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Reforming the Seanad

I've been following the debate on reform of the Seanad (the Irish Senate) with great interest; see here, here, here, here and here. Up to now, my position has been very much in favour of abolition. There is only one other small state in the EU with an upper house (Slovenia); the other ten smaller than Austria (which is federal, and has twice Ireland's population) get by with one, as do Sweden, Hungary, Portugal and Greece. I therefore welcomed Enda Kenny's promise, while in opposition, to abolish the Seanad, and actually found Labour even more compelling in the arguments they made in their manifesto (which, quelle surprise, turn out not to actually be binding on their elected representatives).

However. I am reasonably impressed by a 30-page paper with the title "Radical Seanad Reform through Legislative Change", co-authored by Feargal Quinn, Michael McDowell, Joe O’Toole, Noel Whelan and Katherine Zappone, and published here, here and here. While two of them are serving senators, two of the other three have retired from politics, and Whelan and I wrote a book together exactly ten years ago this spring. Not all details in the paper are correct - Croatia, for instance, went unicameral in 2001 (cf §4.3 on page 18), and not all of them are convincing. But the main argument - that the electoral base for the Seanad is fixed by legislation, not the constitution, and that it could and should be broadened out to include the entire electorate even without a referendum - is thought-provoking.

I found even more interesting the argument for the Seanad's actual contribution to the legislative process. My own criterion for a useful revising chamber in an otherwise unitary state is that it actually revises, and the evidence here, though skimpy, is fairly compelling (note also this comment on one of my previous posts). I now feel that although my gut sympathy remains with the abolitionists, any referendum proposal to abolish the Seanad will need to demonstrate not only that it makes appropriate adjustments to the various other state structures which would need to be altered because they depend on the existence of the Seanad or its Cathaoirleach, but also that it brings in equivalent or better safeguards against hasty legislation by a unicameral Dáil. These needn't be constitutional amendments or even legislation - changes to the Dáil's Standing Orders would probably cut it - but they must be there.

Worth a look if you are interested in upper chambers in general as well.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 13th, 2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
I must actually read that document, though for all (some) people talk a lot about reforming the Seanad rather than abolishing it, I suspect that in real life the only two choices are abolish or leave as it is. I suspect (other) people are being over-hasty in concluding that abolition is the best thing to do, but I don't think that either outcome will bring Irish democracy closer to its end.

One thing I suspect, though, is that any change to the electorate for the Seanad would probably mean that none of the university Senators or Taoiseach's nominees would be finding their way back to the reformed upper house.
May. 14th, 2013 08:45 am (UTC)
I think you're probably right that the real choices will turn out to be abolish or leave as it is. However, any change to the Taoiseach's nominees, or abolishing the university senators entirely (rather than changing the franchise), would require a referendum; the Quinn et al paper explicitly addresses the changes taht can be made by legislation alone.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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