Nov 3, 2009

Reform, not abolition, first option for Senate

Enda Kenny’s surprising recent announcement of his proposal to abolish the Seanad provoked much national commentary, not least in the impugned Seanad itself, where support and heavy criticism of the proposal were not so equally ardently voiced. However, a consensus appeared to emerge during the course of the debate that the current state of the upper parliamentary house was unsatisfactory, ineffective and inefficient and that institutional reform was undoubtedly necessary.

This is certainly neither an original nor a recent a notion. There have been no fewer than 12 reports since 1937 recommending various improvements and changes to the functions of the Seanad and the selection process of its members. In addition, a referendum was held in 1979 to extend the franchise of the university panels to all third-level institutions, which although passed, was never implemented due to the necessary legislation not being enacted. Whether it was prompted by a genuine concern over the lack of initiation of reform or just a populist move by Enda Kenny in a political point-scoring game between himself and Eamon Gilmore, the proposal of its abolition has brought to the fore the question of the Seanad’s remaining utility and whether it continues to serve a valuable purpose.

It would be all too easy in this current climate to agree with popular sentiment and demand that a seemingly pointless expenditure of public funds be ended in the form of complete abolition. However, to do that would be to ignore the reasoned ideology underpinning the necessity or advantage of having a bicameral parliament or legislature. Although criticism is levelled at the Seanad that it is undemocratic in nature because many of its members are not directly elected, the converse can be seen to be true and it could be argued that abolition would be of greater harm to democracy than its revised retention through reform.
The fact that the Seanad is made up of predominantly non-directly elected members gives it a greater degree of independence than the Dáil, where TDs are conscious that their mandate and potential future mandate for being in the Oireachtas is limited to a specific geographical area – their constituency. As such, inevitably TDs will be conscious of pressures or interests relating to their constituency and will act in accordance with its interests if they wish to seek re-election. Therefore, their responsibility is to their constituency first and this may result in a certain amount of bias in their decision making. The benefit of the Seanad is that there are no such pressures operating and senators can consequently approach matters of policy and governance with a much more objective stance and with a less narrow focus then a TD might.


In addition, senators are theoretically less constrained by party affiliations and can speak more freely. However, as many are in reality political appointees or chosen by panels operating within the party-political framework, this may not be the case and indicates an appropriate area for reform in order to allow less party affiliation and promote the more open debate envisaged.

Another argument in favour of the Seanad’s role in promotion of democracy is that in having a second house of the Oireachtas, a further dimension to the system of “checks and balances” is added. By scrutinising legislation intitiated by the Dáil, the upper house helps to prevent badly considered legislation passing into law. The fact that the Seanad is mostly made up of members elected by vocational panels furthers this aim in that people with expertise in a certain area will be best placed to adjudicate on the intrinsic worth of a certain piece of legislation. However, a revision of the current vocational panels breakdown may be necessary to achieve this properly.

Having regard to these merits of the bicameral system, it doesn’t seem accurate to posit the notion that the Seanad has no role to play, and a complete abolition of our upper house of parliament would instead seem to remove a layer of democracy. Admittedly, in its current relatively weak and powerless position due to its total subordination to the Dáil, it can’t meaningfully fulfil its potentially beneficial role. In order for this to take effect, more power should be accorded to the Seanad to enable it to make a more significant contribution. A more appropriate response than an outright abolition, therefore, would be to actually make the long-recognised and much-needed reforms a reality.

Abolishing the Seanad without reforming it first would be, as one senator put it during the Seanad debate on 21st October, like “putting the cart before the horse”. If the same or new criticisms can be made of a reformed Seanad, then there is valid reason for the drastic action proposed by Enda Kenny, but not presently.

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