Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

The Upper House really does rule

with 7 comments

In the aftermath of the marathon debates on the Civil Partnership Bill, and inspired by Suzy’s far more eloquent blog post on the same topic, I wanted to try and cobble together some thoughts on the Seanad and its merits.

First, some background. Seanad Éireann, as I wrote in a piece for The University Observer in October,

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.

And, despite the chamber’s activity, this is a perception I think the Seanad has probably not done a whole lot to counter.

However, it does not need to be so, and the members of the House know it. In March 2009 The Late Late Show hosted a discussion (sadly no longer available which featured several members of the upper house arguing the merits of reforming the upper house to becoming an entity that the public had knowledge of, respect for, and trust in.

The Seanad, of course, has had its fair share of enemies in the past. In 1936, as Donie Cassidy saw fit to remind us on Wednesday morning, de Valera – frustrated with a Seanad full of independents and its hampering his legislative agenda – abolished the chamber completely, only to reconstitute it the following year. In the past, former PD leader Michael McDowell has been an outspoken critic of the House and demanded its scrapping – only to turn around a few months ago and say he felt it neither “wise nor beneficial” to scrap it, and to call for its reform last week.

That, of course, leaves Enda Kenny, who seems not to have noticed that should he conspire to lose the next election (an entirely plausible hypothesis) that the manner in which local councillors elect the majority of its members will guarantee an anti-FF majority irrespective of the Taoiseach’s nominees. Except a volte-face soon.

The Seanad and students: natural bedfellows

That volte-face, of course, will have been made all the easier to bare by the Seanad doing its best, as Suzy put it, to earn its keep this week. When I was involved in student politics, way back when, I ran for Chair of UCDSU Council because I loved two things: procedure and its application, and a decent debate. More than anything, though, I used to love the annual trip to USI Congress, and all because of Kissinger’s immortal words:

Student politics are the most vicious kind of politics that exist, because the stakes are so low.

While Kissinger’s edict is often interpreted in a cynical way, I choose to interpret it in a more well-meaning manner. Student politics are so vicious because the practical imnplications of their debates are not of a student’s concern. Thus, a USI debate on whether the morning-after pill should be available over the counter (to name one example that comes to mind) became an intense moral dissection of how such an act would play on society, and the slippery slides it may lead the country to.

The difficulty, of course, with being inside the circle of student politics is that it’s too easy to forget thaat such arguments will not lead to an immediate legislative shift. USI passing a motion calling for the pill to be over-the-counter does not mean that young girls can walk into a chemist the following day. But that real life implication is divorced from the debate: it’s all about the moral, the wrong and the right.

(The USI debate I mention, by the way, ended in a tie. Which, I thought, was a perfectly appropriate and meaningful result.)

I like to think of the Seanad as being in a similar conundrum, though naturally with the stakes raised. But watching Rónán Mullen and the Fianna Fáil dissidents argue the right of a civil servant to decline registering a civil partnership – because a truly liberal society, they argued with a degree of merit, shouldn’t force people to act against their will – rang a lot of the same bells.

The Seanad is, in de Valera’s original vision, that kind of chamber able to apply the Dáil’s hypotheses to the real world and critically analyse their merits in a way which the Dáil itself – handcuffed by the professionalism of the politicians who sit in it – cannot.

Sadly, this role is one that a further ingratiation with the Dáil itself – and, by the same virtue, the political ‘establishment’ – only serves to lose. Where those with commercial expertise should be easily electable to the Industrial Panel of the Seanad, they usually can’t – not, at least, unless they’re a member of a political party with a significant presence on local councils.

But this week’s debate – which debated, in a genuine sense, the merits and demerits of the legislation before it in a way the Dáil could never have managed – showed that the Seanad still has the capability to act in the way The Long Fellow would have wished for. Once the culture of free rein and conscience had been established by one FF senator deciding to jump ship, it made it all the easier for two more to join him. And suddenly, the usual rubber-stamping the Seanad gives to the Dáil’s work became that little bit more hard to come by, and the Seanad thus acted closer to the way it’s actually meant to. And when it works… by God, it works.

