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Consensus on Seanad change

Universal and one-person-one-vote; gender equal; Northern Ireland and Diaspora-inclusive; EU-scrutinising.

A dynamic Seanad Éireann is crucial to a dynamic democracy. The Dáil hosts less and less challenging, expert-informed debate. Since last October’s referendum, many people are coming to a realisation of the need for Seanad reform that strengthens the institution. In its current form, although some great work does get done, the Seanad is only performing to a fraction of its potential. The Government’s recent reform proposals hardly change that at all.

Democracy Matters has mapped out a vision for how the Seanad can be energised through a panel system. This is what was envisaged in the 1937 Constitution, but with the six university seats drawn from the entire third-level sector and with every citizen having an opportunity to vote. We propose 43 Seanad seats being drawn from all areas of national life: an agriculture, fishing and related areas panel, an arts, language, education, culture and literature panel, a labour – organised and unorganised – panel, an industry and commerce panel, and a public administration and social services (voluntary and statutory) panel.

These panels would replace the politically-loaded, unevenly-weighted, and archaic representation in the current Seanad composition. Currently some citizens have up to seven votes in Seanad elections, while the majority have no vote at all. Our proposal will not require another constitutional referendum.

As a cross-political-party [and none] campaign for Seanad reform, Democracy Matters has identified a consensus emerging on a number of areas that are seen as crucial to Seanad reform. Universal citizen suffrage where one person has one vote is a must. Gender equality is an underpinning priority. People of Northern Ireland as well as diaspora citizens need to be able to vote. The Seanad should take on the central function of contributing to and scrutinising EU legislation.

The Dáil, for all its strengths, demonstrates an increasing vulnerability to being swayed by Party whips to serve various kinds of political expediency. This stifles real and passionate debate. The last few years have seen a large number of Dáil resignations from ‘conscientious objectors’ to the dictats of larger parties. The proposed Seanad reforms counter this head-on.

The Seanad would be a democratically elected chamber in which the aspirations of the 1937 Constitution would be realised. It would be composed of an equal number of men and women on the basis of equality, chosen by all citizens to give a real voice to aspects of our national life that are rarely heard in the present system. A reformed Seanad would make Leinster House the centre of a rich, vibrant and inclusive democracy, bringing new freshness and breadth of vision to the Oireachtas, The Seanad is already far more than a ‘talking shop’, a rubber stamp or a retirement home for failed politicians. But this cross-Party reform agenda can build its energy to become a place of lively debate, expertise and decision-making. This is not just an aspiration, it is a distinct and practical possibility.

Based on the referendum, I am hopeful that we can enact Seanad reform by the end of the lifetime of this Government. We could get an agreed Bill through the Dáil in 2014, in time for a general election as early as 2015. It may be 7-10 years before we get another chance to address this issue.

Democracy Matters has proposed that an all-party Task Force be designated to see a reform process through to publication of Heads of Bill. In parallel, a Seanad working group should identify and implement the procedural changes required to make the day-to-day business of the Seanad more effective and efficient. Allparty agreement should be sought for the passage of legislation in late 2014.

My central hope is that the Irish people will see the relevance of this campaign and make themselves heard through their respective political affiliations at local level, so as to accelerate meaningful Seanad reform with a view to the Oireachtas becoming democratised in its entirety.

Senator Katherine Zappone