Enda Kenny’s proposal to abolish the Seanad is a foolish, short-term solution to a long-term problem, writes Gavan Reilly
Let’s be clear from the off: Seanad Éireann is an imperfect institution. It is little more than a political car park for those postponing the inevitable decline into retirement; a breeding ground for a political party’s new hopes, trying to blood their new meat in the life of Leinster House before the savagery of the Dáil floor; and a consolation prize for those who came close-ish to winning a seat in the lower house in the previous election.
Its work is limited; its relative power to put a stop to legislation is nil; its members largely wish they were elsewhere. It’s a morose place where the good go to die and the young come to roar, all just to get a few minutes’ token coverage on Oireachtas Report three times a week for their trouble.
With the Seanad being the almost entirely useless entity it has become, it was prudent for Enda Kenny to take a stab (almost literally) last week by proposing its abolition, saving the taxpayer about €25m per year, as part of an Oireachtas reform package that would also see the number of TDs cut by about 20 per cent. The country has grown frustrated with a body that it sees as nepotistic and ineffective, and Kenny needed to be seen as proactive in tackling what is, legitimately, a high-profile waste of exchequer money.
The abolition of a house of parliament is a big choice to make, and one that here, at least, would require a referendum of undoubted painstakingness equal to a Lisbon. Process aside, it’s also a fundamental amendment to the operation of a parliamentary democracy. What Enda Kenny seems to have overlooked, however, is that the Seanad can easily be reformed into a body that works, without necessarily triggering any political seachanges.
The Seanad, in its current form, was established by de Valera’s new Constitution in 1937, with its makeup inspired by Catholic social teaching of the times, led by Pope Pius XI and his visions of social order being based on the co-operation of vocational groups (a system that can be likened to the modern notion of social partnership). With this in mind, the Constitution established five Vocational Panels, with the prevailing logic being that nominees would have special experience or knowledge of one of the five topics, thus becoming eligible for election to that panel. So, for example, those with knowledge or experience in the business world would be elected to the Industrial and Commercial Panel.
The overall aim was that while the directly elected Dáil would remain – as all lower houses are – a political playground, the Seanad would be able to meditate on the nitty-gritty of applying the Dáil’s legislation in the real world, and transcend the relatively lowly bickering of a party political system.
In the seventy-odd intervening years, though, the Seanad hasn’t worked out quite as planned. Because the members of the five Vocational Panels are elected by members of the country’s town and county councils, the elections have become purely party political, with councillors from a political party voting along their own party lines so that the Seanad ultimately mirrors the political constitution of Ireland’s local government.
Another provision allowing for six members to be elected by graduates of Ireland’s two universities (at the time), the University of Dublin – comprised solely of Trinity College – and the National University of Ireland, including UCD, has fallen flat over the course of history. Ireland has seen newer universities formed in the meantime, and despite a referendum allowing the law to be amended to the contrary, the graduates of these colleges have not yet been offered a vote – creating the valid perception that the authority of the Seanad, like its membership, is limited to a minority of society.
While abolition of the Seanad would solve both of these problems, realistically Enda Kenny’s better legacy would be to reform the Seanad in a meaningful way that allows it to best fulfil the intent of the Constitution. An easy start would be to propose the legislation the Constitution already allows for: a law allowing the graduates of other third-level institutions to vote in the university constituencies.
It’s not as if the Seanad hasn’t come up with enough ideas on how to make itself more useful: no fewer than twelve reports on reform have been published over its lifetime. Indeed, only five years ago one of its own subcommittees recommended the abolition of the Panels, opening up nearly half of the seats to direct public elections, and that the eleven seats filled by the Taoiseach’s own appointees be more reflective of the Republic’s role in Northern Ireland, rather than – as present – being merely used to pad out the Government’s majority in the upper house.
The public, however, shouldn’t be surprised if Enda Kenny somehow manages to lose the next election; he’ll find that due to his party’s victory in the local elections last June, that his party will be in the majority in the Seanad irrespective of the Taoiseach’s nominees. In that light, don’t expect the referendum to come any time soon.