Seanad Éireann (English: Senate of Ireland), also known unofficially as the Senate, is the upper house of the Oireachtas (parliament) of Ireland. Unlike the lower house, Dáil Éireann, the Senate is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil and it can only delay laws with which it disagrees, rather than veto them outright. It has been located, since its establishment, in Leinster House.
Seanad Éireann consists of sixty members:
- Eleven appointed by the Taoiseach (prime minister), see Nominated by the Taoiseach.
- Six elected by the graduates of certain Irish universities:
- 43 elected from five special panels of nominees (known as vocational panels) by an electorate consisting of TDs (member of Dáil Éireann), senators and local councillors. Nomination is restrictive for the panel seats with only Oireachtas members and designated 'nominating bodies' entitled to nominate. Each of the five panels consists, in theory, of individuals possessing special knowledge of, or experience in, one of five specific fields. In practice the nominees are party members, often, though not always, failed or aspiring Dáil candidates:
Under the Constitution of Ireland the general election for the Senate must occur not later than 90 days after the dissolution of Dáil Éireann. The election occurs under the system of proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote (however in the panel constituencies each vote counts as 1000 meaning fractions of votes can be transferred). Membership is open to all Irish citizens over 21 and residing within the Republic, but a senator cannot also be a member of Dáil Éireann. However, as stated above, nomination to vocational panel seats is restricted; while nomination in the University constituencies requires signatures of 10 graduates.
Members of the 23rd Seanad (2007–)
The powers of Seanad Éireann are modelled loosely on those of the British House of Lords
. It was intended to play an advisory and revising role rather than to be the equal of the popularly elected Dáil. While notionally every Act of the Oireachtas must receive its assent, it can only delay rather than veto decisions of the Dáil. In practice the Senate has an in-build government majority due to the Taoiseach's nominees. The constitution imposes the following specific limitations on the powers of the Senate:
- In the event that a bill approved by Dáil Éireann has not received the assent of the Senate within ninety days the Dáil may, within a further 180 days, resolve that the measure is "deemed" to have been approved by the Senate.
- A money bill, such as the budget, may be deemed to have been approved by the Senate after 21 days.
- In the case of an urgent bill, the time that must have expired before it can be deemed to have been approved by the Senate may be abridged by the Government (cabinet), with the concurrence of the President (this does not apply to bills to amend the constitution, however).
- The fact that eleven senators are appointed by the Taoiseach usually ensures that the Government, which must have the support of the Dáil, also enjoys a majority in the Senate.
The constitution does, however, grant to the Senate certain means by which it may defend its prerogatives against an overly zealous Dáil:
- The Senate may, by a resolution, ask the President to appoint a Committee of Privileges to adjudicate as to whether or not a particular bill is a money bill. The President may, however, refuse this request.
- If a majority of senators and at least one-third of the members of the Dáil present a petition to the President stating that a bill is of great "national importance" the President can decline to sign the bill until it has been 'referred to the people'. This means that he or she can refuse to sign it until it has been approved either in an ordinary referendum or by the Dáil after it has reassembled after a general election.
Seanad Éireann adopts its own standing orders
and appoints its president, known as the 'Cathaoirleach
), and a Leader of the Seanad
. The Senate establishes its own standing committees and senators also participate, along with TDs (members of the Dáil) in joint committees of the Oireachtas. A maximum of two senators may be ministers in the Government. The Senate currently has three standing committees, one of which has two sub-committees:
- Committee of Selection
- Committee on Procedure and Privileges
- Sub-Committee on Members Services
- Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform
- Committee on Members' Interests of Seanad Éireann
The first parliamentary upper house in Ireland
was the House of Lords
of the Parliament of Ireland
. Like its British counter-part, this house consisted of hereditary nobles. After the abolition of the Irish Parliament under the Act of Union of 1800
no parliament existed in Ireland until the 20th century.
In 1919 Irish nationalists established an extra-legal legislature called Dáil Éireann but this body was unicameral and so had no upper house. In 1920 the Parliament of Southern Ireland was established by British law with an upper house called the Senate. The Senate of Southern Ireland consisted of a mixture of Irish peers and government appointees. The Senate convened in 1921 but was boycotted by Irish nationalists and so never became fully operational. It was formally abolished with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 but a number of its members were soon appointed to the new Free State senate.
