McDowell warns against 'issue surfing'

Wed, Jul 25, 2012, 01:00

SEANAD ABOLITION:ABOLITION OF the Seanad would result in minimal savings to the State and require so many amendments that the Constitution would be “in tatters”, former tánaiste and Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell has said.

In a speech to the MacGill Summer School, he warned against a superficial approach of “issue-surfing” on constitutional reform.

The former attorney general said that amending the Constitution to abolish the Seanad would require 75 changes to the text of Bunreacht na hÉireann.

“Entire articles would be dropped and others would have to be extensively rewritten.”

The references to the Seanad in the Constitution were all interlocked and simple abolition of the Upper House would leave the document “a gap-toothed wreck”.

“Entirely new provisions would be needed in many areas; whole articles would become redundant,” he said.

“We can now decide, with absolutely no constitutional amendment at all, to introduce a different electoral law that, to coin a phrase, would ‘open up the Seanad rather than close it down’.

“A Seanad Reform Act, introduced as a Bill in early 2013 and enacted by the end of that year, could allow everyone a say by giving them the right to opt to register to vote on each of the five panels.

“We could easily, by passing a Seanad Reform Bill, hugely expand the electorate for each panel and create an elected Seanad which was independent of the dead hand of domination by the party politics of Dáil Éireann.”

He added: “Another great untruth is the suggestion that the Seanad costs €25 million per annum and, as one Government member claimed, that abolition would save us €125 million in the life of one Dáil.”

The real gross annual cost of the Seanad was far less: “The clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan, stated that the gross direct costs of the Seanad were not €25 million but were €9.2 million at most.”

Even then, the gross cost to the State of €9.2 million exceeded the true net cost (cost before all taxes and PRSI), which was probably closer to €5 million.

If the true cost of €5 million were a reason to abolish the Seanad, a reduction in the annual allowance to Senators from €60,000 to, say, €15,000 or €20,000 would reduce net cost to the taxpayer to a smaller sum of between €3 million and €4 million at the most.

Mr McDowell welcomed the letter urging reform rather than abolition in last Monday’s Irish Times from a group of six former senators as “valuable and important for the health of Irish democracy”.

He also told the summer school: “While many people clamour for the recognition and enforcement of their constitutional and legal rights, there is a remarkable absence of public commentary about fulfilling our correlative duty of loyalty to the State.”

This required “that citizens uphold the law and pay their taxes, not campaigning to boycott taxes or seeking to own our media and influence our system while being tax émigrés abroad”.

Mr McDowell added: “We should be conscious that as the people who choose our politicians and as the people who owe a political duty of fundamental loyalty to our State, we don’t transform anger and frustration into a collective disloyalty to our democracy - dressed up as righteous indignation.”