Think Nationally, Act Locally

What is the Senate good for? Ideally, in a bicameral legislature, each house acts as a check and/or balance to the other. In our case, however, there is no check, given that the balance is well and truly tipped in favour of the Government of the day. The Taoiseach gets to nominate eleven Senators, which is a nice head start, but it’s hardly necessary: even though all Bills nominally need the approval of both houses, if the Dáil sends a Bill to the Senate, the Senate can potentially delay its becoming law, but can do nothing to stop it.

If the Seanad votes not to pass a Bill, the Bill will lapse after 180 days.
However, the Dáil has the power, within those 180 days, to pass a
resolution declaring that the Bill is deemed to have been
passed by both Houses. (

The result is a redundant Senate and a dictatorship of the Dáil—or, more precisely, a practical dictatorship of the Taoiseach and (invariably so far) his closest allies. The senate is consequently a metaphor for and a monument to a massive democratic deficit. To abolish it, however, as Fine Gael tried to do, would be to copper-fasten the deficit, while meaningful reform can transform it into a democratic dividend.

So, let’s get rid of the bathwater, hold on to the baby, and redesign the bathtub. Start by throwing out the current Senate and all its rules, procedures, and personnel. Ignore the fingernails clinging to the doorframe, reassure them that some of them may be back, tell them they’ll like democracy once they get used to it, and close the door quickly.

There’d be precious little in the way of increased democracy in electing representatives to the new Senate on the same constituency basis as we elect the Dáil. Electing Senators on the basis of city- and county-councils, however, would give us a 62-member Senate, elected primarily on local issues. Senators would carry the local voice to the national forum, they would also bring the national voice back home, creating a powerful conduit allowing for the urgently needed devolution of power away from the centre, where it currently coagulates.

They trade horses, don’t they?

If this new Senate is to amount to anything more than another talking shop ‘up in Dublin’, it needs a local footprint. If the new Senators are to carry the local voice to the national forum and the national voice back home, they need to be intricately linked in to local government. In fact, if they were to be simultaneously members both of the Senate and of the council they represent, the conduit through which power passes in both directions would be strengthened.

Bring back the dual mandate.

Traditionally, TDs elected to the Dáil on local issues end up spending their time polishing the already highly polished back benches of the Dáil with their backsides. The occasional standouts stand out because they are occasional. Tony Gregory would now be the answer to a question on a North Dublin pub quiz for the over fifties had it not been for Charlie Haughey’s need for a vote to complete an attempted power grab in 1982. The ‘Gregory deal’ almost worked. Had it done so, as the Irish Times said, it would have seen ‘the face of a deprived area of the north inner city . . . transformed’.

The written agreement included commitments to nationalise a 27-acre site in Dublin Port and Clondalkin paper mills. A total of £4 million was to be allocated to employ 500 extra people in the inner city, while 3,746 jobs were to be created over three years. State funding would be provided to build 440 new houses in the constituency and another 1,600 in the rest of Dublin. But Haughey lost the election and the deal was off.

It’s a sorry indictment of the tragic farce of Irish politics that that same offer—updated only to allow for neo-liberal levels of inflation—would win an election today, almost four decades later. If only there were 27 acres of inner-city land left to build on.

It’s even sorrier that we still conduct much of our national political activity using the same system of horse-trading by which Haughey ‘bought’ Gregory’s vote. This diminishes all parties concerned—the deal makers on both sides, the state, and democracy itself by making rubbish of the democratic vote.

The Gregory deal will be remembered as a missed opportunity of historic importance, lost to petty—and corrupt—politicking.

A Senate elected on a city- and county-council basis, would make the local voice heard without subverting our democracy, as Haughey intended to do. It would at the very least be a start toward (re)building integrity into our parliament by means of a system of actual checks and balances between the three arms of Government (the Executive, the Oireachtas, and the Courts).

Bring Back the Dual Mandate

Our intentionally elitist and redundant Senate represents a serious democratic deficit. A democratically elected second chamber with genuine legislative power would broaden the base on which political power rests. To achieve that broader reach, however, we need to capture the same voters from a different perspective, as it were, animated by a different set of issues. One readily available and satisfyingly democratic solution would be to elect Senators on a city- or county-council basis such that they would simultaneously be members of both the Senate and the Council. This renewed dual mandate would create a direct conduit, active in both directions, from national to and from local government, and from there, to and from the community.

That conduit would devolve power away from the centre if and only if, at one of its ends is a local government with powers to legislate locally and to control its own budget. And at the other end is an assembly of democratically elected Senators exploring common ground nationally while representing the local interests of their own county.

But do we really need more public representatives? We’re already over-supplied compared to our neighbours: Ireland has one national representative for every 27,500 citizens, the UK one per 91,500, and France one per 105,000. Adding sixty-two more here might be over-egging the pudding. Alternatively, we could leave empty those Dáil seats (theoretically) vacated by the movement of locally elected former back benchers to the new Senate, where they might do the state some service. This would give us a Dáil with ninety-eight members elected on national issues, a Senate with sixty-two members elected on local issues, and a system in which all 160 vote on each piece of legislation. Twice the democracy at no extra cost.