A hallmark of the focus on the Seanad during the referendum campaign was a clear recognition that it needed reform. The public by their vote recognised that a second chamber has a constructive role to play in our constitutional democracy. However, the messages that emanated clearly during the campaign and subsequently suggest that some reforms are required to improve the Seanad and enhance its effectiveness in the eyes of the public.
The contexts for reform are set by the Constitution to a very large extent and will limit some of the broader changes that people may wish to see unless a further referendum is held. For example, with the exception of changes to the electorate for university senators, which has already been authorised by a referendum in 1979, the basis for appointing members of the Seanad will remain fixed to the current structures set out in the Constitution. The role and function of the Seanad in the legislative process will also remain defined by the Constitution, but even within these constraints there are significant changes that can be introduced to increase the connection between the Seanad and the wider public, as well as enhancing our role as an efficient and effective legislative chamber.
There is a series of reform proposals that has emerged over recent months and which adds to the myriad of suggestions on how the Upper House can be changed in a range of reports stretching back over decades. Ideally the 60 members of the Seanad should be to the fore in outlining a vision for the Upper House which can resonate outside the sometimes claustrophobic walls of the Leinster House complex.
At the heart of the function of the Seanad must be our role in the passage of legislation. Of course there are opportunities for senators to raise issues of particular concern to them within their areas of competence or interest, but the development of legislation must be at the heart of what we do as a second chamber.
I am often told by Ministers that when a Bill comes before the Seanad, the tone of debates tends to be far less partisan and more constructive than in the Dáil. We are also fortunate that the Seanad contains a fair mix of expertise which can inform debates on legislation and I have seen countless opportunities where senators will assist with the improvement of legislation through identifying specific flaws in a Bill or identifying a way that a particular outcome can be achieved more efficiently or effectively in law.
As a legislative chamber the Seanad is far more efficient than the Dáil and has significant potential to take on more legislative work before Bills are brought to the Seanad.
The mix of expertise is in part due to the election and appointment processes for the Upper House. While some have criticised the appointment processes to the Seanad as elitist and undemocratic, there is no doubt they have delivered some excellent senators who have made significant contributions to public life both in the House and subsequently. Gordon Wilson, Mary Robinson, Catherine McGuinness, John Robb, John A Murphy, Joe O'Toole and Martin McAleese are among the many senators who have made a strong contribution to Irish public life.
The concept behind the vocational panels underpinning the Seanad electoral system has got merit in bringing forward candidates who are genuinely from a particular business, professional, cultural or union background. The capacity of various bodies to nominate candidates to run for election to the Seanad through the political system is an important bridge between key sectors of society and the Oireachtas – a system that has secured the nomination of many excellent senators who might not have got through the party political nomination process.
It is also important to recognise the role of local authority members in the electoral system for the Seanad. With 43 seats in the Seanad being elected by members of local authorities in Ireland, this electorate represents a direct and significant link between local communities and the Oireachtas. This is an important connection between local democracy and the national parliament, which could be mined further through administrative changes designed to facilitate structured engagement with local authorities in the normal course of Seanad business.
The Seanad is not perfect and it does need reform and renewal, as does the Dáil. However, we now know that the verdict of the people in the recent referendum will be honoured by the Government and we will see renewal of the Seanad and a focus on how it can operate effectively as a key element in our participative parliamentary democracy. We owe it to the people to ensure that this happens.
Senator Paul Coghlan is the Government chief whip in the Seanad