One of the major arguments that’s been used recently in favour of the abolition of the Seanad has been that the second house has been a retirement home for obsolete TDs and a runners up prize for those unable to get in there in the first place. Is there any truth to this? I decided to have a look over the makeup of the last three Seanads to see if that is the case and have a look at what the average senator actually looks like (demographically speaking anyway – senators’ appearances is a whole other horrifying blog post).
The first thing that jumps out is that of 180 elections and appointments to the Seanad (I only looked at the makeup of the Seanad on its first day) 139 (or 78%) were men. The average age of the chamber was 49.9 on the day it first sat – slightly older than the 2011 Dáil (48.5), but a little younger than the 2007 Dáil (50.4). So the Seanad has certainly not been a beacon of diversity over the last decade.
When looking a bit closer (and big thanks to the superb Elections Ireland website for their invaluable database), it’s obvious that there is some truth in what critics say about the Seanad. Of the 180 senators there were 32 former TDs, or about 18% – not too bad. But add in failed Dáil candidates and you get a whopping 109 (or 61%) of the senators who had either previously been TDs or had a go at the Dáil – it’s fair to say that the Seanad was probably not a primary interest for these people. The Seanad has a relatively high turnover rate – of the same 180, only 69 were returning senators, perhaps reflecting again this revolving door relationship with the Dáil.
(As an aside, 117 of 180 (65%) had been city or county councillors before becoming senators – this goes up to 96 out of 129 (74%) when Taoiseach’s nominees and University senators are excluded. None of this should be surprising or problematic as local government is an obvious route into national politics, but it reinforces just how important this stream is in Ireland compared to say the UK where candidates are often parachuted straight into national politics from a party political career.)
So to some extent, critics of the Seanad have it right – there are a lot of would-be TDs who didn’t quite make the grade. Is this so bad? What would the Seanad look like if we just stuck to the Seanad lifers – those who have been happy to be senators and just senators? Excluding the university senators (who are obviously, and unfortunately for the democrat in me, the best contributors in the Seanad), the list reads like a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?!” Even the most ardent political junkies would struggle to recognise some of the senators who have been sitting in the upper chamber, often for several terms and apparently with no ambition to go any further.
Can anyone remember any contribution to the democratic process by John Hanafin? Geraldine Feeney? Lábhrás Ó Murchú announced his intention to run for the presidency two years ago and his decision was met with derision and bewilderment – no one had ever heard of him after spending 14 years in the upper house.
It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the Seanad as it is – a collection of ambitious would-be TDs, former TDs looking for a gentle easing into civilian life, anonymous jobbers and a handful of interesting and thoughtful contributors – who happen to be appointed or elected in a strikingly undemocratic manner. Plenty of fodder for abolitionists.
But does the Seanad have to be like this? Could reform turn the other house into something worth having? We’ll hopefully be exploring some of the options for reform from the mild to the mind boggling in more posts in the future. De Valera famously said that “it would pass the wit of man to devise a really satisfactory second chamber” – next time round we’ll have a go at outdoing the Long Fella.