Expediency and the will of the leader are being elevated above individual conscience

Opinion: The political dynamic is arcing inexorably towards autocracy

Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 00:01

The whip is a brutal instrument, designed to draw forced obedience from slaves. It has no place in a democracy as an instrument of terror. It is an obscenity that a TD should be intimidated, bullied and silenced for refusing the whip. The party masters will argue discipline is necessary if a programme of government is to be achieved and carried through but is the use of force, the threat of censure and banishment from privilege their only option?

Yes, of course, a dissenting member may be expelled from the party – that, after all, is the party’s prerogative; but it is not acceptable that they be silenced in the Dáil chamber, that they be prevented, as TDs, from serving on committees or be removed from committees.

To permit this is to consolidate the absolute power of Cabinet and party managers on the one hand, and on the other hand to elevate expediency, the will of the leaders, above the conscience of the individual elected representative and above the interests of those people who, however notionally, have chosen that person to speak for them in parliament.

The political dynamic at work here is one that arcs inexorably towards autocracy. Consider the point we have reached in Dáil Éireann: the Government TDs have been silenced and are no more than voting fodder for the diktats of Cabinet; the Cabinet is subordinated to the will of the Economic Management Council (EMC), the Gang of Four; and it is inconceivable that the council will seriously challenge the will of the Taoiseach – certainly not at the risk of precipitating an election.

Meanwhile, to the extent that legislation is debated in the Dáil, no opposition amendment, no matter how intelligent, thoughtful or nonpartisan, will be for even a moment entertained. Those TDs who are not in Government and those Government TDs who have been cast into exterior darkness have been silenced – and all those who voted for these TDs have also been silenced, deprived of any and all influence they might try to exercise through their elected representatives.

Over the years, power in this State has been quietly, inexorably consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. If four people, bent to the will of a single dominant individual, had seized power in the land, would they be in any way less omnipotent than the EMC and the Taoiseach? Would the Dáil, as it operates at present, be any less impotent?


Seductive concentration of power
A thinking citizen might well pose the following question: what if, after the next election, the Gang of Four was composed of the four individuals we would least trust with unfettered, unanswerable power? The present administration is merely the latest in a long line of governments that have inherited this creeping, infinitely seductive concentration of power. At what point can we realistically expect this power to be ceded?

The party managers will tell us that government has to answer to the people at elections – but who do we get to vote for? Those whom the party has decided to offer us, inevitably men and women who can be trusted in large part to bow to the whip.

Anyone intending to vote on the abolition of the Seanad needs to think very carefully about where and how power is now concentrated and exercised in the State. The constitutional role of the Seanad is to scrutinise legislation, to hold the Dáil to account for legislation.

The Seanad has no power of veto but it can send flawed legislation back for reconsideration and it can bring out into the pitiless light of day the dark implications of what a particular piece of legislation might portend. It is pitiful how the Seanad has been largely corrupted down the years by, among others, the very parties now calling for its abolition.

None of this means the Seanad cannot be meaningfully reformed. Nobody now in power ever called for the abolition of the Seanad until Enda Kenny proposed it out of the blue. I find myself forced to ask: where does it come from, this sudden enthusiasm to abolish the Seanad – the only body under the Constitution that could, even theoretically, call this Government to account?

The Taoiseach tells us that the role of the Seanad will be carried out by Dáil committees but are we seriously supposed to consider this an adequate provision? Does any adult in the State believe the same whip will not apply to these committees that will be appointed by the same Taoiseach, the same Gang of Four, the same Cabinet, whose proposed legislation these so far uncosted committees are supposed to scrutinise critically?


Overbearing brute force
We urgently need a thoroughly reformed Dáil; but where will the impetus for this come from? We also need an elected forum with lesser powers that can nevertheless speak up for the citizens against the party managers, paid advisers and vested interests; against overbearing brute force; and against the concentration of power in far too few hands.

We need a reformed Seanad. The Seanad cannot reform itself, however: only the Dáil, the whipped, subservient and neutered Dáil, can introduce the necessary legislation. A reformed Seanad, minimally paid, elected by universal suffrage, giving a vote and a voice to our emigrants, drawn from all walks of life, from people who wish to do service by bringing their experience to the public arena, is in the interests of the citizens but is not in the interests of those who wield power or hope to wield it.

I ask myself, then, why such a large Dáil majority has opted for abolition when reform is not only eminently possible but urgently necessary as a safeguard for democracy. I confess, the answer is obvious, unpalatable and deeply disturbing. If our rulers will not countenance the simpler task of reforming the Seanad, who in their right mind believes they will in any meaningful way reform the Dáil?

Theo Dorgan is a poet, novelist and editor of the forthcoming collection of essays, Foundation Stone: Notes Towards a Constitution for a 21st Century Republic (New Island Books)

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