Sunday 17 December 2017

The vandals seek to stifle dissent

The attempt by this Government to abolish the Seanad is an act of constitutional vandalism, led by a Taoiseach whose ego – if his own party colleagues are to be believed – is getting as big as Galway Bay. Mirth may be the natural response to Mr Kenny's willingness, when it comes to the issue of bicameralism, to lock intellectual horns with the founding fathers of the American republic. However, we should recognise this is just the latest act in a far broader pattern because the desire to stifle dissent, whether in the apparently unquenchable desire of the Taoiseach to quash the Seanad or Mr Shatter's advocacy of a privacy bill, has become the political signature tune of this administration. The most appalling feature of this attempt by a Coalition with the largest majority in the history of the State to abolish the sole institution that can hold it in check is the insidious offer that this will be accompanied by the sort of Dail reform that is in the Taoiseach's gift without the benefit of a referendum. This implied bargain of Seanad abolition or no Dail reforms is nothing more than the politics of the passive-aggressive bully.

It might be over-dramatic to suggest that the referendum on the Seanad is part of a war to save democracy, but it definitively represents a key battle in the protection of the quality of our democracy. The concept of visible and invisible power recognises that there are highly visible political theatres such as the Dail. The Seanad, in contrast, is a low-key institution, often to the point of being invisible, but in an age where focus-group-led populism is often confused with democracy, it offers us a guarantee that a small, second, sacred public space exists to protect the State and its citizens from the ever-present threat of a tyranny of the majority. It is always unfortunate to have a Taoiseach who is a fiscal ignoramus. That this is accompanied by an equal abyss of knowledge over the role of moral philosophy in politics is doubly unfortunate. Mr Kenny will claim to be a radical reformer, but he bears a closer resemblance to that sort of puritan who can only destroy because he possesses neither the courage nor the imagination to build.

The concept of courage should remind us that one of the strongest rationales for the retention of a reformed Seanad is David Norris. In the 1970s, the Seanad was one of the few public areas where the advocacy of the human rights of gay citizens could find a voice. Mr Kenny's views in that era are obscure but we need hardly ask how courageous they were, given that this is a Taoiseach who almost tumbled over a flower pot whilst in full flight from a media attempt to raise the pantomime phantom of gay civil marriages.

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