The Seanad is the upper house in the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas.
After each election to the lower house, the Dail, an election to the Seanad occurs.
The role of the Seanad is to provide oversight of the decisions of the Dail. For that reason, the membership of the Seanad is drawn mainly from panels of candidates who have recognised expertise. Additionally, the right to vote in Seanad elections is reserved for members of the Dail, County Councillors and university graduates.
There are 60 members of the Seanad. Of these, 43 are elected from “panels” by members of the Dail and County Councillors, 6 are elected by graduates of Trinity College and the National University of Ireland, and 11 are appointed by An Taoiseach.
The design of the Seanad in this manner is (arguably) reasonable. It may appear elitist, but its role is one of oversight only, not law making, and to extend the right to participate in Seanad elections to all citizens would be in effect to create a second Dail.
However, the design and intent of the Seanad is very different from how it actually operates. In fact, the Seanad is a very good example of how a democratic institution, which was designed in good faith, has become corrupted by the electoral process.
Take the example of Senator Averil Power.
After spending some time in the employment of the State to advise Fianna Fail Minister, Mary Hannafin, Power was nominated as a Seanad candidate in 2011 by the new Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, and was “elected” to the Seanad from the Industrial and Commercial panel of candidates, which means she was elected by members of the Dail and County Councillors.
During 2015, Power left Fianna Fail, but did not resign her Seanad seat. In the General Election of 2016, she ran as a non-party candidate in Dublin Bay North, but did not get elected. A week later, she announced her intention to seek re-election to the Seanad, but this time from the Trinity College panel of candidates.
This side-stepping from one panel to the next provides an insight into how corrupt the process of electing members of the Seanad has become. If Power was elected from the Industrial and Commercial panel in 2011, it would seem to make sense that she would seek election from that panel again. Why would she switch to a different panel?
The reason is that she was not actually elected in 2011. At each Seanad election, the political parties decide who among their number are to be “elected” to the Seanad. They generally pick former members of the Dail who have just lost their seats in Dail elections, or newcomers with the potential to be elected to the Dail at the next election.
In 2011, Power fell into the later group. Fianna Fail decided that they would like to increase her profile and that a seat in the Seanad would achieve this. Fianna Fail Councillors and members of the Dail were instructed, under the power of the Whip, to vote for Averil Power, and she was “elected” to the Seanad without difficulty. This system isn’t peculiar to Fianna Fail. All of the other parties operate it in the same way. It even goes as far as the party hierarchy examining ballot papers before they are submitted.
Having left Fianna Fail in 2015, Power is not able to rely on the Whip to push votes her way, so there is no point in her seeking election from the Industrial and Commercial panel. Instead, as a graduate of Trinity College, she has put her name on that panel, in the hope that her profile is high enough among graduates to get more votes than the other candidates. She is currently running video ads on Facebook showing her walking across the courtyard in Trinity and claiming to have a reputation for defending education in the hope that such claims will ring true with graduate voters.
Power is not alone in this behaviour. There are currently lots of ex-members of the Dail and other political hopefuls seeking to get the nod from their party hierarchy for a 5 year berth in the Seanad.
The fact that we are so indifferent to to this is symptomatic of the degree to which politics, and government, have become something that is separate from us, which was never the way it was meant to be.