ALL of the attention around government formation centres on those elected to Dáil Éireann, as the Seanad election campaign goes on in the background. That this election to the Upper House only concerns about 5% of the total population in terms of voting numbers – including Oireachtas members, councillors and NUI and Trinity graduates – the elitist nature of an institution that has far greater potential remains in spite of calls going back many years for it to be reformed.
A momentum for change emerged during the referendum campaign by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2013 to abolish Seanad Éireann, which was rejected by the electorate. Kenny’s populist solo run backfired on him and, even though the electorate voted to keep the Seanad, it was clear that they did not want it to continue in its current form and had reasonable expectations that the government would act to reform it.
In fact, the reform could feasibly have been carried out before the 2016 general election, but Kenny conveniently chose to ignore it despite the ‘wallop’ (his word) he had got from the electorate when they rejected his abolition proposal three years earlier. It could also have been done before the 2020 election, especially as it was part of the Programme for Government agreed under the confidence and supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, but clearly was not a priority for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar either.
Indeed, in answer to parliamentary questions on the matter from opposition party leaders before the summer Dáil recess last year, the Taoiseach, disingenuously, queried whether the referendum decision of the people to retain the Seanad was actually a vote for reform or not, adding that that it was ‘a matter of debate.’ In advance of the upcoming Seanad election, Senator Ronán Mullen has, rightly, slammed the inaction of the outgoing government in relation to reform of the second chamber, and called for radical reform to follow in the next term.
He stated that 95% of the electorate are excluded from the voting process: ‘Those who never went to certain colleges or who are not elected politicians have no voice. In the modern world, it is indefensible for a house of parliament to be elected on such a limited and elitist franchise.’
Almost six-and-a-half years after the failed abolition referendum, it seems obvious that Fine Gael never had any intention of doing anything meaningful to bring about the called-for reform. A Seanad reform implementation group was set up in the wake of former senator Dr Maurice Manning’s report of 2015.
The group, chaired by Senator Michael McDowell, submitted its report to the Dáil in December 2018, but the government merely noted it on April 30th last year and it has been gathering dust on a shelf somewhere since then. This is most disrespectful to all who have been trying to bring about reform of the Seanad to make it more relevant to modern Ireland and to get back to why it was set up in the first place, i.e. to provide informed oversight by a representative cross-section of Irish society of the lower house, Dáil Éireann.
In recent years, political parties have been cynically using Seanad seats as a consolation prize for failed general election candidates, undermining its very raison d’etre. This ability needs to be taken away from them and let the people have their say.
By right, every voter in the country should have a vote in some shape or form in the Seanad elections. Ideally, the Dáil and Seanad elections should be held on the same day with candidates having to choose which of the two elections they wish to stand in.
Senator Mullen has suggested that, in order to get a more diverse range of candidates, all or most of the Seanad should be elected through a national list system, allowing people to vote for their preferred political groupings, and allowing them to vote for particular candidates within that list: ‘This would end the local “parish pump” nature of the Seanad, while protecting small parties and independents,’ he maintains.
Ballot papers for the five vocational panels, which elect 43 of the 60 senators have to be returned by March 30th. When the universities choose their six representatives and the Taoiseach makes his/her 11 nominations, it will be a case of the same old same old.
The question is: will the new government have the political will see through the process of reforming the Seanad and bring the necessary proposals to a referendum before the next election?