Nothing progressive about abolishing Seanad Éireann
The Seanad has provided a platform over the decades for some of the most considered voices in Irish public life
The Seanad chamber. “We need more originality of thinking, not less; more democracy, not less; more accountability by those in power, not less.” Photograph: Alan Betson
President Michael D Higgins has demonstrated the importance of a plurality of opinion at times of crisis. It is limiting and dangerous to have a single, received orthodoxy when there is fear and suffering all about. Yet ironically, as one part of the Oireachtas (the presidency) finds its voice, another (the Seanad) may be about to be silenced permanently.
The notion of taking out a few miscreants and beheading them had always had an understandable appeal at times of crisis.
So Seanad Éireann has been put up in the tumbril and is on its way to the Place de la Revolution. There will always be a demand for retribution when institutions, and leaders, are seen to have failed. Someone must suffer and pay.
And so the process of identifying culprits gets under way. When they are found they will receive scant sympathy and their chances of a fair trial will be slim. Their punishment will be condign.
If those singled out are at least partially guilty, so much the better. But history has shown that as often as not it is those on the lower slopes of culpability that suffer while those with greater responsibility get away. There is a real danger that this is what will happen with the Seanad. There was an enthusiastic market in the election campaign for the proposition that we had to tackle with an overblown, expensive and ineffective system of public governance. The State had been bankrupted by the incompetence and neglect of those paid to run it. Identifying scapegoats was inevitable.
The Seanad was always going to be a likely target. Its membership is formed through an electoral process that is anachronistic and unrepresentative. And it has had a fair share of idiots, poltroons and time-servers down the decades.
But to eliminate it in isolation of other necessary constitutional reforms would be capricious. No persuasive case for abolition has been set out. Perhaps nobody cares, so no case needs to be made.
The dysfunctionality of our system of government is not that we have a second chamber to our parliament or that we have too much democracy. If the crisis in which we are now bemired tells us anything, it is that our model of government gives too much autonomy to the executive, without obliging it to account meaningfully to parliament.
It enables a small, elite cabal to take decisions that can have immense consequences without any real challenge to the processes by which they have arrived at them. It was not the Seanad or even the Oireachtas that took the catastrophic decisions of September 2008. It was a small cohort of frightened ministers, advised by bewildered civil servants, all of them out of their depth and seeking to grapple with a situation beyond the range of their competencies.
How or why the abolition of the Seanad should have emerged as the primary response to a compound failure of the State’s institutions of governance is baffling. This must be a case of “something has to be seen to be done.” And lopping off the Seanad may divert or assuage the anger of the mob, allowing those who remain entrenched within the system to carry on much as before.
Nobody is starry-eyed about the Seanad. But it has provided a platform down the decades for some of the most considered voices to be heard in Irish public life, including many of those who progressed to full political maturity in the Dáil. The quality of debate is often doubtful. But sometimes the contributions can be more substantive, better-researched and more carefully considered than those in Dáil.
We are at a pass in our own society and in world affairs where we need more originality of thinking, not less; more democracy, not less; more accountability by those in power, not less. The capacity of the international banking system to dictate to supposedly independent states and governments requires the mobilisation of all of the intellectual energies and resources that each society can muster. When an apparatchik paid by the EU-IMF troika can tell a housewife that she may have a euro for toothpaste, it is time for a strengthening, not a weakening, of representative power.
We do not need a Seanad dominated by dispossessed TDs, county councillors and so-called “vocational” representatives. What can it add to a Dáil, itself disempowered, that has few enough of the creative and entrepreneurial talents that are necessary to restore prosperity to the country?
But consider the possibilities of a Seanad populated by some of the brilliant young people who are building world-class information-based industries here in Ireland.
Could we not have
a Seanad infused with the talents and imagination of some of our writers, dramatists, film-makers and other creative artists? What would be the possibilities of an institution, drawing in some of the vision and global experience of Irish people who hold pivotal positions in business and industry across the globe?
None of this is beyond imagining or construction. But it would make no difference, unless we also had much more effective linkages between the executive and a re-energised parliament. And it is the lack of any such vision, any sense of the need for a wider reform of the way government does its business, that invalidates the proposal to get rid of the Seanad.
A big store losing money might decide to shut down its least-popular department. But to do so in isolation and without a parallel overhaul and redevelopment of the other sections of the business, would be a very poor management response.
The shaping of political institutions is too important a matter to be left to career politicians. They will seek to fashion change to their own convenience. The power to secure real reform rests with the people. The lazy, unimaginative, superficial token of reform that is proposed in this instance should be resisted.
Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times