Early days of the SOS (‘Save Our Seanad’) campaign

Posted by Matt Wall

A  letter to the Irish Times from six former Senators represents a faltering start to the campaign against the government’s plans to abolish the Seanad. The six argue, as many others have and will, for reform rather than abolition. Sadly, their case is not helped by the farcical nature of many of the ‘debates’ that unfold with such regularity and futility in the current Seanad. Such debates are all-too-often nothing more than set pieces. They tend to be treated as such by their participants – rhetorical grandstanding and political point scoring are par for the course, and considered, constructive inputs are far more rare (though by no means absent).

The letter does acknowledge that ‘the effects of party political dominance in the Seanad’, which are virtually guaranteed by its selection system, have undermined its legitimacy. Looking in from the outside, it seems that the government entertains little thought of accepting contentious or substantive amendments from non-aligned Senators, even though such proposed amendments are often very well-reasoned.

Of course, many proposals for reform of how we elect the Seanad lie in the epic series of reports on the topic that the Houses of the Oireachtas have generated over the years – so reformists need not look far for concrete suggestions. However, they should be honest in their discussions of Seanad reform – a directly elected upper house, especially if elected at a different date than the lower house and given more substantial legislative powers, could emerge as a powerful constitutional player, significantly reducing the government’s room for manœuvre.

It is hard to know how this debate will go, but it seems to me that the current crop of Senators must do more to take a leading part, if they wish to be heard at all. However, at the moment the opposite appears to be the case, as Jonathan Victory’s account of the Seanad’s work on the Constitutional Convention legislation makes clear. While I’m not in favour of abolishing the Seanad generally, I think that it would be better to abolish it than to let it continue as it is presently constituted. In short, unless a set of genuinely democratizing reforms can be agreed and implemented, the Seanad should go.

15 thoughts on “Early days of the SOS (‘Save Our Seanad’) campaign

  1. Proving they can work under imminent threat of losing their job is not really a great advertisement for the seanad. However reforming them with properly structured elections and giving the body actual teeth might save it.
    Currently we are ruled by cabinet and not really the Dail at all. It is not just the Seanad needs to reform.

  2. I think there are three important points here. The first is that (as noted) proposing to abolish the Seanad without thinking about how the rest of the parliamentary system does and will work seems really ridiculous to me. After all, the core question should be first whether we want bicameralism in principle and THEN how we would make that work with current, reformed, or new structures. The second point is that the ideas behind the Seanad (especially representativeness and expertise) have great value in a majoritarian system and may even militate towards retaining at least some non-elected members. (I wrote about this especially here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1620505 The final version is in (2011) Irish Law Times 48). The third is that the research base underlying the proposal for abolition of the Seanad (thinking especially of the ‘New Politics’ agenda) is thin and methodologically suspect and should be challenged rather than accepted. I am really pleased to see this campaign growing, and it would be particularly good to know that the current research (especially from political science and constitutional law) is being taken into account by the campaign. Fingers crossed.

  3. The six prominent former senators have a few arguments in their letter. One, that it would be legally messy, is not a great argument. If it’s worth abolishing, the legal aspect is hardly beyond the wit of man. Although one might wonder whether this is really something ministers should spend a good deal of time on, especially as referendums seem to drive the work of government to a halt.

    The other argument is that a reformed Seanad (presumably by moving to a directly-elected Seanad with universal suffrage) could enhance democracy. This may be so, but wouldn’t it be better to first make the Dáil work, rather than setting up a rival. Furthermore, it’s not clear how any move to making the Seanad more democratic would reduce the power of party politics, or indeed if this would be desirable.

    There does seem to be an element of ‘let’s have a debate’ so that we can postpone any action. One might have thought that there’s been enough debate, and that if they don’t have a specific proposal to consider, the government might reasonably ignore this intervention.

    A problem for the government is that their reform agenda is so piece-meal and ill-thought through that public support may collapse when their proposals comes under any pressure. A letter my ‘six eminent former…’ probably sank the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum, it could do the same here.

    • Don’t discount the lack of trust in politicians. A Vote No to Abolition hinged on a vague promise that a reprieved senate will reform itself in the future isn’t worth a damn. Why are all those “reforming” senators so incapable of actually spelling out what specifically they would change, and then demanding the govt implement those changes (incl a possible referendum) in return for not rebelling over its legislative agenda? At the moment I’d vote yes to abolition out of sheer spite towards these guys who blocked reform for years.