Ireland doesn’t work

The major problem with Ireland as a democracy is that the legislative branch simply doesn’t function in the way a legislative branch is supposed to. In other nations, a local MP is elected with only a minor responsibility to serve their constituents and a far greater focus on their legislative agenda. The Oireachtas, in short, isn’t meant to be a forum of local reps, it’s meant to be a body of lawmakers. And sadly, it’s largely anything but. We continually elect the likes of Jackie Healy-Rae to our parliament; people with every interest on making sure their name is emotionally attached to the latest main road linking two towns, and no interest in being the one putting their name to the legislation that actually builds it.

The Seanad, though, is our getaway clause. The Seanad is the area in which our legislators are not bound by culture to hold constituency clinics or to fight for the interests of the people from their locale who share their political hue. The Seanad is our chance to elect legislators who just want to legislate. People like David Norris, Joe O’Toole or Shane Ross. Lawmakers. Not public representatives, just parliamentarians, who want to be in the legislature because they want to legislate.

So let’s make it work

So, with that in mind, here’s a couple of quick ideas to get the Seanad going.

First of all, let’s give the Seanad a far shorter recess than the Dáil – and let the public know about it. Today’s news agenda was entirely sculped by the fact that the Dáil will be in recess for twelve weeks. Nobody seemed to remark for a moment that the Seanad will be sitting again next Tuesday, quietly getting on with things while everyone assumes they’re on holiday.

Further to this, given the fact that the Dáil isn’t sitting until late September, use the extra time wisely and get the Seanad sits to work through its backlog of undiscussed motions. Thursday’s Seanad order paper – listing all the motions and bills on the body’s agenda to be discussed – ran to 16 pages. While the Dáil is on pause, introducing new bills only adds extra work – but there’s a lot of motions, many of them apolitical, sitting on the agenda waiting to be discussed. The Seanad is our prime national debating forum. Let’s let it debate and play to its strengths.

Let’s also remove its image as a halfway house between the creche and the deathbed by holding Seanad elections directly alongside Dáil elections. Most people have contempt for the Seanad because it’s populated by people on their way into, on their way out of, or in between stints in the Dáil. By putting the elections at the same time, the Seanad ballot papers will be populated only by people who want to be on them. A house of parliament shouldn’t be somewhere people see as a silver medal. The Seanad, and Ireland, deserves better than being a consolation prize.

Let’s introduce the graduate reform programme we approved in a referendum 31 years ago this month (!!). Currently Trinity graduates get 3 senators all to themselves; graduates from UCC, NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth and UCC share another three between them. Those who graduated from two Irish universities get no representation, nor do any from the ITs. Let’s pass an act getting the institutions to hand over their graduate records, and task the NUI with maintaining a roll (they already do it for four big colleges, so why not?). Then merge the two three-seaters into one six-seater graduate panel, et voila – instant improvement in public profile.

Of course, all of that comes as a stepping stone before an actual Seanad reform. With people from every side of the House being in favour of making the Seanad more relevant, why not capitalise on that appetite – and the inevitable few months’ downtime between an election and the Seanad convening properly – to formulate universally acceptable ideas on what should change, and have them ready for approval as soon as things get going.

Let’s further divide the Seanad from the Dáil by having it not acknowledge party memberships. By all means, have a Government-sponsored minority (let’s perhaps allow the Taoiseach their discretion to keep their 11 nominees) to allow some coordination of the legislative agenda between the Houses, but having a stable of independents would require every piece of legislation to command a cross-industrial consensus. And if that means that legislation is restricted to the practical things we can all agree on, then that’s no bad thing.

And hopefully, all of the above will help give the Seanad its own identity. If it’s to survive and thrive, it’s going to need the public to believe in it. So plug its work and existence separately to that of the Dáil. That’s going to mean giving it its own significant presence on the imminent (Currently the YouTube channel is almost entirely made up of Dáil speeches.)

The future

The Seanad is a house of parliament of one of the countries most envied by the world. It deserves better than being a stepping stone or retirement home. It should be modelled to play to the strengths of those who want to be in it.

