News Analysis

Friday 19 September 2014

Richard Humphreys: Why we need to scrap the Seanad

This once-in-a-life opportunity to get rid of an expensive and useless club must not be missed, says Richard Humphreys

Richard Humphreys

Published 09/06/2013 | 05:00

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'Democracy matters" is the name of a new campaign group on the Seanad referendum. As slogans go, it's a good one. Democracy does matter – and that is why we need to scrap an undemocratic, elitist institution like the Seanad.

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That's why we need to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rid of an expensive, exclusive little club that is nestling comfortably in the Constitution. We need to move towards much more democratic and open institutions, and getting rid of the Seanad would be a giant step towards that.

If we fail to take this once-off chance to get rid of the Seanad, we as a nation are going to regret it – and soon. Either Irish citizens are equal in the political life of a republic or they are not. While everyone may be different in their economic or individual lives, when citizens stand before the political institutions of this State, when they come to vote, they must be treated equally. The Seanad fails that test, and it fails it completely.

Most citizens have only one vote in a general election. Thanks to the Seanad system, I have eight votes. One for the Dail, one for the Seanad as an NUI graduate, one as a Trinity graduate, and five for the vocational panels as a councillor.

This is the wonderful, democratic Seanad that is so vital to our democracy, according to the No campaign.

The Seanad is institutionally elitist. The whole notion of a separate panel for university graduates – written into the Constitution – is a complete accident of history and has no place in a modern democracy. The idea of five separate panels to represent "vocational interests" – also written into the Constitution – is straight out of a 1930s Papal encyclical, not out of a handbook on 21st-Century democracy.

The Seanad is not "elected" in any recognisably democratic sense. Even the indirect selection by councillors is fundamentally skewed, favouring some areas of the country against others.

The Constitution also provides that nearly 20 per cent of the members are appointed rather than elected – hardly a model of representative democracy.

These are not incidental aspects that can be tidied up by a "reform" bill. They are core constitutional features of the Seanad. These elitist features of the Seanad cannot be changed by legislation.

The argument that the Seanad needs reform rather than abolition sounds good. But it's a complete con-job. The Seanad can't be reformed without yet another referendum – one that would change it beyond all recognition. And even if you did manage to "reform" it, you would end up with something that looked like a second Dail.

We don't need a second Dail. We need to make the Dail we have work better – and that is where the No campaign have gloriously missed the point. Ireland would not be twice as democratic with two Dails, or five times as democratic with five Dails.

We need one democratically elected House that functions properly and allows democratic scrutiny of Government business. The Seanad is an irrelevance, a luxury that we are much better off without.

The Seanad has had 90 years to prove its worth, and pretty much failed. We need to call time on this sleepy hollow of Irish politics, a backwater members' club that is of no real relevance to the citizens.

Most of those opposing the reform are, or have been, members of that exclusive club, so their attitude is a case of "they would, wouldn't they".

If one listened to the arguments from the No side without knowing anything about the Seanad, one might think that our democracy is at risk. The No campaign website is full of pictures of citizens with their mouths gagged, unable to contribute.

We are told that all decisions will now be made by a Dail that is under a party whip. This argument might have a crumb of value if the Seanad was in a position to offer an independent and meaningful review of government legislation, like the House of Lords perhaps. But the Seanad does no such thing.

The Seanad is just as party-whipped as the Dail. The idea that a party-whipped Dail would somehow be free to pass legislation or surrender our EU veto without the checks and balances of a Seanad only works if the Seanad is actually a check and balance. Which it is not.

Senators in Ireland sometimes seem to bathe themselves in the reflected glory of meaningful second chambers, like the US Senate, with a bit of the glory of ancient Rome thrown in. It's time we took the wind out of their togas.

Some of the No campaign is based on pure misunderstanding of the role of the Seanad. It has been said that the Seanad can hold the Government to account. But that is not one of its constitutional functions. That is the Dail's job. Let's not pretend we need two Houses to do a job that one should be doing better.

The No campaign tries to claim that the Seanad has amended various bills. But almost all those amendments are Government amendments. If there was no Seanad, the Government would simply make their amendments in the Dail. The argument that the Seanad is truly a revising House would fool only those who knew nothing about how it operates. Maybe that is the strategy that the No campaign is trying for.

The point is made that we have had distinguished Senators like WB Yeats, Seamus Mallon and so forth. This argument is put forward as if the referendum was asking that such people, and the members of the existing Seanad, were going to be silenced in some way, even lined up for the firing squad. Think about that for a second.

Maybe you think that someone like, say, Senator Katherine Zappone is a valuable voice in our public life. Maybe you don't. But either way she can carry on contributing – just not as a member of the Seanad. Perhaps like many former Senators, some of the Seanad can run for the Dail and get elected – if so, hats off to them.

But let's not invite the people to keep this pampered, unelected little racket in business. A Yes vote will not silence anybody. It will simply say – if you want to be in parliament, get elected there by the people. That's equality. That's democracy. And democracy matters.

A No vote would kill off the pressure for real Dail reform. And here is where I believe the real issue lies, and where I would think that the Government hasn't gone far enough. There are too many guillotines, and there could be a lot more debate and consultation on legislation.

We need to allow full debate by the people we the citizens elect to the Dail. What we don't need is to allow unlimited debate by an unelected elite in the Seanad. Let's vote Yes to scrap the Seanad and let's deal with the real issue of making the Dail more democratic.

Richard Humphreys is a Senior Counsel and is Labour Party Councillor for the Stillorgan Ward.

Irish Independent

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