The Seanad is the lesser known House of the Oireachtas. It doesn’t get the same attention as the Dáil, partly probably because most of the Government is in the Dáil, but also likely because of the arcane and disconnected way in which it is elected.

Elections to the Seanad happen within 90 days after the dissolution of the preceding Dáil, which in practice means over a month after a general election to the new Dáil. The gap allows a Government to be formed before the election. That’s important, because eleven Senators are appointed by the Taoiseach.

Six Senators are elected by university graduates – three for the graduates of the National University of Ireland (including UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth), and three for the graduates of the University of Dublin, Trinity College.

The remaining 43 Senators are elected on what are called ‘vocational panels’ – Culture and Education, Agriculture, Labour, Industry and Commerce and Public Administration. Candidates are nominated by Nominating Bodies – usually professional organisations in the fields of the panels – and the electorate is the outgoing Senators, incoming TDs, and sitting city and county councillors.

The idea was that while the Dáil would represent the population, the Seanad would essentially be a body of experts in areas important to the country – the areas covered by the panels, plus academia, with the Taoiseach’s nominees filling any gaps.

The role of the Seanad matches this intention – the Seanad can introduce and make amendments to Bills, but it can’t introduce Bills which would involve a financial cost to the Government (Money Bills) or Bills to amend the Constitution. The Seanad also can’t block the Dáil.

The idea being that the Seanad would be a deliberative and scrutinising body, politically independent, but the Dáil, elected by the people, would have primacy.

This sounds like a pretty good idea, to be honest. A group of experts, independent of political parties, casting an expert eye over legislation? Sounds awesome.

Sadly, the plan bears little resemblance to reality.

Over recent decades, the University Senators have been the only real independents, with the panels comprised of unsuccessful Dáil candidates, and most of the Taoiseach’s nominees being members of his party, ensuring a Government majority in the Seanad no matter the party distribution of the councillors electing the panels. There have been a few truly independent Taoiseach’s nominees, I will admit – the current Seanad has a few – but by and large, the Seanad looks like a reserve Dáil.

As a result, the reputation of the Seanad isn’t particularly good. Talk of Seanad reform has gone without action for decades, and so in 2013, the Fine Gael-led government proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing the Seanad. This was narrowly defeated in a referendum.

I have a bit of history with the Seanad. I used to work for a Senator, as communications staff based in his local office, and I’ve been campaign manager and election agent for both Seanad panel and university seat elections. I’ve also considered running as a candidate in the last two Seanad university seat elections. I’ll probably consider it next time as well, and who knows, this may be the time I actually go for it.

I opposed the referendum, and have considered running for the Seanad, for the same reason. It may be the lesser known House of the Oireachtas, but it’s the better one. Yes, the election process has not produced the desired result of a non-party expert House, but the intention of a deliberative House that scrutinises legislation has been achieved. In the absence of the media circus that surrounds the Dáil, the Seanad quietly gets on with the job of picking legislation apart and considering it in detail. That’s a role I’ve thought I would fit well – I don’t want to be a TD or a Minister, but I think with my experience (especially in research science, education, mental health, and equality) I could make a strong contribution in the Seanad. I’m sure there’s many like me as well. Plus, if there was no Seanad, the Dáil would have a huge amount more work to do, and I’m quite certain a lot of legislation would come out inferior.

It would be much better, of course, if Seanad elections were reformed. Right now, my only chance – and that of many other experts – of getting elected to the Seanad would be on a university panel; with councillors electing the other panels, the political parties have them locked up for failed Dáil candidates. Talk of reform was common during the campaign, with many Senators and councillors suddenly converted to the cause. In the aftermath of the vote against abolition, then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD established a group in December 2014 to consider reform, chaired by former Senator Dr. Maurice Manning, reporting in 2015.

The reforms proposed in the Manning report are interesting. Working within the current constitutional framework, they suggested that 13 of the panel seats be elected by councillors, TDs, and outgoing Senators; and that the remaining 30 should be elected by all Irish citizens. With the university seats, this would total 36 seats directly elected by citizens.

