As it hardly needs to be said, the Irish Senate, the Seanad, is a useless institution. It is a mockery of democracy that is devoid of power, purpose and credibility. It is a complete shambles and populated mainly by failed politicians. It has almost no supporters to speak of and the government is planning to hold a referendum to abolish it. Many however argue that what it needs is drastic reform not abolition and that an improved Seanad can play a valuable role in Irish politics. However, the pace of reform in Ireland is painfully slow and the government has little incentive to create a challenge to its power. Reform is not an option; we must abolish this useless institution.
The Seanad is a bizarre institution that serves little purpose. It is composed of 60 senators, 43 of whom are elected by 1,000 of their fellow politicians (primarily county councillors). This is why the Seanad never has been and never will be reformed. It is designed to be dominated by the political class who therefore have no incentive to reform. 11 senators are directly chosen by the Taoiseach to ensure the government always has a majority and therefore that the Seanad is never anything more than a rubber stamp institution. The remaining 6 senators are elected in the closest thing to democracy. They are elected by the graduates of the country’s universities (in usually poor turnouts). That an extremely elitist electorate is the most democratic aspect of the Seanad gives an idea of how morally bankrupt it is.
Senators get generous pay and expenses and have to do very little in return. The Seanad chambers are usually deserted and if anyone does speak there, no one outside its walls notices. This is for the simple reason that the Seanad has no real powers. It cannot block government legislation, the best it can do is delay it for 90 days (and it can’t do even this for financial legislation). It hasn’t voted against a government bill since 1964, making it pretty much redundant. The Senators are mostly politicians who failed to win election to the Dáil and/or want to use the Seanad as a stepping stone for the next general election. It is such a pointless and ridiculous farce that to criticize it is to flog a dead horse, so I’ll stop at this point.
Many people would agree with the above but argue that the Seanad should be reformed not abolished. They say that Ireland needs a second chamber and a way needs to be found to make the Seanad work better. Unfortunately, nobody seems entirely clear on what they mean by reform. Everyone agrees that reform is good and we should make things work better, but there is no clear plan on how exactly this will happen. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what the reform will look like and compare abolition to their idealised system as opposed to the most realistic one. Worse still many politicians are only using the word reform as a cover for any genuine change. They hope that promises of reform will stall the process and let the issue fade into the background. If this sounds overly cynical, remember that we have had decades of politicians promising to reform the Seanad only to drop it once the media spotlight changed. The grim fact is that we are unlikely to get another chance to change the Seanad after the referendum. If abolition fails, the government will be in no mood to try again and reform will be put back on the long finger (where it has been for decades). Politicians simply have too much to gain from the Seanad, it acts as an insurance scheme for politicians who fail to win seats or need a retirement home. The Dáil has no incentive to create a counter balance to its power and those that believe it will are only codding themselves.
It is unclear what reforms people actually want. Some say there should be quotas to make the Seanad representative of marginalised sections of society who are underrepresented in the Dáil (women, working class, ethnic minorities etc). However, many people who call for reform are also deeply opposed to quotas. They have certain advantages but they also run contrary to the idea that people should be elected based on merit. There are other proposals for the Irish abroad and in Northern Ireland to vote. While this too has its advantages, many emigrants have completely lost touch with Irish society and may not be making fully informed votes (emigrants also tend to be far more socially conservative and republican than the rest of Irish society which could cause problems). Do we want people to vote on how much tax we will pay when they do not pay it themselves? Can we have representation without taxation?
Even if the Seanad was given actual powers and the ability to block legislation, this would still not work. If the Seanad was transformed into a body similar to say, the US Senate, then we would only end up with similar problems to the ones the American political system is suffering from. If both the Dáil and the Seanad were dominated by the same party then the Seanad would be pointless as it would merely repeat the same process that the Dail did, with the same results. Everything that would pass the Dáil would pass the Seanad, making the second chamber redundant. If on the other hand a different party dominated the each chamber, then we would end with gridlock similar to what America is currently experiencing. If say Fianna Fáil had a majority in the Dáil and Fine Gael had a majority in the Seanad, then every bill FF passed in the Dáil would be blocked by the Seanad and every bill the Seanad passed would be blocked by the Dáil. This is actually what happened during the 1930s and is the reason the Seanad was stripped of its powers in the first place. Some might hope that parties could come to a bipartisan agreement and work together, but this hopelessly naive. Remember, this is Ireland. Politics are dysfunctional enough, no need to make the system worse.
There is little fear that abolishing the Seanad will unduly concentrate power. After, this is the way Irish politics have been since the foundation of the state. The Dáil has always had most of the power while the councils, Seanad and President are more symbolic than powerful. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as most small countries (like New Zealand and Denmark) have only one chamber. Ireland is a small country so we only need a small parliament. I find it interesting that those who warn that we will lose our voice with the abolishment of the Seanad do not call for an increase in the number of TDs. Perhaps they know that merely having a politician collect a pay cheque on your behalf isn’t as great as it sounds. There is always little reason for a second chamber in order to give people a voice, especially in this age of social media. A blog gets far more attention than the Seanad ever would. If we want democracy to work better, then we should focus on reforming the Dáil and not waste our time with the Seanad.
The Seanad serves little purpose and is a quite forgettable institution. It has produced little debate or politicians of merit in recent times. The last time it made the news was when some elderly senators opposed Ireland’s otherwise uncontroversial introduction of civil unions for same-sex couples. Little will be gained from reform, which is most likely to be used by politicians as a soothing buzz word to stall until attention moves elsewhere. Even a powerful Seanad would merely duplicate the Dáil at best or introduce US style political gridlock at worst. For too long the Seanad has sat in splendid idleness, it is time for it to go.