Alan O’Reilly is a political activist based in London.
Earlier this month, Sir Keir Starmer announced plans to abolish the House of Lords, replacing it with an ‘elected’ second chamber.
As Sir Keir may be about to find out, Ireland’s experience shows its far easier to talk about changing constitutional structures than achieving any change.
By way of background, the Irish second chamber, called the Seaned, or Senate, is Ireland’s upper house. Consisting of 60 senators, its powers are very loosely based on the House of Lords. Constitutional experts have generally not considered a strong second chamber. While the Seanad can introduce legislation, it can only delay laws with which it disagrees, rather than rejecting them.
While members of the Dail, the lower house, are elected by direct representation, the Seanad electorate is meant to represent a broader cross section of society.
Forty-three members are elected from five panels, known as ‘Vocational Panels’. In theory these panels are supposed to comprise people who have experience or knowledge in a specific area (public administration, agricultural, culture/educational, industrial/commercial and labour).
There are then six senators elected by graduates of certain universities (Trinity College alone elects three senators; the others share another three), and finally eleven are appointed by the incoming Taoiseach to ensure the government has something close a majority in the Seanad.
It’s not really the purpose of this column to set out whether the Seanad is or isn’t effective. Certainly, it has allowed people who may not otherwise have gotten elected to participate in public life, it has at time commenced legislation that ultimately the government took forward, it has shone a light on issues of concern that might otherwise be ignored by the government of the day. But whether this counts as effective or not is a different question.
Like the House of Lords, there has been ongoing criticism of the role and composition of the Seanad. Critics argue that far from bringing new people into public life, it served as place for ex-TDs to serve on. Some insist that since the Taoiseach appoints over one-sixth of its membership it can never really serve as an effective check on the government.
Others argue that the very make-up of the voting is wrong. To oversimplify (only very slightly) the electorate for the Seanad vocational panels are county councillors, and for the university seats, graduates of those universities. This hardly represents a broad cross section of Irish life.
There have been, over the decades, nearly a dozen reports on how to change or reform the Seanad. There was an acceptance that perhaps it was not fit for purpose but little, if any, agreement on what an alternative would look like.
Heading in 2011 election, Fine Gael and Labour, who went on to win the election, proposed abolishing the Seanad and in 2013 this question was put to the Irish people in a referendum – a reminder that in Ireland any changes to the constitution require a referendum/
On the face of it, it seemed a popular enough proposal. It was suggested that abolishing the Seanad would save 20 million a year, and few voters seemed particularly concerned about the future of the upper house. Indeed, polls conducted on the issue generally showed support for abolition.
But as the campaign got underway, the case for abolition started to melt away. The notion that this was a bit of a power grab by the executive was floated very early in the campaign and became an important message. Moreover, the lessons of the financial crisis was that more governance was required rather than less. Lastly, despite talk of saving money, voters simply didn’t believe it.
Opponents of the referendum also argued that reform of the Seanad would be much more effective than abolition – although to date, many of the possible reforms discussed never happened.
This week, the Seanad celebrated its 100-year anniversary. While there will be talk of reform the lesson seems to be that voters still want checks and balances, and that for Sir Keir, constitutional reform is easy to talk about, easy to propose, but much much harder to implement and deliver.