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Opinion: Our rotting Seanad won’t survive much longer, it's crying out for reform

UCC students Adam Hallissey and Charlie Power argue that the Seanad has become a place for failed TDs to wait for election, and it has the capacity for so much more.

Adam Hallissey & Charlie Power

FOR DECADES, REFORM of Seanad Éireann has been neglected, side-lined, pushed back and kicked to the curb. While costing the taxpayer a hefty amount, successive Seanad terms have seen little output of value, muzzled by a system enveloped by pervasive party politics.

Following the omission of any commitment to Seanad reform in the programme for government, in addition to the disappointing makeup of Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s 11 Seanad nominees – many in the North were unhappy, for starters – it seems as though the newly formed Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party coalition may be headed down that same path travelled by the governments preceding them.

A path, all too familiar, where the Seanad remains unreformed, fails to live up to its constitutionally mandated principles, and offers little to the legislative process.

The appetite for reform of the Seanad is well documented; it was seen as an underlying current in the referendum on the institution’s abolition in 2013 and it is still prevalent today. In a 2019 report, it was found that 85.7% of respondents believed that the vote in 2013 represented an indication that reform of the Seanad was required as a condition for its continued existence.

The shape of reform

The reform agenda, which now has the capacity to form part of a broader public appetite for change, is popular with the electorate and represents a ‘penalty kick’ of a policy. The current situation of rampant expenses, poor attendance and minimal contribution will no longer be accepted by the younger generation and our heightened standards for public representatives.

Ireland’s young people, plagued by issues of housing, health and entrance level pay conditions, will want to see greater accountability from our political institutions than is currently accepted.

This overwhelming call for change may be opportune for those of us who wish to see the Seanad evolve from its archaic state. It would be curious for the lack of political will surrounding Seanad reform to endure given the fact that, as the primary opposition party, Sinn Féin will likely be launching assault after assault at the government.

Putting Seanad reform back on the table and successfully introducing meaningful legislation in the area would exemplify a sense of unity in government partnership and be a gain in the face of strong Sinn Féin opposition, representing a precious win for both Martin and Leo Varadkar.

In addition to the nuances of today’s political sphere making Seanad reform more likely, given the current climate of Covid-19 uncertainty, an imminent economic downturn and the looming presence of Brexit, it is more important than ever that Ireland has a strong Upper House.

One of the most frustrating components of the Seanad, in a sense, is the potential it harbours to be a chamber where outstanding work is conducted – a hub wherein effective scrutinisation of government policy is carried out in an independent, expert and bipartisan manner.

A new Seanad is within reach

A modernised Seanad can allow the chamber to fulfil its potential as a space for reflective discourse in what Senator Michael McDowell describes as the opportunity for a “non-confrontational consideration of all legislation”. The allure of having an Upper House wherein this can occur, however, is consistently being swept away by the tide of party politics and as a result, political scrutiny and improved legislation lose.

It is bewildering that Regina Doherty, for example, someone who previously spoke of the Seanad being “beyond repair”, has now become the leader of the house.

Senator Doherty was previously of the belief that the Upper House reeks of elitism and once accused Fianna Fáil of being “determined to maintain the status quo and shelter the Seanad as a breeding ground for aspiring Fianna Fáil politicians”.

Unfortunately, the recent 11 Taoiseach nominees to the Seanad seem to validate Doherty’s claim, though rather than engaging in meaningful and substantial reform it seems as though, for many, actionless rhetoric and transparent disdain appear to be the preferred attitude to adopt towards our Upper House.

The Seanad has become an amalgamation of a political creché and nursing home – a revolving door of aspiring, young and ambitious prospective TDs mixed with those wrapping up prestigious careers being put out to pasture.

Of the 49 members elected to the 26th Seanad earlier this year through university and vocational panels, 21 of them had never been previous members of the Seanad. A third of these 21 are former TDs, as well as a previous MP and a former MEP being in the mix. Of the 12 other members who had never been a senator, every single one – with the exception of Labour’s Marie Sherlock – had been unsuccessful candidates for the Dáil in February.

Where failed TDs come to rest

These fresh faces entering Leinster House as the Seanad begins to sit are not separate from the rigour of party politics and a lust to enter the Dáil, but rather were merely unsuccessful in their respective campaigns and willing to settle for a seat in the Seanad for a few years until the next Dáil election. More recently, eight out of Taoiseach Martin’s eleven nominations ran in the February Dáil general election but were, evidently, unsuccessful.

It seems to be that if you are a prominent member of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and you lose in a Dáil general election and go on to lose in a Seanad panel election, you will still be afforded a soft landing by way of a Taoiseach’s nomination.

This was certainly the case for Timmy Dooley who was unsuccessful in both the Dáil and Seanad panel elections this year. Another former Dáil deputy, Dooley will no doubt speak at great length about issues pertinent to the people of Clare during his contributions in the Upper House as he readies himself for the next Dáil election.

The only problem with prospective TDs repping their county colours is that the very purpose of the Seanad was based around it avoiding such localised politics. Instead, we now face a situation, as Labour TD and former Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin admitted during his tenure in the Seanad, where most senators would rather be in the Dáil and care little about the specific role a member of Seanad Éireann has to play.

The Seanad has the capacity to give a voice to minority groups who are all too often silenced by the overbearing localism and majoritarianism of council and Dáil elections. The Seanad has the potential to be an independent scrutiniser of legislation, sending bad bills back to the Dáil to ensure the highest standards are maintained, as well as being in a position to take a look at EU directives.

The Seanad can hold statutory bodies to account, watching over the watchdogs. All of this can be achieved without the need for constitutional alterations and it may be worth reminding ourselves of the potential of a reformed Upper House and replacing talk of “unelected elites” and “useless Senators” with meaningful action.

If reforms are not made to the electoral process, composition and function of the Seanad then the institution is doomed and will likely be one of many casualties when our political bodies are inspected by a frustrated and watchful public for efficiency. Reform Seanad Éireann or it will die, and time is of the essence.

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Adam Hallissey is a business student at UCC and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Progressive Brief. Charlie Power is a government and politics student at UCC and the founder of the North South Perspective. Both recently conducted a private consultancy report on reform of the Seanad.

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Adam Hallissey & Charlie Power

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