#SeanadRef: Ireland’s wrecking ball approach to political reform has been expensive and disastrous

“Our propaganda can never be stronger than our actions”

Michael Collins

Abolition of anything in government is rarely a harbinger of improvement or reform. Yet it seems to have become Ireland’s particular political poison of choice.

The last time the Irish political system was utterly transformed was back in 1977 when Jack Lynch axed the local domestic rate. In doing so, he removed what little democratic value remained in local government.

In the intervening thirty five years councils were run under the authoritarian writ of the county manager, one of the most powerful and unaccountable public servants in western Europe. TDs were burdened with an increased caseload and the expectation they would act as ‘super councillors’ for the county’s once the money and the power shifted to Dublin.

It was a task that their role as parliamentarians left them spectacularly unsuited for.

In hindsight government, albeit largely at the prompting of the troika, has recognised that breaking the link between local taxation and expenditure was a huge mistake. That is now being painfully and partially redacted by Minister Phil Hogan. In the meantime councils in Ireland are now scouring local government in Britain for directors of finance or indeed anyone with the necessary experience of accounting to local ratepayers.

Minister Hogan is also trying to undo the damage wrought by the abolition of domestic water rates under a previous Fine Gael led coalition, and residential property tax in Bertie Ahern’s first term as Taoiseach. All of these changes were wildly popular at the time, although each are now regarded as critical mistakes which contributed to broader systemic failures in the country’s overall fiscal management.

Which brings me to the proposed abolition of the Seanad.

There is no urgent case for the Seanad to become a challenging and critical brake on the right of an elected government to govern. The upper house is, was and always has been a revising chamber. At worst its role is to cast a separate eye on legislation on its way to becoming law.

Critics say that it played no major role in challenging the notorious groupthink of Irish politics. That’s largely true. Although it has also been said, neither did the parties who sat in opposition in the Dail throughout the years of Celtic Tiger excess. In any case, you can only get out of system what you put into it.

The Seanad’s major flaw lies in an impenetrable election process which binds its political makeup closely to that of the Dail’s. What largesse the government cannot cover, the Taoiseach makes up for with his own nominations. It’s ironic that with a large majority the current Taoiseach felt secure enough to populate its blue leathered seating with some of the most experienced, diverse and independent minded senators in several generations.

In Senators Katherine Zappone and Fiach Mac Conghail the Seanad has people of substance whose lives, vision and ambitions are not bounded by the slow climb up the long greasy pole of professional politics. If there is still a Seanad after the vote on Friday, it will need a modicum of reform in order to ensure quality and diversity of representation, rather than a radical re-invention.

It’s understandable that a government trying manfully to restrain a rising public debt of €192.5 billion wants to advertise the €20 million it spends annually on running Seanad Eireann as a saving to the public purse. But Ireland’s poor record in achieving political reform extends beyond the much vaunted inertia of previous governments to its wrecking ball adventures in local government.

At the end of the day the Seanad is just a revising chamber. It cannot stop the over whipping of Dail’s TDs or their tendency to respond passively to hasty and impulsive orders from government. But in the words of that ubiquitous radio advert, once it’s gone, it really is gone.

Sadly it may take another thirty years to measure the damage.

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  • cynic2

    “The Seanad’s major flaw lies in an impenetrable election process which binds its political makeup closely to that of the Dail’s. What largesse the government cannot cover, the Taoiseach makes up for with his own nominations.”

    ……… in a process that is even more unfair and discriminatory than the one that elected Stormont and was the excuse for over 30 years of murder. Funny that it is still going today isnt it

  • Desmond Trellace

    I agree with you all the way. (Were I Taoiseach, I would make you a Seanadóir.)

    The biggest problem with the democratic system, or parts of it, in any country is that people don’t know what is really going on and don’t go to the bother of informing themselves (even to the extent possible.) As long as that persists, you can tinker with the system any way you like and nothing substantial will change.

    The Seanad was basically a good idea. (Come to think of it, so was Fianna Fáil.)

  • aquifer

    Maybe the Seanad should have a specific remit as the guardians of transparency, when it is now technically possible to make most stuff public on the Web. e.g. Scoring departments.

    “TDs were burdened with an increased caseload and the expectation they would act as ‘super councillors’ for the county’s once the money and the power shifted to Dublin.”

    I was going to say that we needed the Seanad to counteract the focus on doing favours for local constituents, and the above backs that up.

    Having a second house with limited powers beyond moral authority has something to recommend it when you look at the US budget gridlock tonight.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    “I was going to say that we needed the Seanad to counteract the focus on doing favours for local constituents, and the above backs that up.”

