Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Seanad Éireann (and a bit about the House of Lords)

I've been following up on the debate on reform of the Irish Senate, and came across the Irish Labour Party's proposals for constitutional reform which has an excellent three-page summary at the end of why the Seanad should simply be abolished. A lot of the analysis is also relevant to the British debate on reforming the House of Lords:
Why have two Chambers?

There are really only three arguments for a bicameral parliament.

The first is as part of a federal structure, which is not relevant to this State [ie Ireland].

The second argument in favour of bicameralism is a desire to put some sort of check on the popular principle embodied in a popularly elected house. In emerging democracies in particular, there may be a perceived need to safeguard a process towards democratisation and consolidation of the rule of law and to impose checks on the exercise of power in a society where a simple majority-rule system may constitute a threat.

However... the traditional view of the Seanad as providing a check on the legislative impetuosity of the people’s representatives in the Dáil no longer represented the reality of power. Legislative proposals were now drawn up and shaped within government departments; consultations with interest groups and experts made for a high degree of consensus before they reached the Dáil. Consequently it was the Dáil which now provides the check on the main promoter of legislation – which is nowadays the government.

The third argument for an upper house is a political philosophy that justifies bicameralism because of a need to represent the citizen as a member of “civil society”, socialised by the smaller constituent communities which the citizen forms and to which he or she belongs. On this argument, the majoritarian principle in a unicameral system is undemocratic in a pluralist society, because minorities are excluded and unrepresented.

In all cases, clearly, an upper chamber must be established on different principles than the lower chamber.

There are two essential aspects: a different institutional basis and a different political makeup. Otherwise bicameralism is superfluous, as the second chamber, as de Valera feared – and as came to pass – would merely be a redundant duplicate of the first.

In other words, bicameralism makes sense only where there are differences of function between the two houses of parliament, derived from differences in their composition. Where, for example, direct popular representation in the lower house, founded mostly on functioning political parties, would be complemented in an upper house by representation of interests, founded on institutionally organised social interest groups.

But if the same system of general election applies to each chamber; if the political parties have the same institutional relationship within each chamber; if the members of both chambers have joint party caucuses and are subject to the same party whips and so on; then the second chamber loses its rationale because, as a duplication of the first house, it has nothing additional to offer.
I fear that the proposals I've seen for electing the House of Lords fall very much into that trap. My own view is that review of draft laws by independently selected experts, on a constitutional but consultative basis, which is pretty much what the British House of Lords has evolved into already, is probably the best reason for having a second chamber though without the historical flimflam attaching to the current arrangements. Interestingly the Irish Labour Party's document indicates that there are also similar elements developing in the Irish system:
In a relatively political mature society which is not federal; which is not an emerging democracy; where the rule of law is not threatened by majoritarianism but is maintained by the Constitution and the judiciary; and which is not sharply divided along ethnic or religious lines, it is not obvious whether or which of the numerous interests within the state should be institutionally represented or in what form.

And, quite separate and apart from the Seanad, for much of recent Irish history, representative functional and vocational groups were involved in the decision-making processes of government, albeit on an entirely non-constitutional basis. Such processes are reflected in bodies such as the National Economic and Social Council underpinned by the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, and to be streamlined following the MacCarthy report.

If the reality is that the NESC works well the logical course of action at this stage is to abolish Seanad Éireann on grounds of redundancy. Other institutions are doing a job originally intended for it.
I blink a little at this because of course there is a European Economic and Social Committee functioning as part of the EU; I've never been very clear about how useful it is (meaning that I suspect it may not be), but I have to admit that my own interests have been in the area where EcoSoc has least to say, ie foreign policy. I haven't followed the development of the equivalent Irish body at all.

If I were voting in the imminent Irish election, Labour would get my vote on the strength of their concluding section:

In conclusion, if Ireland is to remain a representative democracy, then for all its faults Dáil Éireann is the essential component of our constitutional framework. There must be a parliamentary chamber composed of the directly elected representatives of the people, which chooses the government and holds it to account and approves legislation.

The Seanad, on the other hand, is not essential. It is an optional extra. Because it is not directly elected by the people, its existence is not central to the concept of representative democracy.

The second house must therefore have some other, additional function. It must in some way contribute added value to the process. It has to justify its existence. If the justification is inadequate, then it should go.

The reality is that there is popular indifference about the future of the Seanad. The reasons are clear enough; they have persisted since the Seanad’s establishment in its present form in 1937. Quite simply, no one is sure what purpose the Seanad is meant to serve.

We in the Labour Party have taken a long, hard look at Seanad Éireann, both as members, former members and colleagues of members of that body. We believe the popular indifference is justified.

The case for a Seanad has failed. It is ultimately the decision for the people but our judgement is that the Seanad should be abolished.
Incidentally, I know that Fine Gael have the same policy; I find their new website impossible to navigate, their old one has been taken off-line, and the policy document (when I eventually found a cached copy) is much less well argued than the Labour version.
Tags: house of lords, seanad, world: ireland

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