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29 May 2024

The Referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann: the position of the Senate of the National University of Ireland


The forthcoming referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann presents the Irish people with a choice concerning the future of an institution which has formed the upper tier of Oireachtas Eireann since 1937 and has been a key structural element of Irish democracy since then. In the referendum, which will take place on Friday 4 October 2013, the people are being asked to decide whether Seanad Éireann should remain or if it should be abolished.

The NUI Senate is the governing authority of one of the two universities (the University of Dublin being the other) whose graduates currently elect six of the sixty members of the Upper House. At its last meeting, the Senate considered the issue of the forthcoming referendum. Following a lengthy discussion, there was agreement that, as a body responsible for the election of members to the Seanad since its establishment and previously to Dáil Éireann and the British Parliament, the NUI Senate should seek to make a public contribution on the issue.

There was no consensus view among the members of the NUI Senate on the future of Seanad Éireann and it is not the intention of the Senate to seek to influence the outcome of the referendum or to replicate the work of the Referendum Commission. However, NUI does intend to highlight the importance of the issue for its graduates as for all the citizens of Ireland. Over the coming weeks our objective is to provide information that we hope may be useful to graduates and other voters in the referendum, in reaching a decision of major importance for the future governance of Ireland.

We also wish to draw attention to the distinguished contribution to Ireland’s parliamentary democracy and public life of those elected by the graduates of the National University of Ireland as their representatives in Seanad Éireann since 1938 and to pay tribute to those senators who individually and collectively have been a significant element of the Irish public sphere.

We present the following information:

  • a list of the twenty-one senators elected by NUI graduates since 1938, with short biographical notes

  • a link (external) to a report from journalist and NUI graduate Harry McGee who chaired a referendum debate Senators Lorraine Higgins and Rónán Mullen which was organised by NUI Galway Dublin Alumni Club and held on Monday 2 September 2013.

  • an article by Maurice Manning, Chancellor of the University, taken from The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland (IPA  2010).
  • an article by Professor John Coakley of the UCD School of Politics and International Relations entitled The Final Senate Election? This was originally published in How Ireland Voted 2011 –The Full Story of Ireland’s Earthquake Election, edited by Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh (Palgrave Macmillan: 2011)

Parliamentary representation of university graduates has a long history in Ireland. It was taken over from the British: however in Britain, the universities have not been represented in parliament since 1950. Prior to the establishment of Seanad Éireann, NUI and Trinity College (University of Dublin) elected members to the Dáil. On the establishment of Seanad Éireann in 1937, university representation was set at six (three from each university constituency) and NUI graduates have elected three members to Seanad Éireann in each succeeding election since then. There are 101,075 voters on the current NUI Seanad Éireann register. Here is a link to the results of the 2011 election.

The NUI Senate recognises that the current manner of election to Seanad Éireann by university graduates is indefensible and outdated. There has been no legal follow-up to the referendum of 1979 which gave authority for the franchise be extended to graduates outside NUI and TCD. This is not surprising given the complexity of extending representation at a time when participation in higher education has grown exponentially.

We are not arguing therefore for the maintenance of the status quo. We propose rather to define the particular characteristics of university representation in Seanad Éireannn and highlight its strengths in the hope that these will continue to feature in Ireland’s structure of governance.

In our view, what has been of greatest value for Irish democracy and public life from the election of members of Seanad Éireann by NUI graduates (as similarly by graduates of the University of Dublin) has been the following:

  • the inclusion in the Upper House of highly-qualified individuals of acknowledged distinction, with significant expertise in disciplines ranging across education, engineering, history, literature, languages, law, medicine and the sciences: twelve of the twenty-one senators elected by NUI graduates were professors in NUI at the time of their election; three went on to become government ministers; one was elected, and is currently, President of Ireland; of the ten eligible for inclusion in the Royal Irish Academy Dictionary of Irish Biography (RIA Cambridge University press 2009) viz. who died up to 2002, eight are featured

  • derived from this pool of expertise, a capacity in Seanad Éireann for rigorous, scrutiny of legislation and intellectual analysis of issues of public importance (we do not suggest that this capacity was exclusive to the university senators but rather that it was particularly concentrated among them)

  • the election of independent voices outside the mainstream party system: Senator Jim Dooge was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1981 without being a member of a political party and the majority of those elected by NUI graduates have not been associated with political parties

  • the representation of the diaspora: the university senators are elected by postal ballot which enables graduates living abroad to vote in Seanad Éireann elections and so to continue to have a voice in Irish democracy.

