When the Irish people go the polls on October 4th to vote on the future of the Seanad, they must ask themselves whether the Senate is a necessary element of our political system. Put another way, if the Government was proposing a radical overhaul of our political system and starting with a blank canvass, would a second chamber be an essential component of a reformed system? I don’t believe they would and that is why I favour abolishing the Seanad altogether.
Firstly, ever since Seanad Éireann was established in 1937, some have rightly dismissed it ‘as a mere “talking shop”’ in need of change.1 Indeed, in that time, ten separate reports have been published outlining various degrees of reform for our second chamber. However, not one of these reforms has ever been implemented. Maybe this is so because of a lack of political will but one wonders whether reform of the Seanad is even desirable when you consider that the creator of the ‘Second Seanad’, Eamon de Valera, took ‘good care that the new Senate should wield no real power’ and ‘had no intention of permitting his new upper house an effective mind of its own’, as J.J. Lee points out.2 This insight from history diminishes the credibility of the modern Fianna Fáil party in claiming that the abolition of the Seanad would lead to a loss of oversight of Government actions.
This leads me onto my second argument in favour of abolition. The political relevance or importance of a second chamber can be determined in part by its method of selection as argued by Arend Lijphart in Patterns of Democracy. If one is to follow the argument put forward by Lijphart, one must ask how can an institution where only 1 per cent of the population voted in the last Seanad election and less than 4 per cent had the right to vote can truly be deemed relevant or even legitimate in the eyes of the public? To compound the illegitimacy argument further, while more than ninety-six per-cent of the population have no right to vote in the Seanad election, some of those that have the opportunity to vote, have in fact as many as six votes. A County Councillor or outgoing Oireachtas member can vote for candidates on each of the five vocational panels and, if they are a graduate of Trinity College or the NUI, they can vote to elect a further three Senators. Basil Chubb famously argued that the Seanad is ‘composed largely of party politicians not very different from their colleagues in the Dáil’3 thereby reducing the likelihood of a Government defeat or a better quality consideration of the legislative measures before the Senate. When one looks at the make-up of the candidates that contested the vocational panels in 2011, one finds that 84 per cent came from political backgrounds, not vocational ones. 68 had previously been Councillors and 47 had unsuccessfully contested prior Dáil elections. As a check on Government or a better scrutiniser of legislation, the Seanad has failed even its most basic of responsibilities. The fact that it has only twice in its history delayed the passage of a bill, the last time being 1964, highlights its irrelevance and ineffectiveness in a modern representative democracy.
Finally, the proposal to abolish the Seanad forms part of a suite of radical reforms designed to make our political system fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. I believe that transforming how our system of politics operates in this country can breathe new life into our democracy and encourage a greater level of citizen involvement in our democratic system. In addition to the proposed abolition of the Seanad, the Government has published detailed plans of how a unicameral legislature would work and how it would play a more central role in our system of government. Already, we have seen the inclusion of an additional leaders question time, ‘topical issues’ debates and extra Friday sittings to allow parliamentarians to spend time being actual legislators in presenting Private Member’s Bills of their own drafting. Other proposed changes include the presentation of draft legislation to the relevant committees for consideration, investigation and review in advance of the Minister presenting it to the House for debate. Committee chairs would be selected through the D’Hondt system where the number of chairs allocated will be dependent on the relative strength of parties in the Dáil. Longer Dáil sittings will allow Deputies debate legislation more forensically. This should, I hope, reduce the need for such frequent use of the guillotine. But it is not just the Dáil that is being reformed, so too is local government. The number of local councils and is being reduced from 118 to 31 and the number of councillors from 1,650 to 949. All levels of Government will have to learn to do more with less as businesses and families nationwide have had to do for the past five years. Legislation has also been enacted linking gender quotas directly with the level of State funding political parties receive. Greater transparency and accountability has been introduced into how political parties raise money and what amounts individual politicians can receive from businesses. The reforms already being implemented and those recently announced are designed to enable a greater level of citizen interaction with our political system and provide the public with a greater degree of accountability over their politicians for the decisions taken in their name.
There is no doubt that there have been great parliamentarians who have served as Senators over the years. We should recognise the service they have given to our country but I believe that, as an institution, Seanad Éireann is not fit for purpose in the role it is meant to play in our Constitution. Furthermore, I do not believe that Ireland as a small unitary state of just over four million people needs two Houses of Parliament. Every role that has been conceived of for the Senate, can, in my view, be undertaken by a unicameral legislature that can hold the executive to account and can be held accountable by the Irish people.
- John Coakley and Michael Gallagher (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland (New York, 2005), p. 200.
- J.J. Lee, Ireland, 1912-1985: politics and society (Cambridge, 1985), p. 272.
- Basil Chubb, The Government and Politics of Ireland (London, 2nd edition, 1982), p. 212.