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Explainer: What else will change if we scrap the Seanad?

The formal legislation to change the Constitution and delete the Seanad is out today. So what’s in it?

The Seanad chamber could be permanently empty if the Government's plans are approved. But how would the rest of Irish politics change?
The Seanad chamber could be permanently empty if the Government's plans are approved. But how would the rest of Irish politics change?
Image: British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly

THE GOVERNMENT has today published the full text of its Bill to abolish the Seanad – outlining the exact changes that would be made to the Constitution if the second House of the Oireachtas was to be scrapped.

A few weeks ago we outlined some of the question marks that would be raised by abolishing the Seanad – pointing out that, for instance, Ireland could get an accidental vice-president unless some other changes were introduced at the same time.

We thought, therefore, it might be worthwhile that we go through the full text of the Thirty-second Amendment to the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013 and outline the individual changes that will be needed.

So, without further ado…

Housekeeping

In general, every reference to ‘the Houses of the Oireachtas’, or any reference to ‘either or both of those Houses’, has been replaced with a straightforward reference to Dáil Éireann alone.

This includes the clause which defines the Oireachtas itself. Instead of the Oireachtas consisting of the President, the Dáil and the Seanad, it will now consist only of the President and the Dáil.

‘Abolition Day’

A new Article 19A would be created. This creates a “abolition day” upon which all of the following amendments takes effect.

This is defined as midnight on the day before the next Dáil holds its first meeting – meaning, the current Seanad will continue to exist in law until the next general election is held, and will cease to exist the day before the next batch of TDs get together in Leinster House for the first time.

Picking a president (and letting them go)

The procedure through which Oireachtas members can nominate a candidate for President is tweaked, to reflect the falling number of members. Currently candidates can be nominated if they have the support of 20 TDs or Senators; with the elimination of Senators, this will fall to 14 TDs.

Because only one House of the Oireachtas is now needed to impeach the president, the threshold for impeachment is increased. Where impeachment previously required the support of two-thirds of TDs, it will now require a four-fifths majority.

Similarly, the removal of any judge or the Comptroller & Auditor General would now require a two-thirds majority of the Dáil, and not merely the simple majority of members in each of the Dáil and Seanad.

No accidental vice-president, but a deputy Deputy Chairman

The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is removed from the Presidential Commission, the three-member ‘vice president’ committee which fills in for the President whenever they are incapacitated in any way.

The Leas Ceann Comhairle is inserted instead, thereby ensuring that the commission retains a membership of three people. (Having an even number of members could lead to a unbreakable deadlock.)

Because the Commission needs to allow for the possibility that one of its three members may be absent, the clause dictating how absences are dealt with needs amending. (Currently the Leas Ceann Comhairle would fill in for the Ceann Comhairle – but if they themselves are already a member, a new stand-in is needed.)

As a result, the Constitution will now require the Dáil to choose designated TDs to act as stand-ins for the Ceann Comhairle and Leas Ceann Comhairle in case they are unable to act as the Commission requires them to. The Dáil will have to choose these individuals as soon as possible after its first meeting following a general election.

In a separate later clause, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is removed from the Council of State, with the Leas Ceann Comhairle taking their place.

You can’t be a member of both Houses – especially if there’s only one House

The clause defining that someone cannot be a member of both Houses of the Oireachtas at any one time (Article 15.14) is deleted. For the sake of continuity, Article 15.15 is renumbered as Article 15.14 instead.

The Dáil chamber is currently in use for only three days of an average week – a system that could be changed soon.

Big empty gaps

Articles 18 to 21 – dealing with the membership of the Seanad, how it is elected, and the clause limiting the Seanad’s role in ‘Money Bills’ – are all deleted.

Articles 23 and 24, dealing with the Seanad’s power to amend and delay legislation (and only make recommendations on Money Bills, rather than any actual amendments), are deleted.

We need to talk about Money

The status of those Money Bills as being beyond the President’s questioning needs a minor tweak. At present, the Seanad can ask the President to convene a committee investigating whether legislation is, or isn’t, a ‘Money Bill’ – legislation which deals only with tax, public debts, loans, or appropriation of public money.

The proposed changes would overhaul this appeals system so that the Ceann Comhairle’s original decision is overturned only by a majority of TDs.

Getting laws signed in an emergency

The Dáil will take over the Seanad’s responsibility for asking the President to sign laws earlier than they otherwise would. Currently the President signs every Bill into law between five and seven days after it is sent to him, but the Seanad can give the Government approval to ask for this to be sped up. This power moves to the Dáil.

No more petitions to call for a policy referendum

Article 27 – under which a majority of Senators and one-third of TDs can petition the President and ask him to hold a referendum before legislation is signed – is deleted entirely.

(The reasoning here is that with the Seanad removed, it would only require a third of the Dáil – 53 TDs – to call for a referendum, and that this clause could be abused by an inflexible opposition trying to hamper the government from doing its job.

If the clause was changed so that half of all TDs were needed to sign any such petition, the clause would become redundant – as it would take the power away from the opposition and put it in the hands of the government, which already has that power in the first place.)

A related section – Article 47.2 – is also removed. That section dictates that in a referendum on a Bill called by the President, the No vote needs to be not only a majority of votes cast, but correspond to over a third of the total electorate. The removal of this provision suggests the government is happy for a simple majority to be enough to veto any bill, if it decides that a referendum should be held on passing it.

Cabinet confidentiality

The clause on cabinet confidentiality is given a minor tweak so that an investigation undertaken by the Seanad before its abolition takes effect is still able to seek a court order lifting the veil of confidentiality.

Easing the gap

A new Article 50A, to ensure continuinty between the pre- and post-abolition phases of the Seanad, is inserted.

Two transitory provisions from 1937, which governed the period between the abolition of the Free State Seanad and the creation of a new one under the current constitution, are deleted so as not to cause confusion when the referendum change takes effect. While those articles are explicitly removed from ‘official texts’ of the Constitution, they nonetheless continue to have the force of law.

How to fill those empty gaps?

Finally, any official text produced after the Seanad is abolished will contain a simple line in every case where an Article has been scrapped:

This Article was deleted by the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Act 2013.

What’s not in the Bill?

The other announcements made by the Government yesterday, dealing with reforming the Dáil to reflect its extra workload, are not constitutional changes – they are merely changes to the Dáil’s own ‘standing orders’ (its internal rules which can be changed without a referendum or any other new law).

Those changes include extending the Dáil’s usual working week from three days to four, and the introduction of a new ‘ten minute motions’ period, similar to the one in the UK’s House of Commons, where TDs hold brief debates on Bills tabled by the opposition or backbenchers.

Reform to the committee system is also planned – with the creation of 14 new committees, each of whom would have 12 members.

This would require very little change in the Dáil’s standing orders, as only a few committees are established under those rules. The others currently exist through a series of Dáil resolutions. It is likely, however, that the structure of the new committees would be explicitly written into the Dáil’s rules so that each has an equal footing in law.

Previously: A new Vice President, and other things that happen if the Seanad is scrapped

More: Government announces Dáil reform plans if Seanad is scrapped

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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