Government considering referendum to abolish the Seanad

Posted by Eoin O’Malley, 8 December, 2010

Fionnán Sheehan reports in today’s Irish Independent that the government is considering putting a question by referendum on election day to abolish the Seanad. This might be seen as a genuine attempt at reform,  a desperate attempt to divert attention from the obvious – the economy -, or a way to deliver some electoral goodies for Green voters. In any case it would hardly seem worth it. First, I suspect nothing will reset the agenda of the election away from anything other than the economy. Second , if it is an attempt at reforming a broken political system, it’ll do little to fix it. And Green voters might not be impressed by this, coming as it does, on the eve of an election – it might smack of desperation.

Why won’t abolishing the Seanad achieve much? The Seanad is arguably a waste of time and money, but it’s hardly the problem. Getting rid of it will save a many millions, and it probably won’t make anything worse, but it will do little more than that. It would be a tokenistic gesture that would not improve the country’s political system in any real way. It might make the proper functioning of a committee system even more difficult. This type of populist measure would surely get the approval of the people but a bit like Fine Gael’s proposal to reduce the number of TDs, would achieve nothing or might even have deleterious effects if not coming as part of more radical measures.

The real problems in Irish politics are the ineptitude of the civil/ public service and the dominance of the executive. So generalist ministers are advised by generalist (read amateur) civil servants, and the Dáil has neither the incentive nor the opportunity to question the government. In short, stuff gets though that should never be allowed. A cheaper and more effective exercise might be to change the standing orders of the Dáil. These changes could include the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot. One might also consider using the Borda Count to elect committee chairs.

Another issue for Fianna Fáil would be that it will severely limit the ability of the party to rebuild itself after the election. If as I have argued here Fianna Fáil might be dominated by older TDs, it will need the Seanad to get 15 to 20 10 or so younger people into Leinster House that could form the nucleus of a rebuilding exercise. For this reason alone I suspect nothing will come of this.

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26 thoughts on “Government considering referendum to abolish the Seanad

  1. did green voters want to get rid of the Seanad, I what gave you that impression? I think some might think it worth for what ever amount of scrutiny it gives to our little read legislation and get some technocrats involved. It does seem to be little other the political manoeuvring.

  2. So the Government believes it can come up with the wording of a populist referendum to abolish an institution of the state on the hoof and yet we are still waiting for the wording on the Children’s Rights referendum? The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children published the proposed wording of a revised article 42 last February, but it is still kicked to touch. Indeed the issue has been on the agenda since the 1993 McGuinness report of the Kilkenny incest investigation said that “the very high emphasis on the rights of the family in the Constitution may consciously or unconsciously be interpreted as giving a higher value to the right of parents than to the rights of children” and recommended an amendment to include “a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children”.
    As Eoin points out abolishing the Senate will save some money and it is largely useless in its current form. The part of the system that is far worse than useless is the extreme executive dominance which unlike even Westminster, allows the Irish government to enjoy a “virtual immunity from informed review or criticism’…compared to…other countries”, according to Strom. It is this dominance that arguably allowed two members of the cabinet to make the decision to guarantee all bank debt while their colleagues and the rest of the country slept, safe in the knowledge that once they made the decision there would be no going back and little effective questioning.
    Explicitly moving towards a more consensus form of politics, allowing committees to consider legislation before it is introduced to the House, allowing witnesses to be called, election of chairs by Borda count are all measures which would do far more for tackling extreme executive dominance than abolishing an institution which if it was set up correctly could actually help democratic oversight. This smacks of short term populism and a government desperate to avoid the election being 100% focussed on the economy.
    I also note the Indo story says party sources are also looking at Dail reform. I wonder what this could mean, does it perhaps mean fewer TDs? Real Dail reform would begin with changing the relevant standing orders which could I assume be done rather easily if the desire were there.

  3. Eoin, as I and others noted in the aftermath of the 2009 locals, even if FF came back to the next Oireachtas with the same number of TDs as now, they simply can’t get more than 12 or so Senators elected. They simply don’t have the cllrs to do it anymore. It leads to a problem that actually passed many people by at the time in that a FF/Labour government would be unlikely to be able to command an majority in the Seanad as Labour would be only able to equal their 2007 showing of 6 seats, and 12 + 6 + Taoiseach’s 11 is 29.

  4. It seems we are agreed that this is a bit of diversionary political theatre. In addition to the reasons given, it also has a go at shooting Enda Kenny’s fox when he forced his unilateral decision to abolish the Seanad and trim the Dail on his party. This was presented by his handlers as an example of his political virility and decisiveness. Lord help us all.

    But I am encouraged by the focus here on reform of the Dail procedures and the curtailment of executive dominance.

  5. Eoin,
    A very nice analysis. My opinion (as a legislative scholar) is that we simply do not need a bicameral legislature given the relatively small size of the country and the unitary nature of the Irish state.

    Building on our shared opinion about the need for a different type of Ceann Comahirle, I would suggest a constitutional amendment to provide for the selection of the Ceann Comhairle from outside the Oireachtas. The Constitutional Review Committee considered the option but wrongly assumed it was not a practice. In fact, several national legislatures select the Speaker from outside. Most recently, the new constitution in Kenya implemented this.

