Scrapping the Seanad is a Big Political Reform

Since the emergence at the weekend of unanimity amongst political parties that the Seanad should go, contrarian commentators have been forced to argue that this is not a ‘real’ political reform, what we need is fundamental change, etc etc.

The move to a unicameral parliament is a pretty big change, and for the better. This is what I wrote for today’s Farmers Journal.


The decision of the Labour Party to support Fine Gael’s plan to scrap the Seanad pretty much seals the fate of Ireland’s experiment with a two-chamber parliamentary system. Fianna Fail and the Greens have also, however belatedly, come to the same conclusion, and all the main political parties are now signed up to this particular political reform. The Seanad costs around €25 million per annum directly, and An Bord Snip suggested, in July 2009, that its time was up. The direct saving however is not the full cost of the second chamber.

Civil servants spend a considerable amount of time dealing with queries (they call them ‘reps’, short for representations) from Senators, many of whom see themselves as trainee TDs and engage in clinics and general messenger services for voters in whatever constituency they have their eye on. Ministers must attend the Seanad regularly in addition to making themselves available for questioning in the Dail. This eats into the time ministers can devote to running the country, and while Dail accountability is essential, the demands of the Seanad on ministerial diaries is substantial and very hard to justify. I recall spending several hours with senior officials some years back waiting for a minister detained in the Seanad who apologised profusely and predicted, quite accurately, that not a syllable of the Seanad proceedings which detained him would make it into the parliamentary reports in the newspapers the following day. In addition to the direct saving of €25 million per annum, there should be further savings in civil service personnel and a reduction in the time-wasting demands on ministers.

Under the current Irish system, we have 166 TDs and 60 Senators, for a total of 226 national parliamentarians. This is rather a lot for a small country, and most countries of our size make do with a single-chamber parliament. The public seem quite happy to let the Seanad go and there have also been calls for a reduction in the number of TDs. Bord Snip did not feel that a major reduction in the size of the Dail was advisable, although the number does not have to be 166. Cutting numbers saves only the direct costs: scrapping the second chamber in its entirety provides opportunities to make all sorts of indirect savings as well.

There have been numerous distinguished Seanad members over the years, including some of those elected from the university panels. But there have also been legions of defeated TDs and wannabe TDs, leading one wag to describe the Seanad as a mixture of creche and retirement home. There is nothing to stop the better class of senator to welcome the inevitable and run for the Dail. I can think of a few I might even vote for! But the occasional emergence of good contributors in the Seanad cannot conceal the overall mediocrity that has been its hallmark. The Irish Times managed to disagree with itself last weekend on the following crucial issue: how many reports have been prepared over the years (the first was in 1928) on the reform of the Seanad? Harry McGee thinks there have been twelve, Noel Whelan plumped for thirteen. I recall, as a student in the late 1960s, attending a discussion group called Tuarim, whose leading lights included Tom Barrington, Barry Desmond and Garret FitzGerald. One spirited debate was about , you guessed it, reforming the Seanad. Any institution still searching for a meaningful role seventy four years after its re-creation in current form needs to be scrapped.  

Of course scrapping the Seanad is not a political reform programme on its own. It is essential that the Dail becomes a more effective chamber and that a better balance be restored between executive and legislative branches of government. But scrapping the Seanad will help both directly and indirectly. Those with ambitions to serve in national politics will now have no option but to shoot for the Dail, which should make that a better chamber. The politicians need to restore credibility as a group, and the public will see abolition as evidence of serious intent to reform, at the cost of some cushy numbers for the political class. This will help when the time comes to face the music on local government reform, through eliminating the excessive number of local councils, and on reforming the public service, where numerous useless quangoes survive.  

123 replies on “Scrapping the Seanad is a Big Political Reform”

Agreed, but the situation highlights what happens when a tired government tries to package “reforms”. For all we know, FF has lost interest in the Seanad not because of the above case, but because their electoral base in it is already weak with the local government losses over the years, and because they won’t have the 11 Taoiseach appointees after the next election. So as with hanging on till 25 March to keep the St Patrick’s junkets, it’s one more perk they can deny the Opposition.

Is there any data on how often the senead proposes amendments to legislation?

I thought they were supposed to re read stuff, suggest improvements and so on. Do they actually ever do that?

We live in a perverse age: economics has appointed itself Queen of the Sciences and the Economists themselves are philosopher-kings, (self-) authorised to issue pronouncements about any and every issue that might concern the polity.


I think you might be at risk of going a little over the top there Ernie! Especially with the choice of the word “polity”.


I take your point entirely, but An Bord Snip were asked to pontificate on matters including the costs of the political structures, and we tried not to rant. Politics is the Queen, no problem.

Abolishing the Seanad has a number of knock-on effects on the Dail, the office of the Presidency, powers of local government and how legislation is processed in this state. Abolition has to take place in the context of a wider reform of these other institutions. Otherwise, all that abolition will achieve is to strengthen the power of the Executive and remove one of the few potential ‘checks and balances’ over government power within our system.

The Senate is undemocratic. Its electoral system is flawed. Many of its functions are never used – e.g. the Article 27 provision whereby a majority of Senators and one third of members of the Dail may ask the President for a referendum on a particular law. Those that are used, such as its scrutiny of legislation and debate on the issues of the day, have become just as mediocre in their execution as their counterparts in the Dail. All reform has proved impossible because the Senate has become a creature of the party political system. The parties have manipulated their representation in the Seanad to eliminate its powers of scrutiny of legislative proposals and to engineer the election of Senators from particular panels to suit their own ends, e.g. the Labour Party ‘pact’ with Sinn Fein to elect Pearse Doherty in exchange for SF support for Alex White on another panel. Most of its members don’t want to be there – they’re either on their way up, meaning that they aspire to a seat in the main house, or on their way out in the sense that membership of the Seanad is a consolation prize for having failed to retain a Dail seat. But by any standards of measurement of political relevance, the Seanad’s general performance is no worse than the Dail.

No doubt most voters will have no problem ticking the ‘yes’ box in any referendum proposing the Seanad’s abolition, and especially so if they were presented with it on the same day as the general election. But unless there’s a comprehensive reform package for the remaining political institutions tagged on to the referendum they’ll be buying a pig in a poke that diminishes democracy rather than enhances it. For a start, that reform package must lessen the power of the Executive over the Dail, such as guillotining of legislation, as well as the power of the Dail parties’ ridiculous whip system within the Dail. As things stand, the Dail only exists to comment on decisions that are already made by the Executive. So long as a government commands a Dail majority, there is nothing the opposition can say or do to substantially change any measure proposed by the Executive. The present Committee system is an even bigger joke than the Seanad. Then again, that too was manipulated since its inception to give extra salaries as Chairs and Vice-Chairs to disappointed backbenchers who didn’t make it to the ‘first team’, although that particular abuse has since been retracted.

Even if Labour and FG’s promise to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad within their first year in office holds good, those parties may not find it as easy to secure passage of the referendum as they might if it was held now. Moreover, their own councillors – the main Seanad electorate – have a lot to lose if the Seanad is abolished. A large majority of them may resist abolition, which would make it very difficult for the parties to mount a serious campaign at constituency levels

The Seanad’s relationship to the other institutions of the state has implications for their reform that cannot be avoided either. A simple ‘yes’ to the abolition of the Seanad is one thing, but bringing forward the full package of reform that it carries in its wake is a much more onerous, and contentious, issue for whatever mix of parties make up that government and one which they may feel tempted to postpone indefinitely. Like reform, the proposed abolition of the Seanad may be with us for a long time yet!

For myself, I’ll happily vote good riddance to the Seanad, but only as part of a package of wider reform to democratise our political institutions and make them fit for purpose. It’s not about saving 25m euro, it’s about democracy.

I really couldn’t care less if the Seanad is abolished or not, although it is much better and more democratic than the ridiculous House of Lords that those of us in the part of the country still hanging on to UK membership have to put up with. At least, members of the Seanad don’t have to put on fancy dress and are happy to be addressed as Mr/Mrs/Ms Bloggs rather than Lord/Lady Bloggs of Ballinasloe.

However, I predict that, after its abolition, the first time that any government introduces legislation or regulations that the media don’t like, the same media commentators/internet posters now advocating its abolition will be bemoaning the absence of a second chamber to stop the government doing whatever it is doing that they don’t like. This was allready evident in Richard Tol thread yesterday on what John Gormley is doing, with lots of those who disagree with what he is doing bemoaning the absence of a second chamber to stop him doing it.

One of the original reasons for the Seanad was to ensure a voice for the unionist minority. This was a perfectly legitimate aim. And, even if it is felt that a second chamber is no longer needed in a 26-county state, the matter will have to be revisited when a 32-county state comes into being. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that all these proposed reforms of 26-county institutions are largely temporary, and that, sooner or later, there will have to be an All-Ireland political convention to establish appropriate institutions for a 32-county state.

With regard to Dail numbers, the reason that there are so many today is that the population has gone up so much, from 2.8m in the 1960s to 4.5m today. It is in the Constitution that Dail numbers must maintain a fixed ratio (between 1:20,000 and 1:30,000), so the number of Dail seats has increased from 144 in the 1960s to 168 today. In fact, the ratio is currently the lowest it has ever been, the number of Dail seats not having changed since the 1980s when the population was 3.5m. Unless the Constitution is changed, the number will have to be increased in the not-too-distant future, as the population moves towards 5m.

Colm McCarthy is right on the Seanad. It is populated by ex TDs, wannabe TDs and ex-future TDs. But, the worst of the bunch are the much (self) praised university Senators. Do we really need to pay 65k plus exes to subsidise the activities of a Joycean scholar, a retired Supermarket tycoon, a union leader, a journo, a wannabe Mary Robinson and a mini monseigneur.

The next step is to address the riduclous cost of Local Authority Membership. Councillors used be part time servants of the community but many have morphed into full time public reps, running around stirring up apathy. Between the 12k stipend plus exes you can cobble together a nice little salary. We need to go further & abolish half the councils.

The issue that Colm ducks though is what to do with all the bureaucrats whose time is wasted by the needless public representation. Should half of the “Sir Humphreys” not go too.

Colm’s post is wholly persuasive. And when Colm later says that “Politics is the Queen” he is correct. But a major problem with our system is the almost monopolistic power of the executive within the political system.

Most members of the executive are souped-up county councillors who have struggled through a difficult Darwinian political battle to get to the top. Since, say 1977, the increasing professionalism with which that Darwinian struggle is fought has been at the expense of our TDs’ non-political qualifications and competence. The capacity of our TDs to deal with governmental problems has been weakened somewhat in recent decades by increasingly intense political combat.

When politicians in the executive (cabinet) exercise power, they do so in conjunction with senior civil servants. I would be surprised if the capacity of senior civil servants hasn’t been eroded somewhat in recent decades as a result of increasing jobs competition from the private sector.

