Six eminent former members start campaign to save Seanad
A CAMPAIGN to save the Seanad from being abolished has begun with an appeal by six eminent former members of the Upper House for a full public debate on the issue.
In a letter to The Irish Times, the six call for reform rather than abolition of the Seanad and say such a body could play a valuable political and constitutional role.
The six signatories are: TK Whitaker, widely acknowledged as the most influential public servant in the history of the State; former minister and Seanad leader, Mary O’Rourke; former SDLP deputy leader, Bríd Rodgers; former Northern Ireland ombudsman, Maurice Hayes; historian John A Murphy; and former Trinity College senator, Mary Henry.
Their initiative came in response to a request from an informal group that has been considering how to mount a campaign to reform the Seanad as an alternative to its abolition.
Among the members of this group are former minister for justice, Michael McDowell; former senator and president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Joe O’Toole; serving Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone; and barrister and commentator Noel Whelan. This group canvassed opinion among respected figures who had served in the Seanad and today’s letter emerged from that process.
The letter expresses the shared view of the six former senators that “rather than amend the Constitution to abolish the Seanad, it would be better to reform the Seanad’s electoral law to empower citizens to become more directly involved”.
They say this would continue and strengthen the presence in the Irish parliamentary process of voices that might not be heard if future parliamentarians were to be elected to a single chamber solely on the basis of the present system of geographical multi-seat Dáil constituencies.
“We believe that the Seanad under the existing Constitution can have a valuable democratic and constitutional role as a revising chamber, and as a potential check and balance on the powers of a transient Dáil majority in many areas, such as safeguarding the independence of the President and judiciary, and not least under article 29 in relation to protecting the State’s sovereignty in respect of EU treaty development, where the Seanad now has a veto.”
The six accept there has been justifiable public dissatisfaction with the effects of party political dominance in the Seanad, but they say a serious reform of the institution, done in time to take effect from the next general election, would be greatly preferable to simple abolition, which would entail more than 70 separate amendments to the Constitution, including the deletion of entire articles.
“Specifically, we do not favour holding any referendum solely to abolish the Seanad in isolation from broader constitutional proposals to reform the Oireachtas, including Dáil Éireann.
“Despite the present unsatisfactory system of electing the Seanad chosen by Dáil Éireann, we believe that the Seanad has enhanced rather than diminished Irish democracy. We believe that if the Seanad’s electoral system were reformed, it could add to the standing of democratic politics in the eyes of the people and to the effectiveness of the Oireachtas,” says the letter.
It concludes by urging a considered, inclusive and informed public debate on the Seanad, its functions and reform, before consideration of any constitutional proposal for its abolition.