Head to head: the Seanad

Every fortnight two Trinity students pit themselves against each other on a major issue in higher education. In this issue, Shane Glackin and Sam Hanily discuss the Seanad.

Sean Glackin: “The Seanad’s role is to represent groups the electoral system fails to”

When the catastrophic shortcomings of Irish political culture have rarely been more apparent, it is curious that proposals for reform have focused on one of the very few national institutions that has functioned more or less successfully over its history. Curious, but unsurprising. The point of a scapegoat, after all, is to satisfy the public’s urge for bloodletting while letting the actual culprits off the hook.

Let’s be clear; the Seanad is by no means a perfectly democratic institution. It is undemocratic, we are told, because it is substantially unelected. But this inference reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the point and nature both of democracies, and of electoral systems.

Democracy, as a theory of government, proceeds from the assumption that the best political outcomes are those agreed upon by a consensus of all potentially affected individuals. That we cannot simply equate this with majority rule is reflected in the fact that virtually no modern democratic state is constituted on unalloyed majoritarian lines. Rather, they operate with a series of institutional checks and balances, which suggests that the disenfranchisement of minority groups – Jews, gay people, the travelling community – no matter how popular, cannot be democratic.

Now, electoral systems are typically excellent guarantors of representation and the representation of all affected parties and their interests is a sine qua non of democratic governance, and a well-designed electoral system is one of the best tools we have for ensuring it. But like any tool, it is limited in its use.

In Ireland, education employs approximately 50 percent more people than agriculture. But whereas teachers are evenly distributed among the population, farmers are by their nature geographically concentrated. This ensures that farmers are well-represented, since they dominate the rural constituencies. But teachers, with no such guarantee of representation, form a powerless bloc within each electoral area. Their interests are invisible to an electoral system based on geographical constituencies.

The genius of Seanad Éireann is to provide a forum for democratic representation of those groups which lack geographical clout, whose members constitute a significant proportion of the total electorate, but nowhere thickly spread enough to elect a TD of their own. The voice it accords those groups, those citizens, doesn’t compete with that of the directly elected Dáil Éireann; but it does leaven and moderate it. The Seanad allows input into the deliberative process for figures as diverse – as representative of the full diversity of Irish society – as Martin Mansergh and Joe O’Toole, David Norris and Rónán Mullen. Homosexual acts were still criminal offences within the lifetime of most Trinity News readers; that they are no longer so is due in great part to the decades-long platform the Seanad afforded Norris.

Of course, as currently constituted, the Seanad has flaws – its cronyism and its use as an incubator or retirement home for budding or ageing party stalwarts. But the proposals for its reform do little to resolve these issues. Worthwhile reform would reinforce the Seanad’s central function and success, providing panels for immigrants, expats, LGBT groups, and the disabled.

The Seanad is “toothless”, it is true; but its inability to overrule the elected Dáil is just what makes its unelected status defensible. Its role is to represent groups the conventional electoral system fails to. In providing a voice for interests which lack the financial or structural requirements to be heard conventionally, it is one of the  few successful institutions that Ireland possesses. “We must reform the system,” we are told, “and this is reform; therefore we must do this!” To respond to the total discrediting of our political establishment by eviscerating the one element which both works as intended and bears virtually no responsibility for the malaise would be the rankest idiocy.

Sean Hanily: “It acts as a backdoor entrance to the Dáil, and as a retirement home”

Now that the future of Seanad Éireann, the upper house of our Parliament, is being discussed in a serious way by all major political parties, it is definitely time to take a closer look at its relevance in the modern world.

If someone were to ask you whether you think the House of Lords in the United Kingdom is relevant, what would your answer be? For most people, the answer would be no, many suggesting that it is an elitist upper house riddled with old men who just block some legislation.

Well, then, is the Seanad any different? No, it is not. It may differ in that it is not elitist (after all, why is Eoghan Harris there, and who let him in?), but it still serves the exact same function. It is a back door entrance to Dáil Éireann for politicians who were not democratically elected by the ordinary citizens of Ireland, and it is a retirement home for politicians who have had a long career in Dáil Éireann and do not want to leave the luxuries of Leinster House behind them just yet.

However, also contained in this ridiculous establishment is a third group of people: senators like Frances Fitzgerald, who have openly spoken about their worries and agreed with ideas about the House’s abolition. This third body of senators are statespeople of whom this country should be proud. They have put the people of Ireland, the taxpayers, first. They have spoken out about a subject which would put them out of their job.

Alas, people like Senator Fitzgerald are in a minority. When Fianna Fáil came round to the idea of abolishing the Seanad only a few weeks ago, that party’s senators were far from happy. And why would they be happy? After all, included in the Government side of the Seanad are senators such as Ivor Callely and John Ellis, men which are no strangers to bad publicity.

But they are representing the people, right? Wrong. They are some of the people who make up the “Taoiseach’s nominations”, senators who are paid by this country, but who are not elected by the people. They were, in turn, “elected” to membership of Seanad Éireann by none other than our former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. If you are unsure why these men have question marks over their presence in the house, then simply Google their names.

But aside from the Seanad being a body which misrepresents the people of this country, there are many other reasons to reject it. Most Irish people nowadays will be familiar with the word “expenses”. This word is also deeply associated with Seanad Éireann. Surely the governing bodies of the country should be setting a good example for the rest of us by avoiding all unnecessary expense? But the senators don’t seem to agree. Last year, Senator Donie Cassidy (another Fianna Fáiler!) was quoted in the Irish Examiner as saying it’s “not easy” for senators with families to get by on their basic salary of €65,000 a year. I’m sure the average person in this country would beg to disagree.

Furthermore, the Seanad has been regarded by many as a “talking shop”. This is a fair label for it. Just watch the Oireachtas Report any night and see just how petty the whole set-up is. Look up the senators and see just how many of them may have other agendas, such as Labhrás Ó Murchú (the head of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann).
It is simply not acceptable, nor credible, for any person to now stand up in defence of Seanad Éireann. Many of the people in favour of saving it will quote its noble history, reciting anecdotes about the likes of W.B. Yeats, Brian Friel and Oliver St. John Gogarty at work in the upper house.

But this is nonsense. One has to look at former senators like Garrett Fitzgerald and Noël Browne to get any real political inspiration from the history of the Seanad. And people like those have been few and far between in the history of Seanad Éireann.
Put quite simply, the Seanad is a waste of time, money and resources. However, Trinity College can at least be proud of its representatives, most of whom over the years have proven to be the most capable and worthy of all the senators. Hopefully a brighter future awaits Ireland – one with no place for Seanad Éireann.