In ancient Rome there was a political office called the Censor. His role was to act as a check on the membership of the Senate, to periodically oversee its membership and ensure that it was comprised of those eligible to be therein. He had the power to disbar, if someone didn’t meet the property franchise, if they had bribed or cheated (actually, been convicted of…) or were of insufficient moral fibre. We might, in this state, consider reintroduction of the office, with a twist. Continue reading
So, I had been asked by some people to consider this, in the upcoming election. Run for the university seats, they suggested. These were people I respected, from non-party backgrounds. Some were active in elected politics, others not. They made a persuasive case (but then, some are in the political world). I thought about it, took soundings and explored some ideas. I have made a decision about running.
Its strange to find oneself on the same side of a political argument as Fianna Fail. That’s now where I find myself with regard to the referendum to abolish the Seanad.
As an exercise in sheer political cynicism this referendum is hard to beat. Conceived by all accounts in a rush of political blood to the head to fill an empty season it sees parties engaging in volte face after volt face, playing ducks and drakes with the constitution for momentary political gain.
Fianna Fail say no to abolition. Having been in power since approximately the Jurassic period, they have over the years stuffed the Seanad with more political dinosaurs than one would find in a box set of Jurassic park but they now profess a desire for reform.
Sinn Fein were in favour of reform but are now against. I think.
Labour were also in favour of reform as late as 2009 producing a good piece on how this could be achieved.
There are many many reasons to abolish the Seanad. Forget the money for a moment – a working democracy requires politicians who can live on the wage, and who are well supported in terms of administrative and other capacity. Nobody seems to know how much it costs nor how much abolition will save.
Most people dont know who is in the Seanad. Just the other day I heard that Susan O’Keeffe, a really excellent journalist whom I had noticed had gone off the media, was in fact a S enator. Who knew. There are many many senators who pass through the chamber without troubling the world as to their existence as to senators. One whom I will not mention I was certain of as having died these many years past. But many others, notably the university senators, are active. They do their job as legislators in bringing legislation to the floor. It is the government that as a matter of routine votes it down even when agreeing with it. This last year we have seen the following acts brought
- Business Undertakings (Disclosure of Overpayments) Bill 2012 Ronan Mullen
- Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2012 [Seanad] Fergal Quinn
- Financial Stability and Reform Bill 2013 – Sean Barrett
- Food Provenance Bill 2013 – Fergal Quinn
- Mortgage Credit (Loans and Bonds) Bill 2012 [Seanad] Sean Barrett
- Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012. John Crown
- Public Health (Availability of Defibrillators) Bill 2013 Fergal Quinn
- Reporting of Lobbying in Criminal Legal Cases Bill 2011 John Crown
- Seanad Electoral Reform Bill 2013. John Crown
- Seanad, Bill 2013 [Seanad] [PMB] – Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn
- Upward Only Rent (Clauses and Reviews) Bill 2013 – Fergal Quinn
Then there are the bakers dozen that the Taoiseach de Jure can appoint. Three words suffice to show how this works – Senator Eoghan Harris. But then there is Katherine Zappone.
It’s a rotten borough – leaving aside the university senators (and successive governments of all hues have refused to implement the 40 y old constitutional amendment to allow all graduates to vote leaving that franchise even more stunted and still the most representative) and the taoiseachs nominees, they are elected by panels of county coucillors and a hodgepodge of other bodies on “panels”. See the bottom of the page for a list. A rotten borough however should not in and of itself preclude either the election of good people nor the abandonment of the idea of elections. Reform the electorate is an alternative to abolishing the election.
The main reason though, apart from the fact that abolishing it would concentrate even more power legally as well as factually in the hands of the cabinet (the Dail being as dead a letter as the Seanad when it comes to holding said cabinet to account) , the Government seem not to be convinced. They refuse to put forward the man who thought this up, An Taoiseach, to debate. This is either an arrogant belief that it doesnt merit debate, or a feeling that the grounds given are sufficiently weak that even Michael Martin might shred them.
So, i’m thinking of voting to retain – that way we can at least debate reform having told the government we don’t want to be bounced into this. If the system is irreformable, then fine. But lets try first.
