Home > History, Irish politics, Political Reform > Noël Browne speaking on Seanad abolition, November 1957

Noël Browne speaking on Seanad abolition, November 1957

On 20 November 1957, Independent TD Dr Noël Browne proposed a Private Members’ Motion, “That Dáil Éireann is of the opinion that Seanad Éireann as it is at present constituted should be abolished.” The motion was seconded by Independent TD Jack McQuillan (Browne and McQuillan were to found the National Progressive Democrats in 1958).

Browne continued on 27 November. On 4 December, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera instead proposed a commission to examine the method of election for senators, and Noël Browne reluctantly accepted this compromise, saying “we shall accept that position as making the best of a bad job and wish the committee to be established every success”. (Credit to John O’Dowd of UCD’s School of Law for initially pointing me towards de Valera’s response)

Browne did serve as a Senator for the University of Dublin from 1973 to 1977, as many do between time in the Dáil when they lose their seat, but bar taking account for inflation, much of his 1957 speech stands as true in today’s debate. I have reproduced this speech in full.

I move:—

That Dáil Éireann is of the opinion that Seanad Éireann as it is at present constituted should be abolished.

In moving this motion it is necessary to go over some of the history associated with the formation of the Seanad and its subsequent career. This is the second time that a motion of this nature was moved in this House. On the previous occasion, however, the motion simply asked for the abolition of the Seanad as it stood. It was moved by the present Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, and behind him he had the backing of an effective majority, with which, there was no doubt, he intended to implement his will.

I do not intend to go into the reasons why the then Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, insisted on the removal or abolition of the Seanad but I shall draw to a very considerable extent on many of the very cogent, telling and compelling arguments which he used at that time in order to try to persuade the House to agree that a Seanad as such or, indeed, any Second Chamber at all was neither desirable nor necessary in a democratic society. As two Independents, it is quite clear that we cannot depend on the great overwhelming majority of a Party. Possibly because of that it should be possible to get a more reasoned argument from both sides of the House, to have the motion considered in a non-Party way, and, if possible, allow the Deputies to express their viewpoint independent of the Party Whip.

To those who feel that the Seanad is serving a useful purpose as it is and do not want to have it changed, I would very much like if they would put forward their arguments and try to justify their belief. I should not like to treat the House in the positively boisterous way in which the Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, treated it away back in 1934, when he put the onus entirely upon the Opposition to prove that the Seanad was required. He said in Volume 52, column 1809, of the Dáil Debates:—

When I introduced the Bill I said —and I repeat it—that the onus was on the Opposition to show why there should be a Second Chamber. Why should we complicate legislative machinery unnecessarily? There is nothing in reason in the nature of representative Government that would at all have suggested to anybody a check in a Second Chamber, such as the Senate is.

Later, in the same column, he said:—

To me, it was just as if I were to have to defend the removing of hobble skirts. It is for those who say that hobble skirts, which restrict natural movement, should be worn to show why they should be worn—in other words, to show why these restrictions and this unnecessary complication in the legislative machinery should be there.

He continued with even more arguments of a similar kind. He at that time was quite definitely and deliberately opposed to the idea of a Second Chamber at all. In that he was being very consistent in so far as he was emphasising a point of view which both he and Deputy Lemass expressed as far back as 1928 that nothing could be done about the Second Chamber; there was no advantage in a Second Chamber and that it should be abolished.

We are not being so revolutionary. We merely suggest that the Seanad, as at present constituted, should be abolished, which allows for a fair amount of latitude in propositions for its reconstitution in a very effective form. In column 140, Volume 22, of the Official Debates for the year 1928, the Taoiseach maintains his consistency. He said:—

We are against the setting up of this particular committee.

It was a Joint Committee to inquire into the method of election to the Seanad.

We think the proper thing to do is to end the Senate and not to attempt to mend it. It is costly, and we do not see any useful function that it really serves.

At the same time Deputy Lemass said:—

I think that the public feeling throughout the country is very strongly in favour of the abolition of the Senate, not to patch it up… They are like a tame dog, prepared to do anything the Executive Council orders them to do, and this is the farce which it is proposed now to rejuvenate at a cost to the State of over £30,000 a year.

It is a strange thing that the cost is much the same and there are many people who would agree with Deputy Lemass that the Seanad is still a farce and, while I do not want to use such a strong word, there is a case to be made for such a viewpoint. You had that viewpoint in 1928, again in 1934 and it was reiterated on a number of occasions by Deputy de Valera, both as President and Taoiseach. That shows a very definite pattern of consistency in relation to the abolition of the whole idea of an Upper House.

I have no objection in the world to people having a point of view and changing that point of view if they so wish if valid, compelling and intelligible reasons are put forward. My attitude to the Seanad is very close to what the Taoiseach’s point of view used to be. I hold to the view that it is a superfluous body, particularly in its present form. I cannot see why it should be maintained as a deliberative assembly. It might be of some help as an advisory council, but as a deliberative assembly no case at all can be made for it.

However, I think that the whole basis of democracy presupposes that there shall be a main legislative assembly—the Dáil. I think its functions are mainly through its executive council, its Cabinet, to drive a tendency through the legislation; to accept responsibility for that legislation, and to lay down a policy which the people can consider, accept or reject. The fourth point is that it accepts responsibility for raising the finances in order to put that particular programme into operation.

That has the great advantage that it is possible for the people to praise or to blame the Executive Council, the Government and the Cabinet for whatever the results of that policy may be. That council is responsible to the public. It is elected. Governments are made and unmade by the people. Consequently, it seems to me, that that is the whole essence of the proper democratic approach with the Second Chamber form of Government, with suitable advisory councils, for legislation if the need arises.