Free State Seanad Éireann (1922–1936)
The name Seanad Éireann
was first used as the title of the upper house of the Oireachtas of the Irish Free State. The first Seanad consisted of a mixture of members appointed by the President of the Executive Council
and members indirectly elected by the Dáil, and W. T. Cosgrave
agreed to use his appointments to grant extra representation to the state's Protestant minority. It was intended that eventually the entire membership of the Senate would be directly elected by the public but after only one election, in 1925, this system was abandoned in favour of a form of indirect election. The Free State Senate was abolished entirely in 1936 after it delayed some Government proposals for constitutional changes.
Constitution of Ireland (1937–present)
The modern Seanad Éireann was established by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937. When this document was adopted it was decided to preserve the titles of Oireachtas
, for the legislature, and Seanad Éireann
, for the upper house, that had been used during the Irish Free State. This new Seanad was considered to be the direct successor of the Free State Seanad and so the first Seanad convened under the new constitution was referred to as the "Second Seanad".
The new system of vocational panels used to nominate candidates for the Senate was inspired by Roman Catholic social teaching of the 1930s, and in particular the 1931 papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. In this document Pope Pius XI argued that the Marxist concept of class conflict should be replaced with a vision of social order based on the cooperation and interdependence of society's various vocational groups.
Calls for reform
Since 1928 twelve separate official reports have been published on reform of the Seanad. In the past the Progressive Democrats
called for its outright abolition; however, they have benefited most from the Taoiseach's right to select 11 Senators. Today the only party in Ireland calling for the Seanad's abolition is the Socialist Party
. The post-1937 body has been criticised on a number of grounds. The Senate is accused of being weak and dominated by the Government of the day. There are also allegations of patronage
in the selection of its members, with the senators often being close allies of the Taoiseach or those who have failed to be elected to the Dáil. Many senators have subsequently been elected as TDs.
It has also become widely accepted that the system of vocational panels has not functioned as was originally intended. It is said that candidates seldom have any particular experience relevant to the panel from which they are elected and that, because, despite the vocational nomination process, it is politicians who actually elect the Senate, the election of most senators is an overtly political process dominated by party affiliation.
The universities have a long tradition of electing independent candidates. Nonetheless, many have argued that the system of university senators is elitist. Some, like the pressure group Graduate Equality, argue that the franchise for electing university senators should be extended to the graduates of all third level institutions. Others believe that this does not go far enough and that at least some portion of the Senate should be directly elected by all adult citizens. Calls have also been made for the Senate to be used to represent Irish emigrants or the people of Northern Ireland. In 1999 the Reform Movement called for some of the Taoiseach's nominations to be reserved for members of the Irish-British minority, and other minorities such as members of the Travelling Community and recently arrived immigrants.
In the past Taoisigh (prime ministers) have often used their nominations to appoint respected people from Northern Ireland, such as the late peace campaigner Gordon Wilson, and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP. Benjamin Guinness sat as a Taoiseach-nominated Senator in 1973-77 while he was also a member of the House of Lords.
The precise composition of the Senate was originally fixed by the constitution. However in 1979 the Seventh Amendment was adopted. This empowered the Oireachtas to extend the franchise for the election of the six university senators to the graduates of additional institutions by ordinary legislation. The intention at the time was that all third level graduates would be given the right to vote in senatorial elections but to date no such provision has yet been made.
The most recent official report on Seanad reform was made in April 2004 by a Senate subcommittee, and there has been speculation that it has a better chance of success than many of its predecessors. The Report on Seanad Reform recommended no changes to the powers of the Senate. However it recommended that the vocational panels be abolished, that twenty-six seats should be filled by direct elections, that the franchise for electing university senators should be extended to all third level graduates, and that the Taoiseach should be formally required to use his nominees to represent Northern Ireland, the diaspora and marginalised groups. It also suggested that the senate be given new functions, such as a greater role scrutinising the Government and EU legislation.
The reform proposal from April 2004 was formally introduced in the Seanad in late November 2007.
Notable Irish senators