Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

If you think the House of Lords is bad for democracy, try the Irish senate

Waves of apathy, a tsunami of indifference, engulfed Ireland for today’s constitutional referendums. When I was over there last week, I was more interested in the thing than anyone I met; the turnout in some places was one in ten – miles lower than in high-octane votes, like the ones affecting the EU. The main issue is the government’s proposal to do away with the upper house, the Seanad, or Senate, which reached its zenith of interest and relevance when WB Yeats was a member (his views on contraception and divorce make notable reading) and has failed ever since to capture the remotest public affection. If you think the House of Lords doesn’t really register with voters, well, it begins where the Irish Senate leaves off.

During Irish elections, the lamp-posts give you the gist of what’s going on; they get plastered with posters from the assorted parties. Two summed up the arguments. The pro-government one gave a checklist of reasons for abolition: Save Euro 20 million! Fewer politicians! The one from the opposition Fianna Fail party showed a boot coming down on the senate (I never said these things are subtle): ‘Vote against the power grab!’ Now every electorate in Europe would perk up at the idea of fewer politicians…and it says everything about the political class’s awareness of the contempt in which it is held that this should be one of its chief arguments.

Nonetheless, I am instinctively in sympathy with the power grab poster. Every legislature needs a revising chamber; every executive needs checking. It doesn’t help that the Irish upper chamber has a uniquely non-populist method of selection; its electorate for some of the seats is limited to university graduates, a system designed in the days before every halfwit school-leaver goes on to third level education.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in