Do we need the Seanad?
It is unusual that a country of our population has two houses. The fifteen EU countries (including Croatia joining next month) with one chamber have an average population of 5 million; by contrast, the thirteen EU countries with two chambers have an average population of 33 million. I have not done a full statistical analysis, but population looks like one of the most likely predictors of whether a country’s parliament will have one or two chambers.
Of course, this is not reason enough in itself to support abolition of our Seanad, but it is a worthy reminder that the absence of a second chamber would not make Ireland unusual in comparative terms.
The next question is whether the current Seanad can be defended. A house of parliament, being a body that legislates on our behalf, should maintain democratic legitimacy and accountability; as far as is reasonable, it should be possible for voters to choose their representatives and then to remove them after a period of years. While this happens in the Dáil, as seen most clearly in the last general election, it is quite different in the Seanad. Forty-three are elected by elected politicians, six by a proportion of university graduates, and eleven appointed by An Taoiseach.
I believe this system in large entrenches governance by political insiders. Each new Seanad has had members who were defeated at the recent Dáil, whether among the 43 elected by Oireachtas member and councillors, or those appointed by An Taoiseach. Someone who was not successful in a general election should return to civil society, and perhaps try again at the next election, rather than receive a separate mandate to legislate from their party peers. And while I would commend Enda Kenny on the diversity of experience of his eleven nominees, this cannot be guaranteed on. These nominees are still among those who are politically connected, and broadly favourable to the government parties, even if most of them have genuinely Independent within the house.
Though a beneficiary of the graduate franchise, and was pleased to cast a vote for Jeffrey Dudgeon standing for the University of Dublin seats in 2011, I don’t see a defence of it. Nor would I consider extending it to graduates of other colleges and universities as an improvement, as it would only entrench an idea that someone is more qualified as a citizen with different levels of education.
Each of these aspects could be reformed. But I don’t realistically expect a government who has lost a referendum on the Seanad to spend much time afterwards drafting legislation to reform it; nor would I expect Fianna Fáil in government to expend any similar time on legislation, while they as much as any others have benefited politically from the current set up. Reform might sound nice, but it brings to mind the mice calling for a bell on the cat, for all that it is likely to happen.
So the vote will be whether or not to vote to abolish the Seanad as we know it, with a number of compensating measures. Reform is not in any real sense on the table.
Nor do I think I would much like to see the reforms proposed by Democracy Matters, which would give all citizens a vote in one of the vocational panels (Administrative; Agricultural; Cultural and Educational; Industrial and Commercial; Labour). I think our country has divisions enough between different sectors without these being formalised in our legislative structures.
We hear of the many admirable and outstanding current and previous Senators. But the abolition of the Seanad would not remove their voice from Irish society. I believe that is a role for the press, the universities and a vibrant civil society to play, to engage with the democratic process, while not having a direct part in it as of right.
I await to see the Amendment Bill this week, and the strength of the proposal will affect how actively I will campaign in the autumn, but as of now, I would need a very strong reason to support retention of our second house.