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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 19, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    Thirty Years Waiting for Seanad Reform

    Deaglán de Bréadún

     It’s hard to believe that 30  years have elapsed since the people decided by referendum to extend the Seanad election franchise beyond Trinity and the National University of Ireland, to include graduates of other institutions of higher education.

     seanad-eireann-alan-betson.jpg

    ‘Non-TCD and non-NUI graduates need not apply for a vote’ (Photograph of Seanad chamber by Alan Betson)

    Yet this elitist arrangement still remains in place. Green Party leader and Environment Minister John Gormley is committed to Seanad reform and, if the Greens remain in government long enough, he will get a chance to fulfil that commitment, beginning with the constituency for electing the six university seats.

    The various parties have sent in submissions giving their views on Seanad reform. Fianna Fáil were last out of the blocks and I have a report on their document in today’s Irish Times. I have a feeling Dan Sullivan may want to comment . . .

    FF seeks to cut Seanad university seats to two
    DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN, Political Correspondent
    Wed, Aug 19, 2009
    THE NUMBER of Seanad seats for Trinity College Dublin and the National University should be reduced from six to two, according to a Fianna Fáil document on reform of the Seanad which has been presented to Minister for the Environment John Gormley.
    At present, Trinity and NUI graduates elect three Senators each, but the submission from the 26 Fianna Fáil Senators advocates a widening of the franchise to include graduates of other third-level institutions.
    A constitutional amendment in 1979 made provision for extension of the franchise to all third-level institutions, but no legislation has been put in place so far to implement this.
    “It is only right that these graduates are recognised, it is only right that they should have a say,” leader of the Seanad and head of the Fianna Fáil group Senator Donie Cassidy told The Irish Times.
    Under the Fianna Fáil proposals, one senator would be elected by graduates of Dublin University/TCD, one by NUI graduates and one by “currently unrepresented institutions”, with the remaining three senators elected in a ballot of all third-level graduates.
    Mr Cassidy said the average turnout in the last five general elections was only 33 per cent among Dublin University graduates and 34 per cent in the NUI constituency, whereas the level of voter participation among the Oireachtas members, county councillors and county borough councillors who comprise the electorate for the five vocational panels was in excess of 98.5 per cent.
    The Fianna Fáil submission says consideration should also be given to a reciprocal arrangement with the Northern Ireland Assembly, “whereby the Assembly and Seanad Éireann would exchange a right of audience for up to 10 members of each at sittings of each body”.
    Mr Cassidy said it was envisaged that, on one or two occasions each year, members of the Stormont Assembly would attend and speak in the Seanad chamber on issues of particular North-South interest such as tourism or energy, but that they would not have voting rights. The same arrangement would also operate in reverse, with Senators attending and speaking in the Assembly.
    The Fianna Fáil Senators also propose that, as is already the case with the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad should be automatically re-elected, as one of the 11 senators nominated by the taoiseach after a general election, although the submission notes that this would require a constitutional amendment.
    The submission backs the proposal that the leader of the Seanad “should have the right to attend Cabinet with the status of either a minister or minister of state”.
    A spokesman for Mr Gormley said: “The Minister is keen to press ahead with, at the very least, reform of the university panel. The make-up and election of the Seanad will also be part of a major package of political reforms that the Greens will be seeking in the programme for government review.”
    (c) 2009 The Irish Times

    • Tom Stanley says:

      I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

      Tom Stanley

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I could say lots but for the moment I will content myself with the fact that according to his entry on the FF website he is “Spokesperson on the Taoiseach and Northern Ireland.”

      http://www.fiannafail.ie/people/donie-cassidy/

    • Harry Leech says:

      I wouldn’t mind a comment myself Deaglán.

      It’s hardly surprising that FF’s idea of Seanad reform is something akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

      Rather than reducing the number of Senators ‘elected’ by the County Councils or nominated by the Taoiseach, their BIG IDEA is to reduce the number of Senators elected by TCD/DU & NUI and to create a reason to pop over the border and claim expenses every now and then.

