It would be folly to deliver a single chamber into the hands of the whips
Opinion: Any reform package promised now will have no secure status
Michael McDowell: turned down the offer of a seat in the Seanad. Photograph: Alan Betson
Have you actually read the Bill to permanently abolish Seanad Éireann before voting on it? It isn’t a simple textual excision of one of the two Houses of our parliament which, along with the President, constitute the Oireachtas. The 32nd Amendment Bill goes much, much further.
In 57 pages it seeks to delete seven entire Articles, and to amend, in one way or another, all but 12 of the existing 51 Articles of our Constitution.
If you vote for the amendment you will also vote:
To strip the President of the power to refer Bills to referendum of the people by repealing Article 27;
To abolish the “double lock” inserted in Article 29 at the time of the Lisbon Treaty to prevent Ireland’s government surrendering without referendum its EU vetoes, including our tax veto, or taking major steps towards EU integration without consulting the people;
To abolish the power of the taoiseach under Article 28 to bring non-TD ministers into cabinet, as Garret FitzGerald did when he made James Dooge minister for foreign affairs;
To amend Article 15 so as to allow a bare Dáil majority to make any laws without debate when they wish, and to have no constitutional check or balances for minorities to be heard or to scrutinise Bills in detail;
To delete the only constitutional means to give emigrant citizens any vote or voice in their parliament.
Does any or all of this surprise you? Is it “reform”? Even the Constitutional Convention was prohibited by Government from considering these proposals.
Has the Taoiseach justified any of these constitutional amendments to you? Or has he ducked the debate? Do his misleading, expensive “Save €20 Million, Fewer Politicians” posters even hint at what is really afoot tomorrow?
This newspaper usefully published on Monday a poll that analysed why some people support the amendment. Their dominant motive was cost – understandable, especially in times of austerity.
The “Save €20 Million” lie seems to have traction – but only until you analyse it.
Allocating overhead costs over both Houses seems plausible. But, as the clerk of the Dáil testified to an Oireachtas committee, these “costs” aren’t potential “savings” at all, and the actual gross direct “saving” would be less than half, around €8.9 million, and the “after tax” net difference to the exchequer would be €6.5 million per year at most.
If that seems a lot of money – and it is – it is between €1.50 and €1.60 per head of the population per year. That is the annual cash-cost difference that abolition would make to you and me. Because the amendment would keep the Seanad they now term “useless” in place until 2016, none of those “€1.60 per head” savings will be made in 2013, 2014 or 2015 – the “years of austerity”.
Executive power grab
For the price of a container of milk per year from 2016 onwards we are each being asked to vote to transform our parliament into one where government, through the whip system, totally dominates a single chamber, its committees and its deliberations.
How do we know? This Government made a pledge to you in 2011 to use the guillotine to push Bills through only on “rare” occasions. Yet this newspaper discovered recently that it used the guillotine on 55 per cent of Bills it has passed since making that pledge! It also promised us extra Dáil sittings, but Ministers were so often absent that their chief whip described their attendance to this newspaper as “deplorable”.
Any reform promised now will have no constitutional status at all. Their reform package can be reversed at will by the majority in the Dáil under Article 15 as now proposed to be amended. Even the pop-up “One House” abolitionist group has admitted that their hastily put together totally reversible Dáil reform package is utterly inadequate.
Opposing voices will be cast aside. Debate will be curtailed when it suits government. Dissenters will, like Lucinda Creighton be thrown out of office, party, rooms, committees (as Peter Mathews was thrown off the Finance Committee), and then deselected as candidates for the single-chamber parliament.
That is the reality of executive control over Dáil Éireann today. That parliamentary control will be totally consolidated – not loosened – by abolition of the Seanad.
The 32nd Amendment will deliver a single chamber, rubberstamp parliament, trussed up, into the hands of the party whips.
A Yes vote consigns irretrievably to the trash can of history the chamber where Yeats pleaded for the civil liberties of Protestants (“We are no petty people”), where Sheehy-Skeffington spoke up for civil liberty, where Mary Robinson fought for contraceptive rights and for legal equality for women and children, and where David Norris fought alone for emancipation for gay and lesbian citizens.
These causes had no champions in a whip-ridden Dáil.
As a one-time abolitionist I now make the “keep and reform” case espoused passionately by Garret FitzGerald, recently pleaded by TK Whitaker, and summed up aptly by Mary Robinson, when she declared of the Seanad: “It is vitally important for the future. It is a safeguard to our democratic institutions, to human rights and to civil liberties in Ireland, and it is a very important one.” Is that only worth €1.60 to readers of this paper?
Michael McDowell is a former tánaiste, minister for justice and attorney general