Would a reformed Seanad be the worst outcome of all?

By Michael Gallagher

Never in its history has the Seanad been the focus of so much attention. Is it a vital bastion of democracy without which governments would be able to trample all over everyone’s rights, or conversely an expensive anachronism draining resources that could make a huge difference elsewhere?

Probably neither. It does a little bit of good – it provides a venue where legislation might be scrutinised in a more reflective atmosphere than in the Dáil, though no-one seems to have attempted to quantify its impact. In an article in the Sunday Business Post of 1 September Senator Katherine Zappone writes that ‘members of the Seanad have tabled 529 amendments to 14 Bills that have been passed over the past two years’. That’s a bit cryptic, but even if it is saying that all 529 amendments have been passed, it leaves uncertain how many of these represented good ideas that Senators and no-one else thought of, and how many were government amendments that happened to be introduced in the Seanad rather than the Dáil. Senators also take part in Oireachtas committees, which pretty much everyone seems to agree should have a larger role than they do – but on the whole the committees, if given a more meaningful role in preparing legislation and scrutinising government, would function perfectly well without Senators.


On the debit side, it costs money, and this seems to be the main argument in the government’s case so far. However, whether this is of the order of the €20 million claimed by the government or the €7 million figure of Democracy Matters, it is a mere drop in the sum total of public expenditure. Against the cost of retaining it must be counted the cost of holding the referendum itself, which seems to be of the order of €20 million (answers, relating to the holding of the Lisbon Treaty referendums, by the Minister for Finance to written questions from Deputy Finian McGrath, 29 June 2011). And there is also a cost, harder to quantify, in the time that government ministers will spend between now and 4 October on this subject, when they could be working on the economy.

All of which might suggest that the Seanad is a body that does some good, though not a lot, and imposes a cost, though not a lot – not good enough to be worth saving, not bad enough to be worth abolishing. Perhaps it is hardly worth making it the focus of so much political activity. (Here is a link to a 2011 post giving my thoughts as to whether the Seanad should be abolished.)

However, a new and potentially alarming spectre has now arisen, that of a ‘reformed Seanad’. Opinion polls suggest that while in a straight choice between the status quo and abolition the latter would prevail, the idea of retain-and-reform is growing in appeal. Indeed, advocates of a No vote are at pains to emphasise that they do not want to preserve the Seanad as it is – a No vote, say Democracy Matters, ‘is the first step to a new Seanad’.

The reformed Seanad, as outlined by Democracy Matters, would be a directly elected body: elected not just by the current Dáil electorate but also by those in Northern Ireland who are eligible for Irish citizenship, by all Irish passport holders abroad, and by graduates of all third-level institutions (it’s unclear whether this would include non-Irish citizens, given that Irish citizens would already have a vote under one of the other headings).

What powers should this reformed Seanad have? The Quinn–Zappone draft bill is relatively modest in its proposals, suggesting roles such as scrutinising draft EU regulations and directives as well as statutory instruments, as well as ‘the power to inquire into the need for new legislation in certain areas’. Whether voters would bother turning out in significant numbers to choose the candidates whom they regard as best equipped to scrutinise draft EU regulations is doubtful, though. Far more likely that those elected would be aspiring TDs and ministers who would, as Senators, do whatever they thought most likely to secure their election to the Dáil, and that might not involve spending much time on scrutiny of draft EU legislation.

Others go further and would like to see the Seanad given more or less the same powers as the Dáil. Vincent Browne (Irish Times, 17 July 2013) argues that the lack of accountability in the current system could be addressed by ‘giving the Seanad the same powers as the Dáil, except the power to elect and unelect a government’. And Democracy Matters, on the front page of its web site (3 September 2013), seems to see the reformed Seanad as being more powerful than the Dáil – indeed, the body to which the Dáil should in some way be answerable – stating that ‘A new and effective Seanad is critical to make the Dáil accountable to a body other than themselves’. It would also have significant legislative powers: ‘A reformed Seanad means new expertise and new legislation to underpin Ireland’s economic recovery’. The range of views on the composition and powers of any ‘reformed Seanad’ suggests that if the electorate votes No on 4 October, it would not be easy to reach swift agreement on what such a body should look like, and that in practice the current Seanad would be with us for some time.

