Real reform begins with abolition of this House
Opinion: The No campaign has failed to address the core problem, that for 75 years the Seanad has been a costly failure
The Seanad should be abolished because it is elitist. It is chosen by 150,000 people, all professional politicians and some university graduates who represent just 3 per cent of the population
There is widespread agreement that our political system needs serious reform. At the general election in 2011 the four main political parties backed Seanad abolition as part of their reform proposals. Just over 82 per cent of the electorate voted for Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.
In its election manifesto Fianna Fáil correctly observed that, “serious questions must be asked about the continued role of an entity which is still struggling to justify its existence after three-quarters of a century”. Party leader Micheál Martin was right in 2011; he is wrong now. In a similar vein Michael McDowell was right in 1987 when he sponsored the PD’s then radical proposal to abolish the Seanad. But he is wrong now in endorsing the conservative proposition for retention.
The Seanad should be abolished because it has not proven its worth in 75 years and because it is elitist. It is chosen by 150,000 people, all professional politicians and some university graduates. They represent 3 per cent of the population. It’s an unfair system that should not be tolerated in a republic.
Those on the other side of the argument have failed to convince that the Seanad is worth keeping. They’ve warned of a power grab with alarmist images of jackboots stamping on the constitution. But they’ve failed to explain how the executive can “grab” power from a relatively powerless institution. One that for 75 years has refused to use any of the limited powers that it already has.
We’ve heard fears expressed about threatening the independence of the judiciary but without any acknowledgement that new legislative proposals would actually make it even more difficult to impeach a judge. We’ve heard regrets about the loss of the Taoiseach’s ability to nominate outsiders to ministerial rank through the Seanad. But this power has only been used twice since 1937. We’ve also been warned that the ability to petition the President to put a Bill to the people will be lost – a power that has never been used.
In recent days we’ve heard concern that voices from Northern Ireland like Séamus Mallon and the late Gordon Wilson will no longer be heard in Leinster House. But since they were appointed as Taoiseach’s nominees, in 1982 and 1993 respectively, the Oireachtas has evolved. For example, MPs from Northern Ireland now have speaking rights at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
A lot of guff has been spoken about the Seanad’s role. Throughout the campaign we’ve heard about amendments passed by the Seanad. But most of these have been minor technical amendments and many originate from the Government, not individual Senators. We’ve also been told that the Seanad is a legislative watchdog. But where was it when the bank guarantee legislation was under consideration in 2008? We’ve been told about the quality of debate there but any viewing of its daily proceedings clearly shows that Punch and Judy politics are even more prevalent than in the Dáil.