News Martina Devlin

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Enough of this fig-leaf democracy, let's call time on our elitist Seanad

Published 03/09/2013 | 05:00

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Former Trade union leader Kieran Mulvey and solicitor Mary Trayers at the launch of the "one house" campaign to abolish the Seanad

THREE words are enough to persuade me the Seanad should be abolished: Senator Eoghan Harris. The circumstances surrounding his elevation to the upper house highlight its misuse. A new government swept into power, and the booty was divided up.

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Victori spolia: to the victor, the spoils. Bertie Ahern rewarded a journalist who had done him some service with a plum, courtesy of the public purse. That appointment is just one example of how a body designed to reinforce democracy degenerated into a corruption of it. It has become a tool for political patronage – payback time for favours given or expected.

Mr Harris received a handsome tip in return for his PR offensive on 'The Late Late Show' immediately before the 2007 general election, attacking those who questioned the then Taoiseach's personal finances.

Soon after that impassioned intervention, he was parachuted into the Seanad as one of 11 Taoiseach's appointments. Other senators have been installed just as audaciously. The girlfriend of a dig-out buddy of Mr Ahern's, Joe Burke, was also given one of those 60 featherbeds in Leinster House.

Maria Corrigan, a councillor, was unsuccessful in both Dail and Seanad elections. With friends in high places, however, she managed to get herself raised to senatorial rank in 2007. Goodbye democracy, good day cronyism.

The Seanad has been debased to the level of a huckster's sweetshop where political favours are doled out like Smarties. Our taxes exploited, our debt burden aggravated.

The public purse is depleted to allow these people, and others, to posture, pontificate and be pointless.

Appalling though such examples are, a flaw even more flagrant is embedded within the Seanad. Only 3pc of the population has a voice in its elections, which makes the Seanad's existence an affront to the cardinal principle of one citizen one vote.

Next month, for the first time in its history, every citizen has a voice on the Seanad's future. Now, at last, the people have a say. Every vote is finally equal. Abolish the Seanad in favour of the one-house system of government, and every time a citizen votes his or her wishes will be just as valid as their neighbour's.

Currently, graduates of Trinity and the four NUI universities (UCD, Maynooth, Cork and Galway) have two votes for the national parliament, while county councillors have six votes. Plus a seventh if they graduated from any of the above. In short, we are not all equal at the ballot box. This perverts our democracy.

Voices calling for retention include those with something to gain: existing senators. Remember, it is lucrative and untaxing work with kudos attached to membership.

These voices make promises they cannot keep about reform – such an option is not going on the ballot paper. So the electorate must trust to the unsubstantiated possibility of reform as they place their tick.

And on the question of trust, let's turn to a 1979 referendum. Here, the people said yes to expanding the university franchise to allow all graduates a vote in Seanad elections. A small step forward, but for 34 years the people have been ignored. Bearing that in mind, who really accepts reform will now happen?

Arguments are advanced about the Seanad acting as a brake on the Dail. Sadly, this misrepresents the case. The only people who believe that also believe the Galway Tent was nothing more than a social venue. Here's another example of the Senate's democracy deficit: TDs who lose their Dail seats are housed in the second chamber until they can run again, or reach retirement age. It is intrinsically undemocratic to give public office to those rejected by the electorate. Yet more than a third of senators in the current Seanad were unsuccessful Dail candidates in 2011.

Clearly, it is a training ground for the Dail, or a resting place until another tilt is taken at the Dail. Able TDs are an asset, and those who funnel through from the Seanad are often competent. But let the political parties train candidates using their own resources – bear in mind, they receive state funding.

Granted, a handful of senators have contributed to public policy and discourse. But able individuals would make their way forward in any case. Should we preserve an institution that dishonours the notion of democracy and equality because the odd talented individual may sit in it?

Ireland is equipped with more machinery of government than is necessary or advisable given our bankrupt state. We ought to be moving faster towards a pared down, more efficient administration.

YET even if we were flush, the cost issue is less compelling than the democracy shortfall implicit in the Seanad. Even if it was cost-neutral, I could not support its retention.

However, in the interests of confidence-building, I urge Enda Kenny to put forward his proposals for Dail reform before October 4.

Finally, those wishing to join the Dail must face the people. This is right and proper in a democracy. Those wishing to join the Seanad do not face the people, and any pretence to be public representatives is a fig leaf. This is wrong and improper.

I'm out of patience with fig leaves, and golden circles. To tear off one, to put a dent in the other, I've joined a non-political grouping urging that the anachronism of the Seanad be consigned to history.

Let the people call time on an elite voting for an elite to function as an elite.

Find out about our aims on www.onehouse 2013.com and on Twitter @onehouse2013

Irish Independent

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