The chattering classes have declared that Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate is unfit for purpose but are divided as to whether its should be reformed or abolished. Taoiseach Enda Kenny declared in 2009, 16 months before he succeeded to his current role that he proposed to save the State €150 million by abolishing the Senate; reducing the number of TDs by 20 to 146 and cutting the salaries of Taoiseach and ministers to achieve greater parity with other jurisdictions. A decision to reduce the number of TDs by 8 has been taken, as has a decision to reduce the number of town councils from 75 to 50.
The Irish Times, in its editorial on 24 July, states that no compelling case has been made so far for abolition and that the issue should be considered by the Constitutional Convention which is due to convene in September. The Times maintains that ‘reform should be radical’ but that the Upper House should not compete with the Dáil. Its role should be to ‘influence’ and provide ‘medium to longer term perspectives’. It could, for example, become a voice for Irish emigrants, provide gender balance and fair representation for third-level institutions, along with facilitating among its membership subject matter or sector experts. In other words, an institution that should be maintained but which requires an excuse to survive.
The fundamental choice is whether Ireland should continue to have a bicameral parliamentary structure, like the 13 larger members of the European Union or a unicameral structure like the remaining 14 members (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden) and countries of comparable size and scale, such as Norway, Israel and New Zealand.
Federal state typically have two houses of parliament while unitary states have one, and this is also the case in certain regional administrations such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Where there is no second house to act as a revising chamber providing a second review of legislation other provisions are made. Luxembourg maintains a Council of State for this purpose.
The first Dáil, which met in January 1919, was a unicameral body. The 1922 Constitution provided for a senate. Half of its membership was nominated by the head of government and half were elected by the Dáil. This procedure was intended to ensure that Unionism was not politically overshadowed.
A change in 1928 resulted in senators being elected by the Oireachtas from a panel nominated by it. This led to a conflict between Dáil and Seanad in 1936 prompting the establishment of a Commission under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice, Hugh Kennedy.
The 1937 Constitution, passed by a margin of 51/29 with a voter turnout of 75.8%, established the current Seanad – 60 members of whom 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach. Six are elected by graduates of two universities while graduates of the University of Limerick and Dublin City University are disenfranchised, as are graduates of institutes of technology. Apart from university graduates the electorate comprises members of the Oireachtas and county councillors.
Seanad Éireann is a deliberative body with limited powers to initiate and review legislation but with the authority to be a forum for discussions on matters of public interest. A Money Bill cannot be initiated in the Seanad nor delayed for more than 21 days before returning to the Dáil, which has the power to reject Seanad recommendations. The Seanad has the power when combined with one-third of the membership of the Dáil to request the President not to sign a Bill into law on the grounds that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained. But that power has never been used.
The rationale for a bicameral parliamentary structure is based on a need to take account of interests that may not be adequately represented in the Dáil and the need to review legislative proposals before they are transposed into law. A senate is intended to offer checks and balances on the legislative process – but how is this possible if the membership of a senate is elected from such a narrow franchise, as is the case currently and is a mirror image of the government?
The Irish Government derives its authority from the Dáil although up to two members of government can be appointed from the Seanad. This occurred only twice when Garret FitzGerald appointed his buddy Senator James Dooge (1922-2010) as Foreign Minister in 1981 and Senator Seán Moylan (1888-1957) who was appointed Minister for Lands in 1943 by deValera.
The tenability of the Seanad has been considered on many occasions. A Seanad Electoral Law Commission was convened in 1958 comprising 19 members under the chairmanship of a Circuit Court judge, Joseph McCarthy but it reached no concrete conclusions after nine months of deliberation.
The Committee on the Constitution which was inaugurated in 1967 at the prompting of Seán Lemass then considered the issue but more recent analysis has focused on the duplication of representation as between the Dáil and the Seanad as well as its relevance in contemporary political life.
Few items of legislation originate there although some technical matter have done so. Senators cannot raise parliamentary questions and sittings, which typically take place on a Wednesday and Thursday, are determined by the need to consider Bills passed by the Dáil. But in the last analysis party politics impacts both the nomination and election of senators.