Part of the motivation underpinning the idea of a directly-elected Seanad with pretty much all the powers of the Dáil no doubt comes from despair at the deficiencies in the Dáil’s ability to compel accountability from the government. It is indeed surprising that the government has not yet set out a definite statement of intent for Dáil reform, or preferably implemented such measures already; the kind of measures discussed in David Farrell’s post here in July. Given the ‘power grab’ theme that features in the No side’s campaign, a vague promise by the government to ‘look at’ meaningful reforms sometime in the future won’t suffice.

Even so, the idea of a strong Seanad, elected at a different time and by a different electorate than the Dáil, is unlikely to be a remedy for anything except gridlock. When the two houses disagree, whose will should prevail – that of the Dáil, or of the reformed Seanad? Looking around Europe the only examples of genuinely strong second chambers are to be found in Belgium (a manifestation of federalism), Romania (close to a presidential system), and Italy. The power of the Italian Senate is one of the main reasons why left-wing governments rarely last their full term and why the Italian system of governance is regarded as one of the least effective in Europe. If the only measures that can get through parliament are ones that can command majority support from two different houses, elected at different times by different electorates, which appears to be the Democracy Matters preferred option, then only lowest common denominator measures have much chance of making it through. It might help the case of advocates of a reformed Seanad if they could point to another country that operates the kind of model they favour.

The desire for a strong Seanad is an understandable, though surely mistaken, response to the reluctance of the government to move as far and as fast as it could in giving a more meaningful role to the Dáil, or of non-government TDs to wrest such a role from the government – a role that, while not enabling the opposition of the day to thwart the elected government, would compel a higher degree of accountability and would enable meaningful input from government backbenchers and opposition TDs. A powerful second chamber has the potential to make a big difference to the governmental system – but not necessarily for the better.

15 thoughts on “Would a reformed Seanad be the worst outcome of all?

  1. Pingback: “Not Good Enough To Save…Not Bad Enough To Abolish” | Broadsheet.ie

  2. Your analysis of the current state of play is convincing, Michael, but I would be inclined to disagree with your conclusion that the effect of Seanad reform would likely be negative.

    Firstly, Democracy Matters have not proposed a Seanad veto on legislation. I don’t believe that they have ruled one out either but thus far, the proposals are within the confines of the existing constitutional framework. Therefore, the Seanad would be directly elected, would have a role in scrutinising draft EU and secondary legislation, and a role in appointments. It would likely have a significantly different membership which would not guarantee a majority for the parties of government – thus it would be more likely to oppose legislation sent up from Dáil Éireann. In accordance with the constitutional status quo, if opposing such legislation it would have the power to impose a 90 day delay on enactment but not prevent enactment.

    This will undoubtedly be held up by those in favour of abolition as evidence of the Seanad remaining a powerless and pointless institution but the practice would not necessarily reflect that rhetoric.

    Firstly, the primary purpose of a second house is a second look at decisions by a different body of people. Its composition, aspiring Ministers or otherwise, is likely to have a different profile to that elected to the Dáil’s geographic constituencies. With a looser application of the whip and the ability to manage its own agenda, it would have the potential to be a platform for dissenting voices on decisions which are likely (relying on the 57% figure provided by the Irish Times earlier this year) to have been guillotined in the Dáil. Given that “groupthink” has been cited as a key failing of our governmental system over the past decade, this seems desirable. Further, if republican philosophy is to have a place in assessments of whether we have a “failed republic” or ever achieved a republic etc., a diversification of voices seems desirable. A 90 day platform may not amount to a hard power, but I don’t think would be insignificant.

