23 March 2009

Should the Senate be abolished?

Times of recession and depression often bring significant changes. One reason is a lack of money to pay for things one might well have liked before, or even taken for granted, but can no longer be afforded under the new conditions. And another is the general desire for improvement, reform and even revolution, in order to create new conditions that will give us a better future.

It appears that after only six months of recession and serious political and financial problems in Ireland parts of the chattering classes in Dublin 4 (the posh district of our capital, and also home of RTÉ) have identified a suitable target for a major public sacrifice.

For the past couple of weeks the idea to abolish Seanad Éireann (above) - the 'upper' house of Ireland's parliament, the Oireachtas - has been mooted by different people in a variety of media. There were opinion pieces in some of the newspapers, and then Pat Kenny picked up the idea and rolled it around for a while, first on his daily radio programme and eventually on the Friday evening Late Late Show on RTÉ television.
Columnists for several Sunday newspapers chipped in their twopence-worth of thoughts as well, and that means the matter was also discussed by Marian Finucane and her round table on RTÉ Radio 1 last Sunday morning.
But somehow I cannot see that the subject is moving the hearts and minds of the Irish nation.

The main reason for that is the fact that Seanad Éireann is the least known and least understood part of our political system. While most people, even those who live in perpetual ignorance of politics, know of Dáil Éireann, the 'lower' house of the Oireachtas, many are not even aware of the fact that we actually have a Senate! This, together with the now desperate desire to safe public money, is the root for the idea to abolish it as a cost-cutting measure.

But would it be right, proper, logical and effective? Probably not.

There are several reasons why Seanad Éireann is the 'sleeping beauty' of Irish politics. The main one - and also the reason for being unknown to many people - is the fact that our Senate is not directly elected. Thus very few people have ever any real contact with it.
While there are direct elections to the Dáil, to the European Parliament and to the County, City and Town Councils every five years, the members of the Senate are chosen by a small group of people, all of whom belong to 'the system of state' in one way or another. Every seven years Irish people can even elect a new President, although the position is predominantly ceremonial and has very little political power. But no ordinary person can ever vote for any of our 60 Senators.

This rather odd and unusual procedure goes back to 1937 and the new Constitution that was introduced then by Eamon de Valera.
However, the main thinker and author behind the 1937 Constitution was not the Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach, but his close friend and advisor Msgr. John Charles McQuaid, a Holy Ghost Father who was the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin (and Primate of Ireland) from 1940 to 1972.

There has been an Irish Senate since 1920, when the 'Parliament of Southern Ireland' was created under British law with an upper house called Senate. This 'Senate of Southern Ireland' consisted of a mixture of Irish peers and government appointees. It convened in 1921, but was boycotted by Irish nationalists and thus never became fully operational.
It was formally abolished with the establishment of Saorstát Éireann - the Irish Free State - in 1922, but a number of its members were soon re-appointed to a new Free State Senate, which was the first to use the Irish name Seanad Éireann.

Ever since the USA were established in 1776, Irish nationalists were looking across the Atlantic for ideas, inspirations and political models. And as soon as Irish independence became a reality, many of the new state's institutions were modelled on the American system. As there is a Senate besides the 'lower' House (of Representatives) in Washington D.C., Ireland needed one, too.
Considered the 'upper' house of the Oireachtas, the first Seanad consisted of a mixture of people appointed by the President of the Executive Council (government) and other members indirectly elected by the Dáil Éireann.
Prime Minister W. T. Cosgrave also agreed to use his appointment rights to grant extra Senate representation to the small Protestant minority in the new state.

It was intended that eventually the entire membership of the Senate would be directly elected by the people, but after only one such election in 1925 this system was abandoned in favour of a form of indirect election. It has never been explained why, and one wonders if our 'founding fathers' were as much afraid of "too much democracy and power in the hands of ordinary people" as the more famous 'Founding Fathers' of the USA were back in 1776, when they rejected with a clear majority a democratic system in favour of a republic modelled on ancient Rome.

The Free State's Senate was then abolished entirely in 1936, after it delayed some government proposals for constitutional changes. (No sense of Democracy there, and also a precedent on which some of those who now propose the abolition of Seanad Éireann build their case.)

Bunreacht na hÉireann, the new Irish Constitution of 1937, brought Seanad Éireann back into existence, but with clipped wings and very limited powers.
The new electoral system of 'vocational panels' used to nominate candidates for the Senate was inspired by Roman Catholic social teaching of the 1930s, and in particular the Papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, published in 1931. In this document Pope Pius XI argued that the Marxist concept of class conflict should be "replaced with a vision of social order, based on the cooperation and interdependence of society's various vocational groups".
These ideas, strongly shared by Eamon de Valera and Msgr. John Charles McQuaid, created the new structure of Seanad Éireann, which still operates under the same rules today.