The evolution of democracy shows a century old pattern, the attempt made by the people to achieve complete control over their own affairs and to decide and arbitrate as to the way in which they will order their lives. It evolved in our countries at least by way of Runnymede, Magna Charta, the Divine Rights of Kings and the transmission of that power to barons, landlords, right on to the industrial barons of recent years, and up to the present time, when the people are attempting to wrest from them the control of their own affairs. The feudal powers of the landed aristocracy have been replaced by other devices for restricting the real power of the people, resting in its deliberative assembly, such as this Dáil, the most important being, of course, the maintenance of a sufficient level of illiteracy or mass uneducation to permit people to accept legislation which is contrary to their best interests.

The deliberative assembly, the Dáil, is nominated from the people as a result of consultation with the people as to the point of view or the programme which they wish to implement. It seems to me that that Chamber is the first democratically elected body and, consequently, that there could be no interference with its legislation. I believe, from that fact, that, in the first place, there could be no Second Chamber which may veto legislation passed by the First House. That is unthinkable. I do not believe anybody would seriously suggest it as a proposition for a Second House in any modern democratic society.

I think there are serious suggestions as to the next point which is usually made and that is that a Second House can delay or revise legislation, can and should delay or revise legislation. The present Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, used to refute most strongly—and I agree completely with all his arguments in his refutations—that the theory that the Second House should act as a brake was fallacious. I agree with him there. He used these arguments very strongly indeed. It was put to him that the Second House can obstruct the tendency towards the development of a dictatorship. I think he had no difficulty at all in disposing of that point. May I quote him, because I agree with those arguments? I think they are very good arguments. I should like to hear answers to these arguments, if there are answers to them.

At columns 1851–52 of the Official Report of the 25th May, 1934, he is reported as saying:—

We are apt to think of a Second Chamber and base our conclusions upon it on two very false assumptions. One is that it is a check or a brake which will operate at the time that we think brakes and checks ought to act; and secondly, that we can compose a Seanad of persons who will take a detached view, and will not be affected by political passions at a moment of crisis. Those are two absolutely false assumptions. That they are false appears at once the moment you examine them closely. The very idea of a brake is that there is somebody who will put it into operation just when it is wanted. When the motor is speeding downhill the person at the wheel has got this particular device at his command, by which he is able to check the mad career of the car which may take him over a precipice. There is there the controlling power, but what is a Second Chamber when we think of it as a brake? Does it act in that way? Will it act just as we want it to act, supposing at a time when democracy is heading for ruin? We cannot provide that it will act. It is much more likely to act like a badly adjusted brake, which will act when it is a cause of friction; when it is preventing the car from getting up the speed which is necessary in order to travel properly. It operates in times of ordinary activity. It operates to prevent the speed which is necessary, and which otherwise could be attained. It is a cause of friction. It operates then because it is easy for it to operate then. It certainly does not operate at the time when we want it most—at the time of crisis—because, as I have said before, in times of revolution it is swept aside, …

He then gave the example of Napoleon. He referred to Cromwell’s sweeping aside of the Second Chamber and the establishment of a dictatorship. Then he brought in the canard about dictators. There have been dictators in our time who have ignored both the First and Second Chambers. He said that the argument for a Second House is completely fallacious. He is quite right. It is clear that if a dictator should come into power in a democracy in which two Houses existed the dictator could abolish the Second House, or both Houses, if he were sufficiently strong-minded. Indeed, one of the arguments he did not use at the time, and I think it was a very telling one, was that, as a very determined head of Government, he himself introduced legislation which swept aside the Second Chamber which was, I understand, trying to obstruct the passage of legislation at that time. I think that argument did not seem to strike the people who pleaded that the Seanad should be retained in order that it might act as a brake on legislation or prevent the development of a dictator. I am not suggesting that Deputy de Valera, the Taoiseach, is a dictator. However, it certainly did not prevent his sweeping the Seanad aside because he felt that, as he said, it was a brake preventing the Government from developing the rate of legislative speed which he then seemed to think was very necessary.

As to the question of delaying legislation, I find that suggestion, when put forward by anybody in this House, rather offensive. We must assume a literate electorate which has considered carefully our qualifications for Government, for legislation. We, to the best of our ability, have come in here, considered the points of view of the people who have elected us, and passed legislation through this House which we believe is in accordance with their will. I can see no reason why we should deliberately accept a Second House which would have a right to interfere with what is essentially the expression of the public will in relation to legislation. That the suggestion should be put forward, as it was put forward to the present Taoiseach years ago, in 1934, that it would be desirable to keep a Second Chamber in order to revise or delay legislation seems to me to indicate a very considerable inferiority complex on the part of Deputies in this House who did not feel sufficiently confident on their own abilities to pass intelligent and rational legislation without the help of a Second House.

There is no reason in the world that the Second House would have any monopoly of infallibility or wisdom which was not already available to the first House. With regard to the questions of revision and delay, I do not think that if the revision is a minor one it needs a Second Chamber costing, as it has cost in the past three or four years, £161,000 to make such minor revisionary legislation and suggestions. Assuming the revisions are of a major character they should be made here. They should be debated in this House and the Government should be in a position to decide on the merits of the proposed revisions, accepting or rejecting them after debates, rather than that they should be carried out, deliberated upon and considered in another House in which the Deputies would not have an opportunity of making their points of view known.