The weakened individual capacity of the broader executive (cabinet members and senior civil servants) over recent decades has been accompanied by a massive increase in the complexity of the problems which confront members of that executive.

Just consider the two problems of Global Warming and Ireland’s current economic crisis. These are areas where even people who consider themselves expert differ hugely. This makes effective policy-making very, very difficult.

Or consider the failure of expert economic watchdogs (Central Bank, ESRI, IMF, OECD) to warn in 2005, 2006 of the economic crisis looming for Ireland. (And please don’t cite, as a counter-argument, ESRI warnings that economic activity had become overly reliant on construction. That missed the central source of our crisis: the role of massive amounts of debt used to finance massively over-valued property investment).

Political reform is needed. Abolition of the Senate is, as Colm says, a useful element of that reform. But we also need to look at improving the quality of our senior poltiicians and civil servants. And, given the growing complexity of the problems they will face, we shouldn’t expect reforms (valuable as they may be) to represent a golden bullet to our problems.

Abolish it.
Even those who argue for massive reform, would it not make more sense to abolish and start with a blank sheet?

The Political reform that would transform Irish Politics is the abolition of the Whip System. Used first I think by Parnell to ensure the Home rule Party acted as one it has since taken on many undesirable undemocratic side effects. However these were seen as beneficial to Political Parties.

You need to also simultaneously change the constitution so that the government is permitted to loose a vote in the house without the government falling.
The only vote that the government should not be permitted to lose is a vote of confidence in the government.

Overnight that reform would democratise the Dail.

“The politicians need to restore credibility as a group, and the public will see abolition as evidence of serious intent to reform, at the cost of some cushy numbers for the political class.”

Great that you are making explicit what motivates your reference group and/or clients (Ministers, civil servants) “Get rid of the Senate because it takes up our time and it costs” This limited approach continues the pattern of getting rid of any other centres with democratic power that can challenge central government eg. local government. When you couple this with limited discussion on increasing the powers given to the Government (eg. the recent legislation on banking) and senior civil service driven restrictions on Freedom of Information (something else that can potentially embarrass Ministers as well as taking takes up civil servants’ time), we can see what passes for a technocratic cast of mind at work in this Republic.

That said, the Senate has yet to be abolished. Just because there is what appears to be a cross-party consensus and civil service support for this change to political institutions does not mean it will actually happen with the prevalence of “implementation deficit disorder” in the governing classes.

Over 31 years ago, we citizens gave power (in the 1979 referendum on Seventh Amendment to the Constitution) to change the electorate for the 6 Senators elected from the two university panels. Since then, nothing has been done to change enlarge that electorate despite the opportunities offered by
1) the 1989 Dublin City University and University of Limerick Acts;
2) the 1997 Universities Act which restructured the university part of higher education.

As we have seen, the only people who can initiate political and governmental reform are the incumbents – elected politicians and appointed senior civil servants. This they have singularly failed to do, preferring what the late Prof John Kelly described as “Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over”

“It is essential that the Dail becomes a more effective chamber and that a better balance be restored between executive and legislative branches of government. “

This is necessary, but yesterday’s editorial in the Financial Times suggests that it does not go far enough
“In the long run, failing elites are discarded. That happened to the aristocracies and monarchies of old. In high-income countries, recent failures of elites have been too obvious to ignore. The advantage of democracy is that it discards failure more quickly and less violently than other systems. True, electorates may well make serious mistakes, by discarding what works for what turns out not to do so. Yet democracy imposes an invaluable discipline on elites: the latter must convince the public that they know what they are doing. Recent performance is making this quite a challenge. The people are complaining loudly. Elites must both listen and respond.”

It is not just politicians that need to restore credibility as a group.

The EU-ECB-IMF intervention shows that our governing elite has failed.

Veronica is right to point out that we need “a package of wider reform to democratise our political institutions and make them fit for purpose.”

Given your insight into the governing elite, perhaps you would care to set out what else, in addition to the proposed abolition of the Senate, you propose in terms of
1) checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they public or private, elected or appointed;
2) so that our constitution is a framework for a free government that limits, restrains and allows for the exercise of political power, which we as citizens of a Republic own;
3) thereby enabling us to use our skills and energies to open the paths to sustainable standards of living and greater justice for all who wish to live and work here;
while ensuring that our way of governing ourselves has
4) the means to be successful for the common good with increased democratic accountability
5) the capacity and of adapting to the changes that constantly descend upon it.

With so much inertia in political and governing classes, we citizens need mechanisms to ensure that we do not have to wait for general elections to start the processes of reform and adaptation of our way of governing ourselves.

Abolishing something to save money in the short term cannot be classified as political reform. It is a cost saving measure. Good riddance to the Seanad as far as I am concerned – it is an undemocratic institution. Reform is one of those words that we all love to use but rarely know what it means.

A more important step for real ‘reform’ (and in complete agreement with Cormac Lucey) is to shift the balance of power away from the cabinet (and in particular the core executive) toward the legislature. But, whether this will in any way improve the quality of government is open to question.

The quality of parliament depends on the quality of its political parties. For the past 20 years general elections in Ireland have been nothing but tax cutting auctions. Most policy emerging from political parties and its leaders is designed from a rag bag of consultants, lobbyists and spin doctors. Furthermore, the interest of big business is now the default position of all major political parties. Disconnecting a political class from business lobbyists would be a first step to real reform.

“Those with ambitions to serve in national politics will now have no option but to shoot for the Dail, which should make that a better chamber. ”

Name three people with ambitions to serve in national politics who chose to “shoot for” the current Seanad and who chose not to stand for the Dáil. Being a Senator doesn’t count as “ambitions to serve in national politics”; presumably you mean people who are currently being distracted by the Seanad who ought to be serving in the Dáil.

“The politicians need to restore credibility as a group, and the public will see abolition as evidence of serious intent to reform, at the cost of some cushy numbers for the political class.”

Or they will not care and they will assume that politicians are still extracting rents as a group, just like British voters did after the expenses scandal. The thing about populism is that you can never satisfy it – as you seem to recognise, if we cut the Dáil to 100 members, people would still think there were too many politicians and want to cut it to 50.

Notwithstanding any of these problems, it’s clear that the Seanad does not give us €25M of legislative value added.


I agree with the burden of what you say, and was at pains, I thought, to stress that scrapping the Seanad is not a one-shot political reform. This is a blog, and short newspaper articles are just short newspaper articles. It is not fair to accuse people of favouring unaccountable meritocracy on the back of transparent, signed, hence accountable, contributions. Democratic accountability can be achieved without waste, I hope.

It is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that the only motive for streamlining parliament, local government, quangoes, is to dodge accountability, and a counsel of despair to suggest that a better system requires the retention of bits that cost a fortune and do not work.

@ Veronica: “All reform has proved impossible because the Senate has become a creature of the party political system.”

Most salient comment so far. If PPs are the problem – and I agree, then that is where the ‘reform’ needs to happen. Deleting the Seanad is merely re-decorating not re-forming.


Big it up for Aidan R:

“Abolishing something to save money in the short term cannot be classified as political reform.”

Exactly. But I suggest that the proposed abolition of the Senate is being disguised as a cost-saving measure and that the real motivation is to provide a sop to Cerberus. I see no reason to believe that any meaningful reform will follow; in fact I suggest that, if they get their way, the powerful will stop after throwing the Senate off the droshky. For that reason, I oppose the abolition.

It is not clear to me that there is any reduction in the amount of governmental action requiring scrutiny or that the quality of scrutiny is a function of the method of appointment of the scrutineers. Thus the fact that the Senate is “undemocratic” is not, to me, important (although I do have a vote). Furthermore, I suggest that, given Irish political culture, a reduction in the number of members of the legislature will not result in any improvement in the quality of the discussion and scrutiny of public affairs; rather will it bring about an increase in the amount of time TDs spend on political representations and other tomfoolery.

It seems clear to me that Irish electors want elected fixers, and I suggest that they should be allowed to have them. Thus my reform proposals have these elements:

– direct election of the government by the citizens

– the removal of all legislative powers from the Dáil so that its members can concentrate on getting lampposts shifted and acquiring Old IRA pensions for their constituents

– the concentration of all legislative powers in the Seanad, with the method of appointment of its members left as an exercise for the student

– the abolition of all local authorities, so that there is no overlap with the functions of the Dáil.


For once, I think JtO is right (though I think his prediction of a 5m population soon is a bit off the mark given the number of people who keep telling me they are going to leave Ireland this year).

We should be considering political reform to lay the foundations for a 32-county state. A unified Ireland is going to happen certainly within most of our lifetimes and if the Conservatives stay in power for the full term, I’m sure they would just love to get rid of NI, regardless of what they might say in public…. especially if that runs in parallel with SF holding the balance of power here after the next election – and that has to be a possibility, regardless of how unpalatable that prospect might be to some.

@JohnThe Optimist
“Unless the Constitution is changed, the number will have to be increased in the not-too-distant future, as the population moves towards 5m.”

Increasing the number of TDs is not necessary because of increased population.

In a submission to Colm’s “An Bord Snip Nua”, I pointed out that
“We in the Republic of Ireland have more TDs per head of population than the average of 21 smaller EU member states, as shown in Figure 1. This average is just over 35,000 people per Member of the lower house of Parliament. Changing our ratio of TDs to population to 1 per 30,000 would still result in having a higher ratio of TDs/population than the average for these 21 EU Member states.”

Here is the data on which I based Figure 1 (which I cannot load)
Nederlands 109,369
Belgium 71,112
Romania 66,607
Czech Republic 51,906
Portugal 46,163
Austria 45,530
Greece 37,379
Slovakia 36,007
Bulgaria 31,834
Denmark 30,591
Finland 26,502
Sweden 26,312
Hungary 26,024
Ireland 25,512
Lithuania 23,875
Latvia 22,709
Slovenia 22,510
Cyprus 14,094
Estonia 13,277
Luxembourg 8,063
Malta 6,312
Average 35,319

I also pointed out that adopting the 1:30,000 criteria would
“• be a very strong statement of how seriously the political class take the
current situation in the public finances
• reduce the number of TDs by 25 ie. 15 per cent of the 166 TDs
• increase the population per TD by 4,488 from the average of 25,512 based on the 2006 Census ie. an increase of just over 17.5 per cent”

and also

“Note that of these 21 (smaller EU) Member States, 14 have unicameral legislatures ie. there is not a second chamber of Parliament – the exceptions being Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Ireland, Nederland, Romania and Slovenia.
For comparison sake, I set out the position of three other smaller non-EU members
• New Zealand 1 Member of unicameral Parliament per 34,779 people
• Norway 1 Member of unicameral Parliament per 28,031 people
• Switzerland 1 member of the bi-cameral Federal Parliament per 37,500 people”

Colm McCarthy.
Well done on this one. A top quango going. I wonder about the 25million saving. The only short term savings will be senator salaries and expenses net of all the “redundancy” payments they have arrange for themselves.
As for civil service personnel savings, we will have to wait a lot longer.
The Chinese system of burying the ‘soldiers’ with the emperor, never found its way into the Irish civil service.

