The result of the 2013 referendum on the abolition of the Seanad was a clear indication that the upper house of the Oireachtas could not continue much longer in its current manner. Having survived by such a small margin, it was evident that the Seanad was under significant threat and, in truth, has remained that way ever since.
While a radical process of reform could not be started immediately as sufficient research was required, this obstacle was removed with the publication of the Manning Report in 2015. In the six years since the publication of the report, the Oireachtas has failed to implement the attached recommendations to any extent. The process of necessary reform of Seanad Éireann has been delayed long enough, and our current senators must take action as a matter of urgency. After years of drifting from its original purposes, enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann, Seanad Éireann can finally be reformed and fulfil its intended role as an effective upper house.
The 2015 Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform, chaired by Dr Maurice Manning, provides a framework for the measures which could be taken to reform Seanad Éireann in the future. It is important to note that all of the recommendations made within the report do not require any form of constitutional change or, therefore, referendum. The pillars of reform outlined in the report revolve around the need for a reformed Seanad to have popular legitimacy, distinct and meaningful powers of legislation and a more distinct composition. While the 26th Seanad may have had a difficult start, ranging from an inability to sit due to Covid-19 precautions to, more recently, disputes surrounding senators’ expense claims, it appears as though the current group of senators have the opportunity to bring about change based on these three central tenets.
In addition to having the Manning Report as a template for reform, there are also a myriad of examples abroad of an effective upper house that can give a clearer idea of how a reformed Seanad would operate. The upper house of the French National Assembly, Le Sénat, is a fitting example that can illustrate how an efficient upper house can function. Placing a significant emphasis on expertise in a variety of fields, having a meaningful role in the oversight and implementation of EU directives and a more meaningful capacity in the legislative process are just a few achievable aims for a reformed Seanad.
Perhaps the most significant event since the Seanad has convened in the context of reform was achieved by Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne. The introduction of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Amendment Bill in early July could be interpreted as the most important step towards reform since the 2015 Manning Report. This particular piece of legislation is focused on widening the electoral college of the university panel to graduates of all third level institutions. While the change proposed in this bill is far from radical, the fact that it is finally being proposed is noteworthy.
The 1979 referendum on this issue resulted in one of the highest majorities in the history of the state with 91.2% voting in favour of widening the electorate. It is abundantly clear that this action is essential in ensuring the Seanad has a popular legitimacy amongst the public, a target mentioned in the 2015 Manning Report. The fact that action is finally being taken on this issue is a significant change, having previously not been debated. Having new members of the Seanad now working on areas that have previously been overlooked points further toward serious reform being achievable in the current term. While this is only a first step, it is a step that has not been taken in the 42 years since the referendum on this issue.
One of the most notable challenges in the current Seanad system is the strength of vocational panels (or lack thereof). While it is easy to dismiss the composition of the 26th Seanad as highly politicised with a high majority having party allegiances and having run in the 2020 general election, being a party-affiliated senator may not be as compromising as it is often described. Many of the newly elected senators of the 26th Seanad are undoubtedly experts in their fields, despite having party allegiances, an improvement on previous Seanad makeups. Green Party Senator and Minister of State Pippa Hackett, for example, elected to the agricultural panel, holds several degrees in the field of agriculture.
The aforementioned Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne served as Head of Communications for the Higher Education Authority before joining the Cultural and Educational Panel. Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward’s proficient speaking style and to-the-point approach to matters have won him a considerable group of supporters in a short period of time. While political parties may be apprehensive about reform for fear of having less influence in the upper house, this will not necessarily be the case. If political parties are represented by Seanad candidates who are highly experienced, educated and knowledgeable in their fields, they should have no reason to be concerned about reform. The distinct composition mentioned in the Manning Report can be achieved without a decline in party influence.
It is time for the members of Seanad Éireann to take action and demand a radically reformed upper house as envisioned in the Manning Report.
Furthermore, the strengthening of vocational panels is vital in ensuring another pillar of reform mentioned in the Manning Report is achieved: distinct and meaningful powers of legislation. The Seanad, ultimately, should be able to scrutinise legislation through a different lens to Dáil Éireann to fulfil its purpose. Senators from different vocational panels must represent that field when debating and amending legislation.
While other measures must be taken in a wider reform process to further strengthen the legislative powers of the Seanad, none of the recommended measures cited in the Manning Report require constitutional change. The Working Group on Seanad Reform of 2015, backed up by a further 2018 report committe chaired by Independent Senator Michael McDowell, stated that the Seanad “should seek to convince by force of argument and logic rather than compel by weight of numbers and formal powers”. This, ultimately, highlights the variation between the legislative powers of Dáil Éireann and a reformed Seanad Éireann. Having experts sitting in the Seanad from different vocational panels is vital in ensuring this duty is fulfilled in the legislative process.
In the words of Labour Senator and Dublin Bay South by-election candidate Ivana Bacik, Seanad reform is an issue that has suffered from “ridiculous can-kicking”. Given that there are no constitutional barriers to implementing meaningful, systemic reform, it is difficult to find excuses as to why this cannot be achieved during the lifetime of the 26th Seanad, particularly with such a noticeable number of competent members having won seats in the Seanad this time around. With a cohort of capable and accomplished Senators from across the political spectrum, it is abundantly clear that the current senators have all the necessary resources to create real change. It is time for the members of Seanad Éireann to take action and demand a radically reformed upper house as envisioned in the Manning Report.