Seanad reform may be safer political bet for Coalition than risky referendum

 

ANALYSIS:Senators Zappone and Quinn have advanced a case for electing the Seanad by universal franchise. The proposed Bill may get the Taoiseach off the hook

TAOISEACH ENDA Kenny may have made the cover of Time magazine recently but his popularity at home cannot be taken for granted. Some would say he is making a cross for his own back by proposing a risky measure like the abolition of Seanad Éireann.

Kenny is standing by his commitment to hold a referendum on the future of the second chamber. But the language is starting to get shaky. He told the Dáil last week: “We have not made a decision but I envisage that it will be held in the latter half of 2013.”

He cited Ireland’s EU presidency in the first six months of next year as the reason for the delay. “The Ministers will be attending presidency meetings during that period.”

The referendum is promised in the programme for government but no specific deadline is given, unlike the Fine Gael election manifesto which undertook to hold it “within 12 months of assuming office”.

As the 18th-century sage Samuel Johnson put it: “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging,” and members of the Upper House have rallied in their own defence.

The leaders of this movement are Independent Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, who have joined forces with former tánaiste and Progressive Democrat’s leader Michael McDowell, former senator Joe O’Toole and Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan.

The five of them recently issued a “consultation paper” – in another era it would have been called a pamphlet – urging Seanad reform through legislation rather than abolition by way of referendum.

Under the title, Open It, Don’t Close It, they put forward a case for legislation to have the Seanad elected by universal franchise but in a way that would give it “a mandate distinct from and secondary to that of Dáil Éireann”.

There are 60 members of the Upper House, including 11 nominated by the Taoiseach, six elected by graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland and the remaining 43 by county and city councillors and members of the incoming Dáil and outgoing Seanad. The Seanad election takes place after a new Dáil is elected.

Successive governments have failed to give legislative effect to the constitutional amendment approved 33 years ago, by a majority of more than half-a-million voters, providing that the franchise for electing the six university senators be extended to graduates of all third-level colleges, not just the NUI and TCD.

The nomination of 11 members by the Taoiseach is specified in Bunreacht na hÉireann and this can only be altered or removed by referendum. However, the Quinn-Zappone document, available on the issuu.comself-publishing website at iti.ms/TT9Pi2, points out that de Valera’s Constitution does not specify the manner in which the remaining 43 are elected.

The Constitution only requires that this group of senators must be elected from one of five panels of candidates in areas where they have “knowledge and practical experience”, including National Language and Culture, Agriculture and Fisheries, Labour, whether organised or not, Industry and Commerce, and Public Administration.

The elections are held on the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote and by secret postal ballot. The electorate for the vocational panels in 2011 was ludicrously small at 1,092 but any NUI or TCD graduates among them can also vote for the university senators.

Zappone has said a Seanad Reform Bill 2013 is being drafted with a view to putting it before the House next year. It is to propose that every person over 18 could choose, or be assigned on occupational/vocational grounds, to vote on one or other of the panels, including the third-level colleges.

The Quinn-Zappone document is based on the principle of “One Person One Vote” and it rejects claims that the Seanad costs €30 million a year, insisting that the figure is below €10 million.

Will their Bill get through the Seanad and into the Dáil? Three Labour Senators voted against the Government last June on an Opposition motion that Seanad reform be part of the agenda of the forthcoming constitutional convention, but Eamon Gilmore has laid down the law since then and the whip will be withdrawn if it happens again.

Could this Bill be a means of Kenny getting off the hook? Instead of venturing into the uncharted waters of a referendum where many voters may be seeking to punish the Government on other issues, he could claim the mantle of “leader who reformed the Seanad by threatening to abolish it”.