Here Patricia MacBride responds to an emerging debate over the future of Seanad Eireann that was in full flow at the MacGill Summer School last night.
Now that the Seanad Referendum Bill has been signed by the Minister, it’s all about balance in the debate from here on in, right?
Well no – not really. The government parties are in favour of abolishing the Seanad and have recently been joined by Sinn Féin on the ‘Yes’ side, leaving Fianna Fáil almost as a political voice crying in the wilderness on the ‘No’ side.
I have yet to hear anyone make a case for retaining the Seanad in its current form with its existing electoral structures.
Speaking last night at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co. Donegal, Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin said his party would be seeking a legislative package of reform of the Seanad should there be a ‘No’ vote, with constitutional changes happening over a period of time.
Indeed, the citizen-led Seanad Reform Campaign have a comprehensive suite of proposals that address the issues of who should vote, how the Seanad should be structured and what is role should be.
On the pro-abolition side, it costs too much money and therefore we should do away with it. Sinn Féin’s Referendum Campaign Director Pearse Doherty tells us it’s elitist and accountable to no-one – a shift in policy from last year when his colleague Mary Lou McDonald was calling for reform. One wonders did he feel elite and out of touch when he topped the poll in the agriculture panel to cut his own Oireachtas teeth in that very body.
The discussion on the pros and cons of abolition versus reform has already commenced and will continue right up to the closing of the polls on 4 October and there is no need to restate them here.
But I can’t help feeling Sinn Féin in its policy shift and the ‘No’ campaign in all its forms is missing a trick here. The Seanad reform referendum is a smokescreen. It will occupy the minds of policymakers and the column inches and airtime of the media, not to mention the blight of posters hanging off every lamp-post.
And whilst the debate rages, the real issues affecting the lives of citizens will be forgotten or dealt with hurriedly, without thought for the human impact. With the budget having been brought forward to October this year, only a matter of days will elapse between the referendum and what Enda Kenny has described as “the last difficult budget” being announced, cutting the time available for scrutiny, debate and dissent.
One must wonder just how difficult he’s planning on making that budget. The pro-reform, anti-abolition lobby might do well to focus on that rather than try to sell the voting public on the oversight benefits of a bicameral system or the introduction of voting rights for Irish citizens outside of the State.
It’s a shocking contrast that, on the day St Vincent de Paul announce that there are 29 unemployed people for every job vacancy in Ireland, the referendum order is signed.
Isn’t that statistic what should be at the forefront of the government’s mind and how quickly our indentured servitude to the Troika can be ended?
This referendum should be about the economy, not the Seanad. It should be a notice to government that its citizens are fed up to the back teeth with lack of action on issues that really matter and time and money-wasting on something no-one really thinks should stay the way it is anyhow.
A ‘No’ vote might be just the “kick up the transom” that is needed. Then when the dust settles, a proper, informed debate on reform can take place.
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