On the question of the desirability of the Second Chamber in order to delay legislation, I object in principle. It is suggested it should be necessary but it seems to me that it ignores completely the whole development of legislation in modern society, in the modern political world of politics. The suggestion that one should have a brake, or a delaying process such as a Second Chamber, in order to delay legislation seems to me to be completely unrealistic. One of the most remarkable things about legislation is not the speed with which it goes through but the slowness, the great time it takes, to get the most moderate proposal through the modern deliberative, legislative assembly.

It is a fact that any sort of reasonably revolutionary idea has to be first of all considered by a Party. In that Party it has to be voted upon between the two wings of the Party, the right and the left, the progressive and the reactionary, the radical and the conservative. If it originates amongst the executive of the Party it has to be debated amongst the followers of the Party. It has to be sold by the right wing to the left wing, or the left wing to the right wing as the case may be. Then it has to be sold to the body of the organisation and the next important step is that it has to be put across to the people. In that one has the tremendous difficulties of newspaper propaganda, the education of newspapers, the grotesque education of newspapers, that is there. It is an important consideration in trying to establish the political point of view. One has also the tremendous power of the radio, through discussions, debates and questions on these matters and, of course, one has now the development of television. It is quite clear that the politician and political Party in a modern democracy have to carry the mass of the people with them in the annunciation of policy, or in any suggestion that radical and fundamental changes in national policy should be carried through by a political Party, in a legislative assembly when the Party takes office and it has to draft legislation.

Proposals for legislation then go to the civil servants who naturally with their tremendous resources of knowledge and experience of such matters give their advice. That can be a very difficult thing if the Executive is not sure of itself, yet there is a further sifting process in which the civil servants put their views forward and the executive defends its views. A Bill then comes into the House for First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage, Report Stage, and all the very detailed analyses of criticism, constructive and destructive of Opposition, whose job it is to see that the legislation is as sane, as reasonable and as sensible as possible. In those circumstances what is the need for the delaying process of a Second Chamber?

Most legislation, even before we became reasonably democratic in these countries, most ideas that have been debated, most radical changes that have taken place, have taken years to go through enacting process. Some Home Rule Bills were, I believe, being discussed for anything up to 30 years in the British Parliament. They are still trying to reform the British House of Lords some 100 years later. I am quite satisfied in my mind that we are not finished discussing health legislation here, that it will continue to go on for five, ten, 20 or 30 years. All other basic proposals are debated for five, ten, 15 or 20 years before they are made law. As I say I cannot see that there is a really sound case for the proposition that there should be a Second Chamber in order to see that legislation is without any flaw.

Various other suggestions have been made as to the necessity of a Second Chamber. There is the suggestion that the Second Chamber will safeguard the liberties of the people. I do not know why the Second Chamber should be expected to safeguard the liberties of the people. This is where the liberties of the people should be safeguarded, in the Dáil, in the elected House. We could not be permitted by an intelligent electorate to interfere with the liberties of the people. What right have these people to advocate this idea, to suggest that a second nonrepresentative, undemocratic body like the Seanad or British House of Lords, would have the slightest interest in the protection of the liberties of the people, or anyway, more interest than we would have?

Such undemocratic bodies have no rights or responsibilities to protect the people. A body such as the House of Lords is composed of a group of people who represent a dying class. They represent nobody but themselves. They have no concern with the interests of the mass of the people. Similarly, in our own Second Chamber, the body is composed of vocational groups, some of which are concerned with the veterinary profession, some the agricultural industry, some the medical profession and the trade unions or other big subgroups of our society. They have no direct responsibility for the big mass of the people.

The present Taoiseach described the position in a much more telling manner than I could when he spoke on the Constitution (Amendment) Bill in 1934. In Volume 52 of the Official Report he is quoted as having said:—

At the time of the adjournment last night I was concluding the examination of the argument which was put forward from the Opposition Benches that history had shown that a Second Chamber was an effective safeguard of the liberties of the people. That argument was put forward in answer to my challenge to show why this complication of a Second Chamber was necessary. I said that it did not arise out of the idea of representative Government at all; that in my view the existence of a Second House as part of the legislature of several countries was very much an accident, and that the fact that it existed was no proof at all that it had a right to exist, or that its existence was really a benefit. My conclusion, at any rate, is that a fair reading of history proves not that a Second Chamber is an effective safeguard either of constitutions or of the people’s liberties which are supposed to be enshrined in these constitutions, but that, at a time of revolution when a military leader, backed by force, snapped his fingers at all constitutions, he did not care very much whether it was a Single Chamber or a Double Chamber Legislature he was putting aside.

Nobody could, I think, contradict or refute that perfectly rational and reasonable suggestion based on our whole experience of historical events. I do not think anybody could conclude that there is in a Second Chamber any really effective safeguard in times of crisis.

It certainly did not protect the then Seanad from the then President of the Executive Council. There is a suggestion that we could patch up the present Seanad by altering the system of election. I should be very glad to hear views on a satisfactory scheme for election to the Seanad by any who care to put them forward. To the best of my ability I have given as much thought as I could to ideas for the election of suitable and satisfactory Second Chambers. What is very much more important is that legislatures throughout the world and talented and gifted legislators have tried to find some solution for this curious yearning by people for Second Chambers. Again I can quote the present Taoiseach, speaking in 1934, and reported in Volume 52, column 1853 of the Official Report:—

If we spent a little time in examining the various propositions that from time to time have been put forward for the election of a Seanad we would see how vain it is to hope for, and how impossible it is to attain anything like an approximation to this ideal Seanad.

