Enda Kenny has caused quite a stir with his announcement that Fine Gael would, in government, hold a referendum within one year of entering office to abolish the Seanad, the upper house of Ireland’s national parliament.
The motivation for this announcement would appear to be a desire to recapture some media momentum from the Labour party, but it makes for an odd policy issue to focus on in an important speech. There are many areas of the Constitution which various lobby groups have pointed to as needing reform (such as childrens’ rights, abortion, women, religion, blasphemy, the requirement to hold referenda for European Union treaties), but each is far more complex and controversial. It would be more useful to see Fine Gael propose a more comprehensive approach to constitutional reform which might include a series of referenda or a ‘super-referendum’. Holding a single-issue referendum on the Seanad seems wasteful in itself, given that the stated aim of the measure is to save money.
Considering the position of the Seanad in the Constitution and the wide scope for reform without constitutional amendment, it is strange that Fine Gael have taken this approach. Unfortunately, the makeup of panels and the university elector system cannot be changed, but much else can.
One quick and easy reform would be to abolish the salary paid to senators and cap expenses at around €20,000. A large swathe of the Seanad is populated by politicians who failed to get elected to the Dáil or who are building a profile for an eventual Dáil run. Most of the rest occupy it as a part-time role. If the position carried no salary the Seanad would still be filled, without difficulty. There is also an honorific element to a Seanad seat which negates the need for a salary.
Immediate cost-savings could be realised and a longer programme of Oireachtas reform could then be developed – perhaps involving the Seanad in European affairs to a greater degree. Too often sectors of Irish society object to European Union legislation at the point of implementation, rather than at the point of debate. The Lisbon Treaty provides for a greater role for national parliaments in the development of EU law and the Seanad could fulfil a useful role in Ireland’s engagement with the EU.
Finally, while much is made of the political nature of many appointments to the Seanad, we should not turn our noses up at the potential to directly appoint parliamentarians. These can represent sections of society who are too geographically or politically scattered to elect one of their own to the Dáil, or individuals who voice opinions that should be heard but would never gain a Dáil seat. The Seanad also provides the opportunity to a Government to bring external expertise to the cabinet table, as happens one a more wide scale basis in some countries (the US being the most prominent example). Up to two government ministers can be drawn from the Seanad (though a senator cannot be taoiseach, tánasite or minister for finance) and with two Seanad seats currently unfilled, this theoretically allows for the government to nominate, for example, a businessperson, economist or academic to the Seanad and then bring them into the government.
These possibilities could, of course, be incorporated into a unicameral Oireachtas, but for now Fine Gael seem content to propose the abolition of the Seanad and the reduction in the number of TDs without proposing a more nuanced vision of how the Oireachtas should function.