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Friday 9 June 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland
# Seanad referendum
We may be about to abolish it, but how has the Seanad ended up as it is today?
An historical perspective on the State’s Upper House explains its unusual method of composition and perhaps reveals its strange place in Irish politics.

ONE OF THE ironies of the last Seanad election in 2011 was the complaint that the university seats were undemocratic.

It could be argued they are actually the most democratic part of the current electoral system since they are the only ones neither elected nor selected by politicians. TDs, senators and councillors elect 43 under the vocational panel system while eleven are Taoiseach’s nominees.

So, how did we arrive at this system?

The original Senate was formed with the aim of easing unionists’ fears by providing ‘alternative’ representation and was selected partly by President of the Executive Council WT Cosgrave and partly by the Dáil. Popular election of one quarter of senators every three years under a proportional representation, single constituency system was scrapped after the 1925 election proved a debacle.

Instead, senators and TDs nominated candidates who TDs in turn elected senators. Though it had no power of absolute veto, it could delay ‘Money Bills’ by 21 days, refer other bills back to the Dáil and delay non-Money Bills from becoming law for nine months (extended to twenty months post-1925).

This played havoc with the legislative programme of Eamon de Valera’s new Fianna Fáil government of the early 1930s. As measures such as the Removal of Oath Bill and a Bill banning the ‘Blueshirt’ movement were frustrated, government anger grew at such opposition from those not popularly elected. Accordingly, the Senate was then abolished by 1936.

The formulation of a new Constitution the following year saw the place of a senate debated again with much of the same arguments raised then as now. De Valera did not appear receptive to any upper house with the exception of a purely revisory body to correct flaws in legislation.


However, a Commission was appointed and a ‘vocationalist’ senate based in part on the recommendations of one of the minority reports emerged.

This meant that a certain number of seats would be filled using vocational panels based on different areas of the economy. Backed by many theorists and public figures, vocationalism was a variant of the ‘Corporate State’ model of forming councils with equal representation of employers and workers for each sector of the economy.

Depending on the theorist, the place of party politics was not always clear. In this case though, its potential was limited by an electorate of TDs and a small number of local politicians.

It is perhaps ironic that two of the advocates of the minority report Frank MacDermot and Sir John Keane disapproved of a Dáil electorate for vocational panels. Nevertheless, this compromise with vocational and political ideas was almost exactly what happened with a limited number of councillors added.

For one senior Fianna Fáil politician, this was a major issue from the start. Seán McEntee wrote to de Valera arguing ‘the defects inherent in such a system are obvious’. He suggested at least extending the franchise to all local politicians under constituencies of rural areas, small urban areas and larger urban areas. Otherwise, he feared the proposed senate could even be defeated in the Dáil.

Such a scenario was not to occur however and this formula has varied little to the present day with all county councilors and senators added to the initial electorate amid claims of corruption though only one allegation was ever proved in court.

Article 19 of the Constitution allows for direct election by ‘vocational’ bodies but was never been invoked while difficulties over the vocational authorities involved persisted especially in the early years.

Home to many high-profile figures

Quirks in the system seem inevitable when few seemed to respect the chamber’s vocational credentials from the beginning. Department of the Taoiseach files show Fianna Fáil supporters writing to de Valera, on their own or others’ behalf feeling that service to the party justified appointment as one of the Taoiseach’s nominees.

However, it must be stated that de Valera resisted all these appeals and did nominate some senators like MacDermot and Keane who were not political allies. As has been alluded to elsewhere, the House has been home to many high-profile figures.

Despite the electorate of politicians, house exchanges in the early years also revealed some behaviour on vocational lines. However, political scientist Basil Chubb felt any truly vocational members owed their election to political friendship rather than vocational experience or expertise.

Of course, one could ask if, for example, a trade unionist elected on the Labour Panel is also a member of the Labour Party and he/she speaks mostly on labour issues, is he/she behaving vocationally or party politically?

Such confusion has probably ceased to be even controversial though and much current debate depends on preference for a strong senate, a mere revisory body or whether one feels there is simply no need for one at all.

In any case, with the Yes side seeking abolition and proponents for a No vote arguing for reform, it appears that the curious case of this somewhat vocational Seanad is one that may soon be consigned to history.

Martin O’Donoghue is an Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholar at NUI Galway. He completed an M.A. dissertation on ‘Aspects of the Reconstituted Seanad: Its Origins, Membership and Contribution (1938-48)’.

Read: Poll indicates Seanad referendum will pass, but a fifth don’t know how they’ll vote

Read: Everything you need to know about the Seanad referendum but were afraid to ask

More: Why will abolishing the Seanad mean deleting Article 27 from the Constitution?

Martin O'Donoghue
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