The Government’s recent proposal to delete Seanad Éireann from the Constitution has seen numerous voices arguing for abolition or reform of the state’s upper house. Never hugely popular in any of its forms, a review of the chamber’s history reveals its peculiar place in the lexicon of Irish political life.
While the 1922 senate was put together by W.T. Cosgrave and the Dáil as a safeguard against unionist fears of discrimination, provision was made for popular election of one quarter of senators every three years under a PR single constituency system for the entire country. However this was scrapped when the 1925 election proved a debacle. Instead, senators and TDs nominated candidates who were then voted on by TDs.
Though it had no power of absolute veto, the Senate 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). With the backing of three fifths of the House, it could also exercise power of referendum though this was never invoked and was abolished with the end of popular election in 1925.
The increasing conflict between the chamber and de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government of the 1930s then led to its demise as it blocked constitutional reforms. When considering the future of second house, this was hardly a ringing endorsement of its place in Irish political life!
The formation of current Seanad two year later saw 43 of its senators elected from vocational panels which owed much to the vogue for vocationalist teaching at the time. Depending on the theorist, the place of party politics was not always clear. It must be said such a scheme appears to make little sense to twenty first century observers; hence the condemnation of the lack of democracy in university representation. Ironically, the NUI and TCD seats are actually the most democratic part of the current electoral system since they are the only ones neither elected nor selected by politicians.
In terms of powers, the current Seanad created in the 1930s retained the same power of delay for ’Money Bills’ while it was reduced to 180 days for others. However, from the point of view of constitutional lawyer and former senator J. M. Kelly, it was ‘nearly as subservient… as second house can be.’
In spite of the muddled ideological basis of its composition, house exchanges reveal that some senators have actually behaved on vocational lines since 1938. However, Basil Chubb judged that this was in spite of rather than because of the House’s structure and a Labour Party member serving on the Labour Panel discussing labour issues would be one example where attempts to approve or disprove this could reach a veritable cul-de-sac.
That said, the House did provide an alternative forum for debate. Though the ‘Tailor and Ansty’ debate on literary censorship is perhaps most famous, the Seanad also allowed for examination of the Government’s wartime censorship in the 1940s without running the risk of jeopardising the policy itself.
However, in the contemporary case, it seems the issue is no easier to solve than it was in 1922 or 1936. Any perusal of the literature on bicameralism internationally will reveal the staggering number of books, journals and columns devoted to providing answers to a conundrum that is easier to theorise on than solve in a practical sense. Even abolishing the upper house has not proved enough to preserve New Zealanders from such debates in recent years as some have suggested a return to a two-chamber system!
Any reformed senate would have to gain the public legitimacy that Seanad Éireann has sorely lacked for some time. One recent suggestion drew on the vocational ideal but adapt it to a more recent effort at employer-employee co-operation in the form of social partnership.
Nonetheless, questions still remain regardless of approach. Some writers in the 1930s wanted a house free of politicians; would this be attractive now in 2013? How much power would we wish to give to social partners? Ultimately, the argument depends on preference for a strong senate, a mere revisory body or whether one feels there is simply no need for one at all. Perhaps all parties might reflect ruefully on the advice of Abbe Sieyès when he reflected that a weak senate is unnecessary and a strong one a nuisance.
– Martin O’Donoghue
Basil Chubb, ‘Vocational representation and the Irish Senate’, Political Studies Vol. 2, No. 2, 1954,
John M. Kelly, The Irish Constitution, (Dublin: Butterworth Ireland, 1994).