      Whatever about the obvious inequity in only two institutions being allowed to elect Senators, the fact remains that the Senators elected by TCD have a history of being among the most vociferous and effective in the Seanad.

      Shane Ross is one of the few Senators who has done anything of note with his time in the Seanad, highlighting the ridiculous M50 toll-bridge debacle, the lack of regulation of estate agents, the profiteering by the Irish banks and the lack of broadband penetration around the country, all for many years before it was popular for a politician to do so.

      I challenge anyone to come up with a Senator who has done more with their time in the Seanad.

      Senator David Norris is one of the few candidates that can formulate a speech that isn’t a monotone, pre-scripted, rambling mess and has been one of the leading proponents of equal rights for same-sex couples for many years.

      Senator Ivana Bacik is in the Seanad only a short period, but I believe that her qualifications as Reid Professor of Law and equality campaigner speak for themselves.

      It would not surprise me in the slightest if this proposal was a move against both Senators Ross & Norris and a cynical move to silence some of this government’s harshest critics in the guise of Seanad reform.

      It would be far more equitable if the University panel was widened to 12 and more Universities given a voice in the Seanad rather than filling the Seanad with failed Daíl candidates from the government parties, or with journalists who publicly endorse a candidate as Taoiseach.

      The reason that the Seanad has been so ineffective over the past decade (and arguably, in several previous decades) is that it is filled with government yes men and gombeen former county councillors.

      We have tried, as did the US with their last president, being governed by the common man and look where that has got us? Personally I have no problem whatsoever with an ‘elite’ in the Seanad as long as that ‘elite’ serve all the people of Ireland to the best of their ability.

      That clearly doesn’t happen at present, with the Seanad seen as either a cushy retirement job or a springboard to the Daíl.

      FF’s laughable attempt at Seanad reform is the last gasp of a failed party and I hope it is viewed as such.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Harry,

      You’re just as likely to get a failed Dáil candidate (and even a journalist/editor for the Sunday Independent) running for a University seat (and of course with reform these would be third level college seats as opposed to University seats). It’s happened already (our own Mary Robinson for example and currently of course Shane Ross is editor for the Sunday Independent Business Section).

      I say that as a fformer Senator that was a failed Dail candidate that thinks I made a contribution however small to the last Seanad.

      Don’t agree that the TCD Senators are the most effective, they are effective, but so are others, but they seem to get more coverage on our broadcast media at any rate and fair dues etc.

      Unlike the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil hasn’t in its submission (and nor is anyone in this blog post and comments so far) argued in favour of the election of at least some Senators by the mass electorate. Now that would be real reform.

    • Eilis says:

      I just wanted to point out that you aren’t, in fact, just as likely to get a failed Dáil candidate running for a University seat as you are with the other Seanad panels.

      Of the 11 Taoiseach’s nominees, nine contested the 2007 Dáil elections.

      Of the 43 senators elected under the Vocational Panels 21 of them contested the 2007 Dáil elections.

      Finally, of the 6 University Panel senators none of them contested the 2007 Dáil elections.

      If you look at the 35 candidates who contested the University Panel elections in 2007 only one of them, Liam O’Gogain, contested the Dáil elections that year. Of the other candidates only five at the time had contested a Dáil seat (although Senator Bacik has since done so).

      I suppose the point I am trying to make is that University senators, on the whole, are quite content to be senators, and tend not to view the Seanad as a stepping stone to a career in the Dáil.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I have a few concerns with the FF proposals though I do welcome their eventual appearance after all this time.
      First up we have the proposal to replace the existing six seats for a single constituency with 3 seats and then 1 seat each for TCD/NUI/Others. This strikes me as being dangerously close to a resurrection of a desire for the first past the post electoral system in FF combined with the desire for an avoidance of a single 6 seat panel. Which seems to me more about ensuring the dominance of the election by the larger political parties or people with considerable wealth or celebrity? Senator Cassidy is concerned with who might get that 6th seat. Perhaps he is worried the London born son of Irish emigrants from Kerry who graduated from UL might sneak in. OK, he probably wouldn’t pick me out of a line up but I reckon the Greens won’t be too keen on the avoidance of a larger constituency which would tend to favour the inclusion of minority opinion.

