Return to O’Rourke: Reform of the Seanad

Posted by Séin Ó Muineacháin

The brief flurry of debate caused last year by Enda Kenny’s claim that, if elected Taoiseach, he would put it to the people that Seanad Éireann should be abolished was short-lived, but interesting nonetheless. The modern incarnation of the Seanad (in spite of the high esteem in which its predecessor is held) is increasingly seen as one of the failures of the constitutional architecture set up by Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937.

It was not a surprise that Deputy Kenny’s announcement met with some popular support, for the Seanad is often regarded as both an incubator for aspirant politicians and a pasture to which retiring politicians can be put. The vocational panel system cannot be regarded as being reflective of the principle underpinning its inclusion in the constitution in 1937 – the representation of certain social and economic groups in the government of the state. Rather than allowing the Taoiseach to appoint experts to participate in the legislative life of the state, the 11 nominees appointed by the Taoiseach have usually served to ensure that any delaying sword the Seanad might wield is well and truly welded in its scabbard. There have been notable exceptions, Gordon Wilson and Maurice Hayes spring to mind. Ironically, while the majority of reform proposals have focused on reforming the graduate’s electoral college,  the six members of the Seanad who are elected by the graduates of the NUI and the University of Dublin have been some of the better known, and indeed most influential, members of the Seanad in recent decades.

There is nothing new about these charges however, and each time that an election to the Seanad is held the overwhelming consensus that the Seanad is ‘broken’ and should be reformed or abolished is evident. At times, this debate can over-shadow the election of the new Seanad, which ultimately is the preserve of local authority representatives, outgoing members of the Oireachtas, and university graduates.

This cacophony of consensus has not gone unheeded however, and there are no less than 12 reports that deal directly with the question of Seanad reform – the most recent of these being the 2004 Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform report (also known as the O’Rourke Committee) (accessible here). Interestingly, this report arrives at its recommendations by consensus, and, as such, provides an interesting template that could inform Seanad reform, and avoid the need to hold yet another consultation on what shape the Seanad should take.

The 2004 report is definitely the most extensive proposal for Seanad reform of all 12 reports dealing with the subject and it makes a number of recommendations in relation to the composition of the Seanad and the role it should play.

Obviously, the major question that has to be answered in relation to the Seanad is unashamedly existential – should the Seanad exist at all. There are arguments on both sides in this regard. In favour of its abolition, one could cite the examples of New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark, who abolished the second chambers of their parliaments; it appears that the quality of representative democracy in those countries has not subsequently deteriorated. The cost saved from such a venture would not solve the deficit problem, but was flagged by Colm McCarthy’s Bord Snip report. The few functions that the Seanad has could easily by exercised by the Dáil. The Seanad in its current incarnation could be described as a “talking shop”, and even that label may oversell its virtues: its sitting hours would test the description of any business that would call itself a shop.

On the other hand, debates in the Seanad are usually conducted in a less partisan spirit than in the Dáil, and do provide a second opportunity for the examination of pieces of legislation. Furthermore, the contributions of certain members of the Seanad in recent times have served to highlight problems in legislation, the government’s bill on opinion polls from 2003 being a case in point. In the current Seanad, the work of Shane Ross in exposing waste at FÁS and the decisive way that the Seanad moved to deal with Ivor Callely served to show that the Upper House is not entirely moribund. Moreover, as Dr Gerard Hogan has pointed out, the removal of the Seanad from the Constitution would require extensive surgery to a number of articles, not only Articles 18 and 19, which deal exclusively with the Seanad.

Supposing that Seanad reform was to occur (which may be the halfway house between Fine Gael’s desire to abolish it and Labour’s general political reform agenda), what form should it take? We can draw some inferences from the O’Rourke report mentioned above in this regard. The document has the advantages of being fairly recent and reflecting cross-party agreement. The table below summarises the new composition of the Seanad as recommended by the report:

TYPE OF MEMBER NUMBER OF MEMBERS (%)
Directly elected from a national constituency (excluding those voters who would cast their vote in the university constituency) using List-PR 26 (40%)
Directly elected from a constituency of university graduates (these voters could choose to vote in the national constituency instead) using List-PR 6 (9%)
Elected from a constituency of county councillors, Dáil deputies and outgoing senators using PR-STV 20 (31%)
Nominated by the Taoiseach 12 (18%)
Automatic re-election of Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann 1 (2%)
TOTAL NUMBER OF MEMBERS 65 (100%)

