Taoiseach can strike blow for Seanad reform

 

Enda Kenny’s 11 nominations to Upper House offer Coalition a chance to end cronyism

MUCH OF the coverage of the Seanad election outcome has inevitably focused on the number and composition of the Fianna Fáil representation and its implication, if any, for Micheál Martin’s task in seeking to save his party from extinction. It’s important, however, to note that Fine Gael were the real winners in this Seanad election.

Given the numbers that Fine Gael had in the electoral college of councillors, incoming TDs and outgoing senators, they should have won a handful more seats. Fine Gael ran very disciplined Seanad election campaigns in 2002 and 2007. This time, however, in the flush of their general election victory, they lost control of the nomination process. As a result it ran too many candidates on some panels and this led to leakages.

In addition, because Fine Gael had so few incumbents running it was less competitive among the Independents and smaller party councillors than some of the long-standing Fianna Fáil Seanad operators.

That can only take a little from the fact that even before Enda Kenny gives any thought to nominating his 11 Senators, Fine Gael will be the largest party in the Seanad. Next week these Senators will join the 76 Fine Gael TDs and combined they will make up one of the largest Fine Gael parliamentary parties in history.

It will be a push to squeeze them all in, even allowing for the fact that Fine Gael has recently moved to enlarged lodgings on the fifth floor of Leinster House.

Labour, too, had a good Seanad election. Among those elected were unsuccessful Dáil candidates in constituencies that have not previously been strong for Labour. The party will be hoping to build sustainable political bases in these areas and challenge again for a Dáil seat.

The precedents are not good for this. In the wake of the Spring tide in 1992 Labour had relatively high-profile Senators in places like Donegal and Cavan- Monaghan but never managed to convert this into Dáil gains.

Their increased Seanad representation gives Fine Gael and Labour more than enough Oireachtas members and public resources for local representation and party development.

Now attention turns to who Enda Kenny and Eamonn Gilmore will include among the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees to the Seanad.

How and who they chose will say much about whether this Government is really committed to political reform.

Given their gains in the Dáil and Seanad elections, neither Fine Gael nor Labour needs to top up their spoils by using the Taoiseach’s nominations purely for party political patronage.

The Government has been at pains to create the impression it will not operate on the basis of cronyism. It announced this week, for example, that it will advertise for directors to fill positions on the boards of the State-owned banks. The real test, however, will be whether Enda Kenny and Eamonn Gilmore are prepared to break new ground in nominating these 11 Senators.

Some Government politicians will, no doubt, seek to argue in the coming days that they have to nominate Fine Gael and Labour politicians to ensure that they have a working majority in the Upper House. This is not correct.

Many incorrectly assume that the need for the government of the day to have a majority in the Seanad was the rationale for de Valera’s inclusion of the taoiseach’s right to nominate 11 Senators in the Constitution in the first place. This is simply not true. At the time of enacting the Constitution, no provision was made for who the electorate to the Seanad would be, so it was not foreseeable how many of the elected members any government party or parties was likely to win and whether 11 would suffice to guarantee a taoiseach a majority.

It is also often not appreciated that councillors were not given votes in Seanad elections by the Constitution. This was only done by legislation and didn’t happen until the mid-1940s.

The Constitution leaves it open to the Oireachtas to decide who the electorate for the Seanad should be. In fact the Government could pass an Act giving a vote to every citizen in the vocational panels if it was so inclined.

If ensuring a government majority in the Seanad had been the purpose, then de Valera would also have provided that the term of these 11 Senators would end when a government’s term ended. That is not the case. Once nominated, these 11 Senators stay in situ until the Dáil dissolves even if the government changes without a Dáil dissolution.

This is what happened in 1995 when the Fianna Fáil-Labour government was replaced by the Rainbow government. John Bruton’s government never had a Seanad majority but that did not affect in any meaningful way their capacity to govern.

Indeed in testimony before the Seanad reform subcommittee in September 2003, Bruton himself spoke quite favourably about this experience, saying that it posed no difficulty for his government because the Seanad had behaved very responsibly throughout.

Of course, it goes against all natural political instinct for a party leader to put aside narrow party interest. However, if Enda Kenny and Eamonn Gilmore want to give credence to the claim that they are breaking new ground, then now is their opportunity.

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