Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On second chambers: The Irish Free State Seanad

Continuing my look at second chambers, and following some of the comments on my post about the Senate of Northern Ireland we now turn to the rest of Ireland. I'll come to the present Seanad in my next post in this series, but first I'd like to take a look at the Seanad in the Irish Free State, now known as "1st Seanad" (with the numbering for the current Senate starting from "2nd Seanad"). (For consistency I'm using "Seanad" rather than "Senate" throughout.)

Be warned that some of this is complicated as despite only lasting fourteen years it was subject to several constitutional amendments and effectively had three different (s)election systems over six elections in its life.

Composition: Start-up: 30 members elected by Dáil Éireann, with terms of three or nine years allocated by lot. 30 members appointed by the prime minister for six or twelve year terms. These arrangements were just to get things going.

As originally envisaged for permanent running: Members would serve for twelve years, with a third (fifteen) directly elected in a state wide Single Transferable Vote election.

The nomination process was complicated to say the least. Candidates would be nominated in three sections - senators up for re-election could renominate themselves; the Seanad as a whole then selected an equal number of candidates from a list submitted; and then the Dail selected a number equal to both the renominations and Seanad selection. (See Northern Ireland Elections: "An exceedingly severe test" - The Irish Senate elections of 1925 for more details of the one election that did take place.) Interim vacancies were filled by a vote of the Seanad; however the Senator would only serve until the next set of Seanad elections. (Also candidates had to be at least 35.)

Following changes in 1928: Direct elections were done away with and terms reduced to 9 years. The Seanad was now elected by thirds, with the outgoing Seanad and the Dail jointly voting by STV. The nominations were also changed so there would now be twice as many candidates as seats, with half the candidates nominated by the Seanad and the other half by the Dail. Sitting Senators lost the automatic right to renominate themselves. (The minimum age for candidates was now reduced to 30.)

Fairness of representation: Elections on a single nationwide constituency, whether direct or indirect, cannot be subject to gerrymandering or malapportionment.

The start-up and post 1928 composition both suffer from the dangers of duplicating the lower house. The prime ministerial nominations in 1922 and the election of 1925 diluted this a bit. Having the Seanad directly involved in nominating so many candidates for itself is also a tendency towards perpetuation.

The rights of parties who opt to abstain is always contentious, but it's worth noting that the decision by the anti-Treaty rump of Sinn Féin to boycott the Dail meant that it was not represented in the Seanad either. When most of Sinn Féin left to form Fianna Fáil and took their seats in the Dail this began to be corrected, but to a large extent the conflict between the Fianna Fáil government of 1932 onwards and the Seanad was rooted in the former's unrepresentation in the upper house.

The 1925 election saw a number of candidates elected who either benefitted from a very high local turnout (compared to a low statewide turnout) or who had the support of geographically scattered groups such as ex-servicemen or publicans. Such interest groups are traditionally badly represented in constituency based parliaments.

In light of later proposals and actions regarding the modern Seanad's composition it's worth explicitly noting that there was no direct representation for either Northern Ireland or the Irish emigrants. (This is something I'll come back to when looking at the present Seanad.) However there was nothing specifically stopping a candidate from Northern Ireland being put forward.

Powers and conventions: Originally: The Seanad could only delay, not veto legislation. However it could delay a money bill for 21 days and any other bill for 270 days. The Seanad had the power to call a binding referendum on any bill if a majority requested it within seven days of passing or if 60% of Senators requested it within ninety days. (5% of registered voters could also petition for a referendum but that's outside this scope.) This didn't cover either money bills or bills declared by both houses to be "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety". No referendum was called while this power existed.

From 1928: The power to call a referendum was scrapped. The power to delay ordinary bills was extended to twenty months.

Conflict resolution: As the Seanad only had the power to delay, the Dail would normally eventually triumph in a dispute. Referring a bill to the people was one alternative, although this was never exercised. (It may well have been had the Seanad still had the power once Fianna Fáil were in power.) In 1936 following protracted disputes over constitutional changes, the Seanad itself was abolished - the ultimate in conflict resolution.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: As noted above, the initial boycott by what became Fianna Fáil meant that they and the votes that had sent them to the Dail were underrepresented in the Seanad for a decade after they ended the boycott. Now one can quite legitimately argue that was a consequence of their own choice, but even after 1934 (when the entire Seanad had now been elected post boycott) there was still under representation stemming from the earlier boycott and the self-renewal process of the Seanad. At what point does a house stop being legitimately elected in a long period and become a hangover with an out of date mandate?

Because of the boycott it's hard to test the Seanad's effectiveness on its initial powers, but the ability to refer a bill to the people is one way to resist the partisan interests of a majority in a lower house. Post 1932 the Seanad was taking a firm stance against the Dail but was unable to prevent itself from being abolished - a short term protector at best.

Anything else?: The 1925 election is an interesting test of using STV under very extreme circumstances - electing 19 members from 76 candidates. This is even more complex than some Australian Senate elections (last time there were 78 candidates chasing 6 seats from New South Wales). One has to wonder if a 76 candidate preference ballot paper is "manageable" for the voters so that they can cast a vote that is successful in electing a member.

Anything worth copying?: Staggered elections are good, although I question if electing by a quarter isn't too long. The power to refer a bill to the people is a very good idea and one to allow for an upper house to go over the head of the fully single elected house. The post 1928 indirect elections don't fill me with much excitement though as such a system can make it very hard for a total renewal to take place and have some Senators with a very tenuous link to the votes that elected those who originally directly elected them. Also I don't think it wise to have a lower house involved in selecting any part of its own upper house.

1 comment:

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

One further point on the Sinn Féin/Fianna Fáil boycott: When Fianna Fáil abandoned the boycott in 1926 (and what was left of Sinn Féin was minimal), the Seanad was still directly elected. The effects of the boycott would have disappeared after a 1937 election.

However the 1928 changes altered this, effectively entrenching the 1922 selection and 1925 election into the system. Even if it's right that a party that boycotts both early elections and parliamentary selections does not have representation (and it's hard to argue that a system should stand or fall on whether or not a particular party are willing to play ball), is it right for post abstention changes to be made that now effectively punish a party (and those voting for it) for a past boycott that it no longer maintains?

Had it just been the Dail voting in post 1928 Seanad elections (mirroring the Northern Irish arrangements) then the boycott would have ceased to matter in 1934.


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