University challenge: how will the Government deal with the Supreme Court’s order to reform Seanad elections?

Lay litigant Tomás Heneghan won his case to force change

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Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times Staff Photographer.

 Leinster House
Photo taken on 28/3/07

A constitutional stopwatch is now ticking for the way in which some senators are elected. And it’s finally time for the Seanad reform which successive governments have promised but failed to deliver. That’s according to Tomás Heneghan, the University of Limerick graduate who won a landmark Supreme Court case earlier this year over being denied the right to vote for the upper houses’s university seats..

Six of the 60 seats in Seanad Eireann are currently elected by university graduates. Three senators represent Trinity College Dublin, while three are elected by graduates of the constituent universities of the National University of Ireland (UCD, UCC, University of Galway and Maynooth University). Under the terms of the 1937 Constitution, the graduates of other third-level institution do not have a vote.

Heneghan successfully argued that the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, passed in a 1979 referendum, requires the broadening of the university franchise by legislation in the Oireachtas. The Supreme Court agreed with him and has set a date of May 31st 2025 by which the necessary changes must be implemented.

Speaking to the Irish Times Inside Politics podcast, Heneghan tells presenter Hugh Linehan that he took the case to “stop the inertia of 40-odd years” since the 1979 amendment was passed.


The ruling could pose a challenge for the Government. If it were to run its full term, the general election would be held in spring of 2025 and a subsequent Seanad election could risk missing the court’s deadline, possibly prompting a constitutional crisis. “You could have a frozen Seanad which can’t pass legislation,” says Heneghan. “I don’t think anyone wants that.”

If the general election takes place by late 2024, however, a new Seanad could be elected under the current system and responsibility for reform would pass to the next government.

Irish Times Political Editor Pat Leahy describes the case, in which Heneghan was represented by the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) as “very clever, while also being very simple. It was to point out the contradiction between the Constitution as amended in 1979 and the original Electoral Act. It is pretty clear that it has led to the end of the university seats as we now know them. Will that have a big impact on the Seanad in the future? I have my doubts.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is due to address the Senate on Thursday and Leahy says it will be interesting to see whether he lays out any plans the Government may have to address the issue. “If he doesn’t then we can reasonably conclude that they just haven’t decided what to do yet. But he may give an insight into the Government’s thinking. It will also be interesting to see if the Government, if they do present a reform plan, confine it merely to the university senators.”

The Seanad has been the subject of numerous reports recommending reform over the years. The most recent, the Manning Report in 2015, proposed extending the franchise for most seats to all citizens, including residents of Northern Ireland. Heneghan would also like to see a much broader extension of voting rights. “If it’s just extended to graduates, less than half of my family would be able to vote. I’d like all of my family to be able to vote.”

“The whole episode, and Tomás’s achievement in securing this legal victory, just demonstrates again that f the established interests of the State really don’t want to do something, then very often the reality I that the only way to get them to do it is to force them to do it in court,” says Leahy.