    Secondly, while it would not be able to veto, a greater number of Seanad amendments would be passed and it is likely that the Dáil would reject fewer of these on party political grounds than in the past. If the choice is between accepting sensible amendments from across the aisle of the Seanad, or facing a 90 day delay on passing legislation, I would suggest that accepting such amendments would become more commonplace.

    Thirdly, as the proposals stand the will of the Dáil would prevail. The Dáil is elected on a system which, regardless of the many criticisms levelled against it, is widely regarded as democratic and legitimate. It is also immune from the “no taxation without representation” argument levelled against the wider franchise proposals for the Seanad. Given the increased profile and soft-power available to the Seanad to effect amendments and grandstand, I think this balance of powers would (a) not effect a gridlock and (b) still increase the degree of alternative input on legislation.

    Would be interested in your thoughts on that assessment.

    I should say that I am a member of Democracy Matters but that flows from the opinions expressed above, rather than the other way around.

  3. I’ve asking and asking and asking for somebody to detail that 529 amendments number finally got a round of amendments for each bill from Senator Zappone today http://senatorkatherinezappone.ie/index.php/entry/list-of-amendments-made-by-the-seanad/statement/

    this seems to be the post seanad plan the government proposed http://www.merrionstreet.ie/index.php/2013/06/government-announces-its-proposals-for-the-thirty-second-amendment-of-the-constitution-abolition-of-seanad-eireann-bill-2013-2/?cat=3

  4. Gridlock is surely just a term to describe a situation where the government, otherwise able to do pretty much whatever it wants whenever it wants, hasn’t been able to persuade ( not order) some Senators to agree. If a reformed Senate forced governments to ‘convince’ a few people that its plans / ideas / intentions were acceptable / agreeable / appropriate then that might be a good thing. The experience of Australia, including most of its States, might be a useful comparison.
    Gridlock is hardly the problem in most parliamentary democracies (even Italy – it has other problems); it’s the lack of any reasonable public checks on executive power.

    • Isn’t the problem with the checks & balances argument really the question of who gets to be that check & balance? If you elect an upper house under the same methods as the lower house then aren’t you almost guaranteed to have the exact same composition in each chamber as it’s reasonable to assume given the experiences of other states that the electorate will vote in the same or almost the same way. The other method would be to restrict the electorate to whomever is regarded as a safe pair of hands, the danger of that method is that it erodes the democratic legitimacy of the upper house leading presumably to the same situation as happened with the House of Lords in the early 20th century. In short I don’t believe it is possible to construct a parliamentary architecture for an upper house that is both a check on the lower house while at the same time being a democratically legitimate entity; no amount of deliberate artifice or prelapsarian visions of parliamentary perfection will ever convince me otherwise.

    • “Gridlock is hardly the problem in most parliamentary democracies (even Italy – it has other problems); it’s the lack of any reasonable public checks on executive power.”

      Well said.
      Our challenge is to design, discuss, develop, adopt, implement and update a series of checks and balances which limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they public or private, elected or appointed, local/national/transnational.

  5. I’m more than a little wary of any argument which relies on the idea that executive efficiency should not be compromised, particularly where the ‘compromise’ is merely a matter of speed. It’s hard to think of any examples outside the focal points of the crisis where it was vital for legislation to be passed quickly – conversely, it’s easy to think of occasions where poorly drafted legislation has been the issue, as well as occasions where a government or successive governments have failed to move legislation at all, in some cases for years.

    If anything, I would argue for the Seanad to have greater powers of delay, although perhaps three months is generally enough to rob legislation moved as a populist response to some current issue of its PR value.

  6. I expect many voters who are not unduly influenced by the party-lines laid down by the various factions are torn between voting ‘no’ – to give the current government a kicking – and voting ‘yes’ – to give the entire political class a kicking. This is not to say that most voters will not also weigh the merits and de-merits of the issue, but this vote does provide an opportunity to give either the government or the entire political class a kicking without experiencing serious repercussions. This may increase the turnout above the typical referendum turnout level and make the result even more unpredictable.

