Like many people I found myself full of admiration for Ivan Yates last week. If nothing else, it was extraordinary to see someone who seemed to be not only telling the truth but also accepting responsibility for his fate.
As the news emerged that Yates's betting empire was going into receivership, he came straight out and took it on the chin. He mentioned the downturn in passing, sure, but there was no suggestion, for example, that the collapse of Lehmans had sealed his fate. Neither did Yates claim, as is fashionable now, that he did nothing wrong, that it was a global issue. Yates admitted that he personally cocked up, that he was too thrusting a tiger, that he expanded too much and paid too much. While he must have been feeling sorry for himself, he didn't seem to seek pity and it was his staff for whom he sought our compassion.
It was so unusual a performance from an entrepreneur and one-time politician that it rather electrified people. And no matter how carefully you listened to him and tried to read between the lines. Yates, extraordinarily in these current times, did not appear to be suggesting that we, the taxpayer, should bail him out.
Lots of people seemed to find Yates invigorating and refreshing and almost inspirational. And I was thinking that given his experience in politics, and then in business, and then in failure, which the Yanks think is the best experience of all, it's a pity we couldn't use Yates in some way; harness his energy and his relatively straight-talking approach to help the country. If only we had some council of elders onto which Yates could be co-opted, where he could help with teasing out some of the issues facing the nation, with a disparate but similar band of characters -- men and women who have seen success and failure, who represent different strands and corners of the nation.
This could be a gathering that rode shotgun on our Dail, which sees less and less real discussion on issues or even legislation. This council of elders could be somewhere where people took a more measured, philosophical look at things, where people thought about the bigger picture, as to who we are as a society, and who we want to be. Really, it could be a talking shop.
And then I remembered that we have something like this: an institution that was intended to ride shotgun on the Dail, to provide pause for thought, to allow for a bit of intelligent, thoughtful discussion on issues and legislation, somewhere where political discussion can rise above pointless cross-party point-scoring and showboating. And I remembered that through abuse and neglect we have run this institution -- our Seanad -- into the ground, and now, for a variety of agendas, none of which anyone really admits, we are hellbent on getting rid of it.
There are two distinct levels to the hysteria about getting rid of the Seanad. In general, there is some kind of notion that it is an "elite". An elite is the worst thing you can call anyone in Ireland these days. Essentially, these days, if you are not unemployed and smoking crack, or a homeless orphan, you stand open to be charged with being an elite. And apparently everything is the fault of elites -- overpaid, wealthy cabals of so called "insiders" who are all still doing fine, despite the recession, and who will always do fine. These elites laugh at the rest us and continue to makes fools of us. They are
out of touch too. They have no understanding of the real anger of the common people and they have no right to an opinion anymore because they speak from the top of a gold-plated ivory tower. Funnily enough, this notion of these elites is mainly propagated by an elite of highly paid commentators, many of whom went to elite schools and colleges. And trust me, the irony is not lost on me that I am probably, depending on your point of view a member of one, or several, elites. You will probably find you are part of an elite yourself, too.
So those angry people out there who are innocent of being part of an elite and who are therefore the only ones really allowed to speak without being shouted down these days, have very definitely decided that the Seanad is an elite. So there's the general demand for abolition. Trash the elite.
And then there is the next level of it, the party political level. TDs in general want rid of the Seanad because it allows them to be for reform of the political system without it threatening their own increasingly irrelevant and overstaffed institution. And TDs would also like rid of the Seanad because they don't like having an Upper House that rides shotgun over them and threatens their autonomy. It's too much democracy for them. They have always resented it and that is why they have allowed the Seanad to be run down through neglect and disdain. And now they are happy to use it as a scapegoat to offer the mob that is banging at their own door.
The one troubling thing about all this is that a lot of sensible people, and some less sensible but nonetheless bright people, like Vincent Browne, seem to think that we would be very foolish to get rid of our Upper House, which would make us, it is worth noting, one of the very few countries in Western Europe with a unicameral (one house) system of government.
You will recall that when Enda Kenny first floated the idea of abolishing the Seanad last year, apparently without consulting with his party, and seemingly just looking for attention, Michael McDowell, pointed out that it would threaten our democracy to get rid of the Upper House.
"It seems to me that there may be a very significant danger, in Ireland's present circumstances, that public debate on the nature and effectiveness of our democracy will proceed on the basis of glib populism and tabloid superficiality rather than on a carefully considered, cold, rational and measured basis," McDowell said "The Seanad also has importance in the provision of checks and balances against the abuse of power by a temporary majority in the Dail."
McDowell's words ring even more true now that we are effectively run not even by a majority in the Dail but by a Department of Finance that carries out EU diktats.
As John Bruton pointed out last week, the Seanad is, in fact, the only place where much legislation enacted in this country gets discussed. It simply doesn't happen a lot in the Dail. So if we abolish the Seanad we could be looking at a situation whereby the civil service essentially drafts legislation based on orders from Europe and it is then rubber-stamped by the majority government in the Lower House without any discussion.
The Seanad seems to particularly come into its own when it comes to the kind of liberal, forward-thinking legislation that continues to subtly change the face of the country. Where did we hear a good, thoughtful discussion of the recent civil partnership bill? In the Seanad. Other important social issues such as suicide and the rights of older people are also kept in the national conversation, thanks to the likes of Maria Corrigan and Mary White.
And it's not all just feminine soft, social stuff either. While the Dail rarely deigns to discuss the issue of public sector reform and pay, it is dealt with systematically and regularly in the Seanad thanks to the likes of Mark McSharry, Paul Bradfield and, of course, Eoghan Harris. The banking issue, too, was probably discussed in a far more sophisticated and comprehensive way in the Seanad than it ever was in the Dail, due in no small part to the presence of Shane Ross.
In fact, you could argue that even though it has been abused and deliberately run down over the years, despite numerous opportunities to reform it, the Seanad is still managing to provide a valuable service in a political system with a huge and increasing democratic deficit. The Seanad provides a bit of reflection in a system that can often lack a bit of reflection on the bigger picture. We can only imagine what it could do if it wasn't half stuffed with failed TDs only biding their time before they get to run again for a seat in the "real" assembly.
Imagine if we were to do what everyone seems to vaguely agree we should do if we keep the Seanad. Imagine if we packed it with experts and doers and thinkers and philosophers, with businessmen we wanted to co-opt into Government for a while, with wise men and women representing all creeds and shades of the country. Imagine then what a truly vital and inspiring institution it would become.
We can't decide a Seanad doesn't work until we at least try it properly.