Like most of those who cast a ballot, I voted to retain Seanad Éireann in 2013. But I didn’t vote to retain it in its current form. Instead, I wanted to see the Seanad reborn as a vital institution, a dynamic and effective upper house that offered a real alternative viewpoint to the Dáil, and one that gave every citizen a democratic voice.
It is now 2016, and that vision of the Seanad has not been realised.
The first and foremost change that should be made to revitalise the Seanad is to make it democratic. As it stands, only the six university senators enjoy anything like a general mandate; voting in the vocational panels is restricted to a mix of current and former elected public representatives, while still more senators hold a mandate of exactly one vote (the Taoiseach’s nominees). Given this democratic deficit, it is no wonder that many in Ireland feel disconnected and distant from the upper house.
Fixing the Franchise
Here, I outline a number of changes that could be made to the Seanad franchise in order to make it more democratic. These changes would result in a universal franchise, equalise the impact of voting, and could all be achieved without the requirement of a further referendum to amend the Constitution.
- Implement the mandate of the 1979 Seanad Referendum: In effect, this referendum – passed over 35 years ago – approved the extending of voting rights to graduates of all third-level institutions, not just those from the University of Dublin or NUI-affiliated colleges. Yet the legislation to implement this change was never put in place. In order to justify the existence of the “university senators”, this mandate should be implemented and the constituencies re-organised to ensure representation from all parts of Ireland’s higher education sector.
- Open up the vocational panels: The principle of the vocational panels was that they would represent people in the different strata of Irish society. Fair enough, in theory – after all, the Dáil constituencies are organised according to geographical boundaries, so organising Seanad representation along demographic lines is a natural extension and counterpoint to this. However, restricting voting on these panels to sitting councillors, outgoing senators, and incoming TDs is undemocratic. Instead, all citizens should be able to apply for a ballot for whichever vocational panel with which they claim affinity.
- Eliminate multiple voting: Most Irish people have no vote in the Seanad. Others, as graduates of multiple institutions and/or holders of public office, have several votes. This should be anathema in a republic; everyone should have one vote, no more and no less, and that one vote should be worth no more and no less than any other vote. This could be dealt with simply by requiring citizens to claim their vote on a vocational panel or, if eligible, a university constituency, and in doing so renounce claims to votes on any other panel or constituency. Citizens would, of course, have the option of shifting their claim elsewhere in different elections (i.e., voting in a university constituency in 2016 would not preclude one from voting on the Administrative Panel in 2021, but one could not cast votes for both in the same election).
The above outlines a means of democratising the process by which 49 members of Seanad Éireann take their seats. However, the remaining 11 are required by the Constitution to be nominated by the Taoiseach. While this obviously represents a further democratic deficit, there are ways in which these appointments could be used to make the Seanad more representative through reserved nominations for:
- The Travelling Community: Irish Travellers have long been subject to political and social neglect. A dedicated representative of the Travelling Community, mandated to specifically highlight and articulate the needs of Travellers, could play a vital role in redressing this imbalance.
- The Irish diaspora: Ireland’s well-documented history of migration – inward and outward – has resulted in a considerable community of Irish people living and settling abroad in a variety of countries. A dedicated representative for this community, following a model similar to that seen in the parliaments of other countries such as France, would provide a link between Ireland and the Irish abroad.
- Northern Ireland: In the past, appointees representing various communities and traditions in Northern Ireland have used their voice in Seanad Éireann to contribute to North-South co-operation, understanding, and peace. There is an argument to be made for formalising this approach.