The O’Rourke Committee recommended that the vocational panel system should be abolished because it was thought to have failed as a feature of the current Seanad. One of the more interesting points raised was that the entire membership of the Seanad would not be predicated on the timing of the Dáil election, as is currently the case. Instead, the 20 indirectly elected members and the 12 nominees of the Taoiseach would continue to be elected shortly after Dáil elections, while the election of the directly elected members would take place on the same day as European Parliamentary elections. The report also recommended that the Taoiseach’s choice of nominees would be constrained in that (s) he would be required to choose two senators from Northern Ireland, one of the Unionist tradition and one of the Nationalist tradition. It also advised that it be made a statutory obligation that the Taoiseach had to take account of representing various demographic and socio-economic groups. Interestingly, the report also recommended that former Taoisigh, Tánaistí and current MEPs should be allowed attend and speak at meetings of the Seanad without being entitled to vote. In addition, the Leader of the Seanad (currently Donie Cassidy) would be entitled to sit as a member of the Government, or as a Minister of State.

In relation to the functions exercised by the Seanad, the O’Rourke Committee made a number of significant recommendations to change its role. Firstly, it called for provision to be made for the Seanad to formally consult interest groups and individuals at the start of the legislative process. Secondly, the Seanad could be given a role of importance in examining and scrutinising EU directives, as well as providing a domestic forum in which Irish MEPs could account for their work. The  recommendations the Committee made to the public policy functions of the Seanad are the most interesting and relevant. It stated that the Seanad would have responsibility for the scrutiny of all senior public service appointments, as well as for the review of the performance of all government departments and state agencies. This would be a significant development and would compensate somewhat for the legislative weakness of the Seanad relative to the Dáil.

The 2004 report provides plenty of food for thought. I’d welcome comments from people in two areas – 1) the proposed composition, and 2) the new roles and functions of the Seanad as recommended. It would seem that the legislative weakness of the Seanad is taken as given, and that the real niche that the Seanad could carve out for itself is in relation to scrutiny and review.

If reform of the way the Dáil does its work takes longer than expected to occur, the implementation of the 2004 Seanad sub-committee report recommendations, or a variant thereof, could provide some useful insights into how such reforms would affect the workings of the Dáil. In a way, the Seanad could prove to be a useful laboratory in which to examine the effects of certain reforms.

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16 thoughts on “Return to O’Rourke: Reform of the Seanad

  1. There is one small typo above – rather the 6 university seats would be elected using PR-STV as opposed to List-PR. Apologies for the mistake.

  2. The Seanad is by its established format non-democractic since the vast majority of voters can not cast a ballot for any candidate. The point is further made in that some members are appointed by an offical (the Taoiseach) who is not directly elected by a majority vote of all voters. Trying to reform the Seanad may be like trying to reform the flu virus; the attempt may be noble, but even if succesful why do we need it? The concept of a second house in a national parliament is for it to serve as a counter-weight to the other house. But with the Seanad the odds are against it being very disruptive to the wishes of the government of the day. There are seven other democracies with a population in Ireland’s range (about 4 million). Only one of them has a second house in its national parliament. In the interest of democracy (and saving more than a few pence) the Seanad should be abolished.

  3. A hybrid of direct and direct election methods will not help the Seanad develop a clear identity. While the reccomendations of the report on the role of the Seanad are quite promising, I think theres a failure of nerve on the question of election. I also think the retention of the university senators is mistaken, I think. A generous for of list PR would ensure minority representation better. Unsuccessful candidates in the most recent general election, or members of the previous Oireachtas, should not be eligible to be Taoiseach’s nominees, and they should be reduced to a much smaller number, say 5.

  4. The Seanad needs to be more independent, and List-PR elections are not going to do anything to make it a suitably independent upper house.

    There is also no justification for retaining the indirectly electedand appointed senators, and if we are to do away with panels the graduate panel should go as well. If the Taoiseach can continue to ensure a government majority than the Seanad is just a complete waste. The whips will simply push the same thing through both houses as they do now.

