Is there (still) a future for the Seanad?

Post by David Farrell (September 29, 2011)

Today’s Irish Times reports on a speech yesterday by (former leader of the Senate) Maurice Manning to Senators. This results from the Senate’s initiative to invite ‘outsiders’ onto the floor of the chamber to speak frankly to them. And by the looks of things Dr Manning’s comments were frank enough (see here for the full article). He called on the Senate to make greater effort to demonstrate to the Irish people that it does have a role. If this Senate, unlike it’s predecessor, chooses to listen to this and follow his advice, are they too late? The signals from on high suggest that the referendum on the future of the Senate will happen? And the lust for political sacrifice seems as strong as ever.

10 thoughts on “Is there (still) a future for the Seanad?

  1. The case for a delaying or revising chamber is, and always has been, very weak when the government of the day has a built-in majority. And in terms of geographical scale, size of population or constituent groupings within the population there are no specific, well-defined regional or sectional interests which a second chamber might represent – or which have not already found a more efficient and effective means of protecting their interests. Moreover it would be almost impossible to reform An Seanad in a way that would tread the fine line between political patronage and a degree of democratic legitimacy that might usurp that of the Dail.

    Quite apart from this ‘lust for political sacrifice’ – and the desire to showcase the decisiveness of an Taoiseach – the case for abolition is strong.

    However, the removal of this very limited opportunity for scrutiny and revision of legislation at the penultimate stage of its enactment should be compensated for by much. much stronger powers, resources and procedures in the Dail and its Cttees to scrutinise, contest and revise proposed policies and executive actions prior to their being drafted in a final form for legislative enactment. However ineffective An Seanad is, or has been, in exercising some restraint on an overmighty executive, its existence provides that possibility. Its removal would strip away another, albeit flimsy, layer of scrutiny and would strengthen the hand of government even more.

    If the Government (or, altenatively and ideally, the Dail) does not bring forward proposals to strengthen the powers of the Dail and its Cttees that will accompany, and be incorporated in, the terms of the proposed referendum to abolish An Seanad, the proposal to abolish An Seanad should be rejected – and rejected forcefully.

  2. The almost automatic government majority, ensured by the Taoiseach’s 11, has crippled this body. IMO there would be a good case for keeping the Seanad if was structured so as to be often opposition-controlled (perhaps by decoupling Seanad elections from Dáil elections and directly electing the chamber on a regular staggered basis). It has reasonable enough powers of delay (6 months for non-money bills, which could be stretched to 9 months if it doesn’t bother voting on the bill for an allowed 3 months). The article 27 power allowing a 1/3 of TDs, a majority of Senators and the President together to refer a bill of major national importance to the people would then become actually usable.

    And the new powers of inquiry which the upcoming constitutional amendment proposes to give to the Houses of the Oireachtas could be employed most interestingly in the hands of an opposition controlled Seanad. Would our government really be in such a rush to pass this referendum if we currently had a genuinely independent Seanad? This ability to inquire into government actions is one of the attractive features of the powerful Australian Senate. Unfortunately, this level of scrutiny of government actions (imagine a second chamber summoning public officials before one of its committees) is very alien to this country, which is probably why this scenario is probably never going to happen.

    • @Finbar,

      You seem to be in reflective mode, but I think you’ve, unwittingly perhaps, answered the questions you’ve posed.

      There is no future for An Seanad in any shape or form. But, as I’ve emphasised above, any proposal to abolish it should be vigorously opposed unless it is accompanied by significant re-empowering of the Dail to hold government to account.

      • Do still think such scrutiny might come more easily in a properly structured Seanad. But the very reasons why such a Seanad (or any other similar political entity) are so needed are also the very ones which will probably ensure it will never be allowed to exist.

        Whether I will vote for Seanad abolition or not will very much depend on the overall package that comes out of the much rumoured constitutional convention. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. There are other ways of introducing checks and balances into the system. And the presidency and Seanad between them, as they currently exist, hardly qualify as that. Am all for reforming and strengthening the Dáil but think ideally something more than that is needed, whether it be some direct democracy provisions or some other separately elected democratic entity with some teeth (whether that be a second chamber or presidency with increased powers). Am not particularly dogmatic as to the form such checks and balances might take.

        A very interesting document I came across recently (courtesy of a 2nd-republic email list) is the Iceland New Constitution Bill

        Not the most radical set of reforms ever, but nonetheless still a pretty solid and wide-ranging proposed suite of reforms to the current Icelandic constitution (the current one is here: ).

        The Icelandic President’s ability to refuse to sign a bill and refer it to a referendum stays (a power never used until the Icesave bill but laid out fairly clearly nonetheless in the current constitution). Some notional (but not existing in practical terms) powers of appointment of the Icelandic President are made more explicit and strengthened. He’ll get a veto over judicial appointments and the DPP, which only a 2/3 parliamentary super-majority can override. There are measures to try to clean up public appointments:

        “Ministers shall make appointments to other posts as defined by law following recommendation by an independent committee. If a Minister does not appoint to such an office one of the persons regarded as most qualified, the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Althing by a two-thirds majority vote.
        The President of Iceland shall appoint the chairman of the committee. Further details of the composition of the committee and its work shall be provided for by law.” (from proposed article 96).

