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Everything you need to know about one of the most exclusive elections in Ireland

The Seanad election is underway. But how does it all work and how many people actually get a vote?

WHILE THE DUST is still settling on the general election, and we await the outcome of efforts to form a government, another election is already underway.

We’re talking about the election for the Seanad, the upper house of the Oireachtas which the people voted to retain in a referendum in October 2013.

You may remember that during that referendum campaign there was much talk of saving the Seanad and reforming it, including widening the electorate so as that more people would be allowed to vote for senators.

Nearly three years on there has been no reform, which means the 2016 Seanad election will run along the same lines of those in the past with the electorate for the majority of seats in the upper house being a small fraction of the population of Ireland.

It’s a complex system that requires a bit of explaining.

What is the Seanad? 

20/9/2013. Senate Rooms Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

The Seanad is the upper house of the Oireachtas and forms one third of the Irish legislature. The Dáil, the lower house, and the President make up the other two-thirds.

The Seanad is not directly-elected by the people, but contains a mixture of members elected through various methods. To run for the Seanad, an Irish citizen must be over 21.

It is not as powerful as the Dáil and can only delay laws with which it disagrees by a total of 90 days. It cannot stop them. It has no powers to delay a budget, but it can initiate legislation.

What’s the makeup of the Seanad? 

There are 60 members. Eleven of them are nominated by the Taoiseach of the day, six are elected by graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National Universities of Ireland and 43 are elected from five special panels of nominees, known as vocational panels, by a small electorate of politicians.

This vocational panel stuff sounds complex… 

That’s because it is. There are five panels, made up of candidates who are said to have knowledge and experience of the following areas:

  • Cultural and Educational Panel (5 seats)- national language and culture, literature, art, education, law and medicine.
  • Agricultural Panel (11 seats) – agricultural and allied interests and fisheries;
  • Labour Panel (11 seats) – labour, whether organised or unorganised;
  • Industrial and Commercial Panel (9 seats) - industry and commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture;
  • Administrative Panel (7 seats) – public administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.

20/9/2013. Senate Rooms Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Anyone wishing to be nominated to run for one of the panels can do it in one of two ways. They can either be nominated by one of the hundreds of registered organisations and interest groups on this list, or they can be nominated by four TDs or outgoing senators.

Those nominated by an organisation or interest group are part of what’s known as the nominating bodies sub-panel, while those nominated by four TDs or senators are part of the Oireachtas sub-panel.

Each of the five vocational panels must elect a minimum number of candidates from each of the two sub-panels. For example, the 11-seat Labour panel must elect a minimum of four candidates from the nominating bodies sub-panel and a minimum of four candidates from the Oireachtas sub-panel.

Still with us?

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Just about. So who can vote for these panels? 

The electorate is tiny. It consists of members of the incoming Dáil, the outgoing Seanad and city and county councillors.

That’s a total electorate of 1,167 people but this may vary slightly as some local authority seats are currently vacant due to councillors being elected to the Dáil. By contrast, around 3.2 million people in Ireland were eligible to vote in the general election last month.

Ballot papers for the vocational panels will be issued on 11 April and the poll will close on 25 April at 11am. Each politician has a vote on each of the five vocational panels. So, Joe Bloggs TD will receive a ballot paper for each of the five panels and mark his candidates in order of preference on each paper. It’s like having five ballot papers for a Dáil election.

What about those university panels? 

Six senators are elected by two university panels. Three by graduates of University of Dublin i.e. Trinity College Dublin, and three by graduates of the National University of Ireland, including institutions like UCC, UCD, Maynooth, NUI Galway, the Royal College of Surgeons, and several other colleges and training institutions.

To be nominated to run for one of the panels, a candidate must obtain the signatures of 10 graduates from the university in question. Unlike the vocational panels, nearly all the candidates running for the university panels are independents rather than affiliated to a party. Labour’s Ivana Bacik, who is running for re-election on the Trinity panel, is one of the few exceptions this time around.

screenshot.1458833594.31174 Source: www.thejournal.ie

The electorate for each of these two panels is a lot larger than the vocational panels. It’s estimated that around 53,000 people are eligible to vote for the Trinity panel and 110,000 people are eligible to vote for the NUI panel.

