Proposals will transform Upper House if will to implement them exists
Key element would allow citizens in North and abroad to vote in election
Proposals if implemented likely to result in control of the Seanad slipping out of the hands of the political parties. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Seanad will be transformed if the recommendations of the working group are accepted by the Government.
The key recommendation of the group, chaired by Maurice Manning, is that all citizens, including those living abroad and in Northern Ireland, be allowed to vote. If implemented it is likely to result in control of the Seanad slipping out of the hands of the political parties who currently control it. That will have significant implications for the working of Irish democracy.
The working group is recommending that 30 of the 60 members of the Seanad be elected directly by citizens, with 13 seats being reserved for the current electorate of county councillors, TDs and outgoing senators, while six would be elected by third-level graduates. The Taoiseach would retain the right to nominate 11 members, but more than half the seats would be filled by direct election by citizens.
The experience of the two university constituencies since 1937 is that party candidates fare badly. It seems graduate voters having voted mainly for political parties in Dáil elections are inclined to opt for a different kind of Seanad representative. Out of the current six university members just one, Labour’s Ivana Bacik, represents a political party.
The same trend is likely on the five vocational panels if the working group’s proposals are implemented. Farmers are likely to elect at least some industry representatives on their panel and the same trend is likely across the other panels, with well-organised groups like teachers and cultural organisations ensuring their members are registered to vote.
Candidates will have to get the support of a nominating body as at present, with the criteria for nominating bodies likely to change. How a government will work with a Seanad in which it doesn’t have a majority will represent a welcome challenge and should open up democracy.
Some fears have been expressed that allowing people from Northern Ireland or Irish citizens abroad to vote in Seanad elections will infringe on the basic democratic principle that links representation and taxation. However, as the Seanad cannot defeat a money Bill, the issues should not arise.
Using the internet for registering voters and for distributing ballot papers has raised some fears but they are adequately dealt with in the report. If the internet can be made secure for banking and money transfers it can be done for voter registration. The other point is that voting will not take place on the internet but by post.
Over the years there have been 11 reports recommending Seanad reform of one kind or another. This one can be the real thing as long as the political will to implement it is there.