      Again it is beyond me why we are so keen on preserving the over representation for TCD. Don’t get me wrong I know some lovely people who went to TCD but I can’t see why the Others and NUI both of whom have 3 times the number of graduates have the same single seat as TCD. There is also the fact that while the electorates may be divided by educational institution the candidates cannot be under the constitution. If we’re going to have an elitist system can we not at least try and be as egalitarian as we can about it?

      Another massive problem with the dual elections is that it increases the cost of the overall process. And that is a problem no one has addressed that I’m aware of: 4/500,000 people in a single constituency spread across the world, I’m not sure even India deals too frequently with constituencies of that size.

      I believe the reference to the low turnouts is a cheap shot given that the register is poorly resourced both in its maintenance for the addresses of graduates and also the addition of new graduates each year. Combine this with the archaic nature of the register which means it is very difficult for graduates to find out if they are on it, or their correct details are on it as is the case for the regular electoral register, nor does there exist any form of supplementary register. And “Copies of the Seanad Éireann Electoral Register are available in the libraries of the various institutions within the NUI and the National Library. The register is also available for examination in the reception of NUI offices, 49 Merrion Square, Dublin 2.” Not exactly the same as it being in the local post office, library or Garda station I’m sure you’d agree.

      I do wonder if he is just being deliberately awkward just to ensure the whole thing is delayed again because no one is likely to agree with this and the intention was to find a consensus. What next, a suggestion for the time-sharing of seats over the lifetime of the Oireachtas?

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Joanna, just to say that I’ve suggested that there be mass election by means of panels based on the euro constituencies. But I’m just howling into the wind for the most part.

    • Harry Leech says:

      Joanna,

      I don’t for a second exclude that the TCD Senators are the only effective members of the Seanad, but as you’ve pointed out they are both effective and the most vocal and isn’t one of the most common complaints about the Seanad from its critics that once they are appointed, they are rarely seen or heard from?

      A Senator gets appointed by the Taoiseach or a council and then promptly disappears from the public eye for the next 4 or so years, only to appear on an election poster a few weeks before the poll, gurning down at the public with a fancy title before their name and as a result an advantage over their non-titled opponents.

      I don’t for a second deny that I’m in the lucky position to be able to vote for candidates in the Seanad elections, but rather than taking Senators from TCD and NUI, why do we not just increase the numbers of University representatives?

      This is only one small part of a wider Seanad reform that is necessary, but as it is FF’s ‘big idea’ (ha!) it’s the reason that I addressed it in my response.

      I agree completely with the Labour Party and yourself that if the Seanad is to retain any relevance then directly-elected Senators are necessary and would be welcomed.

      And as to your point about Senator Ross, the difference between him and Senator Harris (both Sunday Independent journalists) is that Senator Ross was elected by TCD constituents based on his policies and his work for both his constituents and for those who do not have a chance to vote for him.

      While he may not have succeeded as a Dáíl candidate, to get to the Seanad he had to get elected by a University constituency.

      Senator Harris on the other hand was directly appointed by Bertie Ahern after a series of articles and public appearances in support of the then FF leader. How are the two comparable?

      Hopefully if Labour are in power within the next few years then they will effect some real electoral change in the Seanad: I have far more confidence in them than either the Greens (who I have voted for in the past) or FF (who I have not.)

      I’d be interested in hearing what your thoughts are on the matter and I’d like to say that it’s good to see a politician engaging in discussion online.

    • robespierre says:

      I see no useful purpose for the upper house anymore. None. I agree that there are Senators that make a good contribution most notably Mssrs Norris and Ross.

      The way to accommodate voices like the good Senators above is to have a mixed PR-STV and List system. We should reserve 1/3 of Dáil seats (at least) for candidates to stand on a National List. The likes of James Dillon and Noel Browne were not afraid to stand alone and shout when they felt official positions were incorrect on matters such as World War II and the Mother and Child Scheme.

