Monday 26 January 2015

Elaine Byrne: Democracy in danger of being another casualty of recession

No government has ever actually attempted to improve, transform or restructure the second house

Elaine Byrne

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

Sorting out the ballot papers for the Dublin University constituency in the Seanad elections held in Trinity College. Trinity and NUI graduates can vote in Seanad elections but students from DCU, the University of Limerick and the Institutes of Technology are barred

'THE Chamber of the Condemned" is how Enda Kenny described the Seanad to Senators last July. Since coming to power almost two years ago, the Taoiseach has only visited the upper house once.

That's how relevant the Seanad is. Just one in three wishes to see it reformed. A whopping 53 per cent are determined to abolish the Seanad in the referendum expected in early autumn 2013. These figures are more or less the same as in the last Millward Brown poll of June 2011.

In this anti-politics, anti-everything age that we are living through, the Duke of Leinster's ballroom is our sacrificial lamb to the faceless gods of austerity.

The main charge against the Seanad is that it is an expensive talking house that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of Irish democracy. Indeed, it is anything but democratic, given that 43 of the 60 Senators are elected by a narrow franchise of a thousand councillors, senators and TDs.

Insiders voting for insiders.

The six seats reserved for the universities are fundamentally elitist. It is against the very principle of a Republic that a college degree confers someone with more political representation than someone without one. Trinity and NUI graduates can vote in Seanad elections but students from DCU, the University of Limerick and the Institutes of Technology are barred.

This temporary home for the political journeyman, a reward for those on their way up or down, is indefensible. A democratically flawed creature without real purpose or meaningful function. The definition of status quo.

The perfect whipping boy for the pretence of change. A political scapegoat for that public anger that has yet to find its fall guy.

Enda calls the abolition of the Seanad the "central part of our structure of political reform".

That is utter nonsense.

And everything that is deeply and intensely wrong about an Ireland overwhelmed by the drudge of budgets and negativity, this troika-infected inbred instinct to cut, slash, abolish, remove, merge and take away.

Some facts. The accounting officer for the Oireachtas Commission testified to an Oireachtas committee last January that getting rid of the Seanad will save the Exchequer less than €10m per year.

To put this into perspective, that's less than twice what the Government spends annually on special ministerial advisers. The taxpayer also forked out €9.65m in pensions for 111 former ministers last year. The argument in favour of eliminating a branch of our democracy for financial reasons holds no water.

The other logic generally trotted out is that despite 12 reports on Seanad reform, there has never been any change. That is not a reason to get rid of something. The Irish public have never had the opportunity to see what a reformed Seanad looks like. No government has ever actually attempted to improve, transform or restructure the second house.

Political courage would try fixing it instead of throwing democratic structures away.

The Seanad did not cause the economic crisis. Before they got used to the levers of power, the Fine Gael-Labour Programme for Government hit the nail on the head. The real problem is that "an over-powerful executive has turned the Dail into an observer of the political process rather than a central player and this must be changed".

Ireland has one of the weakest parliaments in Europe. It is the Government, not the Dail that decides the legislative agenda, determines the order of business, and ensures that the context of parliamentary debate favours the Government through the election of the Ceann Comhairle. The Government controls all aspects of parliamentary activity. The purpose of the Seanad is to hold the Government to account as an additional check and balance on power. The policy of abolition ultimately reduces rather than enhances democratic accountability.

If anything, this is a dangerous slide towards democratic centralism and a nod towards Ireland's authoritarian style of hierarchical power which punishes dissent. This Government has the largest majority in the history of this State. Even if 30 Fine Gael and Labour TDs defect, the Government still has the numbers to stay in power.

Democracy is increasingly becoming another casualty of this recession. The Seanad is an easy, soft target. A tokenistic gesture which amounts to tinkering-at-the-edges stuff.

This is what radical reform looks like. Implement a report. Imagine that! A consultation paper on the Seanad, Open it, Don't Close it, was published last September. It proposed changing the Seanad election process to open up Irish politics to include greater representation of those with international private sector experience, business and technology backgrounds, the diaspora, ethnic and religious minorities and those north of the Border. It also advocated giving the Seanad substantive functions.

The Lisbon Treaty conferred additional powers on the Houses of the Oireachtas but these have never been taken seriously. The Seanad could examine enacted and proposed European legislation. It could also engage in post-legislative scrutiny and review whether legislation has achieved its original policy objectives after the passage of time.

The first Senate met 90 years ago on December 11, 1922, at the National Museum on Kildare Street. From 1922-1936, the weight of the Senate's authority was such the Dail accepted 95 per cent of all amendments. Of the 1,831 amendments made to primary legislation, the Dail agreed to 1,719.

These were no ordinary amendments. The Seanad profoundly influenced the establishment of the Civil Service Commission, the Comptroller & Auditor General, An Garda Siochana, the judicial system and local government.

Of course, those were different times. They were worse than now. But what they achieved!

The Senate members numbered among them the Nobel laureate W B Yeats, George Sigerson of GAA renown, the feminist rebel Jennie Wyse Power, the merchant princes Andrew Jameson and Henry Guinness, the labour agitator Thomas MacPartlin and the unforgettable legend that was Oliver St John Gogarty.

Imagine a Seanad like that.

Sunday Independent

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