Government need to act now on Senate reform
Fr Kevin Hegarty
William Butler Yeats was born 150 years ago. His place is assured in the pantheon of world literature. In 1923 he was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature.
Much less well known is his contribution to the Irish Senate. He was a member of that body for six years in the 1920s. His speeches on literature education and the arts still read well today. His most famous intervention came in 1925. The government proposed the prohibition of divorce in the new Irish State. Yeats opposed the bill, arguing that it infringed the rights of the minority.
He thought it ‘tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive.’ If he had been listened to, Irish society might have been a more tolerant place in the ensuing decades. Whether the Senate has a value has become a political talking point in recent years. In November 2009, Enda Kenny announced at the Fine Gael annual dinner that, if elected to government, he would hold a referendum to abolish it. He kept the election promise. In October 2013, however, the electorate narrowly rejected the abolition proposal. I sense that the majority of those who voted to retain the senate agreed with the Taoiseach that as currently consisted, it is unrepresentative and unfit for purpose in a modern democracy. Where they differed was in their belief that it was capable of being reformed.
Last December the government established a working party to consider how this might be achieved. It was a high calibre group chaired by Maurice Manning, a former senator, historian and chancellor of NUI. Other members were former senators Mary O’Rourke, Maurice Hayes, Pat Magner and Joe O’Toole. Academics Mary C Murphy of University College, Cork and Elaine Byrne also formed the group. Dr Byrne is a columnist with the Sunday Business Post and author of a comprehensive study on political corruption in Ireland.
Last week the group produced its report. It is obvious that they have worked assiduously over the past four months. In my view it is a cogent and comprehensive document that widens the democratic base of the senate and opens the electorate to the Irish diaspora. It also indicates areas where senators can have a significant role in political discourse, for example, in considering North/South ministerial proposals and secondary legislation of the European Union. It also envisages it consulting with relevant bodies prior to and during second stage debates. All this, it argues, can be done within the confines of the constitution.
As currently constituted, 43 of the 60 senators are elected on five panels by members of the Oireachtas and county councillors.
A further six are elected by the graduates of Trinity and the NUI, while the final eleven are the personal choice of the Taoiseach.
The working group propose that 30 senators be elected by universal suffrage, with all Irish passport holders, regardless of where they live being entitled to vote. Thirteen senators would be elected by TDs and county councillors. Six would continue to be chosen by university graduates. Here too, the group envisage a broadening of the electorate. The working party propose that the government give effect to the 1979 constitutional amendment extending the vote to all graduates. As provided in the constitution the Taoiseach would still have eleven nominees.
On becoming Taoiseach, Enda Kenny promised that his government would restore the economy and provide political reform. Significant economic progress has been achieved. The government record on political reform has been much more patchy. The senate report offers the government an opportunity to remedy this in advance of the next election.