Seanad Éireann should be reformed, not abolished
Opinion:My experience has been that the better legislative work by far is done in the Seanad, not in the Dáil
There is a general perception that our parliamentary institutions are not working. I agree. But I think the problems lie largely in the Dáil – not so much in the Seanad. And they won’t be solved by handing absolute power to a dysfunctional, unreformed Dáil.
The major problem with the current Seanad is the electoral system imposed on it by a Dáil determined to subjugate it and to abuse it for party political ends.
In the late 1980s I was asked to draft a constitutional amendment to abolish Seanad Éireann. At the time I favoured doing so. It became clear to me that the amendments to the Constitution required to dispense with it would be far-reaching. I now believe that the abolition project was misconceived. Seventy-five amendments would be required to abolish the Seanad. Entire articles would be deleted. Simple abolition, in short, would leave our Constitution in a weakened, wounded state – a mutilated wreck.
Having initiated major legislative reforms in both Houses of the Oireachtas, my experience was that the better legislative work by far was done in the Seanad. The guillotine was rarely used to close debate because filibustering and cynical time-wasting was unknown there, and because the Seanad valued its own time.
Seanad Éireann has the following vital constitutional functions in terms of safeguards, checks and balances:
it has a veto over the impeachment of the President, our independent judges, and our financial watchdog, the CAG.
under article 29, it has a veto over Ireland abandoning the unanimity requirement at EU level in matters such as corporate tax.
it must give “prior approval” to EU proposals for enhanced co-operation, the Schengen acquis, and the “opt outs” of Ireland in respect of EU measures on freedom, security and justice.
The capacity of the Dáil to override the Seanad in respect of legislation is subject to a further constitutional safeguard. The President, under article 27, can, if requested by a majority of the members of Seanad Éireann and one-third of the members of Dáil Éireann, decline to sign any Bill “on the ground that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained”.
Do we really want to sweep all these safeguards, checks and balances away, just to hand such far-reaching powers to a majority in the dysfunctional, tightly whipped, and then unfettered and uncontrollable Dáil? Would that be progress? Bluntly put, if Seanad Éireann were abolished, there would be very little standing in the way of a transient majority in Dáil Éireann acting in a manner which had far-reaching adverse effects on the nature and quality of Irish democracy.
One of the rarely discussed aspects of the Lisbon Treaty is the enhanced function envisaged for member states’ parliaments in EU legislation. I believe Enda Kenny was spot on at the MacGill Summer School when he suggested, a few months before his notorious U-turn and proposal to abolish the Seanad, that a reformed Seanad Éireann could play a valuable part in enhancing the parliamentary response of the State to our opportunities and obligations in the EU process.