Finessing a strengthened Seanad could be the doorway to a “Second Republic”…

Elaine Byrne puts her finger on a real problem with Irish politics (and not even Irish politics, but everywhere populism is providing short to medium term pay-offs to opposition parties). She finds that Kenny’s threat to unilaterally abolish the Seanad one step too far towards demagoguery. And more importantly, it is missing an opportunity to make the whole Irish legislature a great deal more functional than it has been for many years. She argues that some small reforms could be a subtle but functional route to that Second Republic Michael O’Sullivan called for in the summer to stymie Ireland’s self destructive drift toward democratic centralism in politics of the kind largely associated with Fianna Fail, and now shown by Kenny:

Kenny justified his decision not to consult his front bench, his parliamentary party or the wider Fine Gael membership, on this extraordinary shift in Fine Gael policy, because “leaders are elected to lead”.

Political leadership must also exhibit a capability for inner-party democracy, political imagination, a positive vision for the future and a clear definition of values rather than a hierarchical style of authority, also expressed by the Taoiseach earlier this year with the words, “I will run the Government as I see fit.”

Democracy is increasingly becoming the first casualty of this recession while in the past it was democracy that got Ireland out of crisis.

Historically, Byrne argues, the Seanad was not the useless client body of the Dail it became after Dev’s 1937 Constitution:

Having studied the personal papers of Hugh Kennedy, (attorney general to WT Cosgrave’s 1920s government, and later chief justice of the Irish Free State), it is striking how much we have underestimated the role of the 1922-1936 Senates and the extent to which they fundamentally influenced the guiding principles, legislative foundations and institutional structures of the Irish State.

It was because of a Senate intervention, for example, that district judges were made full-time, paid and legally qualified, and therefore insulated against locally vested interests and financial pressures, which was in pointed disparity to the unprofessional nature of their corrupt Resident Magistrate predecessors.

We take many of these basic principles for granted today. Yet, due to the direct contribution by Senators, institutions like the Civil Service Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Garda Síochána, the judicial system and the organisation and administration of central and local government were so robust.

And it wouldn’t take a revolution to turn the upper house into something more useful. Beefing up its legislative powers and finessing the appointment system to place a greater emphasis to independent thinkers would tip the Oireachtas towards something altogether more legitimate and functional…

It’s worth also taking another look at Brian Hayes and Terry Leyden on Kenny’s proposal for the axing of the Seanad, not least for both’s comment on the shortcoming of the Dail’s own alternative mechanism, the Committee systme (whose abolition in favour of the Seanad Leyden claims would save as much money as disposing with the services of the Seanad …

But as Nick Whyte demonstrates perfectly here, with no capacity to sting the lower house either into stringent action or deflect it from foolish action, it has none of the legitimacy or usefulness that some of its current defenders pretend it has…

I am also grateful to Conall for extracting my own comments on this from a previous Seanad thread to his own Conall Street blog:

Abolition is a perfectly respectable option. Particularly since none of the attempts to give the upper house a proper legislative function have worked.

If there is an argument to made in favour of retaining a bicameral parliament I would rather not have to begin from where we currently are. Justifying it in functional terms would require further reform, not just Enda losing his referendum.

I don’t necessarily agree that you need to have a federal system to justify the second house. As things stand the upper chamber is a client of the lower house.

The only institution that is elected with a separate mandate from the Dail is the office of the President but s/he has about as much independent power as the Queen in the British settlement.

They cannot vote down a money bill (though it has a three week window in which to make ‘recommendations’) and the best they can do is to delay legislation for three months. Even in close general elections, the Taoiseach can make up any shortfall in the Seanad with his/her eleven nominees.

It was once a tradition that at least one of these was appointed from the unionist tradition, but this has long since fallen by the wayside…

Talk of abolition has been common right from the beginning of the state. However one all party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (1998) and the Seanad’s own Committee on Procedure and Privileges (2004) have recommended enhancing the power of the Seanad, and in the case of the latter, beefing up the direct election element of the chamber.

The inaction on both reports tells its own tale. So what’s the case for keeping and enhancing the upper chamber?

Without giving it a more substantial role, there isn’t one. The general quality of the debate in the Seanad tends to rise above that of the Dail. It is also notable for the number of independents who sit there (mostly under the aegis of the two universities, and occasionally through the appointees of the Taoiseach – though this latter, I suspect, depends on how safe they’re feeling after an election)…

It also tends to be made up of people who take a national rather than a local or constituency view of the public good/national interest. I would not push this too far though since many people seem to flit in and out of the Seanad depending on whether or not they’ve been able to retain their Dail seats in the previous election (f/e: see Donie Cassidy’s record).

You could see the Seanad (where it is given a sufficient role in making and shaping legislation) as a national balance to the localising effect of STV (the single most pronounced factor in creating a policy free Demos). Or, to slightly twist a Freudian term, as a Superego to the Ego of the Dail.

In short, Enda’s pushing this on the populist note that it saves money. But abolition would not deal with the central problem in the Irish political machine: ie, that no one but senior civil servants (and some Senators) actually take policy formulation seriously.