Reformed Seanad would produce worthwhile upper House
Should be seen as first step in root and branch reform of governance
The Senate chamber – “By designing a Seanad that reflects the changing shape of Irish society, and not simply Ireland’s political class, an upper house worth having could be created.” PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON
The Seanad referendum has provided a rare and valuable opportunity for the Irish people to debate the shape of their government in a focused manner. We are being asked to choose between having a Seanad or not. But why should we not take this opportunity to reimagine our political future? Can we not do better?
If we are sufficiently motivated to tear down a house, could we not be brave enough to build a new one? A detailed and costed outline of how Seanad Éireann could look is now available on UCD’s historyhub.ie website.
The powers of the Seanad – namely to reflect upon and revise legislation – are perfectly appropriate. However, it is the composition that renders it undesirable.
The Government’s referendum campaign promises “fewer politicians”. The latest proposals deliver on that promise while retaining an upper house. Instead of career politicians, the proposed model would include representatives of important and, in some cases, marginalised interest groups in Irish society. With a clear representative mandate, these Senators could transcend the party constraints of the Dáil and voice the interests of those who elected them.
For too long the Seanad has been viewed as a creche for aspiring TDs and a retirement home for veterans who have suffered rejection by the electorate. Only 10 per cent of the Seanad is directly elected by citizens and even this is done on a restricted, university-graduate franchise.
By designing a Seanad that reflects the changing shape of Irish society, and not simply Ireland’s political class, an upper house worth having could be created. Seanad reform should only occur as the first step towards comprehensive root-and-branch reform of Irish government from local to national level.
Turning to historical precedents, it is significant that the idea of a two-chamber system has been hardwired into every workable proposal for the structural reform of Irish governance since the second Home Rule Bill of 1893.
Between 1912 and 1914, serious attention was given to proposals for the composition and shape of an upper house for a self-governing Ireland. Eventually, a provincial franchise was settled upon as the most appropriate blueprint for a “senate”; a term used to assuage unionists as it is subordinate to a “House of Lords” in Westminster-derived systems.
Under the Government of Ireland Act (1914), representatives of Ireland’s four provinces were to convene in the upper house of a Home Rule parliament and represent the varied interests of the regions. It could be argued the same concerns persist today. Senators voicing the unified concerns of an entire region would enjoy a mandate and credibility simply unattainable in the Dáil constituency system. Furthermore, provincial representation would be a welcome departure from the excessive localism that dominates Dáil proceedings and usurps the function of local government.
Following on from the all-island Home Rule model, a modern-day Seanad could include representatives from Northern Ireland – with the consent of Westminster and Stormont – without posing a threat to the status of Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly. Instead, it would provide an opportunity for unionist as well as nationalist voices from Ulster to be represented in Dublin. Senators from Northern Ireland could play a vital role in policies that affect the entire island.
British and Irish politicians in the 20th century saw the need for an upper house as a safeguard. Not, as some commentators argue, as a safeguard for democracy and the rights of all but as a safeguard for the minority. This once meant the landed aristocracy and Protestant minority.
As the debates during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914 shifted from all-Ireland proposals to discussion of partition, an upper house became all the more vital for the protection of the Protestant and unionist minority that would be left stranded in the feared tyranny of a “Rome Rule” 26-county Free State. Nowadays, there are new minorities in equal if not greater need of a voice and a role in the Irish legislative process.
The “new Irish”, Travellers and the Irish abroad all need and deserve parliamentary representation. To date, even the proportional representation system of Dáil elections has not served these tiny and often geographically scattered communities. Just as it was for the Anglo-Irish of the 1920s, Seanad Éireann remains the only house with space to accommodate marginalised or forgotten voices.
In 1922, Seanad Éireann was established to acknowledge the realities of a post-conflict society bearing the scars of sectarianism. Whereas these considerations no longer exist in 2013, there is a tendency to assume “the Irish people” aresocially homogenous. Class and ethnic diversity are forgotten as parties vie for votes. The reality is that the State has become ever-more socially diverse. The precedents of the Home Rule Bills promised a voice for all on a polarised island.
In short, a predominantly elected Seanad filled with “other voices” and provincial representatives would meet the challenges faced by modern Ireland. The retention of bicameralism holds great potential. As an island nation with an open economy, an increasingly pluralistic society and a global footprint, Ireland has an opportunity to future-proof itself and design an innovative upper house.
To abolish the Seanad would be easy, but would also be short-sighted. Retention is the first step to reform and the construction of a better and more inclusive legislature for all.
l Other Voices: Historical Precedents and Modern Propositions for Ireland’s Upper House is the first in a series of articles on Seanad reform (historyhub.ie)
Dr Conor Mulvagh is editorial assistant on the RIA’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series and lectures part-time in history and Irish studies at University College Dublin. firstname.lastname@example.org