On political reform: “the present time of crisis is exactly the time to act”

A year ago James Downey wrote of the Taoiseach’s long standing committment to abolish Eamonn De Valera’s Seanad Eirean thus:

Seanad Eireann (did he invent the name too?) made a gesture towards “vocationalism”, a daft idea popular in some right-wing circles in the 1930s, and another gesture towards elitism, with six seats reserved for graduates of the National University and Trinity College. The whole thing was wildly undemocratic. And it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. He never intended it to work.

Well, quite. Cynical it might not have been, but as Downey noted last year, what’s needed is a new broom, which provides Ireland with a constitution and a system of government which on one hand does not allow the executive to rule unopposed, and on the other have Dail deputies dancing to the latest populist tune.

One, no reform is worth anything unless it places power where it belongs, in the hands of representatives elected by the people.

Two, Dail reform is not sufficient. We must not go on indefinitely tinkering with a constitution changed by every wind that blows in the form of badly drafted referendums. The present Government promises us referendums by the score, a horrible thought.

We need a new constitution: shorter, up-to-date, relevant, consistent — “harmonious”, to borrow a word from Professor William Binchy.

A year on, and, erm, no sign of that

A REFORMED Seanad could be a useful part of a working democracy, but I can see two problems for the excellent people, such as Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, now campaigning to save it.

They want the chamber elected by popular vote. That would make it a rival to the Dail. Irish governance is too fragile to handle the ensuing danger of friction.

Secondly, in the event of a Yes vote in the referendum, the Government promises reform. However, all the evidence suggests that any reforms would be cosmetic. And in the absence of Dail reform, they would have a feeble effect on the system.

If the Government had taken a serious, or a rational, approach to the subject in the first place, it would have started with a revision of the Constitution that would provide for single-seat constituencies and make it impossible for the Dail standing orders to reduce backbenchers to the status of puppets.

Since it has done nothing of the kind, and clearly has no intention of changing tack, the prospects for true democracy must be gloomy indeed. That is all the more sad because the present time of crisis is exactly the time to act. [emphasis added]

Yet the problems are mounting up for genuine national democracy.

Hemmed in on one side by populism and cynicism and on the other by a global banking system that operates far beyond local or national control, politicians will struggle to engage the population over reform of an arcane upper house unless it is seen to deliver something that makes a tangible difference.

In the first place at least the future of the Seanad is neither here nor there… it’s the future of Irish democracy that matters…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • jh25769

    It’s not just Lords reform then?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Apart from Westminster envy, is there any objective motivation for single constituency seats?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Also is populism just an analogy for “unpopular with the media” or is it based on real political divisions, if so then doesn’t it come down to the personalities of the politicians which are proportional to the desires a microcosm of an electorate but independent of the political system.

  • Alias

    Ireland doesn’t need a new Constitution: it needs an electorate who are properly educated about the purpose of the existing Constitution. The purpose of that education being to protect them from a eurogombeen political class who have proposed amendment after amendment for the sole purpose of transferring the peoples’ sovereignty to a supranational regime. The failure of the people to understand the importance of their sovereignty to their collective interest has enabled said eurogombeen political class to hoodwink them into giving it away.

    Even where they retain it they don’t understand it and this has also enabled the eurogombeen political class to put the European interest before the Irish national interest. For example, Article 6 stipulates that the government must decide all policy “according to the requirements of the common good”. Hence we see the government trying to pretend that bailing-out the Eurosystem by underwriting the speculative losses of French and German banks was a policy that was adopted to promote “the common good” of the Irish nation when, in actuality, it was a policy that was adopted to promote the common good of the EU and acts directly counter to the common good of the Irish nation.

    De Valera’s great constitution is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and its articles have been widely incorporated into other constitutions and, indeed, treaties and conventions. For example, Article 1 was used as amended as Article 1 of the UN ICCPR. Incidentally, Article 1 is also why the Constitution is under sponsored attack from certain quarters. It says simply: “The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions.” It doesn’t say anything about giving a veto to a foreign nation. Other articles that cause offence to vested interests relate to NATO and the emergent European army.

  • Most democracies that have successful bicameral legislatures are federalist (U.S., Canada, Germany, RSA) and the lower house is elected by popular vote from smaller electoral districts and the upper house is elected for longer terms from the constituent units of the country: states, provinces, landen, etc. If the country is not a federation and especially when it is small geographically and in terms of population there is no reason for another house. In both Britain and the U.S. the upper houses were designed as checks on the more democratic lower house and in the U.S. to create some balance in power between the large populous states and the smaller less-populous states.

  • aquifer

    If some people are given a job as an honour they usually try to do it well, so the trick could be to write the right job description.

    And perhaps give them seven years to learn to do it well. Why seven? Ten years past retirement might have too many in dotage.

    Half should be women, of course, which is well on our way to a revolution around here.

    Perhaps former members of the dail should be kept out?

  • Mick Fealty

    Not everyone has the private income in order to be able to sustain such a public honour. But we could do with some bolder thinking. There is a problem with tinkering

    In a sense there’s not enough emphasis on what problem needs to be solved. In a sentence: Irish political group think, rampant clientelism, and the predominance of the parish over the national interest.

    There is also the context of a changing relationship with the world both outside and inside the country’s borders.

  • Seamuscamp

    Your single sentence summation has a confident ring. But don’t you think that, whatever the system, there is a comparable sentence to be composed? In the US case, remove the word “Irish” and the cap fits. In Germany, change “parish” to “lander”. In the English case, remove the word “Irish”, change “parish” to “class” and you have the guts for discussion.

    Which country do you see as a role model?