Reform of the Irish Parliament

Seanad reform: first step towards transforming the Oireachtas

Seanad Eireann remains lumbered with an electoral system that is both arcane and outdated, with such limited functions that it remains on the political periphery. These are the broad findings of Mary O’Rourke’s Seanad Committee that recommended a well-conceived set of proposals for Seanad reform in 2003.

The prospect of government paying any more attention to these proposals than it did to the succession of 11 previous reports, dating from 1928, seemed remote.  But Minister John Gormley has moved swiftly and decisively towards addressing Seanad reform and taking on board a range of proposals that could radically improve the way in which members are elected and the Seanad functions.  The initiative is especially important because reform of the Seanad is the stepping-stone to reforming the Dail.

Given the cosy political arrangements offered by the Seanad and the demands of other parliamentary business it is easy to understand why its reform has not been a matter of high priority for successive governments.  But pressures have been building during recent years for the change necessary to make the Dail and the Seanad more effective.

Radical reform of the Oireachtas is clearly a challenging undertaking that requires shrewd planning. In considering the approach it seems best to focus on the Seanad before tackling the Dail. Parliamentary folk memory of de Valera’s unsuccessful attempts to alter the Dail electoral process is still vivid.  The Seanad is a different matter. Given the widespread disenchantment with its role, and particularly its electoral process, Seanad reform appears less daunting.

The most desirable, yet radical, aspect of the proposals in the pipeline involves the introduction of the List System. A referendum proposing its use for Dail elections would be unlikely to succeed if proposed now. Why?  Because the Irish electorate, unlike their counterparts in continental Europe, are unfamiliar with the List System, and for that reason alone could be expected to reject it. However in the case of the Seanad one could expect the electorate to take the view that the current system is so unfathomable that whatever is proposed could hardly be worse. The reform would also involve the general electorate in voting for members to the Senate for the first time: a scenario that should help trigger a successful outcome. Once voters become familiar with the operation of the List System in Seanad elections there should be better prospects for winning support for its use in Dail elections.

The proposals for reform of the Seanad involve increasing seats from 60 to 65. Thirty-two of these would be directly elected, 20 would be indirectly elected, 12 nominated by the Taoiseach and the remaining seat would be filled by the Cathaoirleach.  Of the directly elected senators, 26 would be to a national constituency using PR and the List System, while the remaining 6 would be to a national higher education constituency.  The dominant role of local authority councillors would be reduced; but they would still be involved in electing 20 senators.

The Seanad reform proposals extend the right to vote in the higher education constituency to all graduates with a primary degree or equivalent. This is of course long overdue: the 1979 constitutional referendum cleared this, but there was no legislative follow-through.

Introduction of the List System for the first time to Irish elections would be the most significant reform. A large majority of constitutional democracies world-wide use the List System.  While there are many variations, selection of half of the members of parliament through local constituency elections and the other half using the List System is typical.  Local elections bring into parliament a vital democratic component: those familiar with local ‘parish-pump’ issues.  On the other hand the List System tends to elect national figures who have distinguished themselves across the spectrum of activities, from enterprise and the professions to the arts and social services.  As a result there is a good cross section of experience in parliament. While those elected locally tend to focus on immediate and regional issues of concern, those elected by the List System are less inhibited in addressing longer-term issues and unpopular but necessary policies.

In operating the List System each political party presents its list of candidates to the electorate and attempts to attract well respected national personalities.  The proportion of available seats secured by a party is based on the proportion of total votes given to the party-list.  Candidates at the top of the list have priority in filling seats.

Those elected by the List System are not burdened by local constituency work or the need to pander to local pressure groups; they can take a longer-term view and devote their efforts to issues of national policy and legislation.  The list system also permits a party to safeguard the re-election of the most valued members by placing them high on the list.

Democracies world-wide have gravitated towards adoption of the List System.  New Zealand did so in a referendum of 1992.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union almost all of the new democracies adopted some form of List System.  Ireland has yet to do so and now, alone with Malta, remains the only country in Europe with our form of electoral system.  Dail membership is drawn exclusively from local constituencies and consequently its focus tends to be local and short-term, rather than national and long-term. Indeed there are many examples of distinguished Irish politicians who, having taken the statesmanlike national and long term approach, are rejected by local voters because they neglected constituency matters or rejected auction politics.  Alan Dukes would be a good example.  Had Ireland a List System such nationally-minded politicians would be re-elected and retained in parliament.  A List System would also permit a party to approach corporate leaders with drive and track records of success; people of the stature of Tony O’Reilly, Michael O’Leary or Bernard McNamara. Not all could abandon their work and agree to serve in parliament for five years, but enough would to permit a Taoiseach, when forming a cabinet, to draw on some of the most capable people and best minds in the country.

There is ample evidence in countries that operate the List system that this is the case. In particular many of the new EU accession states have used the List System to bring into parliament some of their most able people; many of whom serve with distinction as ministers.

While Ireland has been fortunate in attracting many fine people into the Oireachtas the nature of the present process is such that those who have distinguished themselves nationally are effectively excluded from entering parliament in later life.  Membership of our parliament is drawn from quite an extraordinary limited group: over 80 percent of those in the Oireachtas emerge from the pool of some 1000 people who serve as members of local authorities. The net needs to be cast more widely in selecting members of the Oireachtas and securing the range of talent necessary to cope with the challenge of governing a fast-moving and complex Ireland.

Attracting a wider range of national talent into politics is the key to more effective government.  Minister Gormley’s proposed Seanad reform is the first step on the way.

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