Almost eight years have now passed since the people of Ireland narrowly voted to retain Seanad Éireann in the 2013 referendum on its abolition. Despite subsequent promises of reform, there has since been no serious attempt by the government to improve the institution, which extends the franchise only to public representatives and the graduates of some universities. Given that graduates of Trinity are among the very few citizens entitled to representation in the chamber, it is vital that those of us with this privilege understand the need for reform and push for its implementation.
“The fundamental problem with the Seanad lies not in its limited powers but rather in the fact that its very composition is an affront to the basic principles of accountability and equality that one should expect in a democratic republic.”
While the chamber possesses a largely advisory role and has remained unchanged for decades, reform is still necessary. The fundamental problem with the Seanad lies not in its limited powers but rather in the fact that its very composition is an affront to the basic principles of accountability and equality that one should expect in a democratic republic. Unlike the more powerful Dáil Éireann, which is directly elected by all citizens, the Seanad’s franchise is limited only to sitting members of the Dáil, mayors, councillors and graduates of both Trinity College and the National University of Ireland (NUI). This excludes the vast majority of Irish citizens from participating in elections to the chamber and thereby leaves Senators accountable to only a tiny proportion of the nation they govern. It hardly fits the spirit of democratic government that the only way for the average citizen to affect change in the Seanad is to either win election to public office or spend years earning a degree from one of a specific set of universities. If the purpose of democratic, republican government is for citizens to take part in public affairs, then how can one possibly justify the exclusion of all but those with the means to attend select universities from elections to national office?
This exclusionary model of election to the Seanad also leaves the chamber even more toothless than its already limited powers (debating and delaying bills) would suggest, as most of its 60 seats are filled by the 43 Senators elected by serving TDs and councillors and the eleven personal appointees of the Taoiseach. This ensures that the government will almost always possess a strong majority in the Seanad and therefore can never serve as a real check on the power of the Dáil. It is difficult to believe that the Seanad could possibly hold the government to account, when the vast majority of Senators owe their position to the same government they ought to scrutinise.
“The very notion that graduates of university are in some way more deserving of political representation than others betrays a disconcerting sense of elitism at the chamber’s core.”
It is therefore often the case that it is from the six Senators elected by graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland that real debate is heard in our upper house. It cannot be denied that representatives of this constituency have indeed made vital contributions to Irish life – one need look no further than David Norris’ role in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland. Although the independence of university Senators from the influence of government allows them the freedom to truly scrutinise prospective legislation, the very notion that graduates of university are in some way more deserving of political representation than others betrays a disconcerting sense of elitism at the chamber’s core. Even if one were to accept the clearly immoral idea that graduates deserve more of a voice in Irish politics than others, the fact that only two specific universities are represented in the body demonstrates just how exclusionary the Seanad remains today.
Given this failure of the Seanad to live up to the most basic principles of democratic government, it is imperative that the chamber be either radically reformed or be abolished in its entirety. Irish governments have for decades paid little more than lip service to Seanad reform; Fine Gael, the very party that campaigned only 8 years ago for its abolition, now shies away from the issue. Even the modest extension of voting rights to graduates of all third-level institutions (supported by 92.4% of voters in 1979) remains unimplemented. Such reluctance to engage seriously with this question is deeply disappointing, as Seanad reform provides an opportunity to reimagine the nature of Ireland’s political system and simultaneously deal with the feelings of many citizens that their views are not represented in the Oireachtas.
“At its core, reform must involve the extension of voting rights to all citizens.”
It might therefore be wise to make use of such reform to highlight the views of those whose voices are today often excluded from public discourse. Many in rural Ireland feel excluded in modern Irish politics, so a Seanad akin to the United States’ Senate in which different regions are equally represented might go some way towards alleviating this particular frustration. Alternatively, one might instead prefer a Seanad in which the long unheard diaspora and those living in the North are afforded the representation they currently lack. At its core, reform must involve the extension of voting rights to all citizens. However, it also offers Irish society an invaluable opportunity to debate what important concepts such as representative democracy, republicanism and good government mean a century after independence.
When campaigning for its abolition only eight short years ago, the current Leader of the Seanad Regina Doherty labelled the upper house “shockingly undemocratic”. Although Senator Doherty is now clearly reconciled with the same chamber that once endured her contempt, those of us studying at privileged institutions such as Trinity would be wise to listen to her erstwhile advice. The current nature of the Seanad affords us the special privilege to have our voices heard in Ireland’s upper house. It is therefore our responsibility to push for reform that would extend to others the representation we presently enjoy.