The Seanad has very few powers in Ireland, and generally serves nowadays as less of a meritocratic chamber to scrutinise legislation or to represent Southern Unionists, and more as a placeholder for those with ambitions to be kept on life support by political parties until the next General Election. This is best typified by the career of Lorraine Clifford-Lee, who unsuccessfully contested two General Elections and a by-election. Not even an unsuccessful run for the Seanad in 2020 was enough to keep her out, as she was appointed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin after his coalition deal with Fine Gael.
That said, the Seanad is useful for one thing: legitimacy. Views and positions carry a certain weight if stated by a Seanadóir, much the same though to a lesser degree than a Teachta Dála. However given that Seanadóirí (generally) are not dependent upon constituency elections, there is certain latitude available to focus on popular (or unpopular) national issues: thus, if we are to succeed in normalising topics and views, the Seanad would prove a useful conduit to airing those views nationally, in preparing the groundwork for substantive change at General Election time.
There are currently two vacancies in the Seanad to be filled, one on the Agricultural Panel, and the other on the Industrial and Commercial panel, owing to the resignations of Fine Gael’s Michael D’Arcy and Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion respectively.
At current count there are seven candidates divided amongst the two panels. The Labour Party will be running two candidates, Fianna Fáil will be running one candidate, Fine Gael will be running one candidate, and there are three independent candidates. Hazel Chu has the backing of rogue Green Party parliamentarians, former Senator Ian Marshall has the formal backing of Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats, and Billy Lawless could secure the support of renegade Fine Gaelers, although this is least likely.
On the Industrial Panel will be Gerry Horkan (FF), Hazel Chu (GP*/Ind), Billy Lawless (Ind), and Ciarán Ahern (LP).
On the Agricultural Panel will be Maria Byrne (FG), Ian Marshall (SF/SD/Ind), and Angela Feeney (LP).
The “constituency” will consist of all 218 TDs and Senators (160 and 58 respectively). Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (with a combined 107) ought to have enough to secure the seats handily (a majority is 110, and the Green Party’s ten who opposed Chu’s run would give them a solid majority), yet when one considers the acrimony within Fianna Fáil, and between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, those guaranteed wins look a little more shaky.
A presumptive tally on the Industrial Panel would give Gerry Horkan 117 plus various independents from a socially traditional background, while the Mayor of Dublin would be expected to carry the votes who nominated her papers, and potentially Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats (in the region of sixty-to-seventy). Mr Lawless (originally appointed to the Seanad by Enda Kenny) is unfortunately unlikely to have the backing of any major party but could soak up Fine Gael votes reluctant to go to Fianna Fáil or to send a message to Leo Varadkar. Ciarán Ahern would be guaranteed Labour’s first preferences, but after that it would be hard to see where votes would transfer to him from.
Maria Byrne is, in my view, the more precarious of herself and Horkan, given that Fianna Fáil’s discipline is more publicly frayed between the pro/anti-Micheál Martin wings. While guaranteed Fine Gael’s votes, and most of Fianna Fáil’s, there is the possibility that enough Fianna Fáilers may opt for Ian Marshall. For those Fianna Fáil members that do go rogue, such a strategy would be of double-benefit — sand in the eyes of both Fine Gael and Micheál Martin. Not often does such an opportunity arise.
Again, Labour’s Feeney is unlikely to reach much beyond her own party’s support. If one assumes she is the first eliminated, it would be likely Labour’s votes would transfer to Mr. Marshall. Another cursory tally would give Maria Byrne 117 FF/FG/GP (minus the 6 rogue Green Party seats), while Mr. Marshall could conceivably rely upon those Green Party seats alongside being the least worst option from the view of S-PBP giving him up to 70 votes.
While one would not usually expect Coalition partners’ backbenchers to revolt against each other in such a manner — it should be noted that these by-election outcomes don’t threaten the existence of the Coalition. Even if the Government partners should lose both elections, they would still maintain an unassailable nine-seat majority in the Seanad, and would have no change on their Dáil majority.
Given the relative low-damage of a negative outcome, it may make such an outcome more likely. Having met Mr Horkan on a number of occasions, and given his pro-life campaigning, I would hope that he not suffer for the failure of management on the part of Micheál Martin.