No plausible case made for a second chamber
The Seanad does not justify its own existence. We should abolish it because there is no reason to retain it
Leinster House – “the role of Seanad Éireann is unclear and its composition and electoral process are utterly unintelligible to most people”. Photograph: Frank Miller
It is telling that there are no voices calling for retention of the Senate in its current form. Even those who say we should keep the Senate appear to accept that it is fundamentally flawed, forcing them to ground their campaign on contradictory, and largely unworkable proposals for “reform”.
As we approach the question of abolition or retention, we should avoid a reversal of the logical sequence of thought. Rather than taking its existence as a given, then seeking to devise an acceptable membership selection process and constructing a set of functions for the Seanad, the question should rather be: what is the case for having a second chamber in the first place?
The fact that this question is so rarely asked indicates not so much approval for the status quo as a general indifference to both the question and the answer.
The State can do without a house of parliament that so few of its citizens know about, care about, or would miss. The role of Seanad Éireann is unclear and its composition and electoral process are utterly unintelligible to most people. Rather than engage in a futile attempt to correct these undoubted flaws, we should confront the central existential question: why, and for what purpose?
In any representative democracy there must be a parliamentary chamber made up of the directly elected representatives of the people, which chooses the government and holds it to account, and approves legislation. Article 15.1 of the Constitution refers to the Dáil uniquely as the “House of Representatives”.
The directly elected chamber, whose members are accountable to the people, must have the final say when it comes to making laws and raising taxes. A second house must therefore have some other, additional function. It must in some way contribute added value to the process. It has to justify its existence. If the justification is inadequate, then it should go.
And there is no good argument for having a second general election for a second chamber. There is no point at all in having two houses that are both directly elected by the people as a whole. Apart from anything else, if both could claim the same popular mandate, how would a difference between them be resolved?
For what purpose?
None of this is to question the skills, expertise or eloquence of those who serve or have served in Seanad Éireann. Rather, it is a question of the institution itself. Why, and for what purpose?
In a society and polity which is not federal, where the rule of law is not threatened by majoritarianism but is maintained by the Constitution and the judiciary, and which is not sharply divided along ethnic or religious lines, there is no case for separate representation of certain interests in an additional parliamentary chamber.
The vocational panels to which 43 of the 60 senators are elected are completely anachronistic. They would survive the reforms being advocated by the No side, as would the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees, and the six senators elected by third-level graduates. Why, and for what purpose?
It has also been suggested that a reformed Seanad should deal with EU legislation. But it would be unacceptable for a body other than the “House of Representatives” to be handed responsibility for a vitally important source of so much of our law.
The Dáil needs to mend its ways, and to give this aspect of its work the priority it needs. But our laws are made – and must continue to be made – by the directly elected representatives of the people.
In 1937 de Valera attributed to the then opposition the view that “some Seanad, the best Seanad we can get, even though it may be adjudged a bad Seanad, is still better than no Seanad at all”. On the contrary, a bad Seanad is very much worse than no Seanad at all. It engenders cynicism, and brings the political and parliamentary process into disrepute. It gives the impression – a kind of false comfort – of providing checks and balances, where it does nothing of the kind.
There is a fallacy inherent in the accusation of a “power grab”: power cannot be grabbed from an institution that has none.
In the necessary process of democratic renewal under way there is no convincing case for retaining a second chamber. The case for its abolition literally is that there is no case for its retention.
Alex White is director of elections of the Labour Party Seanad Referendum Campaign and Labour TD, Dublin South