Baby, bath water and the planned abolition of Seanad Eireann

If I have misgivings about the abolition of the Seanad, some of them are reflected in these comments from Michael Burrows the Anglican Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, who argues that “it is just not good enough to offer the people a Hobson’s choice between the present Seanad or no Seanad at all.”:

The Senate does need reform and one improvement would be to hold elections to it, in whatever manner is used, simultaneously with Dáil elections so that service in the Upper House becomes a calling and a privilege in its own right rather than a second best for those who fail to enter the Dáil.

An upper house should be a place where legislation is scrutinised, and sometimes initiated, by people of expertise who sit lightly on the party system. It should be a place where the public know that individuals skilled in economics, history, medical ethics, international relations, agriculture, industry and education sit side-by-side and bring real objectivity and depth to law reform.

The presence of such members should ensure there are no no-go areas when it comes to the responsibility of parliament to legislate for the varied realities of society.

They will need to advance politically unpopular or awkward causes – for example in the area of bio-ethics and human reproductive technology there are matters that continue to cry out for legislation. In particular the Seanad should be a forum where genuinely independent (with a small “i”) and prophetic voices can be heard.

Simultaneous voting for the upper house could put a powerful weapon in the hands of the people, where they might come to effect certain trade offs not particularly to the liking of an Irish political class who have adopted a civil form of democratic centralism, that prefers to keep control of data and decision making inside cabinet (and often just the Taoiseach’s Office).


  • Cynic2

    I fear that the Bishop is politically naiive if he thinks that Party Politics works as suggested or that the ruling class in Ireland would dare create a counterweight to the power of the Dail. Indeed, such a move could be reactionary and led to paralysis at times.

    But it is clear that reform is needed. While the old NI Senate was by far not the only problem with Stormont and NI councils isn’t it amazing that – after 40 years of violence here to overthrow a system seen as unfair (one man one vote) – the Republic should cling to an equally outdated system?

  • HeinzGuderian

    Amazing,yet unsurprising.

  • Drumlins Rock

    talking of the NI second chamber… still no word of the Civic Forum !

  • Cynic2

    Civic Forum? As much use and impact as NIHRC

  • Drumlins Rock

    Surely it couldn’t waste that much money and do that much harm Cynic?

    My suggestion for both the upper house in Ireland and the UK is a sorta hybrid elected/appointed/list system. Senators/Lords are appointed for between 7 & 10 years, after this period their seats are re-allocated at the next election, whatever it may be, local, national, regional or Euro according to the electoral strength of the parties, some checks and balances may be needed (ie. regional quotas) and I would keep 20% of seats for “special interests”.

    Saves on having another un-necessary round of voting, and Lords/Senators having to do the baby kissing rounds, but keeps the upper house reflecting the general trends in voting but still stable and semi detatched from the party bickerings.

  • Neville Bagnall

    I totally agree with the Bishop. It amazes me that in all the clamour for electoral and political reform, the one thing most likely to be achieved is a further reduction, homogenisation and centralisation of the political class.

    Pork barrel politics, group think, brown-nosing and all the other political sins are endemic to politics, irrespective of numbers or electoral system. Its part of the tax of democracy. It should only be a tax though, not the focus. But its culture that decides that. Only if the wider culture welcomes and rewards diversity of opinion can we hope to be better served by our politicians. I cannot see how reducing the numbers helps to ensure that minority opinions are represented.

    My opinions on reform remain largely unchanged since I wrote in 2009:

    In summary:
    – Keep the Seanad
    – Universal suffrage
    – Non-geographic policy-focused and electorate-formed constituencies

    It has two primary aims:
    – keep the electorate in control of the political class and process
    – make electing a policy focused Seanad the path of least resistance.

    I don’t know if it would work put it seems to me it has at least as good a chance as anything else I’ve seen proposed.

    I cannot see how abolition adds anything to the reform of our political system beyond letting the electorate think they are “sticking it to the politicians”. And of course, even in that they would be largely mistaken.

  • Cahir O’Doherty

    ‘An upper house should be a place where legislation is scrutinised, and sometimes initiated, by people of expertise who sit lightly on the party system. It should be a place where the public know that individuals skilled in economics, history, medical ethics, international relations, agriculture, industry and education sit side-by-side and bring real objectivity and depth to law reform.’

    Interesting comment coming from a Bishop..clearly needs to take another look at the history of Bunreacht. That is pretty much exactly how the Seanad was envisioned. Furthermore, it was designed that way as a concession to the Catholic idea of Vocationalism to keep them from complaining too much about not being the established Church.

