Ciarán Fisher argues that the Seanad is a costly relic of a bygone age and should not be kept for the sake of tradition.
Two questions that spring to mind when we think of the Seanad are; what exactly is it? and what does it do? The fact that these questions are among the most prominent upon mention of Ireland’s upper house bares testimony to its lack of impact on our lives. There is a common belief amongst its critics that if the public paid the Seanad attention for long enough it would wind up abolished.
The Seanad is not democratically elected like the Dáil. It has 60 seanadóirí. Three are elected by graduates of Trinity College, three are jointly selected by graduates from UCD and the other NUI universities. Worse than that, eleven are selected directly by the Taoiseach. The remaining 43 are selected by representatives of ‘vocational panels’ which are populated heavily under the Taoiseach’s infl uence.
This might come as a shock, especially since we live, after all, in a Republic – a government of the people, for the people by the people. The Seanad is a sore thumb in the Irish legislative branch and its voting franchise invites an elitist tag.
What the Seanad does exactly is unclear. Its powers are limited to a veto of Dáil bills. Theoretically seanadóiri are supposed to be experts in their fi eld, able to advise the Government. But have TDs not been sourced on the basis of their expertise in the same way? The Seanad can form quangos, which are committees to examine state affairs. But so too can the Dáil. In this respect the Seanad is simply the longest running quango in the country’s history.
In theory it provides a theatre for reasoned debate away from the bustle and allegiances of the Dáil. De Facto the Seanad is dominated not by selfl ess political philosophers but by politicians. Politicians who, it can be argued, have roughly the same party allegiances as the Dáil. Older ex-Dáil politicians who are retiring into the easy political life, and younger ones who are looking for a stepping stone to becoming a TD.
“If the public paid the Seanad attention for long enough it would wind up abolished”
It is a romantic dream of conservationists and elitists to believe that in its current state the Seanad actually has any impact. It could well be that we have a second house as a matter of habit more than benefi t. The House of Lords and the House of Commons would have been a governance system familiar to the Irish Free State and later, the Republic. Fear of over-rocking the system in turbulent times attribute to its existence however longevity is not a sign of validity.
Traditionally the upper house kept an eye on the lower house’s doings. Learned people would act in the interest of stability. This may have been apt in a time when people were ignorant of goings on, or in times of low literacy. However, in modern times politics have been opened up to the public via mass media. In a literate, educated society like ours, the public, journalists and political analysts are suffi cient to keep the Dáil in check.
The Seanad has had a tradition of representing the minority groups of Ireland. Protestants like W.B. Yeats voiced their opinions on important issues like divorce inside its walls. But there are also numerous issues with this.
Firstly, personalities like Yeats and most of the personalities in the current Seanad (David Norris, Feargal Quinn) would, more than likely, enjoy a highly public presence through the modern checking system, the media. Secondly, divisions in Ireland are not so polarised that minorities cannot use mainstream institutions, and thirdly it is undemocratic to overly dedicate a pulpit for minorities.
The workings of today’s Seanad are out of step with the times. If the Seanad were a racehorse it would be put down on the grounds that it can’t keep up to speed and is too expensive to maintain.
But is there a way to streamline the Seanad? It doesn’t seem so. Despite government calls for cutbacks, seanadóirí are earning between €70,000 and €100,000 each, not including bonuses or expenses. There seems a looming demand to fi nd a purpose for it or abolish it.
Its undemocratic franchise works against the institution’s appeal. But to elect seanadóirí via public vote would only turn out the same voter loyalty as the Dáil which would impair Oireachtas effectiveness. Ever hear the saying, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’?
On 7th April, Ireland was greeted with an emergency budget, and with Taoiseach Cowen’s ‘sharing the burden’ rhetoric. Maybe a strong indicator that the Government is also sharing would be to call a referendum to abolish the money black hole that is the Seanad.