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Taoiseach says electing people from Northern Ireland will give the Seanad an 'all-island dimension'

Varadkar made the comment as he announced that a new committee on Seanad reform is to be set up.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he voted for the abolition of the Seanad in the 2013 referendum.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he voted for the abolition of the Seanad in the 2013 referendum.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said the Seanad should be allowed to elect senators from Northern Ireland – from both nationalist and unionist communities – so the Upper House of parliament has an “all-island dimension”.

Addressing Seanad members today, Varadkar said having both nationalist and unionist representatives would provide “different voices on issues which concern us all”.

Varadkar made the comment as he announced that a new committee on Seanad reform will soon be established to consider the Manning Report.

A working group on Seanad reform was established by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2014 to examine possible changes to the electoral system. It resulted in a number of key recommendations being included in a report drafted by former senator, Dr Maurice Manning.

Eight-month timeline

The new committee, which will be made up of Oireachtas members, assisted by outside experts, will have eight months to develop specific proposals to legislate for Seanad reform.

Any proposed changes the committee put forward should be used to elect the Seanad after next, said Varadkar.

Among the recommendations to be explored is the idea of allowing Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote in Seanad elections.

While the Taoiseach said he wanted to see senators from Northern Ireland taking a seat in the Upper House, he would also like to see the Irish diaspora having their voices heard.

“As Ireland takes its place among the nations of the world – an island at the centre of the world – the voices of Irish people around the world should also be represented and heard. I support the election of more senators to represent our diaspora, to add to the good work of people like Senator Billy Lawless,” said Varadkar.

“There will be universal suffrage using the panel system, allowing people to choose which one suits them best. There is provision for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers. However the Constitution requires a secret, postal vote election,” he explained.

Seanad elections 

Currently, the Seanad has 60 members, with the Taoiseach nominating 11 members, while another six are elected by university graduates, and 43 by Seanad panel elections who represent vocational interests, namely, culture and education, agriculture, labour, industry and commerce, and administration.

Varadkar said the university panels will be retained – but will be overhauled so that all third level graduates will have the right to vote.

“They have served us well, although they should be reformed to enable the decision of the referendum in 1979 to be implemented. This will open up the franchise to graduates of all higher level institutes of education,” he said, adding that the Taoiseach will continue to nominate 11 senators as that is also a constitutional requirement.

“Councillors will still elect members to the Seanad, but not as many as they do now,” he said, adding:

The logistical complications of requiring everyone to register to vote and to select a panel is significant. It will require a major public information campaign. A global postal election will be expensive and cumbersome. So I do not underestimate the difficulties.
People will have to decide which panel they want to register for, with the most important principle that you can only have one vote, so you can only join one panel.

Varadkar said he has “absolute confidence” that it will be possible to find ways of implementing the resolutions and find workable alternatives. The Taoiseach added that the committee may also recommend other changes which will be explored and debated.

Abolishing the Seanad 

The Taoiseach said he has had concerns about the role of the Seanad in the past, stating that he voted for the abolition of the Seanad in the 2013 referendum on the issue (the public voted to retain the Seanad 52% to 48%).

While the Taoiseach said the public rejected the government’s proposal to abolish it, he believes the Irish people also want reform.

“Many formidable individuals have served in this House since its creation, and it has provided a platform for some of the most articulate and determined voices across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the Seanad has fulfilled its role as a revising chamber, nor as an independent voice, sufficiently in decades gone by.

“In 2013, I supported the referendum to abolish the Seanad, as I was not convinced by those who argued that it would be possible to reform it. I did not believe that this would happen, as those opposed to abolition were not united on what a reformed Seanad would look like, or how it would function,” said the Taoiseach.

Varadkar added that it can often feel like “Groundhog Day” in the Seanad.

When we talk about renewing Irish politics in a general sense – or reforming the Seanad to give a specific example – it can often feel like Groundhog Day. It seems like we are condemned to do the same thing over and over, often repeating the same mistakes, with little or nothing changing.
I believe in 2018 we have an opportunity to break that cycle. I believe we can build a new political landscape which will renew the relationship between Irish people and their Oireachtas. And I believe that we can achieve the kind of genuine reforms that people in this chamber have been advocating for a very long time.

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