As the Seanad comes under fire by those who view it as ineffective, Eoin Brady highlights a superior alternative
The Seanad has always been a rather confused and rudderless entity, but if you were based on a militant republican’s reinterpretation of a Pope’s take on Marxism, you’d be something of a muddle too.
The Seanad is the upper house of the Irish parliament – the lower one being the Dáil. Along with the President, they make up the legislature. This is the branch of government that writes legislation. There are two other branches of government: one is the executive, which consists of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and cabinet ministers. Its role is to administer legislation. The judiciary (which is composed of judges) is the third branch. Its role is to interpret legislation.
The point of having these three entities and keeping them separate is to prevent any one group accumulating too much power and influence. The Seanad, which was created with the 1937 constitution, has a number of roles it is supposed to fulfil: to rigorously examine legislation proposed by members of the Dáil and to represent groups of society that would otherwise not receive enough attention.
43 of the Seanad’s 60 seats are given over to a vocational panel, representing areas like industry, culture and agriculture. The idea comes from the then-Pope’s idea – based on a critical response to Marxism – that the various social classes should be able to co-operate and co-exist, rather than clashing with one another. The Taoiseach directly allocates eleven of the seats and the remaining six are elected by NUI and Trinity graduates. The need for extra representation for these groups is not immediately apparent.
Ostensibly, the Seanad’s job is to keep an eye on the executive – to make sure it is held accountable and acts transparently. However, it is failing abjectly. This is due to the guaranteed government majority there and the strength of the party whips.
Senators and TDs should have the liberty, as individual members of parliament, to oppose legislation that goes against what they perceive to be the best interests of the country. However, a culture of deference and submission leads them to toe the party line too often. This lack of scrutiny has lead to a concentration of power in the cabinet, and a hamstrung Seanad.
These failings have lead to calls for a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. It is patently obvious that this kind of change would be populist short-termism, and not reform on the scale for which there is now an appetite among the Irish public. The abolition of the Seanad would be a symbolic but ineffective effort to clean up Irish public life, like the useless attempted cull of quangos by the UK’s coalition government recently.
Now, in Ireland, there is appetite for substantive change. The public recognises that only if Ireland were a nation populated entirely by middle-aged-to-elderly, white, Catholic, straight, male barristers, teachers and publicans would our politics be representative. It recognises that a political system whereby aspiring candidates succeed by fixing potholes serves no one.
There is a solution to these problems. The solution is to use Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representation in Dáil elections. It brings about a more representative, more diverse, less parochial parliament. It works by splitting parliament in two: half the seats are regional seats and half are party seats.
Voters have two votes each. One is for their regional representative and one for the party they favour. Regional elections happen in the same way as they do now in Ireland, but half of the seats in the Dáil will still be empty. These seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the number of votes received in the party vote.
Suppose there are 100 seats in a parliament. A party wins 15 regional seats. In the party vote, it gets 25 per cent. This means it should get a quarter of the total seats. It has 15 seats, so it should get ten more seats to have 25 in total. These ten seats are given to the party’s top ten candidates on a national list.
The use of a list system allows parties to include a broader variety of candidate, rather than the typical “safe” candidate described earlier.
Electing candidates nationally empowers voters. It does this because groups of people that are spread around the country and are not numerous enough in any one place to win a regional seat (for example, an ethnic minority, or gay people) can vote along party lines and be represented through the list method. This system is used in New Zealand, and since its implementation in 1993, female participation in parliament has gone from 21 per cent to 34 per cent.
The Seanad is as ineffective and pointless as it always was. It should be abolished, even though the change will be insignificant – the real change that voters yearn for will only be achieved by fairer representation. There is a right way to achieve this, and that way is MMP.