Irish voters will determine on Friday whether to eliminate the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.
Before you think that this is such a transformative step in Irish governance, it’s important to keep in mind that the Irish senate doesn’t have nearly the powers of, say, the United States senate because it doesn’t have veto power over Irish legislation — at worst, the Irish senate can delay lawmaking, not bring it to a halt. Furthermore, its members aren’t directly elected by the people, leading to charges that the upper house is a wasteful, undemocratic, unrepresentative anachronism.
If, as expected, Irish voters approve the referendum, the Irish senate will cease to exist as of the next Irish general election, which must take place before 2016.
It’s one of the campaign pledges that Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured above) promised in advance of the February 2011 parliamentary elections that swept his liberal center-right Fine Gael into power, in coalition with the social democratic Labour Party. In an odd-bedfellows coalition, most of Ireland’s major parties support abolishing the Senate, including Fine Gael and Labour, but also the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin. Only the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historic defeat in the 2011 election, opposes the referendum and prefers to retain the senate, albeit a reformed, more representative, more productive senate.
The system by which the upper house’s 60 senators are appointed is truly anachronistic — the Taoiseach appoints 11 and graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland are each entitled to elect three senators. The remaining 43 are nominated from five ‘vocational panels’ that span the public/administrative, agricultural/fishing, cultural/educational, industrial/commercial, and labour sectors. In practice, this means that the Irish senate is where a lot of failed political candidates land. The remaining house, the Dáil Éireann, is composed of 166 deputies.
Given that Ireland has been rocked by economic crisis following the 2008-09 financial crisis that saw Ireland nationalize some of its banks and assume their obligations, Kenny and other supporters of the referendum argue that the Irish senate is an unnecessary and undemocratic expense for such a small country as Ireland (with 4.6 million people), especially in light of its 40-year membership in the European Union, which remains responsible for an increasing amount of regulatory standards within Ireland.
Many Irish voters agree — an IPSOS poll earlier this week showed 44% favored abolition, 27% opposed abolition, while 21% were unsure, though when undecideds had to choose, the pro-abolition side won 62% to 38%.
Although countries don’t abolish entire legislative chambers every day, it’s not wholly unprecedented, either. New Zealand abolished its unelected Legislative Council in 1950, Denmark abolished its upper house in 1953 and Sweden followed suit in 1970. Generally speaking, unicameral parliaments are more common on the periphery of the European Union than in its core — they exist in Portugal, all of the Scandinavian states (including Iceland), all three Balkan state, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and Ukraine.
The arguments for unicameralism, generally, mirror those that Kenny and ‘Yes’ supporters are making in Ireland.
Federalism often plays a key role in bicameral legislative systems. While the US Senate exists to protect the interests of US states, Ireland’s a much smaller country with a stronger national government where state-level governance isn’t nearly as important. Likewise, members of the German Bundesrat are appointed directly by the governments of Germany’s 16 states.
The House of Lords in the United Kingdom developed centuries ago to protect noblemen and other rarified social classes — a circumstance not incredibly applicable to Ireland in 1916, 1948 or today. That also explains why many communist and formerly communist states don’t have upper houses, because they were viewed by communists and socialists in the 19th and 20th centuries as reactionary repositories of privilege.
Some countries use their upper house as a means of guaranteeing a role in the political process for ethnic or racial minorities. The House of Chiefs in Botswana, for example, is comprised of both elected and appointed members of traditional ethnic groups. But other unicameral chambers have adopted special features to guarantee seats for ethnic, religious, or racial minorities (e.g., Lebanon), as well as for women (e.g., Rwanda).
Obviously, a unicameral parliament allows for speedier lawmaking — there’s no second chamber to hold things up. But the converse also applies as a feature of bicameralism — a second chamber allows for a check on the rampant will of the majority and a purposeful brake on the legislative process to provide for thoughtful contemplation of the effects of a particular piece of legislation. While that may be true for the United States or even for the United Kingdom with the House of Lords, the Irish senate is viewed as more of a rubber-stamp chamber than a truly deliberative body.