Last week, the populist, lowest-denominator argument of the government to abolish the Seanad was defeated by a majority vote of the people. The margin of victory of 1.8% was slim, but nonetheless decisive. The following is an article I wrote that was published in NUIG’s the Sin on the 1st of October, outlining why I intended to vote No.
On the fourth of October, the people Ireland will go to poll to decide whether or not the Seanad will be abolished. Should the coalition achieve the ‘Yes’ vote it is fervently campaigning for, the articles in the Constitution relating directly to the Seanad will be removed, and all articles relating to the ‘Houses of the Oireachtas’ will be replaced by a reference to ‘Dail Eireann’.
The idea to abolish the Seanad was originally tabled as part of Fine Gael’s Election Manifesto of 2011 (The same one that promised not to legislate for ‘X’, just saying). Fine Gael is campaigning with the slogan of ‘Save Money, Fewer Politicians.’ While this is undeniably not intended to be self-deprecating, it certainly comes off as such. However, the argument of saving money is hard to tangle with. As a cash-strapped nation, shouldn’t we be trying to save as much money as we possibly can,?
In real terms, the cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is quite low. It costs around 20m euro to run annually. That’s a little over four euro per person. When you consider that our external debt is averaging out at $512,000 dollars per person, four euro is a drop in the ocean. Maybe even half a drop. There doesn’t seem to be much point in abolishing a functioning institute of our government that, in actuality, runs up such a modest cost in comparison to the money that was shovelled into toxic banks (I’m looking at you, Anglo).
Aside from money, there are other genuine arguments for retention. Five out of every six European citizens are governed under a bicameral system, ie two houses of government. The Seanad has been in place since its inception in the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State, apart from a one year period of abolition in 1936 when it was dissolved by de Valera for disagreeing with his proposed Constitutional reforms. As well as that, the reasoned debating of the Seanad has helped to nurture the careers of some of modern Ireland’s most respected politicians like Mary Robinson, Michael D. Higgins and David Norris.
Should this referendum be accepted blindly, we would be left only with the Dail: a house that has proven itself time and time again to be incredibly flawed. From expenses corruption to the Tom Barry incident, the Dail has never been a stranger to scandal. Our TDs seem to spend more time debating what kind of drink to get in the Dail bar than they do our legislation. There is simply no reason to entrust sole, exclusive and un-scrutinised legislative power to such a drastically defective enterprise.
It has to be said that the Dail has become a mere passenger to the executive. Free-thinking is not permitted. As per the abortion debate and subsequent Fine Gael schism, politicians must follow the party line or face expulsion. Therefore a TD cannot condemn an unjust bill for fear of losing his livelihood. This has caused our parliament to become filled with self-serving, careerist politicians who do not represent the wishes of the people.
The 1937 Constitution envisioned an Executive that was responsible to the Dail. However, proper provisions were not created for the government to be properly held to account. This impotence can clearly be seen in the fact that the Dail review committees are appointed by the government of the day. To that effect, the government effectively controls the mechanism that is designed to be a check on its own power. It has also become common practice for governments to answer parliamentary questions with a combination of secrecy and obfuscation, the kind of ‘politician’s answer’ that is no real answer at all.
While I don’t advocate the abolition of the Seanad, I certainly don’t advocate retaining it in its current form. As of now our upper hosue functions as somewhat of a graveyard for lost and unwanted politicians. If the current coalition were committed to anything other than shameless austerity, this referendum would be about reform of the Seanad AND the Dail.
As things stand, Ireland’s politician to citizen ratio is three times higher than the European average. That has to change, but it can be done without granting unchecked power to an irresponsible and unrepresentative house of government. Cutting numbers in the Dail would significantly stem the drain on the exchequer without hindering productivity. I mean, how many times have you tuned in to a Dail debate and noticed the shocking level of absenteeism?
In an idealistic world, the Seanad would be democratically elected and would be given full powers of inquiry akin to that of the American Senate. It would be granted a more potent brand of veto and given the power to enforce binding changes to legislation should a two-thirds majority vote be reached. It could even be granted the power to initiate legislation, together with a citizens petition signed by 75,000 registered voters, as envisioned in the 1922 Constitution.
I would suggest that if Enda, Eamonn, Bruton and Co. were so intent on scraping together an extra 20 million for unsecured bondholders, they should simply abolish pension and expenses schemes for both houses, as well as lowering politicians salaries and imposing term limits. If TDs were placed on minimum wage, how quickly would we see change?