Proposed Seanad reforms submitted to the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, may see the number of university seats in the Seanad reduced from six to two.
This new composition would likely see the National University of Ireland (NUI) and the University of Dublin – comprising solely of Trinity College – losing two seats each, and may also see other accredited third level institutions acquiring a seat for the first time.
There is widespread political support for reform of the House, with the university seat proposal being made by Fianna Fáil on behalf of all political parties. In the past, some commentators, along with the Green Party, have called for the abolition of the Seanad altogether.
The recent An Bord Snip Nua report by UCD Economics lecturer Colm McCarthy, charged with identifying areas for possible budget cuts across government expenditure, pointed out that the abolition of the Seanad would save in the region of €25 million per year.
A rebalancing of the upper house along the lines proposed by Fianna Fáil would save in the region of €360,000 on Senators’ salaries and allowances.
Despite the adoption of the seventh amendment to the Constitution in 1979, facilitating the inclusion of non NUI or Trinity candidates for the Seanad, the necessary legislative provision has not, to date, been passed. These reforms have been given new impetus, however, in the wake of the McCarthy report.
The general reform of the Houses of the Oireachtas such as reducing the number of TDs and their salaries is part of an ongoing programme for government review. The proposed shake-up of the upper house may form part of this package, with the broadening of the university constituency finally being enacted, thirty years after the people of Ireland approved it at the polls.
Over the past 81 years, no fewer than twelve reports on Seanad reform have been produced, including three in the last twelve years. A Seanad internal review concluded that “in the eyes of many members of the public the Seanad is seen as weak, ineffective and of questionable value.”
Apart from the university constituency, the Seanad is composed of 43 senators elected by TDs and local councillors to five vocational panels, intended to represent broad societal interests. These interests include administrative, agricultural, cultural and educational, industrial and commercial, and labour. There are a further eleven senators appointed by the Taoiseach. Currently the NUI is represented by three senators elected by graduates of the University, under a system of proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote.