No more excuses or delays: it’s time to give us all a vote for the Seanad
Opinion: There is no need for a further referendum as the Government simply has to legislate
A new Seanad is achievable through legislative change. Photograph: Alan Betson
There are many ways to interpret the outcome of the recent referendum on the future of the Seanad, but there is a broad consensus on the fact that the campaign sparked in-depth engagement on what type of parliamentary structures modern Ireland needs.
During the course of the campaign, there was meaningful debate on how our country is governed and on the reforms that are required to improve our democratic institutions. This was new, it was healthy and it was encouraging to hear citizens from all walks of life engage in constructive discussion on the relevance
of Seanad Éireann in the 21st century.
I believe it now behoves the Taoiseach to build on this positive citizens’ debate and to demonstrate his commitment, in accordance with the wishes of the people, to deliver serious political reform.
Nine weeks have passed since the Irish people rejected the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann. When the result was declared in Dublin Castle, Enda Kenny colourfully admitted he had taken “a wallop” from the electorate, but I also remember being heartened by some of his more substantive remarks.
Specifically, he said the outcome brought “clarity”
and that people had unequivocally “decided and confirmed that the Senate is retained as part of our constitutional institutions.”
‘Continuous need for change’
He went on to say, correctly, that there is “a continuous need for change and reform in politics” and he intended to reflect on “the best way” that the Seanad “can be an effective contributor to the change in politics.” Sadly, since then the Taoiseach’s response has been somewhat underwhelming.
Last week, The Irish Times revealed that the Cabinet is to consider shortly a Bill extending the university franchise to all third-level graduates.
An Irish Times editorial last week made reference to one political commentator describing the Bill’s proposal to merge the Seanad university panels into one giant, expanded constituency as “the revenge of the Taoiseach”, and Stephen Collins, in a recent opinion column, referred to “a suspicion” that the Government’s initiative has “something to do with the fact that all of the six current university Senators campaigned loudly for a No vote in the referendum”.
In fairness to the Taoiseach, I don’t think he is motivated by this type of petty politics and I would be very disappointed if this type of cynical calculation were at the root of the new proposed legislation.
In one respect, the Government’s proposed Bill on reforming the university seats in the Seanad is welcome but this does not go far enough. The long failure of all previous governments to legislate for the 1979 referendum, which gave constitutional permission to broaden the third-level franchise, was a negation of democracy and any legislation that progressively widens the scope of how Seanad Éireann is elected deserves to be taken seriously. The problem is that times have changed and, as a society – as the debate in the recent referendum campaign shows – we have moved on from the days when it was acceptable to think only career politicians and those who have had a third-level education should have a say in the Seanad’s composition.
At the very least, what is required is a Bill to give every citizen a Seanad vote.
Misguided school of thought
There is a misguided school of thought that suggests the Government’s options in extending the Seanad franchise to every citizen are gravely limited because there is no appetite for another referendum. The reality however, is very different.
By means of a simple legislative amendment to the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947, the Government could provide for direct elections to all of the 43 panel seats and give everyone a vote. Such a move would transform fundamentally the Seanad’s democratic credentials. It would bring an end to the charge that the Seanad is the preserve of elitism and it would give us for the first time an Oireachtas where both Houses are directly accountable to the people.
By moving to a universal franchise, we have a wonderful opportunity to establish a Seanad of the people. By this I mean having a truly democratic chamber, which moves away from vestiges of privilege and which is not the plaything of political parties.
Without the need for a referendum, it is open right now to the Government to legislate for a new Seanad that has the scope to represent minorities, enhance gender balance and draw upon experts in various sectors, while being a vibrant chamber that does not merely replicate the work of the Dáil.
This type of substantive Seanad reform is achievable through legislative change. So, Taoiseach, why the delay?
Dr Katherine Zappone is an Independent Senator. She introduced the Seanad Reform Bill 2013 with Senator Feargal Quinn