Friday 26 August 2016

Fionnan Sheahan: Why ailing Seanad should finally be put out of its misery

Published 03/10/2012 | 17:00

At the launch of the ‘Radical Seanad Reform Through Legislative Change” consultation paper were, from left, Noel
Whelan, Michael McDowell, Mary O’Rourke, Feargal Quinn, Joe Toole and Katherine Zappone
At the launch of the ‘Radical Seanad Reform Through Legislative Change” consultation paper were, from left, Noel Whelan, Michael McDowell, Mary O’Rourke, Feargal Quinn, Joe Toole and Katherine Zappone

THE Seanad has so little to do that senators will be spending two hours today talking about themselves to themselves. The Upper House of parliament, currently facing the threat of abolition from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, is going to discuss Seanad reform.

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No government minister will be present to hear their views, express the Coalition's position and report back to the Taoiseach. Indeed, no request was made for a minister to attend the two-hour debate.

The Seanad doesn't clear two hours of its time to discuss any old document: for example, no specific debate has been held on last week's ESRI report on social welfare payments or the Fiscal Advisory Council's report wanting €1.9bn more of adjustments.

Indeed, there's absolutely nothing about the economy, jobs or the public finances scheduled on the Seanad agenda this week.

As usual, the Seanad gets energised when its own survival arises.

The report in itself is a well-produced document, outlining in some detail how the Seanad could be reformed without Constitutional change, what role it could play into the future and how to extend voting rights to the public at large.

The paper was produced by an ad hoc group put together by Senator Feargal Quinn to come up with ways to rejuvenate the Seanad, rather than just let it be abolished.

The Seanad Reform group is made up of Mr Quinn, former Tanaiste Michael McDowell, former senator Joe O'Toole, commentator Noel Whelan and Senator Katherine Zappone.

Mr Quinn is the only actual elected member as Mr McDowell and Mr O'Toole are both retired from politics, Mr Whelan ran once in a general election and Ms Zappone is the Taoiseach's nominee.

However, the group appears to be well intentioned and the amount of effort it has gone to is commendable.

The group plans to get cross-party agreement within the Seanad on a series of reforms, draft legislation and have it passed by the Seanad.

The objective is to ensure that whenever the referendum on Seanad abolition comes around, the public is presented with the alternative of a reformed Seanad.

Defeating the referendum would then put it up to the Dail to agree to reform the Seanad. All quite laudable.

Except there's absolutely no guarantee you will get a reformed Seanad if the referendum is defeated.

The Seanad reform group will no doubt secure the backing of all parties in the Seanad. But so what?

Without the backing of the Government through the Dail, the reform proposals are worthless.

This is effectively the 12th report on reforming the Seanad in its lifetime.

The most recent substantial report of recent times was by Mary O'Rourke's cross-party committee in 2004.

Ms O'Rourke's proposals were widely welcomed, had all-party backing in the Seanad and fed into a subsequent group on Seanad reform.

The best part of a decade later, the report is still gathering dust.

The Seanad Reform Group admits it would not be desirable to come out of the eventual referendum with the same unreformed Seanad. Unfortunately, this is the most likely scenario.

The Taoiseach's initial idea dropped on unsuspecting senators at the Fine Gael presidential dinner in October 2009 and moved to becoming a more formal policy in the party's general election manifesto.

From there it made it into the Programme for Government.

The referendum won't be a preferendum, asking the voters to select from a list of options: (a) abolish the Seanad; (b) retain the Seanad as currently structured; (c) retain the Seanad with reforms through legislation; (d) retain the Seanad with further reforms through Constitutional amendment.

The question on the ballot paper will be simply to abolish or retain the Seanad.

Already, the level of backing for the proposal from the Coalition is minimal.

Fine Gael TDs and senators are less than enthusiastic and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has signalled he won't force his TDs and senators to support the abolition, leaving them to campaign for its retention.

The debate on an issue that has so little impact on people probably won't capture the public imagination and a low turnout will be expected.

With half-hearted backing for its abolition, the referendum will quite possibly be defeated, with the danger being the never-ending debate on reform merely clicks back into place.

Rather than adopting the reforms from Mr Quinn's group, there would be nothing to stop the Government from simply commissioning another report.

With other priorities, the prospects of a reformed Seanad being in place by the next general election are slim.

Nothing has happened in the past three years to change the compelling argument Mr Kenny put forward that the Seanad "can no longer be justified".

The voters will have to beware of distraction tactics in the Seanad abolition debate and, if in doubt, vote it out.

Irish Independent

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