Still it is a start. And this time the pain will be felt by those who can bear it.

@Colm McCarthy,

You’ll get us into trouble, Colm, for leading us on an invasion of’s turf 🙂

We need to get a better understanding of what the politocos seem to be proposing. There is no doubt that An Seanad has not performed the role of effective upper houses in other jurisdictions, so the cost-benefit case is pretty solid. And it appears that the referendum that might accompany the next general election will ask voters to agree to the removal from the Constitution of any reference to An Seanad and its officers, powers and duties. The implication seems to that there will be a void where An Seanad existed, with nothing to replace it, but we don’t know.

If this is the case, in my view is that voters should reject it, unless it is accompanied by constitutional provisions to exercise the restraint on the executive that An Seanad failed, or was not empowered, to exercise with these effected by constitutionally underpinned reforms of the powers and procedures of the Dail – along the lines suggested by Veronica, Donal O’Brolchain, Cormac Lucey and others.

Getting rid of something that is seen as costly and ineffective, but which retained a vestigial threat of exercising some restraint on the executive, replacing it with nothing and relying on some vague politcial commitment to reform Dail procedures to re-balance the powers of the legislature and the executive wold be worse than what we have.

The reform of the Dail procedures is a sine qua non. In fact, I wouldn’t mind the continuation of this government (it’s behaviour is being strictly invigilated by the Troika in any event) if it were to secure political agreement on a comprehensive set of politcial reforms that could be put to the people on its departure from office.

Can we move the discussion on to the looting of the public purse by retiring politicians and senior civil servants.

@Eamonn Moran
The only problem with the whip system is that it doesn’t go far enough, from what I can see.

One of the major issues with the electoral system in Ireland is it produces a hyper-focus on the local level, to the detriment of all else. By using the single transferable vote we make every election a ferocious local popularity contest, and so TDs must needs indulge in clientielism, trading votes for favours, fixing the right potholes, doing small favours for big families, and national questions fall by the wayside. What they do on the national level rarely if ever enters the voter decision making process, which is why you see villains getting back into power while the TD that brought in free education promptly lost her seat.

Of all of the scores of countries using proportional representation, its only us and Malta using the STV for national elections. Most of the rest use the party list system, where people vote for the party, not for the politician. Some might fear that moving Ireland to a PL system will lead to a democratic deficit – but the top five most democratic countries in the world use the PL system, so we have nothing to fear on that front.

Local concerns need to be confined to the local arena; if representatives are to work on the national stage they must be free to do so without interference from voters intent on getting their Tommy off his speeding ticket, or getting planning permission for the extension.

Using the party list system means that party policies are rewarded or punished directly by the electorate, as it should be, for as one people we rise or fall, not as the people of South Kerry or Galway West. I mean Labour didn’t even bother releasing any national policies at all until a couple of weeks after the election announcement. A political party with no policies! Madness.

@Donal O’Brolcain

What did the Seanad do to prevent the the citizens of Ireland being impoverished by the bank bailouts?
No doubt the Senators will put up a much better fight now that their own pockets are in danger.

Seanad doesn’t matter either way. Abolishing it won’t fix our national finances, keeping it won’t improve Government accountability. I couldn’t care less what happens to it.

The real problem is in the insulation of Government from any scrutiny apart from a General Election. We can vote them in or out every 5 years, but otherwise they are immune from any scrutiny from any other institution. Courts, Dail, Civil Service are all beholden to the all powerful Taoiseach.

Our constitution is a bit dated and invests almost all power in the Taoiseach. He can appoint or sack the Government and hence can dominate the Dail in a way that renders this chamber ineffective. As a party leader he will only choose Ministers from his own side, or at most he might include a few coalition partners.

When the Bunreacht was drawn up, authoritarian, strong Government was the fashion right across europe. the feeling was that you needed a powerful voice at the centre that could mobilise resources and protect the State’s interests. It was probably the right thing to do at the time, but since then, things have evolved and there is less need for a political strongman to coordinate everything. instead we yearn for a little more scrutiny and a little less secrecy.

I propose that the Government should be elected by the Dail instead of appointed by the Taoiseach. Ideally, they would be elected in a PR system that would allow minority parties (their voters are citizens too) a proportional say in Governance. It would spell the end of partisan politics and open up space for a more deliberative Dail, with individual TDs empowered to speak their minds and hold the Government to account/support Government policy without ruining their own prospects.

Myth one: Ireland has too many TDs.

The focus on how many TDs Ireland has distracts from the substance of the political reform debate. If the Dáil had a 100 less or a 100 more TDs it would not have prevented the economic crisis. The debate should instead be focused on what the actual powers the legislature should have in holding the one of Europe’s most centralised executives to account.

Where is McCarthy’s research or evidence for this catchy statement: “Under the current Irish system, we have 166 TDs and 60 Senators, for a total of 226 national parliamentarians. This is rather a lot for a small country.”

According to Prof Michael Gallagher:
“The Dáil has 166 TDs for around 4.2 million people, ie around 1 per 25,000 people. On this basis the UK would have c2,200 MPs, while India would have c46,000 – so it might seem that the Dáil is over-staffed. On the other hand, with such a ratio Malta would have only 16 MPs and Luxembourg 19, well below what those countries actually do have, so now it might seem that the Dáil is under- staffed. If Ireland employed India’s ratio it would have just 2 TDs, if it employed Malta’s ratio it would have around 680.

All of this illustrates the obvious point that the smaller the country, the higher the number of MPs per head of population. The general relationship identified by Taagepera and Shugart is that the size of a country’s parliament is approximately equal to the cube root of its population, which in Ireland’s case would be 162. In short, Ireland is not over-staffed with TDs in comparative terms, especially when it’s borne in mind that unlike larger countries it doesn’t have a tier of provincial / regional MPs.”

Republics are not necessarily meant to be democratic but then again we are not a republic and possibly never were.
We are a protectorate – but is Rome protecting us from London ? , is New York protecting us from Washington ?, is Paris protecting us from Frankfurt ? – will there be anybody left to Shepard into that great debt pen in the sky?
Who gives a F$£K.
Will the last citizen slave please turn out the lights.

This is one of better made arguments I’ve seen for Seanad abolition. And you do agree that far more reform is needed. A poster on another website commented that Seanad abolition is to political reform what amputation is to weight loss 🙂

I’m not convinced that cutting political representation is going to help within the current setup. We’re a typical enough sized parliament. Many countries get by well enough with smaller unicameral chambers. But most of these countries operate using some kind of list system. I like PR-STV. It’s fair, proportionate and there’s a strong bond between politician and constituent. Perhaps too strong. The only thing I’d change is to increase the constituency size to 10 or more. But list systems also have their flaws. Rather than being accountable to constituents, politicians are now more accountable to party selectorates. A downside of our electoral system is that TDs spend a large portion of their time doing constituency work. Tinkering with parliamentary procedures and standing orders is not going to change this underlying fact. A more empowered secretly elected Ceann Comhairle would be a good thing. So would strengthened committees. But none of this will change the underlying constituency workload. Reducing the Dáil size by 20 certainly won’t help with this. After the 30 or so ministers and junior ministers are appointed, we may be left with 40 or 50 government backbenchers spread very thinly over all these revamped committees, and still juggling this with their constituency work. Contrast that with the house of commons, where almost 700 members are nearly falling over themselves to get onto committees.

Alterations to Dáil procedures won’t help this. Solutions?

We could go to a more elitist list based system. Personally don’t like this.

Another alternative would be a deeper more structural separation between legislature and executive, not just some tinkering with the rules. Perhaps a setup where the executive could recruit personnel from outside the Dáil. This would also solve the talent problem.

Otherwise, if we keep PR-STV (which has many upsides) I think we’re going to have to accept that our parliament will have to be larger than average for the population size we have. 166 TDs under PR-STV are going to be able to do far less legislating than 166 TDs under some more elitist list system.

A reformed Seanad could perform a lot of extra legislative oversight. As Elaine Byrne was recently pointing out, the Seanad in the early state was remarkably effective. Even if we ended up with an institution even half way in effectiveness between that and what we have now it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. Or it could staff quite a few of these strengthened committees that seem to be the big answer to all our problems.

If we need to save money that badly, then cut Oireachtas salaries and expenses even further. But to be very contrarian, and to say something probably very unpopular, I think if it’s decided to stick with PR-STV and essentially the same executive/legislature model (even with some minor improving tweaks), then we’d be much better served actually increasing the number of TDs. My guess is that 300 TDs under the current system would be about as effective 166 TDs under some continental list system. Unless we radically change the system, I think we will have to accept that a high level of representation is the price that needs to be paid for the political setup we have. I’m yet to be convinced otherwise.

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Myth two: The Seanad should be scrapped because it will save the exchequer money.

McCarthy argues, “most countries of our size make do with a single-chamber parliament”. That is true. But most countries Ireland’s size are consensual democracies. Ireland has a Westminster parliamentary system with an exceptionally powerful executive. Abandoning the Seanad only strengthens the power of an already excessively dominant executive. Analysing the world only through the prism of cost suggests that the President, local government and a couple of government departments should also be scrapped. The slide to democratic centralism, which began with the abolishment of the Seanad, would be complete.

The Seanad in its current form is indefensible. A radically reformed Seanad would save Ireland money. As an additional check on government, it would scrutinise legislation and identify legislative shortcomings. From an economic perspective, the micro intervention of abolishing the Seanad would have long-term macro consequences. Positive reform would provide the Seanad with additional powers to review proposed EU legislation, initiate constitutional referendums on matters of public importance, take presentations from the public on matters of national importance and interview applicants for various prescribed public positions.

Economists talk to economists and political scientists talk to political scientists. Both disciplines need to get out of their comfort zone and start talking to one another. See you at

“Can we move the discussion on to the looting of the public purse by retiring politicians and senior civil servants.”

For openers, try this
“In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society ” and more on

@Joseph Ryan
“What did the Seanad do to prevent the the citizens of Ireland being impoverished by the bank bailouts?”
Same as most other powers-that-be.

@Elaine Byrne
Just because two political scientists have found a relationship between the size of a parliament and a country’s population does not mean that we should not reduce the numbers of TDs in the Dáil, as an example of “cutting our overheads” at a time of the government having little or no money, raising taxes and cutting back.

