As Seanad Éireann prepares to mark its centenary in late 2022, Cathaoirleach of the upper house of the Oireachtas, Senator Mark Daly, discusses the importance of its function in providing a platform for minority voices and progress on reform.
Daly, the second youngest individual to hold the office of Cathaoirleach and the first Kerry native to do so, admits that what would have ordinarily been a steep learning curve was exacerbated by the pandemic.
Elected as the 24th Cathaoirleach on 29 June 2020, Daly’s time in office has been uniquely framed by the country’s Covid-19 response, a scenario in which he could not rely on the guidance of his predecessors. However, his work to date, not least on implementing reform and renewal, as well as planning the chamber’s centenary celebrations, have been well informed by his long-term association with the Seanad, to which he was first elected in 2007.
Interestingly, instead of lamenting the pandemic’s impact on his office, Daly embraced the experience as an opportunity for detailed analysis of the backlog of reports on Seanad reform and renewal. Published over several decades, the most recent was the report and draft Bill from the Government-established Seanad Reform Implementation Group (SRIG) in December 2018.
Daly explains that with the support of all leaders and groups in the Seanad, his office has set about implementing the relevant reforms recommended by these reports which are within its power. For instance, for the first time ever, the Seanad must now review the recommendations of parliamentary reports six months after they have been published and hold the relevant minister and chair of committee to account on those actions which have not been progressed.
“The seventh amendment to the constitution is the only referendum put to the people and passed by the people which has not been enacted by successive governments.” – Cathaoirleach Mark Daly
Another part of recent Seanad renewal is increased engagement with the public and Seanad nominating bodies such as charities, trade unions, farmers organisation, businesses, and cultural and education sectors on issues of concern to them, which are now being addressed in the Seanad Panel Forums.
The first high-profile forum focused on the topic of ending the practice of non-disclosure agreements by universities which silence victims and protect the guilty allowing the abuse to continue, with the Government now committed to bringing in legislation to address the problem.
Additionally, the Cathaoirleach has acted on the 2015 Seanad reform report by Maurice Manning which noted that Ireland’s MEPs find themselves without a formal connection to the political structures. As such, on a constituency basis, MEPs are invited to debate and engage with senators on European developments through an audience in the House.
However, as Daly explains, not all necessary reforms are in the gift of the Seanad, namely reform of the electoral system. “To the best of my knowledge, the seventh amendment to the Constitution is the only referendum put to the people and passed by the people which has not been enacted by successive governments,” explains Daly, who believes that the centenary would be a timely moment for government to support legislation giving effect to the amendment which passed referendum over 40 years ago and which would increase the right to vote in a reformed Seanad election from 150,000 voters to potentially millions of citizens.
Additionally, the Cathaoirleach is lobbying for change around the role the Seanad could play in the scrutiny of EU legislation. A constant theme of successive reform reports, Daly explains that he would like to see a shift from the current practice of ministers having total authority to transpose EU Directives through statutory instruments. “In essence what that means is that ministers and their departments add to EU legislation and signing it into Irish law, without consulting TDs, senators, and parliamentary committees, thereby bypassing the democratic process.
“These EU Laws should be subject to scrutiny by the Seanad and Oireachtas in a renewed process,” he adds.
In February 2022, the Cathaoirleach launched Seanad100: Minority Voices, Major Changes, a programme of events to commemorate and celebrate the centenary of Seanad Éireann.
“The Seanad must continue to be the chamber which challenges the status quo.”
Daly believes that the centenary represents an ideal platform to mark and raise awareness of the Seanad’s purpose. “Going back into the history books, our purpose was to represent the unionist, protestant, and loyalist community which found itself on the southern side of the border after partition, to make sure that as a minority, it had a voice and a platform in the new state. Over time, it has evolved to give different minorities and communities a forum for their views,” he says.
“Established during the civil war, the Senate played a role in establishing and consolidating the democratic institution of the State. It has been stated that the first Senate was the most diverse bunch of politicians Ireland has ever had and over time it has continued to facilitate calls for change which societies and governments were not yet ready or willing to make.”
The origins of the Seanad framed the centenary programme, explains Daily. “When you look at what was happening here in the south, where minority communities were being given a disproportionate representation in our new State, compared to what was happening in the North, it shows that the founders of the new state were looking to do things differently.”
The Cathaoirleach emphasises that while the intentions of the original Senate – “to frustrate the government” – have moved on, the upper house continues to represent marginal and minority voices. For this reason, the programme was opened by former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and Senator David Norris, the longest continuously serving seanadóir.
“President Mary Robinson and Senator David Norris are two of the most distinguished members of the Seanad over the last 100 years. Together they have more than 50 years of unbroken service that embodies the Minority Voices, Major Changes Programme. Their contributions during their time as seanadóirí made a lasting impact on the history and daily life of the nation and the State.”
The programme is set to include an exhibition, lectures, a TV documentary, themed tours of Leinster House, Culture Night events and student debates to highlight the contribution the Seanad has made since 1922, ahead of a 100th Anniversary Ceremonial Sitting in December 2022.
Reflecting on how the Seanad can remain relevant for the next 100 years, Daly asserts that continued evolution is key, again pointing to the importance of implementation of the seventh amendment to the Constitution. “It has to address the issue of having broader franchise but at the same time striking a balance so that it continues to represent minority views and voices,” he states.
“What electoral reform looks like is a decision for the government, but the Seanad must continue to be the chamber which challenges the status quo. In a world where democracy is under threat, we have got to make sure that we preserve, protect, and ensure relevance for our democratic institutions.”