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No political will to rock the cosy boat that is the Seanad

THE composition of the incoming Seanad will be known within the next few days when an antiquated and bizarre electoral procedure reaches its final stage. The second House of the Oireachtas receives little media or public attention between elections though individual senators bas

THE composition of the incoming Seanad will be known within the next few days when an antiquated and bizarre electoral procedure reaches its final stage. The second House of the Oireachtas receives little media or public attention between elections though individual senators bask in continuous publicity. However, the Seanad's shortcomings are well noted at election times, the criticism being particularly sharp on this occasion. Perhaps it is the fashionable concern with "equality" that currently highlights the glaringly restricted and unequal nature of the Seanad franchise.

Various calls for structural and electoral reform of Seanad Eireann have been made over the decades and the House itself is much given to regular bouts of navel inspection. Occasionally, abolition rather than reform is mooted. The classic criticism of the very existence of a second chamber was made by the Abbe Sieyes, the great political survivor of the bewildering constitutional changes of the French revolutionary period. He put the point succinctly, some would say simplistically. If the second chamber clashes with the first, it is pernicious: if it duplicates the work of the first, it is superfluous.

Still, bicameral parliaments are the norm in western democracy. Presumably, it is the general experience that the second chamber pays its way in terms of having expert members reviewing and refining legislation. In any case, the stark option of abolishing Seanad Eireann is simply not on, as a practical proposition. At one stage, the Progressive Democrats were ardent advocates of abolition. I pointed out at the time that removing the Seanad from the Constitution would mean disembowelling the document. Not only would Articles 18 and 19, which deal directly with the House, have to be deleted by referendum but so would all the other Articles which refer to an Oireachtas of two Houses.

When the PDs grasped this constitutional reality and realised they couldn't beat the Seanad, they decided to join it. In this week's elections, they seem set to enjoy the further benefit of their increased clout in government. The hypocritical PD U-turn on the Seanad is not the least of the factors which have brought the House into disrepute.

A "revising" chamber organised along vocational lines was very much in tune with fashionable Catholic sociology when Eamon de Valera sketched out the shape of Seanad Eireann in his 1937 Constitution. Today, that notion is completely outdated when vocational expertise is found in plenty throughout a highly-educated society and is adequately reflected in such bodies as the National Social & Economic Forum. Besides, the vocational principle in the Seanad was undermined from day one by the dominance of politics. It was, and remains, a necessity for the government of the day to control an "upper" house (note that the terms "upper" or "second" nowhere appear in the Constitution). This is so as long as that House is an integral part of the legislature. And a Seanad disconnected from legislation would be purely a talking shop.

And so the great majority of senators, while formally representing vocational/cultural interests, are party politicians. Their allegiance is to their party, not to the nominating body. Only in one or two cases historically has an independent been elected to the party-politicised panels. In this regard, Kathy Sinnott's performance is awaited with interest.

THE evils of the dual mandate which Noel Dempsey was powerless to remove are glaringly evident in the Seanad's composition and electorate. Of the 60 outgoing senators, 40 sit on local authorities. The great majority of the thousands or so who have votes for the five panels are councillors. The undesirable nature of this incestuous situation needs no elaboration.

By and large, Seanad Eireann is cynically regarded as a retirement home for former deputies or as a launching/relaunching pad for Dail aspirants. Twenty three outgoing senators stood for this Dail, with 10 being successful. This week's elections will see the climax of a particularly intense competition for Seanad seats. For example, Fine Gael is quite ruthless in its determination to maximise its use of the Seanad as part of the process of rebuilding its shattered fortunes ahead of the next Dail elections. The services of its most distinguished senator are being dispensed with as "surplus to requirements", as Maurice Manning himself has frankly put it .

When I was an independent senator in the National University of Ireland constituency from the late Seventies I was amazed by the unabashed attitude of the political parties to the Seanad as a house of second preference. Some senators made no secret that they were there to avail themselves of Oireachtas facilities in their bid for a return to the Dail. Seanad membership also ensured insider contacts with Dail colleagues as well as continuity of pension entitlements. Just before a general election, a Cathaoirleach would see no incongruity in publicly wishing such senators well in their quest for Dail seats.

Few would deny that the Seanad occasionally excels in giving meticulous and expert attention to legislation. In my time in the House I admired the distinguished contributions of such party senators as the late Alexis FitzGerald and Eoin Ryan, as well as individuals among "the Taoiseach's eleven", notably T K Whitaker. There is also general agreement that the university senators have given remarkable service to the House over the years. Modesty forbids me to mention names.

However, the notion of an additional franchise for the educationally privileged is being increasingly regarded as indefensibly elitist. Our family grocer who used to mobilise his siblings' graduate votes for me greatly resented his own exclusion from this special electorate. The late lamented John Kelly trenchantly deplored the retention of what he regarded as a sleeveen imitation of a British model, long since discarded by our former masters because it was incompatible with the egalitarian aspirations of Atlee's post-war Labour government. But the charmed (and doubtless charming) circle of university senators is elitist in a further sense: it excludes graduates of the new universities of Limerick and Dublin as well as of various third-level institutions not affiliated to Trinity or NUI.

EARLIER this year an All-Party Oireachtas Committee under the chairmanship of Brian Lenihan published an extensive review of the role of the national parliament, including far-reaching proposals for the reform of the Seanad. There will be a general welcome for the Committee's timely recommendation that the House should have a special role as a forum for European Union and Northern Ireland affairs. Interestingly, the Committee regards university representation any third-level franchise as "an anomaly and an anachronism" which should be abolished in the context of a "broader reform" of the Seanad.

Likewise, there would no longer be an electoral function for councillors or local representatives who already have "a key role", now constitutionally recognised, "in the overall governance of the State". In future, apart from 12 to be nominated by the Taoiseach, senators will be elected "by PR on a national list system" on the same day as the Dail elections. Thus, senators would be given "the direct electoral mandate and democratic legitimacy which they currently lack". Of course, a directly-elected Seanad might well involve a risk of conflict with the Dail which must have primacy as the house of representatives. Eamon de Valera, the architect of the Constitution and therefore of Seanad Eireann, long since ruefully observed that "it would pass the wit of man to get a completely satisfactory scheme for a Second House".

In any case, the radical Seanad reforms proposed by the Lenihan Committee remain only a remote possibility. There is no political will for reform, since the Seanad is an area of extensive patronage and deeply entrenched all-party vested interests, not amenable even to a Taoiseach's influence. Garret FitzGerald had good intentions in this respect but was powerless to effect change. The councillor lobby which stymied Noel Dempsey's plans to end the dual mandate are already flexing their muscles to combat the latest proposals.

It should be noted that no attempt has ever been made over the years to bring about Seanad reform even within the existing limits of the Constitution, as there is some scope for doing. This inaction is not to be explained by sheer inertia or low priority on government programmes. The truth is that change in any Seanad area even in the seemingly innocuous university constituencies would lead to a wider undermining of the status quo. In a recent radio programme, Mary O'Rourke (who will be consoled for the loss of her Dail seat with the prestigious post of Cathaoirleach) admitted that in all her years in Cabinet the question of Seanad reform had never been raised. Yet she now feels that, under God, under Bertie and under her own benign supervision, there will be substantial progress in reform in the next year or so.

Care to have a little flutter, Mary?

John A Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at UCC and a former Independent member of Seanad Eireann.