We could do with some light relief. There's a lot of serious stuff happening right now – the abortion debate, unemployment stagnant at horrendous heights, the Government's hounding of the sick and the handicapped, the continued looting of citizens' pockets for the benefit of the elite. We need a comic distraction. And, with the superb timing of a veteran performer, our Taoiseach has arranged a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad.
Should we keep the second chamber, or should we throw it into the dustbin of history? Personally, I think they should turn the referendum into a TV show in the autumn schedules. Each week, senators would prostrate themselves before Marty Whelan and a jury of licence payers. Marty would give each politician a task (such as reciting the Constitution from memory, while dangling upside down under a Liffey bridge), and a jury would throw darts and hot chestnuts at them.
This would add to the gaiety of the nation. It would also raise money for RTE, by allowing the public to text insults at the politicians via premium phonelines. Above all, it would engage the citizenry with the political process with enthusiasm not seen since the Civil War.
Of course, our pompous politicians wouldn't stand for Marty and the hot chestnuts. Instead, we'll have to get as much fun as we can from a traditional referendum. Endless waffle on the airwaves, turgid speeches about the future of democracy. Columnists huffing and puffing about the need to come out and vote. Prime Time will stage earnest debates, while an uninterested electorate clicks through the TV channels, looking for the Jeremy Kyle Show.
And here's the dirty little secret underlying all this: it doesn't matter a damn who wins the referendum, it won't affect the rest of us in the slightest. The opposing sides in the referendum line up something like this:
For junking the Seanad: Enda Kenny and his troops; plus those who will take any chance to punish and hurt politicians; and, anyone with a lick of sense.
Against junking the Seanad: most of those who are senators, or who hope to be; plus their relatives and friends; and those genuinely afraid that the concentration of power in a single chamber is dangerous.
Here, in the interests of transparency, we should state how this column will vote. I've long believed the Seanad should not just be abolished – it should be dismantled by brawny, obscenity-spouting construction crews, until not a single brick stands upon brick. Then, the remains should be saturated in disinfectant for a decade. Thenceforth, something more useful should be built on the site – perhaps a public toilet.
Having said that – for what it's worth, I'll be voting against junking the Seanad.
Two questions arise: One, what is the Seanad? and two, why does Enda Kenny want to abolish it?
The Seanad began as a bit of a mad idea to involve various worthy folk in running the country. Artists and toffs, academics and people of refined taste. Voting was limited mostly to politicians and university graduates, at a time when the universities were even narrower-based places than they are today. In the Forties, at least one politician went to jail for selling his vote.
The Seanad has been graced by the occasional public-spirited individual. Mostly, however, it became a plaything of the political parties, a halfway house for those who failed to win a Dail seat and wished to raise their profile for the next election. And for those on their way to political oblivion it was a last plunge of the snout into the public trough. It has been corrupted beyond redemption by the political parties.
Promises of reform will be forgotten, if the Seanad is retained. It will continue to be a bauble to be enjoyed mostly by party hacks and nonentities. It's existence is an offence to the notion of democracy.
Why does Enda Kenny want to abolish it?
October 2009 – Fine Gael was on course to beat the crap out of Fianna Fail. Trouble was, Enda is a lightweight. After 35 years in the Dail, his record was embarrassingly threadbare. There were murmurings within the party.
In an effort to boost his image, Enda made a speech to the faithful, in Clontarf. He emitted hot air about how he would create 100,000 jobs. He boasted of "my economic team of Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, Kieran O'Donnell and George Lee". Seven months later, Lee walked away in disgust. A month after that, Bruton, Varadkar, Coveney and O'Donnell were prominent among those who tried to dump Enda, believing him too lightweight for the job.
Kenny's promise to abolish the Seanad, made in the Clontarf speech, was a populist dodge, part of a claim to be bringing something new to politics. He had never raised the issue before, or discussed it within the party. It was real top-of-the-head stuff, a thoughtless look-at-me-I'm-serious gesture.
He also said: "The huge centralisation of power in Ireland is incompatible with a healthy Republic." He promised to replace "a government which has been run for the benefit of the few rather than the many". To lead "a government that is truly committed to radical change".
After the election, he immediately adopted the pro-banker and bondholder policies he had harshly condemned when looking for a mandate. His government became even more centralised. The Dail was all along the servant of the Cabinet. The Cabinet is now ruled by a tiny clique called the Economic Management Council – which is four politicians, including Enda.
Much economic policy is run through something called the IFSC Clearing House Group, a banking entity with a direct line into the Taoiseach's office.
Kenny has sought to give an appearance of political change, by tinkering with the process of government, while retaining the politics of the discredited Cowen government. His promise to abolish the Seanad is part of that.
Politically, his government has remained as loyal a servant of the European Central Bank, and its private banking buddies, as the old Fianna Fail crowd ever were.
In arguing for the abolition of the Seanad, Kenny says it did nothing to defend us against those who championed "unattainable policies of the Celtic Tiger", and destroyed the country. True, but the same applies to the Dail. It's not just the political apparatus that's corrupt, it's the parties who control that apparatus, and their fawning commitment to the extremist "free-market" policies of the ECB.
Abolishing the Seanad won't improve the political process, whatever trimmings Kenny adds to his "reforms". But keeping the Seanad isn't about protecting democracy, even though this government has indeed become worryingly centralised (and independents in the Dail these days sometimes have their microphones turned off). The Seanad will remain a party bauble. The outcome of the referendum is, like the Seanad itself, without purpose or meaning.
But, if we were so minded, we could use the referendum as a shot across the bows of a government that continues to act against the interests of its citizens – and which reneges on the promises made before the 2011 election. A government for whom the citizens are a resource to be asset-stripped, to make up the losses of the bankers and bondholders.