Jan 24, 2011

The Seanad: Reform, Replace or Abolish?

Tomás Sullivan on Trinity’s senators

This probably isn’t the grandest point in the Seanad’s history to point out Trinity’s strong ties with it, but, then again, with the political parties fighting over who gets the kudos of abolishing the Seanad, it’s also the ideal time to remind people of Trinity’s unique contribution.

Out of six university senators, three are picked by Trinity graduates, while UCD has to vote with the three other NUI institutions to elect the other three and places like DCU and the ITs don’t get a look in. This practice dates back to hundreds of years, as before independence Trinity contributed MPs to Britain’s House of Commons. During the Free State Trinity elected TDs, before the modern Seanad Eireann was eventually formed in 1937.


Over the years Trinity has used the privilege well. The best choice that graduates can give themselves a slap on the back for is undoubtedly Mary Robinson. As a Trinity senator she played a crucial role in bringing Irish gender laws out of the stone age: she proposed allowing women to sit on juries, to serve in the civil service and be married at the same time, as well as working to liberalise rigid contraception laws. She also worked with David Norris as a homosexual rights activist. She is remembered as the first female Irish president, and an international human rights activist now, but it all began with her twenty year career as a Senator.

Other previous senators include the current president of the Law Reform Commission, Catherine McGuinness, the writer and intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien and Noel Browne, a former Minister for Health that resigned under heavy criticism from the Catholic Church and medical profession over his proposal to provide free healthcare to children under the age of sixteen and free maternity care to all mothers (the Mother and Child scheme).

In modern times the Seanad as a whole is probably best known for senator David Norris, a former student and a lecturer of Trinity’s English department. He is the leading figure of Ireland’s homosexual rights movement, having taken a case to the European Court of Human Rights to decriminalise homosexuality in 1988. Perhaps following in Mary Robinson’s footsteps, he has announced that he will seek nomination for presidential election this year.

Shane Ross is another long-serving senator. He is an award-winning journalist and recently an author of a book criticising the banks and the government. He is to stand as an independent in the forecoming general election.

The fact that Ivana Bacik, the other Trinity senator, is going to run in Dun Laoghaire for Labour could mean a completely new generation of Trinity senators in the 24th Seanad. On the other hand maybe the three realise that there may not be a 24th Seanad and they are jumping ship before being forced to walk the plank.

Arguably Trinity has an unfair privilege, and represents everything elitist about the Seanad, but another view to take is that the calibre of the College’s senators demonstrate how the representation of universities in the Seanad has been invaluable to the country as a whole and should be expanded to other universities rather than completely removed.

Julianne Cox and Ciara Begley talk about Seanad reform
Our present Seanad was established by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland.  The Seanad is interwoven with numerous articles of the Constitution, dealing with the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the State. Its establishment had a worthy cause –  to ensure that legislation would be critically examined by individuals with particular expertise in the relevant area.  Its emphasis on providing a voice for civic society meant that it offered real opportunities for building bridges to citizens.  It was supposed to have developed into a political platform where citizens representing different sections of society were provided with a voice and given the opportunity to demand difficult answers from the government.  However, our presently enfeebled Seanad suggests that it has not been developed in this way.

Currently the Seanad’s powers are weak. It has no say in the formation of government, which is entirely decided by lower house, Dáil Eireann. It can delay a bill for up to ninety days but this power is not extended to monetary bills which can only be delayed for up to twenty one days. The Seanad can recommend specific changes to a bill but this power is weakened by the ability of Dáil Eireann to overrule any suggested amendments. Under article twenty seven the Seanad may petition the President not to sign a bill into legislation but instead to submit it to referendum. This has never happened and is unlikely to as government nearly always has majority in Seanad. It is also worth noting that the Taoiseach does not take questions from Senators.

When discussing the role of the Seanad with Senator David Norris he hastened to argue that the legislation surrounding NAMA was amended six times by himself and Joe O’Toole another senator. He vehemently pointed out that members of the Seanad are not sitting pretty and indeed, do significant amounts of analysis in fulfilling their duty of recommending amendments. His frustration that the work done is entirely ignored by the media is perhaps worth considering, yet in spite of all six amendments NAMA is still widely considered to have been a spectacular failure.  The arguments against retaining the 73 year old Seanad are worthy of some consideration. Report upon report recommended reforming the Seanad, and yet implementation of these recommendations has heretofore failed. Perhaps the question we ought to ask is not why abolish the Seanad, but why keep it? It is arguably an elitist institution; the manner in which members are elected is somewhat undemocratic. The six University candidates – 3 elected by graduates of Trinity and 3 elected by graduates of the National Universities of Ireland seem to spark considerable ire.

In a speech at his party’s Presidential dinner in October of last year, Enda Kenny informed us that he had reached the conclusion that an upper house of the Oireachtas could not be justified.  For all the populist appeal of Kenny’s proposal to abolish the Seanad , it overlooks the importance of the checks and balances that a Second House has the potential to contribute to our democracy.  Checks and balances on democracy were established in recognition of the fact that political representatives may be tempted to arrogate power for themselves.  Our current economic and political crisis has testified to one thing above all.  It testifies that democracy cannot exist unchecked.  The reputation of our Parliament and our politicians is at an all time low.  To overcome distrust and build a relationship of mutual respect with the electorate our Parliament must be placed at the centre of an effective democracy.  Only the most meaningful reform initiatives will be adequate enough to bring about the constructive change that will enable the public to trust their political system.  Enhanced scrutiny of government actions and of legislation is an urgent priority and will not be achieved if checks and balances are removed.

The government is not dependent on the Seanad and consequently the house is seen to have greater freedom with regard to debate. This then is the key distinction, freedom to allow for depth of debate. The Seanad has a philosophical role that is often ill considered. On topics relating to morality and those in vulnerable societal positions the Seanad is (in theory) a guiding hand that ensures the protection of the collective Irish ethos and those likely to suffer at the hand of the legislative decisions of the Dail. The importance of this role is not to be underestimated; it is to be at the centralised as the most important function of the Oireachtas, of Irish politics. Imagine the difference, if those governing us were constantly slammed with references to their actual purpose by senators quoting the proclamation and constitution! With a new mechanism of election, a creative ability to adapt and innovate and increased powers particularly with regard to legislative scrutiny perhaps the Seanad could inspire and justify the €25 million per annum cost of its maintenance. Attempts thus far have failed but does that mean we should stop trying?

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