Seanad Reform: 100 Days Since The People Decided - Democracy Matters
Friday, 21 February 2014

Seanad Reform: 100 Days Since The People Decided,

If There Is A Will, There Is A Way - Democracy Matters

January 2014


This paper is published by Democracy Matters as a practical blueprint for immediate action to reform Seanad Eireann. The People have spoken on the issue of retaining the Seanad a hundred days ago. They clearly want reform. During the recent referendum campaign, there was an overwhelming consensus both among abolitionists and retentionists that the Seanad needs reform.

Democracy Matters has identified six basic consensus principles with widespread political support which are as follows:

·         Universal Citizen Suffrage

 ·         One Person One Vote

·         Gender Equality

·         A Vote for Citizens in Northern Ireland

·         A Vote For Citizens In The Diaspora

·         A Role In EU Legislation and Scrutiny

We believe that these Principles enjoy the support of the great majority of individual parliamentarians, political parties and relevant civil society groups.

We set out a road-map for immediate action to implement these principles and to create a cross party agenda for Seanad reform.

We seek the support of civil society and the political system for Seanad reforms in accordance with these principles.

90% of the 60 seat Seanad would be left un-reformed if the Government only proceeds to extend the franchise for the 6 university seats to other third level graduates and does nothing more in relation to the election of the  panel Senators.

If nothing is done in the immediate future to deliver a reformed Seanad, the next Seanad will be elected on the same basis as this one, and there will be no real reform for the best part of ten years at the earliest.

If there is political will, a Bill reforming the Seanad can be enacted this year, giving the People a reformed Seanad as soon as the next General Election.

No Referendum Needed For These Reforms

There is a widespread misconception among many politicians, commentators, and some of the public, that  reform of the Seanad needs constitutional change. It doesn’t.

The Constitution does not require the present elitist and undemocratic system for electing the Seanad.

None of the reforms proposed here needs a referendum.

All of them can be effected by a single Seanad Reform Bill.

All of them can be in place for the next general election of the Seanad if we legislate in 2014.



On 4th October, 2013, the People of Ireland voted to reject the 32nd Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Eireann) Bill 2013.

The overwhelming consensus in the public debate which preceded the referendum, both among advocates of retention and abolition, was that Seanad Eireann was not and is not performing in accordance with the role envisaged for it by the People when enacting Bunreacht na h-Eireann in 1937, and, in particular, it was both the Government and their opponents’ view that the Seanad’s current system of election was indefensible.

There was and is, accordingly, an overwhelming consensus that if Seanad Eireann is to be retained, it needs to be reformed. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there was widespread acceptance of the fact that the No vote was not a vote to retain the status quo but a vote for retention and reform. 

On 6 October 2013, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte stated that the Government had an “obligation” to reform the Seanad and to consider “how that could be done within the constraints of the Constitution and without another referendum.”[1]   

On the same day, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin stated that the Government “should move fairly speedily” to alter the Seanad to make it more effective.[2] 

On 23 October 2013, the Taoiseach told Seanad Éireann that he wanted ideas and proposals to make Seanad Éireann “work as effectively as possible within the process of change in politics we are trying to bring to the country.”[3]   

Worryingly, the Government’s commitment to reforming the Seanad has appeared to wane as more time passes since their referendum defeat.   

Although the Taoiseach has held a few meetings with Party Leaders and Senators on the issue of Seanad reform, 100 days on from the referendum nothing concrete has emerged from these consultations other than a commitment to give effect to the result of the 1979 Seanad Reform Referendum by extending the franchise to all third level graduates for the 6 university seats.  

 Such a limited statutory change would leave 90%of the Seanad totally unaffected.

Scope for Real Reform

The Taoiseach has also stated that he personally was not persuaded that there should be reform of the franchise in Seanad elections on a one person one vote basis because he did not “believe that the framers of the Constitution intended that you’d have a universal suffrage for the Senate in the same way as the Dáil.” [4]

Firstly, it should be noted that the Constitution makes it clear that the Seanad is not to be elected ”in the same way as the Dail” – ie by geographic constituencies. 