- Administrative Panel 7 seats
- Agricultural Panel 11seats
- Cultural and Educational Panel 5 seats
- Industrial and Commercial Panel 9 seats
- Labour Panel 11 seats
List of nominating bodies
- Administrative Panel
- Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland
- Central Remedial Clinic
- Enable Ireland Disability Services
- General Council of County Councils
- Irish Deaf Society
- Irish Kidney Association
- Irish Wheelchair Association
- Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland
- National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland
- People with Disabilities in Ireland
Agricultural PanelAgricultural Science Association
- Central Fisheries Board
- Dairy Executives’ Association
- Irish Co-Operative Organisation Society
- Irish Grain and Feed Association
- Irish Greyhound Owners and Breeders Federation
- Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association
- Munster Agricultural Society Company Ltd
- National Association of Regional Game Councils
- National Executive of the Irish live Stock Trade
- Royal Dublin Society (RDS)
- Cultural and Educational Panel
- Aontas Múinteoirí Éireann
- Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI)
- Bantracht na Tuaithe
- Comhairle na dTréidlia
- Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
- Comhar na Múinteoirí Gaeilge
- Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge
- Cónaidhm Éireannach na Múinteoirí Ollscoile
- Conradh na Gaeilge
- Council of the Bar of Ireland
- Cumann Gairm-Oideachais in Éirinn
- Cumann Le Seandacht Átha Cliath
- Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann
- Dental Council of Ireland
- Drama League of Ireland
- Gael-Linn Teoranta
- Gaelscoileanna Teoranta
- Institute of Community Health Nursing
- Irish Dental Association
- Irish Georgian Society
- Irish National Teachers’ Organisation
- Irish Playwrights’ and Screenwriters Guild
- Law Society of Ireland
- Medical Specialists Limited
- National Youth Council of Ireland
- Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland
- Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
- Royal Irish Academy
- Royal Irish Academy of Music
- Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
- Údarás na Gaeltachta
- Industrial and Commercial Panel
- Association of Advertisers in Ireland
- Chambers of Commerce of Ireland
- Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport in Ireland
- Construction Industry Federation
- Cumann Aturnaethe Paitinní agus Trádmharcanna
- Electrical Industries Federation of Ireland
- Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland
- Institute of Bankers in Ireland
- Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Ireland
- Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland
- Institute of Industrial Engineers
- Institute of Professional Auctioneers & Valuers
- Institution of Engineers of Ireland
- Insurance Institute of Ireland
- Irish Architects’ Society
- Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute
- Irish Business and Employers Confederation
- Irish Computer Society
- Irish Country Houses and Restaurants Association
- Irish Exporters Association
- Irish Hardware & Building Materials Association
- Irish Hotel and Catering Institute
- Irish Hotels Federation
- Irish Planning Institute
- Irish Road Haulage Association
- Irish Tourist Industry Federation
- Licensed Vintners’ Association
- Marketing Institute of Ireland
- Marketing Society Limited
- National Off-Licence Association
- Restaurants Association of Ireland
- Retail, Grocery, Dairy and Allied Trades Association (RGDATA)
- Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland
- Society of the Irish Motor Industry
- Vintners’ Federation of Ireland
- Wholesale Produce Ireland
- Labour Panel
- Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations
- Irish Congress of Trade Unions
One of the things that must most irk senators and dail members is the way that debates get guillotined. Catherine Murphy TD had proposed to table some amendments in the debate on the Seanad abolition bill, mainly on the issue of Article 27. That this would be futile, as no opposition or independent amendments, no matter how worthy or how much the government agree with them are ever supported. In any case the blade fell and her views were not placed on the record of the house.
Nonetheless, these points that she makes are useful , and show a mechanism to preserve the democratic right of elected officials (local authority members to replace senators) to petition the president on a matter of importance.
Her full document is here.
Note : Im not a ‘supporter’ of Murphy, although she does seem a sensible and coherent independent. She is in my constituency, and I did give her a high preference last time out.
The Irish Seanad, the upper house of the Irish Parliament, last night voted to allow a referendum on its continued existence to be held. Its not exactly turkeys voting for christmas, more turkeys voting to allow people decide if there should be christmas. There is an argument that is is more about power grabs than saving money
Abolishing the Seanad has many attractions to many people, not least ‘sticking it to the politicians’. It has many downsides also. I didn’t realize until this morning of a consequence of which I and I suspect many were unaware. (H/T Kealan Flynn)
Article 27 Section 1 of the Constitution states
A majority of the members of Seanad Éireann and not less than one-third of the members of Dáil Éireann may by a joint petition addressed to the President by them under this Article request the President to decline to sign and promulgate as a law any Bill to which this article applies on the ground that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained.
Therefore, abolishing the Seanad has the consequence that there will be NO check on the parliament other than the President deciding on their own behalf to refer a bill to the Supreme Court. A27-1 has never been used. That doesn’t mean that its not useful to have. A properly representative and reformed upper house might have decided that one of the bills around the bank guarantee and recapitalisation might be worth getting the views of the people on, as an example.
