My brutal question is: ‘why bother’?

In one sense it is too easy to condemn Seanad Eireann to an oblivion it richly deserves. Constructed as a toothless, prostate elitist, site post-colonial sop to minority representation and Roman Catholic corporatist ideology, the upper house has not played a significant political function in the state. The only exception has been its role as a launching pad or holding pen for wannabe/failed TDs, as a pasture for political elders and, in recent decades, as a political echo chamber for civic-minded individuals and social innovators. The contributions of some of these individuals – and we can name them – have been significant. In a handful of cases they have been truly transformative of our politics. To my mind, however, that is not enough to outweigh the pointlessness, the mind-numbing vacuity and the self-aggrandising twaddle of the overwhelming balance of the Senate’s historic membership.

I am deeply respectful of those that argue that the Seanad could be made relevant. They argue with passion that the Seanad could be made to work effectively and that it could play a meaningful role in national politics. Many such proposals have been made over the decades, none of which have been brought close to fruition. The cleverest in recent times is that sponsored by a number of current Senators in direct response to the threat of abolition. The Seanad Reform Bill 2013, co-sponsored by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn, suggests a range of ideas (which do not require constitutional change) that could potentially create a parliamentary chamber worthy of the name. My brutal question is; ‘why bother’?

First, there is no intrinsic need for a second parliamentary chamber. Many forward-looking developed states of comparable size have abolished their upper houses in favour of single chamber parliamentary systems. These work far more effectively and responsively than anything we have seen in this state. Both Denmark and New Zealand are models in this regard. We can also usefully ask ourselves the question, if we did not now have a Seanad would we choose to invent one; to serve what purpose? Second, even the Zappone-Quinn proposals can promise nothing more than a ‘better’ and more representative advisory chamber. Without substantive constitutional revision the Seanad would – at best – simply be doing that which the Dáil itself should be doing: holding the Government to account and intelligently interrogating its proposals. In a sense, therefore, Seanad ‘reform’ as currently proposed would let the government off the hook of serious and substantive political change and would in fact represent status quo politics.

The strongest counter argument here is that abolition of the Seanad would, in and of itself, do nothing to strengthen the Oireachtas and would contribute nothing to reform per se. In this I think there is logic. The advocates of this position insist that the Seanad should be retained at least until the Dáil is reformed in such a way that it becomes an effective parliamentary chamber in its own right.

To be flippant, however, one might say that holding the Seanad’s abolition hostage to substantive Dáil reform is worse than pointless. It sounds rather like holding a dead man hostage in a bank siege; “give us the money or the stiff gets it”. If the Seanad’s abolition contributes nothing to reform, neither does its continued existence. One can also seriously question the bona fides of a government with a massive majority in the lower house that has promised much in terms of political reform but has thus far delivered little. I appreciate that argument and it has merit. Thus far the government’s core argument for abolition has been that it will save between 8 million and 20 million euro. As we witness people demonstrating and dying to secure legitimate and representative democratic institutions in various parts of the world such an argument is crass in the extreme.

Ultimately, however, I come down on the side of the abolitionists as I see a single chamber parliament as simply being a better model for a state of this size. Abolishing the Seanad can then be likened to clearing knotted underbrush or knocking down a dilapidated outbuilding. It gives us a clearer vision of where the problems really reside and what solutions are necessary and possible. Abolition of the Seanad can thus be seen as a necessary but in no way a sufficient step on the road to urgently needed political reform.

Ben Tonra
UCD School of Politics and International Relations

Read more: Senator John Crown – we desperately need real parliamentary and political reform.