Easy solutions

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Despite ourselves, there’s a note of optimism creeping into proceedings for 2011. There is an election on the horizon; a feeling that the worst has happened, economically; and, crucially, most of us have had a few days off to recharge the batteries.

With the election coming up, most probably towards the end of March, the jostling for position has finally begun in earnest, and policy positions have started to crystallise, insofar as they ever do in Irish politics.

The first target in the sights of the political parties, as a quick and easy crowd pleaser, appears to be the Seanad. True to form, all three main parties have done their best to make themselves indistinguishable from each other on the issue.

Reform or abolition of the Seanad is one of those things that is trotted out as an example of ‘political reform’ by people who consistently, repeatedly, fail to get the picture. And more fool those of us who fall for it.
Naturally, the only main political party figures who appear to disagree with abolishing the Seanad are… Senators. There’s a surprise!

But many political academics, journalists and people involved with politics at different levels strongly disagree with the idea of abolishing the Seanad, for a variety of reasons.

In the 1937 Constitution, de Valera set out a vision of an upper chamber that would act as a balance to the geographical and party interests of the Dáil, and would be elected from panels representing different sectors of Irish society; social partnership on a much more democratic and accountable level than we’ve seen over the past decade.

Senators were intended to represent the very interest groups that currently spend their time meeting ministers and their money on expensive PR firms: Unions; trade organisations; social justice and equality campaigners; charities; industry and business representatives; representatives of the Irish diaspora, and immigrant groups without voting rights in other bodies.

Rather than seeking funding for their local community care programme, for example, a senator elected on a social justice panel could research and present a bill reforming community care nationally, without having to belong to a political party. It would still have to be passed by the party-controlled Dáil, but this would be a double helping of democracy and act as an inbuilt balance between special interest groups and geographical areas.

The Taoiseach’s 11 nominated Senators were, presumably, intended to keep the Seanad within the control of the Government, but also to provide a Taoiseach with the option of nominating expertise to be used in Cabinet – a measure which has only been used twice. This cohort is not needed and should be abolished, along with the elitist university panels – despite the fact that this has produced our most active senators, including Mary Robinson, Shane Ross, and David Norris. In an alternative system they could have been elected on educational, business, and social justice panels respectively.

TDs need a number of characteristics including patience, people skills, and serious stamina. They don’t necessarily need policy expertise, intellectual ability, or passion for one particular area. If the Seanad was reformed to reflect the original vision of a socially diverse arena for debate and policy formation, that missing link in Irish politics could be found.

Problems of cronyism and being hamstrung by party politics, in direct contravention of the Seanad’s intended function, could be solved by a referendum to amend the panels to reflect today’s Ireland, and a new system of election or appointment, or a combination of both.

Our political system encourages parties to be simplistic, but voters should be wary of easy solutions; there’s no such thing.

Thanks to Fiona de Londras of UCD (or @efdel as I know her) for her advice on constitutional law.

This piece appeared in today’s Cork Independent, which you can find online at http://www.corkindependent.com.



  1. The core bit missing in this is the detail of how would this reformed Seanad would be elected? I would suggest that we allow for everyone to vote for non-geographical dynamically sized panels with overlapping electorates and with multiple voting. Instead of eliminating the 3rd level panels, make them the basis of a proper education panel.

    Have 8-10 panels with the number of seats for each panel determined by the number who vote for the panel and let people vote in 4/5 of the panels of their choice. That way the Seanad can in some fashio reflect the policy area priorities of the electorate at election time. Allow new panels be created either at election time or by means of the census.

    • Hi Dan,
      You’re right – I didn’t go into any detail on it partly for space reasons (in the paper) and partly because I haven’t fully thought it through. I like where your idea is going but I wonder how workable it would be. It’s hard to find a balance between universal suffrage and really staying away from geographical voting – there’s a reason RTE changed from You’re a Star to the All Ireland Talent Show – we’re not very good at thinking outside county boundaries! I think letting people vote in the panel of their choice is an interesting idea but what, for example, would happen if everyone wanted to vote in the culture panel and elect, say, Bono; how would you limit the number of people voting in each panel? Otherwise you’d have Senators with half a million votes versus those with a couple of thousand…

      • The dynamic sizing would sort the problem of huge numbers voting for one panel and next to none for another, people would have say 4 votes to cast amongst the 10 panels. And if panel X get 3 times the number of people voting for it than for panel Y then it elects 3 times as many people as panel Y! Hence how it would make the chamber actually reflective of the public’s policy area priorities at election time.

        The problem of national panels though is a real one and frankly it is hard to see past celebrity candidates or those with major banking rolling. Perhaps have primaries based within the Euro constituencies in order to stand for a national panel?

  2. Hi Dan – think primaries based on Euro constituencies would just end up with the same problem of failed local politicians doing things. It would take a lot of thinking through to put a viable panel electoral structure together that would be reliant on neither party nor geographical loyalties.

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