Seanadoiri (YOUR OPTIONAL XI) to the Seanad if you are serious about either abolition or reform! Why build up nearly a dozen vested interests if the lifetime of the second chamber can be measured in months?

    Eamonn DeValera only copied this system of appointments from Edward VII to the House of Lords (in connection with the Home Rule Bill) in order to ensure a built-in majority for the government of the day. You have your majority, 27 out of 49 elected senators – so why add the salaries & expenses to benefit a favoured few?

    Eamonn deValera was also a competent mathematician. With 49 elected seats, the 1938 Bunreacht is cryng out for seven panels of 7 seats each. See the letter in Irish Times today (2 May) on the way to build a Smart Seanad! Beir beannacht!

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