Only political insiders would mourn the passing of the Seanad
Opinion: In 75 years the upper house has never acted as an effective block on any government action
The Dáil chamber. “A reformed Dáil both can and should perform all of the roles of the Seanad more effectively and more cheaply.” Photograph: Alan Betson
If the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has proved one thing, it is that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system designed for 19th-century Britain.
The Government’s reform plan represents the biggest package of political change since the passing of the Constitution in 1937. This includes not just a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, but also significant reform of the Dáil and local government.
Any debate on the Seanad’s future should start by asking one simple question: Why does a small country like Ireland have so many politicians?
Even after current measures to reduce the number of TDs, Ireland will still have 218 members of parliament. The average in countries with similar populations, such as New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Norway, is about 160. Why? None of these countries has a second house.
Abolition of the Seanad could save the State at least €50 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. Over five Dáil terms, with pension costs and expenses included, these savings alone would have us more than halfway to paying for a national children’s hospital.
We are already hearing proposals for reforming the Seanad. However, 10 reports on Seanad reform have been published since it was established in 1938, and not a single reform has happened. Despite this consistent failure, many of the Seanad’s most prominent defenders argue vigorously against a referendum.
These include Fianna Fáil, which did absolutely nothing to reform the Seanad while in power. In fact, just three short years ago, Fianna Fáil favoured abolishing the Seanad. Now that it is in Opposition, it is opposed to the type of genuine, radical reform that it could never achieve.
Some critics of the plan to abolish the Seanad portray this campaign as the “establishment” trying to end “inconvenient” checks and balances. Yet most of those behind this campaign to “reform” are current or former Senators, prominent political commentators and even a former tánaiste. Who could be more “establishment” than that?
The Constitution declares that the people are sovereign. What could be more appropriate or more democratic than asking the people to decide on the future of the Seanad, after 75 years of inaction by real political “insiders”?
The abolition of the Seanad would, if passed, bring Ireland into line with other small European countries. A recent review shows that Ireland and Slovenia are the only small (ie population less than 10 million), non-federal countries within the 34-member Organisation for Economic and Cooperative Development with a second house.
Within Europe, six countries have a population of between four and six million, including Ireland. Our country is the only one with a second chamber.
Defenders of the Seanad argue that it is a necessary part of the system of checks and balances within the Irish political system. But when in the last 75 years did the Seanad act as an effective block on any government action? The answer is never.
It has little or no power and as such, cannot act as either a check on the government or a balance to the Dáil. In addition, many other countries have shown that rigorous checks and balances can be created in a single-chamber parliament.
Ireland’s second house owes more to the legacy of the British empire and failed 1930s vocationalist ideas than it does to modern constitutional theory.
All of the Scandinavian countries, for instance, have abolished their second chambers. These countries also have, by general agreement, some of the most accountable and effective political systems in the world.
One final question: if we were drafting a new constitution today, would a Seanad be included? I think not.
After 75 years it’s time to abolish the Seanad, reduce the cost of politics and reform those political institutions that really do matter: the Dáil and local government.