As we leave 2011 one of the government promises which they announced as part of their election appears to be still on track. They do appear to be intent on getting rid of the upper house of the Irish Parliament, Seanad Eireann
I’m not at all confident that is this a good idea. Most people would say that the majority, of senators over the years have been anonymous, insignificant, and ineffective. This is unfair, as there are many good hardworking Senators, but the reality is that the perception lingers and many Senators remain anonymous to the people throughout their career.
The Irish upper house is elected in a curious manner. Of the 60 senators 11 are appointed directly by the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister. This was designed by the architect of the 1937 Constitution to ensure that the upper house would always have an inbuilt government majority. One of the only reasons to have an upper house is of course it can, in principle, hold the lower house to account. Being neutered from the start was hardly a good idea…
Of remaining senators six are elected, but on a very restricted franchise. Despite the fact that for decades and has been an opportunity to widen this franchise has not been done. The remainder is elected in a series of panels, basically ensuring
that the grip of the political parties remains intact. Details on the electoral process contained on its official website, here. The membership of the panels is in effect in the gift of sitting parliamentarians. A good description of how panels are constructed as contained in the citizen’s information advice
The existence of the Seanad is very deeply entwined In the Irish Constitution. Eliminating it therefore is a complex task. Ex-Atty Gen and also ex-Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has suggested that would in fact be easier to draft a whole new constitution than trying to amend the present one to reflect a vote to abolish the Seanad. I think he’s right, but there is no doubt there is widespread public disgust at how the shadows over the years has been, at least perceived, to be a dumping ground for ex-politicians, a training ground for wannabe politicians, and in general has resulted in the population of the upper house being for the most part either discredited, one proved, or anonymous. The reality is that when people think of high-profile solicitors for the most part the people they would name would be the University Sens. These are people who are elected, as I say, on a very restricted franchise. But at least they do have to face a wide constituency. In the last election there were 53,000 voters eligible to vote for the three senators on the University of Dublin panel.
Here follows, purely as an intellectual exercise, a set of reforms that might if implemented might result in a more user focused and effective upper house.
- Let’s broaden out the electoral base. Since the seventh amendment in 1979 the provision has existed for the government, by law, to extend out the franchise from university seats beyond the existing universities. We need to go further than this, and make election to the Seanad by universal suffrage. I do not agree with the idea of seats in the parliament for persons not resident in the country. And yes, by this I include persons resident in Northern Ireland. I do believe however that we should have elections to the upper house for which anybody, regardless of citizenship, who is resident in this country for tax purposes may vote. I see no reason why, for example, a Polish or German national resident here for the last decade and tax compliant, cannot vote or indeed stand for election to the upper house.
- Let’s have terms. Is jealous of 60 people there is no reason why we shouldn’t have a fixed term for Senate of say five years. The presence of these senators tied to the electoral calendar of the lower house. Let’s liberate it, let it be independent, but let’s have it like United States Senate, where one fifth of the members are up for election every year. Along with universal suffrage this would ensure that the upper house without is a continual “ thermometer” regarding political opinion in the state.
- Let’s change the method of election. As I’ve stated we should of course of universal suffrage. One of the objections that people have raised when I have suggested the idea of the rolling electoral process such as in point to be that this would result in the vast expense and continual electioneering. There’s no reason why we have to continue to do things the way we have done. Electronic voting in Ireland has had a bad name since the absolute fiasco of the e-voting machines. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t experiment with, for example, voting online. In effect, and this is where tying the voting register to the tax register would come in useful, would ask the revenue to issue to each voter/taxpayer and alphanumeric multi- character code. They already do this if you want to use revenue online system. Recall that to have 12 senators elected each year then we need to have three or four constituencies, roughly approximating to the provinces perhaps. This is simply so that in retaining the single transferable proportional representation vote system we do not end up with vast and overwhelming election ballots. Each taxpayer now having received their unique code, the block of codes for each constituency should then be given over to an absolutely independent electoral commission. It would be be essential that there be no way in which an individual called would be tied by anybody to an individual taxpayer/vote. Information Commissioner should be tasked with overseeing this. The code which each taxpayer now possesses would be required as a one-time only login on a voting website. I’m sure there are huge technical challenges, but if Amazon and eBay can run sophisticated online electronic commerce there is no reason why we should be able to do this.
- Let’s change what the Senate does. One of the problems at the moment as it is not clear what the Senate actually does. Yes, it debates legislation. But the government has an inbuilt majority and therefore the house cannot act as an effective block or oversight. Yes, with certain exceptions, senators can initiate bills. As we have seen in the recent example of Sen Sean Barrett, even when the government are in total agreement with the thrust of the bill, individual Senate proposals from non-government source will never get beyond a polite pat on the head. The government in its election promises made much about cleaning up the win which appointments are made to state bodies. Let’s give the Senate a role in this. All senior appointments to all state boards, all senior appointments in the civil service, all senior appointments to the army and police, the heads of all universities etc., should be required to go before a Senate committee. A majority vote of said committee would be required in order for the person to be appointed. Let’s have the Senate question people as their fitness for office. Let’s let the public see what the views, attitudes, ideas, and proposals are, of the most senior echelons of state apparatus before we find ourselves paying for them.
- Lets make senators part of the government. At present, with some exceptions, Cabinet posts are open to senators. And yet, despite the government having the ability to point persons of merit from outside the party political process and then appoint them to senior cabinet positions, the last such senator to be appointed to a senior Cabinet office was that of Sen Jim Dooge over 30 years ago. My proposal above suggests that we abolish the ability of the Taoiseach to appoint people. The universal suffrage, on a rolling basis, should give a Senate, which is representative of the views of the people. Let’s incorporate those views into the Cabinet, by requiring that at least two Cabinet posts be held by Sens.
I’m sure there are other, no doubt better, proposals which people could make which would make the Seanad work more effectively. Let’s try proposals, let’s see if we can make the system work better. If having done our best to improve and reform the Seanad it’s still not working, then we should by all means consider getting rid of it. But getting rid of the Seanad, without having tried to reform at first, strikes me as a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater