| 11°C Dublin

Andrew Lynch: Axing the Seanad is a good idea, right? No, it will be a huge error

SEANAD Eireann is now officially on the endangered species list. The political parties are queuing up to claim that our second house of parliament should be abolished, maybe even in a referendum on the same day as the general election.

It's true that the institution hasn't exactly covered itself in glory recently -- but instead of mindlessly axing it, the responsible course of action would be a complete overhaul that could give senators a chance to make a proper contribution to our democracy.

Even within Leinster House, the Seanad has come to be seen as a bit of a joke. This snooze-filled talking shop is filled with ex-TDs using it as a retirement home and failed Dail candidates waiting to run again for the job they really want.


On the rare occasions when the Seanad hits the headlines, it is usually for the wrong reasons. Last year Senator Ivor Callely became a national laughing stock when it emerged that the Clontarf man had claimed travel expenses from his holiday home in west Cork.

House leader Donie Cassidy, the man who urged us all to start buying houses a couple of years ago because he claimed there was "fantastic value" in the market, added to his list of gaffes by declaring that it was hard for senators to support their families on €65,000 a year.

All this means that a referendum to scrap the Seanad once and for all might well be carried.

In the long run, however, it would be a short-sighted move that could well do serious damage to our whole political system. Almost every other democracy in the world uses a second parliament to keep a sharp eye on new legislation.

The first obvious problem with the Seanad is the elitist way in which it is elected. With 60 positions to be filled, 43 are chosen by party councillors, six are voted for by the graduates of selected universities and 11 are nominated directly by the sitting Taoiseach.

Since the general public has no say in who gets to be there, it is hardly surprising that they don't take much notice of the pompous windbags who make up much of the Seanad's membership.

The simple solution is to give everyone a vote in the Seanad elections. It should be held on the same day as the general election, which would rule out failed TDs who just see it as a consolation prize.


Candidates should also promise that they will not run for the Dail at the first opportunity, ensuring that the only people who get elected to the Seanad are those who genuinely want to be there.

Sixty senators? It's hard to justify that number in this day and age. Better to have 20 people who know what they're doing.

However, throwing the Seanad elections open to the people won't make much difference if we don't also change what the Upper House actually does. The fundamental difficulty right now is that while senators can propose amendments to a bill, they cannot ultimately veto it.

The Seanad should operate like a slimmed down Council of State, the body of distinguished judges and ex-ministers that the President consults whenever she is worried that a law might be unconstitutional.

By beefing up the Seanad's power to delay or even scrap bills it sees as flawed, the parliament's relevance would be dramatically increased.

When life-changing laws relating to our banking or criminal justice systems are being introduced, we urgently need skilled people to scrutinise them line by line -- and since the Dail has shown itself to be useless at holding the Government to account, a responsible second chamber of parliament is a necessity rather than a luxury.

Instead of abolishing the Seanad, we must give it one last chance to reform itself. This country fought long and hard for its democracy -- and the political parties should think long and hard before asking us to give away such a huge chunk of it.