      • Yes – amazing how these voices only piped up once abolition was on the table. Not so much commentary as report after report went unimplemented.

  4. We’ll probably never know to what extent the opposition of the eight former attorney’s general contributed to the popular rejection of the Oireachtas inquiries amendment, but it seems to have become part of the popular folklore, if not the received wisdom, that it was influential.

    This intervention by these 6 former eminent senators is more interesting. In October 2009, when he was coming under increasing external and internal pressure, Enda Kenny, with little evidence of any internal FG policy debate, decided to announce the abolition of the Seanad and the reduction of the number of TDs by 20 as convincing evidence of his decisiveness, political virility and control over the party. Even if the number has been much reduced, he is getting his way on the latter. There isn’t any scope for a quantitative compromise on the former, so I don’t see any way he can back down without damaging his political credibility and authority.

    He may be able to give himself some wriggle room if he were to signal that he might change his mind if were persuaded by the strength and quality of the arguments advanced. But any retreat would be highlighted as a major u-turn. And governing politicians don’t do u-turns expect in extremis.

    However, irrespective of the motivations of those who might contribute to the outcome, I’m always happy when they might lead to ill-thought through government proposals being abandoned.

  5. I’m honestly not sure how I’ll vote on this one. Voting yes to abolition would merely seem like quite a futile and pointless way to extract a pound of flesh from the politicians (I suspect if one added up the salaries of all current government special advisors it would be of a similar order to total Seanad pay). But would a no vote in effect be just a vote for the current dismal status quo? Do I seriously think that the Dáil will ever be able or willing to bring itself to meaningfully reform this body? Sadly I’d tend to think no.

    My vote will probably depend on how the abolition amendment is worded. I’d hate to think that judicial and C&AG removal could be decided by a simply Dáil majority, or Presidential impeachment by just a simple 2/3 supermajority. And I quite obviously have developed a liking for submajority rules. Giving powers of legislative delay to a qualified parliamentary minority seems like a good principle to me. It doesn’t ultimately prevent the majority from getting its way but could prevent rushed decisions. And allowing a minority to appeal to the general public via referendum in extremis (in rare and exceptional circumstances) seems acceptable to me (as would be the thrust of article 27). If these form part of the substance of an abolition amendment then I’d vote yes, otherwise it’ll be a no.

    I do believe a second chamber could have a useful role. It could be one means of injecting a degree of separation of powers into the system (though it’s not the only way and perhaps there are equally good arguments that the Dáil should be the main focus of such efforts). And if the Seanad was relatively powerful then it would inevitably be party political in nature. Previous suggestions that perhaps the Seanad should be given special responsibility to review EU legislation strike me as just attempts to give it something to do, as make-work for it. In business, though, the audit function is very deliberately separated out from other functions of a company. Maybe that’s part of the problem with standard governance, that the very same people with the hands in and controlling the till are also supposed to be the ones keeping an eye on whether things are above board. These two roles are fused. In Ireland voters tend to vote for politicians and Taoisigh that they perceive as being competent managers of the economy (hasn’t always worked out in practice! 😉 ). Perhaps they’d also like these to hold to high ethical standards, but when it comes down to it obviously money concerns win out.

    I’ve wondered recently if instead of heading down the usual standard (and inevitably very party-political) separation of powers with regards to a reformed Seanad, that perhaps we might instead head in a very different functional specialization direction? The type of area I have in mind is admittedly very vague: the “democratic infrastructure” is a kind of catch all phrase I’ve labelled it with. Ensuring fair elections (electoral commission territory), political ethics and integrity, anti-corruption, regulation (e.g. the media) and auditing, supervision of the criminal-justice system, responsibility for the “permanent government”, control of the process by which public appointments are made (even if perhaps not making them itself, which would drag the body again into a political patronage type of area). All very vague I know! But my intuition is that functional specialization of a second chamber in this kind of area might be a far more interesting and useful avenue to explore. Perhaps one could give the body relatively weak general legislative review powers also (but not too strong or it’d be again be dragged back into standard party politics). But in particular specialized areas (of the type I outline above) perhaps the second chamber would have eventual precedence over the Dáil. Then voters perhaps wouldn’t inevitably be forced to make a choice between basic money concerns and high ethical standards. Probably all pie in the sky anyway! Even minimal reforms haven’t been brought in for this Seanad in all 75 years of De Valera’s constitution. No reason to expect such more utopian ideas have even an iota of a chance of being considered! Sigh.

