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Michael McDowell: Abolition of Seanad is really a power play dressed up as reform by the Dail

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The lights stayed on late in Leinster House as the debate took place into the legislation to allow a deal on promissory notes. The ECB is likely to hamper
Enda Kenny’s efforts to portray the deal as a victory

The lights stayed on late in Leinster House as the debate took place into the legislation to allow a deal on promissory notes. The ECB is likely to hamper Enda Kenny’s efforts to portray the deal as a victory

The lights stayed on late in Leinster House as the debate took place into the legislation to allow a deal on promissory notes. The ECB is likely to hamper Enda Kenny’s efforts to portray the deal as a victory

CAN I ask you for a few moments to consider where you stand on an important question?

The question is: "Am I so angry with the failure of the Irish political system that I would fall for a cheap stunt by which all political power will be concentrated in the hands of Dail Eireann, which is completely dominated by the government of the day in a pretence that this amounts to political reform?"

The proposal to abolish the Seanad, while dressed up by members of the Government as political reform, is in reality a proposal that Dail Eireann, a deeply dysfunctional chamber totally dominated by members of the Executive and savagely ruled by the party whip system, should henceforth be the only body concerned with legislation, and that no other voices should be heard in our parliamentary process apart from TDs elected in multi-seat constituencies in which crude political Darwinism requires them to survive by focusing their attentions on local constituency issues.

To abolish the Seanad is to ensure that voices such as WB Yeats, Douglas Hyde, Mary Robinson, Feargal Quinn, Maurice Manning, TK Whitaker, John A Murphy, Gordon Wilson, Eoin Ryan Snr, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, John Robb, Brid Rodgers, Seamus Mallon and many, many more cannot be heard in our parliament, and that the views of future Irish men and women of their calibre will not be heard because our system of election to Dail Eireann makes it impossible.

Will that improve things?

Will it make the slightest difference to the desperate need to attract men and women of ability, vision and patriotism into politics? Remember that Garret FitzGerald and John Kelly would never have broken into the parliamentary system if they had not been given a foothold in the Seanad.

Look around Dail Eireann and ask yourself whether the Dail will do a better job if the Seanad is abolished.

The Government proposes, in the near future, to greatly increase the numbers of county and city councillors in the Dublin region. At the same time, it wishes to sweep away the constitutional safeguards which require a second house to approve the removal of the president and of judges, which can amend legislation and ask the President to put it to the people for decision in referendum, and which also require the agreement of a second house to abandoning our veto on matters of huge constitutional importance in the European Union such as tax harmonisation.

So "political reform" in 2013 involves more county councillors in the Dublin region and the mutilation of our constitution by abolishing the Seanad and concentrating absolute political power in the chamber of Dail Eireann, which the Government rules through the party whip system.

Funny that the Government's solemn election promise to reduce significantly the numbers of members in Dail Eireann has been casually shelved precisely because it would require a referendum to have a higher ratio of citizens to TDs.

But somehow, we can have a referendum to eliminate important constitutional safeguards on the pretext of saving money. The net saving to the Exchequer of abolishing the Seanad is about €7.5m per annum. How does this sit with increasing the number of county councillors in the Dublin region or with retaining politically appointed special advisers who cost us millions of euro every year?

The "saving" to the taxpayer by abolishing the Senate is roughly equivalent to one per cent of the annual budget of the bloated and inefficient Dublin City Council.

But you may well ask: "Why keep the present ludicrous system for electing the Senate?" I agree.

There is no need to keep the present highly politicised and unrepresentative process for selecting the Seanad.

But remember who designed the present system of electing the Seanad. It was the members of the Dail, not the Seanad, who have kept the second house in party political subjugation all these years. It was the members of Dail Eireann who did nothing about implementing the decision by the people in a referendum to reform university representation in the Seanad.

We could, without any referendum, have a Seanad elected directly by the people, including citizens who have recently emigrated, and including Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, who at present have no say unless they are university graduates.

We could, without any referendum, have a Seanad in which there was gender equality in its membership.

We could, without any referendum, have a Seanad composed of members qualified to contribute to the parliamentary process on the basis of their ongoing experience in many different walks of life.

We could, without any referendum, have a Seanad whose members were paid a modest annual allowance equivalent to the salary of the chairman of a State board, approximately €20,000.

We could, without any referendum, allocate to the Seanad vitally important functions in relation to examining and participating in the European Union legislative process (something which our parliament is, scandalously, utterly failing to do at present).

We could, without any referendum, have the Seanad play an important role in considering, in a non-partisan way, candidates proposed for appointment to membership of State bodies and boards.

We could have a Seanad in which minority voices, such as those in the past of WB Yeats and Mary Robinson, and of David Norris, could be heard because across the country there are people who can never aspire to being truly represented by securing a quota of votes in highly competitive multi-seat Dail Eireann constituencies.

You might think that it is very strange indeed that a highly dysfunctional political elite should pretend to the voters that it intends to reform itself when in reality all it is seeking to do is to concentrate all political power and all political debate in the hands of the chamber which has caused all the problems, Dail Eireann. But that is exactly what is going on.

A single-chamber parliament dominated by the Executive using the party whip and Dail Eireann guillotines is the stuff of future nightmares.

Enda Kenny thinks that he can assuage public anger and disillusionment by sacrificing the Seanad on the altar of political expediency. He thinks that he can mutilate the Constitution and throw our safeguards into the rubbish bin while posing as a reformer.

When the public realises that the abolition of the Seanad is not a reform but a cynical ploy to wreck our democracy by handing unlimited power to the government of the day, and that it will accomplish no improvement in the quality of our democratic institutions, but will diminish the quality of politics itself, the Government may regret the day that it underestimated the intelligence of the Irish people.

Meanwhile, a message to Labour. I have not met any Labour TD or senator who really believes in the abolition of the Senate rather than its reform. Most members of the Labour Party in Leinster House privately concede that this is a policy which should not be implemented.

After the by-election in Meath East, Ivana Bacik, Joanna Tuffy and all those in Labour who are losing their voices in the debate need to recover their confidence and stand up for what is right. They know that it is right to reform rather than abolish the Seanad.

Now is the time to say "Stop". If the power of the whip can drive them into the lobby to wreck our democracy against their conscience and judgement, God help us all when the whip-ridden Dail, employing the guillotine at will, is the only organ of our democracy.

Michael McDowell is a former Attorney General, Minister for Justice and leader of the Progressive Democrats

Irish Independent