Rejection of Seanad referendum would lead to constitutional immobilism
No coherent proposal for reform has been put forward
’The weakest institution by far under the Constitution has been the Seanad.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
In his 1943 memoir of William Butler Yeats, Oliver St John Gogarty, himself a former member of the Senate of the Irish Free State, wrote in relation to Yeats’s appointment as a senator:
“One day he told me when he was travelling by train to Galway, a countryman finding a door in the corridor locked, turned to him and said ‘Will you open it, Senator?’ As if all things were possible to a man in an exalted position. There was a little hint of slyness in his detection of humorous things of this sort.”
Yeats’s anecdote provides an apt epigraph to the current debate on the Seanad.
I am a resolute abolitionist. When the proposal was first advocated, I was a little startled, but could see its merit. I have since become ever more firmly persuaded that taking the Seanad out of the constitutional scheme is the right course. I support abolition as the first piece of institutional self-fashioning under the 1937 Constitution in the history of the state, based on the course of Irish politics as it has been experienced. It is radical and it is prudent. The case for eliminating the Seanad I believe to be compelling in political, historical and constitutional terms.
The weakest institution by far under the Constitution has been the Seanad. It is not amenable to reform that would not recast radically the Irish constitutional order and throw up a whole series of new problems. No coherent proposal for reform of the Seanad has been put forward. It is exceedingly doubtful that it is possible to formulate one.
It is casually suggested that it could be elected on universal suffrage. If it is to be elected in the same manner as the Dáil, the rationale for the Seanad’s existence as some sort of notionally politically independent and distinct specialist body vanishes. If elected by universal suffrage the composition of the Seanad would largely replicate that of the Dáil. If the Seanad nevertheless saw fit – and political institutions have their own momentum – to strike out in a direction that conflicts with that of the Dáil, the stage would be set for a collision between two houses of parliament enjoying the same democratic mandate. The country could find itself confronted by a constitutional crisis.
This is precisely the stubbornly unyielding dilemma that has stymied reform of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, but it is skated over by advocates of retention, who say they favour a Seanad elected by universal suffrage.
Reform of the Seanad is not an option that arises. The referendum proposal – abolition or retention – is not a loaded choice. It gives expression to a reality. Aside from the unreality of Seanad reform there is no consensus whatever around it. We cannot invite voters to write their own scheme for Seanad reform on the back of the ballot paper.