IMO, we are overstaffed with TDs, given that the Dáil is completely dominated by the executive, as Niamh Hardiman pointed out in her excellent paper on the ‘The Impact of the Crisis on the Irish Political System’ at a Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland Symposium on Resolving Ireland’s Fiscal Crisis November 2009 see p. 12 and p.32

Until we have complete separation of powers between the Dáil (Legislature, Representative Assembly) and the Rialtas (Government, Executive), we should use the 1:30,000 criteria for the number of TDs.

Unlike abolishing the Senate, this does not need a change in the constitution and could be done in time for the next election.

“We should be considering political reform to lay the foundations for a 32-county state. A unified Ireland is going to happen certainly within most of our lifetimes ….”

God forbid.

Unless, of course, it comes about as a result of this state’s joining a new United State of Great Britain and Ireland.


@tull mcadoo – “Can we move the discussion on to the looting of the public purse by retiring politicians and senior civil servants.”

It was a given that any FF’er who could get a pension and not have to stand in an election and be humiliated would take it. We’ve only seen the first wave of them so far. Which civil servants are looting?

@Elaine Byrne,

Previously I saw some merit in a reformed Seanad – and argued the case on this board (can’t find the link), but the political wind seems to have changed and it is now as good as dead. (FF, of course, is well aware that it will cause more grief internally in FG and Labour than it will for itself.)

The push should now be for reform the Dail to compensate for what the Seanad should have being doing, but wasn’t able to and to stregthen the legislature relative to the executive.

And as for getting members of the disciplines out of thier respective silos, perhaps we need a new board –

I’m a little unsure about the appetite for reform in the public services. Cant decide between:

“What do we want? Prognostication!
When do we want it? Err?”

“What do we want? Gradualist reform with no redundancies or pay reductions!
When do we want it? In due course, after a few reports and a referral to the European Court and if the economy hasn’t turned the corner by then!”

@Brian J Goggin – even Peter Mandelson said Gerry Adams would probably see a united Ireland in his lifetime…. and he should know, being the Prince of Darkness and all that!

May I suggest that the problems withen both upper and lower houses is not their structure but simply a lack of talent and a lack of madness.
We as a people are just not good enough.
We deserve this – we asked for the worst possible representation and received gombeens by the 100s.
I do not expect a House of Lords in such a provincial backwater Capital but with the possible exception of Senator Norris there is not a decent Senator amongest them.
Democracy has been a disaster for Ireland – we are incapable of making rational decisions – however destroying the illusion of democracy may be disturbing for the masses.
At least have a senate independent of constituency politics that will in some minor fashion counterbalance the powerful hybrid political machine of the Gombeen with the bank.

@Keith Cunneen
I recommend you read my earlier post on the political system here (insisted upon by British authorities) before you go firing off a welter of racist generalisations.

@tull mcadoo
“Can we move the discussion on to the looting of the public purse by retiring politicians and senior civil servants.”

Is this the kind of thing you mean
“In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society” ?
for more see

@Joseph Ryan
“What did the Seanad do to prevent the the citizens of Ireland being impoverished by the bank bailouts?”
As much as the others powers that be!

@Elaine Byrne
Just because two political scientists found a mathematical relationship between the size of a country’s population and its legislature, does not mean that we should not reduce the number of TDs.

At a time of the government having no money, being unable to raise what it needs from the usual sources and thus cutting back public services, investment in infrastructure, raising taxes etc, how can anyone exempt the number of TDs from similar cutbacks?

Unlike abolishing the Senate, this can be done without changing the constitution. It is easy to convene the Constituency Review Group with terms of reference to re-draw boundaries using the 1:30,000 criteria. It could be done before the next election.

Given the complete dominance of the Dáil by the Government, it would make little difference to the quality of our way of governing ourselves. An example of more on this, I suggest Niamh Hardiman’s excellent paper on the Impact of the Crisis on the Irish Political .System, , in particular her comments on p.12 the diagrams on p.32

Until we have a complete separation of the Rialtas (Government, Executive) from the Dáil/Senate (Legislature, Representative Assembly), a lesser number of TDs and Senators might reduce the amount of noise in our public discourse.

Without such a separation, yet another drive to reform the Senate is a wombat – a waste of money, brains and time.

I have to agree with Elaine Byrne that the shape of the political apparatus of the state should not be determined on whether it saves 25 million here or there. This should be obvious and it is in some ways frightening that so many otherwise informed commentators can lapse when it comes to the political system.

Whether the Senate should be retained and reformed or abolished is an important issue in our overall attempt to significantly improve the effetiveness of our political machinery. The only cost that should be considered here is not the cost of senatorial salaries or running the second house, but the cost in terms of an effective, efficient, responsive, and accountable system of governance. By efficient I don’t mean in terms of what it costs to run but in terms of how it runs and the quality of its decisions.

A dictatorship I’m sure would cost less but that is hardly where we want to go.

The other point I think Elaine makes very well is on the number of TDs. Again the mistake here is to focus on quantity rather than quality. True it would probably be better to have larger constituencies to combat the dreadful, debilitating parish pump politics that is ruining our national parliament, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer TDs. In fact, if the Dáil was working effectively the bulk of the TDs would be very very busy, not getting passports and medical cards, but debating and finessing the significant bulk of legislation that a modern, complex, twenty first century state requires. Even the amount of information that needs to be mastered for effective decisions in Europe or in terms of world trade, would be enough to argue for not stripping away brainpower.

The trouble of course is, we don’t have brainpower, and that which we have is deployed on irrelevant projects in terms of national common good. Here is where it must be back to quality versus quantity. The question is this: how can we attract bright, capable people into politics from a wide spectrum of backgrounds who are capable of giving us effective leadership, or even, God love us, inspiration, at a national level. Tinkering with numbers, be it Senate or TD numbers is not the answer.

If we eliminate the Senate, that doesn’t solve the problem that we have today – an ineffective main chamber and ineffective Civil Service, which Civil Service has problems both in terms of policy development and in terms of actual effectiveness.

We had a related discussion a while back..April or so last year. Here’s my simple suggestion from that time. This only addresses one aspect, that of the main chamber’s focus on national policy.

@Hugh Sheehy
The party list electoral system is pretty much designed to remove the focus on the parish pump, we need that rather than trying to bandaid the STV system.

@Ronan Burke

I am sorry but the History of Irish America where all politics is local disproves your point.
Even Cromwell was shocked that the local population loved the King more then the English.
Back then the republicans were the banks but now the banks are royalists – given their monopoly of power.
The symbols on your website are a product of a strange period of time in Ireland where Anglo Irish mysticism commingled with Romes foot soldiers educated at a basic enough level to be useful for their purposes.
The whole Irish Republic is a illusion – the French must be laughing their heads off at this “Republic”
(although for the first time in its history the
République Française has made a loss – they must now be worried for their investments in this little sod.)

@Hugh Sheehy
The US does not and never has used a party list system, and we certainly aren’t living in the time of Cromwell, attitudes have changed a bit since he brought his warped perspective to the country.

I have no idea what your comments on the Amhrán Nua website or the Republic have to do with the discussion.

any senior CS -say above AS level is leaving with a pension pot greatly in excess of the maximum that could be obtained in the private sector and its is comletely unfunded. I call that looting. it is not as if they did the State much service. Most rose to their current status under FF and are thus compromised.

Ronan Burke
ah the list system the panacea for all our ills. The Taoiseach XI is the nearest thing to a list system in our parliament. look at the tulips that it has produced. A full list system would remove the last vestige of connection between the pols and the electorate. We would just end up with uber hacks such as Ivor Callelly.

@Ronan Burke
I assume Hugh Sheehy refers to me.
Anyhow I give up.
Please excuse me I must go and collect a bag of spuds from the local veg.

@tull mcadoo
I’ve already posted in this thread on the number of countries using the party list system (most of them) and the inevitable result of allowing the electorate to vote for national representatives directly, which applies to any country. Which is why most countries don’t use it.

Have you any objections to this idea that are founded in reality, evidence based, preferably with examples? The top five most democratic countries on earth use the party list, why would we suffer from it?

Let people vote for parties and national policies, and the voting dynamic changes, successful policies wil be rewarded and those who go where the wind blows like FF would be removed.

It seems to me that economists get ‘political reform’ wrong because they examine it in pure cost-benefit terms. If institution X costs the public exchequer anything that is > Y it should be abolished. It is a very crude (and potentially dangerous) way to approach a topic that deserves significant attention.

It also seems to me that a lot of political scientists get ‘political reform’ wrong because they only focus on the formal properties of how institutions operate (i.e. the formal properties of election procedures, parliamentary commitees, administrative structures) rather than analysing (empirically) how the politics actually operates.

Whilst institutions are important (and provide significant constraints and opportunities for actors) they are less important to the real power-relations that underpin them. The formal properties of institutions do not determine political outcomes (hence the irrelavance of the Seanad), those with sufficently organised power resources do. Hence, any attempt at real ‘political reform’ must challenge and change the underlying ‘power relations’ that dominate Irish society.

I am not proposing a list system. List systems further disconnect the electorate from their representatives.

I prefer locally elected TDs (people should feel a connection to TDs), but TDs should be representatives on the National stage and not lobbyists in some game where whoever directs the most pork to their constituency or whoever creates the most numerous clientele wins.

TDs should not be going to funerals and weddings and sorting out people’s medical cards, potholes or such.

As the old perfume ad said “It shouldn’t be allowed”.

Mind you, we should also have reform of local govt and of central administration too, so that there is someone who can sort out the medical card and fix the potholes.

@Hugh Sheehy

From the 2010 rankings of the most democratic countries on earth:

1. Norway – full party list system
2. Iceland – full party list system
3. Denmark – full party list system
4. Sweden – full party list system

You are absolutely correct that the powers of local government need to be marginally built up to deal with problems formerly handled by TDs, but there is no question that a party list system introduces a democratic deficit or somehow does not represent the people or creates a gap between the electorate and elected.

What we have now with the single transferable vote system is the inheritance of seats and a situation whereby TDs can do what they like on the national level as long as they keep filling in the potholes, which has lead in no uncertain terms to our current national difficulties.

@ Ronan Burke

How about my idea plus making the individual interest stuff the job of councilors. There are some parts of the country where it is possible to get elected without having to make parish pump promises. I think Pat Rabitte, Ruiri Quinn and even George Lee were good examples. If people think that they can no longer go to their TD for personal reasons it would be a game changer.
But I do Like PR. It gives smaller parties a chance to get a similar percentage of seats as they have popularity.

@ Eamonn Moran
I would agree the Seanad needs to go, although the question of a unicameral Dáil is far less clear. Since that’s basically what we have anyway however, what harm. The party whip system doesn’t go far enough – national parties need to live and die by their national policies, not by their clientilism on the local level. This is the behaviour that is enforced in the party list system.