Moreover, they suggested that citizens should choose which panel to vote in; so essentially giving citizens the option of voting for candidates on one of six panels: Culture and Education, Agriculture, Labour, Industry and Commerce, Public Administration, or Universities. This would neatly remove the elitism of the university seats, putting them on a par with the other vocational panels.

To stop the panels just being filled, like present, with failed Dáil candidates, the report suggested that panel candidates should have to be suitably qualified for the panel they stand for, with the qualifications to be set out in law.

This might actually work to make the panels function as intended. It would be great to see the Seanad filled with actual panels of experts.

Except that once the referendum had faded into memory, all the new converts to the cause of reform (read: senators who wanted to keep their jobs, and councillors who wanted to keep their power of electing Senators – not that I’m suggesting bribery, of course) disappeared back into the woodwork. The Manning committee reported three years ago, and nothing has happened since.

Until now? The Taoiseach recently addressed the Seanad, and announced that he would be setting up a committee to review the Manning proposals and legislate for reform. He also suggested that he would like to see the election of Senators from the north, to represent both nationalist and unionist communities, and Senators to represent the diaspora. The University panels would also be modified such that any graduate could vote, as the current system discriminates against non-NUI or DU graduates, such as those from the University of Limerick.

I’m absolutely supportive of seats for the north, and as one of the diaspora right now I’m happy to see diaspora seats suggested. The suggestion is that all Irish citizens will have a vote, and I’m very happy with that – Ireland is one of very few countries that excludes emigrants from voting. It’s frustrating to care so much and not have any say.

Now, after a delay caused by objections to Senator Michael McDowell – a notable proponent of Seanad reform – as chair of the committee, the Cabinet has decided to establish a 26-member panel of TDs and Senators to consider the Manning Report.

I’m a bit less optimistic now – it feels like a fudge. Others seem to be a bit less optimistic too.

The committee will have until October to complete their work, to be effective at the Seanad election after next. If it happens.

There are other suggestions for more extensive reform out there. For example, the Green Party has proposed a list system:

We propose that the Seanad be elected by universal suffrage among all voters eligible to vote in Dáil elections and would introduce a referendum to this effect:

  • The Seanad should be elected using an open list system with d’Hondt distribution elected on the same day as the Dáil:
  • 56 members should be elected from four regions in the state proportionate to population (Dublin, Leinster, Munster and Connacht/Ulster)
  • 4 members should be elected by Irish citizens throughout the world

In order to maintain the independence of the Dáil and the Seanad (and prevent current

  • A candidate for election to the Seanad cannot be a candidate for election to the Dáil on the same day
  • Members of one Seanad may not stand for election to the next Dáil
  • Given the importance of European legislation, the Seanad should be given an enhanced role of scrutiny over EU legislation and affairs and the hearing of MEPs.

I continue to prefer the idea of the panels, if it can be made to work, but a list system is an intruiging suggestion. Their proposals to enhance the separation of the Dáil and Seanad are definitely worth exploring.

The Greens policy differs from the Manning Report, and the committee announced by the Taoiseach, in that it would require a referendum to remove the panel structures and university seats from the Constitution. In that sense, their proposals are more extensive.

I would personally be inclined to follow the Manning Report and keep reform within the current constitutional framework. Putting constitutional amendments on the table introduces a level of complexity which would undoubtedly delay any reform. I don’t think there’s any appetite for another referendum, and even the reforms in the Manning report have seen no action in three years: I’m not sure how long it would take for the Oireachtas to agree on a constitutional version of reform. Not to mention the risk that a referendum might fail, leaving us back at square one. Working within the current framework might not produce a perfect option, but it could be good enough. Of course, the disadvantage of that timid approach is that reform within the current framework would probably put the issue off the agenda for a generation, so if the Manning reforms don’t produced the desired effect, it’s unlikely we’d have a chance for more substantial reform for some time.

It may not be the most crucial issue in Irish politics, but Seanad reform would make our democracy better, and would make our country better. I’m sceptical, but still have a tiny bit of hope that this time, just maybe, it might happen.

Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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