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Photo from: Senate casket. Credit Bryan O’Brien Irish Times
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 President 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 reformSince 1928 twelve separate official reports have been published on reform of the Seanad, and in the past some, including the Progressive Democrats, have called for the outright abolition of the house. 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 vocationalnomination 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 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 and Bríd Rodgers of the SDLP.
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 32 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.
Famous Irish senators
- Robert Malachy Burke
- Luke J. Duffy
- Douglas Hyde
- William Butler Yeats
- Lord Glenavy
- Seamus Mallon
- Mary Robinson
- David Norris
- Garret FitzGerald
- Noel Browne
- Dr. James Ryan
- Eoin Ryan, Snr.
- Eoin Ryan, Jnr.
- Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha 1946-54
- Seanad Éireann may be roughly pronounced by English speakers as "shanad air-inn".