The debate on the future of the Seanad is a bit like the Seanad itself, a sideshow. No one seriously blames the Seanad for all that ails Irish politics, nor should we seriously consider that reforming it would in some way fix Irish politics.
In the 34 years I served in Dáil Éireann some senators, media and academics obsessed about the role of the Upper House. I tended to ignore the debates, because I never really saw its value. As the leader of a small party, however, it was useful for us to bulk up our parliamentary party when we had lost seats. Some saw this as something of a climbdown as in 1987 the Progressive Democrats' manifesto, in part authored by Michael McDowell, proposed the abolition of the Seanad. But we were prepared to participate in it while it was there.
For me the lack of interest in the Seanad is borne out by the absence of demand over three decades to implement by legislation the constitutional amendment of 1979 extending the Seanad franchise to graduates of all universities.
The State's first senate had a valid role of providing representation to the Protestant minority. But by the 1980s Ireland was becoming a more pluralist society, and the political system slowly followed, if at times kicking and screaming. Today the Dáil provides a colourful variety of voices. Who could say any chamber that contains Mick Wallace, Ming Flanagan, Peter Mathews, Shane Ross, Pearse Doherty, Leo Varadkar and Joe Higgins is in need of a supplement because we don't have "enough different voices on the national stage" (as Éamon Ryan argued in these pages)?
In 1987 the PDs argued that the Seanad’s continued existence “contributes towards public disillusionment with our political system”. Nothing has changed in the 26 years since we wrote that to change my mind – if anything there is even less need for an Upper House now. And it was instructive that in 1989 when Michael McDowell lost his seat he turned down the offer of a Seanad seat.
There have indeed been eminent people who sat in the Seanad and never sought election to the Dáil. But these seats were often a symbolic gesture or reward for a lifetime's service. The contribution made by those who occupied them was not in the Seanad.
All the debate on Seanad reform would be laughable if it weren't slightly depressing. This country has suffered serious economic crises at least three times since independence and I am convinced that the political system is in part to blame for this. We need to change that system so that we think deeply and strategically about policy. We need to stop being policy borrowers and become policy innovators.
Powerful second chambers merely slow down policy change. Japan, Italy and the US – countries with powerful upper houses – have seen policy sclerosis and legislative gridlock. Large countries can afford to move slowly since their size protects them. As a small open country Ireland has to be faster to adapt. It is noteworthy that few of the small democracies in central and eastern Europe that re-emerged after the fall of communism chose to have a second chamber.
We need political reform, not Seanad reform. For all the attention Seanad reform gets there is less attention on the much more important issues of Dáil and government reform. If we reject this opportunity, there will be another raft of proposals for Seanad reform. Most likely there will be no agreement on what to do with it, but even if there were, and we reformed the Seanad we might end up thinking we “fixed” the system. No matter what reform would be agreed, and my experience tells me none would, it would make no real difference because the Upper House has no power.
Do we have to wait for the next great crisis to realise that the Seanad is not the problem, nor is it the solution?
Des O’Malley was a TD from 1968 to 2002 and held numerous Cabinet positions. He was the founding leader of the PDs