Reforming the Seanad
Broadly speaking, the Seanad was meant as a forum for educated counsel and as a check on the power of the Dáil. The house is divided into five Panels: the Administrative Panel, the Agricultural Panel, the Cultural and Educational Panel, the Industrial and Commercial Panel and the Labour Panel. Each of these consists, in theory, of individuals possessing special knowledge and experience. While the current practice is far removed from such theory, reform is possible. There are three clear ways we can achieve this.
Firstly, we need to address the functionality of the Seanad. Each Panel should consist of actual experts in their field removed from party whips and local politics. We then need to provide an avenue for their work to progress by allowing each Panel table one bill in the Dáil chamber every term. Currently, the Seanad has no facility to propose new laws. This innovative step would be a means for grassroots issues to reach the corridors of power without the taint of party influence. The Panels can also serve as interview committees, similar to the structure in the U.S. Senate, where high profile public appointees undergo a rigorous interview in public. Experts in the field are much better placed to make decisions on the suitability of a candidate than the average TD. Similarly, Senators can serve as public appointees on the various national bodies, removing the temptation of patronage so common in Irish political life. Up until recently, friends, girlfriends and business partners all had a reasonable chance of being appointed to positions of national importance. Another opportunity to develop the powers of the Seanad would be for the House to serve as an overseer of our MEPs, none of whom are accountable to the Dáil, and then ultimately the President, who, when aligned to the same party as that in power, as has been the case for the last ten years, is beyond reproach.
Proper representation of the people is paramount if the Seanad is to be effective. The Taoiseach’s appointees need to be the first to go. Our politicians have shown themselves incapable of using this opportunity positively; for example by promoting integration with the north, the non-national community or other minority groups. They have only sought to promote their friends. It is equally lamentable that Senators are currently associated with their party before their Panel: for example media reports are structured in such as a way as to refer to members as Senator J.Bloggs (FF), instead of Senator J.Bloggs (Agriculture Panel). Most importantly, we need to reform the way in which senators are elected. I would suggest a mixture of universal franchise, whereby each citizen would have the opportunity to vote for a specific Panel, and weighted input from national representative bodies. For example, members of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) would have a block vote for the Agricultural Panel. Candidates would need to demonstrate what they can bring to the position on account of their expertise, as against their party allegiance.
The third element that needs to be addressed is the transparency of the Seanad. The Upper House cannot be allowed to serve as a back-up option for politicians. It has to be the stated objective of each candidate. A simple way to ensure this would be to hold the Seanad election on the same day as the general election. - The Seanad register could be linked to the national register with the effect that all the relevant papers would be distributed at the same time. For example, all university graduates would be given university ballot paper in addition to their general election ballot at the polling station. The media profile of the Seanad can be raised. We need to promote quarterly reviews of the work done in the house on television and radio. There has to be a proactive programme initiated to be transparent such to is the anonymity currently associated with the House.
The Seanad has huge potential; we just need to free it from the vested interests of political parties. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? has been the most frightening question of the last decade in Irish politics. The simple answer is that nobody has been policing the Dáil. The Seanad needs fundamental reform, but with the right structures in place, it can be an invaluable counterweight of ordinary citizens to the rampant malaise we have been suffering for too long.