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Government announces Dáil reform plans if Seanad is scrapped

A referendum to overhaul the Oireachtas and abolish the Seanad is planned for early October.

THE GOVERNMENT has announced a series of proposed changes to Dáil procedures which will be implemented if the Seanad is scrapped.

The proposals were announced as the Government published the legislation behind the referendum to abolish the upper house of the Oireachtas, which is intended to be held in early October.

The changes would beef up the role of the Dáil, including changes to the system in how laws are made – with all non-emergency legislation sent to a Dáil committee first, so that the committee could consider the draft edition of each bill before the final one is published.

When the final version has been published, and gone through the usual Dáil procedure for approval, it would go back to the appropriate committee for a “pre-enactment” stage before being enacted into law.

Long working week for TDs

The Dáil’s working week would be extended, going from the routine three-day week to a four-day week to take care of the extra workload that TDs would face – as well as making time for a British-style procedure where ten-minute sessions are held to debate legislation put forward by backbench and opposition TDs.

The committee setup would also be changed, with 14 committees claiming an equal membership of 12 TDs – meaning that each of the 158 TDs, excluding ministers, junior ministers and the Ceann Comhairle, would sit on an average of 1.32 committees.

The chairmanships of the committees would be distributed to parties or Dáil groupings on the basis of the D’Hondt system, which is already used in Northern Ireland to assign seats within the Northern Ireland Executive.

If this system had been in place at the time of the last election, Fine Gael would claim seven of the 14 committee chairmanships, while Labour would hold three, Fianna Fáil two, Sinn Féin one, and the independent benches one.

Elsewhere, the majority of TDs needed to impeach judges or the Comptroller and Auditor General will be increased to two-thirds, while four-fifths of TDs would need to support any proposal to impeach the President.

The Leas Ceann Comhairle will be put into the Presidential Commission to replace the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, ensuring that the membership of that body remains at three so that there is no prospect of a deadlock.

Though the referendum will be held this year, the current Seanad will remain in existence until after the next general election – with the chamber only ceasing to exist the night before the Dáil elects the Taoiseach after the next general election.

‘A real republic would need real political change’

Launching the legislation, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the government would “take the necessary decisions to achieve economic recovery” – but that “to rebuild a solid economy, a real republic would need real political change”.

“If approved by the people, I’m convinced that we can and we will create a better, fairer, more accountable and more transparent system,” Kenny said, criticising the “elitist composition” of the Seanad.

“We have to question the very relevance of a second chamber… modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system designed for 19th century Britain.”

He said many other countries had proved it was possible to have an effective system of checks and balances without the need for a second full house of parliament.

The Taoiseach said the referendum on setting up a new court of appeal, as a buffer between the High Court and the Supreme Court, would be held on the same day this autumn, and claimed that the abolition of the Seanad would save about €20 million a year.

Both Kenny and the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, added that members of the government parties – including those in the current Seanad – would be expected to vote in favour of the legislation to abolish the Seanad.

The ‘Democracy Matters’ group, which has been set up to oppose the abolition of the Seanad, described the plans as “constitutional vandalism, and a cynical power grab dressed up as reform”.

One of its members, independent Seanad nominee Katherine Zappone, said the proposal “solves none of the problems of the broken system which gave us our current crisis, but instead makes our broken system, more centralised, more whipped and more controlled by government and less accountable.”

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

Column: Seanad reform suggestions are practical but limit real bicameral change

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Gavan Reilly

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