Thursday 17 October 2019

This time, let us decide on the transfer of sovereignty

Abolishing a harmless Seanad without tackling real problems will solve little, writes John Crown

The two most defining characteristics of a republic are sovereignty and representative government. Our national rights to both of these gifts were hard fought, and both have been enshrined in our Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann.

The Government is proposing major changes to the Constitution, changes which would have the effect not only of reducing our sovereignty, but also of abolishing one of the two imperfect chambers of our imperfect parliamentary democracy. These government proposals may or may not be wise, but they would have such profound implications for our Republic that they should only be enacted following detailed discussion and consultation with the citizenry, and with their explicit approval through popular referendum.

Instead, the Taoiseach has sought the opinion of a single citizen -- the Attorney-General (whom he appointed himself) -- on the question of whether sovereignty can be transferred to the European Union without popular consent, and he has, moreover, decided to exclude a discussion of the future of Seanad Eireann, which he wishes to see abolished, from the proposed constitutional convention.

With respect to the sovereignty issue, my fear is that each of our 4.5 million citizens, instead of achieving a co-equal voice with each of the 350 million other individual citizens of Europe, will instead become partially subject to the will of the representatives of the 80 million citizens of the very fine German Republic.

We do have a historical precedent for the parliamentary transfer of sovereignty. It was rather hard to get it back. Let us decide this time.

While it is difficult to defend the continuance of the Seanad as it is currently constituted, abolishing it would fix little that is wrong in the current political system. Comprehensive Oireachtas reform might.

The economic predicament facing our country is largely rooted in political failure, not only the personal failure of

individual politicians and the corporate failure of our large political parties, but also in a more fundamental systems failure of the institutions of State, and in particular the Dail and Cabinet.

At the core of our governance is a dysfunctional interface between technically inexpert ministers and senior civil servants who have generally risen to the top of their departments on the strength of their adroitness at navigating its bureaucracy.

The ministers themselves are unfortunately drawn exclusively from a cohort of often unaccomplished, frequently nepotistic TDs, whose entree to national politics was based not on a grasp of the big issues of State, but on their ability to manipulate a local party machine. These were the people making the economic policy decisions that undid us.

We have never needed national vision, intelligent statesmanship and good government more than we do now, and the executive processes of government should be run by people who are competent to run them. To achieve this, we need a powerful Dail, whose attention is fixed on national issues, rather than the local ones which dominate. We also need a Cabinet of competent qualified people drawn from many walks of life.

We need a new Constitution -- the 'Second Republic', or 'Dara Phoblacht' -- an idea I proposed in these pages in early 2009.

What role would a reformed upper house have in this new dispensation? The major problem with the Seanad is not what it does, but how it is elected. Not one member is elected directly by a universally enfranchised electorate. The closest to passing this test are the six senators who are elected by the graduates of two of our four universities, "rotten boroughs" from which the broad mass of the population are already unfairly excluded. Eleven members are appointed by the Taoiseach. While this process has brought some wonderful people into the Oireachtas, memorably the late, heroic Gordon Wilson, it has also been used as a means to pay back political favours.

The other 43 senators are elected by professional politicians. While the intention of the founders was that these senators would broaden the skillset in parliament, they are sadly now elected along more or less precise party lines, and their ranks include a disproportionately high number of politicians who were unsuccessful candidates in Dail elections.

Thus the Seanad has been turned into a pale imitation of the Dail. However, within our existing Constitution there is scope to reform the Seanad electoral process in order to make it more democratic. This can be fixed by legislation.

The bigger and more pressing challenge facing the country is Dail reform. Replacing the current multi-seat constituency with a national or regional electoral system would minimise the impact of the local machines and would allow the parties to build a slate of candidates whose appeal would transcend local loyalty.

The Taoiseach should be able to appoint ministers from outside parliament. Finally, a slimmed-down, directly elected, constituency-based Seanad with legislative oversight powers, and strengthened investigative powers, could be retained as an interface between government and the population.

A hasty, reflexive decision to abolish a wasteful but harmless upper house, without tackling the real political and constitutional causes of our national emergency, will fix little, and would be irrational.

Let's think this one through for a change.

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist and was elected to the Senate for the National University of Ireland

Sunday Independent

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