  6. Abolishing the Seanad by itself will mean an even bigger democratic deficit – despite the worthy arguments for why the Seanad is not fit for purpose.

    If we retain a second chamber, and I believe we should, it must be in the context of reforming the entire Oireachtas and Local Government too.

    There are far too many TDs, Senators and Cllrs for a country the size of Ireland and especially where parochialism is so rife at national politics level – why bother even having local government?

    100 TDs is more than enough with 40 Senators and 1000 Cllrs is plenty with a huge reduction in councils.

    Like anything about reform, it doesn’t need the wheel to be reinvented – the process just needs honest people with no vested interest and a government genuinely committed to real reform – on current facts there is little reason to hold out much hope of the latter or perhaps the former and the chances of both at the same time is remote?

    I wonder how long it took Dev to properly draft the constitution that was voted on (as in get legal sign off on each section bit by bit) and yet it seems beyond the wit of our current crop to even be able to reform and update it never mind write one from scratch.

    I think if put to a straight vote and people are asked to abolish the Seanad without reform of the Dáil and the entire system of governance at local and national level, the vote will be no because it’s unlikely the public will trust members of the Dáil to have no check, even a weak one.

    The people didn’t even trust the Dáil, even still with the Seanad watching over their shoulder, to undertake certain investigations the public claim to be seething haven’t happened.

    Also, I don’t think the issue of reform needs to high jacked by navel gazing academics or political nerds – the issues to reform are really very straightforward.

    Probably coping Swedish FOI wholesale would do more to reform the country than number of conventions or hot air meetings.

    When people know their decisions and reasoning will be available and they will be held to account it’s amazing how that alone focuses the mind.

    • The following is an email sent to one of the Senators which i think should go to all Senators

      ” Thank you for your reply . I have been following the exchanges regarding the Constitutional Convention and the views I hear is that the quality of debate and contributions by deputies and senators indicated a very poor & inadequate advocacy on behalf of their constituents .I can endorse these views as I followed the debate on the Dail wesite . The issue was discussed on the Vincent Brown show on Tuesday last and it was pathetic to hear the case being defended by the government spokesperson. One of your colleagues a holder of the torch for ‘We the Citizens’ was conspicously absent during the debate in the Senate . Understandably he was a Taoiseach nominee which speaks volumes !.
      The following are some comments, which may interest you, taken from ‘political reform’ website .

      “I think it is being a tad naive and idealistic to think that those who are not just part of the problem, but the problem, will miraculously be transformed to be part of the solution.” Yes, indeed. For an example of what is basically wrong with our way of governing ourselves, it is worth listening […]”

      “The contrast between the recent behaviour of UK House of Commons Cttees and the behaviour of our Irish ‘parliamentarians’ could not be more pronounced or insightful. Britain is not becoming ungovernable; it’s simply that the cosy deals between governing politicians, policy-makers and regulators, on one side, and large, well-resourced and influential companies, on the other side, are coming apart and sufficient public anger has finally been aroused as the damage to the public interest is being revealed. British MPs are simply doing their job, communicating and channelling this anger and seeking to hold those in positions of governance, authority or influence to account. Perhaps most Irish voters can’t decide between having TDs as their personal brokers with an over-mighty, highly centralised and expansive government apparatus or using their TDs to subject this expansive apparatus to scrutiny, restraint and accountability – with a traditional preference for the former. Many British voters seem to be much more in favour of the latter – and their MPs, having long been in disgrace and considered ineffectual, are realising that they have to bare their teeth at, and to bite, government, if they wish to be re-elected. Perhaps an increasing number of Irish voters will come to realise that’s what their TDs are really for; but, then again, perhaps they won’t. There seems to be this innate distaste for, even fear of, robust, adversarial disputation and confrontation. And, of course, smothering and suppressing any dissent or confrontation suits those who exercise power and influence absolutely perfectly.”