Under the Irish Constitution an election for the Senate "must occur not later than 90 days after the dissolution of Dáil Éireann". It does under our special system of proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), but in the panel constituencies each vote counts as 1000, which means that fractions of votes can be transferred. (Sounds complicated to you? Well, it is complicated, and on purpose.)
Membership of the Senate is open to all Irish citizens over the age of 21 and residing within the Republic, but a Senator cannot also be a member of Dáil Éireann.

Of the 60 members of Seanad Éireann 43 are currently elected by the above mentioned 'vocational panels'. There are five such panels, representing various areas of society:
  1. The Cultural & Educational Panel elects five Senators and represents Education, the Arts, the Irish language, Irish culture and Literature.
  2. Eleven Senators are elected by the Agricultural Panel, representing Agriculture and the Fisheries.
  3. Another eleven Senators are elected by the Labour Panel, representing trade unions and various other elements of the working sector, organised or otherwise.
  4. A further nine Senators get their seats through the Industrial & Commercial Panel, representing Ireland's industry, trade and commerce, including the fields of Engineering and Architecture.
  5. The Administrative Panel, which represents Public Administration and Social Services (including the voluntary sector) elects another seven Senators.
Six Senators are elected by the graduates of some (but not all) Irish universities (three each by the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland, while other - mostly newer - universities are left out for no good reason). This has often been called "an Irish oddity" and I do indeed not know of any other country were university graduates have their own special political representatives.

But at least those 49 Senators are elected, even though not in a direct way by the general public. The real oddity of the system comes with the remaining eleven Senators, who are - every five years - appointed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) at his personal choice and pleasure. Apart from Britain, where the Prime Minister can nominate 'Life Peers' and have them appointed to the House of Lords by the monarch, there is - to my knowledge - no other country regarded as free and democratic that allows its political leader such an amount of direct personal power.

In practical terms the 'Taoiseach's Eleven', as the appointees are often called collectively, are mostly hacks of the ruling party in need of a cosy temporary job. TDs who lost their seat, but are still of value to the party are often made Senators. And some younger talents who contested the general election but failed to gain a seat in Dáil Éireann might also end up in the Senate, referred to by cynics as "the Oireachtas' combined nursery and old folks home".

Appointments to the Senate are also used by the Taoiseach to forge coalitions and please smaller parties whose support he needs. To cement his new coalition in 2007, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appointed two members each from both his smaller partners - the Green Party and the (now defunct) Progressive Democrats - to Seanad Éireann.

Occasionally there are some truly personal appointments among the 'Taoiseach's Eleven', which has made Senators of - among others - the writer and playwright Brian Friel, the Northern peace campaigners Seamus Mallon and Gordon Wilson, and several members of the Dublin brewers' dynasty Guinness (some of which also hold aristocratic titles in Britain).

The latest truly personal and quite controversial Taoiseach's appointment to the Senate (by Bertie Ahern in 2007) was the journalist and polemicist Eoghan Harris. Regarded by many as the ultimate and perpetual Irish turn-coat, Harris lately became a strong supporter of Fianna Fáil , after he 'explored' almost all other political tendencies, including the far left and far right in the past. Why Bertie Ahern made him a Senator will probably never be explained. But it shows to what extend the almost princely powers of an Irish Taoiseach can go.

In the past there have been various calls for a reform of the Senate, and since 1928 no less than twelve separate official reports have been published on the matter. But - to no-one's surprise - none of them led to any action.
The outright abolition of the second chamber has been only on very few Irish people's minds so far. One should remember that the (now defunct) Progressive Democrats called in earlier years for the abolition of Seanad Éireann, the only Irish mainstream party to do so. However, those calls fell silent as soon as they joined Fianna Fáil in government and benefited more than any other party from the 'Taoiseach's Eleven'.
Currently the small Socialist Party (led by former TD Joe Higgins) is the only Irish party that has abolition of the Senate on its political manifesto.

One wonders what is now so suddenly motivating a number of well-paid middle-class journalists and public opinionators to join the far-left of the country's political spectrum in that particular demand...

In my humble opinion this sudden urge to get rid of the smaller house of the Oireachtas is not more than a well-constructed smoke screen, created by some politicians and their friends in the media in order to prevent closer looks at the Dáil, which is the one part of Ireland's political system that really needs urgent and drastic reform.

Being a constitutional historian and political philosopher, I have suggested a root-and-branch reform of the entire Irish political system for many years. I did not have to wait for a crisis and recession to see what is going on in Leinster House, and to come up with alternatives.
There are several essays and articles I wrote about this matter since 1995, and having read them again today I noticed that they are still up-to-date and worth taking notice of. But since I began writing this weblog only in January of last year, these texts are not part of the archive here. So I am thinking to re-publish some of my thoughts on political and parliamentary reform in Ireland here over the coming weeks, and I hope they will find your interest.

