EARLY next month I will be four years in this job. In all that time, I’ve failed to do one thing for which I have felt not a smidgen of guilt.
Hands up! I have never been in Seanad Éireann. Ever. I’m not even entirely sure where the chamber is, down the end of a musty corridor.
I’d say that perhaps 20 times in those four years, I’ve tuned in to a debate on the internal TV here in Leinster House or read the transcripts of debates. Mostly I catch it on - saddo moment coming up - Oireachtas Report on RTE.
When did the last Seanad wander on to our radar screens? Well, whenever Mary O’Rourke came out with a quirky or eccentric rumination? Or when she had a nasty row with Brian Hayes? Or when the university senators made interesting speeches? Or very occasionally when a minister (Michael McDowell in particular) gave a bill its first reading there?
But at all other times, it was a little like air. It was there, we knew, but you never really got to see it.
And over the course of the next week we will begin to see the shape of the new Seanad, which was Ireland’s quasi-democratic version of the House of Lords at the time of the foundation of the State. Of the 60 seats, 43 are indirectly elected (by county councillors, TDs and senators); six are elected in the most elite fashion by the graduates of two third-level institutions (TCD and the NUI); while 11 are handpicked by the Taoiseach. And for the most part, with the exception of the third-level toffs and a couple of career senators, it has become a half-way house for those who either lost Dáil seats or want to win one.
Sure, you get a high quality of debate from time to time. But it reminds you of the old saying that it’s like a lighthouse in a bog — brilliant but useless.
Sure, there were lofty aspirations when the House was first founded, to allow for a diversity and plurality of voices. But as early as 1928, the first report on its reform was published. In all, a staggering 12 reports suggesting reform have been published, the most recent in 1997, 2002 and 2004. And what reform has actually taken place during all those years — the square root of damn all. It has been long-fingered and ignored.
The last report by the Seanad itself identifies its “two main problems” at an early juncture. I quote:
“1. It has no distinctive role in the Irish political system; and 2. Its arcane and outdated system of nomination and election diminishes senators’ public legitimacy.”
They are big problems all right. Put another way, the Seanad is a useless talking shop which is only slightly democratic and has no real powers.
Am I being overly cynical? Not a bit. Here’s what the report goes on to say: “The legislative process set out in the Constitution gives the Dáil the final say in everything. Therefore, in the eyes of many members of the public, the Seanad is seen as weak, ineffective and of questionable value. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the Seanad is dominated by the Government.”
But the reforms suggested by the Seanad itself weren’t exactly radical. No conflict with the Government. No more formal powers over the legislative process. More scrutiny of EU affairs (God!). Allowing MEPs a to speak in the Seanad (guaranteeing them anonymity in two separate fora).
True, there were some genuine recommendations in relation to electoral reform. But then you see that the committee of senators want their numbers increased from 60 to 65. What poppycock! If truth be told, we have the highest number of parliamentarians pro rata anywhere in Europe bar tiny Luxembourg. The Netherlands, three times our size, has the exact same number as we do — 220 in total.
And if our politicians were honest about it they would admit there are few arguments for retaining the Seanad. But our political system is too intimate and we don’t have the stomach for an impersonal “all or nothing” system in Britain. So it’s there as a consolation prize for TDs who have lost out (the PDs and Greens were both opposed to the Seanad but have successively bought into it). And as layers of dust have gathered over a dozen reports in the past 80 years, one feature has remained consistent — there is no appetite to reform it.