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.