    In addition, apart from the few who have an interest in these things, there does not seem to be any popular desire to empower and resource the Dáil to assert its primacy over governments and to subject them to scrutiny, restraint and accountability. This is very surprising, given that most of the current economic and financial mess was made by successive misguided governments, suborned by powerful and influential sectional economic interest, exercising their excessive executive dominance over parliament to implement the policies demanded by these vested interests. It contrasts forcefully with the willingness of parliaments in the better-governed central and northern EU member-states to assert their primacy over governments and to subject them continuously to scrutiny, restraint and accountability. Even the UK House of Commons has re-learned how to bite in the current parliament.

    The reluctance to require the Dáil to resolve conflicts between various interest groups in the public interest and to authorise governments to implement the policies required to resolve these conflicts in the public interest, may reflect the fact that the processes that led to independence, that led to the formation of the principal political factions and that, eventually, led to the current ‘settlement’ in Northern Ireland were initiated or driven by those who rejected the existing, admittedly flawed, process of democratic governance and resorted to physical force. There may be a lingering, but pervasive, fear that requiring conflicts between various interest groups to be resolved by parliament could lead those who were unable to get their way to withdraw and pursue their objectives outside of the democratic process.

    As a result they seem happy that the sufficiently small number needed to govern will emerge from the TDs they elect and that enormous executive power can be entrusted to them because it is assumed they will be subject to restraint and guidance by mercifully uncorrupt, though recently ineffectual, senior civil servants. They are happy to have the remaining TDs as mini-ombudspersons and constituency advocates – with members of the governing factions exercising some restraint on government in closed parliamentary party meetings.

    Advocating genuine political reform appears to be a totally futile exercise.

    • “Advocating genuine political reform appears to be a totally futile exercise.”

      This is far too negative and nihilistic.
      Think back to the very radical change in Irish economic policies arising from the 1950s social and economic crisis.

      A few people started a process then which led to this state now having
      – a population that is over 60% higher than in 1961;
      – a workforce that is higher than it was during the 1980s crisis;
      – as many people employed by Irish multinationals in the US as US mulitnationals employ here in the Republic.

      I am sure that those advocating changes in Irish economic policies then (eg. charles Carter, Luoden Ryan, Patrick Lynch) also appeared to be engaged in a totally futile exercise.

      Similarly, the efforts of people like John Hume and others – over decades did appear totally futile. However the common vote for the Good Friday agreement on both sides of the border on the same day is a watershed in the history of this island.

      As St. Exupéry put it
      “Dans la vie, il n’y a pas des solutions. Il n’y a que des forces en marche. Il s’agit de les creer et les solutions suivent.”

      • Donal,

        We need to distinguish between the formulation, approval and implementation of the major change in economic and social policies required to emerge from the ‘lost decade’ of the 1950s and the process of democratic governance which facilitated this major (and extremely positive) change. (Sean Lemass had to beat back the ‘forces of reaction’ to achieve it.) We also need to distinguish between the process implementing the changes required in a deeply flawed system of governance in Northern Ireland and the process required to ensure the agreement of those (on both sides) who were operating or prepared to operate outside the existing, flawed, system of governance. (it is not a little ironic, but totally unsurprising, that those who made the most efforts locally to advance these processes were ultimately supplanted by those on the extremes on both sides.)

        It is also not a little ironic that the changes in economic and social policies required to emerge from the next ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, again within a largely unchanged syatem of democratic governance, established processes that seriously undermined an increasingly flawed system of democratic governance and led, inevitably, to this third ‘lost decade’ of the 2010s.

        In addition, it is not surprising that the principal flaw in this system of democratic governance – the exercise of under-scrutinised, largely unrestrained, temorarily (between general elections) unaccountable, excessively centralised executive power – is seen by many as a virtue as governance is applied to facilitate some measure of economic recovery. Indeed, this power has been concentrated even more in the Economic Management Council. There is no doubt that those exercising this almost dictatorial governance have the best of intentions, but even with the very best of intentions the under-scrutinised, unrestrained and unaccountable exercise of power is dangerous.