How right he was in that analysis. How right he is shown to have been. The various means of electing a Seanad have been considered from time to time. They were considered by the then Government in 1937. The then President made it quite clear that they had given a lot of thought to the question and had been unable to devise any way of getting a competent Seanad. The hereditary way we can dismiss as unacceptable. The curious anachronism of the House of Lords in Great Britain is one of the amazing vestiges one finds from time to time. With their monarchy in Great Britain, they have this House of Lords as a totem pole for which there is not any reasonable explanation and the miracle is that they have been able to proceed along the way of democracy even to the extent they have gone.

There has been a suggestion—I do not think such a suggestion could be put forward seriously—that the Seanad be elected in the same way as the Dáil. That would give us a duplication of this Chamber which would be completely unnecessary and undesirable. The suggestion that the Second Chamber should be elected by a system of nomination has been tried in a number of countries. I believe Canada is one. The United States, at one stage, is another. I do not think anybody has any doubt that a system of election by nomination is an inefficient system for the achievement of an efficient Seanad. It is said to maximise the level of corruption in political elections. The suggestion put forward by the Taoiseach once upon a time was that eligible types of individuals, people such as distinguished poets, painters and retired politicians, should have their names put in the hat and drawn out. That was an original suggestion. It is indeed a bizarre one and it really appeals to me as one of the most sensible of all I have heard.

Curiously enough, it was the one suggestion that seemed to me to be the rather desperate expedient of a desperate man who had given the matter a tremendous amount of thought and who decided: “This is the only practical way that I can see out of the dilemma of trying to create a satisfactory Seanad.” There have been suggestions that there would be the benefits of the advisory functions of Senators, such as those just mentioned, great painters, experts in the law, medical practitioners, poets, writers and distinguished persons of all kinds. The suggestion is that if they were in the Seanad, they could add greatly to the consideration of the legislative proposals because of the mature consideration they might give them, because of the non-political objective analysis they might bring to bear and in that way, they could save legislation from the effects that complicate our opinion here because we happen to hold different political viewpoints.

I think that is a fallacious suggestion. First of all, it is fallacious that such a Seanad would be of any value. There is a difficulty about a Seanad in which there are these different people, with different avocations in that it is very little different from this House but with this disadvantage. At least we have some experience of politics but poets, artists or engineers could consider legislation, say, a Health Bill, with only negligible experience and would be able to make only a negligible contribution to consideration of that legislation. If an individual in that Seanad, say, a poet or writer, had any particular expert knowledge of the subject which they were debating, clearly it would be just a coincidence. Therefore, that House could not add anything to legislation that was not already available to any one of us here, except coincidentally. Consequently, I do not think such a proposal is of any value.

There is another point advanced that these people might be lacking entirely in a political point of view and political bitterness. I think it is only correct they should have a political point of view. They might not give it much thought but subconsciously most of us have a view on these matters. Whether artists, painters, writers, architects or doctors, I do not think our political views change fundamentally because of our avocation, and the fact that people are old does not mean that they are free from prejudices or free from bitterness in their consideration of legislation.

Again, I am backed up in that point of view by the present Taoiseach, the then President, in May, 1934, when he said, in Volume 52, column 1857, of the Official Reports:—

I am talking of what is the conception of people who think this Second Chamber is so valuable? They have an idea of experienced people who are not swayed by the passions that are supposed to sway us.

Deputy MacDermott remarked:—

I am afraid the old are just as much swayed by passion as the young.

And the President then said:—

Exactly. I was going to make that remark a few moments ago but I just passed away from it in the sequence of thought. I believe they are not less affected. They are far worse. That is not my own belief alone. There is something generous about the antagonism of the young but when you get old antagonisms that have been burned into the bone they are far more vicious and far more dangerous. There is nothing of the generosity about them that there is about the antagonisms of the young.

I do not go as far as the present Taoiseach in that point of view, because I do not think the old, or the young, have any monopoly of bitterness, prejudices, conservatism, radicalism or anything else. I think it is an unfair generalisation. At the same time, it would be wrong to say that a Seanad, or a Second Chamber, would have any merit or virtue merely because one had it full of greybeards.

Then there is the question of the vocational type of Seanad. That was dealt with at great length at that time and the Opposition at the time seemed to believe it was a desirable way in which to form a Second House. To me, vocational government as such is anathema. This is the only form of Government, or deliberative assembly, where we are elected by the people and responsible to the people, whatever our political beliefs. It is the ideal form of Government and any suggestion of a vocational type of Government would be, to me, anathema. At the same time, I can well see that, in the vocational bodies, there must be a fund of experience and special knowledge which would be of great value to us here in formulating legislation, amending legislation or perfecting legislation. We should try to find the way in which the experience of these vocational groups could be channelled into helping the legislation that we bring here from time to time.

That is the kernel of the problem; to try to devise an effective Second Chamber, if such a proposition is to be seriously considered by this House, as long as it could be accepted that the vocational committees would have absolutely no power whatever except to suggest revisions in legislation and amendments to legislation. Then it seems that there could be some reasonable case made for trying to tap the resources and experience of these bodies. We have at our disposal many of these bodies, such as the Health Council, the Farmers’ Association, R.G.D.A.T.A. and indeed the Druggists’ Association, and such like bodies who could perform a useful function in helping us with legislation.

[debate adjourned, Browne resumed his speech 27 December]

During the discussion on the last occasion, in referring to a number of propositions for a scheme of election of a Seanad, I mentioned a number of possible ways in which a desirable and effective Seanad could be elected. I mentioned one after the other, largely in order to dismiss them as impracticable. During the course of the enumeration, I mentioned the suggestion that the Seanad could be picked by lot. That, as I said at the time, struck me as being one of the best suggestions that had been put forward. I also felt that it was a very poor and a very undesirable suggestion if it had been made seriously, and going back through the debates it is clear that the proposition was made seriously. I was unable to give the reference at that time to the Taoiseach and I would like to remedy that defect now.

