Reformed Seanad would produce worthwhile upper House
Should be seen as first step in root and branch reform of governance
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