Problem’s with the Seanad
So what’s the problem with the Seanad? Where to start? Well first why I am i writing about reform of the Seanad. I was prompted to write about the Seanad because the first thing i saw on twitter this morning was Senator Ronan Mullen trending. The reason why he was trending connects to my first blog post earlier in the week on repealing the 8th amendment. He once again no for the first time won’t be the last said something that upset a lot people. Since his election to Seanad Éireann in 2007 on the NUI panel, he has never been too far away from controversy when it comes to social issues whether it be Civil partnerships, Same Sex marriage or the time he tried to link Sandy Hook Massacre to abortion. Ronan Mullen like many of his colleagues is not someone who could be considered as representative of the people. Could he even be considered representative of his constituency of the NUI panel. Lets look at the stats from the last Seanad election. Senator Mullen topped the poll (Fair play to him) gaining 7,362 votes out of 36,293 valid votes. However that figure of 36,293 equals about 35% of the 103,154 electorate. This figure highlights one problem turnout, its quite low but then again this is a postal vote so many people might just ignore it or maybe people just don’t care about the Seanad as it can often been seen as institution out of date with little power to influence anything of great importance. But apart from turnout whats it’s other problems and how the Seanad can be reformed?
Brief History of the Seanad
The current Seanad was created under the Irish constitution in 1937, it is considered as the successor to the previous Seanad that was abolished by a vote of Dail Eireann in 1934 however its actual abolishment was delayed by the Seanad itself until 1936. The Free state Seanad had been created to scrutinise and be a democratic cheek on legislation brought forward by the government and also to provide expertise and give a ‘wide expression of views that may not be in popularly elected parliament’. It was also there to give adequate representation to the southern unionist minority. The Free state was quite successful in terms of forcing the government of the day to accept up to 40% of Seanad amendments to legislation. When the Seanad was abolished the Fianna Fail government was reluctant to retain an upper house, but when they did, it was made constitutionally explicit the new upper house Seanad Eireann would be subordinate to the Dail (Ibid, p17). The new Seanad was also set up in such away to insure that that government had a majority through the eleven seats for Taoiseach’s nominees. There was also the introduction of university seats, which was a way of insuring there would be a continuing presence of the southern unionist minority. In 2013 there was an attempt to once again abolish the Seanad but the referendum surprisingly rejected by a margin of 51.7% to 48.3 %. Promises of reform since then have not been acted upon.
Elitist and Unrepresentative
Among its many problems, the Seanad often gets accused of being elitist and unrepresentative. So is the Seanad elitist? One of tis many problems is that to many people, the Seanad is an elitist institution for politicians who can’t get elected to the Dail or for politicians using it as a stepping stone to the Dail. It’s elitist as only certain people are allowed to vote for the Seanad 11 seats are appointed by the Taoiseach, usually given to notables from certain fields such as charities or to members of the Taoiseach’s party to ensure a majority. Then there is 6 seats elected by graduates of Trinity College Dublin or the NUI colleges each have 3 seats. As said before Senator Mullen represents the NUI colleges. It seems rather elitist that only those with degrees from these colleges should be allowed to vote for the Seanad whilst disfranchising those from the University of Limerick, Dublin City University and all the Institutes of Technology. This is made worse by the fact legislation could have changed this since 1979, giving the franchise to all graduates of third level institutions. But every government since then has ignored that. Then theres the the final 43 seats, which are divided among 5 vocational panel’s which are elected only by elected politicians i.e. members of the Dail, Seanad and local councils. The majority of the seats to the Seanad are elected by around a thousand people and these people could have up to 7 votes. So the make up the Seanad is decided decided by around 1000 politicians, 35000 of those lucky enough to get a degree from an NUI college and 16000 lucky enough to get a degree from Trinity College. In total 52000 elect an entire national chamber with 11 seats appointed by one person. This added with that standing for election in the vocational panels is restricted to those nominated by designated nominating bodies. All this makes the Seanad not very representative and can be considered quite elitist. Despite these flaws and problems, the single biggest issue with the Seanad is the lack of reform and the Seanad itself can’t be blamed for this. The blame for this lies with successive governments who have ignored the calls and reports for reform of the institution.
