It’s not that the Seanad doesn’t have a positive impact on ordinary people’s lives or that it has a negative impact– the truth is it doesn’t have any impact whatsoever.
Those arguing for it’s retention have been unable to state a single significant contribution that the Seanad has made to improve Irish society.
Certainly, for political cronies it has given them access to big salaries and pensions, to car parking in Leinster House and access to the members bar for life.
But for most people it remains a mysterious arm of government.
The Seanad, modelled on the House of Lords, is an affront to democracy because it goes against the most basic principal of a modern democratic electoral system – the principal of equality between citizens - ‘one person one vote’.
It is elitist, undemocratic and outdated. That’s not to say that everyone who ever sat in it are all those things but the body itself has no role in a modern society.
In the last two-and-a-half years, the Seanad has supported the government on every single occasion, including the introduction of the Property Tax, cuts to Disability Payments and the Promissory Note deal which is costing the tax payer €30 billion. There is little value in a chamber that is less about checks and balances and more about rubber-stamping government policy.
There is an accusation that the proposal to abolish the Seanad is ‘a power grab’. This would be a good argument if it were true. But it’s not. It is a lazy argument by those seeking to exploit the public’s justifiable anger at a government which has failed to deliver on its promises. The Seanad doesn’t have power to grab from it.
Senators cannot even put questions to ministers, they cannot prevent a bill from being passed into law. They can delay a bill, for just 90 days. And the last time the Seanad did this was 1964 – it was a Pawnbrokers Bill – and the Seanad voted against it by accident. They cannot delay a ‘money bill’ at all.
Nobody in this debate has tried to justify the Seanad as it currently exists although some have argued that it has made some amendments to legislation in recent years or that it has provided a place for some ‘brilliant’, academic people or alternative voices over the years that wouldn’t otherwise have been heard.
Of the amendments proposed and adopted by the Seanad in recent years they were almost all government amendments and the rest were agreed in advance by government.
As for the space it provides for ‘alternative’ voices; I won’t cast any comment one way or another on those ‘radicals’ to which opponents of this referendum refer. What I will say is that with radical political reform there can be space for different voices to be articulated in government– either by way of committee membership or through the introduction of new ways to elect TD’s such as a partial list system.
Which brings us to the big argument of the opponents of the constitutional referendum. “Don’t abolish it – reform it” they say.
Now, it’s ironic that those who argue this point most loudly are those who were in the best position to introduce such reforms in recent years.
The Green party –remember them – they want a reformed Seanad, they say. They never did an ounce to achieve it between 2007-2011 when they were in government.
The PD’s, we remember them alright, and Michael McDowell. They didn’t do a tap to bring about reform during their long period of government from 1997 – 2007. This probably isn’t surprising considering Michael and his party had previously campaigned to abolish of the Seanad. We can speculate as to why there is now a turnaround in this thinking but I suppose it’s not hard to understand how someone who is on the record as stating that inequality is good in an economy would also believe that it’s good in the political system as well.
And of course, we have those champions of reform in Fianna Fáil who didn’t have one term of government, or two, or three but have had decades of opportunity to radically alter the shape of the Seanad but chose time and time again to use it as a prop for their own party interests.
For Fianna Fáil the Seanad has always been an instrument of their power – not a check or balance to it – it was where they provided a political lifeline for former TD’s or provided an office and perks to aspiring candidates. As I’ve drove around Dublin this evening looking at Fianna Fáil posters on this referendum that are 90% covered with images of its local election candidates I couldn’t help but think that, even when they’re fighting for it’s survival, Fianna Fáil cannot help themselves but use the Seanad for their own party objectives.
Such has been the abject scandal that is the Seanad that Fianna Fáil actually committed themselves in the last General Election to supporting its abolishment. We used to have to wait until they got into government before Fianna Fáil broke pre-election promises – it now appears they’re just as adapt of doing it in opposition.
Micheal Martin said this morning that they are unhappy with the government’s proposals for Dáil and wider political reform – well join the club. But to argue that a government that won’t commit to real Dáil reform will, on the back of a referendum defeat, commit themselves to radically reforming the second chamber isn’t naivety – it is deceitful.
The political establishment in this state is not capable of agreement on what a reformed Seanad would look like and even if they were that reform would not necessarily be what the people who vote on October 4th would want to see.
If Fianna Fáil and the continuity PD’s want a reformed Seanad they should vote to abolish it on referendum day. They can then put proposals for a new chamber before the people in another plebiscite and it will be the electorate, rather than politicians, who will pass judgement.
As it stands under the constitution, even with the reforms suggested by opponents of this amendment the Taoiseach of any given day will still be in a position to appoint his/her cronies to that second chamber.
The next Seanad election, if this referendum isn’t carried, will likely take place in 2016. There will have been no reform in the meantime. We will be left, on the centenary of the Easter 1916 rising, will the useless, undemocratic body, which even those who want to retain it accept is not fit for any purpose.
I don’t like the thoughts of that. On October 4th, I will happily vote Yes – I encourage and implore you all to do likewise.
Note to editors
Yes side: Matt Carthy, Charlie Flanagan TD, Eoin O’Malley, Jason O’Mahony
No side: Micheal McDowell, Noel Whelan, Ronan Lupton and Mark Daly