That said, the articles of the Constitution dealing with the Seanad, Articles 18 and 19, clearly do not exclude universal citizen suffrage in Seanad elections.  They do the direct opposite. 

The Constitution simply provides that general elections to the Seanad shall be held on the system of proportional representation by means of single transferrable vote and by secret postal ballot (Article 18.5) and that those elections shall be regulated by law (Article 18.10.1̊).

The Constitution merely prescribes the system of panels of candidates for election to 43 seats, requiring them to be formed in a manner to be provided by law, of persons having knowledge and practical experience in five broad areas of national life –

  • National Language and Culture Literature Art Education and certain professions determined by law
  • Agriculture and allied interests including fisheries
  • Labour, organised or unorganised
  • Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture
  • Public Administration and social service, including voluntary social services.

The Constitution gives the Oireachtas wide legislative discretion in deciding the number of seats ascribed to each panel (not less than 5 or more than 11 each).

The Constitution refers to the election of the elected Senators as a “general election”, and states that “subject to the foregoing provisions…elections of the elected members of Seanad Eireann shall be regulated by law.”

How then can a Constitution which gives the Oireachtas a wide discretion to legislate to organise the franchise for Seanad elections be construed as impliedly excluding universal citizen suffrage?  The answer is simple. It can’t.

The “spirit and letter” of Bunreacht na h-Eireann, as clearly stated in Article 6,  is that the legislative power derives from the People “whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State”.

Giving citizens that right to choose their legislators in “general elections” in each House of the Oireachtas is completely compatible with the Constitution. There is simply no legal or logical basis for a claim that either the spirit or the letter of the Constitution excludes enfranchising citizens in general elections for Seanad Eireann.

The real issue is not whether we can reform the Seanad.

The issue is whether there is a will to reform the Seanad.



The Myth Of The Seanad Becoming A Rival Dail

It has been suggested that election of the 43 Seanad Panel seats by citizen franchise would transform the Seanad into a rival Dail. It has also been suggested that a differently elected Seanad could give rise to bi-cameral deadlock as often happens in the US.

This concern is plainly misconceived.

Seanad Eireann has many very important constitutional and legislative functions and powers.

But the Seanad was specifically designed in a manner that it could not rival the Dail or consistently obstruct the will of the people expressed though the Dail.

The Seanad has no constitutional part in electing the Government, holding it accountable on a day to day basis, or removing the Government. Dail Eireann has complete supremacy in budgetary matters and Money Bills.

Government and Ministers are not directly accountable to the Seanad, and Senators may not table parliamentary questions to them.

The power of the Seanad to delay legislation is limited to 90 days and even that period can be further reduced in the procedure laid down in Article 24.

It is highly likely that a considerable number of Senators who are Government supporters will always be elected by the citizens. In addition, the Taoiseach has the right to appoint 11 members of the Seanad and to nominate two members of the Seanad to be members of the Government.

The Seanad will always have to have a substantial working relationship with the Dail if it is to function. and if Joint Oireachtas Committees are to work well.

The Seanad simply cannot make the state ungovernable. Experience with the university Senators suggests that Senators directly elected on broad franchises are responsible and constructive parliamentarians.

The limitations on the Seanad’s powers under the Constitution, and the constitutional mechanisms for the Dail to over-rule the will of the Seanad in the area of legislation, subject to the power of the President to refer such measures to the People, under Article 27 demonstrate that the Seanad was never intended as a chamber that had to be under day to day Government control in the way that the Dail majority is.

A Consensus On The Substance Of Reform

A frequent criticism made by those who argued in favour of abolishing the Seanad during the referendum campaign and of those who are reluctant to reform it now is that there is no agreement or consensus on what a reformed Seanad would look like.

There will never be absolute unanimity on issues such as Seanad Reform. In a democracy there will be a variety of views on such issues.

