Tuesday, March 24, 2009

52 Senators Directly Elected in 26 Counties

The relevance of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate, got an airing on RTE’s Late Late Show on Friday, March 20th. Many people strongly believe that it should be shuttered; other consider that an urgent and radical overhaul is required

Thirty two nations operate a single parliamentary chamber. Many are small countries with relatively homogenous populations. These include Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Singapore and Sweden, to mention some.

Forty three countries opt for a duel parliamentary system, like Ireland, and several of these have federal structures. Examples include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. An argument often cited in favour of a bicameral structure relates to the complexity of their demographic structure and a risk that elements of their society, or its former aristocracy if there was one, would be otherwise excluded from the governing system.

The first Seanad was convened on 11 December 1922 by Timothy Healy the Governor General. Members swore an oath prescribed by Article 17 of the Constitution of the Irish Free State. Its members included such luminaries as the banker Henry Seymour Guinness, Lord Glenavy, the former Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1917 to 1921 and pioneer of the Courts of Justice Act 1924 which established the court service in newly independent Ireland, Sir Nugent Talbot Everard, the former High Sheriff of Meath, Galway born British Army General Sir Bryan Mahon, The 5th Marquis of Headfort, Andrew Jameson, a former Governor of Bank of Ireland, The Earl of Wicklow and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. The oldest senator on inauguration day, Strabane-born Dr George Sigerson (1836-1925) was appointed chairman for the first day because he was the oldest member. The Sigerson Cup came into being in 1911 in his memory. When the Seanad met on the second day of its existence, 12 December 1922, two senators were proposed as candidates for chair, Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde, a former Irish Parliamentary Party MP and Lord Glenavy. Lord Glenavy was elected Cathaoirleach and Mr James Douglas as Leas Cathaoirleach. The final meeting of the first Seanad took place on 19 May 1936.

Seanad Éireann, as we know it today, consists of 60 members and came into existence on 27 April 1938. A knowledge of the Irish language, as well as a thorough grasp of parliamentary procedure, were deemed to be the vital qualities of a Cathaoirleach. Senator Seamus O hEochadha, also known as An Fear Mór, was elected. Candidates for senator are nominated by one of several vocational panels, the senate electoral costituencies comprising graduates of Trinity College Dublin or the National University of Ireland. Those chosen by the vocational panels are elected by the country's county councillors and Dail deputies. 49 of the 60 candidates are thus elected; the remaining 11 are nominated by An Taoiseach and these usually comprise political cronies either on the way in, or the way out, of parliamentary politics. Just a handful of distinguised individual have arrived in the Senate courtesy of a Taoiseach's nomination since 1938.

Today, there is a huge need for politicians with highly tuned political skills. Volatile Irish political opinion polls mirror an electorate greatly traumatised and threatened by unprecedented economic instability and horrified by the subversive leadership of the banks that aggravated the severity of this downturn in Ireland. Many decisions of unprecedented importance are pending. Each of the political parties in the Oireachtas has among its ranks some truly committed, able and talented members but there are also far too many in each of the parties whose capacity to inspire has become obsolete and uninspiring. If there is a dearth of real leadership how will this be filled, notwithstanding which combination is in power and forms a government.

The political system will only attract high calibre candidates if they have the chance of being able to make a real, sustainable, impact in a radically reformed legislature. The starting point for radical reform is Seanad Éireann with a different mandate, expanded powers and greater integration with both the lower House and the local authorities.

There have been 12 official reports addressing the issue of Seanad reform from 1928 to 2002 but we still have a grossly dysfunctional institution that has become an asylum for former TD’s and a crucible for prospective TD’s. The process of electing senators by county councillors and serving Deputies, based on a nomination from a vocational panel, is redundant. The university constituencies no longer represent the entire third and fourth tier of education in Ireland. These voting processes may have had some relevance when the nation was an adolescent, its institutions immature and when the worldwide capacity to instantly communicate was very costly, or non-existent.

Vocational issues in Ireland have found an effective voice through the partnership process of the past 22 years. The electorate has no empathy with senators because they did not elect them. It would be surprising if more than 1% of the electorate could name 10 of the 60 members of the Seanad. They are strangers to the population as a whole.

It is also an impertinence for political parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and The Labour Party to list their Senate members as a component of a Dáil electoral constituency, on the basis of their residence, unless and until they have been chosen to contest a prospective Dáil election. The Green Party does is not at fault in this repect.

The practice of An Taoiseach nominating 11 members is another perversion, especially in circumstances where An Taoiseach is not directly elected by all citizens.

A reformed Senate should be directly elected by all eligible citizens.

Its membership should be limited to 52 members, two from each of the 26 counties. It should have the capacity to initiate legislation and approve certain State appointment. The Oireachtas committee system could be the venue to eliminate inconsistencies in the legislative proposals of both Houses, should these arise. The Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann should have the same status and salary as the Dáil counterpart. Closer linkages could be fostered with local authorities if the senate candidate who secured the greatest number of votes in a county was also mandated by that election to become chairman of the largest local authority in that county for the lifetime of the Seanad. An exception could be made in the case of Dublin City Council which is to have a directly elected executive mayor by 2011. A wider talent pool, mandated by the electorate, would also be available from which to choose cabinet ministers and minster of state (whose overall numbers clearly need to be reduced from the present 20 and aligned to credible political functions).

The consequence of these initiatives should be a streamlined legislature that has an abundance of talent; a legislature which is more effective and more efficient and an electorate somewhat more reassured that the nation is on the road to recovery and not the road to perdition.

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