Right now national policies are released almost as an afterthought by parties in Ireland, and even then only as a gesture to sweep up the undecideds and the nationally minded.

The party list system is PR-based also.

@Ronan Burke
Those countries may be the most democratic countries because of other things. They might be even more democratic if they had another system. Correlation is not causation and I still don’t like lists.

Inclusion on the list – and your position on the list – is often driven by internal party politics more than national issues. If we’d like TDs not to be worrying about potholes then I’d also like them not to be worrying about internal party politics more than national politics.

@ Hugh Sheehy
Correlation might not be causation in all cases, but it quite often is. At a minimum it does make it clear that a party list system doesn’t in and of itself introduce a democratic deficit.

So what if list inclusion is based on internal party politics, the votes will go to that party with the most effective policies on the national level. If internal party politics produce the best results for the country, bring it on I say. Those parties that don’t figure out how to put the most effective policies and candidates forward will fall by the wayside.

With the STV, which the vast majority of countries which use PR don’t have, people vote based on the local popularity of the politician, not on the effectiveness of their party’s national politics, which leads to the deranged political setup we have in Ireland right now.

I don’t see how anyone could view that as acceptable.

@Ronan B
Perhaps it’s a point of view difference.

I view a parliament as consisting of parliamentarians, individual people. If you’ll forgive my interpretation, you seem to view a parliament as consisting of political parties.

I’m inclined towards the view that strong parties are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Lists make the party very strong.

@Hugh Sheehy
Parties can only ever be strong if enough people vote for them. In Ireland nobody votes for parties, they vote for politicians, so you have strong parties with weak policies. Using the party list system, policies have to be strong (as in good for the country as a whole) or the party itself falls by the wayside.

As Roosevelt said:

“In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else all go down as one people”

We can never achieve that goal while the likes of Jackie Healy Rae are pulling the country apart with demands for his little corner of the country, and while local popularity contests trump the national interest at the national level.

Who says the Scandinavian countries plus Denmark are the most democratic countries on Earth?

@ tull mcadoo

The data was compiled by “The Democracy Index” run by the Economist Intelligence Unit that measures the state of democracy in 167 countries. It’s based on sixty indicators grouped in five different categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture.

Colm Mccarthy made an unanswerable and, despite the blizzard of verbiage above, unanswered case for the abolition of the Seanad. Just get it over with. All this linking to Dail reform will just prolong the agony.


here we are debating the flawed and parlous nature of our democracy index. Yet the benchmark that you refer to places us 12th out of 167 and above such despotic places as France, Germany the USA and the mother of parliaments in the UK.

The judges clearly don’t see much wrong with pothole filling and med card wangling.

Ah abolish the lot – national/local/semi-state qangoes/civil service/public service institutions/organisations etc – and start again………..


Is this in disguise?; Eoin Bond must be disgusted 🙂

Politcial parties are a necessary evil. The main requirement is reform of Dail procedures to minimise the inevitable ‘tyranny of faction’. Avoiding this ‘tyranny of faction’ was a key factor driving the Founding Fathers’ development of the US system of governance. They were prepared to accept ‘gridlock’ as price worth paying to avoid this tyranny.

Irish (and UK) governing politicians have become too fond of exercising this tyranny. It’s time for Irish voters to elect TDs who will exercise the people’s ultimate authority delegated to them to hold government to account.

60 senators – paid let’s say 140k each including expenses. That’s under 9m.

So the other 16m is what exactly, how much of it is salaries for permanent staff who’ll demand redeployment into the Dail. Maybe they can all just stay in the senate as the senators are rarely there anyway.

From my knowledge of Government building civil servants, redeployment to more demanding and less prestigous areas will be very hard sell indeed.

@ tull mcadoo
Some may be happy with 12th place, others might want to aim their sights a bit higher.

The point is that the party list system does not introduce a democratic deficit, a point that is wholly borne out by the EIU.

The present arrangements for Irish politics were devised in the 1920s and 1930s when the country was vastly poorer than it is today, yet people felt they could afford these democratic arrangements. Now the system may be flawed, and should be changed, but the present debate is using cost to justify a failure of imagination for what an effective upper house would look like.

@Hugh and Ronan

In my humble opinion we need to be cautious before classifying Norway, Sweden Denmark and Iceland as “the most Democratic countries”. Although I will be the first to admit that all four are very open, free and prosperous countries.

Norway (unlike Ireland) endured a break in itś governance due to war time occupation by Germany and has unelected head of state courtesy of the monarchy.

Sweden (like Ireland) did not endure war time occupation. However itś election rules present barriers to poorly funded political parties which most people in Ireland would not consider very “democratic”. Sweden of course also has an unelected monarch.

Denmark (unlike Ireland) also endured war time occupation by Germany and also has an unelected monarch.

Iceland: While I am sure most of the “DOTTIRS” and “SONS” are happy with their system of governance I would not be surprised if one of the oldest legislatures (which is almost as hard to pronounce as their Volcano) in this part of the world implements “quaint” customs and laws which would not look out of place in an earlier century.

While the grass is always “greener on the other side” we can only examine the exact shade when we are closer.

I agree that scrapping the Seanad is a “big political reform”!

So big in fact that (IMHO) proposals to scrap it should not be “rushed out” with only a few weeks left before the General Election. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow as soon as the Seanad is gone there will be pundits bemoaning the speed of its “trial and execution”. The next Dail should put this matter to debate and referendum.

One must wonder what relevance WW2 German occupation has here, along with suppositions about Iceland and missing that Ireland has its own powerless head of state? In particular with reference to the points already made on STV versus PL systems?

@Ronan B
I don’t want to dominate the thread with one point so this’ll be my last point on the subject…
The suggestion I was making would involve all TDs being prohibited from taking action on any purely local issue. Jackie Healy-Rae’s current raison d’etre would disappear.

If abolishing the Senate gets rid of Showband Managers, Puffed Up Journalists, Poets and other assorted wasters paid ridiculous salaries,expenses and pensions for turning up in Dublin once in a while I am in favour of it.

Now if abolishing the Dail got rid of more overpaid,expensed, pensioned dopey wasters who could not see the runaway train that was Ireland then the Voters will have done much service for Ireland. Scrapping the Dail is a Bigger Political Reform that would save the country Billions that might give us a balanced Budget for a change. Maybe if we just voted for a President for a fixed term who appointed a Cabinet of Competent people we might get more value for our Tax Euro !!!!!!!!!

I support Hugh’s point fully. We need a way of electing national politicians who’s only remit is national issues. It would be one way of cutting down on the gombeen culture we have in Dail Eireann. The local clown with the combover is not going to get elected on his promise to build a new ring road then.


I beg to disagree. I repeat that the only list system we have in Ireland is the T XI. This comprises people wh not only failed to get elected to the Dail but also failed to get elected to the Rotten Borough that is the Senate. And do not start me on the rotten boroughs of TCD and NUI.

Lists get drawn up by Political parties. The Dail comprises people nominated by parties & no party but elected b the people. I go with that every time. I would prefer open primaries to select candidates, 3 seaters and perhaps a 30-40 member list with a 5% hurdle to keep out the crazies-sort of like Germany which has a bigger democratic deficit than us according to the EIU.


your proposal is unworkable-who decides local v national-a quango. We leave aside the issue of whether or not it is democratic. I would want my TD in the corner on genuine local issues such as the provision of public service.

“It seems to me that economists get ‘political reform’ wrong because they examine it in pure cost-benefit terms. If institution X costs the public exchequer anything that is > Y it should be abolished. It is a very crude (and potentially dangerous) way to approach a topic that deserves significant attention. ”

The alternative is to do what the political scientists have done here: first, assert without explanation why formal powers of EU scrutiny or so forth are worth any amount of money; second, lecture the rest of us on how we need to listen to them more!

@ Tull

If we continue with what we have then we have those who are best at getting elected locally, term after term, running the country.
The ability to get elected and the ability to manage a country are poles apart, especially in Ireland. There must be some other means for the people to select 100-150 capable men and women to govern. Given whats happened in the last few years, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to aggressively pursue other options.

On reflection, what is the point of saving €25 million when billions seems to disappearing right under the noses of NAMA. Billions that the taxpayers of Ireland will have to stump up.
How about disbanding NAMA and replacing it with a few strong Galway men, with hurleys-coached by Sylvie Linnane. There would be huge savings in closing down NAMA. And a lot more money coming into the coffers after the boys with the hurleys called round!


I agree with you that Political Scientists (???) like the Turkeys will not vote for Christmas because that keeps them in jobs. But for a country that announced yesterday a Deficit of €18.7 Billion for 2010 it must be time to decide enough is enough of wasting Taxpayers money. They have not even dealt with a handful of the savings required set out in Colm Mc Carthy’s Report.

@tull mcadoo
The STV system is a blight on the country. You seem to envision a system where the politicians aren’t directly elected, and yet the parties somehow stay in power without getting votes, which means you don’t really understand the party list system. Pointing to the Seanad as an example of a party list system merely reinforces this evidence of incomprehension.

Here’s a decent primer to get you up and running:


Do not worry I did not miss anything.

Our dear leader in the Park is also relatively “powerless” but at least most of us occasionally get a direct and indirect say in who gets to hold garden parties there.

It is regrettable if you feel compelled to “wonder what relevance WW2” has to democracy in Europe.

As far as Iceland is concerned my recollection is that you chose to include that country when you presented your argument. Consequently it would only be fair and polite for me to reciprocate your kindness and generosity.


This would be an important move in a deeply conservative society where change only happens, if at all, after a crisis.

When Enda Kenny made this proposal, one vested interest said it was akin to measures taken by Nazi Germany.

Of course, a politician’s recklessness could destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people and be spared such a comparison.

While it is important that other reforms are also introduced and the move should not be because of cost, it is important to understand the impact that the scrounging and featherbedding at senior levels of the civil service has on staff at lower ranks.

The Irish are much better at talking and arguing than implementing change (where are the idiots who really expect ‘transformational’ change to result for the slow-motion talks on the Croke Park agreement?) and unless the new government hits the ground running on reform, there will be a gabfest running out the clock that will make the Lisbon Treaty obsessions with military conscription, abortion and resource wars in Africa, look like Noddy’s playtime.

As for the messenger-boy system, recall when the soon to be retired minister, Tony Killeen, disclosed that his constituency office mailed more than 14,000 letters annually. The Tammany Hall type system of course could resource citizen bureaux to handle queries on welfare, pensions etc rather than this daisy chain system involving a large number of public staff.

A small number of the 216 members of the Oireachtas have competently addressed the issues arising from the economic crash; can anyone say that the provision of ‘parliamentary assistants’ and research resources has made any difference.