Perhaps someday, someday, it might what it deserves. Until it does, we merely get what we deserve for putting up with it being second best.

7 Responses to 'The Upper House really does rule'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'The Upper House really does rule'. Comments are Gravatar enabled.

  1. There’s a different way to reform how the Seanad is elected.

    First, get rid of the idea that there’s any democracy behind allowing more graduates to elect senators. Adding DUI and Limerick to Trinity and the NUI doesn’t increase democratic input, it just expands the elite.

    Instead, we could go back to the future. In 1925, the Seanad was directly elected by all the people. But instead of each senator representing a constitency, there was a single nationwide constituency. So imagine a single constituency covering the 26 counties. And since emigration is starting up again, many emigrants should have a vote too. That electorate votes for all 60 senators. The count would take a while, but that’s hardly a logistical problem beyond our ability. We manage large counts for the European elections, after all, and watching the count is a popular political bloodsport in this country.

    Second, while you argue for Dáil and Seanad elections on the same day, I’d decouple them completely. Give the Seanad a fixed term, and elect our senators on the same day we choose our local and European representatives. Would people be so angry that the current FF/Green coalition clings to power in the face our public disapproval if they’d had the opportunity to elect a Seanad with opposing views, restoring balance to political debate here?

    Because senators don’t represent specific constituencies, but are elected in a national poll, decoupling reduces the importance of local politics in their decision-making, and ensures a greater chance of senators with a national outlook. Sure, Kerry voters might still club together and send in a Jackie Healy Rae, but it would also allow interest groups too dispersed to elect a politician from an existing constituency to elect voices to put forward their views.

  2. Gerard – first of all, thanks for the comment.

    Perhaps I wasn’t quite articulate enough when I was talking about graduate reform – I absolutely agree that making the graduate panel to a national one is a piecemeal change but my point is that it’s one that’s easily enacted, doesn’t require any referendum to do so, and immediately enfranchises hundreds of thousands of young people who will instantly have their curiosity piqued as the role of the upper chamber. Ideally there wouldn’t be a graduate panel at all but to get the consensus together to bring a referendum would require an appetite that isn’t there in enough quantity at the moment. Graduate reform is an easy way to get something done and manufacture public interest and appetite for greater reform at the same time.

    I can see the merit in your argument about a fixed term and holding elections alongside the Seanad but I think this presents practical problems – not in terms of the mechanics of the count, which I agree could be managed, but in the sheer volume of candidates running. Personally I’d have problems envisaging a nationwide, single-constituency, 60-seat constituency in the first place: in 2007 there were 156 candidates for the 60 seats. Having a nationwide constituency with that number of candidates is simply impractical, and couldn’t be helped by a party list system given the significant number of independents who would be keen on running. Throwing it on top of the Local and European elections would – I feel, at least – simply confuse voters and overwhelm them with the sheer volume of people looking for their attention. The profile would be great, but the process could ultimately cause more harm than good.

    It might be no harm for perception of the Dáil – given that we all admit we demand too much of our TDs when our local councillors should be tasked with the bulk of their work – to make voters elect pure legislators at the same time.

    And I think that holding the two elections separately would only serve to encourage Dáil losers to run for the Seanad as a silver medal when there are more than enough people without Dáil aspirations – just look at David Norris, a pure legislator with no interest in the misplaced burden of constituency work – who’d like to have a go. Look at Ivor Callely – lost his Dáil seat in 2007, got to run for the Seanad, still lost, and then got a Taoiseach’s appointment! What kind of joke is that? The Seanad should be a prize in itself, not one that people want because they weren’t popular enough for the ‘bigger’ job.

    I do completely agree with the fact that a Senator’s decoupling from a geographical constituency needs to be exploited.


