Abolition of the Seanad ignores Ireland’s need for democratic renewal…

Vincent Browne gets all academic today on the subject of the poor state of Irish democracy:

We now have a form of representative democracy whereby almost the sole independent function of our elected representatives is to choose a Taoiseach, after which the government formed by the Taoiseach is effectively immune from accountability during its period in office. A government that regards election promises as disposable at will. Is it tolerable that the people are denied, effectively, any means of changing that?

He’s mostly concerned about mumblings amongst the political elite about curtailing the Irish habit of referring to direct democracy for every treaty change regarding its membership of the EU..

But there’s been a much more interesting debate going on about the weakness in Ireland’s representative model, and the current government’s rather impetuous decision to abolish the Seanad.

Now, no one reckons the current model of the Seanad is fit for purpose. Not least those who want to retain it. It’s only house of the Oireachtas in which citizens overseas can vote. Though you can only do that if you are a graduate of TCD or the National University.

Thus a feverish campaign to save it, and a late coming onside of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. The debate has been all the better for the fact the Taoiseach’s referendum isn’t until the autumn.

So it is proving something of assay of the utter powerlessness of most chambers beyond those in the executive arm of government.

I want to come back this over the next few weeks, but I’ll start with Derek Mooney’s column in the Evening Herald last week, which shows what the country would be left with if Leinster House went Unicameral:

Over the past few weeks and months a number of Fine Gael TDs have been claiming that Ireland does not need a Seanad or second parliamentary chamber based on its size. They have been particularly eager to draw comparisons with a number of the Nordic countries, pointing out that they only have one Chamber and that their average number of national parliamentarians is 160.

The problem with this comparison, though, is that it just paints half the picture.

While countries like Norway, Finland and Denmark do not have an upper house of parliament, i.e. no Senate, they do have far more powerful, advanced and resourced systems of local government.

The statistics country by country are quite impressive:

Denmark has 98 local authorities and 2,500 local Councillors.
Finland has 304 local authorities and just under 10,000 local Councillors.
Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 local Councillors.
By contrast, after the changes introduced by this government:

Ireland will have 31 local authorities and 949 Councillors..

He goes on to quote from Niels Pultz, the Danish Ambassador to Ireland, who notes that in Denmark, local authorities have real power and serious money…

…issues of importance to the daily life of citizens are best taken care of at the local level. That goes for primary and secondary education, social services, health, child care, local roads, water and waste management.

While the parliament passes the laws in these areas it is the local authorities that have the responsibility to deliver. Therefore, the municipalities collect their own taxes in order to provide for these services. This takes place within an overall framework agreed between the national government and the federation of municipalities.

It is well known that taxes in Denmark are high – about 48pc of GDP. It is perhaps less well known that the municipalities take more than 50pc of that cake in order to be able to provide for their services!

In a #digitallunch session we had before Christmas Colin McGovern notes (starting here) just how bottom democratic power is in the Netherlands…

Direct democracy is the least effective tool any country (let’s call them neverendums) has in calling politicians to account. But it is often pushed as part of an anti politics agenda.

Cutting numbers is not a bad thing in itself, but when accountability and poor opposition is the prime weakness of the system, just loping off the upper is not in anyone’s interest.


  • weidm7

    Specious reasoning there Mick. The upper house currently does nothing at all, it doesn’t hold anyone to account, it doesn’t increase or decrease democracy, it does nothing. Removing it will have no change other than saving a bit of money and reducing the options of unelected TDs. Arguing for its retention is not arguing for greater democracy, no one should claim it is.

    On the local government issue, you are of course correct, Ireland is exceptionally centralised and the country is worse for it, but every time a government has tried to introduce taxes designed to go to local governments the people have been up in arms about it, claiming it’s the fat cats trying to take more from their salary. Ironically, they’re actually trying to provide them better services.

    If people want more democracy, they should vote for Direct Democracy Ireland.

  • Mick Fealty

    we’ll have disagree on that last weidm… 😉 But like I said, no one reckons the current model of the Seanad is fit for purpose..

    There is a very lively and intelligent No campaign going which is arguing there needs to be a focus on giving the Seanad enough powers to do a proper scrutinising job.

    Parliament, Vincent is bang on. Even the CC is appointed by the executive rather than elected by the Dail. I accept that 9/10 that means the same result.

    But you can see it in the way successful CC’s get ignored, and shouted over. Parliament needs to be given teeth and cut some fear into the executive, and the means to act in the national interest (rather than just that of the parishes he comes from).

    Beefing up the committees to House of Commons standards does not actually change or distribute that critical power relationship.

  • cynic2

    Two points.

    What are the Councillors there paid?

    If you did that in Ireland the culture is such that almost every councilors granny and family downt o second cousins would have gold plated services and council jobs and the entire allocation of funds and grants and contracts would put Tammany Hall to shame

  • Mick Fealty

    They have less powers than councillors in Northern Ireland…

  • aquifer

    Downsizing democracy has dangers.

    Especially in an ongoing crisis, it is important that people continue to accept that it is OK to be taxed and governed.

    This is more difficult when only one group, and possibly a minority group, is carrying the whole government can,

    The danger is that some populists will shower the people with promises while blaming someone else for the mess. Like promising flags everywhere, or blaming the Brits, the Provos, or the EU.

    And if populists get elected, and deepen the crisis by accident or design, the markets start to vote no with their cash.

    In past periods wages would then fall to restore competitiveness, but nowadays a fall towards global norms would be a local economic catastrophe.

    A few more party researchers, Senead worthies, or councillors, begins to look like fair value.