        There are some measures to improve separation of legislature and executive. It’s now proposed that all MPs have alternates. If a MP becomes a minister or speaker he loses voting rights and his alternate takes his place. The role of speaker is strengthened. His election would now require a 2/3 super-majority. There’s the introduction of a constructive vote of no confidence (no confidence motions, like in Germany and some other countries, now have to have the name of an alternative Prime Minister attached, who becomes PM if the motion succeeds). This procedure makes dissolution harder for the Prime Minister (a more straightforward dissolution requires a parliamentary resolution).

        Regulatory oversight is strengthened. It is proposed that legislation dealing with independent and regulatory state agencies can only be changed with a 2/3 super-majority.

        Article 15 proposes to give new rights to freedom of information.

        The proposed new constitution also introduces some direct democracy provisions. A citizens’ initiative within 3 months of a bill being signed will trigger a referendum, which if successful will result in the bill becoming void. Voters can also introduce legislation via signatures and referendums. The direct democracy provisions are not as strong as in Switzerland. There are some exclusions (e.g. the finance bill).

        Overall, though, it’s a pretty solid stab at reform. Will be very interesting to compare and contrast the breadth and scale of what will come out of our own constitutional convention (when that eventually gets going) with what is proposed in Iceland.

      • Reforms will only take place when the IMF come and give this lot the order to end the pilfering of the exqeecuhr, so aptly demonstrated by FAS and the latest ongoing SIPTU, HSE horror show. This manifesto and other logical and necessary ideas will not be implemented until the bond market refuses to budge on its assessment of Ireland. Lenihan is about to walk off into history.Even if the government takes out some of the fatted calfs on December 7th and slaughters them on the steps of the Dail, there is little denying that it is already too late. When the bond market is revisited in the new year expect to see yields on government bonds begin at 6.5% and then run amok in february and march when a general election will have to be called. The new government, will have to operate under the remit of the IMF/EU, but heck a lot of them will be happy to have survived the general election and will be more than wiling to serve under the IMF/ EU. After all, they have no policies of their own worth talking about. So, telling us they have to do this and that will suit them down to the ground.

  3. @Finbar,

    There seems to be a widespread popular resolve in Iceland along the lines ‘the system didn’t work; so let’s fix the system’. As per my comments on the thread at the top of the board (Changing framework etc..) I just can’t see how a similar popular resolve will emerge in Ireland. The current system of excessive executive dominance is far, far too easy, convenient and comfortable for the Government (indeed, any government). And it may be that many people consider that the battles going on, and that will go on, between the factions in government diminish (if not eliminate) the requirement for proper formal scrutiny or ongoing democratic restraint.

    Perhaps MPs in Iceland genuinely give voice to their voters’ concerns and demands rather than being, as TDs in Ireland seem to be, the messenger boys and girls that get the opportunity, just once in a Dail (the 1994 exception proves the rule), to elect a Taoiseach and then are compelled to spend their time extracting as much as possible of the largese provided by government for their constituents.

    • There’s still a danger this proposal might be watered down during parliamentary deliberations between now and when it’s voted upon and goes to referendum next year. There certainly seemed to be a strong public demand for a rewrite of their constitution. The economic crisis produced a far more short sharp shock even than here. And the population’s reaction there was far from passive, with lots of very big demonstrations. I suppose Iceland is also a far smaller and therefore probably more cohesive and homogeneous place (population even less than Cork City and County).

      I’m overall quite impressed with the document. As political systems go it seems to tick all the boxes in some way. I’d have few quibbles with the result (perhaps I’d prefer if the direct democracy provisions were even stronger and maybe more thought had gone into parliamentary committees). There’s a lot of interesting stuff in it (including creation of an Ombudsman and some interesting local government provisions also).

      But as you say, it’s hard to see anything like the same level of popular resolve here as was exhibited in Iceland. There’s certainly some. It may be that people are, for the most part, perfectly happy to express their views every five years or so in Dáil elections, and are mostly content with business as usual.

      The terms of reference for the constitutional council that produced this document were extremely broad:

      “The foundation of the Icelandic Constitution and its basic concepts.
      The organisation of the legislative- and executive powers and their limits.
      The role and position of the President of the Republic.
      The independence of the courts and their supervision of other holders of state authority.
      Provisions about elections and the constituency system.
      Democratic public participation e.g. in the timing and arrangement of referendum, including a bill about constitutional laws.
      Transfer of state authority to international organisations and handling of foreign affairs.
      Environmental affairs, such as regarding ownership and utilisation of natural resources.
      The Constitutional Council may decide to discuss more topics than those mentioned above.”

      and its members directly elected (there were some problems last year when the judiciary had problems with the process where 25 members were elected to a constitutional convention, but the parliament got around this problem by simply appointing these people to the constitutional council). The comparison of the Irish process and terms of reference with the Icelandic process will be most interesting. I sincerely hope I’ll not be hugely disappointed.

      • @Finbar,

        Who will be driving the process in Ireland – and, more importantly, who will be doing most of the drafting of the ‘terms of reference’ of the exercise?

        Fill the answer in here……………………………………………


      • @Paul
        Unfortunately, yes, almost certainly QED!
        I’ll have to read that Diogenes quote of yours again! 🙂

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