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Senators should do decent thing

SENATOR Joe O'Toole put forward an eloquent argument yesterday against the abolition of the Seanad and in favour of the only viable alternative: reform which would give it a credible and respected place in the parliamentary system.

His argument was all the more appealing because he did not seek to obscure its fundamental weakness. The institution in its present form does little more than turn democracy into a farce. But the odds against the reformers are overwhelming.

In the first place, it is difficult to make the case for a second chamber, democratically elected or otherwise. In Ireland, it is all but impossible. The system of election is grotesque and dominated by the political parties. With few exceptions, it fails to give a voice to eminent and independent-minded citizens. For every Joe O'Toole, there are a dozen hacks.

Over the years there have also been a dozen reports recommending reform. Governments have ignored them. In a referendum a whole generation ago, a thoughtless electorate gave the executive permission to change university representation in whatever way it pleased. Even when presented with such a gift, the then government did nothing.

No government wants a powerful Seanad as a counterweight to an executive-dominated Dail. And no sensible electorate wants an expensive talking shop.

Is abolition the answer then? It has to be, if there is no prospect of improvement. But now that Fianna Fail has climbed on to the abolitionist bandwagon along with the other two main parties, it is worth looking at some of the questions that have arisen.

We should not change the Constitution without giving it some serious thought. The proposal to hold a Seanad referendum on the same day as the general election is absurd.

Some in the opposition think it a device to enable Fianna Fail to postpone the General Election beyond March. Suspicions of Fianna Fail are understandable, but there is no reason to suppose that the party's electoral prospects would improve after March. We need an early election, but we do not need an early referendum. We have put up with the Seanad for more than 70 years.

At best, a debate could serve a useful purpose: to remind us that, for all our woes, we are lucky to live in a peaceful parliamentary democracy. But we are unlikely to conclude that an upper house of parliament should form part of it.

Irish Independent