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Your Seanad election guide: How you can (or why you can't) vote for the next batch of senators

Here’s what you need to know.

Inside the Seanad chamber.
Inside the Seanad chamber.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

IT’S HARD TO describe last weekend’s election as anything other than one of the most significant in Irish history.

The two-party system has been thrown into disarray, and politicians are now left scratching their heads as to how to chart a path forward.

The dust isn’t even settled and it’s already time for another election: The Seanad.

Here’s what you need to know.

The basics:

  • The Seanad elections are happening soon.
  • The Taoiseach gets to nominate 11 senators.
  • 43 are voted on by incoming/sitting TDs, outgoing senators, and councillors.
  • NUI and University of Dublin graduates elect six.
  • If you’re registered to vote, you’ll get the ballot paper in the post.
  • If you’re not registered, it’s too late to do so.
  • The Houses of the Oireachtas also has this intricate diagram to explain things

culture-festivals-nights Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

What is the Seanad?

Ireland has a bicameral parliament, meaning it has two chambers – the lower house is Dáil Éireann, and the upper house is Seanad Éireann.

It consists of 60 senators, who are appointed or elected in three different ways.

The function of an upper house is provide another layer of democracy; essentially it’s to keep the Dáil in check.

Before we move on, here’s a quick look at how legislation becomes law, to properly explain the extra scrutiny the Seanad provides:

  • First stage: A TD proposes legislation (senators can also propose legislation, but let’s keep things simple)
  • Second stage: It’s put forward as a Bill and debated in the Dáil. Other TDs can suggest amendments. It’s then voted on.
  • Third stage: If approved, the Bill is sent to committee stage, where further amendments can be suggested, experts quizzed on it, and so forth
  • Fourth stage: The Bill comes back to the Dáil, amendments are voted on, and the Bill itself voted on again.
  • Fifth stage: If passed, it goes to the Seanad
  • It’s debated (again), and senators can propose (more) amendments, which are then voted on by the Dáil.
  • Once both the Dáil and Seanad has voted for it, it goes to the President to be signed
  • Enactment: Once the President signs it, it becomes law.

Now, let’s say the Seanad isn’t happy with the legislation, and the Bill is voted down by senators. The ball is back in the lower chamber’s court, and it has a few options.

The Dáil can do nothing, and legislation expires after 180 days, disappearing into thin air and the process must be started all over again.

JUNCKE BARNIER VISIT 20 A packed Dáil chamber during the visit of former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Source: Pool Picture Oireachtas/Rollingnews.ie

The Dáil can also, before those 180 days are up, simply pass a resolution that says the Bill has been passed by both Houses.

Effectively, the Seanad can not stop legislation becoming law – it can only delay it.

Two caveats to note:

  • The Seanad can not delay a Budget.
  • While the Seanad is keeping an eye on the Dáil, the President is keeping an eye on both. The President can convene the Council of State who will take a look the proposed legislation, and it can be dispatched off to the Supreme Court to decide whether or not it is unconstitutional.

Didn’t we vote to get rid of the Seanad?

The public was asked in a referendum back in October 2013 whether the Seanad should be abolished. It was narrowly voted down – 51.7% said No, 48.27% said Yes.

It’s here to stay, for now at least.

How do you become a senator?

1) The Taoiseach’s nominees 

If you’re the newly appointed Taoiseach of the 33rd Dáil (which I know for a fact, at the time of writing, you’re not) you pick 11 people to become senators.

KATHERINE ZAPPONE 758A0204 Katherine Zappone, one of the more well-known Taoiseach nominees of late. She gained a Dáil seat in 2016 only to lose it last week. Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

It’s up to the Taoiseach of the day to pick – in 2016, Enda Kenny went for a smattering of Fine Gael politicians (Ray Butler, Paudie Coffey, Michelle Mulherin, John O’Mahony, and James Reilly, who all ran unsuccessfully in the 2016 general election, losing their seats, while Frank Feighan had not contested the election), along with:

  • Joan Freeman (founder of mental health charity Pieta House)
  • Colette Kelleher (former CEO of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland),
  • Billy Lawless (based in Chicago and seen as an appointment for the diaspora – and someone who wasn’t a fan of the old Good Friday ban on alcohol sales)
  • Pádraig Ó Céidigh (a businessman and the founder of of Aer Arann Express and of Aer Lingus Regional)
  • Marie-Louise O’Donnell had been appointed in 2011 and stayed on.

