Seanad Éireann, the quasi-democratic upper house of the Oireachtas, has an unenviable record for cronyism and patronage, serving down through the years as a salaried, expenses-paid home for various aspiring or failed politicians, not to mention the various flotsam and jetsam that travels in the wake of the main establishment parties. Back in 2013 there was a national referendum on the question of its abolishment which – unfortunately – failed to carry, the consensus of opinion believing that the proposed constitutional amendment was narrowly rejected by the electorate on the expectation of future reform. It seems that the promised changes have now appeared, at least in suggested form, with the issuing of the Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform. Among the more interesting recommendations are those relating to the democratic rights of Irish citizens in the north-east of the country:
“ The Working Group believes that the principle of one person one vote be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and to holders of Irish passports living overseas…”
Examining the issue in more detail the report goes on to explain that:
“The Seanad was designed to ensure that all facets of our community be reflected in the House. Deeply aware of the special relationship that has always existed between the Seanad and Northern Ireland the Working Group gave much consideration as to how this might be strengthened and deepened in a reformed Seanad.
The ties between the Seanad and Northern Ireland are very much cross community. Various Taoisigh have included among their nominees people from Northern Ireland. Arising from that the Seanad has been greatly enriched over the years by the contributions of extraordinary calibre of Senators from the North. The list including, among others, Sam Mc Aughtry, Brid Rodgers, Gordon Wilson, Maurice Hayes, John Robb, Seamus Mallon is long and impressive. The contributions of those from a Unionist background have helped broaden understanding in the Republic of their culture.
The special relationship between the Seanad and Northern Ireland is reflected in a number of developments over the years. The Working Group found it significant and informative that thousands of Trinity College and National University of Ireland graduates from Northern Ireland continue to vote in Seanad General elections for seventy plus years now. This is a politically unique cross community engagement. Indeed the very first Chair of Seanad Éireann was Lord Glenavy, a Trinity graduate whose family roots were in Glenavy Co Antrim.
It is often forgotten that a number of the Nominating Bodies are all Island institutions. Given the range of issues such as energy, environmental protection, animal health and emergency planning which have an all-island dimension, it would be open to nominating bodies to nominate suitable candidates from Northern Ireland.
Arising from that the Working Party recommends that Northern Ireland vocational bodies be encouraged to apply for registration as nominating bodies. Encouraged also by the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement especially in the confirmation of the Principle of consent and the commitment “… to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships …… between North and South,..” the Working Group considered the extension of voting rights to those citizens of Northern Ireland who wished to engage and participate. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland having been confirmed, the Good Friday Agreement goes on to vindicate the right of residents there to identify themselves as Irish, British, or both, and to express freely their chosen identity.
Some years ago Mr Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order surprised many by accepting an invitation to address Seanad Éireann it was a significant milestone in the relationship with the Unionist community. Even more significant was Mr Nelson’s statement that he saw his engagement with the Seanad as a “springboard for the future rather than as a shackle to the past”. Speaking to the media that day Mr Nelson, in words that resonate with the proposal in the Good Friday agreement to establish a Civic Forum, said “I am thankful .. that there is coming into play in mainstream civic society in the Republic a recognition of a value of the minority Protestant community..” That statement, the historical experience, the special relationship, the positive outcome of NI graduate voting and the principle of consent articulated in the Good Friday Agreement greatly encouraged the Working Group to take an inclusive and generous approach in the matter of extending the voting franchise for Seanad elections to those normally resident in Northern Ireland who would wish to participate.
The fact that the Seanad does not have authority over taxation and finance matters ensures that this recommendation does not threaten or undermine our democracy but gives a freedom which could never be exercised or contemplated in a lower house. Allowing citizens of Northern Ireland to vote in Seanad General Elections provides for another clear distinct feature of the Seanad.”
It seems likely that a decision to return voting rights to all the citizens of this island nation, regardless of where they reside, will be wrapped up with the issue of votes for the Irish Diaspora, thus somewhat assuaging the prejudices (and paranoia) of the “Little Free Staters” in the national press.
“The argument that there should be “No representation without taxation” is commonly postulated in opposition to extending the vote to emigrants. Because of the very extensive nature of the Irish diaspora and the number of citizens holding Irish passport worldwide there is a fear that the number of potential voters could overwhelm the national electorate. On the other hand there is a growing support for the view that Irish emigrants should be given the opportunity of participation in the electoral process. Emigrant groups have described the expectation and hope among the diaspora of returning and a belief that what they have learnt abroad could be important to share with those at home. Representatives of Irish emigrants in campaigning for a vote in Seanad General elections argue that their current experience and cultural exposure abroad could contribute to the Ireland to which they hope to return. The Working Group considered these points among others and also noted that the extension of voting rights to emigrants is common practice in democracies worldwide. The Working Group sought to respond to these concerns and expectations and recommends;-
That Irish citizens with current passports living abroad be eligible to register and vote on the Panel of their choice.”
The last time Irish men and women in the north-east of the country had the legal right to elect representatives to a national parliament in Dublin was in the general election of 1921 and the establishment of the Second Dáil. It is shameful that it has taken ninety-three years for proposals to be put forward to bridge that undemocratic gap, in however limited a manner.