Abolishing Seanad Éireann

Enda Kenny, the leader of the opposition in Ireland, has been getting headlines for his pledge yesterday to abolish the upper house of the Irish parliament if he wins the next election (as seems increasingly inevitable).

He is right. Before I explain why, though, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the other two parliamentary upper houses which have been inflicted on the twenty-six counties which now constitute the Republic of Ireland, and also at the reasons why they too were abolished.

The Senate of Southern Ireland, 1921

Most students of Irish history are aware of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which elected two parliaments for the six counties of Northern Ireland and the twenty-six counties of “Southern Ireland”. Rather late in the day, Lord Oranmore and Browne inserted a clause giving both parliaments a senate, arguing that it was a necessary safeguard for the Protestant minority in the South (and rather as an afterthought throwing in a Senate for Northern Ireland too).

The Home Rule Act of 1912, passed eventually in 1914, would have provided a forty-member Senate, initially appointed by the Lord Lieutenant but later to be elected by the provinces of Ireland (each as a single multi-member electoral unit) in proportion to population. This would probably have given Protestants a disproportionate voice in the new Senate’s first term, later to be ironed out by popular elections, as indeed actually happened with the later Irish Free State Senate. The Irish Convention, an earnest but long-forgotten attempt to get an agreed settlement between Unionists and Nationalists in 1917, proposed a sixty-four member Senate, which would have included seven ecclesiastics, three Lord Mayors (Dublin, Cork and Belfast), fifteen peers, eleven direct nominees of the Lord Lieutenant, fifteen representatives of commerce and industry, and from each of the four provinces one representative of Labour and two from the county councils.

Lord Oranmore and Browne’s proposal for Southern Ireland adopted most of the Irish Convention’s concepts, mutatis mutandis for the new situation: it had the Lord Chancellor of Ireland as its chairman; fifteen peers of the realm, resident in Southern Ireland, elected by their peers; eight Privy Councillors, elected by Privy Councillors; two representatives of the Church of Ireland; two representatives of the Catholic Church; sixteen individuals nominated by the Lord Lieutenant, including two who were to be nominated after consultation with the Labour movement, which however declined to be involved; and seventeen elected by the members of the county councils in different territorial constituencies, for a total of 61 members. Nobody could be bothered to argue against it, and it passed into law and the elections/appointments were duly scheduled for May/June 1921.

I found the papers relating to the Southern Ireland Senate in the Irish National Archives many years ago. The Catholic Church and the labour movement refused to nominate their two representatives each, and the county councils, all controlled by Sinn Fein, likewise refused to participate, but the Southern Ireland Parliament came into being with 39 (who I listed here) senators plus the Lord Chancellor and four MPs (elected by Trinity College graduates in the University of Dublin constituency). They met a couple of times, (the summons being issued by a Dublin Castle official with the glorious title of Clerk of Crown and Hanaper), but were then dissolved as irrelevant. Most of those elected to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland constituted themselves as the Second Dáil.

The Senate of the Irish Free State (1921-1936)

The 1921 Treaty made no reference to an upper house in the parliament of the Irish Free State. But it was literally the first concession offered by Arthur Griffith to the Southern ex-Unionists the day the Treaty was signed. (Donal O’Sullivan’s superb if partisan The Irish Free State And Its Senate is essential reading on this.) The new Senate was to have 60 members, serving twelve-year terms, to be replaced 15 at a time (plus casual vacancies) by elections every three years in which the entire population over the age of 30 could vote. Of the initial 60 members of 1922, half were simply chosen by W.T. Cosgrave as the head of government (the President, to use the terminology of the day) and half elected by the members of the Dáil (necessarily excluding the Anti-Treaty TDs who were boycotting it). Cosgrave, as had been understood and anticipated, included sixteen former Unionists among his thirty nominees. (And also W.B. Yeats, who though not a Unionist came from that tradition.)

The first election in 1925 (to fill places for half of those chosen by the Dáil three years ealier, plus filling four casual vacancies) was a pretty farcical affair, as I have reported elsewhere. 76 candidates contested for 19 places; since the ruling party, Cumann na nGaedhael, had more than 19 candidates in the running it did not campaign, and the turnout was accordingly low everywhere. Nobody much minded the subsequent constitutional revision: the Senate was henceforth re-elected by thirds, rather than quarters, for nine-year terms, rather than twelve, and the voters were to be simply the members of the outgoing Senate and the Dáil.

This meant that the original purpose of the Senate, to give bonus representation to Protestants, essentially tapered off over the years. What it then became was a mechanism to deter radical policy innovation. The way it had been set up, combined with the early boycott by Anti-Treaty forces, meant that when Éamon de Valera finally came to power in 1932 (consolidated in the 1933 election) he had a popular mandate in the Dáil which however was subject to obstruction by the indirectly elected Senate. Obviously, he needed to abolish the upper chamber, and did so as rapidly as constitutionally possible (May 1936), as part of his general transition from the Irish Free State to the 1937 Constitution. In the course of the bitter political debate, De Valera claimed that “The more modern thinkers who are dealing with present day affairs and conditions are gradually coming to the conclusion that, when all is said and done, a Single Chamber Government is the wisest.”