This question arose, as I say, out of the proposition that a Seanad should be elected by lot, a Seanad which would be composed of distinguished persons, artists, writers, poets and politicians who would finish their active life in politics, persons who had grown old in the service of the State in one way or another. I attributed this proposition to the Taoiseach and the reference, I would like to tell him, is column 1852, Volume 52, of the Official Debates of the 25th May, 1934. The Taoiseach, then the President of the Executive Council, said:—

I think Deputy MacDermot on a former occasion suggested that we should get it by lot.

That is, a Seanad of distinguished persons and old persons.

I do not think that people are satisfied to get things in that way, but I do believe with Deputy MacDermot that a system of lot is much more likely to secure the type of Seanad we have in mind when we are thinking of this ideal Seanad, than any of the ordinary systems of election or selection.

Then at column 1855 of the same Volume he went on to say:—

The system of lot then comes along. I have given, perhaps, as much thought to this matter as any member of the House. Thinking over all the various alternatives I have seen put up, or that would suggest themselves to me, I honestly believe that if you did want a Second House, the system of lot would be the best you could get. If you could, for instance, have some sort of modern equivalent of the ancient censor where you would have certain people who had achieved certain offices, certain positions, entered on a panel and agreement as to the type of office that would qualify for admission to the panel, and if periodically you put the names on the panel into a hat, and picked them out, you would probably get a better Seanad than you would get by any system of nomination. If we do believe that a Second Chamber is necessary, or that it is advisable to have these wise people to apply a check when a democracy is running riot, some such system as that would be more likely to achieve the results we have in mind. But, again, is it worth all the fuss?… Do you think that these people are going to be less affected by political prejudice than the ordinary person who is elected? …

Then you come to the question: is it wise to have this sort of power or control resting altogether in the hands of people who are spent? They are spent people, people whose energies are gone. We ought to ask ourselves this question: what is the best type of Legislature? What is the best type of Government? Is it government by spent powers or is it government by active minds and active people who want to achieve something, who want to make this world somewhat better …

He concluded:

This is a world of conflicts. So it seems to me, at any rate … I doubt very much whether, if government is in such hands, in the stress of modern times our country would be likely to fare as well as when we have government by people who are active, and when the controlling forces are in the hands other than those of the old.

I should like to dismiss as a serious proposition the idea that you could choose or should choose a Seanad by lot. It seems to me, therefore, after all the examination, that one is left with no reasonable or satisfactory alternative but to come to the conclusion that the Seanad is a body which should be abolished. All of us who have respect for the whole democratic ideal are, I am sure, very loath to touch on or in any way reduce the machinery of democratic government. Consequently, we are possibly slow to interfere with what we have come to accept over the years as a satisfactory system of bicameral government. I believe that it has been proved in the event that we have no need for this system of bicameral government and that in suggesting that it should be abolished we are moving along the path towards democracy, true democracy, that is, government through the expressed will of the people in its elected representatives.

We have in our own time seen the last vestiges of privileged rule of this kind being changed in the last 30 years, the removal of the anomaly of university franchise, the extension of adult franchise, woman suffrage. All these small gains, real and definite gains towards the establishment of true democracy, have been made without any noticeable weakness or vitiation in any way of the whole democratic process. These are a direct sequel, in my view, to the taking away of the hereditary rights of government, stemming right back to the old discredited idea of the divine right of kings. I would urge therefore that we have no alternative to accepting a unicameral system of Government.

I should like to support that point of view with a quotation from Deputy Lemass as reported in Volume 51 of the Official Report. He was speaking on a proposal for the removal of the Seanad. I agree completely with what he said. He said: “We are going to make democracy triumphant.” It had been suggested there might be a dictatorship as a result of the removal of the Seanad. To this Deputy Lemass said: “If there is going to be a dictatorship it will be by a majority of the Irish people. It is about time that the Irish people become masters in their own country.” Supporters applauded that and he concluded: “This is a Bill that makes them masters.”

He went on, at column 1874 of the same volume: “The pretence that is a wall or bulwark for democratic institutions is puerile.” That was in 1934. It is as true to-day as it was then. Many contributions were made by speakers on both sides of the House at that time. The curious thing to-day is the near-unanimity with which speakers on both sides of the House forecast the problem that we are dealing with to-day. Very definitely the Opposition Speakers—Deputies Costello, McGilligan and various others —said in 1937 that we could not provide for a satisfactory Seanad, that any Seanad elected under the Constitution and according to the rules drawn up would be a political Seanad —a political mirror image of this House.

I do not think any objective examination of the operation of the Seanad to-day could leave us in doubt that it has confirmed all their worst fears. It is an over-elaborate, complicated, useless, futile and pretentious body. I do not think it makes any real pretentions to be a non-political body. As a result of the action of the electoral system the vocational bodies have been practically completely driven out of representation by the activities of the various political Parties. All political Parties are to blame in this respect. The Seanad is there and the leaders of the Parties manipulate the Seanad to suit their own ends. It is in the interests of the whole idea of democracy and of democratic Government that the pernicious, corroded, devitalising influence of the Seanad, and in particular of the Seanad election process, should be removed from the arena of public life in this country.

I do not think there is any doubt in most people’s minds that it has brought democracy into disrepute in the eyes of the public and even in the eyes of our own people here. I am not to be taken as saying that there are not some fine Senators. Personally I have no objection to any of them at all. There are some men who would grace and add lustre to any deliberative Assembly. However, they are the exceptions. We know that the general run is that the Party leaders decide, following the general elections, who shall be the Senators. In many cases persons who have been before the public, who have put their viewpoint to the public, who have offered themselves to the public for election to this House and have been rejected by the public are the persons who are then put in by the back door to the Seanad.

