Monday, July 15, 2013

The Seanad Debates, an Introduction

Well, the campaign to decide the future of Seanad Eireann has got under way. But at least we're going to be asked to make the decision. I know that if Enda Kenny had his preferences, he'd just lock the doors and cut off the money stream.

We're going to hear a lot of spin in the coming months, About how anachronistic the Seanad is, and how much money will be saved by giving it and its seanadoiri the republic's boot. That it's a hot-air talking shop with no real teeth, a creche for 'resting' TDs, and completely without a mandate from the people who pay for it.

Most, or even all of that might be true. But I'm uncomfortable about a zealotic push to dump it altogether. If for no other reason than we're losing an opportunity to keep manners on the other lot in the lower house. God knows, they need something to keep them in line.

When the first Free State Seanad Eireann was established in 1922, its members were by appointment. The idea was that eventually all of the members would be directly elected by the public. And they were for its first election in 1925, but the system was then changed to indirect elections, similar to today but less complex. The lack of power that Senate had was demonstrated by its dissolution in 1936 because it delayed some Government legislation.

The revived Seanad in 1937 brought in the Vocational Panels for 43 of its membership, based on a theme promulgated by Pope Pius XI. It's complicated, with nominations controlled by the political parties, and voting by TDs, sitting senators and councillors. Just two third-level educational institutions, the National University of Ireland (UCD, UCG, UCC and Maynooth) and the University of Dublin (TCD) have the right to elect members, six of the 60 seanadoiri. The Taoiseach can nominate 11 members.

That's a potted statement of the current position, which shows that the major control is political, and that primarily held by the Government of the day.

The Seanad doesn't have much power over legislation produced by the lower house. It has the right to review it, suggest amendments which need not be accepted by the Government, and delay it to a finite length of time beyond which it can be 'deemed' to have accepted it even if it hasn't.

Lots of proposals for reform have been produced, going all the way back to the 1920s. The most recent, and most relevant one to today, was by a sub-committee of the Seanad's own in 2004. The Vocational Panels system would be abolished, with 21 members being directly elected by the public. All third level colleges should have a vote for the educational membership, and the Taoiseach's nominees should all represent Northern Ireland, the Irish abroad, and marginalised groups in the country. It also suggested that the Seanad should have a greater role scrutinising the Government and EU legislation.

Formally introduced in 2007, these concepts were never implemented. Not surprising, as the political control would be seriously undermined. In 2009, Enda Kenny said that a Fine Gael Government would abolish the upper house. It was to be part of a package of overall Oireachtas reform, including cutting the number of TDs by 20. That last hasn't happened yet, either.

No more than the Dail, the upper house of our national parliament hasn't always covered itself in glory. But there have been really good debates, some passionate interjections into our national conversation, and quite a number of seriously committed senators with no personal or political agendas who have helped make Seanad Eireann relevant for the rest of us ordinary Joes.

I'm not going to try and argue the case for the Seanad's retention, albeit in modified form, all in one go here. This is by way of placing the summer and autumnal conversation on the issue in some form of backstory. Bottom line, I'm uncomfortable about our Taoiseach's single-minded approach to abolishing the Seanad. That the Socialist Party and Sinn Fein have the same idea doesn't help. Labour is also for its abolition. We're kind of lucky that it is a Constitutional matter, and we, the people, get to decide on whether or not that'll happen.

I'd prefer, though, that we were being asked first to vote on that quite reasonable Report on Seanad Reform of 2004-2007. So, unless I'm convinced otherwise, I'm currently of a mind to vote 'no' in the referendum we're being offered.

Because, really, I don't trust your motives, guys. Convince me wrong.