Thursday, October 3, 2013

Why I won't be sorry to see the seanad disappear

At the moment Ireland has two parliaments, but tomorrow we will hold a referendum to decide if one of them should be abolished. I am in favour of the abolition and this post describes why.
  1. The Dáil is roughly the equivalent of the English House of Commons and its members are directly elected in a pretty conventional election process with single transferable voting. This parliament has all of the normal powers you would expect to make laws and appoint governments etc.
  2. The other parliament Seanad (or Senate) has virtually no power and is roughly equivalent to the English House of Lords. It is elected by a complex and slightly bizarre method:
    • The bulk (43) are elected by an electorate which consists of members of local government groups e.g. county councils and city corporations. These positions are normally filled by politicians who unsuccessfully went for election to the Dáil (the deadline for nominations is set to be after the result of the Dáil election is known - hence the public perception that they are essentially rejected or second best politicians.
    • 6 members are elected by graduates of either Trinity College Dublin or the National University of Ireland (3 each). At the time when the Seanad was formed these were the only universities in existence. Over the year, graduates of some of the newer universities have occasionally complained about the unfairness of it - but in general nobody gets too worked up about it because nobody cares enough about the Seanad to get very worked up about it.
    • 11 are directly appointed by the incoming Taoiseach. This means that the party with a majority in the Dáil is almost guaranteed to also have the majority in the Seanad. By tradition the Taoiseach's nominees have included some well respected public figures who were not associated with the government party, but this is only after they have appointed enough party members to ensure that they have a safe majority.
Much criticism has been made of the fact that the Senate electorate are effectively the elite and privileged members of society. Of course, when the state was initially founded this was the intention. The idea was to form a second chamber which would have a larger influence from the protestant elite (who were more likely to have a university degree)  which formed during British rule and to moderate the more extreme influences of the uneducated masses. However, I think that this motivation hardly makes sense in modern Ireland (I don't have statistics  but I imagine that Catholics and Protestants have broadly the same chance of having a university degree today).

The Seanad has effectively no real powers to influence legislation  In theory they can delay the passage of legislation, but this has rarely ever been used. Therefore it is effectively a debating club. While I agree that some senators have contributed to public debate, these senators are a minority and in any case we could rectify the loss by asking the newspapers to provide better coverage of the debating societies that exist in all universities.

Nobody really supports the current Seanad, but the debate has included many people who argue that we need a second chamber to provide more debate and they would argue that we should keep it, but reform the election process. This might make sense - but nobody has proposed a realistic proposal for exactly how the reform should be done.

The campaign in favour of abolition has been mainly focussed on the potential financial saving, estimated to be €20m. However, I don't think this is really a large amount of money and it would be good value for money if it really improved out law making process (but as I said earlier it doesn't so I think I will be voting for its abolition).


  1. this is probably too little too late... but I'll be voting to keep it for the very reasons you quote above!. Basically, newspapers have had their chance to report on debating societies, they've not done so and it is highly unlikely they will change. My main issue is reform does not equal abolish and as you point out some value does come from the Seanad. Interestingly the recent bill where the labour senators protested, shows that something as important and relevant to the whole discussion on the irish situation as upward only rent is now forced to have Enda and his pals stand up in the Dail chamber and explain why they support upward only rent!. Such examples are not as hard to find as the reporting on this sorry affair would have you believe, the major problem here is of course that our media are not very good at bringing the right things to our attention... so having a forum which gives a soap box to some independent and sentient beings is better than not having it. I wouldn't like to pay 20m for what we currently have, but there's a real question about that number too, I've seen as low as 4m, but I'm inclined to believe the number itself. But not inclined to think it is substantive in the balance of things.

    The key point here, is a defeat for the government motion to abolish would be a clear message that abolish != reform and we want reform... also its never a good reason to abolish something just because a solution has not been proposed yet.

    Also you have to ask is nothing better than something in this case... and even if one critical issue gets more attention from the media for the people because of this I'd argue in our current situation that's better than nothing, and there's no denying that's what we have right now. The chances of us hearing about an issue drops significantly with abolishing the seanad, e.g. any issue which is either not deemed important to the government, so it never gets drafted, or is important to the government but would likely cause a stir (these can now be fast tracked)....

    I believe but not sure that De Valera updated the constitution to remove the elitist aspect, and shift intent to have representatives of the vocations and the average man. A good thing, and I have heard many sensible suggestions on reform, and believe there is a valuable purpose for a reformed seanad. Vote yes and it won't ever come back, as it is a pain for the govt, which alone is an indicator that reform is better than abolishing, if we haven't already forgotten what brought us to our sorry state. It would be undeniable that reform is the desire of the people if we return no to abolish. I'm generally not for anything that gives the govt, any more control, we talk about banks needing regulation, it is also true of government in this day and age unfortunately... I'm just more skeptical about the capabilities or motivations at large in any equation containing humans these days.

    btw: this is all from someone who knows almost nothing about politics, however I do have a good grasp of logic and that's the only basis for my argument above.

  2. Wow DJ - thanks for the very detailed reply.

    I agree with your point that a properly reformed Seanad would be well worth €20m per year, but I can't say I agree that a no vote today will lead to urgent reform.

    Apparently the constitution was changed back in 1970s to allow the Government change the number of seats allocated to each university by way of simple legislation. In the meantime no government has seen fit to introduce such a simple reform as allowing graduates of DCU and Limerick University have a vote - and I don't recall any outcry about this from the graduates who were unfairly denied a vote.

    We seem to think that we need two parliaments just because UK has 2 - apparently lots of small countries are happily surviving with only one.