        However, a majority of citizens seems to be content with the exercise of power in this manner once they retain the right to cast judgement at the next general election. And there is no apparent desire to empower and resource the Oireachtas to subject the exercise of this power to appropriate scrutiny, restraint and accountability.

        Therefore, advocating genuine political reform appears to be a totally futile exercise.

  7. A reformed Seanad would not seem to be the cure to the difficulties in achieving government accountability. Current mechanisms, such as individual ministerial and governmental accountability to the Oireachtas (Dail!) are hopelessly ineffective due to the party whip system, and judiciary when considering the separation of powers doctrine fails to accommodate the fused executive-legislative branches which exist in Ireland. I do not see how a reformed Seanad as proposed by John could realistically have of an impact in overcoming these difficulties. I would also agree that that the Quinn-Zappone Bill doesn’t seem to be up to much.

    A far better political reform, if I had to choose one, would be to have stronger local government. This could, potentially, provide a better avenue for constituents to bring up local grievances, freeing up TDs to perform their actual constitutional duties of legislating and holding the executive to account. Although as you may have guessed I am not a political scientist so may be reasons why such a reform would not be a good thing!

  8. On the 19th April 2004, a 112 page report, 12 month review , on Seanad Reform was published. This was the last report in relation to reform of the Seanad. The first two paragraphs read as follows:

    “When the 22nd Seanad convened in September
    2002, there was a widespread consensus among
    Senators that the issue of Seanad reform needed to
    be addressed. In particular, there was a strong view
    that the Seanad should lead the reform process by
    facing squarely the major issues and dealing with
    them objectively and comprehensively.

    In its first week of sittings, the new Seanad held a
    debate on the reform of its composition and
    functions. At the conclusion of this, it passed a
    resolution instructing the Committee on Procedure
    and Privileges to establish a Sub-Committee on
    Seanad Reform to bring forward proposals on reform
    of the House”

    I have asked various Seanad Reformists, for their opinion in relation to this statement and of the Seanads & Senators intention in relation to reform. It has been 11 years and what have Seanad done in relation to this? Nothing!

    Now 11 years later, they are asking us to Vote No on the 4th October in order to facilitate radical reform of this defunct institution. How can we take them seriously, when they have done nothing for 11 years. If the No vote succeeds, how many more years of talk of reform and nothing happens?

    Furthermore, I have contended many times that for the Seanad to be radically reformed, this CANNOT be done without a further Seanad Reform Referendum. Will this take place before the next General Election? If not we could be faced with present Seanads status quo for another 7/8 years.

    For these reasons, and many many more, I am voting “Yes” to abolish this elite undemocratic talking shop that costs the taxpayers million each year in return for ???

  9. In reply to Hugh on Ministerial accountability:

    The Democracy Matters proposal, for all its flaws, puts in law a requirement for Ministers to lay draft secondary legislation before the Seanad 21 days before signing into law and a requirement that Ministerial appointments be vetted by the Seanad before they can be finalised.

    Short of creating gridlock with a veto, I don’t see what more effective mechanism any body (Seanad, Dáil, or otherwise) could be given to introduce some level of oversight of Ministerial/Government actions before they’re already set in stone. My logic as to why these would be better vested in the Seanad than the Dáil is that grandstanding in the Seanad would be a persuasive power which could hold Government actions up to the spotlight of public opinion while there is still time for that opinion to be taken on board. Having such power in the Dáil (which doesn’t have enough hours in the week as it is judging by the recently published “reform” note) might carry a greater risk of their not being exercised or, conversely, destabilise Governments to the point where we start looking like Belgium. Perhaps that’s too stark a contrast and perhaps the Dáil could be given such work but, in the present climate, that doesn’t seem remotely likely to happen.

    To distinguish these powers from Topical Issue debates and what’s being passed off as Dáil reform, these powers if set out in a law could, and would have to, do what they say they’ll do. Ministers would have to comply with them. Contrast that with junior ministers reading scripted responses to Parliamentary Questions, or to the Government overruling by majority vote any agenda item they feel to be inconvenient.

