Government accused of attempting 'power grab’ with Seanad reform

New Democracy Matters! group proposes No vote in September poll

Left to right: Former senator Joe O’Toole, historian Diarmaid Ferriter, National Gallery chairwoman Olive Braiden and journalist Una Mullally at the launch of the political group Democracy Matters in Dublin today. Photograph:  Julien Behal/PA Wire

Left to right: Former senator Joe O’Toole, historian Diarmaid Ferriter, National Gallery chairwoman Olive Braiden and journalist Una Mullally at the launch of the political group Democracy Matters in Dublin today. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Mon, May 27, 2013, 18:12

The Government has been accused of attempting to stage a “power grab” in asking the electorate to abolish the Seanad by a group of high-profile campaigners for reform of the Upper House.

A referendum on the future of the Seanad is planned for September. Government sources have insisted the plan to offer the electorate a clear choice of abolition of the Seanad or its continuation in its present form will not be modified.

The new group Democracy Matters! will call for a No vote. Its members include academic Diarmaid Ferriter, former minister for justice Michael McDowell and ex-Senator Joe O’Toole.

Mr O’Toole said: “We are looking at the shrinking of democracy. We need to stop this power grab...we see a power grab opening up in front of us.” He conceded the current Seanad was “exclusive, undemocratic, unfair, unrepresentative and definitely anachronistic”.

Prof Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, warned of the “excessive centralisation of power”. He said Ireland needed more scrutiny and more oversight and said the proposal by the Government would “in effect butcher the Constitution” and would “copperfasten power with a very small elite”.

Mr McDowell said: “We stand now in danger of mutilating our Constitution to concentrate more power in the hands of a dysfunctional executive.”

The group wants to see Senator’s pay to be reduced and the right to vote in Seanad elections extended to people in Northern Ireland who are eligible for Irish citizenship and Irish passport holders abroad, as well as graduates of all universities and other third-level institutions.

Democracy Matters! also proposes that an equal number of men and women be elected from each of the five vocational panels.

Also present at the launch was former leader of the Seanad Mary O’Rourke.

Olive Braiden, chair of the board of the National Gallery, said the Upper House was seen as a “ sinecure” for political appointees. “The Taoiseach should at the very least now commit himself to implementing appropriate reform if the people do not agree to abolish the Seanad in a referendum,” Ms Braiden said.

Academic Gary Murphy, senior lecturer in Government at Dublin City University, said there would have to be 75 changes to the current Constitution if the Seanad was abolished.

Suggesting that the only option open to the Government was to abolish the Upper House was “sadly misguided”, Prof Murphy said. The Seanad could be changed substantially through legislation, he added.

Journalist Una Mullally said for her generation (people in their 30s), Seanad reform might not be the “sexiest item on the agenda” but its abolition would be “short-sighted”.

She said social issues could be the Seanad’s strength.

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