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Everything you need to know about the Seanad referendum but were afraid to ask

With the referendum looming, we answer the questions you’re probably asking.

THE REFERENDUM TO abolish the Seanad takes place on 4 October with the campaign well under way as political parties and interest groups argue their case.

For some the Seanad is outdated and elitist, but for others the chamber provides a vital check on the government and the Dáil.

But what’s it all about? Here’s TheJournal.ie‘s handy guide to get you informed before you cast your vote on Friday.

What is the Seanad?

The Seanad is one of three arms of the Oireachtas – our national parliament – which is responsible for making laws in Ireland.

The other two are the Dáil and the office of the President. In order for a proposed law or Bill to become a law or an Act it must be passed by both the Dáil and Seanad and signed by the President, Michael D Higgins. The Seanad has 60 members and because of the way it is formulated it usually has a government majority.

How is it elected?

Eleven members of the Seanad are appointed by the Taoiseach of the day. Six are elected by graduates of two Irish universities – three by Trinity College Dublin and three by the National University of Ireland.

The rest – 43 – are elected from five special panels or vocational panels of nominees. Only members of the Oireachtas and designated ‘nominating bodies’ are entitled to nominate people to run. The electorate for these panels is made up of TDs, senators and local councillors.

There are five vocational panels in the areas of administration (public administration, social services and the voluntary sector), agriculture, culture and education, industry and commercial, and labour. Senators are elected by way of proportional representation.

With the electorate made up largely of politicians it is usually the main political parties which dominate the Seanad. At present the Seanad has 19 Fine Gael senators, 14 Fianna Fáil senators, 11 Labour senators, 3 Sinn Féin senators and 13 independent senators.

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What powers does the Seanad have?

The Seanad must pass Bills in order for them to become laws. Senators, like TDs, can propose amendments to legislation that the government can either accept or vote down. The government majority in the upper house (the Dáil is known as the lower house) ensures that most of its legislative agenda is passed through the Seanad without issue.

However, if senators take issue with a certain Bill and do not want to pass it they can delay it for up to 90 days but cannot prevent it from becoming law after this time lapses. In the case of Money Bills – legislation which pertains to public spending and taxation – the Seanad cannot delay these bills but the Constitution does contain provisions for the Seanad to dispute whether or not a Bill is a Money Bill.

The Seanad can also instigate a referendum if the majority of its members believe the President should not sign a bill and should instead refer it to the people. This is contingent on at least a third of the Dáil’s membership also supporting this proposal.

Other functions of the upper house include 20 of its members being able to nominate a candidate for President. While a maximum of two of its members can become government ministers.

Why is there a referendum?

The programme for government states that the Fine Gael/Labour coalition will “prioritise putting to the people by referendum a number of urgent parliamentary reform issues” the first of which is abolition of the Seanad.

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This proposal was contained in Fine Gael’s general election manifesto in 2011 which pledged to hold a referendum within 12 months of assuming office. Labour’s proposed putting the matter to the Constitutional Convention.

The proposal has its roots in a speech Enda Kenny gave at the Fine Gael Presidential Dinner in October 2009, just months after he had argued for reforming the house, when he said that it should be abolished.

Kenny said at the time that “our two-house Oireachtas is an odd man out in Europe” and in its ‘New Politics’ published in March 2010, Fine Gael said Ireland is “significantly over-represented because of the Seanad” in comparison to Scandinavian countries and New Zealand.

The Sunday Independent recently reported that Fine Gael adviser Sean Faughnan ‘was the driving force’ behind the proposal but the party maintains that the referendum idea has its roots in a policy review carried out by current Environment Minister Phil Hogan and the subsequent New Politics document.

Where do the political parties stand on the issue?

As the government, Fine Gael and Labour are campaigning for a Yes vote although most of their senators will be voting No. Some Labour TDs are also actively campaigning for the upper house to be retained.

Sinn Féin is also calling for a Yes leaving only Fianna Fáil of the four main political parties calling for a No vote. There is a split among independents with some calling for a No vote and some for a Yes.

There are a number of advocacy groups on both sides of the argument. Democracy Matters, whose number includes former Tánaiste Michael McDowell, want a No vote while One House, which includes the chairman of the Labour Relations Commission Kieran Mulvey, wants a Yes vote.

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When is the referendum?

The referendum takes place on Friday, 4 October with polls opening at 7am and closing at 10pm.

What exactly am I being asked?

You will be asked to vote Yes or No on the 32nd Amendment to the Constitution which proposes to abolish the Seanad. If you vote Yes then you are voting for the Seanad to be abolished. If you vote No then you are voting for the Seanad to be retained.

I’ve heard talk that the Seanad will be reformed if I vote No?

The question on the ballot paper boils down to abolish or keep. There is no option for reform. Those advocating a No vote say that the Seanad can be reformed if we vote No but the government has made no firm commitment to this although has indicated it might.

Is this just a money-saving exercise?

Fine Gael claims (on page 15 of this booklet) that abolishing the Seanad would save €20 million per year. This is based on €8.8 million being saved in direct costs such as salaries, expenses and staff with €9.3 million saved indirectly through ICT, procedural sections, as well as utilities, stationery, the parliamentary legal advisor and pensions costs.

This figure is disputed by the No campaign which argues that the Seanad costs less than €10 million per year or in Michael McDowell’s words around the cost of a carton of milk for each citizen.

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The House of the Oireachtas says it is no possible to calculate the amount of next actual savings that would arise from abolition. In the short-term pensioning off all 60 senators would probably see those costs rise initially.

Added to that that staff who currently work in the Seanad may be reallocated to work in the Dáil or with the enhanced committees and, it would be fair to say, the net costs of abolishing the Seanad cannot be accurately estimated at this point.

If this passes what will change?

In short all references to the Seanad will be removed from the Constitution with references to the Houses of the Oireachtas replaced by references to Dáil Éireann. A more complete list of the changes that will come into effect can be found here.

The Seanad will then be abolished on the day before the Dáil meets after the next general election. This is important to note as some people are under the impression that the Seanad will be abolished immediately after the referendum if it passes. This is not the case.

Is this a big deal?

Yes, of course. Any referendum that proposes to change the Constitution is a big deal and in this case we are proposing to change the Constitution and the way laws are made in this country in a very fundamental way.

This is a democracy, so it’s important that you use your vote. Whatever you decide, make sure you exercise the franchise.

Pictures: Photocall Ireland

Click here for more of TheJournal.ie’s Seanad referendum coverage >

Further reading: What else will change if we scrap the Seanad?

More: Here’s how the Dáil will pass legislation if the Seanad is abolished

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