    10 Jul 10 at 12:44 pm

  3. […] posted as a reply to Gav Reilly's thoughts on Seanad reform</em>] Share and […]

  4. First off, there’s no need for a referendum to make a start on a directly elected Seanad. County councillors choose who goes to the upper house because the Oireactas says so. The Oireachtas could change that to the entire country in the morning, through legislation. Likewise, we could expand the university panels in the morning. If we did both, we’re left with a sticky problem: graduates get two votes. but we could legislate to either give graduates a choice of a national or university vote, or just make the choice for them. That still leaves us with the problem of the almost-always guaranteed government majority, thanks to the taoiseach’s nominees, but it’s a start.

    The point is, there aren’t huge constitutional difficulties in making the Seanad more democratic. There are logistical problems, but we’re capable of handling them. And frankly, I have faith the the ability of the voters to decide who to vote for, so I don’t see that as an issue either. We trust them with something as incomprehensible as the Lisbon treaty, after all.

    And what harm if Dáil losers want a go at the Seanad? I’m sure there as many people out there who would vote for Norris as for Healy Rae. and if there aren’t, well, democracy is like that sometimes. You can’t use the fact that people might run for office as an argument against allowing them to run for office.

    Gerard Cunningham

    10 Jul 10 at 1:04 pm

  5. Apologies – I had understood that the Constitution outlined the manner in which the panels were elected, and not just outline the panels themselves. Having checked it out, I accept that we don’t necessarily need a referendum to introduce a public franchise, which I agree would be no harm.

    But I stand by my point that the Seanad suffers in most people’s eyes because they see it, and rightfully so, as being either a stepping stone for people preparing for a Dáil career or as a retirement home for those tired of the lower house. Why would a Dáil candidate want to run for the Seanad anyway? The Dáil is a chamber for people who want to be public reps at the highest level (whether rightfully or not). The Seanad is a chamber for people who just want to legislate. Someone who wants to be in the Dáil ought not to want a Seanad job – and if they do, they should pick which one they want to run for when the elections are held concurrently. I’m not saying that losers don’t deserve second chances but they should have to bide their time and wait for the next time around, like we do in any other setting. We shouldn’t have an entire house of parliament where the majority of the members see their job as a consolation prize – to have it in that way only serves to demoralise both the members themselves and the public they serve.


    10 Jul 10 at 1:28 pm

  6. A directly elected Seanad would be a Seanad whose members have had to answer precisely that question: “Why do you want to run for the Seanad?” Maybe some feel they still have something to contribute although no longer in the Dáil. Maybe some want to represent specific interest groups. Maybe some just feel they have a voice that should be heard. Maybe some want to make sure a bog road is resurfaced in Donegal. It doesn’t matter what their reasons are, so long as the voters get to hear their reasons and choose. And when the voters choose, the Seanad’s status as a steeping stone/retirement home will change, because it will be a directly elected house, not the plaything of councillors and graduates. It’s only a consolation prize because that’s how its (limited) electorate treats it. Widen the voter base, and let the people choose.

    And again, there’s no reason why a former TD shouldn’t want a Seanad seat, any more than a senator shouldn’t run for a Dáil seat. And there’s no reason why we couldn’t legislate so that a candidate has to surrender existing seats before running. Any senator who wants a shot at the Dáil has to resign for the Seanad before being nominated, and vice versa. for that matter, we’d probably take MEPs more seriously if we imposed the same rule on them too.

    Gerard Cunningham

    10 Jul 10 at 2:10 pm

  7. I agree with pretty much everything you just said – so why not have the two houses elected together, thus stopping unsuccessful Dáil candidates from seeking a silver medal? I totally agree that a former TD could want a Seanad seat, or vice versa – anyone’s opinions or desires can change. But any system where the Seanad is elected after the Dáil is – as it is now, or as it would be if it was tied to the local and European elections – leaves the door open for a beaten Dáil candidate to use the Seanad as a stepping stone to the lower house. Put the two elections together, and get rid of that option.

    (Of course, if there was public franchise, this would be all entirely moot – but again, given that the Constitution merely demands a Seanad election to be held within 90 days of the Dáil being dissolved, I’m merely making the suggestion because it’s an easy one to enact, just like graduate reform. It’s a piecemeal change, but an easy one.)


    10 Jul 10 at 2:20 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.