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.
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.
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?
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