By: Elizabeth McKenzie
‘Sometimes in politics you get a wallop in the electoral process.’
A rueful Taoiseach, Enda Kenny acknowledged the defeat of a government referendum on the 4th October, when Irish citizens voted against the abolition of Seanad Éireann (51.7% against and 48.3% in favour). The result defied the predictions of politicians and the media alike which, in the run up to the referendum, had indicated a comfortable win for the government. All parties, with the exception of Fianna Fáil, (now a shadow of its former all powerful self) had backed the Taoiseach in his bid to fulfill an election promise made in 2009 when he was still in opposition.
The Government of Ireland Act, promulgated by the British parliament during the War of Independence in 1920, established the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland as separate political entities. Both entities would have their own parliaments with two chambers, a House of Commons and a Senate. The lower house would be an elected chamber but the Senate or Seanad was by appointment only. In 1936 the Seanad was abolished by the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera but re-established by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland which more or less kept the structure of the original
Seanad Éireann is composed of 60 Members. Senators are nominated by various ‘interest groups’.
• 43 are elected by county councils and burroughs representing vocational interests such as: Culture and Education, Agriculture, Labour, Industry and Commerce and Public Administration;
• 6 are elected by the graduates of two universities: – three each by the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin (Trinity College);
• 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach;
In theory, Seanad Éireann does not recognise party affiliations. However, because the electors/nominators tend to reflect the dominant party in Dáil Éireann, the composition of the Seanad was seen to reflect this bias. The Oireachtas
The reasons for abolishing the Seanad seemed compelling.
1. The general public was of the opinion that it was a comfortable sinecure for sitting TDs (MPs) who lost their seats in an election campaign or candidates who had failed to win a seat in the Dáil in an election. Or, it was generally acknowledged, it was a handy incubator for those with ambitions of becoming TDs – particularly if they had affiliations to the governing parties. In other words, the Seanad was considered to be a comfortable ante-chamber to Dáil activities for those who had either served their political masters well (but perhaps not their electorate!) or who would serve their political masters well in the future.
2. Only two universities were represented (with three candidates each) from Trinity College and the National University of IrelandI. Other universities plus other world-class tertiary institutes do not have a voice. This was, of course, because only Trinity and the NUI existed when the Seanad was inaugurated.
3. There were grave misgivings that the so called ‘vocational’ representatives were in fact not really representative – more ‘jobs for the boys’ than experts in the vocational fields they were meant to be representing.
4. The Seanad is singularly lacking in political clout. Although it could initiate legislation, the main business of the House is the revising of legislation sent to it by Dáil Éireann. However, under the Constitution, its legislative role is restricted. The Seanad can propose amendments, reject or pass a Bill. But the Dáil has the power to over-ride its deliberations. It couldn’t initiate Money Bills and could only make recommendations but not amendments to such Bills. It has no real political power.
5. The government claimed that by abolishing the Seanad it would save €20 million and the number of politicians would be reduced – at the time a proposal that proved popular with voters angry about the standards and values in Irish politics . In the 2011 election, all political parties accepted the scrapping of the Upper House as part of their election agendas. (Irish Times online 06/10/13)
So what changed the mind of the electorate?
Since the 2011 election there has been a shift in public sentiment. In 2011, the Irish people were struggling with the aftermath of the Banking Crisis and the draconian austerity measures imposed by the IMF. However in the weeks leading up to the referendum, the Irish economy had moved, however tenuously, out of recession. It seemed that the voters were:
looking beyond the arguments presented by both sides and asking what would abolition mean – would the money it saved be justified by what was lost, and could a reformed Seanad serve a useful purpose for other voices in an Irish democracy? Irish Times online 06/10/13
In addition the savings of €20 million was hotly disputed. The abolition of the Seanad would, it was claimed, save a mere €7 – 9 million. And it seemed that the Irish people were having second thoughts about abolishing one of the institutions, which had defined it as a nation since the earliest days of the Irish Free State and subsequently the Republic. In addition reform of the Seanad rather than getting rid of it altogether, is now on the government agenda. ‘We will now continue reforming the political system and ensuring that the Seanad is a modern and effective Second Chamber.’ (The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, 23/10/2013)
The original brief for Seanad Éireann’s role was a lofty one:
The Seanad is interwoven with numerous articles of the Constitution, dealing with the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the State. Its establishment had a worthy cause – to ensure that legislation would be critically examined by individuals with particular expertise in the relevant area. Its emphasis on providing a voice for civic society meant that it offered real opportunities for building bridges to citizens. It was supposed to have developed into a political platform where citizens representing different sections of society were provided with a voice and given the opportunity to demand difficult answers from the government. University Times 24/01/11
While it does not seem to have fulfilled its original idealistic purpose and by the latter half of the 20th century was considered by most of the populace to be irrelevant, insignificant and a waste of time and money, perhaps some of its ideals, encapsulated in the 1937 Constitution, still resonant in the heart of the nation. After all, Seanad Éireann has an impressive list of alumni, from one of Ireland’s best known poets, W.B. Yeats to Douglas Hyde, the nation’s first President, to Mary Robinson, one of Ireland’s most loved and most successful presidents, to Garret FitzGerald, also a much loved and revered politician. It couldn’t be that boring!
The referendum on the 4th October had a second proposal – the establishment of a Court of Appeal – which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the voters. So all was not lost!