#SeanadRef: No one is defending the present Seanad’s toothless old assenting insiderly grin…

So the Seanad Abolition debate got underway earlier in the week on RTE’s Drivetime programme with a lively if nervous and unfocused sort of debate.

There are several things to say about the odd circumstances of this latest turn in the Republic’s seemingly unending cycle of referendums.

One is that the Enda Kenny’s great idea came before he used his Taoiseach’s nominations to appoint some tough and independent minded Senators who have had the effect of boosting both the quality and the independence of a body which has long since had a reputation being a rest place for politicians either on their way up or way out of politics.

Independent Senators

Professor John Crowne and Katherine Zappone who’s commitment to ‘progressive change’ has led both to the conclusion that the abolition of Seanad Eireann would be a grave mistake. Both have written bills, neither of which would imply substantial constitutional change that they believe would give Ireland some kind of functional check on the Irish executive power.

If that were not unfortunate enough for the government, its attempt to give Dail committees substantial inquiry powers failed by a narrow minority to be passed into law. Rather than refer the matter of the Seanad to the current ongoing Constitutional Convention, the taoiseach has pushed ahead with another referendum to abolish the Seanad at the end of its current term.

The strongest card, at least in the intellectual cupboard, is Ireland’s record in reforming its governmental institutions is poor, going on appalling.

In one of his visits north towards the end of the last administration, Conor Lenihan bemoaned the tendency of Oireachtas committees to draw up lengthy reports complete with urgent recommendations, only for them to be left for a generation quietly gathering dust.

But that’s hardly an appealing message from a government now well into its third year (see Quintin’s iron laws for winning a referendum).

And yet, the Fine Gael platform (or rather Enda’s platform, it’s not clear how many of his party will actively campaign for abolition) has an anti politician edge to it that could make life very difficult for the No camp led effectively by Fianna Fail, who to add complication went into the last election with a pro abolition stance.

As above, not below

Sinn Fein have also flip flopped on the matter, leaving the final decision up to the party’s Ard Chomhairle. As such it’s hard to judge their motivation, not least since as Noel Whelan almost said, they have only recently ventured an opinion (albeit through the unelected Declan Kearney) that Northern Ireland’s own second chamber, the Civic Forum, should be revived. Bicameral in the north, unicameral in the south?

But the party’s arguments are focused around unaccountability, and the fair point that the current Seanad on every major bill has voted with the Dail. Besides the Forum’s non legislative and non governmental status, mean it will play no direct part in the operation of the northern administration.

Though to echo Pearse Doherty’s criticism of the Seanad a great deal more than 99% of Northern Ireland’s population will have no say in who gets nominated.

The Civic Forum would increase the party’s dominant patronage in Northern Ireland, whilst abolition of the Seanad (despite as Patricia noted here, giving Pearse his parliamentary start), would reduce that of its rivals. It also gives them another go at being on the other side of a public argument with FF, who made their position clear earlier in the electoral cycle.

Out of order reforms

The intellectual problem for the ‘No’ side (although since the public frequently don’t answer the question they’ve been asked that may or may not prove a problem in the referendum itself), is that old Irish saw, ‘if I was going to start, then I wouldn’t start from here’.

No one on either side of the argument is defending the present Seanad’s toothless, assenting, insiderly grin as it nods through almost everything put before it. The essence is contained in the consultative paper which gave rise to both the Quinn/Zappone and Crowne reform bills, Open it, Don’t close it.

The Seanad’s summer recall to debate the undebated passage of EU legislation into Irish statute, also usefully highlighted one of its proposed new functions.

Their argument is that the Seanad should be reformed in order to put manners not simply on the Dail (something charted in almost every review of the Seanad in its long history, but never acted upon), but on the Executive who’s power base extends to the lower house and its relatively toothless committees.

And Brigid Laffan observed this week that a new internal body (the Economic Management Council, membership four) headquartered in the Taoiseach’s office has drawn the circle of trust even more tightly than before.

Accountability

Fundamentally the Irish system is built on the Westminster model of strong cabinet government and an executive-dominated parliament. What’s missing (by Devalerian design) is even a gentle break on the government’s dominance in the lower house, whether internally or externally.

The poor state of local government also forces the Dail’s TD’s to spend their time in Dublin acting as super councillors for their counties. The relationship between the fabled and much quoted County Manager and his council has been more akin to a head teacher and his PTA than the other way around.

The result is that whilst the ship of state was piling through the euphoric waves of the Tiger boom few TDs and Senators were on the bridge keeping an eye out for the national rather than the parish interest.

Two leaps in the dark

Whichever way you look at it, this referendum involves a leap in the dark. If it fails, the Seanad remains, and the government have no plans for reform. The opposition have actionable plans but not the parliamentary means to enact them.

