Seanad Eireann and an emerging consensus for functional reform?

So Seanad Reform? It hasn’t gone away you know!  Leaving aside the practical consideration of how progress is to be made in discussions of future reforms, on the table are five ‘live’ documents:

Having gone on a working assumption of a Yes victory, there are currently no concrete proposals for progress from either Fine Gael or Sinn Fein.

The two Bills at the top can bring forward reforms without recourse to another constitutional referendum. Each of the other proposals require a second reference to the people. Getting positive approval for change is not something that Irish politicians have proven adept at.

And that likely goes a long way to explaining why the 2004 recommendations – which had a wide consensus in both houses of the Oireachtas – never made it out of the door of Leinster House.

The whole government campaign was dominated by the sense that politicians cannot reform themselves, a point which was well articulated by Fine Gael’s co chair of that 2004 Committee report Brian Hayes.

Focus of Reform

There are three key elements of proposed reform, ie composition, functions and powers.  All five recommend substantial change in the way senators are elected or appointed, and all bar Senator Crown’s Bill recommend expanding its functions.

Only Fianna Fáil document argues for an increase in the powers of a reformed upper house.

All the newer proposals espouse direct elections with Quinn-Zappone and Crowne pegging numbers at the current 60 and Fianna Fail suggesting a drop to 51 senators. So you could argue there is an emergent consensus to move away from the 2004 proposal to keep an electoral college of county councillors.

With the exception of the Green party’s proposal, all have retained some form of nomination system. Fianna Fail’s proposals scrap the university seats and reduce the number of Taoiseach’s nominations to make a space for three senators to be elected from Northern Ireland.

Quinn/Zappone and Fianna Fail also propose a gender balancing requirement, though in different ways. The Fianna Fail up Fine Gael’s recently enacted legislation ensuring that 30% of election candidates are women to 50%, Quinn/Zappone propose 50% of Seanad seats be reserved each for women and men.

Electoral system

All four 2013 proposals recommend that the electoral system would be PR STV or similar; whilst the Green Party suggest a related open-list PR system. But it is in the reform of the selection procedures that creates a need to adjust the constitution.

Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the 2004 sub-Committee on Seanad Reform – all propose mechanisms which would ensure a critical difference in the make up of the Seanad from that of the Dáil:

  • Larger, regional constituencies (a national constituency in the case of the sub-committee)
  • No double candidacies Seanad and Dáil election at the same time and that no outgoing Senator could run in the subsequent Dáil election (Green Party);
  • Elections to the Seanad take place at a different time to the Dáil (with the local and European Parliament elections) to reduce the partisan nature of the Seanad (Fianna Fáil).

On timing there are a number of differing proposals from the more conservative on or near the day of the Dail elections, to moving it to coincide with local and European elections (which are on the same cycle in the Republic)…

Senators Zappone/Quinn propose to set the salary of a Senator at 50% of a TD‟s salary; Fianna Fáil proposes setting the salary at €50,000.

Functions and Powers

Some divergences here too. Scrutiny of all EU directives plays a role in four of the proposals. Only Fianna Fail proposes increased powers for the Seanad to scrutinise all legislation by: increasing capacity to delay from 90 to 180 days; and expanding the time available for Private Members Bills using a new PMB Day.

The Green Party proposes a pre-legislative scrutiny role and the 2004 recommended the Seanad be involved early  in the legislative process. It also suggests it be play a role in ensuring a better quality of public consultation on proposed legislation (something the Lords has had some success with in Westminster).

Quinn/Zappone suggest a Seanad Public Consultation Committee could activate a debate within the house if a petition is signed with 1000 (not my favourite bit I have to say, a potential source for gaming and gridlocking).

Fianna Fáil, Quinn/Zappone and the 2004 report all propose a role in scrutinising and vetting Government appointments to public bodies and would oblige the Minister to take into account its recommendations.

The question is where now?

The question now is, where do these ideas go? The constitutional convention is what Sinn Fein recommended, and since it was part of both the governments and opposition parties pre election proposals it is the most likely venue for hammering out a robust proposal.

Some space must be left open for Fine Gael and Sinn Fein to filter in their ideas, if there’s to be a consensus to carry it in any future referendum. Although if any putative referendum is to be carried then robustness rather than pure consensus has to be the watch word.

We watch this space with interest.

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