With the Seanad elections in full swing, and votes due to be counted by the end of the month, “reform” is a word that is being thrown around once again. As with the Seanad abolition referendum, the primary focus of most reform discussions is on the elitist nature of who gets to vote, and this almost always ends up being focused on the university panels. Graduates of Trinity and NUI colleges get to vote on two panels, each of which have three seats.
Because the Taoiseach has the right to nominate 11 people to the Seanad at their discretion, and with all the other seats decided by outgoing TDs and councillors, it is hard to argue with the elitism indictment of the panels.
But it is important to remember what the university panels have brought us. David Norris, elected to the TCD Panel in 1987, was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in Ireland. An outspoken Joycean scholar, it is not hard to imagine that Norris would have found it difficult to be elected amidst the parish pump nature of Dáil constituency politics. Senator Ivana Bacik, a highly esteemed academic lawyer who has been pushing abortion rights long before they reached the forefront of public consciousness, has twice failed to be elected to the Dáil. Former Senator Mary Robinson was elected President in 1990.
The American political scientist, Norman Ornstein, has pointed out that the strengthening of one house of parliament to be more like the other one, be it in the way it works or the way its elected, often results in a strengthening of the things we don’t like about the other house.
Thus, trying to elect 60 senators in the way we elect TDs would almost certainly result in a duplication of the Dáil, a house that is completely controlled by the government of the day. We would also lose what we value about the Seanad.
Reform proposals such as Michael McDowell’s, which instead expand the other panels of the Seanad to all citizens qualified to vote for it – such as allowing all farmers to vote for the Agricultural Panel – are more prudent and wise, and ensure that we tackle the elitism aspect without losing what makes the Seanad valuable.