Abolishing Irish Senate

Posted By: August 03, 2013

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, August 3, 2013
TODAY we are discussing constitutional politics, so sit up straight and pay
attention (Sitting up straight is required presumably in the belief that the brain
can absorb information only when the upper body is vertical. This suggests that you
will never retain anything you hear on the early morning radio news while lying in
bed). Our interest in constitutional politics stems from the proposal to abolish
Seanad… ireann (the Senate) which is the upper house of the Dublin parliament.
Think of it as Dublin’s House of Lords, without the scarlet, gold and ermine –
especially the gold. If the proposal is approved in a referendum in October, the
Republic’s parliamentary system will have one house instead of two (I see you have
now adopted a horizontal position in the hope that this will all pass over you. If
you sit up, we will come to Stormont in a few minutes). The Dublin government’s
proposal to abolish the upper house was recently supported by the Senate itself,
where the government has a majority (Think turkeys and Christmas). The argument for
a bicameral (two house) parliamentary system is that the upper house can, in theory
at least, scrutinise legislation in detail, while one step removed from frontline
politics. The case for a unicameral system is that only those directly elected by
the people should be entitled to govern. One house is usually more efficient than
two, although a second house can be used to represent those whose views are not
adequately reflected in a majority government. So the case for an upper house
includes the need for an expanded representative system. The case for the Senate’s
abolition is presented largely as a cost-cutting exercise – it will save a claimed
€100 million over a five year Dail term (They could have saved more money and gained
more popularity by abolishing the Dail). So while London will have two legislative
houses, Dublin may only have one, just like Belfast. But the present Stormont was
established as one house in a two-house system. The now defunct Civic Forum was the
other (lower?) house. The forum was apparently modelled on Dublin’s Senate, with
both having 60 members representing various sectors such as agriculture, commerce
and education. Its place appears to have been taken by the community sector. Our 108
MLAs represent the people but community leaders represent the communities to which
the people belong (I think). Who is represented by the 582 councillors, 12 MPs and 3
MEPs is not clear.

Although the old Stormont had a 26-member Senate, the 1920 Government of Ireland Act
originally proposed a single Irish Senate for both Stormont and the Dail. That bit
of the bill was scrapped by the House of Lords (a case against having an upper
house). So in the modern era of cross-border bodies, there would appear to be an
argument for retaining a reformed Dublin Senate, which could accommodate northern
representation by allowing the Dail and Stormont to make membership nominations.
Northern graduates of southern universities already have a vote in Senate elections.
If northern nationalists demand the right to vote for the Irish president, it is odd
that they have not requested a statutory input into the Senate. But something even
more peculiar is happening. Sinn Fein said last year that the Senate should be
reformed, not abolished, as it could act as a counter-balance to the political
party-dominated Dail. It could become an elected forum for those under-represented
in parliament – which would presumably include Northerners. That reflects the
recent, interesting call from the party’s national chairperson, Declan Kearney, for
our Civic Forum’s revival as a vehicle for reconciliation. A reformed Senate might
contribute to that process on a national scale. But last week Sinn Fein reversed its
original decision (no, you may not make a comment) and supported the Senate’s
abolition. The party’s Pearse Doherty TD said the Senate is “an affront to
democracy”, a point he apparently overlooked during his four years as a senator and
an odd comment on Sinn Fein’s three sitting senators (A bigger affront to democracy
is Sinn Fein’s support for the right of 30 MLAs to lodge a petition of concern and
defy the wishes of an assembly majority). Abolishing the Senate will not improve
ethics in the Dail. It will not enhance the quality of Irish politics or increase
accountability. It could usefully be reformed as an all-Ireland body, which might
contribute to northern Sinn Fein’s peace and reconciliation process – except for one
stumbling block. Southern Sinn Fein now wants the Senate abolished. This might be a
good time to lie down.