  • Nunoftheabove

    The phrases “the varied realities of society”, “prophetic voices can be heard” and “advance politically unpopular or awkward causes” are dead giveaways.

    On the condition that the clergy were prohibited from ever entering it or directly influencing it, which of course is ultimately what Mr Burrows has in mind, it goes without saying that it should be reformed. Soon and radically, one would hope. Breath not held.

  • pippakin

    [text removed – stick to the point – mods] I find myself, almost, agreeing with the bishop. A second house is necessary to scrutinise the first. I think it should be elected and have certain veto or withholding powers. It should not contain any members of the clergy, any clergy…

  • Neville Bagnall


    Or more specifically corporatism. There are however (at least) two problems with the model of corporatism implemented in the Seanad.

    1) The panels are almost immutable – the size and (supposed) focus of the panels are largely fixed by the constitution.
    2) the electorate(s) are a joke.

    However I see some value in the concept of corporatism if it were better implemented. Let the electorate divide itself into corporate groups based on the issues of most concern to them and let the Seanad reflect those concerns and the diversity of opinion within the group. Then we might have a Seanad that sought to address the issues in a thoughtful way rather than merely seek to act on behalf of their councilor clients.

  • Dan Sullivan

    One of the big areas missing from the government’s reforms announced to date is any effort to alter the electoral system for the Dáil. If the Seanad is being abolished then some major work has to be done ranging from modifying or changing utterly the way in which we elect the Dáil if it is the sole chamber in the Oireachtas.

  • I’m not sure why the clergy should be excluded specifically, more than any other profession. I can see a case for barring serving soldiers, but even that need not be an issue – Ireland is unlikely to have a military coup.

    Presumably such candidates if successful (assuming an electoral process) could be entitled to leave of absence, and liberated from command responsibilities (in both directions) – soldiers as well as clergy, I mean.

    As for a list system – that would be a disaster. It would absolutely entrench the parties’ power over the second chamber.

    Why can’t we have some more innovative thinking?

    Maybe some experts can be appointed. It actually works well in the UK (some of the time). And perversely, knowing they can be abolished if they go too far, makes the Lords more democratically accountable than the other elected dictatorship.

    Maybe a second chamber could have a few subject-based constituencies (business; science; computing, the internet & communications; the arts; even ethics philosophy and faith groups, for example), where “relevant bodies” could propose candidates. We could either permit dissidents (but possibly not political parties) to stand against them, and everyone gets to vote, or the nominees are subject to a public affirmative/negative vote. Not sure how you avoid party influence there, or whether you should. Maybe parties could be given a cap of candidates in 25% of the groups. Or maybe there could be a party constituency, where the parties each propose a list, and the electorate selects people (by some PR system) from the party lists. Fine Gael voters picking the Labour senators… hmm…. could make for more interesting, less demagogic debate.

    Or maybe it should be partly done like jury selection – only you get picked for a couple of years, then get to go back to your previous job, should you want to. With optional extensions for outstanding candidates, by allowing them to stand in an open constituency.

    I don’t think a 100% clear-out at the same time as a general election is necessarily a good thing. You can end up with a wild swing, and an elected dictatorship with even fewer checks and balances.

    Interesting opportunity for change.

  • Henry94

    There is no way the parties will design a Seanad they can’t control so no meaningful reform will ever happen. What is far more likely is a limited reform which will make no real difference except as an excuse not to abolish.

    The Dail should be capable of scrutinising legislation and holding the executive to account. That’s the job it is supposed to do and any ideas for reform should be aimed at the Dail. We certainly don’t need 366 legislators for a small state. 100 would be plenty.

  • Roy Walsh

    In an era where the Assembly in Stormont has survived a full term, and being re-elected, where the English monarch is visiting Dublin, and will be greeted by many of her subjects from the six counties, is it not time to extend the franchise to an Seanad to citizens in all of Ireland, if only by extending that franchise to councillors, MLA’s and UU/QUB students, this would enable the Unionist side of the lost population to see the degree of control they would enjoy in a re-united Ireland, rather than being ignored at Westminster.

  • slappymcgroundout

    For the cruel irony:

    “In May 2011, The Sunday Business Post commented that ‘university representation is a system so bizarre that it is rivalled only by the hereditary peerages in the British House of Lords as an anachronism in modern democracies.'”

