Farm Ireland

Saturday 22 October 2016

The Seanad could be a forum for some real debate on rural issues

Downing on politics

Published 05/10/2016 | 02:30

Seanad chamber
Seanad chamber

Sitting in the exquisite room which houses Seanad Éireann the other day, I was struck by a familiar question: Why does this place exist at all?

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Many of you will recall that on October 4, 2013, the people of Ireland voted to retain our upper house of parliament. True, it was not the most ringing endorsement.

Fewer than four out of 10 people bothered to vote at all. And the abolition proposition, pushed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in a rather lacklustre way, was defeated by 52pc to 48pc.

But its survival is still a major puzzle to all associated with politics. The vote came at a time of deep recession and rampant unpopularity for all mainstream politicians.

Many people across the country felt that if politicians were working for nothing it would still be too dear. The prospect of abolishing a strange political institution and consigning 60 Seanadóirí to political history would appear to have been too tempting to pass on.

But no, the voters did not see things like that. Many suspected some form of political sleight of hand. Enda Kenny made some campaign mistakes. Seanad Éireann lived on.

So, what has happened since? Well, not very much at all in real terms.

Yet there we all were last Thursday afternoon, gathered in the beautiful former ballroom where the Fitzgerald family danced over two and a half centuries ago. The Taoiseach himself was gracing the premises for only the second time in over five years.

The previous time Mr Kenny had swung by was just after the defeat of the abolition referendum, some three years ago almost to the very day. This second visit was a strange occasion - in fact it lacked any sense of occasion in part because the Taoiseach's script was dull and his delivery lacked energy.

And yet the senators present were curious about what the Taoiseach would say on reform. For decades there have been calls to modernise this strange child of Eamon de Valera's 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann. The shelves are groaning with voluminous reports sketching simple and sensible plans to make it work better.

Over 18 years working around the Leinster House/Government Buildings nexus, I have seen and heard some good stuff from the Seanad.

There is a great bank of expertise and experience there and on rare good days you get a flavour of what could be. Yes, it is used as a political waiting room for aspiring TDs or those recently ousted and hoping to return to the Dáil. But despite this, the quality of the people there is high and there is no lack of commitment.

It could be an ideal forum to discuss the issues affecting rural Ireland. In fact 11 of the 60 senators comprise what is nominally the "Agricultural Panel," though in practice this does not have real impact.

In a triumph of hope over experience, another report has been produced by former TD and Senator, Maurice Manning. It concluded that Irish citizens should be allowed to vote in Seanad elections, widening its current franchise from TDs, senators and councillors, as well as graduates of the NUI and Trinity College. A widened franchise, including emigrants and Northern Ireland residents, would elect 30 of the 60 senators.

The report goes to a working group. But nobody is holding their breath on this.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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