Most shocking aspect of plan for Seanad overhaul is that it could actually work
Published 17/04/2015 | 02:30
Enda Kenny fairly flew out of the blocks in his haste to praise the report of the working group on Seanad reform. Innovative and radical, he called it.
The following day, it was the turn of RTE journalist Olivia O'Leary. She liked it too. But she chose very different words to describe it: "eminently sensible".
There's a big difference between the innovative and radical and the eminently sensible. When it comes to changing the Constitution, wise persons will go for the eminently sensible.
Especially when it comes to the not very encouraging history of Seanad reform.
In case anyone has forgotten, this whole affair started with a proposal by none other than Enda Kenny to abolish the Seanad.
I voted in favour of this proposition, for the simple reason that I did not believe any attempted reform would work. It now begins to appear that I was wrong. If anything can work, the current proposals can.
But before getting down to their content, we should take a look at the U-turn quietly and deftly performed by the Taoiseach when he made contact with public opinion.
He had appeared to insist that we had to vote for all or nothing; that if we refused to abolish the Upper House we could expect no reform. Nothing could have been better calculated to ensure the defeat of his proposal. That's Irish voters for you.
But there was a more serious side to their discontents. It soon became clear that they genuinely did want reform and the Government had better deliver.
Enter Maurice Manning, head of the working group, chancellor of the National University, man about town and political operator supreme.
With a record like that, you would have thought that Dr Manning would put his finger on the key difficulty (earlier pointed out by your humble correspondent) and find a solution. And you would have been right.
Unless the Upper House is elected by popular vote, it can have no democratic status. But if it is thus elected, it becomes a rival to the Dáil. For moderately sensible people, never mind eminently sensible ones, that is a recipe for every political evil from chaos to paralysis. Dr Manning, taking a leaf from King Solomon's notebook, has come up with the brilliantly simple answer: elect exactly half the new Seanad by universal suffrage.
And this time round, universal for once will mean something very like universality. Residents of the North and recent emigrants will have votes. In principle, who can oppose that?
I vividly remember the sight of Polish voters, hundreds upon hundreds of them, queueing on Ailesbury Road and Merrion Road to exercise the franchise at their embassy.
I have been impressed by the meticulous way that American officials see to the rights of their citizens abroad.
Both of these - and many other countries - leave Ireland very much on the back foot.
They also remind emigrants of their long-held and well-justified grievances. For each of the thousands who have "made it big" abroad, someone somewhere lives a solitary life and considers him/herself forgotten at home.
Among the greatest beneficiaries will be people anxious to keep in touch with Ireland, perhaps with a view to trade or to returning permanently some day. But, in fact, we will all be beneficiaries in various ways. Returning emigrants, for example, could teach us something about countries where the political system actually works.
For the moment, however, the question is whether the new Seanad will work.
I am not entirely happy about the remnants of vocationalism and councillors' perks that will remain. And I fancy that in the North merely compiling a register of voters will be a task for Superman.
The North has a long record of electoral fraud. I suggest that when the time comes to make the preparations for an election, those in charge recruit a few old hands to keep an eye on border areas and other places with dubious records.
But these are very small matters by comparison with what we could gain from the new regime - and what we could lose if it fails.
Under the new dispensation, much will depend on the intelligence, and even more the good will, of the Dáil and Seanad members. Much will also depend on the government of the day and the backroom boys who organise the business of both Houses.
Deputies and senators will need something they have lacked for a very long time: useful work.
Some of it may be - indeed, will be - very dull. The prospect of long hours scrutinising EU secondary legislation does not stir the blood. But those engaged in it can have the satisfaction of knowing that it will be taken seriously and may bring fruitful results.
In short, after all the barren years we may at last give ourselves a proper parliament.