    Yes, but the Seanad in its current form became a vehicle for doing favours for friends/acquaintances/constituents through promoting their election to the second house.

  • Newman

    In the present climate where Fine Gael are ruthlessly suppressing conscience on issues which would warrant a free vote in any other properly functioning democracy, it is not surprising that they wish to rid the nation of a troublesome body that dares to think independently or scrutinise legislation with a little more reflection.Seanad reform, ….of course, but the 20m saving will be overshadowed immediately by a legislature ever more centralised and controlled by an executive. Una duce una voce more appropriate today to Fine Gael.

  • Mick Fealty

    This proposal and much of its opposition is governed by short termism. I’ve read the FF 2011 manifesto on this and it’s little better and SF turning on a sixpence in the span of a single campaign tells its own story.

    Few have argued honestly what benefits abolition brings or what’s lost when it goes. What’s lost is simple and unglamorous: somebody checking the TDs work before it passes into law.

    By all means lets have the 20 mill, but on a debt bill of 127 billion (rising by 14% pa) no one but the sovereign bondholders and the IMF will ever see that money.

    I come at this from a northern bias, I confess. We have one chamber which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the executive. As a consequence we have no public debate worth the name in Stormont. Tightening the chains of central control even further looks retrogressive to me.

    Keeping the Seanad does not guarantee reform will happen. Nor are we guaranteed the present govt will not uphold its promise to reform the Dail once it has swallowed the Seanad elephant. But in some cases less is just plain old less.

  • David Crookes

    The whole business of abolishing the Seanad is rather sordid. “Of course we all want to save the state money. Don’t we? I mean, our economy is still in a very weak state. A lot of the blame for that fact has to be laid on the shoulders of nasty politicians. Do you want to reduce the number of nasty politicians, dear electors? Of course you do. And do you want to save the state money? Of course you do. Tell you what. We’ll have a nice referendum so that you can all tell us exactly what you want.”

    The likelihood is that what Germans call the Stimmvieh — the silly electorate — will duly give the answer that it has been set up to give.

    I’m with Mick on two counts here. First, the saving of money is worth than trivial. In financial terms, getting rid of the Seanad will create enough wealth to buy every man, woman, and child in the RoI a small box of chocolates.

    Secondly, the unicameral stitch-up which NI enjoys has indeed given us “no public debate worth the name”. You would think that politicians in the RoI, perceiving that fact, would beware of going down the unicameral road. Do they actually envy us?

    There is something more. The abolition of the Seanad will bespeak a RoI whose electors are prepared to kill off the last vestiges of governmental mystique and romance in the name of a squalid ‘saving’ which will save them nothing. How much has NI saved by abolishing the PSNI band?

    The abolition-of-the-Seanad project is cheap and nasty.

  • Zig70

    The argument of stability and oversight is the same argument I would use if I ever get my dictatorship up and running. Look at what the main thrust is – the elected representatives are not capable of making good decisions so we need seers to guide them? If it’s good enough for Cuba. Maybe it will focus people on electing politicians with more ability.
    I’m just surprised the politicians are going for this. What are they going to do when they are old and a bit senile?
    Looks tonight like the Turkeys are revolting.

  • Mick Fealty

    “I’m just surprised the politicians are going for this…”

    Really? Try this?

    “You guys are really, really pissed with us politicians, because we made you complicit in screwing yourselves over. But here, why not get rid of these guys, who didn’t lift a finger to stop us…(and whose existence you probably never even thought of before)…”

    Apparently Mary Lou (who seems to have done really well, btw) was hinting on Vincent Browne that the Seanad could be brought back… It would not be the first time that happened, but it also seems to me to be certain hedging of bets by a politician who already knows full well it’s just ruse…

  • feismother

    As somebody who has a Seanad vote just because I’m a Trinity graduate I’m all in favour of reform (including denying me a vote) but I don’t see the need to abolish the entire institution and believe there’s a place for a second chamber.

    Of course the money saving and the “there will be fewer politicians” argument sit very well with the country at the moment but is short-termism of the very worst sort, I think.

  • George

    In the intervening thirty five years councils were run under the authoritarian writ of the county manager, one of the most powerful and unaccountable public servants in western Europe.

    The County Manager was created by the County Management Act 1940 and had already been in existence for nigh on 4 decades when Lynch abolished rates.

