Shane Ross


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New Vision of Less Political Seanad Necessary

Posted on: October 21st, 2004

Some years ago the former Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Ken Whitaker, stood for election to the educational panel of the Seanad and he got what was considered to be a derisory vote. He had been a distinguished Member in 1981 having been appointed by the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald. He was not re-appointed but he felt later that he would still like to serve in the House. He stood for the panel and did not get elected or even get a competitive vote.

I wonder what that tells us about the House because Dr. Whitaker was awarded a somewhat token but significant award as the greatest living Irishman of the 20th century a little later. If someone who is awarded such an extraordinarily elevated status by an independent panel is unable to be elected to this House of 60 Members, it does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with the election of the House but one of the two bodies is unrepresentative.

When he was a Member, Dr. Whitaker played an independent role, despite his nomination by a partisan Taoiseach, Dr. FitzGerald. I do not say that in a pejorative way because all Taoisigh are partisan. Dr. Whitaker could not get the requisite number of votes for election to these panels because of the system of election to the House. A total of 43 Members are elected to these panels. I am not being critical of other Members’ form of election as I am equally critical of my own.

However, one of the great problems is, despite the laudable aspiration that nominating bodies should elect people to the House to give it a vocational aspect and it works in many cases, the electorate is nakedly party political. An informal party political whip is imposed on the election of those 43 Members. They are elected through their own parties because they are not able to fish in the pool of other parties, if at all. They seek the votes of county councillors, outgoing Senators and Deputies.

The result is that if one is non-party, it is almost impossible to get into the House unless one is a Taoiseach’s nominee or is elected to a university seat. That is not necessarily good or bad but it should be highlighted. I challenge anybody to name a Member elected to those 43 seats who was not a committed party member. There may have been one or two but I do not recall any in my time here. The system was devised to ensure the Government had a majority in the House.

The Seanad should not in any way thwart the democratic wishes of the Dáil. That would be utterly wrong and it would be a case for abolition. That is why the House cannot defeat or amend financial legislation but it can amend and revise other legislation and bring forward extraordinarily novel ideas.

However, it can also play a different role and my criticism of the House is that it plays a similar role to that of the Dáil. If it is to be taken more seriously, it should do different things and, therefore, it should not automatically reflect the party political balance of the Dáil.

The university seats are rightly and frequently criticised. Among the criticisms made against those of us who hold them is that we are elitist, which is a pretty glib term and a very convenient one. It is not true. People who make such charges do not realise what the circumstances are. While the constituency is certainly discriminatory, Senators O’Toole, Ryan and Quinn have an electorate of approximately 120,000, a figure on which I am open to correction. It is larger than most Dáil constituencies although all members of the electorate happen to have degrees.

My constituency at the last count was approximately 40,000 people, all of whom have degrees also. Its members come from all types of backgrounds and professions. While they are drawn from those who have what remains the great privilege of a university degree, the constituency is not elitist in the way it was when the electorate was 3,000 or 4,000.

As history shows, it is useful to have in this House representatives of the universities provided the electorate is large enough and not too elitist, but it is indefensible that any university should not have the franchise. If we reform this House, we must give the franchise to all universities and all people with degrees. It is quite wrong that for traditional and political reasons and a failure to prioritise reform, graduates of other universities should not have votes.

In the package of reform whenever it comes, these graduates must be given votes in the same way as graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland. On the other hand, the university constituencies do not want to be the soft target in the reform of the Seanad when it comes. The university Senators would welcome and will initiate moves towards these reforms ourselves. To claim some of the credit, I suggested when I chaired the first meeting of the House at the beginning of the session that such reforms should be a matter for the Seanad.

While the university Senators do not wish to be a soft target, we want to see democratic and fair reforms in our home patch. We do not want to see the political parties agreeing that while Seanad reform is positive, it should be a gradual process starting with those guys in the back row who make something of a nuisance of themselves. We do not want to see the political parties sitting back and observing how reform of the university constituencies works for 50 years before being ready to move on to themselves and the particular problems they have.

While reform is absolutely essential in the university seats and the issue should be tackled, the matter must be considered very carefully. One does not want to lose the independence of the university seats by changing the constituencies too much. I hope it is fair to say the seats have had a value in their independence whatever one feels about the individuals who held them, given that they have said things political parties found difficult to say for obvious reasons. If one changes the constituencies too radically, one might find that the political parties take them over with their machines. It is always a temptation and I see a real danger that it might happen. It would take courage on behalf of a Minister to prevent this.

Among the suggestions made is that the six university seats should be placed in one constituency. With the new universities, that would create a constituency of over 200,000. I cannot envisage that many independent individuals could afford to circulate 200,000 people. I am not referring to free postage but to maintaining contact in other ways. Independent candidates would not have the manpower to cope with the logistics of treating such an electorate as a constituency and getting around to each of its members. In such circumstances, I can envisage political parties moving into the constituency with great professionalism having agreed to keep the seats and expand the electorate to 200,000 meaning no independent candidate could be elected due to expense, difficulty and lack of support, manpower and machinery.

When, as they should be, the university seats are reformed and the franchise increased, I hope the matter will be treated sensitively and with a great deal of thought. If that is not the case, all that will happen is the political parties will take over our seats in a constituency too large for us to manage re-election. I say that with a very obvious vested interest. I intend to stand for re-election to this House and do not wish particularly to do so in a constituency of 250,000, which I would find extremely difficult.

This House should not suggest piecemeal reform. One of the disappointing aspects of the submissions was the lack of an overall vision in terms of the role of this House as a direct contrast to the Dáil – what we ought to be doing for the bicameral system. There were all sorts of specialist interests expressing views on little changes here and there.

We should have a new vision of a Seanad which is less political and where elections to it are held on the same day as the general election so as to remove as far as possible the party political element and to take account of the fact that some of us have ambitions to move between one House and the other.