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.