As it is we have the Economic Management Council, the Gang of 4, dominate the cabinet, which in turn dominates the government which in its turn renders the Dail, the lower house, a rubber stamp.
We arguably need better oversight. We have a mechanism that in theory can be used. Im not sure that its wise to throw this out.
Rarely do we see parliaments voting themselves out of existence. When this happens it is usually because the country has been invaded, or dismembered in some other way. In Ireland we saw of course that the Irish Parliament voted itself out of existence in 1801, paving the way for the act of union. In fact, it voted twice, foreshadowing Nice and Lisbon in voting until “you get it right”. At least the second time there was massive bribery to induce the parliamentarians to vote themselves out of existence.
This week the Seanad faces an existential moment. Its flaws are many but most stem from the grotesquely unrepresentative nature of its electorate. John Crowne has tabled a bill that will begin to address this. It would give votes to all including emigrants ; Of course the bill will be voted down – its Not Invented Here, here being governmentland. Governments in Ireland don’t even take on board amendments that they themselves agree with, preferring instead to retable them….
The bill being voted down the reality is that the senators will be showing themselves to be incapable of bestirring themselves even in self preservation. An attempt at reform should surely precede abolition but the government senators would rather walk, baaing, through the whipped lobbies to deny reform and thus allow a free run for abolition. And, if they cannot even be bothered to save themselves we have to ask : what on earth use are they?
Sometimes a debate comes along in the upper house that is worth listening to. Usually, and this is I think, down to the (limited) franchise, this comes from the university senators.
Last week Senator Sean Barrett (TCD) moved a series of amendments to the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland)(Amendment) Bill 2012. This bill is in essence to extend the remit of Science Foundation Ireland to allow it to fund not just basic but also applied research. Now, lets leave aside the research on how hard it is for government to “pick winners” (actually, lets not…see this very balanced research paper) the bill like all bills goes through the process of the Seanad reviewing it. Bear in mind that the bill is for a multibillion euro process which will convey enormous power and clout on a quango. No matter how good a quango or how optimal its solutions may emerge as being, its surely a good idea to have many views on the design.
Sean Barret proposed a series of amendments. They are as below. Not one got to be incorporated in the bill. Not one. In many cases (See the debate here) the minister , Sean Sherlock, agreed with the spirit or the wording of the amendment but in essence told the upper house to trust him/his advisors/SFI. Apart from Sean of the total 60 senators only three others spoke, all to praise Sean B, but not to actually offer any insight or views.
Sean asked for nothing wild : to have SFI take on the views of external professional bodies, to have SFI grant holders not be allowed to buy out of teaching students, to ensure that a value for money element was enshrined into the grant review, to make provision for new areas to be brought into the ambit of SFI if science dictated, to curtail the power of the minister to overrule science in favour of politics. Mention was made of the exclusion of botany and mathematics from the priorities. His remarks were learned, witty, historically informed and cogent. They were exactly what you would expect from a member of an upper house, agree with them or no, and were there more like this then there would be a case solid as a rock for keeping the Seanad.
This set of amendments is hardly scientific Jacobism, but as these amendments were “not invented here” Sean Sherlock didnt take them on board. Mathematicians can jolly well find some project to support, as can botanists. Teaching is not his concern its an SEP (someone elses problem). Everything we do is subject to the ruthless rapier scrutiny of ….the Department of Finance…We have a priority list and that is a list of priorities we chose as priorities. We cant ask the Chartered Engineers for their views on a scientific project as then we would have to ask the divil and all, maybe even the Irish Texts Society. And so on. By turns dismissive, patronising supportive without actioning, Sean S did his duty which was to steer the bill through.
If we are to have an upper house then both the members of same and the government must respect it. That means that they dont automatically not accept amendments from uppity outsiders, and that when the future of the scientific underpinnings of the state are being discussed people bother to turn up and debate the issues (even if like Sean B they know that the government will not bother their barney with paying the blindest bit of attention). If the government wont take on even motions that they agree with and if senators cant be bothered, then we should dispense with the pretence and drop the Seanad. In the meantime, trust Sean.
So what to do with the Seanad? It now seems certain that there will be referendum on the (very complicated) proposal to reduce the parliament from two to one chambers.
Leaving aside the practicalities of same, and disregarding whether after what promises to be a bruising abortion battle in the first half of the year and the prospect of another stiff budget in late 2013 the coalition really wants to go to the mat on this issue, what are the options for the upper house?
