Disgrace that Seanad still being elected in archaic way

Precedents do not augur well for real reform

While we wait patiently as our newly convened Dáil takes its time in forming a government, the election of our next Seanad is happening below the public radar. In the Dáil the acting Government and Opposition profess a new found interest, once again, in political reform but, the Seanad election, once again, stands as an indictment of the failure of our politicians to implement even those reforms they profess to agree on. The Seanad consists of 60 members. Eleven of these will be nominated by the Taoiseach (or acting Taoiseach) in due course. Meanwhile, three senators are currently being elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland and another three by graduates of Trinity College. The other 43 senators are currently being elected from panels of candidates who nominally represent specific vocational interests. However, only sitting TDs, outgoing senators and members of city and county councils have votes for these "vocational" senators.

The way we elect our senators does not lend itself to easy explanation or justification. You won’t read too much about this election in the media and will see almost nothing of it on television or radio. This is entirely understandable.

‘No say who is elected’

RTÉ, for example, once told a candidate it “would not be providing coverage for the election to the Seanad because the vast majority of our audience has no say who is elected.”

Even in the academic literature coverage of these elections is limited. In their series of "How Ireland Voted" books published after each election Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh have always included a chapter written by one of their colleagues about the Seanad contest. In these chapters the authors diligently seek to summarise the complicated nominating process, the distinction between "inside" and "outside" panels and the strategies deployed by parties or independent groupings to maximise their seat share relative to their size within the electorate.

These chapters have variously described the Seanad election or elements of it as “subterranean”, “particularly complex”, “a unique experience”, “obscure”, “unnecessarily complicated”, “intense, time-consuming and nerve wrecking”, and even as “containing all the suspense of election night in the old Soviet Union”.

It is a disgrace that our second house is again being elected in the same archaic way it was five years ago. Responsibility for that rest with incumbent politicians in both the Dáil and Seanad and particularly with the last government.

In 2013 the government parties trying to abolish the Seanad spent weeks of legislative and political energy and thousands of euro. They absurdly depicted this proposed abolition, as a key element of what they claimed was a grand political reform programme. In their campaign to abolish it they not only overstated the cost of the Seanad, they also mocked its function and disparaged its previous membership. The public thankfully saw through the charade, as a deflection from real reform and rejected the abolition referendum by a narrow majority.

Then the government promised, once again, to reform the Seanad. Enda Kenny himself announced that the government would immediately do the easy part of that reform by enacting legislation to give effect to the Seventh Constitutional Amendment passed in 1979 to extend votes for the university seats to graduates of colleges other than the National University of Ireland and Trinity.

Despite all that fresh reform rhetoric, however, the government failed even to implement this minimalist change. It was disheartening, if entertaining last week to see Dublin City University Prof Gary Murphy launch an #EnactThe7th campaign on Twitter in understandable frustration at how graduates of his college and many other third level colleges are again locked out of this year's Seanad election.In the months after the referendum Kenny held a series of meetings with other party leaders at which he presented no concrete reform proposals. Meanwhile, his government voted down reform Bills presented by senators Feargal Quinn, Katherine Zappone and John Crown.

Options for reform

Then in a surprise move in December 2014 he announced the appointment of an expert working group to examine the options for reform within the current constitutional provisions. This group was chaired by former senator

Maurice Manning

and it published a report last April which concluded, as many groups had done previously, that a broader suffrage with one-person one-vote should be provided for, together with votes for emigrants and adults in Northern Ireland.

The Manning groups report has since sat untouched on some shelf in Government Buildings. Setting it up was a cynical exercise in winding down the clock on reform.

It is to be hoped that if they can sustain their fresh interest in Dáil reform and implement real change there, our politicians will then find the energy to finally implement real Seanad reform. The precedents don’t augur well for either.