Michael McDowell: Government has nowhere to hide on Seanad reform

Potential to create a second chamber that could bring new and different voices into the heart of our democracy

Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times Staff Photographer.

Houses of the Oireachtas Commission suppliment
The Seanad Chamber looking towards the chair of the Cathairleach at Leinster House ( senate ) 
taken on 26/3/07

The Government’s cynical foot-dragging on reforming the Seanad cannot continue, thanks to the decision of the Supreme Court in the Tomás Heneghan case. The effect of that decision has been suspended until July because the court acknowledged that the reconstitution of the Seanad electorate necessitated by its judgment will take time. The court now expects to hear from the Government’s lawyers on how much time will be needed.

In 1922, the Saorstát constitution provided for the National University of Ireland and Trinity College to each elect three TDs to Dáil Éireann, and, by article 14, gave every Irish citizen over the age of 30 the vote in Seanad elections, as well as in Dáil elections, where the vote was given to every citizen over the age of 21.

The 1937 Constitution of Ireland gave three Seanad seats each to Trinity and the NUI. Since the Heneghan decision the six seats are now reserved for all the universities in the State. The Oireachtas is permitted by article 18 to extend that franchise to other institutions of higher education.

With the creation of the University of Limerick, Dublin City University and the more recent technological universities, the potential electorate for the six university seats could well exceed a million citizens, and that is before possible inclusion of any other institutions of higher education.


The Constitution requires that university senators must be elected by secret postal ballot and on the basis of proportional representation. The franchise is de facto restricted to NUI and TCD graduates who have chosen to register to vote and whose names appear on registers maintained by those two bodies.

The great majority of graduates in those two universities have never bothered to register. Moreover, the registers are often quite out of date as registered voters change addresses or emigrate without informing their universities. That results in a minority of registered voters casting a postal ballot – a minority of a minority!

Unless things change, 43 senators would be elected by 1,169 public representatives (mainly political party members) each given five votes, and six would be elected by 1,200,000 university graduates

Suppose, and it is quite a supposition, that 1,200,000 Irish graduates register to vote in a new, inclusive register created by the recently established Electoral Commission; they would elect just six out of 60 senators. The present electorate for the 43 panel senators numbers 949 county and city councillors, 160 TDs in an incoming Dáil and 60 outgoing senators – in all just 1,169.

So, unless things change, 43 senators would be elected by 1,169 public representatives (mainly political party members) each given five votes, and six would be elected by 1,200,000 university graduates.

With a population of 5.1 million, of which 3.8 million are over 18 and maybe up to 700,000 not Irish citizens, confining Seanad votes to Irish citizen graduates would leave at least three million Irish citizens with no vote and 1.2 million citizens with a vote.

Graduates of universities outside the State are not permitted to vote under article 18. That includes Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster and all other British, European Union and overseas universities.

The dilemma facing the Government now is whether it can attempt without ridicule to cling on to the wreckage of the party-political rotten borough of 43 panel senators elected by 1,169 insiders or whether it engages in genuine reform of the Seanad.

As Justine McCarthy wrote here last week, there is no defensible rationale for creating a two-tier society where 1.2 million citizens get to vote directly for the Seanad and three million do not.

Nor is there any political fig leaf for the Government. The then government having lost the abolition referendum in 2013, the Manning report was commissioned by Enda Kenny. Then Leo Varadkar set up the all-party implementation group which I chaired. It reported in 2018 and appended a fully drafted Bill prepared by a professional parliamentary draftsman paid for by the government.

That Bill, despite cynical broken promises by the present Government, is now awaiting committee-stage consideration in the Seanad. It deals with the Heneghan outcome.

It allows every citizen the right to choose to become a Seanad elector by registering to vote in one of the panel elections, not just graduates. It gives Irish passport holders living in the North and elsewhere the right to register. It ensures that there is one person, one vote (some people can mark up to seven voting papers at present).

Such reform would create a second chamber with real potential to bring new and different voices into the heart of our democracy.