One citizen, one vote - time to reform the Seanad elite
The Taoiseach appointed a working group on Seanad reform, chaired by Dr Maurice Manning, last December. Our terms of reference were clear. Reform proposals must be within the existing constitutional parameters. No more referendums. The Taoiseach described the far-reaching recommendations as "innovative and radical".
The Seanad as currently constituted is indefensible. Only a thousand citizens have the right to elect 43 of the 60 Seanad seats. The Seanad electoral system means that local authority members and members of the Oireachtas indirectly elect two-thirds of the Seanad membership.
This is utterly disproportionate and is no longer appropriate in modern Ireland. The current electoral system is elitist and has disenfranchised a majority of citizens. Our proposals are straightforward and based on the fundamental democratic principle of one person, one vote. We recommend that 36 of the 60 seats be directly elected by the people. This includes the six university Senators as per the Constitution. Every Irish citizen will have the right to vote. That right must be extended to include the 800,000 holders of Irish passports living overseas and citizens in Northern Ireland.
The current arrangements for Seanad elections allow certain voters to have up to six votes. This will be abolished. Each citizen shall have one vote and one vote only.
The Constitution requires that there be five vocational panels. They include (1) national language and culture, literature, art, education; (2) agriculture and fisheries; (3) labour, whether organised or unorganised; (4) industry and commerce and (5) public administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.
Under our proposals, voters will be required to register on the panel of their choice. They will then cast their votes by single transferable vote for the candidate of choice from the list of those validly nominated to that panel. This will be the first time in the history of the Irish State that every Irish citizen will have the right to vote in a national election.
The fact that the Seanad does not have authority over taxation and finance matters ensures that this recommendation does not undermine our democracy. It gives a freedom which could never be exercised or contemplated in a lower house. Allowing the 800,000 holders of Irish passports living overseas and citizens in Northern Ireland to vote makes the Seanad clearly distinct from the Dáil.
We believe that the important link between national and local politics should be retained; that 13 of the 60 seats be indirectly elected from an electoral college of all elected county and city councillors, TDs and outgoing Senators. This reflects a respect for local democracy and creates a chain of democracy between communities and parliament. The practical and logistical challenge around postal votes for Irish citizens was surmounted by a system of online registration. This system is as secure, if not more so, in its confidentiality as online banking. Ballot papers for Irish citizens, holders of Irish passports living overseas and citizens in Northern Ireland will have to be downloaded and then sent by post. There will be no polling stations.
Each completed paper must be verified before it is checked and counted.
We are aware that online skills are not universally available. Voter registration and distribution of votes must also be made available through county councils and local libraries.
The time for talking is over. The time for implementation of Seanad reform is now.
Dr Elaine Byrne is a member of the Working Group on Seanad Reform appointed by the Taoiseach