To prevent this entry from growing too long, I will for today concentrate on the Senate only. It certainly does need a bit of change and reform, but much less than the Dáil (which I will feature here in detail soon).
In order to safe money and increase efficiency, we need to reduce the overall number of Irish politicians and this also has to include the Senate. But since it has only 60 members, reduction potentials are somewhat limited.

I would propose to reduce the total number of Senators by one sixth, from 60 to 50. (As my proposal for the new Dáil is 100 TDs, this would put the Seanad at half the size of the Dáil. A fair proportion in my opinion.)

And I would also change the electoral system for Seanad Éireann. For historical reasons I would keep the five 'vocational panels', but reduce their influence. For example, the Agricultural Panel still elects eleven Senators, as it did when this country was almost completely an agricultural society. This is way too much political power and influence for the farmers, who have a lot of extra privileges anyway.

Under my system four of the panels would elect four Senators each, and the Labour Panel would elect six. This makes 22 (compared with the current number of 43).

As we have ever more graduates from ever more universities, colleges and other third-level institutions, their role in society needs to be strengthened. (It is also a fact that the - currently six - Senators representing the university graduates are clearly among the best and most active members of Seanad Éireann. For example - Senator Shane Ross alone has done more good for the country in recent years than all government ministers combined...)
Thus I propose to increase the number of Senators elected by our university graduates by two thirds - from currently six to ten - but at the same time extend the franchise to all third-level educational institutions in Ireland, without exception. This would not only be fair to all those who are so far excluded because they went to - for example - the University of Limerick, it would also - indirectly - make third-level education itself a lot more attractive.

As new features in a reformed Seanad I would introduce two Senators elected by the country's defence and security forces (the Irish Defence Forces, their active reserves, and the Garda Siochana) and ten Senators - one fifth of the house - representing the general population. They would be elected directly during a general election, but would not represent local constituencies. Each of the four provinces - Leinster (without Dublin), Munster, Connacht and Ulster - would have two Senators (just like each state of the USA), and a further two would be elected in Dublin (City & County), reflecting the large population density in and around the capital. This would bring the total number of Senators to 44.

Although I am in general not in favour of appointed Senators, under certain circumstances the instrument of direct appointment without election can have its befits. I would therefore allow the Taoiseach to keep his right to appoint Senators, but reduce the number from eleven to three. To balance this reduction and make it more acceptable, I would also allow the Taoiseach to dismiss or replace any of the three Senators he has appointed at any time.
Should a Taoiseach resign or lose his office without a previous general election (as it happened when Albert Reynolds was replaced by John Bruton, and - more recently - the succession of Bertie Ahern by Brian Cowen) the three Senators appointed by the Taoiseach will lose their seats with his resignation. Thus the new Taoiseach can appoint his own three choices, as soon as he takes office.

For the remaining three seats I have a completely new and special proposal. These three I would put under the control of the President, who can appoint anyone of her or his choice, just like the Taoiseach. However, as the President has a ceremonial role and stays out of party politics, the idea is that those three Senators would be people of national prominence, like famous writers, artists, scientists or other personalities whom Uachtarán na hÉireann finds worthy and suitable for the position.

This makes a total of 50 Senators and would be the new Senate as I would structure it. I am sure there is still room for improvement, although I have given the matter a lot of thought over quite some time. Feel free to discuss it - here or elsewhere - and leave your comments.

As a kind of after-thought I came up with another novelty that could be beneficial for the whole country and its political system. In addition to the - now 50 - regular Senators I would create a small number of special Life Senators.
As the name says, the position of Senator would be bestowed for life, but without any payments, as a purely honorary title. Eligible for it would be the former Presidents of Ireland, as well as the former Taoisigh, if they are no longer TDs.
Life Senators would have the right to sit and speak in Seanad Éireann, but not the right to vote. Thus the political balance of the Senate as a second chamber of parliament would not be affected, but at the same time elder statesmen and stateswomen would still have a proper platform to air their views and make their remarks and comments. This I would regard as very beneficial for the state and for our political culture.

Well, these are my personal thoughts about Seanad Éireann, which should not be abolished, but reformed and strengthened. At the same time the Dail also needs reform and restructuring, but this I will explain in detail here another time. Meanwhile I would be pleased to hear from you, especially with comments and opinions regarding my proposed Senate reform.

Only if we all think, talk, write and share our views and opinions this country can grow out of the current crisis.

The Emerald Islander

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Most interesting article, with a lot of substance. Hope that some politicians read your blog and take your excellent ideas onboard.
We need thinkers like you, and perhaps they could make you a Senator as well.

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