In that way it seems flying in the face of the expressed public will and wish in regard to these particular people. It seems to me that the machine is now being operated largely by the Party bosses for their own special ends. The last Seanad cost £161,000. We can fairly say that over such a period that sum, or a fairly considerable portion of it, is divided nearly evenly between the Party leaders to be handed out in one form or another to the different helpers, henchmen, hangers-on and political rejects of one kind or another whom they decide to reward for their services at election time. That £161,000 is taxpayers’ money and I think it is a gross misuse of that money to spend it in that way.

In particular, it seems clear that to give to a Taoiseach, any Taoiseach, the right of electing or nominating 11 Senators is a very dangerous power to put into the hands of any one man. I know the reason why it is done. It is in order to give him a majority in a House that could delay his legislation. I disagree completely with the powers of the Seanad to delay legislation even for 24 hours. I think it is a repudiation of the rights of this House. I think it tends to vitiate the whole democratic idea in public life because of the power that right to nominate Senators confers on an individual. I believe it is one of the factors that tends to weaken democracy if all of us in public life become beholden too much to any one individual. That individual, if we accept that domination, holds too much power over us and many may find it necessary to maintain silence in controversies, discussions and debates whether in Party, in public life or elsewhere, in order to merit approval and win reward or preferment of one kind or another. I think that is one of the important factors which corrupts, not only the individuals subject to that benevolence, but also the person who is in a position to hold out rewards for conformity, for silence.

Because of my dedicated belief in and adhesion to the whole idea of democracy I think that anything censoring discussion, debate or fair criticism in any way weakens, undermines, and finally must destroy the true fabric of democratic government in any society. The whole form of Seanad election has made too big a contribution to that enervation and disinterest in public life, to the seeming political amorality of many persons in public life, to be allowed to carry on.

I should like to hear somebody, ex-Ministers or Ministers, trying to make the case that they have any respect for the Seanad. One of the most notorious facts is the difficulty Senators find in getting a Minister to go in and listen to them on motions that have been put down for discussion and debates on legislation. Their difficulty is to get a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary to bother his head to go into the Seanad. On one occasion recently a Minister interrupted a Senator in the middle of his speech in order to make his own speech. I suspect that particular incident showed a disrespect for the individual Senator——

[brief interruption from Ceann Comhairle]

“The Seanad is not indispensable.” For that statement, for its certainty and correctness, I am indebted to the present Taoiseach. As far as I am aware during the time when the Seanad was abolished, some of the best legislation that has ever gone through this House was promoted and passed without any advice or delay, or any revision or contribution whatsoever from the Seanad. In deciding to abolish the Seanad we are not deciding to do something drastic and, even if we were, I think I should still advocate it. But we already know we can get along well without a Seanad and that there is no necessity to have one. I believe we cannot afford the luxury of a Seanad. It is an expensive pet to maintain. It can be dispensed with without harm to the whole democratic idea and nothing but good could come from its abolition. Because of the increased responsibility, the increased confidence which the people would place in it and the benefit which members would themselves derive, I think the stature of this House would be increased and that the whole community would benefit.

Like many others, I have given much thought to the idea of an alternative body to the Seanad, but I do not believe there is any necessity for a second deliberative public Assembly, and there is no reason why anybody should waste time trying to devise such an alternative. The only possible advantage I can see, the only thing that could add to our deliberations is to have whatever advice one can get from the vocational councils or the committees which have been nominated or elected from time to time. I have personal knowledge of the value of the National Health Council, of which I was a member for a time and in which very many interests were concerned. The trade unions were represented, the medical profession, the politicians, the nursing profession, persons interested in insurance questions, and public health officers of one kind or another.

We had many meetings which I personally found very stimulating and particularly interesting. We argued many points on controversial issues and, as a result of our discussions, considerations were forwarded to the Minister. Sometimes he accepted them and sometimes he did not. That is his right, but I felt it was a useful set up as long as it maintained that simple and straightforward function of considering and discussing without any powers at all, beyond the powers to recommend. Let me be quite clear on that. It should have no executive functions at all or any vocational groups.

It seems to me that it must be possible to establish committees such as a national health council for the Department of Health. These advisory committees for the different Government Departments would have the right to see legislation on its introduction to the House, make recommendations in regard to it and also see the same legislation after the Second Stage or the Committee Stage and make further recommendations.

I think there is no doubt at all that the vocational groups and the different vested interests have as much access as they need. Professions, trades or trade unions of one kind or another who because of their knowledge might have a special interest in legislation coming to the House, have a right to put their point of view before Government Departments. There is no curb on that right to advise or to recommend changes of one kind or another. I do not think it is at all necessary to maintain the expensive incubus of a Seanad in order to get that advice, either by memorandum submitted by the different bodies or through the advisory committees which I believe could do a useful job.

Certainly, that seems to me to get over the big disadvantage of the alleged value the Seanad can give in its advisory functions. At least, a council like the National Health Council has all the different persons directly associated with the problem of health at its disposal and, consequently, the advice is something worth listening to. As I said before, the advice of a Senator-engineer on a health problem is about as useless as the advice of a Senator-doctor on an engineering point. Consequently, it seems to me that the best value could be obtained for this House, in helping us to legislate as intelligently and as fairly as possible, by having elected committees of persons who would have a special interest in any legislation that might derive from a particular department.

