Sunday 21 October 2018

Jury is out on delivery of a new and improved Seanad

Former Justice Minister and Attorney General Michael McDowell Photo: Tom Burke
Former Justice Minister and Attorney General Michael McDowell Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

All of 103 days after the general election, the new Seanad was finally completed and convened.

The 60 seanadóirí had just the one job: to pick a chairperson. They did that - and then they were obliged by rule to adjourn for a week. That little vignette tells you everything you need to know about the urgent necessity for the reform of this quirky institution which the Taoiseach tried unsuccessfully to abolish in October 2013.

There is a new and enthusiastic crop of senators from a wide variety of backgrounds. Fourteen of them are Independent, and 11 of those did not even wait to get inside the splendid old Seanad rooms before they promulgated their call for change. Led by former Justice Minister and Attorney General Michael McDowell, they called for implementation of a report published in spring 2015 mapping out how a new and improved 21st century upper house of parliament might be chosen.

That one was by National University of Ireland chancellor Maurice Manning, a long-time senator and TD who knows his political history. Mr McDowell and his eclectic group of colleagues, which includes renowned folk singer Frances Black, and former students union leader Lynn Ruane, had a fully-fledged bill detailing how the 60 senators should henceforth be chosen.

Currently, 43 are chosen by the 1,000 city and county councillors, leaving six to be picked by universities, and 11 directly appointed by the Taoiseach. Under their regime, 30 would be chosen by Irish citizens in the Republic, in the North and overseas; six more would be chosen by graduates of all third-level colleges; 13 by TDs, outgoing senators and councillors; and 11 still appointed by the Taoiseach.

For another of the group, Alice-Mary Higgins (yes the President's daughter), one-person, one-vote was an important starting point in reform. The group's enthusiasm and sincerity could not be denied and carried a certain piquancy.

What was happening in practice was rather different. A few short hours later, the 60 senators met and chose their chairman, Denis O'Donovan of Fianna Fáil. He is a popular and worthy chairman and his long service at Leinster House dates from 1989.

The manner of him being chosen, in a deal between Fine Gael, with 20 senators, and Fianna Fáil, with 14 senators, was less encouraging. It raises questions about the depth and extent of real change.

The people voted to keep the Seanad three years ago for a variety of reasons.

It is reasonable to deduce that they wanted meaningful reforms so the members could play a meaningful role in national debate and in shaping and framing our laws.

The shelves are groaning with reform reports and plans going back 40 years. But we are left with a 1937 structure not fit for purpose.

Irish Independent

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