    Otherwise helps to remember the meme:

    Lastly, so the folks in Donegal won’t feel lost and forgotten, would help if the representation was equal based on some area or regional scheme.

  • Roy Walsh

    I’d have no argument with that but it’s the system we have.

  • Neville Bagnall

    I’d agree that a single chamber Oireachtas needs a different electoral process. I’d prefer two Houses. A better chance that one of them would offer a distinctive style of political discourse.

    Ideally, nobody should be barred from standing in a parliamentary election, on any grounds; age, sex, criminal record, financial status, citizenship, job, anything.
    However, most jobs should be incompatible with the elected role and require resignation (not leave of absence). Being a national rep should involve a 40-80 hour work week depending on role.

    I don’t like the list system either, and for the same reason. An open list is slightly better than closed list, but only just. As far as I can see MMP still gives control to the parties in most cases, so I still come down in favour of STV. But we need to increase the quota size without reducing the pool of TDs from which we can get 2-3 quality front benches.

    Its not (and shouldn’t be) the fear of abolition that makes the Lords accountable. Its the Parliament Act.

    On subject/policy based constituencies, see my proposals. I rather like the idea of “Jury-Service”, and have some hopes for the concept of a Citizens Assembly/Convention. Politics is a skill though, and such members would face a stiff learning curve.

    Separating the elections has its own risks – failed TDs standing, referendum on Government rather than electing a House.

    The Dáil should be able to override the Seanad in some cases, like with the Parliament Act and Money Bills. It is the House of Government. However I tend to agree that real reform will require an effective Constitutional Convention.
    With European and National duties, its very hard to have an Executive smaller than 30, in fact 30 is probably too small in a modern open economy, but we are a small country. We make things worse by being so centralised. The smaller the Executive, the more the decisions get made by the civil service. If we only had 100 reps, thats 30 out of 50. The pool is too small, quality would drop, not improve. On the 80/20 rule, to get 30 quality ministers we need a pool of 150. Currently we typically choose them from 90 TDs.

    The Presidency represents the Citizens of the Nation. The Houses represent the Residents of the State. I support All-Ireland plus Diaspora-Citizen election of the President, but not of the Houses. Right of address and possibly right of initiation is a different matter.
    I’d probably support some reform in those areas. I don’t think it will make one whit of difference to unionists.

  • Roy Walsh

    Nevill, my point is the long term aim of the Republic of Ireland is the creation of the Irish Republic, to achieve this we must persuade the minority that they can share and have a voice in that Republic, there is no time like the present to begin, reform of this part of an Oireachtas is a necessary step, I firmly believe in removal of the third level vote and it’s replacement with six county representation, the role of President is to represent the citizens of the Republic of Ireland, not those in the occupied part, Art 3. Your opinion of Unionist’s may be somewhat tainted, the old OUP approach is gone, the Census will show where Catholic (nationalist) voting is likely to go in achieving the aim of re-unification but, do you really want 900,000+ armed and angry Protestants in the new free State?

  • otto

    If you want better law how about ex-senior civil servants and judges? People banned from participation in the Dail but with experience of administering the Dail’s edicts.

    If you want election and expertise why not the Presidents of chartered institutions also – perhaps in rotation (eg one of the engineers, one of the accountants, inst of taxation, a medical association) + trade unions. Come up with some standard for a senate worthy institution and let its leader have the odd say. Or Perhaps have a lottery for attendance at oversubscribed sessions and have lots more institutions with speaking rights than the senate chamber seats. You wouldn’t need to pay them as they’d already have jobs.

    No politicians. Just experienced administrators and knowledgeable interested parties.

  • Neville Bagnall

    If and when the North votes for reunification, its quite likely that Stormont will remain, unionists will still be entitled to British passports, etc. The British in the North will stay British, just as the Irish there now are Irish. Jurisdiction doesn’t change identity. While I don’t rule out the possibility of a reverse dissident campaign, this is not the 1970’s either in the North or the South. A lot has changed and in all likelihood will have changed a lot more before a reunification referendum passes.

    The Seanad needs reform, but it is an institution of the South and should remain so. My point about unionists is that I believe they don’t want Senators any more than I want an MP. I don’t think they need convincing that they can have a voice in a reunified state. Yes they will be a minority, but we are a long way from Home Rule is Rome Rule. They know if reunification comes to pass they will get to negotiate on the new dispensation. Until that time the current arrangements are what they are working and the North-South structures gives them as much or probably more influence in the South than they want.

