Rearguard action from Seanad advocates fails to refute notion of Dáil ‘waiting room’
Composition of the Upper House is the cause of a serious problem: perception
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said ‘the Seanad did nothing to challenge the unattainable policies of the Celtic Tiger’. Photograph: Cathal Noonan
Dysfunctional, undemocratic and eliteist – all are words used to describe the Seanad during the abolition debate.
Parties on both sides of the campaign have their arguments. But they share common ground in criticising a view that the Seanad failed in the last decade by approving policies that eventually led to Ireland’s economic collapse.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said “the Seanad did nothing to challenge the unattainable policies of the Celtic Tiger”.
Fianna Fáil, the only party calling for retention, said in its 2011 general election manifesto that “the Seanad did not play a substantive role in challenging unsustainable policies”.
The Seanad generally mirrors the Dáil; the government has a majority, meaning legislation brought from chamber to chamber is rarely blocked.
If the whole is supposed to be greater than the sum of its parts, surely those nominating and instructing those parts – party leaders – are as culpable for any failings as the Seanad itself?
Dublin City University political scientist Eoin O’Malley says blaming the Seanad for the mess the country got into is wrong, as to do so you would “have to blame the Dáil first”.
“If second chambers are meant to second guess or moderate the policies of the first chamber, and they fail to do it, then what is the point in their being there?”
The Seanad’s composition, says O’Malley, poses problems for its perception.
“The problem with it is that it creates a political class, that the party leaders have control over who gets elected and who gets a nominations, which means that effectively you’re a senator because your party leader has made you one,” he says.
“At least most TDs can say, ‘I got elected on my own’ and might have a chance of doing so again without the party label . . . it’s inconceivable to think of an independent Senator getting elected through the [vocational] panels.”
UCD politics professor John Coakley says the “waiting room” nature of the Seanad is “relatively unusual” in the context of upper houses of parliament internationally.
“If you look at the House of Lords, or other nominated second chambers, often they will consist of former members of the lower house, but it won’t operate the other way around.”
Roughly one in five current TDs has served in the Seanad. And many who spent time there have progressed in their political careers, such as Ministers Brendan Howlin and Phil Hogan. Frances Fitzgerald moved into the Seanad in 2002 after two terms as a TD but returned to the Dáil in 2011 and was appointed Minister for Children.
Two Senators hoping for a similar recovery are Fine Gael’s Michael D’Arcy and Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien, who lost their Dáil seats in 2011.
“I’ll be very upfront about this, I never wanted to be in Seanad Éireann. I chose to stand on the basis that my area, north Co Wexford, would have been entirely unrepresented otherwise,” says D’Arcy.
O’Brien says he initially thought moving into the Seanad felt like a sportsperson dropping from the first team to the reserves.
“There may have been that feeling [that] you’re taking a bit of a step down. But the more I experience it, and being leader of the Opposition, I find now I have more responsibility than I did when I was a backbench TD.”
D’Arcy says the Seanad is “better than I knew”. “If the objective is to scrutinise legislation, then the Seanad is a mile ahead of the Dáil.”
“People are respected as politicians and I don’t see why it should only be in one direction,” she adds.
While the prospect of being “directly elected by the people is very attractive”, adds Ms Tuffy, not everyone in the Seanad wants to be in the Dáil and some lower profile “career Senators” offered strong contributions and opinions.
“I think I am a better TD because I was in the Seanad,” she says. “I’m a better legislator . . . but I don’t want to go back to the Seanad.”