Ireland’s Senate: An Introduction

Although Ireland is formally a bicameral system, the constitutional and political reality is that almost all legislative power resides in Dáil Eireann, which is the lower house of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). With limited exceptions, that has been the case since Ireland first obtained independence.

An upper house was originally included in the 1922 Constitution on foot of a promise made to Unionists resident in what was to become the Irish Free State that they would be represented in a new Senate. The first Seanad was composed of 30 members appointed by the President of the Executive Council and 30 members elected by the Dáil using proportional representation. Reflecting the promise originally made, as well as the direction to the President in Article 81 of the Constitution to ‘have special regard to the providing of representation for groups and parties not then adequately represented’, the first Seanad included several peers, 20 Protestant members, as well as several appointees from the arts community, including WB Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty.

During the 1930’s, the Seanad used its power to suspend the coming into force of legislation for 18 months on a number of occasions. This led to conflict with the Dáil and, ultimately, to the abolition of the Seanad in 1936.

This occurred at a time when plans to introduce a new Constitution were well advanced. While the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day indicated that he was content to proceed with a unicameral system in this new Constitution, a decision was ultimately taken to reinstate a second chamber.

The Seanad that was established by this 1937 Constitution had, however, very limited powers ...

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