    On the Presidency, it is currently elected by the Dáil electorate, but for 25 years now its role has gradually been widening to encompass the wider Irish Nation, both those in the North but also the wider diaspora. In many ways it has more interaction with and meaning to the otherwise overlooked in our nation. I would support some changes to give the wider Irish Nation both on the island and globally a say in choosing the symbolic representative of the nation.

  • Zig70

    Could you imagine an upper house in Stormont, where all those eejits get a cushy retirement? I’d get rid of Lords and the Seanad. The low houses just need an unelected body of experts in law to advise them on the implications of their ill conceived ideas. Something like civil service advisors. Wouldn’t have to agree but at least leave a paper trail when it screws up. I’m probably too long in private sector to understand.

  • Alias

    The role of Seanad Éireann in scrutinising legislation is redundant for the same reason that the role of Dáil Éireann in proposing legislation is redundant: over 86% of all legislation orginates from the institutions within the EU. Therefore both chambers are equally redundant. The latter chamber is useful only as a propaganda tool to create the bogus impression among the public that Ireland is still a sovereign state in any meaningful way after almost 40 years of ever-expanding EU rule.

  • Neville Bagnall


    Might be better than what we have 🙂

    However, its not universal suffrage. Its possible that some citizens would influence the election of more than one senator, while others would have no influence. However illusory in practice, a republic should at least claim equality of all citizens before the law and in its electoral process.

    Relatedly I’m not sure I agree that only certain professions or associations are senate worthy, less still that occupying often honorary positions would make for good senators.

  • Neville Bagnall


    I don’t know why I’m even bothering. Most of it is technical regulations of the sort usually created by any international trade and treaties and would never be discussed in parliament anyway. Maybe 10-25% is of the sort that would get parliamentary scrutiny even if it originated in the Irish government. Counting regulations is a stupid way to decide on EU influence on Irish law anyway. A Regulation setting
    the USA tariff quota for poultry is not the same as a Criminal Justice (Mutual Assistance) Act.

    Feeding time over. Back to the topic.

  • Alias

    Would I take the word of a misinformed europhile on the Internet over informed analysts such as Dr Anthony Coughlan of TCD or the Former German President and former president of the German Constitutional Court Dr Roman Herzog? Err, no.

    The party proposing reform of Seanad Éireann is the same party of rabid europhiles spewing the lie that the EU is the source of less than 30% of Irish laws. In reality, it is now closer to 90%. Indeed, so extensive is the profileration of EU law within this state that the Master of the High Court, Edward Honohan, criticised the Oireachtas for failing in its duty to scrutinise this law, and of delegating that responsibility to civil servants who simply rubber-stamped.

    These laws are not, contrary to your europhile misinformation, related solely to reflector lights on bicycles, et al, but impose multi-billion costs on the Irish taxpayer and on industry in compliance with them.

    “The National Platform EU Research & Information Centre
    By Anthony Coughlan, Sectary of the National Platform EU Research & Information Centre

    “It is true that we are experiencing an ever greater, inappropriate centralisation of powers away from the Member States and towards the EU. The German Ministry of Justice has compared the legal acts adopted by the Federal Republic of Germany between 1998 and 2004 with those adopted by the European Union in the same period. Results: 84 percent come from Brussels, with only 16 percent coming originally from Berlin” – Former German President Dr Roman Herzog, also former president of the German Constitutional Court, excerpts from article in Welt Am Sonntag, 14 January 2007, co-authored with Lüder Gerkin

    Fine Gael’s claim that the EU was the “source of less than 30% of Irish laws.”

    Fine Gael’s figure is vitiated completely by the fact that they do not count EU Regulations, which are EU legal acts that are directly applicable and binding in EU Member States without the intervention of national legislatures (see Note below). Many of these Regulations relate to agricultural and fisheries for instance, where they are very numerous.

    In contrast to EU regulations, EU Directives are translated into national laws by means of acts of the Oireachtas [Irish government]. A Directive, as you know, is a general injunction from the EU to do such-and-such, but how it is done is left to national Governments and legislatures to decide.

    Another point undermining Fine Gael’s figure is that all Acts of the Oireachtas implementing EU Directives do not mention the EU or refer to the relevant EU Directive as their source, although certainly some do. So the Fine Gael statement that only one-fifth of Acts of the Oireachtas make reference to EU legislation does not cover all EU-derived Acts.