    All the reforms we’ve been offered by the Coalition, in 2011 and this week, can be ignored if and when the Government Whip is told it doesn’t suit. Reforms set out in a Bill, and eventually a primary legislative Act, would be binding on Ministers, Government and House(s) alike.

    I’m afraid I’m not well versed in it but devolution to Local Government does seem to be regarded by the right people as the right thing to do. I suspect I’d be less tetchy about Seanad abolition if devolution, or meaningful Dáil reform, were already on the table.

    • “The Democracy Matters proposal, for all its flaws, puts in law a requirement for Ministers to lay draft secondary legislation before the Seanad 21 days before signing into law and a requirement that Ministerial appointments be vetted by the Seanad before they can be finalised.”

      Why only secondary legislation?
      But given the tendency of the Executive side of government to give itself powers to get out of any binding commitment of this type, would there be any means of stopping any particular piece of legislation having a clause which exempts it from this of measure?
      Would the reformed Seanad have any real powers to resist a Government that decided to repeal this kind of legislation? Note that Quinn-Zappone do not propose any changes to Articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution.

      I am not convinced that the convoluted Seanad election procedures set out in the Quinn-Zappone Bill would result in sufficient independent minded Senators. They would all be “beholden” to formally defined interest groups, instead of constituencies. The result would be a different form of clientelism, but nevertheless just as prone to clientelist pressures and behaviour as the much-criticised TDs are. Devolving many public services to independent local government would shorten the feed-back loops between public authorities and citizens, thereby freeing up TDs to monitor and hold government accountable.

      How much political and institutional reform can we expect by further embeding the corporatism which underlies the Quinn/Zappone bill? The corporatist group think of Irish political and economic policies from the 1990s led to the current social, economic and fiscal crisis, as the leading members of that way of doing things admitted three years ago
      “In the past decade, Ireland’s approach to fiscal policy, prices, costs and financial regulation were not sufficiently adapted to the disciplines of a single currency.”
      (Press Release from National Economic and Social Council (NESC) on a report “The Euro: an Irish Perspective” 17th August 2010. NESC is 30-person social partnership body made up of representatives of government, business, trade unions, agriculture, community and environment. The Secretary General of the Government chairs NESC. Among the seven Government nominees are the Secretaries-General
      of five Government Departments. http://www.nesc.ie/dynamic/docs/The%20euro%20MEDIA%20RELEASE%20from%20NESC.pdf)

      IMO, checks and balances on our government means a complete separation of the Government as Executive from the Dáil as legislative assembly. At present, any enhancement of one implies a diminution of the other. By cutting the link between the two, both can be enhanced to ensure that the exercise of our political power promotes the common good in a sustainable way.

    • You make a number of excellent points there, John. It seems the main block to meaningful reform is the strict Government whip system exercised consistently by whichever party happens to be in power. It is unlikely that the political system will change this at it is far too convenient an arrangement. The only mechanism (of sorts) which I could see of overcoming this problem would be Art 15.2.1. If this was approached from a functionalist rather than formalist perspective, it could be argued that the government dictating to the Dail majority, via the whip system, how to legislate is violating Art 15.2.1.

      Re the Ministerial appointments being put before the Seanad, I think this is an excellent idea. I seem to remember some talk about reform of Ministerial appointment practices a while back but seems that the status quo has very much remained. As David Gwynn Morgan has pointed out, state agencies have been regarded by most Governments as being the Irish version of the British Honours System. I believe Garrett Fitzgerald also wrote how Aer Lingus was no longer efficient and reasonably priced airline in the 80s because it had boards full of inadequate political appointees. The practice of appointing party supporters etc to state boards is an understated factor in our inefficient government and I think that such a proposed reform or something similar would be very much a step in the right direction. Right now we are relying on the media to do this job, although “so and so appointed to fisheries board” not a very interesting story and therefore unlikely to be reported!

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