Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Irish Senate Survives Referendum Vote by Dr Melanie Sully

With the accession of Croatia to the EU, there are 15 unicameral legislatures in the European Union. In October 2013, a Referendum in Ireland voted in favour of keeping the second chamber, the Senate. Elsewhere there have been instances of doing away with the second chamber eg in New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark etc

Unicameral Parliaments – two better than one?

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 With the accession of Croatia to the EU, there is another unicameral legislature in the European Union.

In October 2013 it was thought yet another would join this club when a referendum on the abolition of the Senate took place in Ireland. Surprisingly the people voted to keep the second chamber convinced it had a use as an instrument of parliamentary control despite its cost.


In the UK and Austria there are perennial discussions on reforming or abolishing the second chamber. In some countries the second chamber has been abolished.


Out of the 28 EU countries there are 15 with unicameral legislatures but the biggest and most populated countries tend to have a bicameral system.

Croatia had a bicameral system until 2001, Denmark up to 1953; Greece used to have two chambers as did Hungary, Portugal and Sweden.

EU legislatures: unicameral/bicameral








Czech   Republic




















United   Kingdom






In the UK there has long been a discussion on reforming or abolishing the House of Lords and indeed reforms have led to a large reduction in the aristocracy in this chamber. Members of the clergy, the Anglican Church have seats in the Lords. The coalition government formed in 2010 set about to reform the Lords and Conservatives wanted to hold a referendum on the issue but the leader of the Liberal Democrats was opposed.

New Zealand was the first country in the Commonwealth to go for a unicameral

parliament. The country adopted the Statute of Westminster which allowed it to

amend its constitution independent of London after the Second World War. Abolition

of the second chamber was a major issue in the 1949 election. It was thought the

second chamber duplicated the work of the House of Representatives and had no

special function. It seemed something of a luxury for a small population. In addition a

new “pension scheme for parliamentarians was adopted, thus removing one of the

last practical uses” of the upper house. Following this election therefore New Zealand became a unicameral parliament.

Since then there have been periodic calls for a return to a bicameral system. Some

feel that a counterweight is needed to balance the work of the government in the

legislature. Various committees were set up to look at the question but although the

electoral system was changed to introduce an element of proportional representation,

the unicameral system remained. Polls show that most prefer this system although a

third of the population have no preference. One of the arguments against reverting to the bicameral system is the cost this would incur.

The New Zealand parliament is based on the British model. The House of Representatives resembles the House of Commons and is small, intimate

chamber. Interestingly enough although abolished as part of the legislature, the

second chamber remains physically despite reconstruction of the parliamentary

buildings. It has a peculiar empty feel of literally an abandoned house. It comes into

its own when the Monarch as head of state visits New Zealand. By tradition the

Monarch, or representative the Governor General, is not allowed to enter the House

of Representatives. This follows British protocol. In Britain, the Monarch cannot set

foot in the House of Commons and when the sovereign opens parliament the

ceremony takes place in the House of Lords. The members of the House of

Commons are called to attend the “other place” by Black Rod, the messenger of the

Upper House. This post of messenger still exists in New Zealand for the

communication between sovereign and the Representatives.

So in New Zealand this dinosaur relic of a second chamber stays for the grand

occasion of a royal visit or opening of parliament. It can also be used for committees,

press conferences and seminars and even concerts.