It will come as no surprise to regular readers to find out that I am planning to vote “Yes” to the Seanad Abolition referendum this coming Friday. It was, for me, an easy decision to come to, as I have found myself in favour of the abolition of our second chamber for several years now, even before Fine Gael promised to hold a vote on its future.
I have major point when it comes to explaining this decision, which will come closer to the end of this essay. But before that, I must outline other reasons for this decision. I have spent much of the last few weeks discussing the Seanad and stating my position on Twitter, mostly in response to elements of the “No” campaign that I have little regard for. Others have made the same points before in the course of this campaign, and made it well, so I will try not to be too lengthy.
The Seanad is undemocratic. Only a small proportion of it is actually elected by the people, and that section has its own problems (see below). I might be a cynical realist but I believe in representative government, and that means an elected representative government, not one where one whole house is not chosen by the entire electorate of the people. This is a serious deficit in the second chamber. Designed as a place where “other voices” could be heard, I believe that it simply freezes the vast majority of the population out.
The Seanad is elitist. The two university constituencies are a disgrace to the idea of democracy. That I, through the attaining of a degree from one of the lucky institutions, am somehow considered superior in electoral rights than, say, my parents, most of my aunts and uncles, my brother-in-law and many of my friends is totally abhorrent to me and I accept no justification for their current existence or their continued existence in any of the suggested reform plans that have popped up over the last while (including one that actually, God help us, expands them to form more of the Seanad). Basing electoral rights on perceived intelligence levels has, and always will be, against the very idea of democracy.
The Seanad is unfit for purpose. The limitations intentionally placed upon its powers mean that it is an arm of government totally subservient to the Dail. Any changes to law, and any law it proposes, depend entirely on the acquiescence of the true representative house. It can delay, but not on the most important bills of government, and has only delayed bills infrequently anyway. It has a power to petition the President, which has never been used. It has, through the Taoiseach’s nominees, a cast iron government majority. As a house that the “No” side would have you believe is supposedly a bedrock of our democracy and a check on the power of the Dail, the Seanad has routinely and nearly always in the course of its history, failed to be anything more than a doormat to the true power of the Oireachtas.
The Seanad is treated with disdain by its own membership. Many of them are former TDs or people who have failed in Dail elections, adding to a mystique of the second chamber being a halfway house for those seeking a more plum electoral post. As investigations from media sources have unearthed during this campaign, numerous Senators have a terrible voting record in the chamber they are trying to protect (and are paid 60K a year to be a part of). Some excuse themselves because they don’t know anything about what they are voting on, a truly appalling justification, others because they are busy with other, high paying, professions.
(An aside: the actual cost of the Seanad, whether it 15 cents or 20 million euro, has always been meaningless to me.)
These are all well known flaws, and there is really no need to go over them again here. What of the defences from the “No” side?
The abolition of the Seanad is not a “power grab” because there is precious little power to grab from the second chamber. The power to delay, or the power to suggest amendments, is not power.
The Seanad is not a check on the power of the Dail, as it is, by its inherent nature, controlled by the government, rarely delays or defeats anything brought in from the lower house and needs permission from that same chamber to do anything of its own accord.
The Seanad has, indeed, added on many amendments to legislation over the years, all of which had to be approved by the Dail, and could have been provided by any committee.
That the “No” side is desperately trying to conjure reasons for the Seanad to continue existing – a mooted role in surveying EU legislation for example – shows how useless it actually is in its present state.
The Seanad has been the home of some important activists over the years. But most of their most important work, like that of the oft-referenced David Norris and Mary Robinson, was done outside the Seanad, in the courts, with actual law passed by the Dail.
Now, to my important point, that defines my whole opinion. Just about every last thing that I have typed here so far could be answered with the simple rallying cry that so many of the “No” side have clung to like a buoy after a shipwreck. “We should just reform it then!”
Leaving aside the fact that the myriad of suggested reform plans from various parties, political groups, activists and independent personalities could not mesh with the other, and that any reform of the Seanad would seem to, invariably, include or retain elements that would be unpalatable to me, let’s just address this point head on.
In all of the debate on the Seanad over the last month, I have held true to one thing, which is this: Tell me, who will reform the Seanad? Give me a satisfactory answer to that question, and I might vote “No”.
No one, and I mean no one, not “Seanad Reform” or Democracy Matters” or Michael McDowell or Senator Zappone or anyone has been able to answer that question satisfactorily.
Fine Gael? They’re steadfast against even the retention of the second chamber in its current form.
Ditto Labour, at least officially. They certainly aren’t going out of their way to save the entity.
Ditto Sinn Fein.
Ditto the Socialists and the other ULA groups.
Fianna Fail? They had Seanad abolition as a manifesto promise for the 2011 election.
Independents? That would be the completely powerless Independents’, yes?
Of the parties and groups mentioned above, three of them have held power for a significant history of the state, and none of them have ever implemented any reform of the second chamber. Not a one, not even when the people agreed to the bare minimum of reform with the seventh amendment. It passed with a large majority (92.4% agreed to the extension of the university constituencies) and nothing happened, just as nothing will continue to happen if a “No” vote is the result this coming Friday.
There is no political will to actually reform the Seanad, not where it matters. When someone I spoke to on Twitter claimed that Fine Gael would reform the Seanad after a “No” vote, their reply to my question of “Why?” was literally “They’ll just have to.”
They’ll just have to. This is what the “No” side is trying to sell to you, an unbelievably naive and manipulative view of Irish politics, where a vote that is simply a choice between abolition and retention will somehow ,magically, transform into a situation where the government parties will “just have to” reform the Seanad if they lose.
No. They will not “just have to”. Any No vote can be spun as a choice for straight retention rather than having to face into the mire of actually picking a reform option that would so many would inevitably disagree with.
So, here it is. Our choice is retaining the Seanad as it is, with all of its flaws, or abolishing it, and moving forward on a single-chamber, one that the government parties have already published reform plans on, plans that are a decent start. Longer sitting times, reduced TD’s, greater committee powers, 12 month reviews of legislation and gender quotas, these are all evidence that the Dail is willing to change itself in a way that the Seanad will never be.
This coming vote is not a plebiscite on reform of the Seanad, and a No vote will not automatically lead to a reformed chamber. Anyone telling you that or inferring it as a possibility is either startlingly naive, badly misinformed, or outright lying to you. Those groups calling for a No vote on those grounds are doing so because it is impossible to defend the Seanad as it stands.
Don’t waste your vote on a pipe dream of reform, an option that exists only the in the minds of those advocating it. Go instead for the reality, as cynical as it is. Go for a single chamber, a system that has been proven to work in so many places around the world, from Nebraska to New Zealand, without the foundations of democracy crumbling as a result. We have an all-powerful Dail already when it comes to the legislature, one that the government is moving ahead on reforming, actual reform from the people capable of doing it. Don’t think the reforms are any good? At least they are happening, which is more than can be said for the 76 year history of the Seanad.
The Seanad is undemocratic, elitist, limp and totally unnecessary to the running of the Oireachtas. This is a choice between keeping that horribly flawed beast or ditching it. That should be an easy choice to make.