As the closing date for the receipt of submissions to the Working Group on Seanad Reform fast approaches I am asking on everyone who wisely voted in favour of retaining the Seanad to have their say. While the Working Group did place ads in National Newspapers before Christmas inviting submissions, the subject has been all but been ignored by the National Media. Two weeks ago I drafted an opinion piece for circulation to all the Newspapers but interest in Seanad Reform appears to have waned if not died away altogether. Even though last year’s Seanad Referendum did not allow for a vote on the reform of the Seanad it is widely known that many of those who voted in favour or perhaps indeed against the retention of the Seanad are in favour of radical reform.
Now that An Taoiseach has finally set up a group to report on the reform of the Seanad the opportunity for real reform must not be lost. For far too long the Seanad has been abused, turned into a crèche for party faithful rejected by the electorate in a General Election or used as a retirement home for those exiting their political career. If the McNulty affair did nothing else, it opened up the issue of cronyism that has been rife in Irish politics since the foundation of the state. The time has come to clean up Irish politics and where better to start. Change is required and, as far as the Seanad is concerned, this change is long overdue.
There is a real fear that the only change that will be considered by the Taoiseach’s reform group is to broaden out the electorate for the six university seats in the Seanad. Some believe that the aim of government is to replace the two existing panels, the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin (Trinity College), with a single national panel as set out in the 7th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1979 and has never been acted upon. The new university panel would include graduates from other higher education institutes as specified by law. While there is merit in expanding the university panel, a smash and grab approach designed to tick the box of reform would be an unforgivable act. Reform must find a way to provide access for all third level graduates to the Seanad electorate. However, the process must respect the unique ethos and traditions of each college in the country.
Real reform requires taking a radical look at how the Seanad is elected. The first place to start is with the process used for nominating candidates for elections. Currently nominations for the Seanad do not close until after the Daíl General Election. This means that Daíl candidates rejected by the electorate are frequently put forward by their parties as candidates for the Seanad election. This practice precludes other well qualified persons, whether members of a political party or not, from gaining nominations for the election. The practise has been one where political parties nominate a ‘big name’ or darling of the party rather than having an open field. Indeed there are examples of personalities rejected by the electorate in a Daíl General Election, and further rejected by the Seanad electorate, only to be appointed as a Taoiseach’s nominee. How undemocratic can this be? How insulting to the electorate for both houses of the Oireachtas? In order to further professionalise the Seanad, nominations must close on the same day as they do for a Daíl election. Thus candidates must choose at the time of a General Election which house they wish to stand in the election for.
Any reform of the Seanad must examine the composition of the vocational panels. The panels are the Administrative, Agricultural, Cultural & Educational, Industrial & Commercial, and Labour Panels. The first question to be asked is how does one qualify for selection as a candidate to these panels? Qualifications required for all panels are vague, offering no clear criteria to guide a prospective candidate. The only criterion seems to be whether one can obtain a nomination from one of the many Registered Nominating Bodies or not. A major defect in the Seanad vocational panels’ election process is that none of the nominating bodies have a vote in the actual election. Thus, once a nominating body has completed its task of making a nomination it has no further say in the election process.
The Working Group on Seanad Reform announced on 7 December 2014 was instructed to focus reforms of the Seanad Electoral system ‘within the existing constitutional parameters’. The Group is also to explore ways of reforming Seanad Éireann generally and the manner in which it carries out its business, again within existing constitutional parameters. One clear improvement to the Seanad Electoral system would be to use the provisions of Article 19 of the constitution. Article 19 sets out the following options for a Seanad election:
Provision may be made by law for the direct election by any functional or vocational group or association or council of so many members of Seanad Éireann as may be fixed by such law in substitution for an equal number of the members to be elected from the corresponding panels of candidates constituted under Article 18 of this Constitution.
Why has this provision never been used? There can be only one reason: that is it would take away from Seanad elections the political cronyism that has debased the upper house for decades. Furthermore, the use of Article 19 would ordinary members of the Registered Nominating Bodies a franchise in Seanad elections making the upper house answerable to a wider electorate. Perhaps a mixed electorate is the way forward. Panels nominated by the Oireachtas sub-panel could be elected under the terms of Article 18 of the constitution retaining City and County Councillors together with Oireachtas members. Those nominated by the Vocational sub-panel could be elected under Article 19 of the Constitution where the electorate would be members of the nominating bodies appropriate to each panel. This process would move Seanad Éireann closer to the independent house of parliament envisaged by the authors of the 1937 constitution.
The Seanad reform group set up by An Taoiseach must shake off their political allegiance of bygone days and deliver real reforms for the Ireland of the 21st century. They must deliver a Seanad which can act independently of the Daíl. A Seanad populated by persons with political credentials and persons with vocational expertise working together to critically examine government legislation. Through a referendum, the people have clearly expressed their desire to retain the upper house. The reform group must not shirk their responsibilities; they must bravely deliver the long overdue reforms. If An Taoiseach and his government are really committed to the democratic reform of the Seanad they must implement the recommendations of the working group without delay.