Could Seanad reform produce an acceptable second Oireachtas chamber?

Inside Politics column

The referendum Bill to abolish the Seanad was launched with a fanfare during the week but the problem with the debate is that it is so difficult to disentangle political opportunism from genuine concern about reform on all sides.

Enda Kenny has certainly delivered on the pledge he gave at the Fine Gael presidential dinner in October 2009 to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad if he was elected Taoiseach.

The only problem is that a couple of months earlier at the MacGill summer school he spoke in favour of a reformed Seanad rather than its abolition. There is a strong suspicion that the sudden shift to abolitionism was a political stunt designed to distract attention from a poor opinion poll result at a low point in his leadership.

His announcement to more than 1,000 of the party faithful at the event in the Burlington Hotel came as a bolt out of the blue, particularly to those members of the Seanad who were present.


If Kenny can be accused of shifting his position in 2009, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has undertaken a more recent U-turn. In the general election campaign two years ago he committed his party to the abolition of the Upper House as part of a wider programme of political reform.

However, at the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis two months ago he expressed outright opposition to the Coalition’s plan to abolish the Seanad, describing it as a “major power-grab by Government”. He went on to say that it would make the executive less reviewable and less accountable by parliament.

Another strong proponent of the No argument, former tánaiste Michael McDowell, was a leading member of the Progressive Democrats which campaigned in the 1987 election for the abolition of the Seanad. Responding to an allegation from Catherine McGuinness, then a senator and later Supreme Court judge, that the PDs were "pandering to the gutter" on the issue, McDowell wrote a letter to The Irish Times defending his party's position.

He trotted out many of the arguments now being made by Kenny, saying that Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand had dropped bicameral legislatures without any ill effects and he went on to point out that most academic research on the topic had cast doubt on continued usefulness of the Seanad. Of course politicians are entitled to change their minds and the three mentioned above can all argue that circumstances have changed. Maybe the real surprise is that Kenny has actually delivered on his pledge regardless of why he made it in the first place.

The shifting views on the Seanad also point to the complexity of the issue of a second chamber. Leading political figures down the years have changed their minds about the value of an Upper House.

The initial proposal for a senate goes all the way back to the Home Rule Bill of 1912. As well as a House of Commons for the island of Ireland it also contained provision for a 40-member senate to be elected by proportional representation. The four provinces were to be the constituencies with Ulster electing 14 senators, Leinster 11, Munster nine and Connacht six. The plan lapsed with the failure to implement Home Rule.

Ten years later when the constitutional committee established by the Provisional Government in 1922 met in the Shelbourne Hotel to draw up a draft constitution there was unanimity on the need for a senate. The establishment of an Upper House and the use of proportional representation had been safeguards promised to southern unionists.

The Free State senate, which had a minimum membership age of 35, carved out a distinctive role for itself. It included important literary figures such as W.B Yeats and Oliver St John Gogarty, members of the Guinness and Jameson families, co-operative pioneer Horace Plunkett and four earls.

The senate could not reject money Bills but had the power to delay other legislation for nine months. At times it took a very different line from the Dáil. The only opposition to the ban on divorce came from the Upper House and two important Bills, one restricting Civil Service exams to men and the other excluding women from jury service were rejected.

When Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil in 1926 the senate’s days were numbered despite the fact there had been a national election to the body the year before with all citizens over 35 entitled to vote. Éamon de Valera was emphatic. “We think the proper thing to do is to end the senate and not to attempt to mend it. It is costly and we do not see any useful function that it really serves,” he said in 1928.

Once in power he proceeded to abolish it but then began to modify his position, saying in 1936: “If it can be shown how we can constitute a senate which practically will be of value then certainly we will give such a proposition careful consideration.”

At that stage de Valera was devising his new constitution and when it was published, the senate was resurrected with many of the same limited powers and the trappings of the corporatist ideas then in vogue. “The new House must never be in a position to challenge the government as the old one had,” he said and made sure of that through the provision allowing the taoiseach to nominate 11 members.

The lack of power and the complex electoral system that gives the Government a near permanent majority has left the Upper House a very subsidiary chamber to the Dáil with no popular mandate.

A raft of reports over the years have made various suggestions for a reformed Upper House but the problem is how to make it more democratic without turning it into a mirror image of the Dáil which could lead to two Houses challenging each other.

De Valera put it well in 1938 when he declared that “it would pass the wit of man to devise a really satisfactory second chamber.” The Irish people will now be given the chance to decide whether total abolition would be a better option.