We need the Seanad, kept but changed
The Irish Dail has one major failing; parish pump politics. There are a couple of theories as to why, but it seems the only national level views are to be found in the cabinet, the shadow cabinet and the Seanad. And that scope is why its needed. Its problems (and its expense) is why the two main parties are calling for a referendum to abolish it. Call the referendum to tear its structures and stalled reforms down, but build something in its place. Or have major reforms of some other type.
This is the quite time for Irish politics. The media moratorium to allow people to make their minds up just before the Dail elections. And this has been an unusual election campaign for a number of reasons. The one that I want to talk about is the comments canvassers made; this time people want to talk to the TDs about national and not local issues. Usually TD have to look in to every pothole (sometimes literally), and if they aren’t seen to be doing a lot at the local level, then they become ex-TDs come the next election. This is a problem.
The Seanad on the other hand has a national view. Of its three sections one of them have even be a de-facto international view.
Their problem is that the Seanad is seen as a resting ground for failed TDs and a grooming ground for future TD. In short, political daycare.
The fix; trim the fat off.
The Seanad is split in to 3 selections/elections. The 6 University Senators, the 49 Panel Senators and the 11 Appointed Senators.
The University Senators are elected in a postal vote by graduates from the NUI colleges and The University of Dublin (better known as Trinity College), 3 from each set. As its a postal vote, there are anecdotes of parents posting the voting forms off to their emigrant children. These are the only diaspora votes. These guys have to work hard to get elected. They have to be seen working hard. Ask any Irish person to name some senators and you will get the university senators named back at you (or Ivor Callely due to the scandal and court dates). These are the people who should have their presence expanded.
Actually the University Senators were supposed to be expanded over 10 20 years ago (see correction in the comments). The University of Limerick and Dublin City University were supposed to be electing senators, but the committee for Seanad Reform blocked every attempt to change things. I seriously believe that is the initial reason for the referendum. Any attempt to change things has been consistently blocked until a Callely related crisis point was reached.
And as a DCU graduate, I want my vote!
These senators are usually non-party affiliated, which means the whips from the main Dail parties can’t actually get them to follow the party line to the letter.
I would suggest not only keeping these senators, but expanding them. And if whatever Taoiseach decides their new (if any) legal existence, remember these guys have the country’s back. If an extreme reduction is needed then have the Seanad consist of only the university Senators.
The 49 Panel Senators however… well. I think I need to explain how they get their jobs.
There are 5 Vocational Panels in the Senate; Administrative (including public administration), Agricultural (including food), Cultural and Educational (and the Irish language), Industrial and Commercial (including technology) and Labour. These senators are “elected” by county and city councils as well as incoming TDs. I use the quotes around “elected” as all of this happens behind closed doors. While I’m sure that there are a few arguments along the way, its not a transparent system, and it tends to pick party Senators who quietly work with the whip with no apparent qualifications for their panel appointments.
These are the ones I would like to see changed with a nice bright light shone on them.
What would I propose? Well…
First split the country in to 5 Senatorial electoral regions based on population. For the sake of convenience I’ll go with North, South East, West and Dublin (very “All Ireland Talent Show”, sorry). These regions will hold public elections at the same time as the fixed term local elections (thus keeping the link to the city and county councils) but with the following rules.
- A prospective Senator has to select on which panel she or he seeks election.
- A prospective Senator cannot seek election to more than one panel per election.
- A prospective Senator cannot seek a seat in the Local elections the same time (s)he is seeking election to the Seanad.
- Each region elects a single Senator for each panel position. (5 senators per region).
- A Senate seat cannot be left unfilled for more than 6 months. Either an automatic by-election is called or, if the next local election is less than 18 months from the Senators departure from the seat, a temporary Senator can be appointed by the councils in the region and their reasons for the appointment must be published and read as part of the new Senator’s maiden speech. (Something which should be considered for TDs too. That ticking clock tends to get things done too).
This has a few benefits.
- Its now a risk to become a Senator if you are grooming someone from the councils. They can’t go back to their existing seat.
- Its an open election, the public can vote.
- While they are seeking election to a region, its large enough to prevent (or at least limit) parish pump politics.
- As the prospective Senator has to declare which panel they are running for, its closer to a job interview. Hopefully the public will elect the person they feel is most suited for the post in their area.
This does make the process open and it reduces the number of Senators by almost 50%. There will be some cost savings in having combining the elections, and having part of the Senate sitting when the rest of the Oireachtas is dissolved means that there is some consistency of power. One clear problem is the cost of campaigning to such a large area gives the organised parties an advantage over independents.
And finally we have the 11 Senators appointed by the Taoiseach.
To the victor go some spoils. Its original purpose was to ensure that the incoming government has some control over the Senate (and build in minority presence) but since my proposal is to reduce the Panel seats, I’d like to reduce these appointees too.
The Panel of 5 compels an elegant solution. The Taoiseach’s appointees are reduced to 5; one for each panel. He (so far they have all been men) must declare which panel each is being appointed to. Hopefully there will be some logic to this appointments, but I can see the Public administration appointee being a recently felled comrade in party.
There is one final requirement needed for a reformed Seanad. A method to remove Senators. I would think a motion for removal requiring 75% for the other Senators would be a reasonable and clear-cut method. With the reduced numbers a party whip system shouldn’t be able to force this issue, and there should be no party whip permitted for such a motion for removal.
Of course, for any of this to happen you’ll first have to seek a referendum on…
- Articles 14.2, 15.2, all of articles 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24.
- Articles 25.2, 25.3
- Most of 26,
- 33.5 and 35.4
- and the 7th Amendment of the Irish Constitution. (PDF link, sorry)
In short, Seanad reform is well overdue. Given the recent history of Seanad Reform, it will probably have to be torn down (in the legal sense) in order for any changes to be made. But given the recent history of the lower chamber of the Dail, is needed.
Should the Dail become a true national concern and is treated as such by all the TD’s, then maybe the Seanad won’t be a requirement, but for the moment; its needed.
First posted on WillKnott.ie