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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  • “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.”

    Re Sinn Fein this is not surprising. During the Good Friday negotiations SF’s only contribution to the Strand One negotiations was to insist on a United Ireland, to demand an early release for “political” prisoners, and to say that they could not be expected to deliver on decommissioning. If it doesn’t involve guns, getting their people out of prison or a United Ireland, Sinn Fein just isn’t interested.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s one of the problems of backing the abolition is that you don’t get automatic entry into the debate. But if the final proposals are to have widespread approval they must be given the opportunity to feed in…

    Here’s a summary of the changes proposed in the electorate that might affect us Nordies (at home and abroad):

    – Irish citizens living abroad: Quinn/Zappone and Crown propose including Irish citizens, who have a valid Irish passport, and who live abroad. The Crown proposal specifies that they register with their embassy/consulate to vote.
    – Diaspora: Fianna Fáil proposes extending the electorate to the diaspora – via mechanisms discussed in the Constitutional Convention

    – Northern Irish electorate: Zappone/Quinn includes in the electorate people who live in Northern Ireland and qualify for Irish citizenship. Since the Belfast Agreement, all Northern Irish citizens have a right to Irish citizenship.

    – Fianna Fáil recommends that 3 Senators be elected by the Northern Irish electorate.

  • Mick,

    Why not just reorganize the whole Seanad on a provincial basis–like the American Senate or the South African upper house–and that way NI could be represented as part of Ulster?

  • Mick Fealty

    As a rule, reform should consist of the smallest necessary change. Big change introduces the potential for large unforeseen consequences. Something the electorate don’t generally like.

    Which brings up the ‘should we sneak it in through legislation’ scenario on the basis that the people have said they do actually want the second chamber, or do you go for the ‘real’ improvement and a second ‘scary buns’ referendum?

    Got be damned sure you can win with the second, but you do also stand to improve the democratic legitimacy of the reform package.

  • Jagdip

    Sorry Mick, and feel free to delete for irrelevance to the topic, but from this distance the intensifying spate of security alerts looks suspiciously coincidental with Operation Torus where the PSNI is getting up close and personal with drug dealing. Do certain organisations think stretching police resources will degrade the PSNI’s ability to police the drugs trade?

  • Mick Fealty

    can you email that to me Jag?

  • David Crookes


    Mick, people need to move slowly, think hard, and decide in due time on a completely new starting-point.

    The parties that supported abolition should refrain from beginning any sentence with the words, “What we think the electors are really telling us is…..”, because they have shown themselves to be out of touch with the electors.

    Proponents of the following kind of lazy kwik-fix should be ignored. “Let’s see what a few activists proposed by way of reform in the recent past, blend most of their propositions into a stew, and feed it to the electorate in a new referendum.” You want a common-sense appetizing turkey of a Seanad that most people will be happy with. You don’t want some PC-gone-mad neo-Weimarian bag of frozen giblets. One Polish senator and one Chinese senator would be possible in a common-sense Seanad.

    No rushed affairs. Go away, get on with something else, and return to the Seanad question only after the widest possible discussion. In spite of what I said about a turkey, the Seanad doesn’t need to be reformed before Christmas.

    If there is going to be ANY representation for NI, the matter should be discussed without rancour by our MLAs. It will leave a very bad non-GFAish taste in everyone’s mouth if some parties combine to say no, it’s bad, and we refuse to allow any discussion of the matter.

    If the old NI Senate still existed, and if there was an infinite amount of magnanimity on all sides…..

    Sorry. I’m dreaming,

  • weidm7

    I don’t see why Trinity College and NUI students should get their own special constituency, if a university is good enough to be accredited as such, then their graduates should be capable of voting. It seems the most practical way to extend the franchise north of the border would be to allow northern graduates to vote, either as their own constituency or maybe as part as Ulster, or all together with the rest of the country. It wouldn’t require setting up polling booths and might antagonise unionists less.