We invite NUI graduates and other members of the University to contribute to the referendum debate by e-mailing seanad@nui.ie or by submitting comments in the comments area below.

The National University of Ireland reserves the right to moderate contributions received and to exclude any contributions considered to contain:

  • personal abuse
  • incitement to hatred of groups or individuals
  • foul or profane language
  • defamatory, libellous or otherwise objectionable content which may place NUI in legal jeopardy

Any comments received in relation to this article will appear (below) on this page:


5 Comments (received by email, click down arrow to reveal):

arrow Emer Mullen (1 October 2013)

In my view one of the main difficulties with abolishing the Seanad as it currently stands is that it would limit the voices in Irish politics and the range of topics debated. It is unlikely that Senator David Norris would have been elected to the Dail. It is also unlikely that his voice would have been heard on the issue of gay rights to the extent that it was without the Seanad.

The upper house allows for a freedom of expression that the busy schedule of the Dail discourages, without it we run the risk of having a purely bread and butter system that doesn't have the time or the means to look at the broader issues. The way Senators are elected also allows for this objectivity. This is what distinguishes it from the Dail and allows it to conduct its affairs differently.

Emer Mullen

arrow Professor Gerard Quinn, School of Law, NUI Galway (30 Sept 2013)

I write as a concerned citizen. If the vote goes against the Government on the abolition of the Seanad - as I hope - then thoughts will naturally turn toward models for radical reform. The kind of reform required will depend on the arguments put forward to support its existence. The current debate about the abolition or retention of the Seanad tends to focus on its checking value – if any – on the Dail. I believe we should focus instead on what is missing from our overall system of governance and see whether it is possible to remedy it with a reformed model Seanad.

Two things stand out to me as being absent in our present system of governance which a reformed Seanad could go a long way to meeting.

First of all, our political system seems to connect with the People only episodically and at election time. A Civic Republic worthy of the name needs more than just fleeting citizen participation. Strong voices always have impact. But more voices are needed. And the inter-generational or future impacts of our choices needs to be more fully integrated.

The second deficit is the seeming inability of our system to look beyond the present and to plan ahead for the future. The absence of this space for public reason has generated real costs for the State. Who, for example, took time to think through the likely implications of deregulation in the banking sector? Who has calculated how much economic activity (and revenue income) has been lost by delays over the last 10 years in rolling out high speed broadband throughout the country? Who has given tangible thought to the need to plan beyond the 12% corporation tax to identify a sustainable way of driving economic activity into the 21st century? Who has planned ahead for a sustainable pension system?

There are many positive straws in the winds of change. Recent moves to augment the Committee system in the Oireachtas are very encouraging. (especially in the Justice Committee) And there is more circulation at senior levels in our civil service. But our system of governance needs more – much more – to make it fit for purpose in addressing complex structural issues in our economy and society as we face the 21st century. It needs a deliberative space where public reason can be exercised to take a long view, to avoid group-think and to inject something into our process that it has conspicuously lacked – imagination and innovation. It would seem logical to build on Dail reform and increasing flexibility in the civil service by reforming - and not abolishing - the Seanad.

Filling these major gaps in governance is something a reformed Seanad could play an exceptionally useful role. This seems to me to be at the heart of a valid argument for retaining – and radically reforming – the Seanad. I do not support retention on the basis that it provides space for intellectuals or ‘grandees’ to pontificate on our ills – now is not the time to revert to bourgeois parliamentarianism of the 19th century. Nor do I support retention on the basis of ‘interests’ or ‘factions’ or ‘groups’ having a voice. Faction in the Seanad too easily becomes a pale shadow of party politics. And that kind of vocationalism ill serves the pursuit of a higher public interest beyond the interests of those directly served. And I certainly do not support its retention on the basis of it providing an ante-chamber for TDs in waiting. To reduce the case for the Seanad to the argument that it provides a ‘check’ in the Dail seems far too narrow a rationale. The argument/s for retaining the Seanad make most sense if we think of it not merely as a corollary to the Dail but as an entity that adds – or can add - something valuable in itself to our overall system of governance.