Seanad Éireann (1938-??)

De Valera drew up the current Irish constitution in 1937 (in the name of the most holy trinity, of course) and actually included a provision for an upper house, despite his earlier statements of disinclination. His argument in favour of doing so was not altogether convincing:

the only thing that made me put a proposition for a Seanad into this measure at all is this: that there were members on the benches opposite, as I remember, who, during the Seanad debate, said: “Very well, even a bad Seanad would be better than no Seanad at all.” It is precisely on that basis—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—that this proposal is now included. My attitude is that, even though some of us may be largely indifferent to the question of whether or not there is a Seanad, if a large section of the people of the country think that there is something important in having a Seanad, then, even if we ourselves are indifferent to it, we should give way to the people who are anxious for it.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of bicameralism. Anyway, the system Dev established has survived unchanged to the present day.

Of the 60 senators, 43 are elected on various panels, supposedly as experts in / representatives of i) Public administration and social services, ii) Agriculture and fisheries, iii) Education, the arts, the Irish language and Irish culture and literature, iv) Industry and commerce and v) Labour. The electorate for these 43 seats consists of all local government councillors, TDs and outgoing senators. Rather than being actual experts in their field, therefore, the 43 senators elected this way tend to reflect the politics of the state as a whole; politicians will always tend to vote for other politicians. I don’t think that De Valera was under much illusion about this, but it was a sop to Catholic social theorists and could be argued as having roots in Pius XI’s Quadreagesimo Anno.

3 senators are elected by graduates of Trinity College Dublin and another 3 by graduates of the National University of Ireland. In the Irish Free State period, they had had the same representation in the Dáil, but this was abolished again at a fairly early stage by Dev. A constitutional amendment in 1979 created the possibility of including graduates of other institutions in this mix but it has never been implemented. NB that university graduates elected members of the House of Commons at Westminster until 1950, and of Stormont until 1968.

The remaining 11 Senators, in an odd cut-and-paste from the 1917 Irish Convention proposals, are nominated directly by the Taoiseach of the day. This normally rewards ruling party stalwarts who didn’t make it to either chamber by other means; recently an expectation has developed that the Taoiseach should include the occasional person from Northern Ireland on the list as well.

Why Enda Kenny is right

As I wrote recently, I share Dev’s 1934 scepticism on the utility of upper chambers in general, particularly when your state has no pretensions to federalism, and particularly if your population is already pretty small. Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus (both parts, under current arrangements, though this is likely to change in the event of a federal settlement), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Sweden , Turkey and Ukraine all manage perfectly well as unicameral states. Indeed, Sweden (in 1970) and Croatia (in 2001) actually abolished their upper chambers as part of a programme of democratisation. Both have larger populations than Ireland. (NB that the Croatian Sabor has fewer seats than the Dáil for much the same population.)

One can make claims in favour of the Seanad: that it is needed as a revising chamber (in a stronger form, that it is a democratic safeguard against the Dáil), or that it offers a platform to interests who otherwise would not get parliamentary representation. These arguments are weak. Most sensible parliaments deal with the needs for a decent revision of legislation by establishing a proper committee structure, adequately serviced by an independent parliamentary research division. As for the idea that the Seanad can be a democratic safeguard, in its seventy-two years of history, the Seanad has rejected precisely one government legislative proposal, as far as I know; this was De Valera’s attempt to abolish proportional representation in 1959. It did not matter, as the Dáil over-ruled the Seanad (and then the people, in the subsequent referendum, over-ruled the Dáil). That is not a tremendous track record for a revising chamber.

As for the notion that it represents the unrepresented, this is essentially in support of 1) the independent members elected from the universities, such as Mary Robinson, David Norris, etc; and 2) the occasional imaginative use of patronage by successive Taoisigh choosing their eleven nominees. Neither of these cases is convincing. While I have huge respect for both Robinson and Norris, their most significant contributions to modernising Ireland were made outside Leinster House, through the courts; and it is not as if articulate university graduates are exactly an oppressed group in today’s Ireland. And if we are to admire the occasional interesting nominee among the Taoiseach’s party hacks, we surely cannot admire the total absence of any democratic scrutiny in that process.

The one valid objection to Enda Kenny’s proposal is that he is making it out of sheer populism rather than after any mature reflection on the outcome. I can’t see into his mind so I don’t know if that is true, but it’s pretty clear that he is appealing to (his opponents would say pandering to) the massive wave of anti-system frustration in Irish politics at present. (For those of you who haven’t been following these things, the Ceann Comhairle – the Speaker of the Dáil – was forced out of office last week after publicity about his excessive expense claimsthe government proposes to pump massive amounts of public money into failing banks17,000 public service jobs are to be cut along with cuts to social welfare payments). It’s fair to say that the existence of the Seanad has little to do with the problems facing the country, but that doesn’t make its abolition a bad idea either.

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