Reform the Senate (or abolish it!) - Political Quote

Political Quote

The Internet home of Keith Martin : a blog of Political news, opinion, quotes and analysis

"sparkiest of all" - Sunday Tribune

Hot topics!

Post Top Ad

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Reform the Senate (or abolish it!)

The institutions of Irish democracy are a mess. Councillors have little powers in their councillors and Senators are not elected by the people of Ireland.

Today I am concerning myself with the Upper House, The Irish Senate or Seanad Eireann.

While some might question the relevancy of a Bicameral system I do think there is merit to the upper house of Irish Parliment. I admire certain Senators for their role in highlighting issues passed over by the Dail.

However, too often, these are real Senators ie those interested only in serving in the Senate not failed or wanna-be Dail Deputies. I believe the use of the Senate as a retirement ground, training pit or holding pattern for Deputies does this chamber the most harm.

I also take great exception to the fact that Senators are only elected by the graduates of certain universities and politicians. The first case is elitism, the second; cronyism.

The system has been flawed from the very start and is in fact a bastardised version of what was envisioned as part of the checks and balances of the new Irish nation. In fact what we have to day is the second Senate since Independence in 1922.

In the 14 years between 1922 and 1936 the first Seanate was subject to 10 changes in the constitution until in 1936 it was subject to its 11th constitutional change which finally abolished it. It had proved so troublesome to DeValera that he had the Dail abolish it and set up another version in 1937.

The Senate has had its powers and method of election so chopped and changed over the decades that the role of the Irish Senate is unclear and its democratic accountability is questionable.

The 1922 Senate was to be directly elected by the people via PR with a third of it being up for election from a nationwide constituency every five years. The Senate was to have the power to order a Referendum on any bill before it. All of this democracy and accountability ended with the abolition of the Senate in 1936.

Today's Senators are appointed by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (11), the graduates of The National University of Ireland and University of Dublin (6) and the rest by TDs, Senators and County and City Councillors. So just a couple of thousand people in the country elect the 60 Senators. This system of cronyism is an affront to our Republic.

Today's Senate while playing a role in debating proposed legislation and acting as a forum for highlighting issues is a weak house of cards. It can only delay bills by 180 days if it does not like them, if it is a money bill eg The Budget it can only delay it 21 days.

Its two additional powers are
The Senate may, by a resolution, ask the President to appoint a Committee of Privileges to adjudicate as to whether or not a particular bill is a money bill. The President may, however, refuse this request.


If a majority of senators and at least one-third of the members of the Dáil present a petition to the President stating that a bill is of great "national importance" the President can decline to sign the bill until it has been 'referred to the people'. This means that she can refuse to sign it until it has been approved either in an ordinary referendum or by the Dáil after it has reassembled after a general election.

Recently Senator Shane Ross has called for reform, but very limited as has a candidate for the Senate Sean O'Connor who points out that "in the past 70 years no less than 12 Senate reform reports have been drawn up by the Oireachtas but lie gathering dust in Leinster house." It is true that successive governments promise reform, set up committees to investigate then leave everything alone.

It is time to reform the Senate. If directly elected the Senate will be relevant, it should be given a role in debating Ireland's role in the international community, the UN and the EU. It should examine government appointees to EU jobs, Central Bank, the courts and investigate issues like the Judge Brian Curtin issue, Garda corruption and the like. It should help shape Ireland's place in the world, keep an eye on the Government and cease to be an exclusive club. Give us a real Senate or abolish it.
~

6 comments:

Joanna Tuffy said...

Sorry to come back so soon but just thought of another point re the electorate of the Seanad. Other Senates have a connection with local government for e.g. in Germany where certain members of local Governments become members of the Senate. Often Senates are indirectly elected and the idea is they will have a different outlook to a directly elected lower house and I think that does and has happened in the Seanad. Councillors at least are at the coal face and at least everyone gets to vote in local elections including L and E voters. When councillors vote they don't always vote for their party candidate and the vote of independent councillors are very important in determining the outcome of the elections for each panel. Also that connection with local government is important and in my view should be given more prominence in terms of engagement with councils and councillors by the Seanad. I am hoping the right to petition the Seanad will provide an opportunity for councillors to engage with the Seanad. In relation to the 3rd level issue. There was a constitutional amendment some years back that permits legislation to extend the vote to graduates of other institutions and Dick Spring a few years ago brought forward legislation in that regard that was rejected the last FF/PD/Independent Government.

Political Quote said...

You raise interesting points and of course it is great to get the perspective of a Senator to the situation but I feel that the Senate has no real impact on the lives of our citizens and I think most people would find it very hard to define the role of the Senate.

What does it actually do?

I find local government to be very weak also and I think this suits the very centralised form of Government we have which is Dublin centred.

By strengthing local gov and the Senate by making them accountable to the people with a mandate from the people we can have more checks and balances than at present.

We need directly elected Mayors and Senators (in my opinion anyway)

Jake said...

We have a similar problem in the UK with the House of Lords. Obviously for the sake of democracy these institutions should be directly elected by the people, that's how it should be. BUT very rarely these 'undemocratic' institutions do preform important tasks in that they can vote according to their personal views not those of their electorate.

Recently a bill for 90 day detention was brought before Parliament which was passed by the Commons, but defeated by the Lords, if the Lords was elected it would have passed it too, I have no doubt.

Sometimes it is useful to have the upper house 'elected' in a different way to the lower house. This can be by appointment usually by the lower house, the government or by local government.

Joanna Tuffy said...

Keith,

I think you missed my first comment which isn't posted so far on the site. But the problem for the Seanad is not that it doesn't have any impact on the lives of people - it does for e.g. often legislation is amended in the Seanad. For e.g. The Minister for Justice accepted a proposal I put forward in an amendment to the Garda Siochana Bill that "vindicating the human rights of each individual" should be a function of the Gardai. There are numerous examples of legislation being changed because of Senators as opposed to T.D's. The problem for the Seanad is that it doesn't engage people and that it gets very little attention from the Media and the public. But that could change if the motion that I had passed in the Seanad recently - that there be a right to petition the Seanad - is implemented. This could be a means of engaging the public with the Seanad and giving them a right to influence their legislators. In fact the right to petition is very advanced in the Scottish Parliament where they have e-petitioning and on the basis of petitions laws have been changed there. It is also available at local authority level in Scotland as far as I know.

Political Quote said...

I don't doubt there is a need for the Senate but not in its current state.

I don't like leaving the election of Senators to graduates and councillors it just isn't right. It is too closed to the people.

Just because someone didn't graduate college or get elected to a city or county council does not mean they should be excluded from having a say in the Senate.

Elect the 60 Senators directly with 20 being elected every two years for a six year term.

People are interested. Look at the disapointment felt about giving McAlese a second term uncontested. People wanted an election, Presidential elections help shape our sense of national indentity and the last two Presidents have certainly embodied the Ireland at the time of their election. Senators can do the same if elected by the people.

Political Quote said...

I don't doubt there is a need for the Senate but not in its current state.

I don't like leaving the election of Senators to graduates and councillors it just isn't right. It is too closed to the people.

Just because someone didn't graduate college or get elected to a city or county council does not mean they should be excluded from having a say in the Senate.

Elect the 60 Senators directly with 20 being elected every two years for a six year term.

People are interested. Look at the disapointment felt about giving McAlese a second term uncontested. People wanted an election, Presidential elections help shape our sense of national indentity and the last two Presidents have certainly embodied the Ireland at the time of their election. Senators can do the same if elected by the people.

Post Top Ad