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Why reform is needed in the Irish Senate over abolition - realizing the Seanad's 'real potential'

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Members of the Seanad pictured outside Leinster House
Members of the Seanad pictured outside Leinster House

In 2010, the then-leader of the opposition in Dáil Éireann (lower house of Ireland’s parliament), Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny, announced that he and his party favored abolition of Seanad Éireann (upper house of Ireland’s parliament) and would hold a referendum allowing the Irish people to have their say on the matter if they were in the next government.  This represented a u-turn from the current Taoiseach’s (Irish prime minister) statement a year earlier, when he noted that the Seanad had “real potential.”  Now, the Fine Gael-Labour government will hold a referendum on Seanad abolition in October.

Before considering the merits of the issue and the referendum campaign that has recently commenced, this already has been an extraordinarily cynical political exercise.  Enda Kenny’s announcement that his party would seek to abolish the Seanad took his colleagues by complete surprise.  Its timing, though – in the days when Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was widely regarded as outclassing Enda Kenny in the Dáil and many Fine Gael advisors were privately and publicly urging him to “be bold” – was no accident.

Moreover, at a time when the Irish people are understandably apprehensive and demoralized, what could be more appealing than the prospect of “firing” sixty politicians?  The truth is that politicians of all stripes failed the Irish people during the boom.  Yet a conscious and deliberate undertaking to make and keep a promise to the electorate by exploiting its anger is sheer populism of the very worst kind.  Finally, the government know well that the referendum on Seanad abolition will distract attention from the divisive, emotive debate on abortion and the still stagnant economy.  That the referendum will be held in October, just before the details of another painful budget are released, is no accident.

With this as context, what exactly is the government’s argument for Seanad abolition?  The focus thus far has been on criticizing the institution as it is now.  And it is very difficult to defend the present Seanad.  11 of its 60 members are appointed by the Taoiseach; 6 are elected by constituencies comprised of graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland; the remaining 43 are elected to vocational panels by parliamentarians and by local councillors around the country.  It plays an advisory and revising role and cannot veto, only delay, decisions taken by the popularly elected Dáil.  It is admittedly open to charges of being an inherently undemocratic and toothless institution.

That said, many towering figures from this country’s history have served in the Seanad and left an indelible mark upon it.  W.B. Yeats, Mary Robinson and David Norris are just a few of them.  The more free-flowing and wide-ranging discourse in the upper chamber have enriched Irish democracy.

The role of the Seanad in reviewing legislation is an important one.  Advocates for the huge numbers of people struggling with unprecedented levels of personal debt praise the scrutiny the sitting Seanad has given the lengthy Personal Insolvency Bill over the past number of months.

As it seeks to abolish the Seanad, the government also claims that it will reform the Dáil.  The reforms that have been mooted thus far are piecemeal and don’t get at the real problem.  That problem is the ridiculously over-rigid party whip system.  If TDs (members of Dáil Éireann) from the government parties dare to defect from their leadership on just one vote, they lose the party whip and are banished to the political wilderness.  As such, whipped TDs, especially when a government has a large majority, simply carry out the will of the executive.  There is little prospect for truly holding the executive to account.  The more independent voices in the Seanad have traditionally endeavored to do so.  And ensuring greater executive accountability will be one of the primary objectives of a reformed Seanad.

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