Thursday 23 October 2014

Bruce Arnold: Abolishing the Seanad will put us firmly under the EU's control

Published 23/09/2013 | 17:00

Enda Kenny launching the Fine Gael campaign to abolish the Seanad

The government decision to abolish the 0 is essentially at odds with the reform-based strategy so far presented to us by this Government. True, it was included in the Government Programme. But from the outset, clear and emphatic reasoning has been conspicuous by its absence. This is true of both abolitionists and defenders.

The real source for abolition was Europe. It derives, at least in part, from the strong bonds of attachment that Enda Kenny and his Government have formed with the EU. They did this out of the strife and shame of the previous Fianna Fail administration, to become the 'Good Boys' of Europe.

However, reform rather than abolition is the better course. And in the case of the Seanad, despite three parties supporting the idea and the fourth not being too aggressive in its opposition, the better half of the country thinks reform is better than abolition.

They recognise that abolition will further diminish the State and will put us more firmly under greater EU control in the future, in conformity with measures already contained in two of the protocols to the Lisbon Treaty.

This is being done without explanation to the people. The protocols, which relate to governments and parliaments, are in treaty form but the motive for abolition is certainly not being explained in the direct context of Europe as a force behind both Seanad abolition and many other judicial reform proposals coming from the EU.

The full European dimension, which is fairly central to the referendum, is not even mentioned in the referendum pamphlet and has not been adverted to by Elizabeth Dunne, the chairperson of the Referendum Commission.

The Europeanisation of our political system should have been at the heart of the debate. It has been taking place for a long time, but only since 2011 has it had a strong judicial flavour backed by the European Commission's Justice Department and underpinned by a new 'tool', the EU Justice Scoreboard. These mechanisms have a growing number of supporters.

Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein have ignored this. So has the Referendum Commission. The parties have come out for abolition on thin arguments critical of our own corruption of the true purpose of the Seanad, turning the chamber into a place for failed Dail deputies.

RTE is following the same line, rubbishing the Seanad as not having done anything. The Commission's derelictions are in not referring to the fuller story.

Government conformity is privately in line with Europe. The EU certainly wants the elimination of the Seanad. It wants the weakening of national parliaments and in particular the weakening of our referendum system. We have all been witness to that process. It has been talked about on the Constitutional Affairs Committee in Brussels.

The EU as the critical law-making body sees no use for what they openly consider superfluous national legislative bodies. They also want to reduce the numbers of national politicians to cut down the possibility of the election of people from small or new parties, independents and other trouble-makers.

Support for this view has filtered through to our senior law-makers more familiar with EU politics than the Irish electorate. This referendum is simply a stage towards greater conformity with the EU. The result will be a reduction of our own sovereignty and political independence. Moreover, there are more changes coming down the Brussels pipeline to do with MEP elections, European political parties and other matters.

The process is difficult to trace. Enda Kenny's political philosophy in power up to now has been based significantly on reform, a slow and difficult journey. The Seanad referendum remains an uncharacteristic act. It should alarm people, specifically because the idea of abolition has its origins in EU thinking and this certainly chimes in with Euro-Federalist thinking.

Did Mr Kenny, in an awkward moment vis-a-vis his party, adopt from leading European Movement personalities – an obvious figure being Alan Dukes – the EU institutional thinking on the Euro-Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee? This has been referred to by Kathy Sinnott, a member of that committee who attended its meetings over a five-year period, as well as by other EU critics who deprecate the apparent secrecy of what is being done.

The out-and-out Euro-federalists see the European Parliament as the undoubtedly rather weak 'Federal Lower Chamber' directly elected by citizens. This lower house of a bicameral, fully federal, supranational European Union is under the control of the 'Upper House', which is what the European Council of Ministers will become, representing the Member States though not elected by democratic vote. With such a prospect, what need have we for a Seanad? Indeed, soon enough, the Dail might also be seen as redundant.

One serious Euro-sceptic has put it to me thus: "The longer-term plan is eventually to have only two parties in Europe. These would be the European People's Party and the Socialists. The others would be absorbed into those two. Europe would be run like the United States (Democrats and Republicans). State rights and other democratic manifestations would be further marginalised and become token bodies. Geographically, Brussels would be lifted out of Belgium and become a Federal capital like Washington."

Federalists see a further parallel with the United States; the European Parliament being the 'lower house', the House of Representatives, which of course is directly elected by all US citizens.

The 'upper house' parallel is less obvious. The US Senate is sent two senators for each state in the US. In other words, there is a role and a job for US senators to do. In contrast, the EU Commission does not bother with democratic election nor do many EU institutions. National ministers will, after 2014, wield votes in proportion to population size.

The abolition of the Seanad here is a minor 'blip' on the European global map of the future, but this makes it matter all the more. It requires understanding, assessment and judgment. As in the two Lisbon campaigns, when the three main parties sided with the treaty, and were first humiliated and then cooked the books to get the treaty through, we reinforced the EU map-making.

Unsurprisingly, those who wield power at EU level see bicameral national parliaments at member state level as increasingly anomalous and inappropriate. We would be the parallel of US states, or of laender in Germany and Austria, or the political assemblies in Ontario or Newfoundland, in Canada, or Queensland and New South Wales in Australia.

Bicameral parliaments are appropriate at federal level and will survive in London, Washington, Berlin, Vienna, Ontario, Canberra. They are not part of politics in New York, Hamburg, Sidney or Quebec.

And we will, if we vote to abolish the Seanad, reduce ourselves to a less flexible single chamber status. We will do so without any advice or judgment about what this will mean.

Do we support EU interests getting rid of bicameral parliaments? Do we support a constitutional transformation of the EU? We have played little part in it and are not now being properly advised as to its relevance within the forthcoming referendum. Do we want the EU to begin with Ireland, one of the smaller states, if the aim is to wind up part of both our political life and our sovereignty?

This future for us was spelt out in two protocols to the Lisbon Treaty. The first, on 'The Role of National Parliaments in the European Union', provided that draft consultation documents from the Commission, together with Commission legislative proposals, would be forwarded to national parliaments for their information.

They would then be 'decided' by the EU Commission or Council, or, in rare cases, by the EU Parliament. The democratic remit was for 'a reasoned opinion', not on the content but on whether or not they act accorded with the principle of 'subsidiarity'.

The fact is that we will never argue our way back into realistic democratic politics under this system.

The second Lisbon Treaty Protocol needs us to join with one-third of Member State National Parliaments and 'allege' a breach of the subsidiarity principle. The Commission would then have to 'review' what it had done. This will never happen.

Abolishing the Seanad would transfer these protocol votes to the Dail on its own, and we all know what happens there. A successful parliamentary challenge is more likely to bring about a dissolution and an election than it is to change EU Commission thinking.

Obviously the voluntary surrender of this is minor but it could be of significance in certain circumstances.

This is all in the Lisbon Treaty. It is a pity that Fianna Fail, who defend the Senate, have clearly not read up the Lisbon Treaty they so energetically supported through two referendums, or if they have done so, they must view it as something not to be invoked. They should think again.

Irish Independent

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