This week (week beginning 13 April 2015) the Working Group on Seanad reform, established by the Taoiseach in the wake of the referendum on the abolition of the second house, published its report in which they outline the issues with the current system and their recommendations for remedying this.
This Report is founded on the conviction that radical change is needed and its objective is, as far as constitutionally possible, to address this challenge.1
The Working Group aimed to find means to reform the Seanad within the parameters of Bunreacht na hÉireann “to bring it into line with international best practice for second houses of Parliament in the twenty-first century”.2
One of the main findings, following the referendum, was that there was a lack of faith in the Seanad, “whose electoral system excluded the majority of its citizens from participation
Therefore the Working Group made some of the following recommendations:
—A majority (30) of seats should be elected by popular vote, in a “one person one vote” system.
—This principle should be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a ROI passport.
—The Working Group were eager to retain the vocational representation, but modernise it. They suggest “legislative change with a view to ensuring access to nominations for as wide a range of candidates as is necessary to reflect the complexity and diversity of modern Irish society”.5
—Voting should be made available not only through County councils and local libraries, but also online.See note They believe this will help achieve “a more balanced and vocational representation”.6
The composition of the proposed Seanad Éireann would be thus:
- 36/60 seats will be directly elected by secret ballot, where the candidates are taken from five vocational panels and university constituency;
- 13/60 will be indirectly elected, as they will be chosen by elected representatives;
- 11/60 will be chosen by the Taoiseach, as is provided for in the Constitution.
The vocational panels, and their distribution of seat numbers, will be as follows:
- National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education (and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purposes of this panel), (8);
- Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries, (9);
- Labour whether organised or unorganised, (9);
- Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accounting engineering and architecture, (9); and
- Public Administration and social services including voluntary social activities (8)7
They also advocate for a House which is “not dominated … by political parties”8 , but rather is indicative of Irish society as a whole. The Working Group’s research said that the “connection between the Seanad and local communities had withered” and the new direct election is a measure to remedy this.9
The role of the Seanad was a key issue for the Working Group. It found that the following could be recommended regarding the operation of Seanad Éireann:
The Seanad, constitutionally, is subordinate to the Dáil “but with a very special and distinct role in the legislative and political process”10. If the recommendations of the Working Group are put into effect, the “primary function of the Seanad is the scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation”.11 To do this, they should have adequate research and back-up resources to perform in their function. It also suggests that the Seanad could play a role in appointments to public bodies. The report states:
Giving the Seanad a transparent role in the scrutiny or validation of such appointments would help to restore public confidence.12
The report calls for the House to pay close attention to the North-South Ministerial Council and secondary legislation of the EU, to consult with the relevant bodies where needed, investigate and report on public policy.
They also called for the establishment of an interim implementation body “as a matter of urgency”13. This body would reside in the Department of Taoiseach, and have an independent chair; it would also publish reports on a regular basis. They suggest that the Clerk of the Seanad be a member.
The Working Group has initiated the drafting of a Bill that will put their recommendations into place, legislatively. They expect it to be available in the next four weeks, to be reviewed before the summer recess of the Dáil, and to be signed in before the end of 2015. The legislation’s new system would then commence “immediately following the next Seanad elections”.14
Note: The Working Group has undertaken an examination of a “system of online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers” (Source)