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.