  • Rory Carr

    Speaking of Ireland and Wrecking Ball, this is the latest news on that subject of which I have become aware:

    http://tinyurl.com/mxx5elq

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed. And for most of that time they did little damage, since they had precious few resources to do it with. Not so since the EU money started rolling in.

    But the breach of the democratic link with revenue raising killed any influence the elected officials could exert over spending. “Mind yer own fecking business” is not an untypical response. And in some counties the results on the ground have been disastrous.

    The parallels with yesterday’s referendum choice are striking. It was a regressive step made in the name of saving people money when it simply shifted power and money to Dublin. And like abolition of SE it did no such thing.

  • Charles_Gould

    Well Mick it looks like the people have voted to keep SE.

    Personally, I would have abolished it.

    A victory for FF.

  • Rory Carr

    Also, I would argue, a victory for the people. Whatever the uselessness of the senate in recent times, whatever of its function as a reward for unelectable cronies, it nevertheless held out the possibility of acting as an institution that could make government think again or at least proclaim strongly to the people pf the state that the government ought to think again. For that, I know, two things were required, integrity and courage and both seemed to be lacking in Seanad Éireann which is why the government believed they could convince the people that it ought to go.

    But it was not the failure of the senate to fulfill its function that motivated Fine Gael or Labour but rather the fear that it might just wake up, grow a pair, and create discomfort at a difficult moment for government which motivated them. I can only assume that Fíanna Fáil, having previously been in favour of abolition, were motivated by nothing more than ignoble opportunism. As for Sinn Féin, I’m damned if I know what motivated them but if, as some suspect, it was simply that Pearse Doherty saw the opportunity to climb on what at the time appeared to be a winning bandwagon and convinced the Ard Comhairle over Gerry Adams instincts then, I am sorry to say that they have placed themselves in the same ignominious camp as Fíanna Fáil, albeit on opposing sides.

    Not very nice. Not very nice at all.

  • Charles_Gould

    It seems that university graduates from TCD and UCD turned out – the privileged voting to preserve their unfair privilege.

  • David Crookes

    Charles, the unprivileged had both the ability and the opportunity to outvote them. But if we’re going to talk about universities, here is one piece of lunatic rubbish that needs the chop. Someone will put me right if I’m talking anachronous nonsense.

    You graduate from QUB or UU or somewhere else with a BA in French and an MA in politics, while your lady wife graduates from QUB or UU or somewhere else with a BSc in chemistry and an MSc in agriculture, but each of you must suppress the fact of your first degree when you write your full title, BECAUSE:

    Some old universities (still including TCD? — I don’t know) allow you to convert your BA or BSc respectively into an MA or MSc MERELY BY PAYING MONEY a few years after you obtain your one and only degree.

    Certainly used to be true. Is it still true? If so, crush the infamy.

  • Charles_Gould

    Mr Crookes the unprivileged don’t have the opportunity to outvote them; in the ROI people who graduated from TCD and UCD can vote in Seanad elections, but those who did not attend those universities don’t have a vote.

    Mr Crookes it is true at Oxford that people with a BA can convert it to an MA after 7 years or so. Also, you get an MA at Oxford simply for joining the lecturing staff. I don’t know about TCD.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks a lot for the information, Charles. When I said OUTVOTE I meant in the rhododendron, as a Malapropistic ancestor of mine was once supposed to have said.

    Years and years ago I had a friend who was appointed to a sort of mostly curatorial job in OU. He was told that he would be granted the status of lecturer and awarded an honorary MA, but as far as I know he never got one.

    Because of things that go back to the Papacy the Archbishop of Canterbury can confer upon anyone whom he likes the degree of DMus. Funny world.

    Anyway. Of course the Seanad needs to be reformed. Part of the antiques department — the Chichesters kneeling in marble, with ruffs around their necks, their portion sure, as L McN would say — can be liquidated during the process of reformation.

    Privilege! I wish we could get rid of the four-main-churches mantra, which encourages the inscient to believe that many well-filled evangelical churches do not exist. Imagine if the elders of a North Antrim Elim church liked my latest anthem, and awarded me a DMus. Would that be ridiculous? Maybe so. But would it be OK for the AoC to do it?

    I’m not a great one for forelock-touching myself. Now, when people’s minds are engaged, may be a good time to start thinking about a reformed Seanad. Refer-Enda can fairly claim that the result is a vote for reform. Have a good afternoon.

  • feismother

    UCD isn’t a Senate constituency, it’s part of the NUI one.

    As for MAs, well there are all sorts of anomalies regarding degrees and for many courses at Scottish universities an MA rather than a BA is the primary one. Thirty-three years on and I still haven’t got round to converting my BA(Dubl) to an MA.

