The problems with the Seanad relate to the way it is chosen but it is still very useful so find a better way of choosing it, writes Eoin Martin.
Ireland’s Senate always seemed like a bit of an afterthought. The fi rst Dáil sat alone unsupervised by an upper house in 1919 and when the British created a Senate in the Parliament of Southern Ireland the following year, it never assembled. We’ve had two versions of Seanad Éireann since, one under each constitution and both have been the subject of constant debate about their reform.
The Progressive Democrats advocated abolishing the Seanad in the 1980s despite it ironically being the place where they found their fi nal leader. The question as to whether Ireland needs the Seanad is once again back on the political agenda as all of the costly workings of the Oireachtas come under the spotlight. The options before us are outright abolition or meaningful reform.
Most people would be quick to concede that the current method of selecting senators is totally unsatisfactory. The fact is we wanted a Senate back in the 1920s and again in the 1930s but designed it very badly. That does not mean it is a bad idea. Many countries have two houses of parliament and many, mostly notably Britain’s House of Lords (which may soon be renamed a Senate) have very modest powers like our own.
An upper house, even one with very few strong powers, can still be very useful. Because the Seanad has a different composition to the Dáil, it can offer different perspectives both on Oireachtas committees and in debates on legislation that can be very constructive. It can also be a forum for things that might not otherwise get the attention of the Dáil.
When debating legislation, the diverse range of backgrounds from which Senators are chosen, whatever about its democratic legitimacy which is certainly questionable, can be a bonus. Especially when new bills are initiated in the Seanad, ministers are often quite open to suggestions for amendments. When the new Land and Conveyancing Bill was introduced recently for example, senators suggested a number of changes in light of academic criticism which were adopted by the Minister for Justice.
Citizens may think the second extra layer of scrutiny over the Dáil is useless but it’s not. Senators have a legal entitlement to ask questions – the passage of legislation through the house is part of a constitutional process that ministers cannot sidestep however much they’d like to. Look at the amount of coverage the Seanad debate on the Bank Guarantee legislation got last September.
“If our problem is cronyism and waste, tackle cronyism and waste”
The more substantial point is that many of the weaknesses of the Seanad do specifi cally relate to its composition. If more of its members were directly elected by the people but on a different basis to the Dáil, then there’s every reason to believe it would not merely be a rubber stamp on Dáil decisions but the genuine check and balance it was intended to be.
Some of the suggestions for reform considered by a Seanad subcommittee in 2004 included having representatives from Northern Ireland or for the Travelling Community who are currently effectively disenfranchised. If voting was done by the European constituencies, then many of the ‘new Irish’ who make up such a substantial part of our population but fall short of having citizenship would get a voice in the Oireachtas.
Would there be any advantage to such improved representation? There was in the past. The first Senate in the 1920s was used a means to protect the Protestant minority from what their fear that Home Rule would be ‘Rome Rule’. In the 1970s and 80s, Mary Robinson used her prominence as senator to great effect to promote women’s rights, liberalisation of contraception and gay rights. She even introduced legislation to legalise condoms and though it was voted down, it was a part of the groundswell of modernisation in Irish society. David Norris who still represents Trinity College in the Seanad was one of her allies and himself has been a legendary advocate of civil and human rights.
It may be counter-intuitive to say that the most important thing is not that the Seanad should be chosen in a perfectly democratic way but that it should be chosen in a perfectly rational way. Most upper houses like America’s Senate or the European Council do not give equal representation to all citizens but they are fit for purpose.
If our problem is cronyism and waste, tackle cronyism and waste. Our Dáil is far from perfect and far more wasteful. When our senators have done so much so quietly in the past, it would be wrong to make them scapegoats for all the ills of a rotten system.