I believe that any fair-minded Minister would be glad to have the advice of persons who might be prepared to act in an advisory capacity. I think that legislation might derive certain value from such advice. However, I do not think that we should have any inferiority complex about getting rid of the Seanad. It seems to me to be the last vestiges of the old idea of a hereditary Second House, a House of Lords. If we take proper precautions to establish pre-conditions to a democracy in our society we can well legislate here for the benefit, and in the best interests, of the people as a whole.

I must draw again upon the Taoiseach’s statements in the past because, of course, the fate of our motion is largely dependent upon the attitude of the Taoiseach to that motion. Consequently, I feel that his point of view must be made quite clear so that if he has altered that point of view, which he has a perfect right to do if he wants to, we shall get the value of the opinions that he has and any new opinions he holds on the matter of a Seanad. But there is no doubt at all that in past years he had no hope that we would ever be able to create a Seanad, a Second House, which would give a body of any real value to us, no matter how hard he tried. That, of course, creates a very complicated problem but possibly he might not think so.

As far back as I can go, I find that in relation to any remarks made by him in regard to Senates he has been opposed to them. He has been very clear-cut and strangely unequivocal in his condemnation of Senates right from 1928, as I quoted before, to 1934, when he abolished the Seanad. In Volume 51 column 1461 of the official Dáil Debates he said:—

… I had hoped it might be possible to arrive at some form of Second House which would have distinctive characteristics of its own …

I feel that action has got to be taken. I, for one, have not been able to devise a solution, nor has any solution been offered, for the problem of a distinctive Second Chamber so constituted that one could depend upon an independent judgment on public affairs, on any public matters that would be submitted to them.

At column 1828 he said:

There seems to us to be no valid reason why a considerable sum of money should be spent annually on a Second Chamber.

At column 1816 of the Dáil Debates of 24th May, 1934, he said:

Therefore let us get rid of this farce, that there is any check like that. Let us forget about it and let the people forget that it is a check and let the people and us here concentrate on making the direct representative Assembly the type of Assembly it should be. Let us get the best we can and let us not be fooling ourselves with the idea that, if we have a Second Chamber, we are going to be better off.

He was right on every occasion. On 7th October, 1937, as reported at column 353 of the Official Report, the present Taoiseach said:

I think on one occasion I said it was beyond the wit of man to construct a Seanad that would be really satisfactory. I did not even say an ideal Seanad, but a really satisfactory Seanad …

Another very important statement, which I should like to develop later on, is to be found in Volume 52 of the Official Report. The present Taoiseach said it seemed to him that there is only one way of avoiding the dangers which the advocates of a Second House have in mind, and that is to educate our people politically and make them understand the consequences of their acts at election time. It is the obvious remark, with which I am in complete agreement. He said that he had spent a considerable time in considering the matter and asking himself how a Second Chamber could be constituted which would be really effective. He said he had examined any suggestions he came across in his work on the matter or from those whom he asked to consider it. He said he had seen no suggestion that, in his opinion, would warrant the expenditure of public moneys in putting it into execution.

At column 1814 of Volume 52 of the Official Report, he is reported as saying:—

The Seanad we conjure up as an ideal is impossible of attainment or even approximate attainment.

I have not read out these quotations in order in any way to irritate the Taoiseach. I have read them out because I agree with practically every word he said on that occasion. He may still hold those views as firmly to-day as he did then. I only hope so because I think the logical act arising from that would be to do what he did in 1934, that is, abolish the Seanad. All those statements which I quoted were made in 1934.

Then again, in 1937, as reported in Volume 69, column 289 of the Official Report, when he was reconstituting the Seanad, the Taoiseach said:—

…the arguments that I put forward here on previous occasions with regard to the Seanad still have their full weight.

Again he reiterated his views of 1934, as reported in the same column:

When the Constitution was before the Dáil I made it quite clear that we were not the Party who believed that an ideal Seanad could be got. We believed that any Seanad that could be got was going to be very far indeed from the ideal, and we were far from favouring a Seanad which was going to be a reproduction of the primary House. To our mind a Seanad was going to be of very little use if we were going to have in the second branch of the Legislature exactly the same political controversies or antagonisms and the same political Party manæuvring as in the first House.

Of course, he was quite right. That is what has transpired. There is no substantial difference at all in the political make-up of the Dáil and the Seanad. So far as having any controversy at all in the Seanad is concerned, and it seems to me to be precious little, it comes along practically identical lines to those we find here.

Assuming that the Taoiseach will approach this motion in an objective way, I think he is faced with a curious dilemma. That is how it seems to me. I can go only on what I have read. He may be able to correct me if I have been wrong in any case. However, it seems to me he is faced with the odd dilemma of having been right in his statements over the years, in his fears over the years, in his analysis of the futility of the Seanad, in his analysis of the impossibility of getting an ideal Seanad, in his fears even to attempt an ideal or near-ideal Seanad. On the one hand, he has been shown to be right in all his forecasts and in all his prophecies—correct in so far as it has not been found possible to get even a near-ideal Seanad. As a result of all our best efforts, genuine and sincere efforts, no doubt, to get an ideal Seanad, it has been found to be impossible. That is the position on one side.

The Taoiseach has been right the whole way through. The only inexplicable thing is why, in the face of all that overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he still has continued to retain this futile incubus of a Second House which is nothing but a considerable expense on the country. I think it is fair to say that it is the Taoiseach’s own creature. It seems to me from reading the debates that he gave a tremendous amount of attention, care and thought to the body which is now the Seanad, the electoral system whereby the present Seanad is constituted. Therefore, naturally, pride of parenthood may make it very difficult for him to be as objective about it as I should like him to be. However, it is possible that he will rise above whatever prejudices he may have in favour of the Seanad, in view of the fact that he went to so much trouble to try to create it or to create an ideal Seanad.

