History of the Seanad

If we go back into history, we can see that the Seanad – in addition to playing host to a cast of great Parliamentarians – has also had a fascinating history. The first national assembly established in Ireland following the Act of Union was a single-chamber body, Dáil Éireann, which convened in January 1919. It was only in 1922 that our parliamentary system became bicameral, or dual-chambered, with the establishment of Seanad Éireann.

The nomination procedure for that Senate was designed to ensure representation for the Unionist minority in the South, with the result that the landed gentry and the ex-Unionist community were strongly and disproportionately represented in the first Senate. Underlining once again the idea that the Seanad is intended to be a place where minority views can be represented.

Once established, the Seanad embraced its role as a legislature and approached its task of scrutinising legislation particularly seriously. The Seanad refused to pass one of the first Bills presented to it – the Bill which became the Indemnity Act 1923. The Seanad also rejected Bills to extend the local government franchise to people over the age of 21, to prohibit the wearing of military uniforms, and to abolish university representation in the Dáil.

From the outset Dáil Éireann was resistant to efforts by the assertive Seanad to encroach upon what TDs saw as being their own territory.

Tensions between the two houses intensified after De Valera and Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. As De Valera set about implementing the radical constitutional change for which he felt he had a clear popular mandate he met strong resistance from the Seanad. The Free State Seanad also strongly opposed legislation to remove the oath of allegiance and that opposition caused the passing of the Bill to be delayed for almost a year. Seanad activism and his dislike of its composition ultimately led De Valera to abolish the Free State Seanad.

When initially enacted, the 1922 Constitution provided that for a period of eight years it could be amended by legislation alone, without the need for a referendum. This eight-year period was subsequently extended to 16 years and it was under this mechanism that the Seanad was abolished by De Valera in 1936. His opposition to Seanad Éireann was to the house as it was then composed rather than being a general opposition to the concept of a second chamber. For a short period after this abolition our parliamentary system operated as a unicameral system until the peoples’ endorsement of the Constitution of 1937 provided for the establishment of a new Seanad.

The manner in which the Seanad was abolished and the decision to re-establish it, albeit in a different form, in the 1937 constitution is also interesting – given our current debates. When the Free State Seanad was abolished in 1936, De Valera clearly indicated that the idea of a Second Chamber was not anathema to him provided it could be shown that a second chamber would be of value.

Within months of having abolished the Free State Seanad, De Valera put a mechanism in place to explore alternative options for re-establishing a second chamber. On 9th June he established a Commission, chaired by the then Chief Justice, to consider and make recommendations as to what should be the functions and powers of the Second Chamber of the legislature in the event of it being decided to make provision for a Second Chamber in the new Constitution.

This Commission recommended that the Second Chamber should have the power to regulate its own business and to elect its own chairman; that its members should enjoy the same immunities and privileges as members of Dáil Éireann; that no Bill should be enacted by Dáil Éireann until it had first been sent to the second house for consideration; that the second house should not have a power of veto; and that the refusal of the second house to pass a Bill would only have the effect of delaying the passage of that Bill by three months.

The Commission recommended that the number of members of a second house should be fixed at 45 and that it should be composed of persons chosen on account of their ability, character, experience and knowledge of public affairs. It recommended that there should be quotas for women and those competent in Irish.

The Seanad has played host to many remarkable parliamentarians down through the years, not least Garret Fitzgerald, Mary Robinson, Douglas Hyde, William Butler Yeats, Lord Glenavy, Seamus Mallon, David Norris, Noel Browne and Dr. James Ryan. It has given rise to a host of interesting initiatives and amendments in my two years there.

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