Absence of unanimity is not, however, a reason not to reform.

The purpose of this document is to set out in 6 basic principles a consensus approach to what can be done now by ordinary legislation to reform Seanad Éireann within the parameters of the present Constitution and as part of a real and meaningful reform of our political system. 

These principles have been formulated having considered the most recent proposals for reforming the Seanad, including the Seanad Bill 2013 (the Quinn/Zappone Bill), the Seanad Electoral Reform Bill 2013 (the Senator John Crown Bill), the Fianna Fail document ‘A Seanad for the People’ (2013), the views of the Sinn Fein party expressed in Dail Eireann and Seanad Eireann on the issue, the Green Party document ‘Seanad Reform Policy (2013),  and the All Party Seanad Committee on Procedures and Privileges, Sub-Committee Report on Seanad Reform (2004), and submissions and proposals made by the Fine Gael and Labour parties to that process, and afterwards up until the recent referendum process, as well as the debate on reform since the referendum.

The 6 Basic Principles seek to establish points of consensus between the various party positions, reports and arguments raised for and against the Seanad’s retention during the course of the referendum campaign.

 Six Basic Consensus Principles

Democracy Matters has identified six basic consensus principles with widespread political support which are as follows

·         Universal Citizen Suffrage

·         One Person One Vote

·         Gender Equality

·         A Vote for Citizens in Northern Ireland

·         A Vote For Citizens In The Diaspora

·         A Role For Seanad Eireann In EU Legislation and Scrutiny


1. Universal Citizen Suffrage
1.1 The principle of universal suffrage is the most basic principle in any election process.  In a democracy every citizen should be entitled to vote for those who govern them.
1.2 In Ireland, where the Constitution expressly states (in Article 6) that it is the right of the People to “designate their rulers”, the vast majority of citizens can vote for the President, the members of Dáil Éireann but cannot vote for the members of the Seanad.  That this was a major flaw in our electoral system was recognised by all of the recent proposals on Seanad Reform. 
1.3 The Seanad Bill 2013 (the Quinn/Zappone Bill), the Seanad Electoral Reform Bill 2013 (the Crown Bill), the Fianna Fail document ‘A Seanad for the People’ (2013), the Green Party document ‘Seanad Reform Policy (2013) and the Seanad Sub-Committee Report on Seanad Reform (2004) all recommended Universal Suffrage. Sinn Fein supported the principle during recent Oireachtas debates on a reformed Seanad.Fine Gael and Labour have also argued for universal citizen suffrage in the context of proposals made by them for Constitutional reforms in relation to the Seanad.
2. One Person One Vote
2.1  During the course of the Referendum Campaign, frequent reference was made by advocates of Seanad Abolition to the fact that a politician who is a graduate of TCD or the NUI can have 6 or even 7 votes in elections to the Seanad whereas the vast majority of citizens have no vote.
2.2  Democracy Matters and all sides in the debate agree that this is unjustifiable in a modern parliamentary democracy. Nor should the introduction of universal citizen suffrage take away from the need to ensure that all voters are treated equally by having just one vote. 
2.3  Graduates would be obliged to choose between casting a vote on the Higher Education panel or on one of the other panels
3. Gender Equality
3.1 There is an increasing recognition in Irish society of the need to promote gender equality in our democratic institutions. 
3.2 Currently only 26 TDs are women.  This represents only 16% of the 166 TDs yet it is the highest percentage of women we have ever had in Dáil Éireann. Since 1992, the number of women in the Dáil has increased by only 6. The current Seanad does marginally better with 18 of the 60 current Senators being women.  However, Ireland is currently ranked 90th place in the world rankings of women’s participation in Parliament.
3.3 The present Government’s Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 seeks to change this by ensuring that parties must commit to having 30% women candidates in the next Dail election in order to retain their State financing.  The Seanad Bill 2013 (the Quinn/Zappone Bill) goes further than the 2012 Act by providing for the election of equal number of men and women.
3.4 The Fianna Fail document ‘A Seanad for the People’ (2013) includes a similar provision.  It advocates the introduction of 50% Gender Quotas for parties in Seanad elections which would help ensure that the Seanad leads the way in breaking the glass ceiling for women in politics. [5]
4. A Vote for Citizens in Northern Ireland
4.1 The Good Friday Agreement recognises the right of people in Northern Ireland to enjoy Irish or British citizenship. The Seanad has traditionally been used to bring Northern voices such as Seamus Mallon, Gordon Wilson, John Robb and Brid Rogers into the National Parliament. Graduates of TCD and NUI (whether or not they are citizens)living in Northern Ireland already have a Seanad vote. But Irish citizens in the North have no vote.
4.2 By allowing persons in Northern Ireland who are entitled to be recognised as Irish citizens to apply to be registered to vote on one of the five panels in the same way as Irish citizens living in the State would be able to do as part of the reform, Ireland would give substance to the status of citizenship for its citizens residing in Northern Ireland.
4.3 A reformed Seanad would also give a voice to residents of Northern Ireland from all backgrounds, nationalist, unionist and other. The Seanad Bill 2013 (the Quinn/Zappone Bill) would allow people who reside in Northern Ireland and who qualify for Irish citizenship to apply for a vote in the Seanad.  
4.3 Crucially, that means that those who apply for vote for the Seanad would not have to apply for citizenship, thereby allowing those from a unionist background a voice.

