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2 November 2014 Edition

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Seanad still synonymous with cronyism

One year on from abolition vote, still no serious reform of the Oireachtas upper house

• Seanad elections discriminate against citizens based on whether they have a third-level degree or not

Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan said his two votes in the Seanad are something the apartheid regime in South Africa or the Ulster Unionists in the old Stormont would have been proud of

MORE THAN ONE YEAR on from the referendum to abolish the Seanad, there’s been no sign of the Fine Gael/Labour Government’s much-promised reform of how the upper house is elected and operates. 

After the surprise public poll in October 2013 to keep the much-maligned Seanad, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he would reflect and decide how the Seanad could become an effective contributor to changes to the Irish political system.

It was clear that those opposed to the Seanad’s abolition were not in favour of maintaining the status quo but of radically reforming the state’s upper house.

Twelve months on from the referendum, Sinn Féin has put a motion before the Dáil calling for radical reform of the Seanad. 

The proposals include:

  • Direct elections with universal suffrage for all Irish citizens;
  • The introduction of Northern representation and representation of the Diaspora;
  • A gender balance requiring 50% women members;
  • Ensuring the representation of minority and marginalised groups in Irish society. 

Moving the motion, Gerry Adams noted how the Seanad has become synonymous with cronyism and as a safety net for failed general election candidates.

“There have been incidents in which senators were stood down, particularly by Fianna Fáil, just weeks from a general election, to be replaced by others just for those few weeks. Such a brief sojourn in the upper house would secure entitlements such as lifelong parking at Leinster House.”

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• (Clockwise) Gerry Adams, Michael Colreavy, Seán Crowe, Dessie Ellis, Sandra McLellan and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn

While praising some senators for their pioneering and advocacy, he said the Seanad is still not in a position to act as “a real check on the excesses of this or any other government”.

Sligo/North Leitrim Sinn Féin TD Michael Colreavy said the Government’s in-built majority in the Seanad is a major problem that needs to be sorted. He described Government senators as acting “like the little dogs one sometimes sees in the rear windscreens of cars, with their bobble-heads going up and down. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the Seanad will deliver the answer the Government wants.”

Dublin South-West Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe criticised the way the Seanad is elected for “discriminating against citizens on the basis of whether they have a third-level education”. Even then, only those with degrees from certain third-level institutions have votes.

Arguing against the Sinn Féin proposal, Labour Party Environment, Community & Local Government Minister Alan Kelly said the costs of universal suffrage for Seanad elections “could be extensive”, saying that a further referendum would be required to switch from postal ballots to polling stations.

Labour TD Joanna Tuffy argued that the current elections to the Seanad are not “undemocratic, unique or unusual”. Other Government TDs, however, disagreed.

Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan said he has two votes in the Seanad and he considers this “grossly undemocratic”: 

“It harks back to a measure of which the apartheid regime in South Africa would have been proud, or the Ulster Unionists in the old Stormont assembly,” he said.

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• The referendum result was not a decision to retain the Seanad in its current form

Donegal Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn called out Government TDs on boasts that meaningful reform of the Seanad was taking place. The reform they speak of will allow senators to raise questions with the relevant ministers earlier in the day.

“Changing the time at which particular debates are held is not exactly earth-shattering stuff, is it?”

Sinn Féin Dublin North-West TD Dessie Ellis said ensuring Northern representation is extremely important.

“It would present a wonderful opportunity to give voice to a people left out of the narrative of the Ireland of the Oireachtas and could give great insight for political leaders into the nuts and bolts of the Peace Process, which continues to unfold today.”

He also said having 50% women members would further advance the cause of gender equality and show that the Government is serious on the issue, as well as providing a new generation of role models for young women who want to be involved in public life but see nothing but men at the top tables.

Sinn Féin’s motion was defeated as the Government introduced an amendment (in reality a counter motion) which simply boasted about their current minimalist plans.

Cork East Sinn Féin TD Sandra McLellan said:

“The failure of Fine Gael and Labour to fulfill their promises to reform our political system is unsurprising. But if we continue to do what we have always done, nothing will change. We need to act now and we need real reform.”

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