Abolishing the Seanad and reducing the number of TDs are headline grabbing, knee jerk reactions that do not reform politics. There will be no noticeable difference to how politics operates from these changes.

The problem with Irish politics is an excessive focus on local issues. Abolishing the Seanad and reducing the number of TDs does nothing to tackle this.

Instead of abolishing the Seanad, it should be elected using a party list system and given equal power to the Dail. This means that the entire country is one constituency and the electorate can only vote for the party of their choice. They cannot vote for candidates. This removes local issues from politics in the Seanad.

The parties can then nominate Senators based on the proportion of the vote they get: If Labour get 10% of the vote, Labour can nominate 6 Senators. Each party now has the opportunity to bring people from outside politics into the Seanad. There should be no limit on the number of Senators that can be Ministers. This would bring outside expertise right into the heart of the cabinet.

Independents should also be allowed run for the Seanad. If they get 1/60th of the national vote, they win a seat.

If the Seanad had equal powers to the Dail (could actually veto and propose legislation), Senators will not use their time in the Seanad to eye up a seat in the Dail. They would not focus on local issues in a particular constituency – their constituency is the entire country.

This is similar to how Congress in the US works. The House of Representatives (Dail) and Senate have equal power. They can both propose legislation and veto each other’s legislation. They compromise to get legislation through.

The role of the reformed Seanad would be to focus on national issues whereas the role of the Dail would be to remain very connected to citizens on the ground. This is the best way to find a balance between local and national issues.

“Colm Mccarthy made an unanswerable and, despite the blizzard of verbiage above, unanswered case for the abolition of the Seanad. Just get it over with. All this linking to Dail reform will just prolong the agony.”

Yes, he made the case. But for it to happen, a referendum has to be held to change the constitution. So, prolonging the agony has nothing do with Dail reform.

However, we could reduce the number of TDs by 25 (by 15 per cent) using administrative and legals means that are used routinely when constituency boundaries are redrawn and government departments re-organised, usually after elections and/or re-shuffles.
As I pointed out above, it could be done for the next General Election.

Why is this forum funking this easy-to-do measure?

The other issue that is not being faced lost in the verbiage is the fact that the top echelons of the PS enjoy relatively high salaries, pensions the a private sector worker could only dream of and security of tenure. Yet this cadre is responsible more than any other group for the mess we are in.

The top echelons of the DOF and the CB did not spot the credit bubble, allowed the emergence of lax underwriting and acquiesed to a lunatic fiscal policy. Not one of them has had the decency to resign. In fact in the best tradition of the CS, the head of banking policy in 2008 in the DOF was promoted to the top job while the only CEO of a major bank still in situ is in the CB. At least Messrs Goggin and Sheehy are gone into well upholstered retirement.

Everybody above PO level in DOf or CB ought to be fired unless they can produce files saying they said “stop”.


Bord Snip noted (Vol 2 pg 149) that the number of TDs could be as few as 148 (a cut of 18 from the current 166) or as many as 222 within the existing constitutional range, based on the 2006 Census level. The perception that the pols have pitched the number towards the max of what is permitted is misplaced – the reverse is the case. There could be 18 fewer but 56 extra.

There will be 166 in the next Dail and the 2011 Census numbers will emerge in the Autumn, when a constituency review is required. Chances are that the population will be up only a little and the minimum will have moved to 150 or 151. To go below that would require a referendum and it is certainly worth considering. But to go way below 150 raises the prospect of the government-after-next emerging from a Dail majority group of no more than say 60, and reasonable people might have worries about that.

@ Colm
Reading all this, I think the form of governance is distracting from the greater issue of the character of the government.
Any form of governance can be subverted for factional ends.

If ones analysis turns to the character of government and clear subversion of the national interest be identified, it should then be declared so and the subverter and their constituency clearly notified as to the situation, and how the national interest worsened.

We have a factional mindset, from the parish to the county teams, etc

Ok – call me dumb:
Politicians exercise power
no power = no politicians
The dail is also a waste of money! Honestly this is not meant to be inflamatory. Which thunderbird do you want implementing the banks’ policies – Gilmore or Kenny??

Hey there! What does all this have to do with the Irish Economy? Not a lot on the face of things. Looks like the blog is being used as a convenient pulpit by yet another pundit eager for the swift and destructive abolition of the Seanad.

The lack of debate on this is beyond shocking. How many countries have decided to scrap their upper house of parliament in the space of less than three months as is being proposed? The Property Ascendancy seems to have made its mind up very quickly on this one.

The long knives are out for the only institution in the state that has given us public representatives like David Norris, Joe O’Toole, Shane Ross and Mary Robinson(I can see why some don’t like the place). An institution with massive potential which was never given a chance. Meanwhile the Dail benches were all but _empty_ during every debate on the Budget, IMF/EU deal, and bank bailout. Everyone knows where and what reform is really needed.

I’m disappointed in you McCarthy; you used to at least have the diligence to produce a report before you recommended cutting something. I guess in this country, the government only needs reports for things it won’t do.

“Colm Mccarthy made an unanswerable and, despite the blizzard of verbiage above, unanswered case for the abolition of the Seanad. Just get it over with. All this linking to Dail reform will just prolong the agony.”

Colm McCarthy makes a good argument. But I don’t believe there are cut and dried answers here. There’s no doubt the Seanad is a damaged entity. But when something is damaged, do you fix it or dump it?

As an analogy, suppose I own a rundown and leaky cottage out the back of my house and it’s a terrible eyesore.
Do I:
a) leave it as it is, and be forced to look out my back window at it every morning for the next umpteen years?
b) spend some money and employ an architect and contractors to renovate the building?
c) just get a JCB and knock the whole damn thing down, and spend any money left over on the first house?

The answer, of course, will depend on how damaged or renovatable I think the building is, how much money I have to spend, and also crucially assumes my first house is not an even bigger wreck than the one out the back. Same with the Seanad. Opinions on these kinds of considerations will vary. And so will people’s ideas for the Seanad.

I think it’s worth renovating. You probably think it’s a smouldering ruin, which should be demolished with a large wrecking ball! 🙂 Fair enough!


“For a start, that reform package must lessen the power of the Executive over the Dail, such as guillotining of legislation, as well as the power of the Dail parties’ ridiculous whip system within the Dail. As things stand, the Dail only exists to comment on decisions that are already made by the Executive. So long as a government commands a Dail majority, there is nothing the opposition can say or do to substantially change any measure proposed by the Executive. ”

Surely the influence of the dail is far far greater than this. For sure a government won’t introduce legislation that it doesn’t expect will pass unless it has to, but the requirement to get dail approval substantially limits what legislation the government introduces to the dail in the first place.

Having checked your reference to your own report, I find that the following

“ The most recent population estimate from the Central Statistics Office put the April 2008 population at 4,422,100. On this basis, the number of TDs could be no fewer than 148, but could be as many as 222. The number of TDs could be reconsidered when the results of the April 2011 Census become available, probably in the Autumn of 2011, and there could be scope to decide on a reduction in the numbers.”

Unlike your Review Group, I used the 2006 Census (4,239,848 people result in my submission to the Review which you chaired, on the basis that constituencies boundaries are reviewed after a formal Census – not on the basis of population estimates, not matter how authoritative the source is.

Did your Review Group staff mislead you?

@Dearg Doom
re “The present arrangements for Irish politics were devised in the 1920s and 1930s when the country was vastly poorer than it is today, yet people felt they could afford these democratic arrangements”

The reason people felt that they needed these democratic arrangements in the 1920’s and 1930’s was that they believed that such institutions would work for the benefit of the citizens of the country.
We know now from experience that all of our “democratic” institutions were completely ineffective in protecting the citizens of the country, choosing instead to line their own pockets at public expense.
It would not bother me one iota if the Presidency, Seanad, Dail and Supreme Court were abolished in the morning. To run the country we could elect 15 ministers at random from the population, having fired all civil servants above PO level.
They could hardly make a worse job of it than the governments and institutions of the last 12 years.

Well said Colm McCarthy and Cormac Lucy. I only wonder if we would not benefit from some kind of directly elected second chamber populated by politicians who focus only on national issues, who are banned from addressing local issues or making any representations, who cannot be affiliated to a party on the lower house, who can propose legislation and have access to support staff etc

Btw, how many nintendo rating points for an article in the farmers journal?? 😉

@Ronan Burke
“We can never achieve that goal while the likes of Jackie Healy Rae are pulling the country apart with demands for his little corner of the country, and while local popularity contests trump the national interest at the national level.”
Ah Ronan, you have it arsy-versy. It is the voters who re-elect him. It is the mainstream parties for whom power is everything, so casinos in Tipp and Erectile Dysfunction Units in Kilgarvan are given out like blue smarties to the pathetic sharks.

We will never achieve that goal while we have so many stupid and greedy people in the country. And you can include the lumpen property speculators countrywide in that sweep too. Picking on one form of stupidity and greediness in this country is like judging a beauty contest for pigs. You can do it, but you look silly.

PS can we scrap the Teeshop and El Pres while we’re at it? The MoF and his DoFfers seem to both own everything and make all the decisions anyway. I’m sure a number of government ministers could also get the chop as the answer to every request for funding is going to be no, so effectively they’ll all be minister without portfolio…

The make up of the Government in terms of numbers and whether we have one house or two houses is immaterial. The problem in Ireland is the preponderance of greedy, short sighted voters who vote for kindred spirits. Once the realisation dawns that we get the Government we vote for then voting behaviour may change.
My honest opinion is that the problem is bred in the bone and so firmly entrenched that nothing less than 20% employment will bring about major change.


Yes, perhaps my statement is a bit sweeping but in essence, and in recent experience of the workings of Dail Eireann, I believe it is correct. Over the years there have been some courageous TDs who chose, on occasion, to swim against the tide of their parties and a political and media consensus on particular national issues, but they have become fewer and farther between in recent times. Des O’Malley comes to mind, not just for standing up to his own party’s ludicrous position on socially liberalising legislation (for which he got chucked out of Fianna Fail in due course) but notably in the mid-eighties for leading the charge against a ridiculously protectionist proposed Bill on air travel on which, by the force of argument, he persuaded the government of the day, and his parliamentary colleagues, to abandon.

On other forums, Labour TD Joanna Tuffy has argued trenchantly against a precipitous abolition of the Seanad. Now that her own ‘Duce’ has pronounced on the matter, I expect she will keep her mouth shut about her own views. Well, if she has any aspirations to furthering her political career in the next Dail she will anyway and who can blame her.

