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Trivialities of the 'reformed' Seanad: 'Senators talking about All-Ireland tickets and seagulls'

Voters chose by a narrow margin in a referendum in 2013 to retain the Seanad. It’s unlikely they are happy with that decision, writes Senator Gerard P Craughwell.

Senator Gerard P Craughwell

THE 2013 REFERENDUM to abolish Seanad Éireann was flatly rejected by the people of Ireland. Why? We can only speculate but I am confident that few, if any, voters would vote to keep the outdated and ineffective upper house we operate in today.

Sadly the upper house is still being used as a resting place for many Dáil Éireann hopefuls. Every day, the “Order of Business” is subjected to impassioned speeches where Senators congratulate their “constituency” on some event or other. Commencement

Debates are used by many Senators to question or lobby ministers on some pressing “constituency” issue rather than issues pertaining to the vocational panel they represent. What constituency are these speakers referring to? Are members of Seanad Éireann confused as to who or what they represent?

Senators acting like County Councillors

Apart from the six members of the University Panel who were elected by a specific constituency, no other member of the upper house can lay claim to any specific geographic constituency. Senators are elected to vocational panels and not a geographic area. Yet too many members of the upper house try to ensure they act as they would were they elected as a Dáil Deputy or worse still to act as a City or County Councillor.

In order to represent a vocational panel a candidate for a Seanad election is required to be suitably qualified. However these qualifications are vague or non-specific, allowing for widescale abuse over they years.

The five vocational panels (Agricultural, Administration, Cultural and Education, Industrial and Commercial and Labour) that account for 43 Seanad seats have been hijacked by the party political system to serve the needs of the political parties themselves.

A worthwhile exercise to support this view would be an examination of the websites or business cards of members of the upper house. Many members have been appointed by their political party as the Seanad spokesperson on some area, which is directly aligned to a Government Ministry.

The upper house divides into a Government and Opposition. Why? To ensure that the Seanad replicates the Dáil as closely as possible, nurturing the party’s up and coming hopefuls, or providing a safe resting place for those currently out of favour with the Dáil electorate.

Imagine a reformed Seanad

Imagine a Seanad where candidates for election would have to publish a CV and prove they were fully qualified under a strict criteria to run for the appropriate panels. A Seanad that truly examined legislation, national and EU, and truly held the Government of the day to account.

Imagine a “full” chamber listening to qualified experts from “vocational panels” debate the pros and cons of a Bill or EU Directive. Imagine vocational experts debating and swaying the opinions of the 60 members to ensure that legislation when passed was best suited to its purpose and the citizens of this country. What a change that would be. Imagine if a Seanad where people voted based on the outcome of a debate and not on the orders of the party whip.

Trivialities of a dysfunctional chamber

Seanad referendum Senator David Norris at the counting of votes in the referendums on the future of the Seanad and the establishment of a new Court of Appeal. Source: Niall Carson

Members of the Seanad frequently complain of a lack of interest from the media in the upper house. Why would the media cover anything but the trivialities that emerge in this dysfunctional chamber? Senators talking about their entitlements to All-Ireland tickets and discussing seagulls are all too easy clickbait for online news.

There has, however, been a few changes since the last election. The Government majority is gone and as such Ministers must now work with Senators in order to get their legislation through. It is within this space there is finally, albeit painstakingly, an opportunity for reform.

Improving the democracy of the Seanad

There is legislation on the structural changes to how we elect our Senators that has already been put before the Seanad, and there will undoubtedly be major differences on some of the substantive elements in that Bill, but it is at least the start of much needed legislative basis for reform. Perhaps there will shortly be an opportunity for a referendum to remove the Taoiseach’s eleven nominees to the Seanad, further improving the democracy of the upper house.

Independents and other members of the Seanad, who advocate its reform, cannot now rest on their laurels waiting for the Reform Bill to pass. The numerical makeup of the current house presents real opportunities for Senators to show their mettle now and bring about real reform in how the house does its business.

Brexit negotiations – an opportunity to make a difference

Brexit is one such opportunity where the Seanad can demonstrate to the Irish people that voting for its retention was a worthwhile democratic expression. Over the next few months, the Seanad has agreed to come together and develop an all-member inquiry into how to best represent Ireland’s interests in Brexit negotiations.

The House of Lords in its all-party report said that the UK needs a separate bilateral trade agreement with Ireland. The question is will that be what Ireland needs? What form Brexit will take is not something the Irish government can answer, let alone the Seanad, but how best we can position ourselves certainly is.

Northern Ireland, food, fisheries and finance areas where some work has begun on but what about education, research and health? There are few areas of the Irish economy and society that will be left untouched by Brexit and it is my hope that in 2017 the Seanad can work for the Irish people and make tangible rather than trivial differences to their lives.

Gerard Craughwell was one of the first ever independent Senators elected to the Seanad. Prior to his election to the Seanad, Gerard was a teacher in Further Education working in Dun Laoghaire. He was elected President of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland in 2012 and held that post until 2014. Upon his election to the Seanad he was obliged to take a career break from his teaching post. He was re-elected to the Seanad in 2016, on the Labour Panel.

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Senator Gerard P Craughwell

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