FF proposes fundamental changes to Seanad elections

Bill would extend franchise to every voter for some panels and change composition

Fianna Fail leader Micheá Martin and Senator Averil Power at the Fianna Fáil press conference on the Seanad Reform Bill 2014  in Dublin today. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Fianna Fail leader Micheá Martin and Senator Averil Power at the Fianna Fáil press conference on the Seanad Reform Bill 2014 in Dublin today. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Thu, Jan 9, 2014, 12:45

Fianna Fáil has published a Bill on Seanad reform that proposes fundamental changes to the way in which Senators are elected as well the composition of the 60-seat Upper House.

The party’s Seanad Reform Bill 2014 was launched today by party leader Micheál Martin in Dublin.

The Bill does not propose any change to the Constitution and that means that the three main groups of senators would remain. They are; the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees; the six university senators; and the 43 senators elected under five vocational panels.

However, the method of election and composition of each panel would change under the legislation with every citizen in the country entitled to a direct vote.

The biggest change would be to the vocational panels, which are specifically prescribed in the Constitution.

At present, the only people entitled to elect the 43 members on these panels are members of the Oireachtas and city and county councillors. However, by employing a provision in Article 19 of the Constitution, Fianna Fáil has said the franchise can be extended to every voter of the country. It will involve citizens making choices in relation to which group for which they will cast their vote.

Graduates of a large number of third-level institutions would be entitled to vote for candidates on the six-person university panel. Those not entitled to vote on those panels will be entitled to choose to vote on one of the five vocational panels.

Cllr Jim O’Callaghan, legal advisor to Fianna Fáil’s front bench, said that a person could choose to vote on the agricultural panel, for example, even if they did not have a connection with agriculture. Asked was this arbitrary, he said not necessarily so, as people voted at present in Dail elections based solely on where they lived.

Mr O’Callaghan also pointed out that the Bill ensured that a high level of gender balance could be achieved in the Seanad.

In addition, the legislation lays out specific rules for the Taoiseach’s nominees, ensuring representation for the elderly; the young; the new Irish; the diaspora; people with disabilities; sports organisations; the arts and the traveller community.

“The fundamental difference is the method of election,” said Mr Martin. “This will change the composition of the Seanad. We will have a far more diverse Seanad, with more diverse voices.

“That diversity will be the key change and will bring more energy to our legislature. It is a closed elite group at the moment that can get elected. This will broaden it out and bring a better energy,” he said.

Mr Martin said he was disappointed with Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s response to the Seanad referendum in October.

He said that everybody on all sides agreed that the chamber, as currently arranged, was not working and that radical reform was needed.

But he said that besides bringing forward legislation to give effect to the 1979 referendum that extended the franchise for the university panels to other third-level institutions, Mr Kenny was proposing nothing more than procedural changes.

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