  6. Abolishing the Seanad has never been green policy Eoin, nor do I think this has anything to do with them. Rest of the points are bang on though – well said.

    • Barra,
      Abolishing the Seanad hasn’t, but political reform has been a major issue for the Greens. No reform to the political system has been delivered in the three and a half years in government, so this might represent some reform.
      In any case the report in the Indo suggested that it was the Greens.

  7. Whatever the political rationale behind the proposed move to abolish the Seanad I, for one, would fully support it’s demise. A so called democratic body which allows graduates of some universities to vote and not others, which allows councillors to elect representatives on what is a totally party political basis and in which the vast majority of ordinary taxpayers cannot play a part should be abolished. An organisation which allows retired lecturers, retired union officials, failed and aspiring politicans to while away their days at our expense waffling on about total irrelivencies should be abolished.

  8. It could be an interesting political carrot to dangle in front of the Greens. Might even delay their departure from government if they were busy trying to formulate some political reforms. Final throw of the dice from those with nothing else left to lose.

    That said, I find it hard to get excited about the abolition the Seanad. Sure, it’s almost an irrelevance. A very limited number of Senators are probably worth their pay. But in the absense of proper Dáil/executive reform I’d prefer to simply reform it. Make it directly elected on a national basis (open list system or re-elect 1/3 of Senators at a time in a nationwide PR STV vote) and give it increased powers (longer delays of legislation, let a supermajority block non-money bills), maybe give it powers to block/vet government appointments. Or as the last report of reforming the Oireachtas suggested, allow the leader of the Seanad be a de facto minister, sitting at cabinet. Many imaginative steps could be taken. Increasing the powers of committees and changing the procedure for selecting the Ceann Comhairle are positive steps in themselves, but I doubt they will be enough to check executive domination of the Dáil. Unless the Dáil is reformed in a more radical way than that, I’d much prefer an improved Seanad rather than no Seanad at all.

    • Another view is that it sets up a possible Coalition between FF and FG:-)

      But then would it actually be implemented?
      In 1979, a referendum added Article 18.4.2 to the constitution, enabling the universities electoral panel to include “any other institutions of higher education in the State”
      This has yet to be enacted, 31 years later.

      The governing class (political and administrative) are past-masters at a do-minimum approach to anything that changes their way of life.

      This is yet another example of an ancien regime institutionalsing meaningless reforms, which completely ignore the fact they have exhausted their ideas.

      It is just more of the same kind of wheeze as the other 1999 addition to our Constitution on Local Government!

      • The cynic in me says that unfortunately you are probably entirely correct. But perhaps there is a spark of idealism left in the Greens. The article 18.4.2 addition is worded in quite a wishy-washy way. It merely gives powers/permission to the government to extend the electoral panel if they so wish. No reason that a potential Senate amendment could not be worded in a far more assertive/even aggressive way that would have to be implemented, even give a time limit. But as you say probably this is all some wheeze to distract from the upcoming election.

  9. There is the argument of the existing Seanad being a place from which Fianna Fáil might try to rebuild itself. But FF will likely have only a small representation in the new Seanad. There might be political attractions for them and the Greens to an alteration in how the Seanad is elected. For example suppose that 1/3 of Seanad members were re-elected every 2 years via nationwide PR STV. If they are in the political wilderness after the general election, there would at least be the prospect of new Seanad elections after 2 and then 4 years against a perhaps by then less popular government. There might be the possibility of harrying the government, or at least being something of a thorn in their side, from a more powerful Seanad.

  10. I just can’t believe that the Government would serious contemplate it. I had a quick leaf through the consitution yesterday. References to either “the Houses of the Oireachtas” or “Seanad Éireann” are littered through the document. It would be an unbelievable task to try and come up with a constitutional amendment, so many articles would have to amend it. The work that would be required in drafting the amendment would be huge. I think?

    • It would be quite a wordy amendment, but it wouldn’t be difficult. It would be pretty clear what had to go or be changed. I can’t see that there would be any lurking anomalies.

      But I doubt if it the Seanad features in many pieces of primary legislation. This is the usual problem, so for instnace, when the UK Labour government wanted to abolish the office of Lord chancellor it was pointed out (after they had announced it) that there were about 800 pieces of legislation that included references to the Lord Chancellor. This was deemed to great a task, and so the title was kept but the role stripped of all its power.

      • “that there were about 800 pieces of legislation that included references to the Lord Chancellor. ”

        The same comment has been made about the implications of getting rid of the Senate.

        On this, doesn’t FF have form?
        Did it not abolish the Free State Senate?
        What lessons can be learnt from this experience?

        When you look at the effort involved including a referendum, it would be much better to focus those efforts thinking about, designing and implementing a new way of governing ourselves based on checks and balances which limit the scope for excess by the powerful – public and private, elected and appointed – so that out government is competent and moderate.

    • Joanna,
      “It would be an unbelievable task to try and come up with a constitutional amendment, so many articles would have to amend it. ”

      It is word-smithing – something that politicians and lawyers are past master at.

