The case for reinventing the Seanad

Guest post by Vincent Byrne

There is an opportunity in this debate about our crisis of governance to re-construct   the Seanad, to provide a ‘democratic dualism’, a return to the Athenian approach of both Assembly of the people and Tribune of the people. This Dual structure would fundamentally change the democratic architecture of our state. The purpose for a second chamber would be to enhance the deliberative capacity of policy-making, involving a wide spectrum of Irish civic life and increasing the democratic legitimacy of the policy-making and policy implementation process.

To explain this I need to refer to the work of Pierre Rosanvallon in “Counter-Democracy, Politics in an age of distrust”. Changes in the political environment have given rise to a gap between the legitimacy of the governors and the legitimacy of their actions hence there are many attempts to oversee those actions including increasing levels of protest and activism, use of the internet to hold government to account and a whole range of political and civic activity outside the traditional confines of electoral politics which he describes as counter democratic activity.


Rosanvallon identifies three different types of democratic legitimacy. The first is the legitimacy derived from the consent of a majority of the electorate. The second is the legitimacy of the impartial body, the court or independent authority. The third, ‘moral universalism’ he describes as the oldest and it relates to universal values and reason. It has manifested in natural rights theories and secular philosophies of justice, the rights of man and moral systems of various kinds.


There is a real danger that distrust in politics becomes something far more dangerous. There is a need and an opportunity for our democratic design to reflect the extended reality of democratic activity and perhaps lay claim to the other legitimacies. In Athenian democracy there was close supervision of magistrates by citizens. Art 147 of the Pennsylvanian State Constitution provided for a council of censors “Elected by people of the state’s cities and counties, the censors were to ensure that the executive and legislative branches properly performed their duties as ‘guardians of the people’.”


If electoral representation and ongoing scrutiny by the citizenry are two inherent parts of democracy could we strengthen the latter by institutionalising it? In this context the assertion that the Seanad, in its present form, has outlived its usefulness is most probably correct. There are few who would claim that it should continue in its current form.


A reconstructed second chamber would represent civic society in all its manifestations. It would go beyond the vocational to include ethnic minorities, demographic representation, and community representation perhaps elected from the special policy committees of local authorities or local citizen assemblies. It would seek to represent the cultural diversity of an emerging multi ethnic society as well emigrants abroad who have contributed so much to other societies and whose emigration has been strongly influenced by economic conditions prevailing at home.


The concept of a citizens assembly could be incorporated here as an integral part or representative layer of either a national or locally based citizen assemblies.  In terms of public policy the assembly would deliberate on the broad strategies as well as scrutinise the effectiveness of policies.  Its central duty would be to bring counter-democratic surveillance, scrutiny and censor to bear on public policy, both its formulation and its implementation. In doing so it would help provide political judgement by delivering critical sovereignty and representing the totality of the democratic experience.

Its public deliberations would first of all seek a common strategic economic and social direction. It would test public policy by these criteria. It could have power like the proposed Philadelphia Council of Censors to issue warnings, recommend the removal of officials, and recommend the repeal of laws. It would raise the process of policy-making in general from the administrative sphere to the political. The process of regulatory impact analysis, currently conducted exclusively in the administrative sphere could be expanded.  There is no reason for it to necessitate expenditure beyond the meeting of legitimate expenses. In times of frugality and fiscal responsibility this might bestow an additional legitimacy on the chamber and its participants.


In performing these functions the reconfigured Seanad, brings the legitimacy of both ‘moral universalism’ as well as ‘impartiality’ to the democratic role of critical sovereignty. Its symbolism would help restore what Rosanvallon described as theatricality to the collective power. It would help provide political judgement on what constitutes the public interest and the public good. It does not subvert the electoral-representative sphere of parliament, institutionalised in the Dáil but provides a complementary balance while institutionalising the ‘constellation of counter democratic’ activity. It reflects the changes in the political environment and the modern cleavages of society. It enhances democratic governance through the dual system of representation and critical sovereignty.



In his election night address in Chicago, Barack Obama reminded us that “our stories are singular but our destiny is shared”. Democratic governance is about finding the means of telling our individual stories in collective society and crafting, shaping and re-shaping from those individual stories our shared destiny. The telling of the stories and the shaping of the destiny cannot be guided solely by the rule of numbers. There is strength and legitimacy in diversity, in moral universalism and in constant scrutiny and impartial judgement.


The act of telling our story is not confined to momentary inspiration in the ballot box at five-year intervals. It is constant, persistent and dynamic. It requires matching structures and institutions. What I propose, a second chamber with a new purpose and function, marries the checks and balances of modern liberal democratic design with older concepts of Athenian democracy to resolve very new cleavages in the activities that constitute democratic action in modern states. I am reminded in making that recommendation that “All things must change to something new, to something strange”. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)


Vincent Byrne holds both a first class honours primary and masters degree in Public management, (IPA/NUI). He is a civil servant and previously served as the youngest member of Wexford Corporation and youngest Mayor of Wexford.

7 thoughts on “The case for reinventing the Seanad

  1. Nice try, Vincent, but no cigar, I’m afraid. It is difficult to justify an upper house in small (population-wise and geographically) countries. The best argument I have encountered comes from an alleged discussion, over tea, between Washington and Jefferson when the latter was contesting the former’s advocacy of an upper house, the Senate. Jefferson found the tea too hot and poured some into his saucer to cool it. Washington took his cue and decribed the Senate as the saucer to cool hot-headed decisions that might be made in the cup of the House of Representatives.

    Despite this I remain convinced that, for Ireland, the best option is a unicameral parliament that has the widest representation of Irish society. No need for experts; just ordinary people scrutinising and originating policy proposals, hearing all the evidence (for and against)and making decisions in the public interest. To do this, the Dail would have to be empowered and resourced with strong committees and an ability to hold the executive to account.

