Why Should We Care About the Seanad?

Rosemarie Gibbons examines what is relevant to young people in the upcoming Seanad Elections

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The Seanad, the upper House of the Oireachtas in Ireland, is something probably not recalled by most students since their Junior Cert CSPE exam. What most people do recall is its lack of power and selective representation, with its electors being made up of NUI and Trinity graduates. Is it possible for the Seanad to represent all of the people, all of the time? Like most government bodies in this country, there seems to be a struggle with representing Ireland’s diverse population and different demographics.

The Seanad’s main business is the revising of legislation sent to it by Dáil Éireann. This is a safeguard against legislation being enacted too quickly. Its members can also initiate legislation and can only make recommendations but not amendments to such Bills. The lack of younger Senators and TDs is something to be noted should the Dáil and Seanad, respectively, choose to focus on youth oriented issues. Bills such as the Quinn-Zappone Bill, drawn up by Senators Fergal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, held some promising clauses as it set out to open the voting to all Irish citizens who are eligible to vote, and would have also introduced a fifty-fifty gender quota in seats, amongst other things. The fact that Seanad elections are still not open to all Irish citizens may be what leads to the sense of confusion or disinterest in its day-to-day workings. Should this rule change, young people may have a more direct say in who represents them in the Seanad, as well as the Dáil, and what legislation they wish to focus on.

The way members of Seanad Éireann are elected is not democratic and is elitist

With issues such as state funding for third level institutions and consistent emigration affecting young Irish people, it is the people in the Dáil who hold the most power regarding what laws they introduce that might affect young people. Rising numbers of people attending third level education means allocating of funding should be directed towards that, but with state funding for universities and ITs being halved in the last few years, this is surely an area that will be prioritised in upcoming Seanad elections, especially with so many graduates from TCD and NUI institutions amongst the seats.

Similarly, the lack of entry-level jobs for young graduates in Ireland means emigration is still at a high level. It is an issue stressed from time to time in the Dáil and Seanad but one never really concentrated on. With students being more politically aware than ever, and the ‘youth vote’ a vital factor for many parties, issues that directly affect them such as third level funding should be more closely examined.

With the recent dissolution of the Dáil, many TDs who have lost their seats will be looking to be voted into the next Seanad. One current issue many TDs faced in the run up to the General Election was their stance on repealing the eighth amendment. This could be the issue that really puts the Seanad into the conscience of young people this year, as it could have a huge effect on amending the bill, which has been consistently delayed and put off by the majority of members of the Oireachtas. The influence of the ‘youth vote’ was seen in last year’s legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Ellen O’Malley Dunlop is running for election in the upcoming Seanad elections. As CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) for over ten years, O’Malley Dunlop is looking to work towards reform in the equality and mental health services sectors. “Seanad Éireann can also debate important issues and can do so with greater freedom than the Dáil because the fate of the Government is not at stake,” she says.

In theory, the existence of the Seanad would make for a more democratic, inclusive government. However, O’Malley Dunlop concedes it is not an all-inclusive House.

“The way members of Seanad Éireann are elected is not democratic and is elitist,” she explains. “For example, graduates from UL, DCU and other third level institutions do not have votes. Members of other panels can have four and five votes. There have been 11 reports done on reforming the Seanad and none of them have been implemented”.

“The three main areas of legislation that I see as necessary to progress are The Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill 2015. I also support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the passing of legislation to allow women to make their own decisions in very difficult situations”.

“I have made a number of submissions to the All Party Committee on Justice and Equality and the most recent submission was requesting the inclusion of a clear definition of [sexual] consent in the legislation,” she says. With the introduction of mandatory sexual consent classes in Trinity in the coming year, this is something that will resonate with students especially, as third-level institutions are putting more of a focus on campaigns around consent.

There have been 11 reports done on reforming the Seanad and none of them have been implemented

Another issue that resonates strongly with young people is mental health. The Seanad retains the power to amend legislation in relation to the provision of mental health services, something that directly or indirectly affects nearly everybody in this country – one only needs to recall the silent vigil for Caoilte O Broin outside the Dáil this February to understand there is not enough direct provision of mental health services by the HSE in this country. With the fourth-highest rate of suicide amongst young people in the EU, provision of mental healthcare services is one of the most important issues facing those with the power, as it is a matter that cannot be ignored.

O’Malley Dunlop speaks of wanting to provide a “robust, 21st century mental health system”, including the “expansion of counselling and psychotherapy services (particularly for suicide prevention), state funding for NGOs offering free counselling and psychotherapy for victims of sexual crime and domestic violence” and “the inclusion of psychotherapy and counselling services in private health insurances plans.”

She also adds, as a psychotherapist of twenty years, “I would support the inclusion of psychotherapy and counselling in private health insurance plans as well as these services being provided free of charge in the public service”.

The Seanad will elect its members in the coming days, following university constitution guidelines already set in place. With a range of issues up for debate, there will be a lot for young people to discuss.