First, there is a widespread view that the Seanad is at best dysfunctional and at worst irrelevant. The most recent poll suggested that by a fairly large majority the electorate would see it as the latter, with 55% suggesting it should go.
Second, the option being put to the people is likey to be a single issue : yes or no to have the seanad retained. But this I might suggest is to oversimplify the issue. From leaving things as they are to complete abolition there is a wide range of options. Reform, which cannot I think come from within the existing structures, should be attempted before abolition.
Lets recap: the seanad can only delay legislation on bills, it can initiate legislation, and it has a most curious makeup. Of the 60 members 6 are elected by the graduates of two of the universities, even though the provision exists to extend this franchise; 11 are direct appointments by the Taoiseach, and 43 are elected by panels. For more details on these see the Seanad website
This brings me to my reform proposals, drawn from nothing much more than 48 years living in the country and watching with amazement the antics of the elected members.
- Widen the electorate. At present the electorate to the Seanad is extremely limited and wildly unrepresentative. Recall that there are 43 members elected by “vocational panels” To most people this is of course both opaque and an affront, as these panels are political panels regardless of their presupposed idea to represent various vocations. The electorate of these panels consists of county councillors, dail and Seanad members. For all the gross unfairness of the two university graduate constituencies at least they represent tens of thousands of people – 15,000 voted in the University of Dublin election and 33,000 in the National University election. By comparison the electorate for the panels is about 1000. People who are county councilors and who are graduates from the two universities thus have 7 votes for the upper house. And politicians wonder why the ordinary public hold them in some certain contempt? Widen the electorate. Make it universal. Indeed make it open to all who hold Irish citizenship regardless of location.
- Make it work. Its hard to have confidence in a house designed to act as a watchdog and oversight on the lower house when it doesnt. Its hard to recall the last time a Seanad voted down a Dail proposal. So if it wont do that make it work some other way. Make all newly proposed secretaries general of government departments and all CEOs of companies either owned by or in which the state has more than 33% stake appear before the Seanad, to ask and be asked hard questions. Make their appointment contingent on a positive vote.
- Break the link with the Dail. At present there is a widespread belief that the Seanad is a place where old politicians go to vegetate, failed Dail candidates go to ruminate on a renewed Dail run next time round, or else where aspirant Dail members cut their political teeth. In the same way as we broke the link between membership of the oireachtas and of county councils, we can and should do so for the two houses of the oireachtas. Make it impossible for anyone who stands for election to one to stand for election to the other within a 5 year period. This would force politicians to choose
- Make it last. Part of the problem it seems to me is that the Seanad is tied to the electoral cycle. This provides its reputation as a soft landing for rejected Dail candidates, which I suggest could be broken. But lets go further and break the link more, with a standing electoral cycle for the Seanad as 4 years. This would , I suggest, free the Seanad to do what it is we want it to do.
- Keep it on its toes. One of the nice things about the US system is that it has frequent elections. This at least in principle allows a regular and real pulse to be taken of the nation. Lets import this and have the electorate judge the seanad and the government by extension, with 1/4 of the members up for election every year. And no, this needn’t be a massive undertaking, our way of electing is archaic at best…but thats another issue.
- Give it teeth. If we are to have a second, upper house, then it has to be able to do more than delay legislatin. Let it have power to throw out bills and to make serious amendments.
- Make it serious. Although in theory the cabinet can contain Senators it very very rarely does. If the Senate is serious make 1/3 of the members of the cabinet be required to be from same. This would of course be feasible only if we at the very minimum allowed universal sufferage.
- Make them ours. This ridiculous corporatisim, whereby members are , mar dhia, elected to represent the interests of vocations, might have made some sense in the 1930s. It makes zero sense now. Widen the constituencies when we widen the electorate. Lets have a national and a diaspora constituency, where we have (say) 45 members in the national and 15 in the diaspora. Above all abolish the ability of the government to stuff party placemen and the forgotten into the Seanad. For every decent independent Taoiseach nomination there are a dozen who would make caligulas horse seem like Gladstone.
- Make it a prize. If the upper chamber is to be anything it should be reflective and thoughtful Lets make any Irish citizen who achieves an externally validated major prize a member for a term. What prizes? Lets start with the Nobels and the Field Medal (the nobel of Math). Lets consider others, such as chess grandmasters, or Schock prizes in logic, or an Oscar…. Lets make the Seanad reflect both our desires and our achievements.
Im sure there are dozens of other good ideas floating about. One of them is not a blanket abolition.