A thoroughgoing makeover of the Seanad could be the first step in delivering on the Government’s commitment to reinvent our system of governance. It has the space – or at least more space than the Dail – to directly re-engage with the People. Indeed a good start was made on that with the formation of a Committee on Public Consultation in the Seanad which held ground-breaking hearings on the rights of older people last year. And if properly configured it could provide what has been lacking – future perspectives to lay the basis for sustainable economic and social policy. It should not be seen as a countervailing institution to the Dail – rather it should be seen as adding perspectives that the Dail will never have the capability of generating. And its advice and consent should be seen as central to Ireland's ongoing engagement with our international treaty obligations.

If it is said that we cannot afford a reformed, outward looking and future-oriented Seanad then just think of the costs currently faced by the State in not having a robust entity to challenge group-think as in the recent past. To be sure, the old Seanad was not up to that job. But that should not cause us to curtail our ambition to set the ship of State right for the future.

Prof Gerard Quinn
School of Law
NUI Galway.

arrow John A. Murphy (27 Sept 2013)

Sir, - The arguments used in the referendum campaign seem increasingly irrelevant. For example, the notion that Seanad Éireann should be a watch­dog, or a bulwark against government excesses, is not reflected in the Constitution, which rather provides for the complementary roles of Dáil and Seanad in processing legislation. Allowing for roseate-tinted nostalgia, my own experience of the Seanad from the late 1970s to the early 1990s is one of constructive co-operation with the government of the day, especially where Bills were initiated in the House on educational, cultural and social matters. The informed and harmonious debate in the spring of 1991 on the Environmental Protection Agency Bill, introduced by Mary Harney, showed the Seanad at its best, entirely free of party rancour, and this was warmly acknowledged at the time by the minister. - Yours, etc,

(Independent Senator, 1977-1983,1987-1992),
Douglas Road, Cork.

arrowTommy Francis, Co Donegal (26 Sept 2013)

My parents were subjects of King Edward VII and King George V. My grandparents were subjects of Queen Victoria. Like many Irish people they would have preferred to be citizens of their own country than to be subjects of another. To accomplish this they played their part in the elections of 1918 and 1919 and in the War of Independence. That war, and the Civil War which followed it, had a profound effect on Ireland.

When our Constitution was drafted, it was the first time in 800 years that the Irish people could devise a set of principles to guide their country. That had been obtained at a great price. Almost 6,000 people had died in the War of Independence and in the Civil War. I know that the people studied the Constitution carefully. They were aware of their history. The Constitution begins by “humbly acknowledging all our obligations to Our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial and gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our nation”,------Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution”. That struggle had made us citizens and not subjects.

The Seanad was set up under Articles 18 and 19 of the Constitution. It is an integral part of the Oireachtas which consists of the President, the Dáil and the Seanad. Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the Labour party want the Oireachtas to consist of only the President and the Dáil. As these parties have 127 seats out of the 160 in the Dáil it is more than likely that, funded as they are, they will get their wish.

Our State, our Constitution and our Oireachtas—our right to determine our own destiny—were hard won. If the Seanad is (like all our institutions) imperfect, then we should reform it.

That is why, in order to retain the Seanad as part of our government, I will be voting no.

Yours Sincerely,
Tommy Francis

arrow Kathleen Ruddle (26 Sept 2013)



I genuinely feel that if the Seanad is abolished it will reduce the level of democracy in this country enormously. It will result in bills not being discussed properly. Power will be concentrated in too few hands. In addition, the legislation, if passed, would allow for impeachment of the President and the power to dismiss Judges and the Comptroller and Auditor General on the basis of “stated misbehaviour or incapacity”. While this may sound a reasonably good idea, the wording “stated misbehaviour or incapacity” is extremely loose and could be construed to a variety of situations; perhaps resulting in such persons being impeached/removed from their positions for reasons that may not be particularly logical or fair to them.


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