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'Landmark' ruling on Seanad university laws
Pic: RollingNews.ie

31 Mar 2023 / ireland Print

'Landmark' ruling on Seanad university-vote laws

The Supreme Court has upheld a challenge to the constitutionality of the laws governing the elections of Seanad University Panels.

The challenge was brought by a graduate of the University of Limerick, Tomás Heneghan, who was represented by Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC).

Delivering judgment, Mr Justice Brian Murray described the case as “important and difficult”.

The applicant had claimed that Seanad Éireann has, since 1979 or shortly thereafter, been composed in violation of the Constitution, as it breached article 18.4.2, which was inserted in 1979 after a referendum.

1937 act

This amendment suggested that the Seanad franchise should be extended to other universities, but this change never occurred.

Instead, the Seanad has been elected based on the provisions of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937.

“Everything has proceeded since as if nothing had changed,” Mr Justice Murray stated.

The State side had argued that article 18.4.2 gave the Oireachtas the power to change the electorate, leaving it to the Oireachtas to decide if, when, and how this might happen.


The Supreme Court concluded, however, that the amendment “mandated” the introduction of legislation to change the existing system, which allows for three members each to be elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin.

“The Oireachtas was given a very broad discretion as to how it went about this task. However, at a minimum, that reconstitution of the Seanad electorate had to result in the inclusion in that electorate of one or more institutions of higher education other than (but in addition to) NUI or TCD,” Mr Justice Murray said.

The court concluded that sections 6 and 7 of the 1937 act were “invalid, having regard to the provisions of the Constitution”.

The court, however, has suspended its declaration of unconstitutionality until 31 July 2023, recognising that reconstituting the Seanad electorate after the judgment will take time.

“The court will receive submissions from the parties as to the length of time required to allow the issues identified here to be so addressed,” the court added.

Call for ‘speedy’ action

Speaking after the ruling, Heneghan said: “I hope the Oireachtas now acts speedily to ensure that the democratic right to vote in Seanad elections is extended to all, regardless of educational or socio-economic background.”

FLAC described the judgment as “historic”, with Chief Executive Eilis Barry congratulating Heneghan on his “courage, fortitude and persistence in taking this landmark case for democracy, equality and the rule of law”.

FLAC Managing Solicitor Sinéad Lucey commented that the judgment confirmed that the Oireachtas could not ignore the outcome of a referendum.

“The significance of the case goes beyond the issue of votes in the Seanad as a profound reflection on a democratic nature of the State,” she added.

Gazette Desk
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