    I for one think 3 senators from the north in a 51-person senate is ridiculous. The cynic might say this is typical Fianna Fáil, a bit of lip service but make sure that they’ll have absolutely no voice so they won’t have to deal with anything they’ll have to say.

    I’d prefer at least 10, maybe as high as 20, with the majority reserved for people nominated by the top three unionist parties (that way you might at least get some ni21 engagement), with those seats being left empty if the unionists choose not to send anyone, which is likely. Another chunk perhaps should be reserved for non-aligned northern parties.

    I don’t see a great argument for having reserved seats for ethnic minorities, it seems to me they’d be better placed on local councils, if they could ever be beefed up. If anything, Protestants should have reserved seats, to attempt to mitigate their sidelining since the foundation of the state.

    I’m against gender quotas as treating a symptom not a cause so I wouldn’t be for them.

    I think it should have a definite bias against Dublin to try somewhat balance the overcentralised nature of the country.

    The Green’s suggestions were most interesting. They had a real overarching aim for the house, to engage on a national basis with the big issues that effect us as a nation. In their list of ‘big issues’ at the end though I would’ve included Northern Ireland and the Irish Language and Culture.

    Obviously the Taoiseach’s nominations need rid of and a review of the franchise, but I’m not too opposed to letting university graduates elect a few senators seperately, they gave us the likes of David Norris and Mary Robinson. The vocational constituencies I’m not sure of.

    I wouldn’t mind either if it was given the power to send bills to either the President or the Supreme Court for review. This could perhaps replace the delaying function, which never really made sense to me. And I like the Green’s idea of them being obliged to engage the public in the national political discourse.

  • Mick Fealty


    You may hope that SF hear you, but even if they do, you have to consider what’s realistic.

    Shifting the numbers requires a referendum, and that means asking people in the 26 to give a bunch seats to people who don’t pay their taxes to the Irish Revenue Commissioners. I would predict a #FAIL.

    Most of the all island policy I see fails utterly to match the current realities and instead tries to rush to the end with some tokenistic gesture that never works.

    It’s as though people cannot bring themselves to see past the politics of heroic gesture.

  • dodrade

    The people voted to retain the existing Seanad, not for a fantasy reformed chamber which will never come into existence.

    It would have been better even for the pro-Seanad camp to have lost the referendum, as FF and others could have proposed an entirely new second chamber from scratch at the next election. As it is the electorate behaved like hoarders on daytime TV, having a chamber full of useless clutter but being unable to bring themselves to clear it out.

  • Mick Fealty

    Once voted out by public mandate it would never have come back. That’s pretty much my reasoning in pointing to the gutting of local government under Lynch in a post just prior to the referendum itself:

  • David Crookes

    The abolitionists had a most acute heuristic slogan. “Save a bit of money by reducing the number of gombeenocrats.”

    But the plain folk saw through this specious bit of self-deprecation, and refused to do what the gombeenocracy wanted them to do.

    The victory for contrarianism which the referendum result represents should be borne in mind by every member of the constitutional convention.

  • @Mick,

    This is off the subject of Seanad reform, but on the same general subject of institutional reform namely the GFA. Below is a link to an Economist story on a lawsuit brought by a Bosnian Roma and a Bosnian Jew against the Bosnian constitution because many positions in it are reserved for members of the three recognized constituent peoples of Bosnia (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs).

    I’m sure that Alliance at a time of its choosing could find a couple of members who fit the criterion of “other” i.e. coming from a mixed marriage and therefore not identifying as either nationalist or unionist, who could claim that they are unrepresented on key votes because supermajorities of both nationalists and unionists are needed but parties in the other category i.e. Alliance are effectively ignored. I know from talking to Alliance leaders that this is one of their big complaints about the GFA. If an EU court recognized that the Bosnian constitution is discriminatory it could easily make a similar ruling regarding the GFA. I would assume that they would wait to do this until after the outcome of the Haass talks.