4.4 Since the Constitution requires that Seanad General Elections are conducted by postal vote, this proposal presents no major new administrative difficulties. University graduates in Northern Ireland already vote by post in the same way as graduates living in the State.


5. A Vote for Citizens In the Diaspora
5.1 Unlike almost other European countries Ireland does not all its migrant or emigrant citizens to vote in any elections/referendums. Only three other Council of Europe members (out of 33) do not allow emigrants a vote. In the past four years, over 300,000 people have emigrated from Ireland; 40% were aged between 15 and 24.
5.2 A reformed Seanad could allow these 300,000 mainly young disenfranchised people some voice in the democratic governance of Ireland. The Seanad Bill 2013 (the Quinn/Zappone Bill) and the Seanad Electoral Reform Bill 2013 (the Crown Bill) and the Fianna Fail proposals would give a vote to the Diaspora. Sinn Fein also has supported this principle in Oireachtas debates. All political parties have given support to the principle of participation by citizens abroad in the Irish democratic process.
5.3 To identify eligible citizen voters in the Irish diaspora, it is suggested that they should be Irish passport holders. Any such passport holding voters would be required to apply to be registered to vote in one of the Panel elections or, at their option, if qualified, to vote in the Universities panel.
5.4 Provision can be made for postal voting by Irish citizens to be counted at certain Irish embassies so as to avoid problems arising in delays in surface postage.
5.5  According non-graduate Irish passport holding voters the right to apply to vote on one of the Panel elections for the Seanad would achieve equality between graduate and non-graduate citizens residing overseas.
6. EU Scrutiny and Legislation
6.1 The sixth Consensus Principle relates to an enhanced role for the Seanad in the areas of |EU and Secondary legislation.
6.2 There has been a consistent All Party and public consensus thst the Oireachtas is failing to undertake its role in scrutinising EU legislative proposals and in engaging in the new role for National Parliaments in EU Member States in the post Lisbon EU legislation process.
6.3 Likewise, there is general agreement that the Seanad is well placed to take a leading role in these areas in the Irish parliamentary system.
6.4 Scrutiny of domestic secondary legislation is also a neglected area in the Irish parliamentary system.
6.5 These areas need urgent attention. Reform can be addressed in the form of legislation and the reform of the Standing Orders of the two Houses of the Oireachtas.
Time Frame for Implementing Seanad Reform in 2014
It is easy to speak of Seanad reform; it is somewhat more difficult to carry it out and implement it.
We now deal with the practicalities of achieving a real Seanad reform in time for the election of the next Seanad. We are now half way through the lifetime of this Dail. That fact has three consequences:
  • There is going to be any no further Referendum on the Seanad in the lifetime of this Dail
  • There will only be one Seanad Reform Bill in the lifetime of this Dail
  • If the Seanad’s electoral system is not reformed before the next general election now there will be no change in the next seven to ten years.
That is why the issue of Seanad Reform is now one of real urgency. If the only change is in relation to the university seats, 90% of the Seanad will go unreformed for the best part of ten years.

