Expelling Taoiseach’s nominees to the Seanad

Eoin O’Malley, 25 August, 2010

Fionnan Sheehan this morning on RTÉ repeated a complaint he made in yesterday’s Irish Independent about the inability of Brian Cowen to sack the Senators that were nominated by a Taoiseach (in this case by his predecessor). He thinks that ‘the notion of the Taoiseach of the day being able to nominate senators but not have any control to remove them is ludicrous.’ But is he right?

If we are going to have a senate as a second chamber to reconsider the legislation that government makes then the whole point of the place is that it’s independent of the Dáil and the government. What chance would there be that the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees would do anything but their party’s bidding if they could be removed by the Taoiseach? There are few enough justifications for putting 11 senators in the gift of the Taoiseach. One of the few is that it is an opportunity to put in the Seanad people who would not normally seek or be able to get elected, and that once elected they are not easily made subject to any party’s control. So people like TK Whitaker,  Gordon Wilson and Eoghan Harris were able to make contributions that would not normally be heard in the Oireachtas. How much weaker would they be if they could be removed if they spoke or voted in a way that upset the government of the day?

Perhaps what is ludicrous is that we cannot kick out legislators for ‘conduct unbecoming’ (to use the Fianna Fáil phrase) a member of the chamber? But this too is dangerous: who gets to decide what’s conduct unbecoming a member? The majority, or a super-majority? One can see a situation where a particularly contrary TD or senator might be removed. Noel Browne could probably have raised a super-majority against him. But would the chamber have been better without him? Maybe it would be best if we allowed elected representative to behave as they wish and allow the electorate to decide. And for those like Callely who do not have an electorate to face, well let Fianna Fáil take all the embarrassment the affair is giving it, and maybe future taoisigh will be more careful in future as to who they give senate seats.

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9 thoughts on “Expelling Taoiseach’s nominees to the Seanad

  1. One of the weaknesses of PR is that even if 80% of us are outraged at the actions of an individual politician, he/she can still get back in with the votes of the other 20%. Stil, could be worse: We could have first past the post, and have a government of Ivor Callelys elected on 35% of the vote!

    • Jason,

      If we had FPTP, Mr Callely would be a TD now. On the first count in the 2007 election he came in third after Richard Bruton (9,303) and Sean Haughey (9,026) with 7,003 votes. Finian McGrath, who beat him on the fifth count, had 5,169 first preferences to start with.

  2. Eoin,

    The real problem is the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees system, which ensures that the Senate has a government majority, or should have, if all Senators turn up to vote on any particular measure. The Senate needs to be reformed, but all reform efforts have been shelved over the years because the present arrangement suits the political class the way it is. The Senate has no real political power, and even less political relevance. The Taoiseach’s ’11’ is just symptomatic of what’s wrong with it.

    As far as I know, the only way an elected representative can get booted out of our elected institutions is by becoming a bankrupt. I’m half in agreement with you that elected representatives should be left where they are for their term of office but not entirely convinced that persons who abuse public office should merely suffer ‘slap on the wrist’ sanctions like the current max. of 30 days in limbo. Surely some process of impeachment would be justified?

    • I agree. Giving the government effective control of the second chamber makes its existence pointless.

      We have a reasonably clean, transparent and independent judicial system, so we should pursue these types of cases in the court. We need some corruption legislation to allow this.

  3. What if a super-duper majority of say 90% of both houses was required to impeach any member of either house? That would probably take care of people like Callely without a mob-style “back us or we’ll sack you” culture emerging in the Oireachtas.

  4. I thought the point of the 11 nominations was that the government would always have a majority in the Seanad. That de Valera was seeking to ensure that the difficulties his first governments with the Free State Seanad would not be repeated again?

  5. John,

    Yes, that was De Valera’s intention all right, but it’s hardly appropriate in this day and age of democratic accountability and transparency, is it? Anyway the notional Seanad majority for the government of the day has backfired a few times – I think the Rainbow Coalition of 94 – 97 had a Seanad minority as the government replaced the FF/Labour Coalition; but I don’t think the sky fell in on foot of it.

  6. It’s a bit academic really given Fianna Fáil don’t want to kick out Ivor but have to be seen to be doing something. Same for all the others in the party – bottom line is how important to staying in power a person’s vote is. Ivor is unlucky he is a mere Senator, if he was a TD you can sure thereaction would be a lot different from Fianna Fáil, as it would need his vote.

    As a Senator he will do what all ‘former’ FFPP members do and carry on as before – I notice he’s been removed from the party website though.

    His own is of course still emblazoned with FF.

    Of course while this whole circus is going on there is a deathly silence from all the other political parties on political expense reform (because they all have skeletons to hide) and no silence is louder than the one from Brian ‘honest man’ Lenihan.

    They still don’t get it and the public are still refusing to make them get it.

  7. If the priamry point of the 11 is to give the govt a majority, then why even bother having 11 dismissable automotons, at €60k a piece? Why not just let the Taoiseach push stuff through the Seanad by decree? It would recognise the reality and save us a few quid.
    Of course, there is a bigger issue here. After the shenanigans of 1981/82, we became obsessed with what the Brits call the smack of firm government, and with govts having the ability to push stuff through the Dail. Have we been served well by that? Other countries have quite stable minority governments, and draw a distinction between stability and day-to-day governance and a govt having a huff because it can’t get its own way on absolutely everything. Would it really be that awful if an Irish government had to openly negotiate with the opposition on getting legislation through? The 87-89 govt that dealt with our last economic crisis was, after all, a minority govt, brought down by its own leader’s hubris, not the opposition.

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