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Column: The Seanad gives a false comfort to those seeking proper checks and balances

Some might argue that a bad Seanad is better than no Seanad – but having a “bad” Seanad is far worse, inspiring only cynicism and harming the political process, writes Ale White TD.

Alex White TD

NOBODY IS CALLING for the retention of the Seanad in its current form. So rather than asking why we should abolish the Seanad, the question should be: what is the justification for having a second chamber in the first place? We should refuse to simply accept that the Seanad should continue in existence just for the sake of it.

Indeed, the fact that this question is so little asked demonstrates the lack of engagement that people have with the Seanad. In what sense can one argue the second chamber is a valued part of our democracy, when so few citizens display any great interest, passion or loyalty towards it? The role of the Seanad is uncertain and unclear, and its electoral process and makeup are convoluted and all-but impenetrable. We must go to the heart of the matter therefore, and not just try to correct these deep flaws, but to address the central question: what’s the Seanad for, and what purpose could it possibly serve?

The Dáil fulfils the requirements of a representative democracy

Dáil Éireann fulfils the basic requirement of a representative democracy, that of a directly-elected parliamentary chamber which carries out the key functions of choosing the government, holding it to account, and scrutinising and approving legislation. The Dáil, in Article 15.1 of the Constitution, is referred to as the “House of Representatives”.

If this central democratic role is carried out by Dáil Éireann, then surely a second chamber has to fulfill a separate, additional function in order to justify its existence. If it does not serve a separate purpose, then there can be no reason for it to exist. And the fact is that there are no good arguments for a second chamber, even if it is directly-elected. There simply isn’t any good reason to have two chambers, both elected directly by the people. With both claiming a mandate from the people, would the question not arise of how to resolve a difference between the two chambers?

I say this not to question the ability or intellect of current or past members of Seanad Éireann. The issue is the institution itself.

A second chamber might well be justified in a federal political system, which Ireland is not. In a system such as ours where the rule of law is sustained by the Constitution and the judiciary, and where there is no sharp ethnic or religious divisions, there is no justification for another parliamentary chamber.

No purpose is served by the vocational panels which dominate the make-up of the Seanad. The reforms put forward by some on the No side would allow the survival of these anachronistic panels, in addition to the Taoiseach’s nominees and those six senators chosen by third-level graduates. No justification can be provided for such an archaic and elitist method of appointments.

Power cannot be grabbed from an institution that has none

Others have suggested that the Seanad could simply be handed the role of dealing with EU legislation. Yet how could we accept that the Dáil, the people’s chamber, the “House of Representatives” could be stripped of responsibility for such an integral source of so much of our law? Yes, the Dáil can do better, and must give greater priority to the scrutiny of EU legislation. But our laws must be made solely by the directly elected representatives of the people.

Some might argue that a bad Seanad is better than no Seanad. Indeed, in 1937 it was de Valera who said, paraphrasing his opposition, that: “some Seanad, the best Seanad we can get, even though it may be adjudged a bad Seanad, is still better than no Seanad at all”. In fact, surely a “bad” Seanad is far worse, inspiring only cynicism and harming the political process. It gives a false comfort, the appearance of providing checks and balance where it does no such thing.

Abolishing the Seanad is not, as some others claim, a “power grab” – power cannot be grabbed from an institution that has none.

We do need to renew our democratic institutions. Yet while a strengthened Dáil is essential, there is no convincing case for retaining the Senate. The case for its abolition is that there is no case for its retention.

Alex White TD is the Director of Elections for the Labour Party Seanad Referendum Campaign

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Alex White TD

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