Friday 4 October 2013

Axing the Upper House? Ireland votes on the Abolition of the Seanad

Voters are heading to the polls today in Ireland to vote on the abolition of the Seanad (or Senate), the upper house of the bicameral Oireachtas (parliament). It's accepted that the house has largely failed to demonstrate its relevance to Ireland today: there is little to report of changes brought about by the house, and it is not known for standing up to the government. With supporters of abolition claiming that getting rid of the Seanad would save €20 million and cut the number of politicians, it's a message that chimes with a lot of people.

The Seanad is a strange creature. It has limited powers and by and large can only delay Bills (see the Referendum Commission's website for more detail). It is elected by "vocational panels", with the aim of representing different strands of society (this was inspired by Catholic thought about society in the 1930s). However the vocational panels were never really properly set up, and 43 out of 60 of the members of the Seanad are in practice elected by local councillors. 6 Senators are elected by graduates of Trinity College and the National University of Ireland, and 11 are appointed by the Taoiseach (prime minister) to help ensure a government majority.

Claims of "jobs for the boys" and general ineffectiveness have plagued the house, with abolitionists pointing out that it didn't stand up to the government during the financial boom years. This seems a strange argument to me. The strong parliamentary whip system and the weakness of opposition on economic policy from the political parties in both the Dáil and the Seanad is more to blame than the simple institution itself. In any case the idea of an upper house should not be to build into the constitution an institution measured solely by the dissent it generates (a belated show of resistance popping up this week) or to copy the democratic mandate of the lower house, but to bring in more expert voices on specialist areas to add their knowledge and experience to the legislative process. The pros and cons of setting up a upper house that can bring in expert and minority voices into the debate, and the alternative of relying on bringing experts before Oireachtas committees is the central question. That all attempts to reform the Seanad to make it more effective have been scuppered makes a constructive alternative Seanad seem fantasy.

But when it comes down to it, I'm more in favour of keeping the Seanad than abolishing it. Getting rid of the Senate doesn't dilute the dominance of the executive in the Irish political system, or tackle the issue of the over-powerful whips. It won't save much money in the grand scheme of things either. On the other hand I can see the valuable contribution that an upper house can bring. The House of Lords in the UK has many, many flaws - you can't get much more "jobs for the boys" that the Lords! - but its active members have actually done well in generating reports and in the job of legislative scrutiny. A mix of direct elections and selection from vocational panels may be a way of strengthening the Seanad's legitimacy and expertise while keeping it in balance with the Dáil.

Frankly, I'm just being idealistic about bicameralism and what I'd like to see happening. When people go to vote today, they'll be voting against the background of decades of failed reform and ineffectiveness, and it's a tough ask for people to back vague reform. It's sad that the opportunity to refer the Seanad to the Constitutional Convention and then have a referendum was missed.

[There's also a second referendum on today, which more usefully would create a Court of Appeal to help ease the workload of the Supreme Court].

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