In the Bertie era, Mr Ahern regularly and deliberately sidestepped the Dail when it came to the announcement of major policy initiatives. The Opposition didn’t even get the opportunity to critique such policies until after the all bells and whistles media presentation had taken place somewhere else; which rendered their subsequent critiques as either carping or irrelevant. To be fair to Cowen and Lenihan, they have shown more respect for the parliamentary process than Ahern ever did. The whole charade of ‘social partnership’, which has ultimately ended in tears, is another example of the Executive taking issues of national importance outside the parliamentary domain, as has been the unjustifiable ‘quangoisation’ of whole areas of national social policy such as the HSE and health.

The role of the media needs to be critically examined as well – as it has itself dumbed down, so has its coverage in volume and scope of parliamentary and public affairs. Media coverage of politics has become increasingly trivialised in its nature – note how the question of who presents a bowl of shamrock to Barack Obama on St. Patrick’s Day is currenlty being built into an issue of national importance. We have an excellent cadre of political and parliamentary correspondents, but parliamentary coverage has diminished remarkably in the past two decades. It has also shifted from issues coverage to smart alec soundbites in the main.

Far from making an ‘unanswerable’ case for the abolition of the Seanad and in light of previous comments on this thread from Elaine Byrne, Tomaltach and Donal O’Brolchain among others, I think that Colm’s argument is flawed: the proposal to abolish the Seanad respresents posturing by the political parties in response to public anger at the manifest failure of our political institutions and the mediocrity, with few exceptions, of our political class. Further, since the process of dismantling the Seanad will take considerable time, the abolition proposal is no more than a distraction and will act as a delaying mechanism from the sort of reforms that could easily be implemented without recourse to legislation or constitutional referenda, such as reducing the number of TDs and changing standing orders of the Dail, extensive reform of the workings of both the Dail and Seanad etc., that would be far more effective in delivering an institutional framework that actually works properly and is answerable to the public that elects it.

While we are on the subject of size and representation I would like to mention a certain cliché that has become widely used lately and I’ve certainly heard it from several commentators in media. It is the comparison with Ireland and ‘Greater Manchester’. We have a population of similar size appartently and therefore why would we need x or y when manchester doesn’t have one. This is the same type of reductio ad absurdum that characterises the comparisons with the number of MPs per head in say India, the US, or Germany.

Manchester does not have a minister for defence or foreign affairs, does not have a seat at the UN, is not a member of the EU, the WTO, etc.

India, the US, and Germany are of course federal and have several tiers of government, unlike Ireland which is small and centralised. As Elaine mentioned above, small countries and large ones cannot usefully be compared. In short, history, culture, demographics, and size, matter.

@ ObsessiveMathsFreak

The long knives are out for the only institution in the state that has given us public representatives like David Norris, Joe O’Toole, Shane Ross and Mary Robinson (I can see why some don’t like the place). An institution with massive potential which was never given a chance.

Apart from the franchise of the educated or more likely than not, people who have had education, both Ross and Robinson failed to be elected to the Dáil, which suggests that it was the place they wished to be members of.

In pre-TV and web times, it could be argued that it was worthwhile having a talking shop of almost 60 wasters because of the odd member like Owen Sheehy Skeffington who was willing to sail against the dead orthodoxy.

Some of the university senators reflected the establishment view.

Professor Magennis, who held the Chair of Metaphysics at UCD and was chairman of the Censorship Board said in the Senate in 1943, in support of the banning of The Tailor and Ansty, the account of conversations with the Gougane Barra tailor Tim Buckley and his wife : “My standards do not date back to Queen Victoria’s days; they date back to Moses. The standards under which we operate go back to 1,500 years or so before Christ. If the Senator cares to accuse us of being old-fashioned, I am pleading guilty: I am so old-fashioned as to take my standards of life and conduct from Mount Sinai and not from Seán This and Seán That, whose books have been banned.”

Bottom line is that the Dail must have some real power over the Government. And when i say the Dail, I mean all Deputies, not just those on Government benches.

I heard Jim Power giving out about Healy Rae and Lowry on the radio a few months ago.

Personally, I have seen no evidence that Jim Power has a better grasp of the national situation than Healy-Rae or Lowry or that Jim Power would be more responsible or strategic in power than the two independents.

The reason Healy Rae gets abuse is becasue he speaks with an accent and Lowry gets abuse becasue he floats the odd grandiose plan for tipperary or gets air-time to talk about local concerns.

It’s funny how people abhor the whip but also abhor independents.

Just because independents holding the balance of power have to pursue some local agendas it does not mean that they act against the national interest. Indeed, they have to be conversant with all areas they may be questioned on and cannot just refer to a party policy formulated by somebody else.

@ ObsessiveMathsFreak

Your’s is the only sensible comment I’ve found. If the Seanad is superfluous it has been so for a very long time, so why the sudden rush? Did its failure cause the crash? It seeems the argument is that while we could afford the rudiments of democracy in the 1930’s and 1950’s we cannot now. Rubbish!

This is just spin to deflect people from the crisis and its causes, away from a failed economic theory and towards ‘the politiicans’. The Seanad was set up to be wiser , more expertly informed and less parochial than the Dail. A small minority of its members achieved that objective over the years.

The publicly funded body whose specific failure is most responsible for the crash is the ESRI. Yet strangely McCarthy has nothing to say about that. Anyone really concerned about structural reform and waste of public money would surely demand the reform of that august body?

But Mr. McCarthy shares the same political views as those who failed us in the ESRI, so we don’t really expect any better.

Can any moronic Seanad speech match the 2007 economic review for the damage it caused? Most of the fools in the Seanad at least know that they are fools. Muck savage Senators didn’t popularise the fatal seuctive notion of the ‘soft landing’. Thatcherite neo-liberals in the ESRI did.

Economists of a certain stripe are all for calling for sackings in the public service, except for sacking economists of the same political stripe.

I am also inclined to agree that Independents are not the problem.

However, for Independents and party TDs both, localism is a big problem. TDs not engaging in or caring about national policy is a big problem.

TDs swallow whatever the executive decides because they – as individual TDs – are not elected on policy related issues. They’re elected as party representative (which is policy related, but they’re policy takers) and as local super councillors. This is not entirely an invalid approach, but it’s far far from idea.


“the Dail benches were all but _empty_ during every debate on the Budget, IMF/EU deal, and bank bailout. Everyone knows where and what reform is really needed.”

I would just like to thank the contributor for highlighting where reform is needed. Abolishing the Seanad might have some validity in an overall reform of Irish politics, but as a stand alone policy it smacks of cannon fodder, saving the face of selfish career polititians. At this stage abolishing the Dail would make more sense to me than abolishing the Seanad.

I think decision making should be returned to the local level where possible. There is nothing actually wrong with polititians wanting to serve their local electorate (I’m thinking of Healy-Rae, Lowry et al), what is wrong is that these polititians should be serving that electorate on a local level and not on the national stage. Its the system that needs reform. I believe in reintroducing a system of local government with powers to levy taxes locally, bringng some semblance of power back to people at local level. Sweden for example has a fair syetem of redistributing income taxes that could be looked at.

More discussion on reform can be found at

@ Dave Ryan

I think decision making should be returned to the local level where possible. There is nothing actually wrong with polititians wanting to serve their local electorate (I’m thinking of Healy-Rae, Lowry et al),

Is it any wonder that the country is banjaxed?

In 1997, the same year tribunals were set up to investigate corruption, Bertie Ahern agreed a new allowance for bizarrely dubbed ‘independents’ that over a Dáil term gave them more than €200,000, which they did not have to show any evidence of expenditure.

What sheltered workshop do you inhabit?

The only power left to local councillors and with good reason is rezoning of land and the record there suggests that they shouldn’t have that either unless you believe in a Tammany Hall system.

If you believe that rezoning has generally been motivated by the common interest, you are a fool; there has been a costly tribunal sitting since 1997 investigating planning corruption.

@Michael Hennigan
“The only power left to local councillors and with good reason is rezoning of land and the record there suggests that they shouldn’t have that either unless you believe in a Tammany Hall system.”

Now that Tammany Hall has taken over the highly-centralised state, at both elected and senior levels, where do you suggest that one starts to rebuild this banjaxed state?

It seems to me that getting us on all on the hook for the bank bail-out really is the elephant in the room compared with the undoubted corruption, bad management and inefficiency that is clear in part of local government.

@Hugh Sheehy

There is clearly a problem with the design of the system.

One wonders would a first past the post system make it infeasible for TD’s to address all constituents concerns after they are elected and also force them to concentrate on the issues that are common to all constituents rather than tending assiduously to their “core vote”.

One of the common observations raised about the impacts of the financial crisis is the higher likelihood of the rise of the Right – and not just skinheads, but experts and technocrats with their cross-hair directed on the Constitution. I can’t help observing that behind the apparently irrefutable logic of abolishing the Seanad to save 25 million euro, is a more insidious attack on the messiness of democracy. Does anyone here actually seriously believe that saving 25 million euro will be one jot of difference to the financial crisis we are in – given we learned today that the interest on the national debt is over 4 billion per year? And is it not the case that more rather than less political scrutiny of the behaviour of the state and its institutions are necessary to address the social and political crisis Ireland is mired in. A proposal to abolish the Seanad is a Populist political ruse. The cost-benefit analysis ‘chat’ set out to support it is riddled with unseen and undeclared political ambitions. Certainly the Seanad needs reform – but killing it off is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The problem with a first past the post system is that constituencies in Ireland would be too small – about 22k per constituency? It would easily be possible for ’embedded’ consituencies to come about.

How about larger electoral areas? With multiple constituencies in each, not by geographical grounds, but by random voter selection?

So all of Dublin would be a pool, with four or five consituencies in it, and each voter assigned to one of those constituencies? The other areas would be split by province or economic region (BMW, Midlands etc.).

Still, we’d do a lot more about graft if we jailed politicians caught with their hands in the till and gave them exemplary sentences due to the breach of the public trust…

@ Donal O’Brolchain

Whether central or local, they are cut from the same cloth.

The buck stops nowhere.

@ Denis Linehan

is it not the case that more rather than less political scrutiny of the behaviour of the state and its institutions are necessary to address the social and political crisis Ireland is mired in.

If it’s the same cronies, insiders and aspiring insiders, who would dominate this process, then the answer is no.

As I said elsewhere, Niall Crowley was a rare individual in Ireland who resigned on principle and it’s interesting that he was defending those who would have few to defend them; bishops, politicians, academics, senior public servants and business managers go with the flow as white swans are more likely than black ones.

The Irish don’t like rocking the boat.

We have an annual science budget of €1bn. Wonder why there is no serious scrutiny of it? Is it that we haven’t enough Oireachtas committees?
We’ve heard of FÁS space cadets and Mary Harney’s hair operation.

Recently, it was reported that a “new world-class skills organisation” is planned. Bullshit is cheap of course and maybe the new government will give a plum assignment to management consultants to check out the €1bn training black-hole gravy train.