      It is these voices that should be put to work where they can still matter. It would also force parliamentary debate to improve as if we weaken party politics it will mean that lobbies will have to be crossed to agree controversial legislation.

    • Alison says:

      Joanna,
      The TCD Senators are the only ones who speak ONLY on subjects/topics/ Bills they have knowledge of, unlike the others who come in with a prepared script and a string of platitudes for whatever Minister of State has bothered to turn up to address whatever nonsense is on the Adjournment. Shane Ross deserves a perpetual seat for his exposure of the FAS gravy train alone. Any Labour Party achievements of similar note, Joanna?
      In my opinion, the attacks against TCD Senator are symptomatic of the fear of academic knowledge that pervades Leinster House-I have often heard a TD or Senator boast of a lack of academic achievement as if it is somehow a badge of honour. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – look how little most of our representatives have – they are more interested in getting land rezoned that looking at empircal evidence and drawing sound conclusions. Look at the recent Agriculture Committee for some truly daft comments on the use of bogs: “Nature looks after itself”!?! Never heard Norris, Bacik or Ross utter such rubbish -keep them there I say!

    • steve white says:

      why isn’t the headline ‘other third level institutions to get seanad seats’

    • Why not create another Seanad constituency – from the ranks of the other Third Level institutions and take those seats from the panels replete as they are with failed party political candidates rather than take them from the universities?

      Fianna Fáil’s proposal is self-serving, a bit like their failed proposal to introduce the single seat Dáil constituency with the first past the post election in the past. We need less of this cute hoorist gerrymandering – not more.

    • El Leader Maximo says:

      Who cares? irrelevant and overpaid. Close it down, we’ve got far bigger problems.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Politicians from the Seanad have stopped legislation going through that would have interfered with the freedom of the press (to publish opinion polls), drafted Freedom of Information legislation, had important amendments to legislation adopted by the Government, exposed the abuse and neglect of elderly in some of Ireland’s nursing homes, played a major role in the foundation of our state, and many decades later our peace process, promoted human rights of those at home and abroad, championed the cause of homelessness, reformed our propery laws, warned of the unconstitutionality of legislation that subsequently was ruled unconstitional, drafted influential policy documents.

      These are just some examples, some recent and some in the past. They include Senators from across the political spectrum, Government and opposition, and elected from the panels, by university graduates, and nominated by the Taoiseach. Some of them only served as Senators, some of them went on to be Ministers and the President and some were or have been elected since as councillors, and/or T.D’s (just as happens in most other countries, Obama being one example).

      I point this out because most people seem to forget these contributions once time passes on, if they were aware of them in the first place. There are and have been valuable contributions to our political life by Senators. The reason we need reform is not because of who gets elected but rather to give the Seanad more power and to give the people a sense of ownership of it through their having a vote for Seanad elections.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      The public perception problem for the Seanad is that it is actually more about the legislative function than the Dáil, and the electorate don’t pay much attention to the legislative process.

    • Harry Leech says:

      Joanna,

      I have to disagree with your statement that, “The reason we need reform is not because of who gets elected but rather to give the Seanad more power and to give the people a sense of ownership of it through their having a vote for Seanad elections”.

      The reason we need to reform the Daíl is to make sure that the right people get into the Seanad. The legislative process is extremely important as I’m sure you agree, and I don’t for a second believe that the Taoiseach’s 11 appointees are guaranteed to be the shiniest pennies in his political pocket.

      They are more likely to be whoever is expedient for the Taoiseach to have in power, including journalists that support the Taoiseach and give him/her favourable press in the run-up to the elections.

      And are we to believe that the Senators nominated by the County Councils are necessarily the brightest, the best and the most passionate?

      Or are they more likely to be those who have played the game for long enough, scratched enough backs and kissed enough ‘cheeks’ (yet another reason why the age-profile and gender balance in Irish politics is so woeful.)

