Follow through

Leinster House. Image © Faduda

In 1979, the people of Ireland voted to amend the constitution, so that graduates of universities other than the NUI and Dublin University (Trinity) could vote in Seanad elections. But although NIHE Dublin and Limerick were later upgraded to university status, their graduates were never given a Seanad vote. 33 years later, our government wants to abolish the Senate. That tells you a lot about what is wrong with Ireland.

During the Children’s Rights Referendum, I heard a lot about civic society groups. In theory the Bunreacht, through the institution of the Seanad, offers a wonderful vision of civic society, where vocational panels select senators to represent all interests in our democracy.

In practice, fewer than one thousand TDs and councillors elect most senators, and the nomination process is controlled by the parties.

A constitutional convention will consider reforms in the coming months, but it is already irrelevant. It’s proposals can be safely ignored, in the event that they leap out of the carefully constructed fences the government framed in its terms of reference.

Ireland voted for children’s rights today. We’re great people for amending the constitution. But as the 1979 vote showed, we’re not so hot on following through.

Leinster House. Image © Faduda

By Gerard Cunningham

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and podcaster, yet still finds himself underemployed.


  1. All very true, but restricting the franchise to graduates at all is a scandal. Scrap the place. I agree with your broad point on the absence of civil society, but IMO the Seanad is irreformable and exists, at best, as a waiting room for power and, at worst, as a brake on democracy.

  2. There’s no constitutional reason why the franchise cannot be extended to every citizen in the State (or indeed even wider; why not give a Seanad vote to non-citizen residents, or to Irish citizens living abroad?) without a referendum. I’m not sure if the university panels could similarly be extended. One reading of Section 18.6 suggests that the franchise to elect university Senators could be extended to non-graduates, but I’m not a constitutional lawyer. And of course there’s still the problem of the eleven Taoiseach nominees.

    The point is, there’s a solution to the Seanad’s unrepresentative nature beyond abolishing it, and it doesn’t even require one of those pesky amendments. If it’s broken, there are more solutions than abolition. The constitution allows for legislation to directly elect at least forty three Senators, possibly more.

    And it just occurred to me that 43 is an interesting number, since it’s the number of constituencies we currently have. Another idea might be to have 43 Senators comprised of the 43 runners-up in a general election. That too could be enabled by legislation. That said, I prefer the idea of a direct mandate to an accidental one.

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