The Comptroller & Auditor General provides scrutiny and the reaction is usually a shrug of the shoulders; in 2009 he set out the annual litany of public spending waste including a farm waste grants scheme originally expected to cost €248m now due to cost €1.1bn and €71.4m spent on an online project including the abandoned Public Services Broker web portal; €54.4m on voting machines and so on.

There are practical accountability remedies rather than more talking shops.

You come across as one of the conservative majority; we have a part-time parliament that sits about 90 days annually and the systems inherited from the British generally remain intact.

The political system has failed and is in need of reform in many areas; we do have a number of the world’s best run countries in Europe and while we should not blindly copy, we should look at what works.

88 planning authorities – – too many?

Bertie Ahern said in April 2008 that the estimated 800 state agencies/quangos was “too many agencies by half.” 

Like so much else, change happens at glacial speed.

We prefer to talk and why not set up another taskforce to look at the problem?

I accept that your skill is to point out the flaws, weaknesses, bad management, inefficiency and corruption – often citing data and examples from elsewhere.

That digging is still necessary and will always be so. It generates much heat and noise, but not much light or harmony or rhythm – some fora in which we can dance and sing and………

We also need (institutional) designers/composers, specifiers, (political) engineers and (political, institutional) builders/conductors.

Can you point to any who will operate in the messy activity of democratic statecraft?

I just wonder if the salaries of the great Senators was reduced to E10,000 per annum, no expenses and no pensions would we have anyone interested in working in this “great” institution. Lets stop codding ourselves this place is just a gravy train for assorted political wannabees,media junkies and Government appointees. We dont need it and lets get rid of it. Then move on to the Dail and reduce TD salaries to Clerical Officer level in the CS and not Principal Officer as at present together with related expense and pensions. You will be then left with genuine Politicians who want to make real change to the system.

Just reading this debate now, a few days on. Colm McCarthy is correct in what he says, in my view. However, we in Labour have not sought to abolish the Senate simply on grounds of cost and efficiency (though we acknowledge that this must be a factor). Rather, we think that a uni-cameral parliament with real powers of scrutiny and oversight, and with a strengthened committee system, would be the better course to take in renewing our democracy. I suppose it was inevitable that we would be seen as “agreeing with Fine Gael” that the Senate should be abolished. But what we have published is a far-reaching set of proposals for reform of our entire democratic system and institutions – extending far beyond the abolition of the Senate. In this regard I strongly agree with Veronica (post of 6 January) when she says that she will “happily vote good riddance to the Seanad, but only as part of a package of wider reform to democratise our political institutions and make them fit for purpose. It’s not about saving 25m euro, it’s about democracy.” That is precisely the reason we have proposed a Constitutional Convention to provide for careful deliberation on all these vital issues, including whether the Senate should be abolished. Labour will say it should. Those who believe it should be retained can make that case. But chopping off one problem in isolation from the wider debate is not the way to go.

@ Donal O’Brolchain

Individual accountability is the key as collective accountability in practice is generally no accountability.

A fairer society would be a good aspiration; the National Competitiveness Council says in its latest report that there is not a strong appetite in Ireland to tackle high costs in sheltered sectors and who pays for cartel type operations and lawyers becoming very rich investigating corruption?; the politicla response to collective power is evident in the privileges available to public sector workers compared with the typical private sector worker: with less pay, no occupational pension, no job security and no power to enforce attractive redundancy terms.

The Labour Party reform document make the point that “in 1906 Finland abolished its second chamber, as did New Zealand in 1950, Denmark in 1953, Sweden in 1970, Bavaria in 1999, Iceland in 1991 and Croatia in 2001. And since 1937 the State of Nebraska has also had a one-house legislature.

New Zealand has 122 MPs and salaries/expenses are lower than for Irish counterparts.

To those who say €25m is a pittance, the Chinese proverb: a fish rots from the head down,” is apt.

Bord Snip identified more than €5bn of potential savings; gardaí retiring on full pension at 50 and a long litany of other perks that a small bankrupt country cannot afford.

Ireland of course needs more than an economy but try living in a money economy with no money.

I would be grateful if you could indulge a rant from the trenches of 30 somthings with families and negative equity. This is my rant though and does not claim to be representative of that group. As somebody who would love to vote labour I’m finding it very difficult to get enthused.

The Irish parliament will have very little real power. The same process of disenfranchisement will spread to Portugal and Spain.
The labour ethos has always been to keep some controls on capitalism. It knows that unfettered capitalism is dangerous and leads to the kind of calamity that we face now.
In the last 40-50 years we have almost stumbled upon an economic system characterized by a marriage of capitalist and socialist ideals which works better than anything before. It is a system that is under attack and must be defended.

The defence requires that as fiscal austerity is implemented, the process of socialization of private sector debt stops. Bank debt is bank debt and the burden for it should remain in the private sector. State debt is state debt and orderly repayment of that debt can occur through re-adjustment of spending. We are not capable of bringing about this solution ourselves – that is why it must be done at a European level.

The labour party in Ireland is in a unique position to instantly broaden this into a Europe wide issue. It has a pan-European “brand”.

Maybe it’s time to get out of the legislative building be that unicameral or otherwise and start openly talking to our fellow Europeans about debt restructuring, closer budgetary co-operation, adhering to fiscal targets and finding some way of making the ECB do its job in overseeing the flow of capital rather than just controlling German inflation.

The prize is potentially wonderful – the Germans get the discipline in the peripherals they crave, the peripherals never borrow excessively again to fund public spending, the Euro survives and the bankers get their just desserts.

Rather than focus on the minutiae of the workings of an ever more irrelevant parliament at least some energy should be spent in visibly forging alliances to seek a common path out of this.

That’s the end of the rant. Wish you all the best in the elections and would love to see more “fire in the belly” from Labour!



The “wider debate” as per Alex White is just another Croke Park fudge paid for by lower paid private sector workers that Labour has deserted.
Costs at the top level need to cut. The time for debate is over.
Your proposal to cut salaries to €10,000 is excellent.
I’m quite sure that David Norris would still turn up. He is always worth listening to.

Would the nation be better served if the Dail were scrapped and the Seanad retained?

How many TDs even bother to read the heads of the bills they vote through or oppose? On the few occasions I have glimpsed the Seanad in action, at least some semblance of a debate takes place.

If a country soaked to the gills with educated officials, legal bureaucrats, media commentators and policy wafflers cannot manage to operate a bicameral system usefully, perhaps a return to the Commonwealth shouldn’t be ruled out.


You are up to the usual political tricks with this Constitutional Convention. We have Task Forces, Special Reports like Colm Mc Carthys, White Papers, Green Papers etc etc and all ignored. Just put a straight forward Referendum proposal to the people to abolish the Senate Yes or No and you will get a straight answer.

Seanad abolition (whatever the merits for or against) is still a red herring. Seanad abolition is indeed the most radical proposal in both Fine Gael’s and Labour’s political reform policy documents. But once this is stripped out, both are deeply conservative documents. This is not radical reform. They merely propose a re-jigging of the current political setup. Changes in Dáil procedures, improved committees etc.. To use another analogy, if our political system is likened to a clapped out banger, we’re certainly not going to get a new flashy top of the line 2011 reg car. It’s more likely the current banger is just going to be sent to the garage for some servicing, a lick of paint, change of spark plugs, a change of oil. Don’t really think that’s good enough given what has happened. Maybe Labour’s constitutional convention will lead to something more. But many constitutional review groups have met in the past, usually composed of either politicians and lawyers, and have invariably produced something worthy but usually conservative proposals, which are then promptly ignored. Will a constitutional convention composed of 2/3 politicians and lawyers produce anything more radical? Perhaps a 1/3 composition of ordinary citizens might make a difference. But it’s also quite possible the average person on the street’s voice will be drowned out in the loud voices of all the lawyers and TDs.

Even in terms of corporate governance, if I were an investor looking in from the outside would these proposals fill me with confidence? Will there be an end to the golden circle capitalism we seem to run? For example, how independent are the Gardaí when senior Garda promotions are subject to government approval, and the government appointed ombudsman is such a weak entity whose recommendations can be easily ignored? Do the Gardaí have sufficient independence when powerful and influential people are under suspicion? A recent Sunday Times article shone a light on all the canvassing of politicians that went on behind the scenes for government appointments to the judiciary. Do political affiliations matter when seeking to become a judge? Is this setup good enough? Why are our corporate laws so seemingly weak? Seems easier in this country to be prosecuted for falling behind on your credit union loans or failing to pay your television licence than corporate swindling of millions. The Seanad is just a sacrificial lamb in this situation as far as I’m concerned. An attempt for the politicians to pretend to be doing something and simultaneously distract the public from all the other problems in our system.

I agree with you about individual accountability. The issue is how to make that the norm in politics and public administration. I also agree with you that €25m is not trivial.

re. “A fish rots from the head down,”

I am simply very puzzled that Colm McCarthy chose a hard-to-implement measure, instead of an easier to implement measure which would send a very strong signal about reform starting at the top.

Abolishing the Senate cannot be done without a referendum and all that implies of extra costs and delay.

Reducing the number of TDs by 25 can be done using methods are well tried, tested and accepted by most of us (including the TDs and the political class) as the basis on which boundaries are redrawn. According to his report, this would save €6m.

see p. 152 of
“The most recent population estimate from the Central Statistics Office put the April 2008 population at 4,422,100. On this basis, the number of TDs could be no fewer than 148, but could be as many as 222. The number of TDs could be reconsidered when the results of the April 2011 Census become available, probably in the Autumn of 2011, and there could be scope to decide on a reduction in the numbers. For illustrative purposes, a reduction of 12 in the number of TDs would lead to savings of around €3m a year, including savings on the numbers of personal assistants and secretarial staff.”

Yet, 18 months after he submitted his report, he defends maintaining the status quo regarding the number of TDs which his report decided to kick down the road, on what appears to be very flimsy grounds.

In this context, Colm McCarthy’s support for abolishing the Senate has the appearances is a red herring.

If you want to continue looking at the head where the Chinese consider
the first place to rot, why not start with the number of Ministers?

In my submission to An Bord Snip Nua, I also suggested cutting the size of the Cabinet to 7 – a reduction of of over 40 percent. I cannot find any evidence that the Review Group looked at this, but perhaps my search strategy lacks merit!

I also returned to the same issue when there were a number of
vacancies in the Cabinet last Spring see here

[…] And on the surface it also looks like abolition might save the taxpayer some money. Or at least it could be spun that way.  The Seanad costs a reasonable amount, say €25 million, a year and Colm McCarthy and An Bord Snip are all for its downfall (article here). […]

does anyone know the cost [in total ] of running the talk shop called the seanad inc the pensions of past senators how many nurses -teachers -bank tellers ect would be employed if we were to get rid of the most expensive chat shop

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