Fianna Fáil U-turn on Seanad looks to have sealed fate of Upper House

Mon, Jan 3, 2011, 00:00

De Valera’s axing of the first senate in 1936 shows a precedent for dramatic action, writes HARRY McGEEPolitical Correspondent

IF A referendum to abolish the Seanad goes ahead on the day of the general election, it will be the second time in the 73-year history of the Upper House that Fianna Fáil has done a political U-turn on the matter.

A senate had existed in the State since Independence but was abolished by Fianna Fáil taoiseach Éamon de Valera in 1936.

This followed a series of setbacks when the Seanad refused to approve legislation in the mid-1930s. Most notably, it voted down his government’s Wearing of Uniforms Bill in 1934, which was effectively designed to clamped down on the Blueshirt movement. In abolishing it, de Valera declared unequivocally he was opposed to a second chamber. But only a year later, he included a new Seanad in his 1937 Constitution.

Similarly, yesterday’s confirmation by the Minister for Defence Tony Killeen that the Government will consider holding a referendum is the first time Fianna Fáil has ever publicly acknowledged that the scrapping the House is a possibility.

It is a complete turnabout from its present policy which advocated – at most – limited reforms with no commitment to a timescale.

De Valera’s change of mind in 1937 was explained by a report and also by an encyclical from Pope Pius XI, which advocated vocationalism in society. Hence, the emphasis on vocational panels in the reconstituted Seanad.

The UCD political scientist Tom Garvin archly referred to it as “the sop de Valera had given to the vocationalists . . . like so many of de Valera’s constitutional devices, Seanad Éireann was an ideological red herring”.

The iteration of the Seanad from 1937 provides for 60 senators in total purportedly representing different strands of society. Some 43 are drawn from five vocational panels; a further six come from Trinity College and the NUI colleges; and the remaining 11 are all nominated by the taoiseach of the day. Under article 18 of the Constitution, the Seanad election must take place not later than 90 days after the general election.

The powers of the Seanad are severely limited and it has been consistently criticised for being an ineffectual, expensive and ultimately toothless talking school, or a staging post for politicians on the way up, or on the way out. The taoiseach’s right to nominate 11 members essentially guarantees a government majority. Only once was the opposition in majority in the House – when there was a change of government without an election in 1994.

The very limited franchise of the House has also come under harsh criticism. There are five panels for 43 seats: culture and education, agriculture, labour, industrial and commercial and administrative. While organisations in all those sectors are entitled to nominate candidates, the only people entitled to vote are Oireachtas members and councillors. This means that many of those elected to the Seanad often have no more than a passing link with the panel for which they were elected.

Another glaring anomaly relates to the six university seats. Voting is restricted to graduates of either TCD or the NUI colleges. Newer universities such as Limerick and DCU are excluded as are institutes of technology. A referendum in 1979 paved the way for legislation to extend the franchise to other third-level institutions, but successive governments have failed to introduce the necessary Bill.

At least the inaction was consistent. Since 1928, a total of 12 reports have been published dealing with the issue of Seanad reform. None went anywhere.

The last report was drawn up six years ago by an all-party committee from the Senate itself, chaired by then House leader Mary O’Rourke. Controversially, it recommended that the number of Senators be increased from 60 to 65 but also proposed much-needed reform of the way that senators were elected.

The university panel would be doubled to 12 and third-level graduates from all institutions would be entitled to vote, the report recommended. In addition, it proposed direct elections for over half of the seats.

Senators are entitled to be appointed as ministers to all departments save for the Department of Finance. In the modern era, there has been only once instance of this, when Garret FitzGerald appointed Jim Dooge, a taoiseach’s nominee, as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1981.

Abolition of the Seanad would involve wholesale constitutional change, not only to article 18, but to many other articles where the Seanad is mentioned. The legislation to give effect to it would be complicated, according to Opposition parties.

The timescale involved would inevitably push back the election, they claim. Unsurprisingly, Fine Gael and Labour also said last night that the announcement was a spoiling tactic by the Coalition to regain the initiative on this issue. Scrapping the Seanad is already Fine Gael policy. It will become official Labour policy on Thursday. Sinn Féin also favours abolition. With Fianna Fáil and the Greens now jumping aboard, its fate is effectively sealed.