    • “If electoral representation and ongoing scrutiny by the citizenry are two inherent parts of democracy could we strengthen the latter by institutionalising it?”
      I agree that we need “ongoing scrutiny” of our government -at all levels

      However, it seems that a complete re-casting of government to bring more government activity closer to citizens is lost in this line of thinking.

      For example, the Danish response to the oil price rise economic crisis of the 1970s was to put devolve many government services to local authorities. Being closer to the “citizenry” means that the citizens would have much shorter feed-back loops when dealing with Government services.

      In addition, other methods of “ongoing scrutiny” could be institutionalised by embedding two measures in our Constitution ie.
      1) A Swedish-style Freedom of Information (FoI) see the case I made here

      2) A Swiss-style Citizens’ Initiative. see the case I made on pages 27-30 and .88-100
      of my 1996 submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution which is here

      Click to access 1.pdf

      (FYI, in this submission, I also proposed abolishing the Senate see p. 17-20 or search the pdf using the term Seanad)

      I regard these as part of the checks and balances needed to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – public and private, elected and appointed, so that government is competent and moderate.

      In short, I agree with both Paul’s comments on the usefulness of the Senate within this Republic and his ideas on the Dáil

      In 1979, the citizens of this state passed a referendum to enable the university panels used for Senate elections to be extended to other third level institutions.
      Nothing has been done for 31 years – apart from at least 7 other reports on reforming the Senate.

      With so much inertia on this and other critical aspects of our way of governing ourselves, we need far more than a re-invented Senate.

      • Donal, I agree with you that we need far more than a re-invented Seanad and would not consider our proposals mutually exclusive.

    • Paul,
      I know from your regular postings on other blogs that I wont convince you but I wonder is it because you think like an economist in all situations? A former lecturer of mine posited that “economists were the last of the great utopians-they believe in a world without interest groups”. I agree that reform of the Dáil is a priority but we cannot ignore the primary role of political parties in the make up of that chamber, reformed or not.Changes in political parties have meant that they no longer operate as social identifiers, nor does the partisan mutual adjustment that used to take place between disparate interests take place within political parties.Furthermore they are no longer mass political movements.At elections they no longer present a choice between clear policy platforms ( arguably in Ireland this happened a lot less than in other countries) hence the gap between the legitimacy of the Governors versus the legitimacy of their actions mentioned above. It is my contention that the disaggregated interests and deliberation of policy choices is taking place outside of the democratic architecture.This is why social partnership happened and policy was made in a manner that clearly led to a democratic deficit.That is why the range of democratic institutions and their legitamacies needs to change. Vacuums will cause serious dysfunctions.
      Economists, often pruduce neat rational steps to desirable policy choices but if that is done by ignoring the reality of interests, community and democratic deliberation then it is of little practical use. The alternative to engaging with civic society in some form is the type of predator state where policy is de facto made by wealthy, organised lobbies and the vacuum created will be filled in a potentially dangerous manner.

  2. Vincent, I have no wish to come across as being dismissive of your efforts in a cursory and casual manner. I think I understand the issues you are addressing and what your proposed reconstituted Seanad is intended to achieve. But it strikes me as a solution in search of a problem.

    If labels were relevant or useful I would describe myself as an economist and a democrat, so I have a foot in both camps, but, apparently, trying to straddle two silos isn’t on. As a result I get slapped down on for arguing that the baleful impacts of economic special interests should be tackled; and it seems my adherence to the discipline of economics is seen to hamper me here. Though I have my own preference in terms of a political stance and economic policy, my focus here is, in a sense, disinterested because, through engagement and debate, I want to advance reform of the process of governance so that the full authority of the people is reflected in the political and economic policy choices made. As I’ve mentioned previously, people and their elected representatives have an inalienable right to make stupid decisions; but they have an equally inalienable right to reverse these decisions at a later stage.

    We both seem to agree that reform of the Dail is a priority. My suggestion would be to focus on this, leave an Seanad as it is while this is being done and then see what issues remain that a reformed Seanad might be capable of addressing.

    • Paul, if it is any consolation economics formed a much more substantial part of my academic education than political science. The point I was trying to make above is that the changes in political parties most probably means that they are incapable of delivering, to the Dáil, what you described in your first post as “the widest representation of Irish society”.

  3. There seems to be a widespread belief that electing a better quality of public representative would go a long way to resolve the current problems of political governance – such as Platonic ‘philosopher-kings’ or ‘philosopher-tycoons’ as Dr. Ed Walsh has suggested. I don’t agree.

    For me, the primary problems are related to procedures and the allocation of resources. In an extended exchange on another thread Deputy Tuffy drew attention to the low regard in which backbench TDs (of all parties) are held by the media and many voters. They have it in their own hands to apply the ultimate authority that the people have delegated to them to assert the primacy of parliament.

    This doesn’t mean that duly elected governments will be unable to govern. It simply means that the legislation they advance for enactment is subject to appropriate scrutiny and where provisions of this legislation diverge from the objective evidence presented to and considered by the Dail and its committees and the government ensures enactment the gaps are clear and obvious to the media and the public. If voters remain unconvinced they can arrange for appropriate consequences at a later stage. But it would be far better for governments to amend, or to allow amendment of, the proposals in the face of the evidence presented. What we have now is legislation crafted in almost final form in a huddle comprised of a minister, special advisers and senior department officials which is whipped through the Oireachtas. Changing this process would have enormous implications.

    The challenge is to convince TDs that it is in their interests – and in the interests of their constituents – to make this change.

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