Michael McDowell: Let's not consign Seanad to unread history books
There are powerful arguments for saving the Upper House from the cynics who would abolish it, says Seanad campaigner
Published 25/08/2013 | 05:00
In a year in which it is proposed that learning history is no longer to be a core element of our children's education, maybe we should take stock of the views of some famous Irish figures on the question of Seanad abolition.
Mary Robinson used her election to the Seanad to campaign on many very important social issues, which the Dail simply failed to deal with.
To take one such issue, contraception: she attempted unsuccessfully to decriminalise access to contraception in 1971. Her bill was described by Archbishop McQuaid as a "curse on Ireland".
The Supreme Court soon afterwards, in 1974 in the McGee case, ruled that a married woman had the constitutional right to use contraception as part of planning her family.
Dail Eireann was the chamber in which CJ Haughey, as minister for health, introduced a grotesque law in 1979 to restrict availability of condoms to married couples, and then only on the basis of a prescription of a medical practitioner.
This, he famously told the Dail, was an "Irish solution to an Irish problem".
There are young people reading this who will find that hard to credit.
Mary Robinson, years after the defeat of her bill, spoke strongly in favour of reforming rather than abolishing the Seanad. In a Seanad speech advocating reform rather than abolition, she said: "I believe that [the Seanad's legislative role] is vitally important for the future. It is a safeguard to our democratic institutions, to human rights and to civil liberties in Ireland, and it is a very important one."
Garret FitzGerald, after I was appointed Attorney General and later as a minister, was one of the people who changed my mind on abolition. In 2003, he wrote strongly in favour of reforming rather than abolishing the Seanad as follows:
"The role of Seanad Eireann in our political system has been questioned from time to time. I have to say that I do not share what is clearly a widespread belief that Seanad Eireann is redundant . . . there are many bills which are far more fully and effectively debated in the Seanad than in the Dail, despite the similarity of the composition of the bulk of the membership of the Seanad to that of the Dail under our present Seanad electoral system.
"The reasons for the better legislative performance by the Seanad in relation to some bills are complex. But one reason is that, despite its largely political composition, the atmosphere in the Seanad is less partisan than the Dail, and perhaps senators, just because they have less work to do than members of the Dail, are sometimes inclined to do that work more thoroughly.
"And if a Seanad composed as is the Seanad today can be useful in this way – as I believe it is – then one elected in a less political way might be even more useful."
I found, as a minister, that Garret's view was 100 per cent correct. The guillotine was not used in the Seanad.
I preferred to start important bills in the Seanad where they got a really thorough debate and examination rather than in the highly partisan bear pit of the Dail.
Other Wise Voices
Last year, TK Whitaker, John A Murphy, Brid Rogers, Mary O'Rourke, Maurice Hayes and Mary Henry wrote to the papers urging the Government not to abolish the Seanad. They said:
"As former members of the Seanad, we would like to express our shared view that rather than amend the Constitution to abolish the Seanad, it would be better to reform the Seanad's electoral law to empower citizens to become more directly involved . . .
"We believe that the Seanad under the existing Constitution can have a valuable democratic and constitutional role as a revising chamber, and as a potential check and balance on the powers of a transient Dail majority in many areas, such as safeguarding the independence of the President and judiciary, and not least under Article 29 in relation to protecting the State's sovereignty in respect of EU treaty development, where the Seanad has a veto . . .
"We believe that if the Seanad's electoral system were reformed, it could add greatly to the standing of democratic politics in the eyes of the people and to the effectiveness of the Oireachtas."
Voices From History
From Michael Collins, who in April 1922 stoutly defended a bi-cameral parliament for the newly independent state, to John A Costello, twice Taoiseach, who said that "a second chamber is essential" and to James Dillon who opposed abolition because both Houses were essential "for the liberties of the country", there was a clear understanding that a single chamber, all-powerful Dail was not in the interest of democracy or constitutional values.
Are we now to ignore or dismiss the considered views of these eminent figures?
Last week a "senior Fine Gael source" solemnly informed the Irish Independent's political editor that Fine Gael's new referendum strategy was to target me in the referendum campaign and to concentrate on the economic record of the Government in which I served as minister for justice.
How ridiculous and cynical is that! A sign of complete desperation, I think. It comes from the same mind-set that saw Alan Shatter's arrogant and contemptuous attack on the former Attorneys General lose them the Oireachtas powers referendum.
The reason that public opinion has shifted against their abolition proposal and in favour of reform is that Irish people are looking at the issues – not at personalities, political point-scoring or propaganda.
The Irish people are not the fools that the "senior FG source" obviously takes them for.
They have already seen through government propaganda about the Seanad costing €100m over five years – the actual direct, annual 'saving' per citizen would be €1.60 a year, the price of a two-litre container of milk. No reason to wreck our Constitution.
The Government has also done a sordid deal with its supporters in the Seanad that, in return for their support, the abolition would be postponed until 2016, thus deferring the so-called savings for three years in the middle of a financial austerity crisis. But we are expected to spend €14m on a referendum in 2013 to keep its supporters on full salary until 2016. Does that make sense?
The Government most of all wants you to believe that reform is not possible and is not on offer.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Seanad Bill, 2013, sponsored by Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, has already passed the second stage in the Seanad. It can become law by Christmas if we vote No on October 4.
That bill, which needs no referendum to be put into effect, will, if passed after the abolition referendum is beaten, achieve the following from now on:
* One person, one vote for every citizen and other residents in electing the Seanad.
* Give us gender equality in the Seanad.
* Greatly reduce the cost of the Seanad.
* Give Irish citizens and passport-holding emigrants a vote in the Seanad.
* Give the Seanad new functions in scrutinising state appointments and EU legislation.
All of this is within our grasp on October 4 if we vote No.
All of this, and vital constitutional safeguards, will be thrown away on October 4 if we vote Yes.
Target me all they like, but the facts and the issues and the wisdom of respected figures remain the same.