Seanad : babies and bathwater

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
site, here

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.

  1.  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.
  2.  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.
  3.  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.
  4.  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.
  5.  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


11 thoughts on “Seanad : babies and bathwater

  1. Dermot Frost

    About this time last year I proposed something similar with universal franchise tied to the Local/Euro election cycle. At the time I still considered nominees, but requiring cross party unanimous support, as a good thing but now I’m not so sure. We could also dispense with geographical constituencies and assign people to voting panels based on RSI number modulo something. Or we could create panels based on the existing vocational ideas but then have voters pre-select which panel they vote on which would the determine how many Senators each panel would return.

    The main problem with the Seanad though isn’t the stuffing by the Taoiseach, it’s Article 23 of the Constitution. This allows the Dail to force through legislation without the consent of the Seanad given a long enough period of time. The effectively neuters the Seanad. Having the power to vote down bills or force amendments would make the backbenchers in the lower chamber do a bit more work on scrutinizing legislation that is being proposed by the Minister and the Chief Whip as a fait accompli.

  2. Pingback: Seanad : babies and bathwater | Brian M. Lucey | ChildBirth 101

  3. Edward Smyth

    Seanad: – The Seanad should not be abolished but should be structurally and focus changed.

    The Seanad should be a collection of expert people, people with real experience, people who have expertise in different fields of the economy. The Seanad needs people with common business sense, business people who do it and know how things do and do not work.
    No offence, experts who read and learn how things should work from a book or career politicians will not fix the economy.

    This new Seanad would also act as an oversight committee to government.

    The new Seanad would consist of 5 to 7 suitably able and qualified leaders who guide and have responsible for 5 to 7 subsections of Seanad working committees.

    Selection to the Seanad working committee`s body would be under open tender and interview process with all appointments agreed by the leader experts without political influence.

    Where do we find these experts????? Need to find 5 to 7 experts somehow, if they are business orientated you will not have to look too far to find them.

    Sub/working committees should be also easy. For starters there are people weathering in the ranks of the unemployed and many hundreds` travelling the sky`s every week in search of a life for their families, hundreds of people oozing with experience and ideas.

    This may not happen just now but it will eventually be seen as the only way to run a country or to run a country as a business.

    Government also needs to be structured to a system with a leader who is accountable with overall responsibility, department ministers/heads responsible and accountable for the various sections of the economy. The remaining elected officials initiating and agreeing government policies. Take politics out of politics. Think outside the little box.

  4. Senator John Gilroy

    As a sitting senator (Labour Party), I find the Seanad the most frustrating place to be. As it currently set up, the main problem is the party whip system. Only ideas which originate with the government are accepted. Independent senator, Sean Barrett, for example, used his private members time before Christmas to bring forward a bill on Fiscal Rules, it was a highly technical piece of work and in my opinion very important. The governments instinct was to reject it out of hand, indeed was determined to do so. I didn’t think this was appropriate and after much behind the scenes haggling between myself, the house leader, minister and whips a compromise was reached and Sen. Barretts motion was not voted down – a result of sorts but not doing justice to Barrett or his work. Now if I had followed my instinct and just supported Barretts proposal I would have lost the party whip and that would put me outside any role of influence as a government senator – there’s the rub, support proposal = lose whip, oppose good idea = maintain influence in other areas. So the first thing that needs to be done is remove whip.

    I don’t agree with the argument that there should be not politicians in the Seanad, that the Seanad should be reserved for experts only. Why are these tow positions seen as mutually exclusive. For example, I’m a psychiatric nurse by profession and also a politician, I think that I have a certain expertise or experience that I can bring to public life. Politics is about the public realm and my political experience allows me to have a perspective that I might not otherwise have.

    Elections to the Seanad need complete overhaul. Direct elections are important but what system can we devise that ensures that people who are experts at getting elected and good for little else do not swamp the reformed Seanad. Over the years I have met some very great people, who would make very fine politicians, but would have no hope of being elected. I have also met some of the greatest wasters who are elected politicians – they are experts at getting elected. How do we elect the former and make sure the latter do not get through.

    I have loads more to say and look forward to saying it, but for now, happy new year

  5. Hugh

    Fully agree that the Senate should not be abolished, and the idea of removing/prohibiting the whip is one that could also be applied in the Dail but which certainly belongs in the Senate.

    One additional idea that might be considered is to reduce the number of Senators. At the moment the Senators are largely anonymous because there are so many. If there were (say) twenty then they could be far more prominent figures.

    Other than that…many good ideas here to think about.

  6. John gilroy

    A short comment on the idea of a Seanad reserved for ‘experts’ as suggested by previous commentator.

    The implication here is, I think, that people who are experts will act in a manner of greater civic responsibility than career politicians. That because they are experts they will act in a less self serving manner than politicins. What evidence is there to suggest that would be the case. Let’s play a little game for a moment to explore this proposition.

    Imagine if we created a state agency and gave it a statutory function. Now this random agency is given a role, a budget and a mechanism to influence or even devise public policy. We place in this agency a board drawn from the very brightest, innovative and brilliant people and give them responsibility to do whatever job it is that needs doing. The argument for having these people on the board is that their job if terribly complex, nobody else could do it and only the brightest people with expertise can do it. Because these people are such expert they do not even need to be paid because their expertise is recognised in other areas and being so brilliant they have already become wealthy. Now we give this board 5 years to carry out their job

    Now what do we get, do we get a result unlike anything ever seen in Ireland. You bet we do, we get the mess that is the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. The best and the brightest were the Seanie Fitzpatricks of the last 10 years.

    Imagine if we had such a Seanad from 2002 – 2007 for example. Might it be completely preposterous that we might have seen ‘expert’ Sean Fitpatrick as our expert on banking in the Seanad, perhaps Mr. Sean Quinn our expert on health, perhaps Mr Sean Dunne our expert on infrastructure – you see where I am going with this.

    There is no evidence to show that people with particular expertise will act in a more socially responsible manner than ‘mere’ politicians, there is no evidence in the other direction either. All I’m asking in this comment is that if we are going to replace the seanad (and we should) with something different we need to be very robust in our analyses and our presciptions

  7. Arthur Doohan

    I like most of the thinking and behind the article. If I might be allowed the temerity of a suggestion, it would be that ‘clientilism’ has long been remarked upon a vice afflicting both the electorate and the elect of this country.

    Let us then keep the original notion of ‘panels’ but extend it to the European notion of ‘lists’, subject to national universal suffrage, whereby any qualifying party can submit a list and will recieve seats proportional to its national ballot (subject to a threshold score of, say, 5%.

    It would, I believe, extend the range and caliber of persons interested in and capable of being returned to the Oireachtas.

  8. John Gilroy

    Arthur has identified the real problem and that is, of course, the nature and extent of clientelism in Irish politics. It is not to say that clientelism does not exist in the politics of other countries, of course it does, but it is the pervasive nature of Irish clientelism that makes our system particularly interesting. When we alley clientelism with the single transferable vote in multi seat constituencies we have a form of politics which rewards localism in a way that is not conducive to solving national challenges. There is at least several life times work for any number of researchers to codify our unique political landscape in relation to this. Suffice for this comment to say we need to ‘protect’ a reformed Seanad from this type of politics. We can change as many systems as we want but until we change the culture of politics, I don’t think we will achieve what we seek. Each politician and political commentator must be responsible for their words and deeds and ensure that everything we do and say adds in some small way to the political good.

  9. Pingback: Running for the Seanad | Brian M. Lucey

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