90th Anniversary of Seanad Éireann: Statements

11 December 2012

90th Anniversary of Seanad Éireann: Statements

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

I am delighted and honoured to speak for the Labour Party group on the 90th anniversary of Seanad Éireann, the 90th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of Free State Seanad on 11 December 1922. I am honoured not only as a Labour Party Senator but also as a university Senator, because the university Senators have had a very proud tradition in this House. Many of the Senators, named by colleagues earlier, represented the universities.

As we look back, all of us are also conscious that we also look forward to a likely referendum on the future of the Seanad. However, as we look back over the history of the last 90 years, it is striking that a debate on abolition or retention has been ongoing throughout the lifetime of the Seanad.

I am indebted to a colleague, a senior counsel and Fianna Fáil councillor, Jim O'Callaghan, who has done extensive research on the first Seanad and wrote that a form of senate was referred to in all three of the Home Rule Bills dating back to 1886. Before the Free State Seanad was constituted, proposals were in place which varied widely. The first Home Rule Bill provided for 103 representatives in an upper house, of whom 28 would be peers, and who would serve for ten years. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 provided for a slimmed down version of 64 senators designed to ensure representation and protection for Southern Unionists in the new state. The Free State Seanad, which was finally constituted in 1922, was made up of 60 Members under Article 12 of the 1922 Constitution, and 30 of those were nominated by the President of the Executive Council, Mr. W.T. Cosgrave, who appointed what was referred to as a distinguished and talented group representative of all classes, as The New York Times remarked at the time.

I am also indebted to Dr. Elaine Byrne who wrote a wonderful article on the 60th anniversary of the current Seanad in July 2008 in which she spoke of the first Seanad as constituting seven peers, a dowager countess, five baronets and several knights, and that the Seanad consisted of 36 Catholics, 20 Protestants, three Quakers and one Jew. Mr. Cosgrave's nominees numbered 16 Southern Unionists. It was a truly diverse group, and yet was youthful and important in the life of the first Government. The 1922 Government, as Dr. Byrne has written, had no practical experience of parliamentary life. The young Ministers relied enormously on the Seanad, along with the Civil Service and the Army, because the Seanad influenced the guiding principles and legislative foundations of the State, representing, as it did, more of an establishment culture.

It is also interesting to note that those first Senators were subject to serious intimidation and threats. In the light of what is happening in Northern Ireland at this time, it is particularly poignant to read that by the end of March 1922, as a result of anti-treaty opposition to the Seanad, 37 Senators' homes had been burnt to the ground and Mr. Cosgrave's home was scorched. There was a good deal of intimidation of the early Seanad.

Fianna Fáil opposed the Seanad in advance proposals in 1932 before it came to power, and it was in its election manifesto for the 1932 general election. As O'Callaghan writes, they promised to abolish the Seanad.

Senator Darragh O'Brien:                         The Senator never misses an opportunity.

Senator Ivana Bacik: The Seanad abolition Bill was not put to the Dáil until the day after the Seanad had voted down a Government Bill to restrict the wearing of uniforms in light of the Blueshirts threat. There is an interesting history to the first Seanad abolition Bill.

The reason I mention all of this is, in March and April 1934, there was a fascinating series of debates in both Houses on the idea of a bicameral system that also has significant resonance today. Persons such as the late President Eamon de Valera, were critical of that Seanad or second Chamber, but once the Bill had been passed, the Bill having been supported by the Labour Party, with the late Deputy William Norton referring to that first Seanad as a rubber stamp, and the Seanad abolished, popular opinion changed over the course of the following two years. By 1938, following the enactment of the 1937 Constitution, a new Seanad was set up. This was the current Seanad as we know it, with 60 Senators elected and nominated in the way the Leader described.

This new Seanad was a reformed version of a second House. It is interesting that, during the course of the period of the debates in the Dáil and Seanad in 1934, there was a growing recognition of the need for a bicameral system. This was accepted even by those who were highly critical of the constitution of the first Seanad. The commission that was set up following the 1936 vote agreed that there should be a second House in the new Constitution, that is, the House we have currently. As other Senators have said, it is a House that we need to reform. We have carried out some important reforms internally, but we also must acknowledge the contribution the Seanad has made over many years. Senators have referred to the number of Bills that have been put through. Today, more than 100 amendments are likely to be tabled for Report Stage of the Personal Insolvency Bill. There is a good tradition of commencing Bills and of tabling amendments in this House. There is also a good tradition of introducing Private Members' Bills. We saw one last week on humanist weddings that had started life in this House as a Private Members' Bill.

Over the 90 years of the Seanad's history there has been this ongoing debate on whether to retain the Seanad. This debate will be emphasised further in 2013 as we face into the referendum. It would be worth acknowledging the history and contribution of the Seanad.

A practical way of doing this, which Dr. Byrne suggested four years ago, would be to put the Seanad casket and signatures on permanent public display. I believe they are still in the Royal Irish Academy. The casket was on display on the Cathaoirleach's desk in the Chamber from 1924 to 1936. It has a vellum manuscript with fountain pen signatures of the first 60 Senators. I believe I am correct to state it has not yet been moved from the Royal Irish Academy. Perhaps it is something we could consider doing in recognition of the long, lively and far from smooth history of the Seanad. As we face into debates we might do well to remember the Seanad has faced up robustly to these challenges in the past and may well do so in the future.