      This does not exclude the fact that some very brilliant people get into the Seanad, but it does reduce the pool significantly and is less than democratic.

      The reason we need to reform the Seanad is precisely to because of who gets elected, to guarantee that we get the best, the brightest and the most capable into our Upper House, as well as giving ownership to the Irish people of their representatives, who at the end of the day are there to serve the nation and the people of the nation.

      I don’t see how keeping the number of Senators elected by the Universities the same and spreading it woefully thinly over the other 3rd level institutions, while maintaining the Shamocracy of having the Taoiseach appoint 11 Senators could be considered reform. (One thing I’m sure that we agree on!)

    • Tom Cosgrave says:

      People would pay far more attention to the Seanad if the nomination of 11 seats by the Taoiseach was abolished and those 11 seats were electable.

      The Taoiseach is able to control and neuter the Seanad through those 11 seats.

      The other key element that would make the Seanad relevant would be a Constitutional amendment that allows the Seanad to defeat a Bill – at present it can only delay a Bill.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Harry,

      Sorry I missed your question to me when I read your post earlier.

      I agree with most of the points you make.

      Labour in its submission to the All-Party Group on Seanad Reform, made earlier in the summer, made this point on directly- elected Senators:

      “The reform of the franchise proposed in the Seanad Reform Report 2004 which would potentially do most to make the Seanad more valued by the public is the proposal to introduce a substantial element of direct popular election.”

      This would be “probably the single most significant step that can be taken both to increase the Seanad’s legitimacy as well as to involve and interest the general public much more in what the Seanad is doing”.

      In relation to the extension of the franchise for the TCD and NUI seats we suggested one single 6-seat constituency with an electorate of all graduates.

      This would be in keeping with Dan’s point about the numbers of TCD graduates compared to all the other institutions.

      I don’t think there is a problem with councillors electing the remainder of the Senators. In fact as in Germany I think there is merit in those Senators being councillors themselves (in other words being allowed to hold the dual mandate). This would be on the basis that the Seanad was a link between local government and national government. These Senators would not be paid the councillor’s wage (or Representation Payment as it is formally known). (This last suggestion is a personal one and not part of the Labour submission by the way).

      And on your last point, its nice to see bloggers like yourself contributing too.

    • Deaglán says:

      Surely the whole point of the Taoiseach’s Eleven is to help ensure the Government of the day has a majority in the Seanad? Otherwise we would be mired in a constant state of constitutional crisis (cf. the House of Lords vs House of Commons in GB in former times) and, since the Seanad is not elected by the voters at large, this would be profoundly undemocratic.

    • Eilis says:

      Deaglán,

      I have to disagree with you, I don’t feel that we would be “mired in a constant state of constitutional crisis” if the Government of the day did not have a majority in the Seanad.

      If you look at the rainbow coalition 1994-7, where the government had 27 Senators while the opposition had 33, this may have caused problems for the Government yet it still managed to get legislation through the Seanad (albeit by relying on independent senators). Such a situation engenders consensus building and has the added benefit of making people pay more attention to the Seanad; the 20th Seanad had the highest profile of any Seanad in recent years because the Government weren’t guaranteed a victory in every vote.

    • Brian Owens says:

      Why not completely reform the Seanad and have it completely elected by popular vote. The current system is a sham with the built in majority for the reigning Taoiseach.
      An upper house independent of the Dail backed by a popular mandate with real powers could be useful in preventing a situation that may arise such as the potential nama debacle.
      An upper house not wholly elected by universal suffrage lacks credibility and if frankly a waste of public resources.

    • Cathal says:

      As a TCD grad I receive usually 1 piece of canvass mailing each Seanad election from candidates that seem to invariably win. My take is this: the Seanad is a talking shop for the Bold (DC) and the Beautiful (FitzG) . But I still support the standard model where 6 seats are reserved for TCD and NUI grads to decide who is seated.

    • ritchie nixon says:

      Can we vote for Daniel K O Sullivan he could do with a few more votes .


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