#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.

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