Court forces change in graduate political representation

The current arrangements for graduate representation in the upper house of the Irish parliament (Oireachtas) are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has ruled.

Three of the 60 member Senate (Seanad Éireann) are elected by graduates of Trinity College Dublin and three by graduates of the National University of Ireland. The court has ruled that graduates of other third-level institutions must also get the vote.

Ireland has 13 universities but graduates of newer institutions like Dublin City University, the University of Limerick and the country’s five new technological universities have no votes in Seanad elections which are held after general elections to the lower house (Dáil Éireann).

A referendum in 1979 mandated the Oireachtas to enact legislation to include the electorates of other institutions of higher education. But successive governments have sat on their hands and done nothing to implement it.

A case was taken by Tomás Heneghan, a graduate of University of Limerick, that the limiting of access to these panels and the laws governing the election to the Senate were unconstitutional. The court ruled that the Oireachtas has failed in its obligation to expand the ability of voters from other universities to vote in the elections.

However, no action is to be taken until 31 July in order to allow the court to hear submissions on what will happen next.

Apart from the six university representatives, 11 members of the Senate are nominated by the prime minister (Taoiseach), and 43 are elected from panels of candidates representing specified vocational interests.

The electorate for these seats is confined to locally elected and nationally elected public representatives with the result that the members chosen are predominately other party political figures. The university representatives can come from political parties as well but more often than not they have been independents.

The history of representation from Trinity goes back a long way. It elected MPs to the UK House of Commons until 1921 before the establishment of the Irish Free State after which it returned representatives to the Dáil until 1937 and from then to the Senate. This helped ensure that the voices of the Protestant community were heard, but Trinity also has a tradition of electing socially liberal senators.

They included such luminaries as Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, the gifted historian and editor in chief of The Observer; Mary Robinson, the human rights lawyer who became president of Ireland; and David Norris, the first openly gay member of either House who was elected in 1987 and is still a senator.

The National University of Ireland has also had its fair share of outstanding individuals who made their names in law, business, the arts or politics.

The government has yet to say how it will extend voting rights. Creating a single six-seater constituency for graduates from all universities has been proposed by a Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne.

There are concerns that independents might find it hard to be elected in a much larger constituency and that big political parties would throw their weight behind party candidates. Although the Seanad has limited powers, a referendum calling for its abolition in 2013 was rejected.