I think that if there were no other reasons—and there are even more compelling reasons—the financial or economic one seems to be a compelling reason for the abolition of the Seanad in these times when we are asking the people to economise, when the price of bread and the essentials of life has been increased, when we are curtailing our health services because of expense. It seems wrong that we should do so and still continue to pay out a considerable sum of money each year for the maintenance of this futile body. I have no illusions about the difficulties of creating the ideal unicameral system of Government, but I think it is possible to do so. It has been fairly shown by many speakers other than I, over the years, that the Second House is quite unnecessary.

I think the Taoiseach, the President of the Executive at the time, was right when he said that, in an attempt to get the democratic unicameral type of Government, it seemed to him that there was only one way of avoiding the dangers which advocates of the Second House had in mind and that was to educate our people politically and to make them understand the consequences of their acts at election time. Of course, that is the essence, it seems to me, of our problem. Assuming that the Taoiseach believed that, and I am sure he did believe that to be true, that education was so terribly important to the evolution of an intelligent democracy or to an effective democratic system of government— that is as true to-day as it was when it was said in 1934—from it arises the question why he took no steps to try to ensure that we did create in the Republic what would be a literate or properly educated democracy.

One of the greatest dangers to our whole system of democratic government, of course, is the fact that such a high percentage of our people, because of no fault of their own, find it very difficult indeed to judge the merits of the different political questions which come up for consideration from time to time, simply because of the fact that over 90 per cent. of them get little or no education whatsoever after the age of 14 years.

To me the whole story of the Seanad’s life history since 1922, and particularly the Taoiseach’s part in relation to it, is a most puzzling enigma. I have been unable to reconcile the extraordinarily clear-cut, unequivocal statements condemning this Second House with the curious action in retaining it over the years.

All political figures of any stature, no doubt, are considered in different ways by society. Many historians, in trying to consider this problem, will wonder at the curious attitude, the curiously capricious actions of the Taoiseach over the years. Perhaps, to help us to decide whether he really believes in the whole democratic system or idea of government, he could explain to those of us who know these things merely from reading why he did find it impossible at one time to accept the decision of the elected representatives of the Dáil in 1922, an attitude which led to the disastrous civil war, and then the curious decision to accept the democratic idea of coming into the Dáil and deliberating, discussing and debating, as he did——

[brief interruption from Leas-Cheann Comhairle]

The second point is on the question of the Seanad itself. Could he tell us why it was he found it possible, in 1934, to abolish the Seanad and to give first-class reasons as to why he abolished it—and I agree with every one of them; I would have voted, if I were there at the time, with him for its abolition— but then again, curiously repeating his earlier volte-face in these very important matters, and deciding three or four years later, to accept the idea of the Seanad and its utility and, having regard to all the jeers and the ridicule that he poured on the people who believed in a Seanad—I do not—and all the arguments, reasonable arguments, some of them slightly unreasonable, how he came again completely to reverse his whole approach to the very important fundamental problem of the democratic idea of government? I must say I would be very glad if he could give us any explanation for what seemed to me at any rate to be a rather incomprehensible inconsistency with very complicated and damaging consequences in at least one instance.

In conclusion, I want to make it clear that the Labour Party supported the abolition of the Seanad. Deputy Norton at that time pointed out that it was the policy of the Labour Party as far back as 1922 and that they had made it clear that they were opposed to a Seanad. I would be interested to know whether that opinion still holds. Deputy Norton repeated his stand against the Seanad in 1937, when he told the President—column 312, Volume 69, Official Report:—

I should personally prefer the President to have stood where he did some time ago when he abolished the Second House. No case whatever has been made in the meantime for the continuance of the Second House.

He pointed out that none of the disasters which were prophesied as inevitable when the Seanad was abolished had materialised. There seemed to be almost complete unanimity in the House not to establish a Second Chamber, or at least not to establish a particular type of Second Chamber, but the Bill went through all its stages and a Second Chamber was established. That is another curious enigma beyond my comprehension. Presumably the Opposition had no choice but, at the same time, the matter does need some explanation.

If the Taoiseach accepts this motion he will have the full support of the people. In the eyes of the people the Seanad is a completely discredited body. It is an unnecessary expense on the taxpayer and the people would be delighted if the Taoiseach were to repeat his action in 1934, when he looked into his own heart and found out what the people were thinking; they told him they did not want a Seanad then. I believe that if he were to repeat that action to-day he would get exactly the same answer. I do not know what he did in 1937 in order to find out whether or not the people wanted a Seanad. The Constitution was ratified and it included provision for a Seanad, but I do not think the people accepted the Constitution because there was provision for a Seanad in it. I think they accepted the Constitution in spite of the Seanad.

I believe there is no reason in the world why the Seanad should be retained. I believe the people would be completely behind the Government if it were decided to abolish the Seanad. I made it clear in my opening remarks that we were not anything like as radical as the Taoiseach in his youthful exuberance when he abolished the Seanad, and I should like to reassure him that, if he has any idea we would not support him in its abolition now, he would be entirely wrong in that belief. I said we wanted the Seanad abolished as at present constituted. That, as it happens, is the same wording which the Taoiseach used prior to his abolishing the Seanad, and it is, therefore, quite possible for him to abolish the Seanad under this motion. There is nothing one could do to the Seanad as at present constituted which would render its maintenance worthwhile in our present state of democratic development.

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  1. 2 October, 2013 at 9:19 am

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