—Dr. Oran Doyle, Fellow, Trinity College, Dublin
The Irish Government has proposed the abolition of the upper house of Parliament, the Seanad. The Thirty-Second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013 contains over 40 discrete amendments to the Constitution designed to abolish the Seanad, reconstitute the Oireachtas as a unicameral parliament, revise Articles of the Constitution that are predicated on the existence of the Seanad, and address certain transitional issues. In order for these changes to take effect, the Bill must be approved by the People in a referendum tentatively scheduled for early October. The Government’s abolition proposal is the latest (and probably last) episode in the precarious existence of Ireland’s upper House.
The Constitution of the Irish Free State 1922 established a Senate. As a result of a mixed process of appointment and election, many of its members were not drawn from the main political parties. Southern Unionists and Protestants, including such notable figures as WB Yeats, featured far more prominently in the Senate than popular support would warrant. Partly for this reason, the Fianna Fáil party led by Éamon de Valera objected to the Senate and proposed its abolition. Fianna Fáil’s subsequent control of the Dáil allowed de Valera to make good on this threat in 1936.
Nevertheless, de Valera’s new Constitution of Ireland, enacted by plebiscite in 1937, reintroduced a Seanad. Article 18 of the Constitution provides for a 60-member Seanad. 11 members of the Seanad are appointed by the Taoiseach (prime minister). Six members are elected by the graduates of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland. The remaining 43 members are elected from panels of candidates with avowed expertise in culture, agriculture, labour, industry and public administration. The corporatism immanent in these provisions has never been released, however, since statute provides that the electorate for these 43 members consists of existing senators, members of the Dáil and all county councillors in the state. As a result, the vast majority of senators are members of political parties, usually either aspiring or rejected members of the Dáil. In this regard, the Seanad fails to fulfil one of the possible functions of an upper House, namely enhancing the legislative process through the involvement of people drawn from outside the political class. The university senators have been an exception in this regard, although it is almost impossible to justify the democratic anomaly of additional representation for some university graduates in the national parliament.
The Seanad lacks significant power. Its primary constitutional role is as a revising legislative chamber. It can amend or reject legislation passed by the Dáil (apart from money Bills), but Article 23 empowers the Dáil to override the position of the Seanad. In absolute terms, its only power is to delay although the Seanad may, of course, have a legislative influence that is far greater. The Seanad has a number of other constitutional functions. Most importantly, its consent is required for the impeachment of the President, a judge or the Comptroller and Auditor General. Finally, under Article 27, a majority of the members of the Seanad may join with a third of the members of the Dáil to petition the President to refer a Bill, which has been deemed to be passed by the Dáil, to the People. This procedure has never been invoked.
There have been several proposals to reform the Seanad over the years, but no action has been taken on foot of them. For instance, in 1979 the People amended the Constitution to allow the franchise for the university seats to be extended to graduates of other third level institutions. No legislation was ever passed to give effect to this change. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it suited the political class to retain the Seanad as a largely toothless institution, primarily serving as a finishing school and retirement home for the real politicians in the Dáil. Proponents of abolition self-servingly indict the Seanad for its failure to reform itself, despite the fact that it is the Dáil alone that had the requisite power to allow for reform. In introducing the Bill to abolish the Seanad, the Taoiseach noted that the Seanad had failed to act to prevent the financial disaster that befell Ireland in 2008. Of course, the Seanad had no power to act in that area.
Nobody argues for retention of the Seanad in its current form but the People will be required to choose simply between abolition and retention. The amendment provisions of the Constitution do not allow for ‘preferendums’, a point overlooked by many public commentators. The central objection to the abolition of the Seanad is that it will lead to a further concentration of power in the Dáil, which is in effect controlled by the Government. Anticipating this objection, the Government has promised a number of reforms to the way in which the Dáil works to improve its role in holding the Government to account. Most notably, the chairs of various committees would be appointed according to the D’Hondt system rather than majority vote. This approach to the campaign is akin to a reverse hostage situation: the Government will kill Dáil reform unless the People kill the Seanad. There is reason, however, to be sceptical of even this promise of Dáil reform. The launch of the abolition campaign coincided with the Government Chief Whip admitting that the Government’s record on Dáil reform was deplorable. This is a salutary reminder of the danger of trusting hostage-takers.
The Government’s proposal to abolish the Seanad provides yet another Irish lesson in how not to conduct constitutional reform. It has precluded any meaningful discussion as to whether a second chamber could fulfil a useful role and what that role might be. Among those committed to reform rather than abolition, there is no clear sense of whether the Seanad should be a chamber for legislative revision or an alternative centre of political power that can hold the Government to account, or some combination of the two. These issues could helpfully have been explored at the Constitutional Convention, established by the Government to consider changes to the Constitution. That would have allowed for greater public deliberation and a comparison of abolition with a reformed Seanad. However, the Government precluded the Convention from considering the abolition of the Seanad.
In Ireland, opposition to referendum proposals tends to increase during referendum campaigns as the people become more conversant with or confused by the issues, depending on one’s perspective. Nevertheless, opinion polls currently suggest that the People will accept the Government’s invitation to put 60 politicians out of a job. If the Referendum is passed, few will be holding their breath for meaningful Dáil reform. If the Referendum is rejected, a reformed Seanad seems equally unlikely. In truth, the Irish political class correctly senses that the general public has little focused interest in constitutional reform. Abolition of the Seanad holds the twin attractions of creating an appearance of reform while actually increasing the power of the Government.
Suggested Citation: Oran Doyle, Ireland Considers Move to Unicameral Parliament, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, July 7, 2013, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2013/07/ireland-considers-move-to-unicameral-parliament.
 Jim O’Callaghan, “Seanad Éireann – An Opportunity for Real Political Reform” in Eoin Carolan ed, The Constitution of Ireland: Perspectives and Prospects (Bloomsbury Profesional, 2012) 217, 220-231.
 ‘Chief Whip Admits Government Performance on Dáil Reforms Deplorable.’ The Irish Times 10 June 2013.