Elitism and party politics in the Seanad

Nine years on from the failed referendum to abolish the Seanad, the chamber is still in dire need of structural and electoral reform. And with a by-election taking place this month, the need for reform is all the greater.

Seanad Éireann is in a contentious position. The by-election taking place this month, along with Lord Mayor Hazel Chu’s unexpected election bid, should put the Upper House of the Oireachtas at a significantly considerable position in the public imagination. However, in reality the average Irish citizen probably has not had to consider the Seanad since Junior Cert CSPE. This is disheartening, but hardly surprising; the Oireachtas’ lack of dedication to genuinely reform the Seanad and the exclusionary, elitist image that the Seanad portrays does not create a political environment that people want to engage with. The Seanad is in dire need of structural and electoral reform before it is too late and we lose the essential role it can play in Ireland.

In theory, Senators are professional scrutinisers – they receive every potential bill from the Dáil and are expected to use their expertise to consider if it is constitutional, moral and effective. Senators are essential for checks and balances, for ensuring the Dáil has the wellbeing of the country at heart – the Seanad does not even technically recognise political parties to oblige Senators to hold their counterparts in the Dáil responsible for their legislatives duties.

In addition to scrutinising outside legislation, the Seanad has also been the origin of many bills pushing for justice and equality. Recent progress made by the Upper House include the Gender Recognition Act that allows transgender citizens to change their identification without medical intervention. The Seanad as a means of adeptly scrutinising and introducing legislation is an institution worth preserving. The problem is that the Seanad is failing to live up to its full potential, and what should be an objective House of experts and representatives is simply a victim of party politics and elitism.

“The root of most obstacles facing the Seanad is its outdated and ineffective electoral process.”

The root of most obstacles facing the Seanad is its outdated and ineffective electoral process. The Upper House of the Oireachtas was preceded by the Irish House of Lords, an exclusive body chosen by a domineering minority despite having influence over the whole country. The electoral apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The vast majority of Irish people do not elect a single of the sixty Senators. Forty-three Senators are elected on five special “vocational” panels of nominees, and chosen by TDs, outgoing members of the Seanad and city/county councillors. These panels include labour, commercial and education, and electors are expected to choose the individuals possessing the most expertise in their specific area. In practice, these panels are glorified consolation prizes for failed Dáil candidates elected by their fellow party members, or simply a breeding ground for aspiring TDs using the Seanad as means to an end and rise through the party ranks. I am also not trying to equate winning a general election with political competence; there could be many politicians whose experience and skill earn them a position in the Oireachtas, regardless of vote. However, this tradition reeks of partisan deals and power moves, rather than political goodwill and competence. For example, recently outgoing Senator Michael D’Arcy worked on the Agricultural Panel, so one might expect that he had a background in farming. In reality, he is the Chief Executive of the Irish Association of Investment Management and previously worked in the Department of Finance. He has no involvement with agriculture, but losing his seat in the 2020 general election is apparently adequate experience to his colleagues who elected him.

A further eleven Senators are chosen by the Taoiseach themselves of their own volition. This allows the Taoiseach’s party and supporters a comfortable plurality within the Seanad, jeopardising the unbiased and nonpartisan principles the Seanad is expected to uphold.

It is understandable that a portion of Senators are chosen by those intimately aware of parliamentary proceedings, as legislative prowess is key to a Senator’s duties and those working in government admittedly have a deeper understanding of what it takes to fulfil that role. However, the current electoral proceedings do not facilitate that role whatsoever.

The electoral process of the Seanad needs a healthy dose of accountability and coverage. Each of the five panels must develop unique criteria for its candidates to ensure experience and expertise. Should a person who never set foot in a classroom, like Senator Lisa Chambers, play a prominent role in the Educational Panel? Why was Chambers, a politician with a Masters in Commercial Law, not elected to the Commercial Panel? This country is not lacking in competent, experienced people who deserve a seat in the Seanad, yet the process of electing the panels is completely unsupervised and arbitrary. If a comprehensive criteria for a stringent electoral process was implemented fully, half the Senators could be elected through members of the Oireachtas and councillors; it would lead to a more efficient Seanad of members with legislative and personalised knowledge, capable of holding the Dáil responsible.

“What right does the likes of a medical graduate from Trinity have over someone who studied medicine in DCU, or someone who didn’t go to third level education? It seems that a CAO decision dictates the level of democratic rights.”

The remaining Senators should be elected through a fair democratic election similar to our current election of TDs. With all due respect, it’s bitterly ironic that Hazel Chu is running for the Seanad on a campaign of representation, when the Seanad is anything but representative. As of now, the only people who can elect Senators outside of politicians and councillors are graduates of specific universities; three senators are collectively elected by Maynooth, UCD, NUIG and UCC, while a further three are elected by Trinity graduates alone. This electoral rule is grossly elitist and must be abolished. It has nothing to do with expertise – if you’ve ever used or seen Trindr or Trinity Hall’s Confessions on Instagram, I’m sure you’ll agree that Trinity students are not bastions of wisdom. What right does the likes of a medical graduate from Trinity have over someone who studied medicine in DCU, or someone who didn’t go to third level education? None of these people have an inherent political knowledge over the other; it seems that a CAO decision dictates the level of democratic rights.

What’s more, income-inequality rears its ugly head under this rule; the aforementioned universities all have the lowest concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the highest shares of affluent students among third-level institutions. A very specific cohort of people have a right to elect Senators in Ireland – a cohort that is not dictated by knowledge, but rather by socio-economic backgrounds. Despite a 1979 referendum that supported changing this unjustifiable rule, elitism prevails in every Seanad election. As Trinity students, the opportunity for our voices being heard is baseless and immoral until every Irish person has a chance to vote within the Seanad.

“Changes in the Seanad must be spearheaded by the voters who deserve a say in its activities; past experience clearly shows that campaigns for reform will not originate within the government itself, a government that would prefer to keep the Seanad in its pocket.”

Despite a failed referendum to abolish the Seanad in 2013, and a more recent report showing that 85% of respondents believe that the continued existence of the Seanad is contingent on reform, no progress has been made to improve the Upper House. What should be a foundation for representation, skill and thorough analysis of legislation is instead a symbol of elitism and partisanship. Changes in the Seanad must be spearheaded by the voters who deserve a say in its activities; past experience clearly shows that campaigns for reform will not originate within the government itself, a government that would prefer to keep the Seanad in its pocket. This must happen sooner rather than later, as interest in the Seanad is deteriorating with the formation of every new government. In 2013, the Seanad was only saved by a razor-thin margin of 2% – I dread to think what another referendum would spawn.

 

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News and a Junior Sophister student of Politics and Sociology. She previously served as Features Editor