The current debate in Britain on the future of the House of Lords casts an interesting light on the debate about Seanad Eireann. In particular, it raises the question of what an upper house is for. Many of the proposals made about the Seanad, almost all by late to the table “reformers”, involve electing the Seanad in some form of geographical constituency. But what exactly is the point of creating a mirror image to the Dail? Does a small country really need another 60 odd parish pump panderers wandering around denouncing the pretend ignoring of their county? Really? If we are to keep the Seanad, it must be because it brings something different to the debate. The Seanad is only worth keeping if it does not look like the Dail.
So what are the options? One option suggested to me recently was a simple open list system electing a single national constituency. Its advocate admitted that the election would be flooded with local champions, but also pointed out that many interest groups like the IFA, IBEC and the unions would also run interest candidates too, which would probably be a good thing. It’s certainly an idea worth looking at.
Another option is that we just utilise the actual Seanad model as it was designed (although curiously perverted by its own creator, De Valera) and elect a genuinely vocational Seanad. We could elect the existing vocational panels by citizens registering to the panel of their choice, and would allow us to elect a Seanad made up of senators speaking on behalf of declared interest bodies. In fact, the big fear in taking such a step would be that such a senate would almost certainly
begin to eclipse the Dail in terms of serious debate, confirming the Dail as a collection of county councillors on steroids.
Of course, there is another option. Given that no one is advocating that the Seanad should be given equal powers to the Dail, we could afford to be a little risky. We could always appoint a senate, or a proportion thereof, by random lot, choosing registered tax compliant electors from the electoral register. Supposing we did, picking, say, 30 senators based on those criteria plus gender and geographic balance, maybe for a single year term. Outrageous, you say? Sure we could get all sorts then. That’s true. We’d get racists and sexists and bigots but randomly we’d also get liberals and transvestites and immigrants. We would get people who normally would never get a chance to sit in parliament and express their opinion, and so if every eligible citizen every January thinks they might get the call, would that bring politics closer or further away from the people? What would be the effect on our political system of a fresh influx of people every January? I would have thought it would be a good thing. How many of those people, having never dreamed they would ever get a chance, will at the end of their term maybe consider running for election, finding in themselves something they never thought they had? For that reason alone it might be worth giving a go.