      • @Billy,

        Many thanks for giving additional currency to my comments. Let’s hope you get some response. And I’m not advancing the UK House of Commons and its denizens as being paragons of virtue. (This can easily provoke the sadly expected but unintended reaction in Ireland.) It’s simply that, after a period of supine behaviour, they seem to have found their voice again. One generally finds that the better governed nations in the EU tend to have more effective parliaments. Perhaps a sufficient number of Irish people will discover that there isn’t much sense in paying for dog and then barking themselves. But unfortunately the popular sentiment is to cut them down to size. The members of the Oireachtas have brought it on themselves, but, similar to their counterparts in Britain, they might discover opportunities to redeem themselves in the eyes of voters – but only, of course, if they seize these opportunities.

  7. what exactly is Enda Kenny’s plan with this referendum?

    what if the answer is no? what will the government do then?

    its strange that a person adovcating for political reform would encourage the idea that big reforms and referendums can’t happen along side governing the country. that idea suggested by others should be attacked.

    • If the result of the referendum (for which a data has not yet been set nor have we seen the text of that which we will be asked to vote on) is that we reject the Government’s proposal, the Government will do the minimum possible.

      Apart from external pressures (eg. balance of payments pressures during the 1950s, unsustainable government finances during the late 1970s/80s, the rise in government borrowing costs because of the government guarantee to the banks in 2008 which led to the EU-ECB-IMF programme of reforms – many of which were long called for by people here eg. reports of the National Competitiveness Council), this is how our governing elites respond to events that disturb their comfort zones.

      Take the YES vote in the 1979 referendum to allow the Government and/or Dáil to extend the electorate for the six senators directly elected by the graduates of the only two universities which existed in this state in 1937, when the Constitution was adopted.

      Thirty-three years later, nothing has been done.

      Those campaigning to save the Senate – by changing the electoral system for another 43 Senators – need to explain their lack of success over 33 years in making a much simpler change. This inertia by the governing elites has not enhanced democracy in Ireland.

      Their argument about the effectiveness of a Senate – made up of people elected in some as yet unspecified way – also leaves a lot to be desired. It would help if they could explain how such a Senate could be a “potential check and balance” on the Dáil, given that Articles 23 and 24 of our 1937 Constitution explicitly empower the Dáil to override the Senate.

      This latest effort has all the signs of being yet another example of what the late John Kelly (Senator, TD, Minister, Attorney General , constitutional lawyer) pointed out “Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over”

      As Fiona de Londras suggested, we have a lot of work to do on enhancing our way of governing ourselves.

      • @Donal,

        Restraints and checks and balances on the exercise of political power are essential to ensure effective democratic governance. It is a continuous struggle to banish, and to keep banished, the ‘tyranny of faction – whether majoritarian or any other type. And when there is sustained ‘tyranny of faction’ it is inevitably captured by powerful and influential, but extremely narrow, sectional economic interests.

        The original US constitutional settlement was designed primarily to avoid ‘tyranny of faction’. ‘Gridlock’ in governance was considered preferrable to such tyranny. But it has failed to prevent, and is struggling to deal with, the emergence of two warring tribes which consistently put their own interests before the public or national interest. The Founding Fathers believed and hoped that the constitutional settlement they had designed would either prevent the emergence of such factions with tyrannous intent or, if they were to emerge, would be sufficient to restrain them in the public interest. They rejected the use of a parliamentary system which would be more effective in restrining these factions – mainly because they believed that what they had designed was superior.

        It should not be surprising that, over time, the executives elected in parliamentary systems have endeavoured to reduce, and to a great extent, have been successful in reducing, the scrutiny, restraint and accountability imposed on them by parliaments. And in this effort they have been aided and abetted by various sectional economic interests.

        It is probably too much to expect that a sufficient number of citizens will come to the conclusion that are being subjected to a ‘tyranny of faction’ – that is largely captured by sectional economic interests – and demand that their TDs contain and redcue this tyranny. But it is the only solution. And all those of us who desire this outcome can do is to keep on highlighting the nature of this tyranny in the hope that a sufficient number of citizens will pay attention and act.

        In this context, the abolition or or reform the Seanad is of little import. It provides no effective restraint, and only limited delay, on the exercise of a government’s dominance of the Dail when enacting legislation and executing policy. This is the problem. All the rest is displacement activity and distraction.

      • You cannot call it a Democracy or a Republic if the elected government break all the pledges and do what THEY want, they have broken the social contract, we can’t do anything about it and they do’nt represent what we voted for so they are just interlopers who seized power . I vote for people who do something, not because I think that nice men/women deserve power. So what I voted for has dissappeared

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