They can be literally anyone.

(Actually – if you’re reading this, future Taoiseach, why not consider me? I’d give it a decent bash. Or perhaps pick a volunteer from the comments section?)

2) The panels

There are five panels in the Seanad – cultural and educational (5 seats), agricultural (11), labour (11), industrial and commercial (9), and administrative (7).

Each these panels is split into a Nominating Bodies sub-panels and an Oireachtas sub-panel.

The former contains senators who were put forward by a range of organisations – everything from the Dental Council or the Agricultural Science Association to the Irish Wheelchair Association.

The latter are put forward by at least four members of the outgoing Seanad and incoming Dáil.

These panels make up the bulk of the senators – 43 are elected in this manner.

They are voted on by members of incoming Dáil, the outgoing Seanad, and members of city and county councils – numbering roughly 1,000.

Key dates from Citizens Information: 

  • The period for nominations by Nominating Bodies will expire at noon on Monday 24 February 2020
  • The period for nominations by members of the Oireachtas will expire at noon on Monday 2 March 2020
  • The Seanad Returning Officer will sit for the completion of the panels on Monday 9 March 2020
  • The ballot papers will be issued to the electorate on Monday 16 March 2020
  • The poll will close at 11.00 a.m. on Monday 30 March 2020

3) The university panel

Now comes the most well-known part of this little-known process.

If you are a graduate of the National University of Ireland – University College Cork, University College Dublin, NUI Galway, Maynooth University, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland – or University of Dublin, aka Trinity College Dublin, you get a vote.

You must first register using this form for NUI or this one for Univeristy of Dubllin

If you’re not registered we have bad news: The register which came into effect last year is being used, and there is no supplementary register.

If you’re not registered, you won’t be able to vote this year. Annoyed? Channel that annoyance by downloading one of those forms above and send it off today so you’ll be ready next time.

If you are registered, you’ll receive a ballot paper after Friday 28 February with a list of candidates. It’s the same PR-STV system as the general election, so list the candidates in order of preference.

You’ll also receive a declaration of identity – have this signed in the presence of a witness.

Pop it off in the post, but make sure it arrives in time for when the poll closes at 11am on Tuesday 31 March.

Want to run? Here’s how

The deadline to submit your application to run this Seanad election has passed.

For next time, here’s what Citizens Information says:

You must be nominated by 2 registered electors for a university. Eight other registered electors for the university concerned must assent to the nomination. You do not have to be a graduate of the university concerned or be connected to it in any way. However, you must be eligible to become a Senator.

You must be an Irish citizen, aged over 18 years old, have received a degree from the one of the relevant universities, and be registered as an elector.

The untouched 7th amendment

If you are a third-level graduate who didn’t go to Trinity or a NUI college, you might be feeling a little disenfranchised right now.

However, the public has previously voted to extend these voting rights to all graduates of Irish third-level institutions – but a law allowing this to happen has never been enacted.

This is an unusual quirk of the law around Seanad elections, and also can come as a surprise given the grá for referendums in Ireland, with recent votes being seen as watershed moments in Irish society and with action to enact legislation taken soon afterwards.

A referendum was held on 5 July 1979, asking the public if the government should be free to legislation this area (similar “provision may be made by law…” clause to the referendum that repealed the Eighth amendment).

The public voted in favour. 

Actually, that’s an understatement – it was one of the largest Yes margins in an Irish referendum, coming in at 92.4% (it’s exceeded only by the 98.9% approval received by Adoption Board referendum, held that same day and was aimed to clearing up a technicality relating to decisions made by the Board).

Aside from occasional rumblings that new laws might be put forward, successive governments have left this largely untouched.

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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