Objections to a wider franchise for the Seanad based on fallacies
Opinion: The Constitution is clear that the Dáil will remain the dominant House
The Bills proposed by Katherine Zappone, among others, have been vetted for constitutional compliance. Photograph: Alan Betson
At one level it is welcome that at least in some political parties and corners of the media a substantial debate has begun on the practicalities of widening the electorate for Seanad Éireann. This debate comes at an important moment, because amending legislation will have to be enacted sometime this year if there is to be sufficient time for any changes to be given effect before the next Seanad election, most likely early in 2016.
The Taoiseach seems set against universal suffrage for the Seanad. This week he told the Dáil that he would bring heads of a Bill to Cabinet extending the franchise for the university seats. It is an opportune moment therefore to confront some of the supposed obstacles Enda Kenny and some commentators suggest stand in the way of widening the Seanad electorate to include all adult citizens.
The first untruth to be nailed is the suggestion that expanding the vote for the university seats to include all third-level graduates amounts to real reform or that it is an adequate response to the recent referendum’s outcome. This would affect only six of the 60 Seanad seats.
Extending a Seanad vote to all third- level graduates without simultaneously giving votes on other panels to all voters would merely turn that which is currently elitist into something divisive. The Taoiseach’s proposals would mean a third or more of those in most households or social gatherings would have a Seanad vote while the others would not, solely because they did not get the opportunity to go to college.
It would be more democratic and less discriminatory to expand the right to vote in Seanad elections to all, on a panel of their choice
, and it would also give almost all senators a genuine and direct mandate.
The second suggestion that needs to be nailed is that the Constitution does not provide for or envisage universal suffrage for election to the Seanad. This is simply incorrect nonsense. When the Constitution was drafted there was some discussion about a wider Seanad franchise. However, the decision was made to leave it to the Oireachtas to decide how the Seanad should be elected. It is worth reiterating that Seanad voting eligibility is set out in legislation, and the separate Bills put forward by Katherine Zappone, John Crown and most recently Fianna Fáil have been vetted for constitutional compliance.
The newest inaccuracy touted is that the cost of direct elections to the Seanad would be prohibitive. This echoes the dishonest argument made by the Government about the cost of retaining the Seanad. Elections always come with some costs and to expand the electorate on the university panel would cost money. Surely it would be more cost-effective and democratic simply to extend Seanad suffrage to all voters registered for Dáil and local elections and have them choose a Seanad panel on registration.