Making the Seanad work for civil society

Since the Civil Engagement Group’s foundation in May 2016, all of the Senators have made it their mission to make the voice of civil society heard in the Oireachtas.

Bunreacht na hÉireann envisions an upper house where a certain number of the Senators are elected “having knowledge and practical experience of” a number of particular areas of interest:

  • National Language and Culture, Literature, Art, Education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel;
  • Agriculture and allied interests, and Fisheries;
  • Labour, whether organised or unorganised;
  • Industry and Commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture;
  • Public Administration and social services, including voluntary social activities.

In practice, while Senators are nominated by well-known bodies organised and recognised to do so under those categories, never has any group of Senators sought explicitly to represent the specific expertise and interests of the people working day in and day out in such organisations.

Speaking on the formation of the Civil Engagement Group, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said; “We saw a natural alliance form, based on shared experience of working within civil society, activism and social movements. There was also common ground around a more inclusive and transformative approach to policy-making, with a stronger focus on equality.”

Senator Frances Black also highlighted that; “While the members of our group are new to political office, we bring to the table a proven commitment to social advocacy. Often the most vulnerable in society are the least heard. We each want to change that and by working together, we can, I believe, have a greater impact and shine a light on sometimes invisible issues.”

In May 2019 the group tabled legislation to support the voices of community and advocacy groups whose voices were being inadvertently silenced through application of the Electoral Act, limiting their ability to advocate through the political processes of the Oireachtas and through referendum campaigns.

In the three years since the group’s formation, they have championed the voice of civil society through, among others:

  • Legislative proposals directly (Private Members’ Business) and indirectly (amendments to government legislation);
  • Holding government to account and putting issues on the political agenda through membership in Joint Oireachtas committees;
  • Bringing together alliances of like-minded parliamentarians at home through All-Party Oireachtas Groups;
  • Promoting international cooperation and inspiration through the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and other global forums.

Reforming the Seanad

On the 4th of October 2013, the people of Ireland voted by a narrow margin against the proposed abolition of the Seanad. The Civil Engagement Group firmly believes this vote did not reflect a belief that the Seanad should be left exactly as is, and rather a belief that while Ireland does need a bicameral system, the upper house should be fundamentally reformed to be fit for purpose, democratic and accountable to the public. Many members of the Civil Engagement Group campaigned vocally to retain the Seanad in advance of that referendum.

On the first sitting day of the current, 25th, Seanad Éireann, every member of the Civil Engagement Group co-sponsored the Seanad Reform Bill 2016 along with other members of the house.

This proposed legislation was introduced so early in the Seanad’s term to reflect the urgency and high demand for reform which was heard during the 2013 referendum campaign.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins and Senator Grace O’Sullivan represented the Group on the 2018 Seanad Reform Implementation group, which published its report in December 2018.

Among the reforms proposed on a cross-party basis by the group are:

  • Graduates of all higher education institutions will be entitled to vote in a single, six-seat, constituency – replacing the current three seat National University of Ireland, and three-seat Dublin University constituencies.
  • The 43 vocational panel seats will be opened up with 28 being elected directly by the public, and 15 by local councillors and other political representatives.
  • Each voter will be able to choose which vocational panel they wish to cast their vote in.
  • The franchise for Seanad elections will be extended to Irish citizens overseas and to people resident in Northern Ireland who are entitled to Irish citizenship.

While the Programme for Partnership Government commits the government of the 32nd Dáil to enacting reform of the Seanad there has been very little progress made by government. This latest report is the 14th published in the past 80 years setting out pragmatic reform proposals to the Seanad.

The Civil Engagement Group remains committed to reforming and empowering a democratic, transparent and responsive Seanad.

Highlighting and tackling homelessness

The housing crisis is one of the defining political challenges of our time. In recent times it has led to over 10,000 people including close to 4,000 children living in persistent homelessness, and the Civil Engagement Group have been campaigning on this issue since the first days of the current Seanad.

The Group’s very first motion proposed, and adopted unanimously by the whole House concerned the particular issue of housing for people with disabilities. The Group has continued to exert pressure on the Government to address the particular needs of people with disabilities on an all-of-government basis time after time, and housing is no exception.

Another specific area within the housing issue is the chronic lack of suitable and quality housing for members of the Traveller community. The Group has raised this issue time and again, leading to hearings in the Seanad and in the Committee rooms, and to the creation of the Special Joint Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community.

Since then, the group has proposed constructive legislation to help address the crisis, proposed amendments to government legislation and held the Ministers for Housing to account on their activities in working on housing provision, and advocated on behalf of experts and civil society organisations working in homelessness and housing provision both in the Seanad, in the media and through active participation in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government.

The Group believe that the government has begun using the constitution as an excuse to not introduce real housing reform, and will continue actively and loudly campaigning on housing and homelessness until government policy begins to show progress.