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Seanad Referendum

Other complaints focus on the fact that most senators are defeated candidates in the general election”

Proponents of abolition argue that even if the Seanad was reformed there would still be major difficulties”

Robert Nielson examines arguments for and against the abolition of the Seanad

The upper house of Ireland’s parliament, treatment the Seanad, site could be gone within 18 months. The government is committed to holding a referendum to abolish what is seen as either an important and respected part of the democratic process that adds an extra insight to crucial debates, or a useless, purposeless talking shop for over-paid and under worked failed politicians.

Fine Gael and Labour have agreed to abolish the Seanad in the Programme for Government. They highlight the fact that savings of €150 million would be made over five years were the upper house to be done away with. It has been pointed out that most of the Seanad’s functions are also carried out by the Dáil and that it has very few powers of its own. In essence, its detractors are arguing that were it to be abolished, no one would miss it.

The Seanad (Irish for Senate) was created in its current form in the 1937 Constitution. It was inspired by the idea of ‘corporatism’, common at the time (particularly in Fascist countries). This was the belief that voters should not be organised in groups according to geography (as in the Dáil), but based on occupation. The Seanad’s major flaw is that it cannot block legislation; instead it can only delay it for 90 days. Though when it comes to money bills it cannot even do this, making it powerless. This was done to prevent it from blocking the actions of the government, as the Fine Gael Seanad often did to the Fianna Fáil government in the 1930’s.

A major criticism of the Seanad is the way in which its 60 members are elected. 43 of them are elected from a constituency of less than 1,000 people, comprising councillors, TDs and former Senators. 11 are simply chosen by the Taoiseach without any sort of a vote. This ensures that the government always has a majority. The remaining six are elected by the graduates of some of Ireland’s universities.

Other complaints focus on the fact that most senators are defeated candidates in the general election and many run in the next general election, leading to complaints that it is a dumping ground for failed politicians and a launching pad for the next election. 31 of the 43 vocational panel Senators have unsuccessfully run for the Dáil and 24 of the Senators from the last Seanad ran in the 2011 general election. There are also allegations of cronyism and patronage in the selection of Senators. The university selection has also been criticised as elitist.

Proponents of abolition argue that even if the Seanad was reformed there would still be major difficulties. If the Seanad was given equal powers to the Dáil, but was dominated by a party other than the one dominating the lower house, then there could be political gridlock with each party blocking the other on every issue. On the other hand, if the same party controlled both chambers than the Seanad would be unnecessary as it would be merely duplicating the work of the Dáil.

Those who wish to keep the Seanad are, unsurprisingly, mainly Senators. They argue that its abolishment would concentrate too much power into the hands of the Dáil. They argue that the Seanad should instead be reformed, though they are rather vague on how to go about this. They argue that the University senators are genuine independent voices and have raised important issues in the house. One suggestion has been that it could represent minorities and groups that would be otherwise voiceless. This idea would involve seats being reserved for certain groups such as religious minorities, the Diaspora, the unemployed etc.

Regardless of whether it is reformed or abolished, it is clear that the Seanad cannot continue in its current state.


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