      Let us have less “do-nothing nihilism” from the present governing class – which includes all incumbents of elected office!

      • There are very few pieces of legislation I can think of that mention the Seanad, and most that do refer to the operation of the Seanad so they would fall into abeyance. It is in no way equivalent to the example of the Lord Chancellor.

      • Donal,

        Labour has proposed a constitutional convention, all issues on the table. Personally I am very favourable to bicameralism, in particular because of the fact that Ireland, for all its faults, has had a relative stable democracy, no fascist dictators, a political system that has helped Ireland emerge from two wars on its Island, no far right party making its way to prominence and much progressive initiatives and legislation over the years. That does not mean I am against reform, I am in favour of reforms but not ones that are hasty, nor for the wrong reason, nor that might put our up to now stable democracy at risk.

    • I would refer Joanna Tuffy to her letter to he Irish times where she rubbishes the list system and supports her argument by referring to one report on the Welsh electoral system which argues that the Welsh list system “creates two categories of electoral representatives and that this was an intrinsic defect in the system” and furthermore “that the Welsh public perceived the list seats in the assembly as consolation prizes for parties which failed to win constituency seats.” Referring to future list system Irish politicians she discredits voters by asserting “voters would view them as not having a true democratic mandate to represent them in the Dáil.” These surely are great arguments for the abolition of the Senate or at the very least its reform.
      Incidentally there are open list systems where candidates are listed alphabetically not in rank order according to party.

  11. Since I was “retired” from the Seanad (in my case retired is a transitive verb!) I’ve thought intermittently about the Seanad. I’m still a political obsessive. My conclusions are fairly simple.
    1) Many vibrant democracies are unicameral
    2) In some of those a de facto 2nd chamber is found to be necessary to ensure that legislation is dealt with thoroughly. Thats not an argument that aplies here given the utter contempt with which successive governments , egged on by the Dept of Finance , have always treated the Oireachtas.
    3)In Ireland’s unique level of government non accountability (epitomised by the arrogance of Finance) reducing the number of those who can and wish to make them accountable would be a bad idea. I am quite certain Finance would be very keen on abolition of the Seanad!
    4) The solution would be to separate the two houses. Have the entire Seanad elected on a fixed term basis every five years using a list system, with Seanad members precluded from running in Dail elections .
    Abolish Taoiseach’s nominees.
    5)Give the Seanad no new powers. Any Senator worth his/her salt can make a government Minister accountable to a degree that no journalist could ever do. (Dont want to boast but can give you examples…!!.
    There is a lot more but essentially since the lack of accountablity (aided and abetted by a lazy, and sadly often bought, media)is our single greatest political deficit, reducing the number of people who can demand accountability is a step entirely in the wrong direction. Reform is needed but even more than the political class the governing bureaucracy prefers to hide in the shadows . Look what they did to FoI.
    If anyone thinks I’m being too hard on Finance I’ll point then to a piece of legislation where they insisted that the Taoiseach could not act without the approval of the Minster for Finance. That of course is a constitutional nonsense but they get away regularly with that kind of stuff. They are also very good at holding up funding and leaving public servants in other depts exposed. The “others” are forced to go out in public but know their careers are over if they blame Finance.
    Finance are the ultmate embodiment of Irish non accountable power and tehy will fight all the way to keep things like that

    • You wouldn’t be the first person to think of such an idea. There was a paper by Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy http://www.imprint.co.uk/books/9781845401399.html (used to be available online but no longer it seems) describing how the House of Lords might be reformed in the UK using such a system. So called “Peers in Parliament” would be selected randomly from the electoral register for a fixed possibly rotating term, paid an MP’s wage, with their employer compensated if necessary. The paper suggested roughly similar powers to the current House of Lords. It suggested there might also be a small number of nominated Peers (experts in legislation or particular policy areas nominated by existing political parties). But all very much harking back to ancient Athenian democracy, which selected large juries and even committees of public officials by random lot. Such a chamber would, if large enough (say 200 or more), give a very good statistical representation of the voting population, and equally likely representation of men and women and other minority groups in proportion to their size. And would be essentially non-political.

      What powers might one give to such a body? Certainly powers to scrutinize and perhaps delay legislation, particularly if citizens sat for long enough to learn the ropes, and had access to experts for advice. Abilities to scrutinize, block and maybe even actually make public appointments could be a real strength of such a body. Giving powers to scrutinize public appointments to a directly elected Seanad would be a big improvement on what we’ve got. But, if opposition parties controlled such a Seanad, all the government and opposition parties might simply cut a deal to divvy up the appointments between them. A second chamber chosen by random lot would be far more independent and non-political check on government or judicial appointments.

  12. Maybe a naive view, but I am in favour of maintaining the Seanad as a house of review – just not in its present form.

    How about one or two directly elected Senators from each county? This would go some way toward counterbalancing the inevitable Dublin-centric character of the Dail.

    One reform desperately needed is a means of detaching TDs from constituency work and enabling them to concentrate on the job they are employed to do: legislating. How to do it? Haven’t a clue.

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