Opportunity missed for real debate on Upper House
Government made a huge error in pandering to anti-politician mood
The ultimate fate of the Bertie Ahern-led government here and the Blair government in Britain, both of whom relied so heavily on focus groups, should have showed that following the herd is no substitute for leadership.
It would be a mistake, though, to overestimate the political consequences of the referendum defeat. Over the years the Irish electorate has shown a propensity to use referendums to put manners on their political leaders but that doesn’t necessarily indicate how the next election will go.
“The voters gave Enda a kick in the arse on the Seanad but if he learns the right lesson it mightn’t do him any harm at all in the long term,” said one supporter.
So far his response to the defeat has been well judged. On the day of the count he took it on the chin and publicly conceded that he had been given a wallop by the voters. When he appeared in the Seanad chamber during the week to face some of the people who had persuaded the public to reject his plans he was emollient and considered. He listened carefully to all the suggestions about how the Upper House should be reformed and took detailed notes into the bargain.
Kenny did remark on the variety of suggestions that had been put to him. He was clearly hinting that there is no clear agreement on how the Seanad should be reformed. He did give a commitment to press ahead and implement the 1979 referendum decision giving all university graduates the vote for the six of the 60 seats filled by the university panels.
Even that modest reform could prove controversial. For instance should it apply only to graduates of recognised universities or to all third-level institutions and how should the register be compiled?
Hopefully the Seanad reverse will not halt the prospect of wider political reform. Gradual reform is taking place in the Dáil and that process needs to be followed up with vigour until it really is a chamber where Government is properly held to account and not just a forum for political theatre.
That will only happen when TDs have the opportunity and the time to participate fully in the legislative process. RTÉ’s fascinating documentary Looking After Number One, showing how hard TDs work in their constituencies, raised all sorts of questions about our political system.
The fact is that as long as our multiseat proportional representation system remains in place the overwhelming pressure on TDs will be to behave as constituency representatives rather than legislators. That is something politicians and the wider public need to have a real debate about.