If it passes, the executive’s dominance of both parliament and local administrations remains intact with few more realistic guarantees that it’s constitutional convention will be any more effective than the dozen or so passionately written Oireachtas reports on Seanad reform now collecting dust in Leinster House.

The awkward truth is that post the 2011 general election in Ireland, political reform was always going to take a back seat to the close management of the economic crisis. Whatever the result, the focus must not be lost on the need for reform and the closing of Ireland’s democratic deficit.

Nor one of the key unnumbered contributory factors to the crash, the propensity of Ireland’s small parish of the political elite and its pronounced tendency towards ‘executive group think’

The question remains, whom do you trust to get something done? Fine Gael/Labour, currently in the thick of managing a crisis which is likely to squeeze out any consideration of what’s necessary? Or Fianna Fail, who have the luxury of putting all their eggs in a basket of reform that may take them up to eight years to enact?

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  • David Crookes

    Thanks for that very useful posting, Mick.

    Referendums are always odious, and in straitened times they can be dangerous. In the present case, the anti-politician edge that you identify may hone public anger about the economy into an irrational emotional majority for abolition.

  • Charles_Gould

    There are still university seats south of the border. Very John Stewart Mill.

  • Charles_Gould

    Curiously if Wiki is right…..

    ….the university seats originated in pre-Union Scotland’s parliament, and when when Scotland joined the union they were adopted by the 2 English universities in Westminster.

    Then when Ireland joined the Union, Dublin and (later) Belfast got them, at Westminster.

    When Ireland went independent it retained the idea in the Upper Chamber, and NI retained it in the Senate (the NI Upper Chamber).

    NI abolished them as part of the civil rights reforms, but Dublin still has this ancient Scottish concept.

    Until the referendum!

  • Charles_Gould

    Mr Crookes: do you still have your serpent?

  • David Crookes

    No, Charles, but I recently unearthed the wooden serpent-mould that I put together years ago, and I hope to make a new one before too long. With any luck I should be allowed to play the new instrument in our church praise-band.

    Now to less ophidian matters. We used to have our own Senate in NI, and our own Privy Council as well. Sir William Joynson-Hicks as far as I recall was a member of both THE Privy Council and the NI one.

    Heath and Whitelaw swept away a lot of our old trappings by way of pushing NI in the direction of a UI. If we are to create a new monarchical UI, it will help if some vestiges of bicamerality are still in existence. An upper house with real power can enhance the dignity of a nation. There is very little dignity about being merely part of an international economy.

    I hate the idea of the Seanad disappearing. Why take one more step in the direction of boring bankerocratic boobydom? The RoI will become a little more characterless if it gets rid of the Seanad.

    By the way, the writhings of the RoI’s political parties in the matter of the Seanad, to which Mick draws attention, are altogether squalid. Enough to make you wonder if they really are controlled by reptilians…..

    But that’s enough about serpents.

  • Drumlins Rock

    As farcical as it looks on paper, and even more so on TV !, the House of Lords preforms it function exceptionally well, hence it has survived many reform attempts. Scrapping a 2nd chamber is not wise at all, give it teeth, but not keep them blunt.

  • Mick Fealty

    DR,

    The Lords works in same the quaint British way the whole system works, almost despite itself. The Commons (and the Lords) committee system is robust not because it is substantially different because of British Parliament’s traditional culture of independence.

    These are seemingly unimportant details, like the chair of the chamber being chosen by the body of members rather than the head of government. Legally too, people who work for Parliament in Westminster do not work for the Government. Despite their liminality, they do have an influence.

    The degree of independence any deliberative chamber has from the executive it elects, depends on the strength or weakness of that executive. A second chamber with a different path to membership than the current piggybacking off the Dail and Council strengths of established parties could provide a useful challenge function.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Ironically it may be the changes I would like to see for the lords are what has made the senate weak, ie. limited terms and appointments based on party strength. I actually have no problem with retired grandees going there, but the idea of it as a nursery for up and coming politicians seems odd, if the term was significanly long, like 14 yrs, then that would reduce that a bit.

  • Charles_Gould

    These appointed establishment figures that line upper chambers aren’t accountable; it’s undemocratic.

    Don’t you think that the big constitutional news is that a Commons vote is now needed before going to war and the Commons showed its might this week? And NI swung it? Isn’t that what democracy really is?

    Now that was a breakthrough for democracy, a new constitutional convention (does war now need a commons vote in law – that was one of the coalitions pledges – or is this an unwritten rule that has this week emerged) is struck.

    And it feels good. Parliament is going to be close for the next parliament as for this one, so each of our MPs will make more difference than before. The Tories can’t win an overall majority any longer in the UK and Labour will find it hard too.

  • Charles_Gould

    Also what could be more important than war. This is no small change in the balance of power between Executive and Legislature. It is a change of huge significance, not least for our armed services and their families.