The 1947 Reform of the Seanad

Elaine Byrne, University of New South Wales: 4 September 2013

“10 reports in 75 years – NO reforms introduced to the Seanad” is Fine Gael’s slogan to abolish the Seanad.

That’s not true. The Seanad was reformed in 1947 with the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act, 1947. A longer version of my Sunday Independent article will be published on later this week.

The Act addressed the areas which had been open to abuse during the 1938 and 1943 Seanad elections.

Nominating bodies were more tightly defined. The Electoral College was tripled to 900 and included all senators, deputies and all hues of councillors. Election procedures were reformed so that each vocational panel had two sub-panels – the nominating bodies’ sub-panel and the Oireachtas sub-panel. The postal voting system was changed – electors now had to mark and post their ballot papers in the presence of a returning officer. The Act forms the procedures for elections to the Seanad today, with minor modifications made in the Acts of 1954 and 1972, though the legitimacy of the nomination process and the closed electoral college continues to raise eyebrows.

This solitary major reform of the Seanad in its 75-year history was due to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera. The 1947 reform shows that it is only the Taoiseach of the day that can bring about meaningful Seanad reform.

4 thoughts on “The 1947 Reform of the Seanad

  1. Despite any of the suggested “reforms” past or current, the Seanad remains an elitist talking shop for connected people. The Taoiseach once elected, is given a gift voucher to appoint cronies or cronies of his coalition partner to the Dail, a concept alien to democracy. The only people that will miss the Seanad are; ex politicians and their children, failed politicians, shy politicians those who don’t want to face the real electorate, politicians who have faced the real electorate and failed, political academics and historians who find it a never ending vein of academic research. I am implacably opposed to the Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore government, but that will not get in my way of voting for the abolition of a talking shop that does nothing more than manufacture window dressings for the government of the day. It is a body of obfuscation it is part and parcel of a political dinosaur and even if it is only the tail of that dinosaur that we remove it is a start!

    The most important point made at the recent McGill Summer School unsurprisingly was made by European Ombudswoman in waiting Emily O’Reilly, when she moved past the semantics of the abolition of the Seanad to focus on the Dail itself, this because she is a woman in a hurry to “screw her courage to the sticking point”. A Dail that is utterly dysfunctional but more importantly a Dail that does not hold, never did hold and never will hold, the executive to account, as it is supposed to do under our ‘explicit’ constitution. In fact, that failure has been amplified further in the current Dail where a four man cabal effectively rules the country.

    The Seanad has led a charmed life, but Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane is coming. Ironically, this will be touted as a “victory” for Enda Kenny. It is nothing of the sort. It is mere portend of things to come, reform of the Dail itself and the necessary sublimation of the Party Political System to the needs of a Republic now straining under political and financial bankruptcy, which should have been done from day one. It has taken us almost a 100 years to realise that the system we have, has led to nothing more than perpetual boom/burst cycles with emigration as the safety valve. This time, the safety valve is not working for many reasons, primarily because of inward immigration but also because the current bust has been the Mother of All Busts, more than enough to dismantle the old political systems lock, stock and barrel. FF lost 58 seats in the last election the Green party all its seats and similar seismic waves can soon hit Labour and FG especially if a political party can be forged that reflects how sick to death the people are of the same old, same old, story. Part of that story is the Seanad and that is why it will go. Carry out your research in Moore Street and see how many people want the Seanad retained?

  2. De Valera could also be said to have “reformed” the Seanad in another sense, in that the 1937 Seanad had much reduced powers than its 1922 predecessor (relatively speaking). I believe, but am open to correction, that De Valera was a main advocate for such a change.

  3. @Robert Brown

    Your comments above outline a few of the items that might well be placed on a list of Seanad reforms:
    1. End the practice of Taoiseach’s Appointments
    2. Exclude anyone who has sat in the previous 2 Dáils from election to the Seanad
    3. Ban membership of political parties from the Seanad. (Senators should not be members of any parliamentary party) If a Seanadór has been appointed Minister s/he may attend Cabinet meetings, may address the Dáil but would be free from party whips in any vote.
    4. Establish multiple electoral colleges (Universities, Business, Agriculture, Arts, Trades Unions, County Councils) one of which a citizen can subscribe prior to each Seanad election. Ensure a cross section of Senators with expert knowledge, diverse backgrounds and the experience of real life lacking in (or forgotten by) most career politicians.

    The purpose of all points is to give the Seanad political independence. If it sees the Executive abuse its power in the Dáil (forcing bills through without proper debate) an independent Seanad should send them back. The current Seanad, (stuffed with Taoiseach’s cronies and Politicos awaiting another crack at the Dáil) never would, in fact never could.)

    Next reform the institution that REALLY wastes our Money, Dáil Eireann.

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