Home > Irish politics > Vote Yes on Seanad to reassert democratic purpose of Dáil

Vote Yes on Seanad to reassert democratic purpose of Dáil

I am particularly motivated in the upcoming referendum on the abolition of the Seanad as I see it as a matter of democratic principles. It is something I have held for many years, and I was delighted when Enda Kenny announced his personal support for the reform.

The purpose of a legislature in a modern democracy is to elect representatives held accountable to make laws on behalf of the people. And in parliamentary democracies, as exist in most European countries, these elections are also when we vote on the makeup of the government. At each general election, the people decide collectively on where the balance of policy should be, whether a government deserves to be re-elected, or whether we should take the chance to kick the rascals out.

The direct involvement of the people in their governance through the electoral was a hard-fought struggle, and one which over time a growing number of people across the world have been able to enjoy.

All stages of this process, from parliamentary processes to the preferences of voters, should be subject to constant scrutiny and eternal vigilance. A recent book by Anthony O’Halloran, The Dáil in the 21st Century (2010) provides a good comparative analysis of this, drawing on international comparisons and developing theories of political science. Reading it with weeks before this poll, I couldn’t but notice the dog in the night-time, that he wrote such a thorough analysis of the democratic purpose, strengths, deficiencies and potential of the Dáil, and the importance of a vibrant, republican civil society, without any need to address a role for the Seanad.

Within the European Union, there is close to an even divide between unicameral and bicameral parliamentary systems, with a small bias of fifteen to thirteen in favour of a single house. But there is a clear population differences between these countries: the 15 with one house of parliament have an average population of 5 million, where the 13 with two houses of parliament have an average population of 33 million.

In some countries, the second house of parliament is a clear legacy of the role given to aristocratic influence, as we are familiar with from the House of Lords. In others, it is because of the importance given to federal structures, as in Austria, Germany or the United States.

Second houses do have a basis in countries with a divide that is too important to be left to a simple majority of representatives. This was a good reason for the Constitution of the Irish Free State to include a Seanad, where there had been an understanding that William T. Cosgrave would appoint a large number from outside the Roman Catholic population. Its first Cathaoirleach was Lord Glenavy, who had served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1918 to 1921. There could be a good similar reasons to have a second chamber in the case of a united Ireland, but there would be other substantial constitutional amendment in such instance.

A second house, then, frustrates the primary house of representatives. It is all the worse in the case of the Seanad given how its members are chosen: 3 elected by scholars and graduates of Trinity College, Dublin; 3 elected by graduates of the four universities of the National University of Ireland; 43 elected across five panels, where councillors and TDs have a vote in each panel and invariably select fellow party members, and often those who recently failed to be elected in Dáil elections; and 11 nominated by An Taoiseach.

Not all of this is set in stone. Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn proposed the Seanad Bill earlier this year, which would give a vote to all Irish citizens. On the face of it, it seems like a democratic improvement. But I think it could be worse than the status quo, as it retains the panels of Administration, Agriculture, Education, Labour and Industry, and the concept of distinct parliamentary representation for university graduates. While the current system entrenches the influence of political parties, a national election based on candidates from these panels would entrench the role of sectoral vested interests.

There is a great democratic potential in the Dáil. Most of those campaigning to retain the Seanad say we should vote No and reform the Seanad.

I say we should vote Yes: abolish the Seanad, and then focus all further desire for political reform in the Dáil, as the democratically elected house of the people.

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