Published: Connacht Tribune, 9 May 2014

What has the Seanad ever done for us?

If you put that question this time last year to any retailer struggling to pay sky-high rent, they’d probably have said, not a lot. Ask the same question now and you may get a different answer. Why?

Because the Seanad, which the Government tried putting to the sword last year, passed legislation just last week providing for an end to upward-only rent reviews. A relic from a bygone era, these clauses will be consigned to history if the Bill passed by the Seanad finally makes it onto the statute book.

The winning margin was tight – just one vote. The Bill now goes on to the Dáil and could yet end up back in the Seanad. Or the Government could run up the white flag and put it to a referendum.

Which might not be such a bad thing. In any event, we may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. With as many as 10 coming from the Constitutional Convention, one more on the list won’t put us up or down. I suspect it will catch attention more than lowering the voting age or the Presidential term.

In the run-up to the ‘earthquake election’, Fine Gael promised to “give tenants the right to have their commercial rents reviewed irrespective of any upward only or other review clauses.” However, as the upward-only rent clause continued to reign supreme through the crash, good businesses were put to the wall, while others who could afford it bought time through the Courts to renegotiate their rent.

While Fine Gael will be annoyed that the vote of one of their own enabled the Bill to go through, the significant point is that the Seanad has, once again, proved its worth in passing progressive law. In fact, the Upward Only Rents Bill is probably the best reason for retaining the Seanad since the No vote last October.

What is often forgotten is that, with some exceptions, the Seanad has the same rights to propose and pass law as the Dáil. This was the Seanad simply doing its job, not making the state ungovernable, and not thwarting the will of the people by frustrating the Dáil. In fact, in this case, the Dáil hadn’t spoken at all. However, last week’s events do not mean the Seanad could rival the Dáil and cause gridlock.

The Seanad has no constitutional part in electing the Government, holding it accountable day to day, or removing it. Dáil Eireann is supreme on budget issues. Government and Ministers are not directly accountable to the Seanad, and Senators can’t ask parliamentary questions. Their power to delay legislation is limited to 90 days.

The Seanad will always have to have a solid working relationship with the Dáil if it is to function and if Joint Oireachtas Committees are to work well. Experience with the university Senators suggests that Senators directly elected on broad franchises are responsible and constructive parliamentarians.

The limitations on the Seanad’s powers under the Constitution, and the constitutional mechanisms for the Dáil to over-rule the will of the Seanad in the area of legislation, subject to the power of the President to refer such measures to the people, demonstrate that the Seanad was never intended as a chamber that had to be under day to day Government control in the way that the Dáil majority is.

So why the delay in reform? Although the Taoiseach has met party leaders and Senators, over 100 days on from the referendum nothing concrete has emerged from these consultations beyond a commitment to give all third-level graduates a vote for the University seats. Yet 90% of the 60-seat Seanad would be left unreformed if the Government does nothing on the panel Senators.

However, if there is a will to make a change, there is a way to achieve it. One reform group, Democracy Matters, has a practical plan that can be put into effect right away without a further referendum.

It’s now more than 100 days since the people spoke in a referendum. They clearly want reform.

During the campaign, that was the one thing the abolitionists and reformers were agreed on.

Democracy Matters has identified six basic principles with widespread political support:

  • Universal Citizen Suffrage
  • One Person, One Vote
  • Gender Equality
  • A Vote for Citizens in the North
  • A Vote for Citizens in the Diaspora
  • A Role in EU Legislation and Scrutiny

We believe these six principles enjoy the support of the great majority of individual parliamentarians, political parties and the civil society groups who have taken a particular interest in political reform.

We’re asking for cross-party and society support for this plan to be put into effect right away.

If this Seanad is not reformed, the next Seanad will be elected on the same basis, and there will be no real reform for at least 10 years. With political will, a Bill reforming the Seanad can be enacted this year, giving the people a reformed Seanad as soon as the next general election.

There is no need for a referendum for these reforms. And no need for Constitutional change either, as many politicians, commentators, and some of the public believe. Nowhere in our Constitution does it say we should use the present elitist, undemocratic system for electing the Seanad.

All of the reforms we propose can be done without a referendum.

All of them can be put in place with a single Seanad Reform Bill.

All of them can be in place at the next general election if we legislate in 2014.