THE people of Ireland will decide the future of the Seanad on Friday. This is because the Constitution belongs to the people and changing it is up to them, not anyone in the Government, in the Dail or in the Seanad.
This referendum is the ultimate example of "power to the people". What could be more democratic than to ask the people for their decision?
I made a commitment to give people their say on the abolition of the Seanad before the last general election. This referendum delivers on that promise. And it does so in the clearest possible way with a simple choice – vote Yes to abolish the Seanad or vote No to keep it.
I believe abolishing the Seanad is the right thing to do. I believe that because, four years ago, following a detailed examination of the political system, I came to the conclusion that the Seanad was not reformable. Also because I believe we can establish a more effective politics in our republic. A better political system. One that is more accountable. More democratic. More responsive.
Politics must change. It is simply unimaginable for a country to go through the kind of crisis we have, with the devastating consequences it has brought for so many families, businesses and services across the country, without politics making the same kind of fundamental changes others have had to make in their daily lives.
We have made a start. The programme of political reform we have implemented since entering government in 2011 has already shown significant results. Reforms such as ending corporate donations to political parties. We have cut the pay of all politicians. We held a referendum that cut judges' pay. We ended the convoy of ministerial Mercs and halved the cost of ministerial transport. We ended unvouched expenses and severance pay for ministers. We put an end to the practice of paying pensions to TDs before they are 65 and paying ministers pensions while they are still serving as TDs. The spirit of the Freedom of Information Act has been restored and its remit extended. Protection has been given to whistleblowers. We have introduced gender quotas in selecting candidates for election. And we held a referendum to explicitly protect children's rights.
That's a good start. But there is more to come. Every household and business in the country has to make do with less. Do more with less. Politics cannot be immune from change. In fact, I believe fundamentally that we can have a political system that can serve the people better with fewer politicians and at less cost.
The next Dail will have eight fewer TDs, with a saving of €2m. The Dail is also doing more with less, sitting for longer hours and working harder. The reform of local government is well-advanced. The number of city and county councillors is being reduced by 600, or 40pc. If the people vote Yes to abolishing the Seanad, the number of politicians in Leinster House will be reduced by one-third.
I have heard many arguments against the abolition of the Seanad that have nothing at all to do with the Seanad. Many of those supporting retention of the Seanad point to weaknesses in the Dail. Or the electoral system. These are not arguments for retaining the Seanad. And I happen to agree with them about the Dail.
The Dail is, after all, truly the people's chamber. That is why we must continue to bring reform there, too. The amount of time it will sit is being further increased. We are making sure more of that time is spent on proper legislative debate. We are adding a new stage to the law-making process so that civil society, advocacy groups and individuals can lend their voices. We are changing the Budget process so that the elected members of the Dail are more involved.
IF YOU decide to abolish the Seanad, there will be further steps to enhance the legislative process and improve the committee system. We will see more debate, not less. And real debate – between the Government and those who represent the people about the laws that affect our citizens and the policies that shape our economy and society.
I ask myself why many of those who were principal players in the political failures of the past are so passionate about maintaining the status quo. The old politics.
Why not have a politics that costs less, that is more open, more effective? Why not be willing to lead by example by cutting the number of politicians? Why believe change is the enemy, to be resisted at all costs? Why try to justify a situation where only 1pc of the population elects a house of the Oireachtas where any Taoiseach can guarantee a majority in the second chamber by appointing his friends and cronies as senators. Why keep an institution that has no constitutional responsibility to hold the Government to account?
Why embrace the old politics where Ireland has more politicians than other small countries?
Five European countries have roughly the same population as Ireland. None of them has a second house. Some of the most effective democracies in the world have abolished their second houses. All of the Scandinavian countries, for instance. And New Zealand, even though its political system, like ours, is a legacy of its history as part of the British Empire.
The truth is that we do not need a second chamber. Everyone recognises that the Seanad does not work. Instead, those pretending there is a reform option are inventing things for it to do. Reasons to continue its existence. Reasons to keep spending €20m on an entity that has never acted as a check on government or as a balance to the Dail.
I strongly urge people to come out to vote on Friday. It is your Constitution, your day, your power to change it. I hope you will see the abolition of the Seanad as a step on the path to a new and better politics, and I urge you to vote Yes.
But it is your decision, and I leave it in your hands.