As the Seanad Election 2016 approaches, the question has to be asked ‘does party politics serve the people or the party’. The fallout from the General Election 2016 has resulted in many high profile TDs losing their seats and the challenge for political parties now is how to enhance the profile of those who lost so that they are ready for the next general election whenever that comes. The people of Ireland decided by way of a referendum to retain the Seanad in 2013. However, I doubt that anyone voting in that referendum wanted the Seanad to continue as the old boy’s staging post that it has become since 1937.
Neither do I believe that the people of Ireland wanted Senators who are paid a salary of €65,000 to spend a good portion of their time working outside the Seanad Chamber building a political profile for the next Dáil Election and little else.
Since I entered the Seanad in October 2014, I have been shocked that some Senators who instead of participating in important debates on legislation and other national issues devote much of their time to private careers or working for what they call ‘their constituency’ which in reality is a Dáil constituency. One only has to listen to the daily Seanad adjournment or commencement debates where questions put to Ministers would be more appropriately put to a City or County Councillor or a TD.
Party Senators frequently refer to their "constituents" and have constituency offices even though their only office should be in Leinster House. If we defined constituents as a person who can elect a Senator there are only three possible groups; University graduates, City and County Councillors and Members of the Oireachtas. As an Independent Senator I see myself as representing only one constituency, the constituency of 949 Local Authority Members and the bodies who nominated me in the first place. I never intend to run for the Dáil and my focus is on representing those who actually elected me.
It is high time that the Seanad was reformed to be the kind of Upper House our founding father's envisaged. It is high time that Seanad became less about political parties and more about the five vocational panels on which it is structured. The Seanad must be a place where legislation is fully debated with significant numbers of Senators present and where bad or poorly drafted legislation is returned to the Dáil for redrafting, The Seanad should also have other roles such as examining EU directives as we have often seen that one size does not fit all across Europe.
The traditional practice of filling Seanad seats with aspiring or failed political party members whose eye is often on a different prize is the real elephant in the room when we speak of Seanad reform. Sadly but not surprisingly, the 2015 Manning and O'Toole Report on Seanad Reform is already gathering dust as it lacks the political will to implement it. Why? because it challenges well established political practice. The report recommends that 30 of the panel seats be filled by popular vote on the principle of one person one vote while still retaining 13 for those elected by City and County Councillors and Oireachtas members, 11 to be appointed by the Taoiseach and 6 by University Graduates. I believe that the Seanad Elections should take place on the same day as the General Election and the electorate must be widened to include all registered voters. Only then will the current system of crèche and retirement home be replaced by one which has popular legitimacy and full support. Only then will we have the Seanad that the citizens of Ireland deserve