Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Seanad is broken, so you have to fix it!


When politicians rush to destroy something, I become suspicious. When they want to destroy a democratic institution, I become fearful. Although it’s something of a stretch to describe today’s Seanad as a democratic institution, Ireland’s second house has democracy within it, in much the same way that raspberry ripple ice cream has raspberry.

Throughout Margaret Thatcher’s ‘reign’ over England, she was taunted by the Greater London Council (GLC), led by Ken Livingstone. Each day a massive neon sign attached to the GLC’s headquarters on the Thames’ south bank flashed the nation’s shameful unemployment figures across the river to the Houses of Parliament directly opposite.

Challenged daily in policy and public relations by this Old Labour stronghold, Thatcher acted according to type, and simply abolished the GLC.

I remember well the outrage I felt at her ability to remove a democratic institution that she just happened to disagree with. At least her motives were brazenly honest.

Typically, this Irish government are being neither honest nor open about their motives for trying to abolish the Seanad.

Each time I drive past one of those ‘Vote Yes’ posters, my blood comes to the boil. Do they really think we are so stupid as to be beguiled by a saving of €20 million and a promise of fewer politicians? We all know this country recently borrowed over €80 billion to pay off the banks. We know that in the order of things, €20 million is not a vast amount of money. For goodness sake, if we’re talking of wasting money, the Mahon Tribunal cost the country €101,314,920, taking 5,687 days to peruse 1.6m pages of evidence to find just one person guilty.

We know that this potential €20 million saving won’t be used to build a new hospital. It’s a pathetic gambit that fails as dismally as the promise of ‘fewer politicians’. If the Irish were really allowed to rid themselves of worthless politicians, they’d be trampling over each other to shrink the Dáil.

In their haste to break away from their oppressors, ex-colonial countries sadly often end up mimicking the worst features of their erstwhile overlords. Only a country once ruled by the British, whose House of Lords is unelected and unaccountable, could have come up with the formula that allows only NUI and Trinity graduates, councillors and politicians to vote for their representatives in the Republic’s second house.

Even in its present form, the Seanad makes the House of Lords look indefensible, yet I’d fight for the right of both to exist. The abused has yet again become an abuser. Successive Irish governments have abused power to deprive their own recently-liberated people of access to the democratic process.

Now they want to limit that access even more. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the rabid haste this government shows to rid itself of a moderating force. Equally, we know only too well from experience that as soon as Fianna Fáil return to power, the moderation they now show in opposition will disappear as quickly as a container of arms to Ulster.

Of course I’d prefer the House of Lords to be democratically elected and therefore accountable to the British people, but even this arcane institution performs a vital role. Much extreme legislation from both the political Left and Right has been delayed, amended and rejected by the Lords over the decades, allowing a comforting feeling to seep into the people that their freedom cannot be diminished by any rogue leader.

Richard Bruton claims that as the Seanad hasn’t blocked any piece of legislation since 1964:  “... a watchdog that barks every 50 years isn’t very effective.”
Does that mean you should kill your watchdog?

Surely, what you do is train your watchdog to change its behaviour. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, writing in this newspaper last week, explained that
“... since 2011, the Seanad has proposed more than 2,600 amendments to Bills, and of these the Government has accepted over 520.”

The way things stand, a Bill can become an Act of Law in a single Dáil session. Some might think that’s great, as it allows for change to be implemented quickly. Personally, it gives me the heebyjeebys to think that either Enda or (soon?) Micheál could impose a new law without serious debate.

Every democratic nation benefits from having a second house. As well as keeping extremists at bay, it offers another essential layer of democratic evaluation.
Governments made of large majorities need to have their activities tempered, and a revising house is the perfect place to do that. The only feasible reason that today’s Government want to abolish the Seanad must be that they don’t want their policies restrained.

After introducing the household tax, water tax, property tax, rent allowance reviews that terrify the poor and needy, alongside prescription charges that have tripled overnight, betraying the sick and weak, I strongly suggest this government needs a mitigating factor. 

Clearly, the Labour Party have failed miserably in that task, so let’s create a new Seanad that is elected by and accountable to the electorate: a Seanad that has real powers of revision, delay and rejection.

Instead of aping the elitism of the English, Ireland should imitate the American model, where the Senate carries 2 senators from each state, irrespective of land or population size. The Irish Republic has 26 counties, so the new Seanad can have 2 senators from each county, voted for in free and open elections by anyone over 18 years of age who is registered and inclined to vote.

Abolishing the Seanad would not so much be an act of washing away the baby with the bath water as taking a sledgehammer to the bath itself. Even better, voting ‘No’ in the referendum on October 4th, in the hope of reforming the Seanad, will remind our arrogant leaders that unlike Margaret Thatcher, they can’t just rid themselves of democratic institutions that get in their way.

©Charlie Adley

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