A fortnight ago British Labour leader Keir Starmer promised to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a new elected chamber as part of plans to “restore trust in Politics”. But as the Irish Unity debate intensifies, guest contributor Seán Hickey asks what should be the role and composition of a chamber many Irish people know little about in terms of how it is elected – The Seanad?
While calls for a border poll on the island of Ireland grow by the day, there is a gaping absence of any proposal of what a United Ireland might look like. The longer this vacuum exists, the easier it becomes for vested interests to decide what the proposal is in a border poll.
The first assumption that needs to be crushed is that the north will be
swallowed by the south, adopting all its institutions and protocols. The republic has been just as damaged by 100 years of partition as the six counties and the first step in reunification is acknowledging that the institutions propping up the south need drastic reform.
Given there is no large-scale movement in the south demanding Seanad reform, it is fair to say that few there are fully aware of how it is made up. The fact that senators themselves are appointed, and voted for, by a minuscule section of Irish society is enough for us to demand its reform.
Out of 60 senators, eleven are chosen specifically by the Taoiseach. With each new Dáil, there can be a complete rejig of one sixth of the upper house’s senators.
The largest chunk of the Seanad is made up by Senators appointed by TDs, outgoing senators and councillors to the Industrial Panels. Five panels hold 43 of the Seanad’s 60 Senators.
The only portion of the Seanad elected by ordinary citizens are the university representatives. Graduates of Trinity College elect three seats, and NUI alumni nominate the remaining three senators. A meagre six senators are elected by the ordinary people of the south.
Retired senators can also claim a pension, which is higher or lower depending on how many years they spent in the Oireachtas and whether they were also a TD or Minister during their time in politics. The size of the pension can vary from a few thousand euro a year for some senators to tens of thousands for others.
The setup can hardly be described as democratic. Such a process, where the only citizens eligible to vote are ones who attended the most prestigious third-level institutes in the south, is also inherently classist, existing on the assumption that the electorate are unable to vote in their own best interests.
With all this in mind, the most logical solution to a southerner is to reform the Seanad into a more democratic institution. For the most part the proportional representation model for the south’s lower house works well. However, considering we are proposing Seanad reform in a unified Ireland, it is here we propose that a reformed Seanad could be elected via a form of electoral college system.
One must consider within a United Ireland that the guts of one million Ulster Scots, who have historically and culturally been pro-union with Britain, will be part of the electorate. Representation in the Dáil will not be an issue, but if the upper house continues to operate in the current fashion, it isn’t far-fetched to predict a rise of dissent within a community that hadn’t welcomed unification in the first place.
Preparation for a United Ireland shouldn’t just be dialogue, we must propose new ways to govern and operate the state to represent and serve all citizens as best as possible.
In a reformed Seanad, each province will elect 15 Senators. Regardless of the population of Leinster, it will have the same representation in an all-island Seanad as Connacht. The purpose of this will be to ensure equal voice to all communities on the island – not just the new Ulster Scot community.
By having the electorate nominate Senators to the upper house, and for each province to have equal representation, we transfer power in a United Ireland from the southern political class and place it firmly and equally in the hands of the people of each province, who know best the issues affecting ordinary people.
Additionally, the disproportionate representation of Ulster, Connacht and Munster in an electoral college-esque Seanad could also in theory break the mould of a Dublin-centric view of economic and social activity on the island, and serve to develop the regions in a way that has never even been considered under the partition ISF southern government.
Transforming the layout and operation of Seanad Éireann may not be the most pressing issue in presenting a new Ireland, but the significance of its overhaul cannot be overstated when presenting an ideal new Ireland.
Seán Hickey is a journalist based in London. Academically he has worked on research related to media theory and power, post-colonialism and Irish politics. His main research interest is in the dynamics of Irish Unity planning and debates.