Seanad badly needed in absence of radical parliamentary change


OPINION:It is odd how no party has referred to the thorough cross-party Seanad report of 2004

THIS SO-CALLED census on abolition of the Seanad is lazy and ill-informed. The idea of abolition started over 12 months ago when Enda Kenny (it appears on a whim) made a dramatic announcement on the abolition of the Seanad. Of course, it gained an immediate chorus of approval.

In the recent general election, Fine Gael repeated the mantra of abolition, followed by Fianna Fáil, followed by the Labour Party, which wishes to set up a constitutional conference to discuss all matters relating to the changes in the Constitution.

So far, all these options have one signpost – eventual abolition of Seanad Éireann. In the meantime there is this unseemly carry-on of nominations to the various panels by Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael does its business privately. No one knows until the victors and victims are unveiled – Senator Paul Coughlan being the honourable escapee from Fine Gael machinations some years back. Confusion has grown upon confusion, and it is my belief the end result will not be the clean break as envisaged by Kenny, but an unholy mess.

I believe there is a great need for a properly functioning Seanad, in the absence of more fundamental parliamentary change. It is quite odd how no party in its musings on the Seanad has referred at all to the cross-party Seanad report of 2004. It was the work of Brian Hayes, the then leader of the Independents in the Seanad; John Dardis, Seanad leader of the Progressive Democrats, and this writer in her capacity as leader of the Seanad. The report would have made the Seanad more accountable, transparent and useful to the body politic.

It was thorough, involving the analysis of 11 previous reports on the Seanad, research on upper houses overseas and a public consultation process. Of major importance was the involvement of the public, which was invited to express its views on reform of the Seanad to a committee of the House. We received 161 written submissions and held four days of public hearings.

A striking thing about this process was that very few people called for the abolition of the Seanad. Most wanted it reformed to make it more democratic and relevant to our evolving society. It was also clear from these submissions that Irish citizens saw a major gap between themselves and the Upper House.

Our proposals were intended to bridge this gap. They were radical, involving constitutional change, new legislation and extensive revisions to the Seanad’s standing orders. We argued at length before agreeing a coherent and complete package of recommendations. We strongly believe the recommendations should be implanted as a package.

Our recommendations involved new ways to choose senators involving the public more closely, combined with significant changes to the Seanad’s functions. We believed these changes would give greater public legitimacy to the Seanad.

The significant changes to the functions of Seanad Éireann that we recommended involve the definition of a new role for the House in the areas of legislative consultation, EU affairs, social partnership, North/South implementation bodies, and the scrutiny of public appointments.

This cross-party report is as relevant today as when written. I urge the new Government leaders to read it before irrevocably abolishing the Seanad.