With UCD graduates being in the privileged position of being able to vote for senators, Nathan Young considers some of the less democratic aspects of Ireland’s upper house.
In both 2002 and 2015, major overhauls of the Seanad were proposed by All-Party Oireachtas Committees, and in 2013 a referendum to abolish the Seanad completely, was defeated by a tiny margin of three and a half percent. Evidently, it is felt that the upper house needs some changes, or it may as well go the same way as the upper houses of so many other nations. After all, the Seanad holds virtually no real power, other than the ability to delay bills from the Dáil.
Designed with the UK’s House of Lords in mind, with several noticeable key differences, the Seanad also adopted many of the same problems. Firstly, it is largely undemocratic and can be easily dominated and controlled by the Taoiseach. Second, due to its inferior power when compared to the Dáil, it is ignored by most of the population most of the time, including by members of the lower house. The lack of a democratic nature in the Seanad is supposed to be because of the almost technocratic “panels”, who supposedly represent areas of expertise in fields such as agriculture, industry, or labour. In reality, the 43 seats assigned to the panels are almost entirely filled with party politicians, elected by party politicians, for the purpose of partisan politics. Another 11 seats are assigned by the Taoiseach, which are also obviously largely filled to meet partisan interests. This leaves a megre six seats, those of the universities, to fulfill the role of discussing and debating bills outside the context of party politics and to function as a system of checks and balances on the Dáil.
Having an upper house not elected directly by the population, but not poisoned by hereditary peerages like the House of Lords, gives Leinster House a rare opportunity in government to establish a chamber where bills can be debated on their own merit by serious people whose motives are not part of some long term political strategy, and whose expertise and interests in aspects of public life are inarguable. The system as it currently exists misses this opportunity, leading some to wonder why the people cannot directly elect their own senators. After all, those who elect the Seanad are among TDs and county councillors, who are directly elected by the people.
The breakdown of the six seats for university graduates leaves the situation even less democratic. Three seats go to the National University of Ireland, and three to Dublin University and its only college, Trinity. While there is historic precedence for these two universities to be constituencies, having been so since before the state, they are vastly different in size. Just counting registered voters, the NUI has more than 103,000 constituents, where as TCD has just over 53,000. Furthermore, graduates of DCU and UL are not represented at all, despite having an Irish university education. The same case could also be made for the many institutes of technology and third level institutions.
While having six seats chosen by university graduates may seem somewhat snobbish, leaving the less well-educated disenfranchised; those who support the university senators argue that among NUI and TCD elected senators are noteworthy figures in Irish life, such as Alice Mary Higgins, David Norris, and Michael D. Higgins. From the Seanad, these figures can be serious and critical in their debates on new laws. Society and the Dáil would do well to listen to their wise conclusions and recommendations before passing bills too hastily.
Here, however, an obvious objection arises. If these seats represent the wise and educated voices of the learned, then wannabe theocrats and demagogues should find it hard to infiltrate the Seanad. However, Senator Ronan Mullen, one of the three NUI senators and founder of the Human Dignity Alliance spent the period when much of the country was considering the moral and material implications of repealing the eighth amendment, making unhelpful and untrue claims about the late Savita Halappanavar and the existence of mental health. It’s hard here to see how the senators are adding more to public life. It’s also not the case that abolishing these seats would remove all these figures from public life. Many of the more noteworthy senators were already respected figures in academia, politics, and activism before their terms in office, after all.
Ultimately the difficulty is that, despite the promises of change following the 2013 referendum and the publishing of the Manning Report in 2015, little has actually been done to reform the house. It’s clearly not a lack of understanding of what the problems in the Dáil are, nor is the issue a problem of a lack of imagination in how to solve them. With more Oireachtas working groups and reports constantly being commissioned to discuss the proposals of the previous working groups and reports, the problem is just a plain lack of political will, and Seanad reform will remain a pipe dream until that changes.