Reform of the Seanad
Since 1928, there has been at least 14 separate official reports into reforming the Seanad. All of these reports have been ignored, even a referendum, the 7th amendment to the constitution which would have allowed by law, the altering of the procedure for the election of six members of the Senate by university graduates. That amendment was made in 1979 but has never enacting disfranchising me for who one is a graduate from UL (soon to be graduate of UCC, so i get my Seanad vote then) but this also the case for thousands of graduates throughout the country from UL, DCU and any of the Institutes of Technology. Not to mention it is completely unfair on those not lucky enough to go University and those who professions do not need a university education. This alone as said before makes the Seanad a elitist institution. So as said 14 reports have being ignored by successive governments. Why were they ignored? No answer has ever really been given. That status quo probably suits many of the establishment parties. Fine Gaels best argument for abolishing the Seanad was it would save money. Not the best argument for abolishing an upper house of parliament. Many of the reports have argued for the university seats be expanded so to represent all graduates of higher level institutions in the state holding a primary degree or an equivalent award at level 7 on in the National Framework of Qualifications. This proposal was made in the report by 2004 Seanad Éireann Committee on Procedure and Privileges sub-committee on Seanad Reform chaired by Senator Mary O’Rourke. This 2004 report also recommended that 2 of the Taoiseach’s nominees come from Northern Ireland, one from a unionist background and other a nationalist. It also recommended that the Seanad be given the role in EU affairs with responsibility for
‘i Assessing legislative and other proposals going before EU Councils;
ii Reviewing draft EU legislation of major national policy importance;
iii Providing Irish MEPs with a domestic forum to discuss EU issues and account for their work; and
iv Developing a medium-term policy framework to address the challenges and opportunities facing Ireland in Europe over the next ten years.’
The report further went on further to recommended that the Seanad ‘should assume the role of principal policy reviewer in the Houses of the Oireachtas, concentrating initially on’
‘i Medium-term economic and social planning;
ii Performance of Government Departments, State agencies and Semi-State bodies;
iii Social Partnership; and
iv North-South Implementation Bodies established under the British-Irish Agreement.’
These proposal would have given the Seanad significant power whilst also keeping it subordinate to the Dail. But as we know with this report like the ones that came before and followed were ignored left to gather dust.
The most recent report into Seanad Reform was released in April 2015, this report was complied by the Working Group on Seanad Reform which had been set up in 2014. It’s members in included previous chairperson of the committee into Seanad reform former senator Mary O’Rourke, other members included noted journalist and commentator Dr Elaine Byrne and Mr Tom Arnold the Former Chairman of the Constitutional Convention. It was chaired by Dr MauriceManning who was Chancellor, National University of Ireland, and former Leader of Seanad Éireann. The report was called by some as radical. however the working group was restricted by the terms of reference of making a complete overhaul of the Seanad, as mentioned in the government press release the reforms had to be within the existing constitutional parameters which in practical terms meant
- the retention of the vocational concept in the filling of 43 of the 60 seats
2. the continuation of university representation, though now from a greatly enlarged constituency
- the retention of eleven seats nominated by the Taoiseach
- he stipulation that all voting be by secret postal ballot
However, despite the restrictions to the working group said that the restrictions did not hinder meaningful reform. They found that there were ‘3 fundamental principles which they felt must underpin any meaningful reform’ of the Seanad, these principles were
. Popular Legitimacy – a reformed Seanad must be seen by Irish citizens as having a legitimate voice and role in the political process,
. Adequate Powers and Functions – a reformed Seanad should have distinctive and adequate powers and functions to make a discernable contribution to the parliamentary process
. Distinct Composition – a reformed Seanad should be distinct in its composition and its electoral process should be designed accordingly.
The working group using these principles made recommendations concerning the roles and powers of the Seanad, its composition and the electoral process.
In terms of the Roles and Powers of the Seanad the working group made clear from the start that the Seanad constitutionally is subordinate to the Dail and that the ‘Seanad’s primary role is to he scrutiny, revision and initiation of legislation. It was intended as a check on Government but not as a road block’ . They went on further to show what was constitutionally the Seanad’s relationship to the Dail and showing where the constitution limits the function of the Seanad. The report recommended that the Seanad should play are larger role in ‘revising, reviewing and consolidating existing legislation’. The report states that due to legislation being constantly amended and revised, the body of legislation sometimes become ‘extraordinarily complex and almost inaccessible’. This is where the working groups says that Seanad could play an important role in filtering and modernising Irish legislation and to consolidate core principles of acts which could be lost due ‘complexity of the amending legislation’ The working group further went on to recommend the recommendation made by the 2004 sub committee on Seanad reform in the case of the Seanad being given the role of scrutinising European policies and directives. The report also suggests that the Seanad be given a special role contributing and overseeing the work done by the North-South Ministerial Council. The working group also recommended several other reforms to the roles and functions of the Seanad. These included giving consideration in to secondary legislation, consulting with relevant bodies prior to and during second stage debates, investigating and reporting on matters of public policy interest, considering reports from regulators and other statutory inspectors . One of the more interesting recommendations was to give the Seanad a role in appointments to public bodies, this especially interest in light of the john Mcnulty saga. Some of these appointments are at the discretion of ministers and are seen by as gifts, perhaps giving the Seanad a role in appointing people to public bodies. A suggestion could be that for senior roles in public bodies and state boards be interviewed by members of the Seanad and thus making appointments more transparent.
The second important part of the report was looking at the composition and electoral process of the Seanad. Currently as already mentioned nearly all members of the chamber are either indirectly elected on vocational panels by sitting county councillors or appointed by the Taoiseach with the exception being the six university seats split evenly three each between NUI and trinity college Dublin of which only graduates of these universities can vote. In the last Seanad election in 2011 the vocational panel’s electorate was made of 1,092 who could vote up to six times and the combined registered electors of NUI and trinity was 151,317, this means that forty-nine seats in the Seanad was decided by just 152,414 This has led many to accuse the Seanad of being elitist and undemocratic due to small electorate. The question on extending the franchise is one of the main points the working group dealt with. In the report they said that from the outset that their objectives would be
The creation of a Seanad which extended the principle of one person one vote to all citizens on the
island of Ireland and overseas;
– The provision of the direct link to local and regional councils through the retention of an element of Indirect election;
– The enhancement and deepening of the Constitutional concept of vocational representative;
– The modernization of the entire electoral process in line with developments in technology (report of working group on Seanad reform 2015, p26)
The working group recommended the introduction of one man one vote and that all citizens have one vote each for which they would be required to register on a vocational panel of their choice. They also recommend the retention of indirect voting for a number of seats arguing that the electorate of elected local politicians gave an important link between National and local politics, the number of seats they recommend for this would ten reduced down from the current forty-three. The report also suggested that the franchise be extended to those wishing to participate in Northern Ireland along with the diaspora, which the group recommends that ‘Irish citizens with current passports living abroad be eligible to register and vote on the Panel of their choice. The report recommended that the 1979 amendment to the constitution be implemented which would significantly increase the electorate of university panels. The report recommends that the Taoiseach’s nominees remain unchanged. The report recommended that over half of the seats thirty-six in total be directly elected by popular vote including the university seats. Thirteen seats would be indirectly elected by local councillors whilst the final eleven seats would remain being the Taoiseach’s nominees. As stated in the report the constitution requires that there be five vocational panels and that forty-three senators be elected through them and the no less than five and no more than eleven be elected on any one panel. The working group recommended that eight members be elected on the culture and education panel and Administration panel along with nine each on the Agriculture Panel, Labour Panel and Industry Commerce Panel. The further went on to recommended that in panels which hold nine seats three would be indirectly and six by popular vote and panels which have eight seats two would be indirectly elected and six by popular vote.
All these recommendations if implement would improve the Seanad immensely and may even improve public confidence in the Seanad and perhaps politics itself (it’s a longshot). But despite all the complaints about the Seanad, it has had amongst members at times some of Irelands finest politicians including three Presidents of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, Mary Robinson and Michael D amongst others. In the case of Ronan Mullen, despite him being easily considered one of the most extreme almost ultra catholic Politicians in the Houses of Oireachtas and quite often just an asshole especially time he reportedly smirked at women telling their abortion stories but he is there for reason. 1. The system provides a avenue for minority voices to be heard (not always a bad thing) where he and other’s would not be elected at a Dail level anywhere in country lets not forget he polled just 5% in the EU elections (not a bad try, but not great as he see’s himself representing a silent majority, they weren’t loud that day anyway). 2. The most important reason he got elected with the most first preferences 7362 out of an electorate of over 100,000 with just over third bothering to vote. He was elected because so many people didn’t bother to vote, so next time if you have the vote use it. 3. The last reason is so many people stood for election, 30 in the case of NUI in 2016, next time if there is a multiple candidates who believe in the similar cause and is against the conservative politics of Ronan Mullen then join forces and one stand fore election one has much better chance of getting elected than all of you taking votes from each other.
- Some of this, was work I done for an academic essay on the subject. If you do manage to read all of this, surprised and thank you for wasting such amount of time on something I wrote. Let me know what you think and share it !!