Seanad Éireann should be reformed, not abolished
The Oireachtas is nowhere near being in a position to fulfil the new role envisaged for it under Lisbon, and most TDs have no personal appetite for this work.
The Seanad is also the only means whereby non-TDs can be brought into government as ministers. Do we really want to prevent that? Do we now regret that notable persons such as WB Yeats, Mary Robinson, David Norris, TK Whitaker, Gordon Wilson, Séamus Mallon, were given a voice at the heart of one of the institutions of Irish democracy?
What is the excuse for destroying such a forum when we have every opportunity to reform it without any significant cost and to be proud of it? By enacting a Seanad Reform Bill now, the next Seanad could be elected on the basis of gender balance, bringing new voices and new points of view, and new opportunities for minorities to be represented in our parliament.
Without any constitutional amendment, we could elect the Seanad on the basis of giving every citizen the right to register as a voter for one of the vocational panels and to elect candidates nominated in a manner free from the party political process.
Proponents of abolition have dishonestly claimed that it would save €150 million over the life of one Dáil. The clerk of the Dáil and the accounting officer to the Oireachtas, Kieran Coughlan, has publicly testified to the contrary – that the gross annual saving from abolition would be about €9.2 million.
The net saving would be very much less. Given that at least 30 per cent of that goes back to the exchequer in taxes, levies and VAT, the real annual cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is probably between €6 million and €7 million, just 1 per cent of the annual budget of Dublin City Council.
Last year TK Whitaker and some other notable figures made a public appeal in this newspaper to reform the Seanad rather than abolish it. They said: “. . . rather than amend the Constitution to abolish the Seanad, it would be better to reform the Seanad’s electoral law to empower citizens to become more directly involved, to continue and strengthen the presence in the Irish parliamentary process of voices and viewpoints that might not be heard if future parliamentarians were only to be elected to a single chamber solely on the basis of geographical multi-seat Dáil constituencies”.
I leave it to the reader to judge whether these were words spoken in the interests of a discredited political system, as we are asked to believe, or whether they were words spoken from wisdom, experience, patriotism and from a profound concern for the future of our State by someone whose judgment we ignore at our peril.
Michael McDowell SC is a former tánaiste, minister for justice and attorney general. This is an edited version of an address he gave to a meeting of former Oireachtas members in the Dáil last Friday.