In a time of a daily death tolls and seriously ill world leaders with the ever-present shadow of a worldwide recession lingering in the background- news bulletins detailing Seanad election proceedings understandably sound like a distant echo of times gone by. While the democratic system was based on noble principals the Irish public would much rather hear news of a solid Dáil, a stable government ready to tackle what many countries are referring to as a war, a war against disease.
The modern day Seanad comprising of 60 seats only possesses the ability to delay legislation by ninety days. “Money bills” (that result in government spending) cannot be amended by senators. Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny stated his intention to abolish what is often described as an “outdated” system way back in 2013, in the hopes that it would save close to 150 million euro over the term of a Dáil.
The power of course rested with the people of Ireland, as is right in a democratic society and the issue went to a Referendum. Yet, the public went to the polls and 51.7% of voters were in favour of saving the part of our government that carries out double checks and oversees all. Senator Fergal Quinn stressed the importance of oversight to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. “Bad law is much more likely to be a result if the Seanad is not here…we need to learn from mistakes made in the Celtic Tiger.”
The system continues its tradition of being debated and scrutinised every year. While trail blazers like Mary Robinson and David Norris may have set a great precedent for change for the better in the Seanad, it is the outlandish issues that appear as unforgettable headlines. Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone warned of the connection between the “persistent use of chimes” by ice cream trucks and childhood obesity.
The first original Seanad (including W.B. Yeats) was in fact praised for its ability to represent every member of society. The New York Times reported on an Irish system that was “representative of all classes”. In the modern day Seanad Éireann, it is the Taoiseach of the time who decides on 11 eleven of the 60 seats. What could be a voice of opposition, a questioning voice- now seems to be a carbon copy of the views of the Dáil. Instead of representing the voices that are often not heard in the Dáil chambers the Seanad is usually dominated by the leading party of the day.
While the University candidates may be the alternative voice representing groups that are often not heard in the Dáil, its system also leaves much room for improvement. The University of Dublin has three seats, and Trinity adds three of its own graduates to the line-up. Yet, other third level institutions like DCU have not been introduced into the equation upon formation.
A reformed Seanad should present an opportunity to the voice that is often silenced. Eileen Flynn narrowly missed out on becoming the first female Traveller to be elected to the Oireachtas. We need the Seanad but we need a Seanad that is suitable for the Ireland of 2020. We need a Seanad where the different voices of our society are heard. We don’t need another faint echo from the chambers of Dáíl Éireann.
Image credit: House of the Oireachtas