    To get a true picture one needs to count all legislative acts that the Irish State and Irish citizens must obey – primary national legislation, statutory instruments, directly applicable EU regulations and the special category of EU legislation known as EU “decisions”, which are binding on the Member States they are directed to. Moreover, all EU-derived Acts of the Oireachtas and statutory instruments should be counted, not just those that explicitly mention the EU.

    It is hard to get accurate figures for the relative proportion of legal acts originating in Brussels and those originating in the national parliaments of the different EU States. Attempts to get these figures from Government sources are usually fobbed off by the national authorities as too difficult to work out.

    I read recently of a question in the British House of Commons re the relative proportion of legal acts originating in the UK and the EU, which elicited a Ministerial response that it would be an excessive administrative burden to obtain the figures.

    The reluctance by national Governments to provide this information is surely itself significant.

    The only exact figures that I have come across are those produced in Germany by the German Ministry of Justice. With Teutonic thoroughness these stated in answer to a parliamentary question in the Bundestag in 2005 that between 1998 and 2004, 23,167 legal acts were adopted in Germany, of which 18,917, some 84% of the total, were of EU origin; so that less than one-fifth originated domestically.

    These figures were cited by former German President Dr Roman Herzog, who is also a past president of the German Constitutional Court, in a well-known article in Welt am Sonntag which he co-authored in 2007. This article and the figures it gives have been widely quoted, for their source seems unimpeachable, and they are the basis of the 80% figure which Fine Gael dismisses.

    Below are relevant excerpts from Herzog’s article:

    “EU legislation will apply in general across the board for all EU countries , so the absolute number of legal acts for different countries coming from the EU should be broadly similar, although not exactly so. For example land-locked EU countries like Slovakia and Hungary will not be affected by EU fisheries regulations as island countries like Ireland and Britain will be.

    “Also the tempo of domestic and EU legislation will vary from country to country and from year to year. The years following the introduction of some major piece of EU law is likely to have more implementing regulations than other years.

    “It seems fair to say, however, in the light of the authoratative German figures and taking account of directly applicable EU regulations, that a good majority – probably around two-thirds or more – of legal acts each year in the EU Member States now emanate from Brussels.

    “This proportion would increase further if the EU Constitution, now embodied in the Lisbon Treaty, were to be come into force. Under Lisbon the EU would obtain powers to adopt legislative acts in relation to some 40 new areas or matters. These relate mainly to crime, justice and policing, public services, immigration, energy, transport, tourism, sport, culture, public health and the EU budget.”



    “A regulation has general application, is binding in its entirety and is directly applicable in all member states … Thus regulations are the most powerful lawmaking tools available to the Community institutions. Without any intervention by national governments or legislatures, regulations become part of the national legal systems of each member state”
    – S.Weatherill and P. Beaumont, EU Law, page 150, 1999 edition


    Former German President Dr Roman Herzog, also former president of the German Constitutional Court, excerpts from article in Welt Am Sonntag, 14 January 2007, co-authored with Lüder Gerkin:

    “It is true that we are experiencing an ever greater, inappropriate centralisation of powers away from the Member States and towards the EU. The German Ministry of Justice has compared the legal acts adopted by the Federal Republic of Germany between 1998 and 2004 with those adopted by the European Union in the same period. Results: 84 percent come from Brussels, with only 16 percent coming originally from Berlin…

    “Against the fundamental principle of the separation of powers, the essential European legislative functions lie with the members of the executive …

    “The figures stated by the German Ministry of Justice make it quite clear. By far the large majority of legislation valid in Germany is adopted by the German Government in the Council of Ministers, and not by the German Parliament …

    “And so the question arises whether Germany can still be referred to unconditionally as a parliamentary democracy at all, because the separation of powers as a fundamental constituting principle of the constitutional order in Germany has been cancelled out for large sections of the legislation applying to this country …

    “The proposed draft Constitution does not contain the possibility of restoring individual competencies to the national level as a centralisation brake. Instead, it counts on the same one-way street as before, heading towards ever greater centralisation …

    “Most people have a fundamentally positive attitude to European integration. But at the same time, they have an ever increasing feeling that something is going wrong, that an untransparent, complex, intricate, mammoth institution has evolved, divorced from the factual problems and national traditions, grabbing ever greater competencies and areas of power; that the democratic control mechanisms are failing: in brief, that it cannot go on like this…”

  • Neville Bagnall

    You hijacked the tread.

    I (foolishly) responded with some primary research, easily found.
    For that mistake, we are treated to an ad hominem attack, strawmen, etc. and a long screed of someone else’s political commentary.

    Ah well. Lesson learned.