Seanad Éireann: Lots to Reform

After the Irish people chose to retain the Seanad last year, the focus has now shifted to the question of reform. The government has announced its intention to reform the University franchise as allowed by the 1978 amendment to the Constitution. The main campaigning platform for Seanad retention, Democracy Matters, has embarked on a new campaign to argue for reform. The Royal Irish Academy recently held a symposium bringing experts on Bicameralism together to discuss the prospects for change.

The main focus of reform is on the extension of the franchise as envisaged in the Zappone-Quinn and Crown bills tabled last year. However David Farrell, in today’s Irish Times, points out that a Seanad elected in the same manner as Dáil Eireann is likely to mirror the lower chamber in composition. A fact compounded by the proximity of Seanad Elections to Dáil elections under the current constitution.

Are the status quo (albeit with an extended University franchise) or an expensive Dáil-light the only possible outcomes?

Why not engage in a far more radical change? One of the stronger arguments for Seanad retention was that it provided a forum for voices that otherwise might not be heard in Irish politics. The challenge for any reform is to make the Seanad more democratic while both preserving this diversity and avoiding replicating the make-up of the Dáil.

The solution may be in returning to democracy’s roots. Elections were only one of the ways in which posts were filled in Ancient Athens. The drawing of citizen’s names by lot was also used extensively to fill public positions, including the Council of 500 which drew up the agenda for the Assembly, the magistrates, various administrative positions and juries (see Hyland p.116-117). In contemporary democracies, only the selection of juries still uses this process but this need not be the case.

Selection by lot for membership of the Seanad would open up participation in the political field to all citizens of voting age. Citizens could self-nominate to the various panels with a simple addition to the current electoral registration forms. Participation would be limited to a single term in office over a lifetime. The University Panels could be restricted to current students of the various third-level institutions to encourage youth participation. The Seanad itself could become a virtual forum, with meetings and votes taking place online. Training and support would need to be provided for those selected but this is not an insurmountable problem. The Seanad term would have to be reduced perhaps to 12 months and certainly not more than 2 years to avoid an excessive burden on participants. Exemptions for special circumstances, as in the case of juries would also need to be provided for.

All this would require a referendum, not least as the constitution stipulates that the Seanad be elected by PR-STV. However the changes would be confined to Article 18 rather than the raft of changes required for abolition.

A Seanad selected by lot from Irish citizens over 18 would solve the conundrum of making the institution more democratic while avoiding merely replicating the Dáil. It could also help foster a civic culture where citizens feel greater ownership of their institutions. At the very least, the prospect of being selected to the upper house would encourage people to pay more attention to current affairs. It would move Ireland further along the spectrum towards a participatory rather than merely representative democracy and represent a truly innovative approach to citizenship, democracy and accountability in the modern world.

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3 thoughts on “Seanad Éireann: Lots to Reform

  1. Ultimately, these reforms are so many answers in search of a question. Participation in voting is already open to all citizens of voting age. It’s just that you have to go through an election and be accountable to voters and optionally parties, rather than doing whatever you like with your power in the knowledge that you won’t be re-elected. Training would be an awful waste for a 12-month term – how long did it take to get the Constitutional Convention participants up to speed on non-technical, philosophical questions? In a country where non-political citizens often vote against referendums based on distrust of the government elected by the Dáil, it is hard to see how a constantly-rotating group of people will apply a fair hearing to lower house proposals.

    • Just to clarify, the reference to training was for the IT aspect of participation not that we should train every citizen on the finer points of constitutional law or parliamentary procedure (though the introduction of a politics course in the senior cycle in secondary school might help in the long term)

  2. Because it also has relevance her, I’m posting my response to Noel Whelan’s piece in the IT justifying Senate reform broadly similar to that proposed here.
    “The purpose of the two lower houses of the Oireachtas is to make law; the President (with the Council of State) has the power to refer any law made to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. If it doesn’t improve the making of law, the Seanad has no purpose. The people in their wisdom decided to retain the Seanad. We don’t know why a majority decided this. All we know is that if enough of them had turned out to vote and had voted in line with the party preferences they expressed in 2011 the Government would have won handsomely. But they didn’t. And that is all we can be certain of.

    The citizens who voted in favour of retaining the Seanad expressed no views about reforming the Seanad. They weren’t asked. They simply voted to retain it. It is pure self-serving speculation by the various individuals and groups seeking to infer from this blunt decision some measure of popular support for a Seanad elected and functioning in any way different from the current situation. The most that can be inferred from the Referendum decision is some vague popular discontent with the power governments exercise over the two lower houses. But any re-balancing of the powers of the two lower houses relative to those of government has to start with, and be initiated by, the Dail. The Seanad can then be reformed to reinforce this re-balancing.

    Tackling the Seanad first is simply quintessentially Irish displacement activity to avoid tackling the real problems while disingenuously and hyprocritically claiming to be totally in favour of reform. If anything the Seanad referendum vote expressed a rejection of this chicanery.

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