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…

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