    I don’t think we necessarily do have to do away with the panels though. We could introduce more social panels – a panel for immigrants, the unemployed, young people, old people, for instance, and have the populace decide which panel they fit into – providing they qualify, of course.

    I like the changes to the role that are invisaged in the report. However, it is clear that the report was made by senators for senators.

  5. We can’t afford the luxury of a Seanad. Period.

    If the Dáil was reformed and run properly, with about 50 less TD,s and of the reaming TD places about 10 or 11 were set aside for people of the calibre of Shane Ross or David Norris and ensure that sort of person can have a say in our parliament. Even using the existing right to nominate but with a caveat that no former TD or defeated TD can be nominated.

    The dysfunctional Dáil at the moment, is why we feel we need a second chamber to ‘keep an eye on it’ but if the first chamber were run properly we wouldn’t need the second check, the crux comes back to the sort of people the Irish public elect in the first place.

    Would Shane Ross or David Norris win a Dáil seat?

    • There’s more than one type of List PR-you can open lists, where voters can change the order of election, or indeed so called free lists, where its entirely up to voters to determine the order of election.

      A list system with a generous threshold would permit the kind of minority representation now supposedly permitted by the nominees and the panels. It would not give entirely unrepresentative vocational groups or the graduates of (certain) universities special representation.

      The precise form of PR used isnt the real issue anyway-as long as it lets relative social ethnic and political minorities get some representation in the national parliament without resorting to nomination, and without leading to total gridlock. You could reduce all Dail constituencies to three searers if you wanted to compensate for what would probably be a fairly fractured Seanad.

      • A single chamber that works is better than two which don’t.

        A new system that retains the best parts of PR but builds in some way to retain the better 10 or 15 senators and some TDs who are not party hacks and seats reduced to about 100 would make for a far more relevant Oireachtas, add in proper local government and bingo, it’s a first step in the right direction?

  6. Sens Joe’ Toole and Shane Ross have a Notice of Motion in today on the subject of Seanad Reform, many points, inter alia;

    “23 directly elected by natioanl popular vote using list PR System
    6 directly elected to a higher education constituency under PR STV
    23 indirectly elected under PR STV to a national constituency by Dail deputies, senators and co cllrs.
    8 nominated by the Taoiseach and an automatically re-elected Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.”

    …will be interesting to see what amendment is sought on the Motion.

    • Great stuff Cormac. It’s interesting how similar the Senators’ proposals are to the outcome of the report itself. To my knowledge, Joe O’Toole was on the O’Rourke committee. I’ll be listening to the webcast anyway!

  7. Amendment:

    1. To delete all words after “Seanad Éireann” and substitute the following:

    “recognising the need for comprehensive consideration of reform of certain electoral matters, including matters relating to Seanad Éireann, notes:

    • the deliberations of an All-Party Group on Seanad Reform, chaired by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with the aim of establishing the level of consensus regarding options for reform of the Seanad;
    • the various proposals contained in the submissions made by the political parties as part of this process;
    • the lack of adequate consensus to pursue constitutional change in relation to reform of the Seanad;
    • that in the absence of such consensus it falls to Government to give due consideration to reform of the Seanad and make decisions accordingly;
    • the commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government of 10 October 2009 to establish an Independent Electoral Commission incorporating the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission, with enhanced powers of inspection;
    • that the Commission will be mandated to, among other things, outline new electoral systems for Seanad Éireann;
    resolves to request the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to bring to the attention of the Government the results of the earlier deliberations of the All Party Group on Seanad Reform and relevant matters raised in the course of the debate on this motion.”

    — Senator Donie Cassidy
    [3 November 2010]

    • Watching the debate now. The lack of passion is somewhat disappointing. One would think that seeking to justify one’s existence would focus the mind!

      • Maybe you should add a link to this debate to your post, Sein?

        On the deeper point, who of us can truly justify his or her existence? Would be great to hear one of our Senators arguing that all we do is be aware of our existence (Je pense, donc je suis) as justification is, in and of itself, eternally and, indeed, essentially conestable 🙂

        Somehow, I can’t see this happening, however.

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