What about the Seanad?

With just a week to go, many voters are still undecided in the referendum to abolish one of the houses of the Oireachtas. Some argue the Seanad is an unnecessary expense, while the no side argue abolition is undemocratic and hands too much power to the Dáil.

But what exactly does the Seanad aim to do, and does it succeed in doing that?
Fianna Fáil Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, Senator for Heritage, Arts and Gaeltacht Affairs and Director General of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, gives The College View an account of a day in the life of a Senator and what it is they actually do.

“There’s no coverage to show the public the standard of the debates that we have,” Senator Ó Murchú tells The College View.
“There are those who say that the debates that go on in the Seanad are more productive than those in the Dáil. What happens in the Dáil is there are a lot of things that focus on personality instead of policy. There is also a lot of protest in those debates; it’s all about attack instead of cooperation.”

The Seanad was envisaged as a revisiting Chamber where legislative proposals approved by the Dáil would be reviewed and proposed amendments put forward. Any Bill that the Dáil deems worthy of making into law must go to the Seanad where they should debate its importance and effectiveness. If the Seanad approves of its legislative worth it then goes to the President to sign and the Bill is then made a law.

“The thing that the public might not know is that a third of every piece of legislation begins in the Seanad,” the Senator explains.
A typical day in the Seanad begins with the announcement of The ‘Order of Business’ which contains the motions and amendments the Seanad will deal with for the day. The Leader of the House is a member of the main Government party – usually a Minister – appointed by the Taoiseach who reads out the Order of Business, and who answers questions from the Senators as best he/she can.

Yet actions speak louder than words – what use is all this debate without repercussive action?

“The Seanad cannot put a stop to financial legislation, that’s not within their power, but they can delay a bill by suggesting an amendment, and hundreds of amendments by the Seanad are accepted – an average of 500 a year. So the Seanad have the power to put an amendment forward, but if the government reject it, the Seanad can delay it by a further 90 days.
“Now what’s powerful about that is if something is delayed, there is a lot more investigating done not only in the Seanad and the Dáil, but in the media. It has happened before that a Bill was ended because the Seanad sent it back and the Dáil agreed with that ruling.”

Many on the no side of the upcoming referendum are calling for reform rather than abolition, but does Senator Ó Murchú agree reforms are needed in the Seanad?

“People ask if there should be reform and I concede; there should be changes. Because we are in the European Union there are hundreds of official commands coming to us, some of these are very basic, and they make a change to the modus operandi [method of operation] in this country. The Dáil doesn’t have the time to discuss these so they are implemented without debate. Now one possible change would be that these are brought before the Seanad and we discuss them, because the Dáil cannot.

Another reform Senator Ó Murchú suggests is using the Seanad as a means for politicians from both North and South to come together on issues. “The second thing you could do is for years there has been little communication between the North and South of Ireland. With the Good Friday Agreement, they are making progress that there never was before. But still there isn’t a proper forum to let the politicians in the north to share their opinions.”

Abolishing the Seanad with a yes vote next Friday would not be the first time the house was abolished. After the new government came into power in 1932, tensions rose between the Dáil and the Seanad over the controversial Oath of Allegiance to the British Monarch, which was required to be taken by all Members of the Oireachtas. The Seanad opposed the ruling, resulting in the enactment of the house being postponed until it was re-established under Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937.

Opinion polls currently indicate that we are 60/40 in favour of abolishing the Seanad next Friday. Whatever your view on the Seanad is, it’s important to read the Referendum Commission’s independent guide to the referendum and be informed when you have your say next week.

Gráinne Ní Aodha

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