The electoral roll is maintained and updated by the two universities. Ballot papers were issued earlier this week and the poll will close on 26 April.

But how many graduates actually vote in these elections? 

Turnout hasn’t been great in recent times. In 2011, 33,831 people voted in the NUI election or around a third of the eligible voters. In the Trinity election the turnout was 15,557 or 29% of those eligible to vote. Often graduates may have changed addresses from their student days, or emigrated. There’s also a high proportion who probably don’t care that much.

It’s also worth nothing that some politicians who are graduates of Trinity or NUI essentially have two opportunities to vote. This is why Fine Gael minister and Trinity graduate Leo Varadkar is endorsing independent Averil Power for election to the Trinity panel. He can still use his Fine Gael votes for the vocational panels and not upset his party colleagues.

Independent Senator, Averil Power, pictured with M Source: RollingNews.ie

A limited electorate, poor turnout. Why on earth has it not been reformed?

Talk of reforming the Seanad has been around for years, particularly since it was saved from abolition in 2013. But a radical overhaul would likely require a referendum as the rigid make-up of the upper house is constitutionally enshrined.

That said, the people voted in a 1979 referendum to expand the franchise for the university panels so that every third level graduate could have a vote for these six seats. The only problem is that no government has ever implemented it. The outgoing coalition drafted legislation in the wake of the 2013 referendum, but it never came before the Dáil.

Last year, the Seanad Working Group on Reform, set up by the government, proposed that 30 of the vocational panel seats be elected by popular vote with all Irish passport holders, including emigrants, eligible to vote.

download Source: Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform

The remaining 13 seats would continue to be elected by politicians, while the electorate for the six university seats would be expanded to all third level graduates in line with the 1979 referendum.

At the time, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the report was “innovative and radical, and contains some far-reaching recommendations to the way members are elected to the Seanad, and on how the Seanad should perform its functions”.

Then he and the government did nothing. Like, nothing.

So we’re stuck with this important branch of the legislature that is only elected by a tiny minority of the population? 

Yes, although expect to hear many of those seeking votes in this Seanad election to talk about wanting to reform the upper house.

But the reality is that reforms outlined by the working group will only come about through the implementation of legislation by the government. It’s unlikely that Seanad reform will be high on the agenda of the incoming administration.

So what’s going to happen in this Seanad election? 

Because city and county councillors form such a large part of the electorate for 43 vocational panel seats, the results of the 2014 local elections are quite important. In these elections, Fianna Fáil won 267 seats, Fine Gael 235, Sinn Féin 159, Labour 51 and smaller parties won 237 seats.

There are various predictions and permutations. At a rough guess, with a strong health warning, we can expect that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will divide 30 seats between them, with the former winning more than the latter. Sinn Féin will hope to get all seven of its nominees elected, while Labour will hope to win around three seats. Independents and others will expect to take the other three.

24/5/2014. Local Elections Counts Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Almost all the candidates running for the university panels are independents and on various points of the political spectrum. A full list of candidates is here, and we’ll be telling you about some of the more interesting names running in a later article.

As for the 11 nominees of the Taoiseach. That will, of course, depend on who the Taoiseach is. In 2011, in the spirit of new politics, Enda Kenny appointed a largely independent group of senators including the likes of Katherine Zappone, Jillian van Turnhout and Martin McAleese.

Given that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be neck-and-neck on the vocational panels and the real prospect of the next government being in the minority in the upper house, it’s unlikely the next Taoiseach will be as bipartisan as Kenny was in 2011.

So when will we know the outcome? 

In terms of the vocational and university panels, the 49 seats should be filled by the conclusion of the week ending 29 April. By that stage, we might even have a government and a Taoiseach who can appoint people to the remaining 11 seats.

Read: ‘I’m not going to lie to people, I’d much rather be in the Dáil’

Read: Local councillors are seeking a 40% pay rise

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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