Public Voice and the Future of Seanad Éireann

Posted on: 29 March 2012

A public forum, ‘The Public Voice and the Future of Seanad Éireann’ was organised by the Department of Classics, providing a platform for discussion of some of the issues that might be useful to address as the country approaches a decision about the future existence of Seanad Éireann. The focus of the forum was the nature of the ‘public voice’ and how senates, or second chambers, our own and others, have articulated that voice, or failed to do so.

The forum is an annual event run by the Department of Classics to celebrate a former student of the College, Andrew A. David.

Maurice Manning, former leader of the Senate was in the chair and was joined by a panel comprising Regius Professor of Greek, Brian McGing, Senator Ivana Bacik, Associate Professor of Modern History, Ciaran Brady and Professor of Contemporary Irish History, Eunan O’Halpin.Speaking on ‘The Athenian and Roman Past’ Regius Professor of Greek, Brian McGing said:

“How did the Classical Athenian democracy or the Roman constitution articulate the ‘public voice’? Neither tried very hard − indeed they both devised mechanisms to filter it out. Athens had a second chamber, the Areopagus, which had interesting supervisory, judicial and reporting roles that diminished as the democracy developed. Rome’s republican constitution was characterised, so theorists liked to think, by balance between monarchical, aristocratic and democratic features which cancelled out the potential for extremism in each. Although the Roman Republic has been very influential in modern constitutional debate – in particular it provides a sort of forerunner to the concepts of the ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’ – and has given us the word ‘senate’, in fact its Senate comprised a small aristocratic elite who did their best to hang on to power for as long as they could: nothing like ours, then.”  Reid Professor of Criminal Law and Senator Ivana Bacik spoke on ‘Seanad Éireann in the 21st century’:

“Any discussion on the role of the Seanad in the 21st century must focus on the need for fundamental and substantive reform. The discussion should not be confined to outright abolition. Rather, consideration should be given to the role of an upper house in providing a more rigorous degree of scrutiny over the legislative process. The options for reform are explored, both as to the manner of election of Senators and the workings of the Seanad itself.”Associate Professor of Modern History, Ciaran Brady, spoke on ‘The Founding Fathers and the US Constitution’:

“Though the idea of establishing a second chamber within the federal legislature was greeted with suspicion by many among America’s revolutionary generation  − who feared it might develop as a new house of lords – the value of a senate gradually gained recognition among those who gathered at Philadelphia in 1787 to fashion a new United  Sates Constitution. The arguments in favour of the Senate were several and far from internally consistent; and in its immediate history the role of the Senate was to change significantly from that for which had been originally envisaged for it by its most enthusiastic supporters. But it was to prove no less central to the maintenance and development of the American Republic.”  Professor of Contemporary Irish History, Eunan O’Halpin spoke on ‘De Valera’s Senate’,  commenting on the origins of the Seanad as embodied in the 1937 Constitution:

“People are now very inclined to retro-fit the 1922 Seanad, abolished in 1936, with an impressive range of liberal values which it scarcely embodied in conception or in practice.  It was certainly conceived as a means of protecting minorities, but not in any especially liberal or democratic sense but rather to protect established privilege as did the House of Lords (an analogy made by Provost John Bernard in 1920: ‘There must be a definite Second Chamber or everything which landlords and capitalists valued could be taken away from them in a week..’).  Perhaps the puzzle is not that the Seanad in the 1937 Constitution is so weak, but that it is there at all.”