Government’s fine words about reform of governance have faded away to nothing

Kenny’s proposal to abolish the Seanad is just a populist stunt

Noonan and Howlin, together with Kenny and Gilmore, operate as a Cabinet within the Cabinet. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Noonan and Howlin, together with Kenny and Gilmore, operate as a Cabinet within the Cabinet. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 15:44

It takes an extraordinary political talent to convince most people that they should vote against the abolition of a body as bizarre and as offensive to democracy as the Seanad. Yet Enda Kenny, for whom this is a personal project, is making a very fine job of it.

If he wanted to demonstrate why any kind of check on the arrogance of government, even one as abysmal as the Seanad, is better than none, he has gone the right way about it. Everything about this manoeuvre reeks of a crass opportunism that must repel anyone with the slightest interest in democratic reform.

Consider the context. It is one in which it has become painfully obvious that the Government has absolutely no intention of allowing any radical change to the system of governance that has been such a catastrophic failure.

It is not that this failure is unrecognised: Enda Kenny wrote before the general election that “we have a governance structure that causes systems to fail and fail and fail again”. It is, rather, that the Coalition parties have clearly decided that changing that failed system in ways that create real openness and accountability is too risky. A functioning democracy would get in the way of the Home Rule project that we must learn to accept.

Basic reforms
Thus, on practically every level, the most basic reforms have been stymied by a Government that came to office promising a “democratic revolution”. There is in fact a strong case to be made that things are actually worse than they were under Fianna Fáil – a statement even the most cynical among us could hardly have imagined.

The notorious guillotine system, under which legislation is rushed through the Oireachtas, was to be effectively abolished. Instead, it has become the norm – as Harry McGee showed last week, 52 of the 90 Bills passed in this Dáil have been guillotined, meaning that in most cases they received no significant parliamentary scrutiny.

The promise to “open up the budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny” has not only not been honoured, it has been actively travestied. The budgetary process is arguably more secretive than it has ever been – at least if you’re Irish. (If you’re a member of the finance committee of the Bundestag, on the other hand, you’ll get a sneak preview of what’s been decided, even before the ordinary members of the Irish Cabinet know what’s going on.)

Governance is probably more centralised than at any time in the history of the State – the gang of four (Kenny, Gilmore, Howlin and Noonan) operates as a cabinet within the Cabinet, taking all the important economic and fiscal decisions.

Meanwhile, proposals for real change have been reduced to meaninglessness. The constitutional convention was set up to be as weak and powerless as it could possibly be. Phil Hogan’s local government “reform”, which should be a crucial starting point for a renewal of democracy, is little more than a plan for reducing the number of councils. New local taxes are not to be matched with new powers for citizens to decide how their money is spent. The idea of strengthening Oireachtas committees in a way that might give them meaningful investigative capacities was screwed up by an incompetent Government campaign. Promises to create new ways of making ministers and senior civil servants personally accountable for their decisions have gone nowhere. Stroke politics and clientilism are flourishing.

In this context, the way the proposal to abolish the Seanad has been framed isn’t a cure, it’s a symptom of the disease. It came about in the most centralised, autocratic way possible – Enda had a brainwave. No discussion, no serious thought. A few months after he had argued for reform rather than abolition, he saw an opportunity to pull a populist stroke and announced off the top of his head that he would propose the biggest single change ever made to the Constitution. He has sought to explain this by telling us that he has a passionate commitment to letting the people have their say on the Seanad. This is, apparently, a secret passion: he has been in the Dáil for each of the 34 years since the people voted to change the way the Seanad is elected. I can find no record of him ever having opened his mouth to insist that the people’s decision on the Seanad be respected.

Sane answer
But if the conception of this referendum is bad, its execution is worse. It is a phoney choice. There is virtually no one at all who believes that the Seanad should be left as it is. The question is whether to abolish bicameralism altogether or retain it in a radically new form. But we’re not being allowed to vote on that question. Instead we have a “choice” like something from a tinpot dictatorship: do you want to give the most centralised government in the developed world even more unaccountable power or would you rather keep paying your scarce money to keep a bunch of failed politicians in the game? The sane answer is not yes or no – it is no and no.

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