Graduate’s challenge to Seanad voting system rejected

Former University of Limerick student sought vote under university and vocational panels

Tomás Heneghan claimed the State’s failure to facilitate his registration as an elector was unlawful, unconstitutional and a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Photograph: Tom Honan.

Tomás Heneghan claimed the State’s failure to facilitate his registration as an elector was unlawful, unconstitutional and a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Photograph: Tom Honan.

 

The High Court has rejected a University of Limerick graduate’s claim that he should be entitled to a vote in the Seanad Éireann elections under the university and vocational panels.

Tomás Heneghan claimed the State’s failure to facilitate his registration as an elector was unlawful, unconstitutional and a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Minister for Housing Planning and Local Government, the Government of Ireland and the State denied the claims.

On Wednesday, a three-judge divisional High Court, comprising its president Ms Justice Mary Irvine, Mr Justice Garret Simons and Mr Justice Brian O’Moore, found Mr Heneghan had not established an entitlement to any of the reliefs he sought.

Giving the decision, Mr Justice O’Moore said the court concluded that the system for the election of the 43 vocational panel senators, as provided for in the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947, was not invalid having regard to the provisions of the Constitution.

It also found the system for the election of the six university panel senators, under the earlier 1937 Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act, was not invalid under the Constitution.

It also rejected his claim that Irish law is inconsistent with the State’s obligations under the ECHR.

Mr Heneghan, Church Square, East Wall, Dublin, had claimed that as a University of Limerick graduate he was not entitled to vote on the panel set aside for graduates of the National University of Ireland (NUI) or the panel selected by registered graduates of Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

Among his arguments, he said there had been a failure by the State to extend the voting franchise to other universities arising out of the 1979 amendment to the Constitution expressly stating that it should be extended.

Mr Justice O’Moore said the issues in the case were included whether the 1947 Act, excluding citizens such as Mr Heneghan, who are not members of the Oireachtas or local government from voting, disproportionally interfered with his rights under the Constitution (Articles 18.4.(2), 5, 6, 40.1, 40(3.1), 40(3.2) and 40(6.1).

Discrimination

A second issue was whether section 6 (1) and (2) and section 7 of the Seanad Electoral (Universities Members) Act 1937 were unconstitutional in precluding UL graduates while permitting NUI and TCD graduates to vote.

A third issue was whether the first 1937 Act’s provisions were incompatible with the right to free elections and prohibition on discrimination provisions of the ECHR.

A fourth issue, which was argued by the State’s side, was whether the election of members of the Seanad is a power reserved to members of the Oireachtas under the Constitution and therefore by reason of the separation of powers Mr Heneghan’s claim was not a justiciable one.

The court heard extensive evidence from a number of witnesses for both sides.

Mr Justice O’Moore said Mr Heneghan accepted that an indirect election is inherently democratic. No attempt had been made in oral submissions on his behalf to put forward any analysis as to why the form of indirect franchise provided under the existing legislation is unconstitutional, he said.

The court did not believe Mr Heneghan had laid the evidential basis to enable it to decide either as to the subservience of Seanad Éireann or the ability of the vocational members to represent the relevant groupings in society.

“In large measure, the evidence relied upon by Mr Heneghan involves assertion, anecdote or argument, ” the judge said.

The court did not accept his submission as supporting or justifying a finding that the relevant provisions of the 1947 (Vocational Panel) Act was invalid.

It also concluded that the challenge to the constitutionality of the relevant portions of the 1937 (University Panel) Act, providing for the election of six university Senators, did not succeed.

There was no basis, either as a general rule or in the circumstances of the current case, to suggest that an amendment to the Constitution permitting the Oireachtas to enact legislation “requires it to do so”, he said.

In relation to the ECHR issue, the court found Mr Heneghan was not entitled to a declaration that the relevant Irish law was inconsistent with the State’s obligations under the Convention.