Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Reform will give Seanad a life and mind of its own

My first experience of the Senate was as a student in Trinity College, privileged to be taught by Owen Sheehy Skeffington. He was an outstanding senator making a lasting contribution to public life. He became a friend, guiding me during my early days as a journalist, in particular about Irish politics.

He became famous for a splendid speech at the time of the Arms Trial, about Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland, on the theme of a Gilbert and Sullivan jingle, 'They'll none of them be missed, they'll none of them be missed!'

Unfortunately, they came back. It was Skeffington we missed, soon afterwards. He died in 1970. Instead of not missing these radicals of the right, we had to endure them. In the case of the toughest of the bunch, Haughey, his was a dreadful 12-year leadership of Fianna Fail beginning its corruption of standards.

Owen Skeffington was a much-admired figure deploying the rapier of truth on the humbug of Irish lying. He was singular in one other important respect: his support for children and against corporal punishment, the worst of which, inflicted on imprisoned children in the industrial school system, were familiar to him through his friendship with Peter Tyrrell. Tyrrell spent almost 10 years in Letterfrack, his life blighted by the cruelties he suffered and set out in the best account of industrial school life 'Founded on Fear'. Tyrrell burned himself to death on Hampstead Heath.

Other senators whom I praise include the institution's present strong defender, David Norris, as well as Noel Browne and the recently retired voice of wisdom and truth on medical matters, Mary Henry.

All were, in the words of the Constitution, 'University of Dublin' senators. This gave them an added independence over UCD senators and over those elected from the five panels. These university senators, currently six of them, are under an elitist cloud, since a different range of third-level institutions cry now for representation.

The representatives of the elective panels, historically, have made up the main body of the Senate. But this does not preclude them from good work they may have done or do in the future, if the Irish people decide against the abolition of the Senate.

Abolition looks like a foregone conclusion. Fine Gael and Labour are agreed on the proposal, Labour on the grounds of the Senate's supposed elitism, Fine Gael on grounds of cost to the State.

The idea for abolition is said to have come from shabby origins. In a week last year when Fine Gael were being outclassed in the polls by Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party, Enda Kenny, acting on his own, made the announcement to attract attention back to himself. True or not, it came out of no sensible debate and does not retain much credibility in objective terms, of which more later.

Should Fianna Fail decided to fight in favour of its retention this would probably be seen as counter-productive, since they are largely responsible for the degradation of the Second House, turning it into a rest home for failed TDs and a source of income -- with lavish expenses -- for party hacks.

The debate will be prolonged. Making it lively will be an issue, though not at present a problem, since the alternative voice -- of reform rather than abolition -- is a very small one. Does this stir memories? I think it does. I think the Senate referendum debate will bring back into focus the same lack of balance between the two sides that characterised the Lisbon Treaty referendum, in theory even more loaded by the 'Yes Vote' alignment of the three main political parties.

In respect of the Senate my own position is the same now as it was then. What is wrong with the Senate is us. It is not the Senate. We have allowed the original idea, together with the legal framework, to be fundamentally abused by administration after administration. We have made a mockery of the panel system. We have largely set aside the spirit of the constitutional direction that candidates for the five panels should have 'knowledge and practical experience' of the subject-matter of those panels.

Their management, as is the case in much of the working of the Senate, is a matter for the law, not the Constitution, which means that reform can be a process pursued through the Dail. What was never done was the legal definition of what is meant by 'knowledge and practical experience', nor was any regulatory process set up, as in the United States Houses of Congress, to examine the self-justification of candidacy.

Senators are self-regulators and it is clear, from the limited talent of so many who have passed through the Upper House, they do not regulate themselves or rule themselves out of running on grounds of incompetence in the five designated areas for which election is prescribed.

In a reformed Oireachtas the reform of the Senate would be an attractive objective, more so than abolition. We need the specialist wisdom envisaged in the Constitution and not the often mindless and prejudiced babble that passes for debate among ill-informed or under-informed individual members.

The Senate panel categories -- of language, culture, literature, art and education; of agriculture and fisheries; of labour; of industry, commerce, banking, finance, accounting and architecture; of public administration -- are rich in the opportunities they offer but are also hugely challenging. Loose opinion on these matters, with a few notable exceptions, is the order of the day in the Senate. Precise, researched, objective and intelligent contributions are a rarity and are often quite beyond the individuals who have won Senate seats by travelling the country and calling in a political vote here and there.

Part of the remedy for this would be achieved if the Senate were made more independent from the Dail, not forced into an election because a government falls, but straddling the life of each government on a different and possibly fixed-term basis. A reformed Senate would have regulation over the personal qualifications for nomination among the elected. This would be an important part of reform. It would pay less, relying more on the inspirational nature of public service implied in the Constitution.

There should be more members coming from a wider spread of third-level educational institutions, with a wider spread through the disciplines and tighter checking of the excellence of those standing for election.

The Taoiseach's nominees should be eliminated or severely reduced. They should also be subject to stringent public vetting and assessment in line with the panel conditions. There should be an in-built regional factor so that, perhaps on a province basis, the balance of the Senate would reflect the population in a more profound and lasting way than Dail democracy achieves, with party authority overwhelming local interests. There should be more nominating bodies.

The Senate should have a life and a mind of its own. It should be respected for this and it should have a homogeneity that makes it a properly working institution with carefully designed powers and intelligently framed regulation.

The people would prefer this to a peremptory abolition. I believe the forthcoming referendum is far from being a foregone conclusion despite the electorally loaded situation prevailing now. In keeping with the fundamental basis on which the current government was elected, reform should be the first option.

That is what I support.