Seanad may still have a role to play

Calls for the abolition of Ireland’s upper house should be carefully considered, argues Sarah Slevin.

Once again, the future of Seanad Éireann has been cast into the limelight. The fate of the Upper House would appear to have been sealed with Fianna Fáil’s recent announcement that it is considering holding a referendum on its abolition. Opposition parties have long since called for its removal, with Fine Gael in particular quick to point out that it was their idea in the first place. However, is this a genuine attempt at real political reform, or nothing more than a token populist gesture?

The history books tell us that Ireland has never really been sure of the Seanad’s actual political function. Typifying this are the 10 different committees that have reviewed its role over the state’s lifetime. Not only this, but a referendum on how University representatives are elected to the Second House was passed in 1979, but successive governments have failed to implement the necessary legislation.

This is not the first time Seanad Éireann has faced actual extinction, while also not the first time Fianna Fáil appear to have backtracked on the issue. In 1936, Eamon de Valera abolished the Seanad entirely after it failed to pass certain constitutional amendments, but he reinstated the house in the 1937 Constitution. This epitomises the constant instability that surrounds the Seanad, and possibly contributes to its ineffectiveness.

The topic has been en vogue of late, with political parties wrestling to be next to jump on the bandwagon. Fine Gael, to give them their due, first tabled the proposal in their policy document ‘New Politics’ in March 2010. Labour quickly echoed this, announcing their support for a unicameral parliament at their party conference. Within the last few weeks, both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party revealed they are open to holding a referendum on the issue.

In addition to this, many political commentators and journalists have come out in favour of the Seanad’s abolition. Fintan O’Toole, never a man to shy away from suggesting political upheaval, believes the Seanad to be an unnecessary cost and a retirement home for weary politicians and failed candidates.

The house’s power is severely limited, with the ability only to suggest amendments to bills rather than actually veto them. Debate is quite often perfunctory and lifeless, and Seanad appointments exude elitism and a detachment from the society it’s intended to represent. Ireland remains one of the few non-federal countries to have a second house, and its estimated cost of €25 million per annum has been deemed unsustainable in a time of deep recession.

Against this, some still believe that a radically reformed Seanad could play a useful role in a better political system. Senator Joe O’Toole recently stated his opposition to the proposed abolition, and any question of bias must be discounted as he does not intend to seek re-election as a university senator should the Seanad return after the election.

Professor David Farrell of UCD likewise wrote a highly critical article in The Irish Times, asserting that abolition is based on a ‘fake notion of reform’. He further said that the revival of the question is nothing more than an attempt to satisfy a bloodthirsty electorate, and would not result in any meaningful political reform.

The ferocity with which some political activists propose the Seanad’s removal would seem to intimate that they believe bicameralism is one of the causes of the current fiscal woes. However, the Seanad is not the source of the recession, nor will its removal be the solution. The same commentators attack the Seanad as being counterproductive and contributing little to political debate. Such a statement is an affront to the likes of David Norris, Mary Robinson and Ivana Bacik, all of whom were/are able and intelligent representatives who have found a voice through the Seanad.

As well as this, if saving €25 million a year is another objective, then Seanad opponents seem willing to sell a political institution for a relatively cheap price. The calls for the Seanad’s abolition smack somewhat of political tokenism. This is particularly true of Fianna Fáil, who are being pragmatic in an attempt to distract the electorate rather than developing a newfound hunger for political reform. If such reform is what’s desired, then the Seanad’s removal won’t do much to achieve this.

A properly functioning democracy is no doubt a worthwhile objective, but we should consider that a reformed Seanad could be a part of this, rather than an obstacle to it. These reforms should be carefully thought out before offering a potentially valuable institution as a political sacrifice. While we wonder if we can afford the Seanad, we must also ask ourselves if we can afford to lose it.

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