  • Charles_Gould

    Micheal Martin is on with a great spring in his step.

    The idea that a TCD or UCD graduate should vote but someone who went to Oxford or Harvard cannot seems risible.

  • DC

    the senate should go for the simple reason that legislation is disproportionately produced by the EU and ireland is deeply embedded in that set up and therefore other institutions are doing the work of irish lawmakers.

    if around 70% of legislation is being produced by the EU why oh why has there not been a corresponding cut in salaries and personnel in national parliaments that reflects this reality? Democracy’s supporting infrastructure has completely souffléd.

    An example of what you are supporting mick is me doing 70% of your work while you stay on the same salary, something has to give somewhere on that basis.

  • Rory Carr

    Final Count :YES: 591,937 NO: 634,437.

  • Rory Carr

    There are reports that quite a few (?) ballot papers that were treated as spoiled were NO votes that had “REFORM” also written on the ballot paper but I have no figures for this. Since this news came from a FF TD (Averil Power) perhaps it can be discounted as little more than trivia.

  • Mick Fealty

    DC,

    It’s the commission that does the leg work. The level of scrutiny is no less, and arguably it ought to be more rather than less arduous at national level since they are closer to the population the legislation will be ‘inflicted’ upon.

    There is a proposal in Zappone/Quinn and/or Crowne to cut salaries, I think, to recognise these guys don’t and will be expected to be full time representatives.

  • Greenflag

    One ballot paper (spoiled ) read “Down with this sort of thing ‘

    So instead of saving 20 million Euros our genii have wasted 20 million in what can only be seen as an ego trip for Mr Kenny and his camp followers ..

    The ‘politicians ‘ live in a world of their own it seems . The Senate should be reformed and made into an elected body for most of the seats with a number of reserved seats for minority interests such as immigrants etc.

    Of course it was also an opportunity to kick Messrs Kenny /Gilmore and other party leaders where it hurts .

    Good result anyway -That’ll teach them .Shades of De Valeras failed attempt to get rid of PR and being in the FPTP back some 50 years ago .

  • DC

    The level of scrutiny is no less, and arguably it ought to be more rather than less arduous at national level since they are closer to the population the legislation will be ‘inflicted’ upon.

    The point being that the national civil service and european civil service does what you are looking for and reports back, i just don’t believe the defence stands up that personnel in and around national parliaments should remain the same.

    if it weren’t for eu developments and its parliament i would be more sympathetic.

  • David Crookes

    Thirty-three years? Good on you, feismother.

    Someone, I can’t recall who, made the point on the air this afternoon that those senators who voted for the abolition of the Seanad should be booted out at once. Hard to argue with that one…..

  • Mick Fealty

    Parliamentarians, personnel?

  • DC

    yeah constituency offices and office costs and all that it’s all grown and kind of turned into an industry while all the same power has drifted away elsewhere.

  • Mick Fealty

    Personnel get hired and fired. MP’s, MLA’s and TD’s contracts are with the people, NOT the state.

  • DC

    it’s actually created politics of marketing gimmicks where all this money has become available for constituency work and ‘research’ officers and marketing specialists are brought in and media consultants used and politicians now engaging in business language in non market place environments, all of this nonsense creates a sort of impression that parties can do something; the truth is parties talk around the issue and pay personnel and specialists such as pr companies and communication experts and whatever to look good and sound credible, when clearly nothing can be done that directly by them any more.

    soufflé politics. fck all in the middle once you cut through the bullshit and taxpayers fund all that whenever politicians should just admit they have given up control to supranational bodies, politicians have all but given up the running of the economy and handed it over to global markets and we are all at the mercy of international finance till some control is taken back somehow.

    and then the work of governments has gone to commissions and commissions overseeing commissions and all sorts.

    I could go on!

    Here’s an example – http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=8ZdueiaicR4#t=377

    There is only one government since 1945 that can say all of the following: ‘More jobs, fewer unemployed, better health and education results, lower crime and economic growth in every quarter,’ – this one.

    The spin politicians put forward was it was down to ‘government’ actions whenever it was clearly down to an unsustainable credit bubble.

    Look at our economy – at ease with globalisation, London the world’s financial centre. Visit our great cities and compare them with 10 years ago.

    That was just bullshit once reality caught up with PR and spin and the politics of marketing and talking around issues which you actually have no control over, taking credit for things that wasn’t actually part of or as a result of direct government action looks good while those things work in your favour, of course.

    less so when it all blows up in your face!