There is no reason why an agreed reform Bill cannot be drafted, passed and implemented in 2014, so that any general election from 2015 onwards will result in a Seanad elected on the reformed basis.


Agenda for Action in 2014 
  1. It is necessary that one Government Minister or Minister for State be designated to carry though the reform.
  2. Immediate cross-party agreement be obtained to facilitate the Reform Process set out below
  3.  A Reform Conference should be arranged (preferably in a neutral venue like the new UCD Sutherland School of Law) at which a cross-section of parliamentarians, civil society groupings, legislative experts and draftsmen, would attend. The Conference to be chaired by a respected independent facilitator.
  4. The facilitator should act as rapporteur in establishing a consensus on the substance of Seanad Reform.
  5. The drafting of a Reform Bill and all necessary regulations in SI form should be expedited.
  6. Parallel with the drafting process, the administrative issues and requirements for compiling registers for each of the Panel constituencies and for the new university constituency should be addressed by a Working Group.
  7. All Party agreement should be sought for the passage of the legislation in October/November 2014


Other Issues
There are other subsidiary but important issues that would be dealt with at the Reform Conference mentioned above. These include issues such as elaborating the Panels provided in the Constitution, nomination procedures, election expenditure, candidate qualifications, responsibility for compiling the register for each panel, distributing the 43 seats among the panels, the possible establishment of an advisory panel for the Taoiseach’s nominees, use of electronic mail, and fraud prevention.
The Prize
 If the Seanad is reformed now, then as soon as immediately after the next General Election we could have a Seanad which would bring a totally new freshness and breadth of vision to the Oireachtas, our national parliament, as part of democratic renewal and reform.The Seanad would be a democratically elected chamber in which the aspirations of the 1937 Constitution would be met.It could be composed of an equal number of men and women on the basis of equality, chosen by citizens to give a real voice to aspects of our national life that find it difficult to be heard in the present system.


While using the Panel system that is in the Constitution, we could have parliamentarians chosen specifically to be:

  • Real voices chosen for the voluntary social services and for those in the State’ social services as well as those who administer the services as explicitly provided for in what is now called the “Administrative” panel
  • Real voices for those in enterprise, finance, industrial and commercial innovation, on what is now called the “Industrial and Commercial” panel
  • Real voices for the Arts, for literature, for the Irish language movement, for the Irish diaspora, for the conservation of our built environment, for educationalists, on what is now called the “Culture and Education” panel
  • Real voices for those in employment, those unemployed, those in social employment, and self-employed workers, in hat is now called the “Labour” panel
  • Real voices for farming, fisheries, forestry, the food industry and the natural and rural environment, in what is now called the “Agriculture” panel.
  •  Real voices chosen by all the graduates of our higher education institutions to bring all of the independence for which their predecessors have been rightly recognised.

Such a Seanad could continue the valuable work done by the existing Seanad and do so much more to make Leinster House the true centre of a rich vibrant, and inclusive republican democracy.

All this is within our collective grasp but will slip from our grasp if we do not act immediately to reform Seanad Eireann.  


There is a way.


Is there the will? 




1 Rabbitte: Government has ‘obligation’ to reform Seanad’ The Irish Times 6 October 2013

2 ‘Rabbitte: Government has ‘obligation’ to reform Seanad’ The Irish Times 6 October 2013

3 227 Seanad Debates 60 (23 October 2013)

4‘Taoiseach rules out giving voting rights to all in Seanad elections’ The 18 December 2013

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