Monday 22 December 2014

Lucinda Creighton: People are right to be angry – but scrapping Seanad is no cheap fix

Published 02/10/2013 | 05:00

Lucinda Creighton

It is not surprising that Sinn Fein would abolish Seanad Eireann. This so-called Republican Party did not recognise our State or its institutions until recently, refused to take up seats in Dail Eireann and turned a blind eye as the IRA murdered gardai, army personnel and citizens of our Republic. Respect for our State, its founding fathers and democratic principles does not come easily to Sinn Fein.

It is very different in the case of my own party, Fine Gael. Our forefathers founded, developed and defended this State and guarded its democratic institutions. That is why WT Cosgrave, Dick Mulcahy, James Dillon and many others fought so strongly to resist De Valera's 1934 move to abolish the then Seanad. In his speech on April 18, 1934, Cosgrave urged De Valera to "improve it. Do not destroy it". That plea is just as relevant today.

Voting to abolish the Seanad will have one certain effect. It will lead to the concentration of power in even fewer hands than is already the case.

Most countries have recognised the benefit of involving more people in policy making and the formation of legislation. Sadly, in Ireland, the opposite is the case. Power has been centralised in a few all-powerful civil servants and ministers, with the role of local and national politics being completely neutered.

Elected members of local authorities have virtually no power and are dictated to by the council officials. In reality, most power rests at national level, though unfortunately not in the Oireachtas, but solely in the government. We have seen the dire consequences of such centralism. The previous government was free to impose policies which fuelled the property bubble and when it came to the introduction of the bank guarantee in September 2008, only a handful of cabinet members knew the truth of the scale of the problem.

Today an Economic Management Council vests decision-making power in the hands of just four ministers and their well-paid advisers. While a case can be made for an economic planning committee within Cabinet, this body has morphed into something undesirable, effectively rendering Cabinet little more than a rubber stamp on crucial economic decisions.

Ministers Coveney and Burton have spoken publicly of their grave concerns about this new mechanism. Many other cabinet members do so in private. We in the Reform Alliance have decided to publicly advocate a No vote as we believe the elimination of one House of the Oireachtas is a dangerous move.

The Seanad offers an important safeguard in case of major flaws in government proposals.

Thousands of amendments have been proposed and agreed in the Seanad over the years, including over 500 in the past 12 months. The majority of these amendments were not even considered by the Dail. Article 29 (8) of the Irish Constitution requires prior approval of both Dail and Seanad before the government may agree changes at EU level relating to matters such as taxation and mutual defence. This was a crucial assurance given to the Irish people in the Lisbon Treaty. Abolishing the Seanad would abolish the power of the Seanad to protect our treasured 12.5pc corporate tax rate.

THE Seanad has traditionally initiated and led the parliamentary debate on sensitive social issues such as family planning, decriminalisation of homosexuality, AIDS and women's rights. It has had a special role in this regard, because members are not part of the Dail electoral system which militates against TDs initiating difficult or potentially controversial debates.

The simplistic soundbite "Abolish the Seanad and save €20m" is misleading, deeply cynical and dangerous. If we only measure the value of democracy in monetary terms, we could also discuss abolishing half the Dail to save even more money, or getting rid of thousands of gardai, much of the Army or indeed the court system!

Equally, the "Get rid of politicians" slogan panders to our lowest instincts. We, as public representatives, from all parties and none, have failed the Irish public. After the shambles of the Celtic Tiger, Irish people are right to be angry and feel disillusioned with politics. We as politicians should strive, through actions, rather than rhetoric, to restore confidence and respect for politics. We should be motivated to rebuild trust in public service.

Instead this campaign has been characterised by a populist attempt to play on people's anger. Those who fought and died to create the democratic institutions of this State would surely shudder at such a cheap campaign, which is happy to vilify and undermine public service and fails to offer any perspective on how to fix our broken system.

It is lazy, demeaning of our fragile democracy and insulting to the intelligence of Irish people. If the solution to our failed politics is to obliterate an important democratic institution, then we may as well argue for the abolition of Dail Eireann and Uachtaran na hEireann. Assuming that is not a serious option, then we should get on with rebuilding our failed institutions and our battered country. The first step is to defend our Seanad on Friday.

Lucinda Creighton is a former Minister for European Affairs and member of Fine Gael.

Irish Independent

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