The future of the Seanad
The Government is digging a hole for itself
Issues arising from the reform of the Seanad or its abolition have not been adequately debated. In the absence of public discussion, the Government appears determined to push ahead with an autumn referendum to get rid of the Upper House. Resistance to this approach has, however, been building and its latest manifestation is reflected in a Seanad Reform Bill sponsored by Independent Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn. The Bill suggests changes that would challenge the reforming appetite of any government while offering increased participation to the electorate.
Abolishing the Seanad has developed into something of a political mantra. Down the years, 12 detailed reports on necessary reforms were allowed to gather dust as successive governments regarded the exercise as “more bother than worth”. The Progressive Democrats advocated abolition in their founding manifesto of 1986 but the party gradually lost interest when the scale of consequential changes became apparent. Before the general election, Enda Kenny sprang a fresh commitment on an unsuspecting Fine Gael and, as Taoiseach, he appears determined to see it through.
Political games are being played. Mr Kenny’s commitment to abolish the Seanad came as the economy nosedived and public confidence in politics withered. The initiative offered the prospect of reform while deflecting attention from the failings of the Dáil. The Labour Party swung in behind the proposal while Fianna Fáil went one better and spoke about holding a referendum on the same day as the general election. Since then, political entropy has taken hold. Three Labour Senators voted against abolition last year when Senator John Crown introduced a reform Bill. Sinn Féin has come out against abolition and Fianna Fáil reversed its earlier position.
The Government is digging a hole for itself. Rather than confront the prospect of reform, it deliberately withheld permission for the constitutional convention to consider the matter. Faced by a second revolt involving the reform Bill in the Seanad, it grudgingly allowed discussion to go ahead but insisted that the choice put to the electorate will involve the abolition of the Seanad or continuation in its present form.
This reform Bill is more ambitious than previous exercises and has been designed to form the basis for an anti-referendum campaign. The Bill sets out what might be done to empower the Seanad and make it responsive and relevant to the public. It offers an extended franchise, involving emigrants and Northern Ireland residents; a more flexible nomination process and gender balance. At its heart, however, is an assumption that the Executive is prepared to embrace fundamental change and answer to Senators for legislative actions and appointments to public bodies. On past performance, that is a naive belief.