Seanad must be abolished to create better democracy
Politics has been the preserve of elitism, cronies and privilege for too long. The referendum can change that
“The Seanad has always been an instrument of government power – not a check or balance to it. It has been a rubber stamp for Government policy . . . The Seanad has supported the Government on every single occasion, including . . . the property tax, cuts to disability payments and the promissory note deal.” Photograph: Alan Betson
For many people reading this, the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad is a mere distraction from the more pressing issues facing their families.
For those who are unemployed or in debt and trying to find the money to send their children to school or college, it is probably the last thing on their minds.
But the referendum is important because the Seanad represents a blatant inequality at the heart of our political system. It matters because the cronyism and elitism that are synonymous, with some honourable exceptions, with the Seanad helped to foster the type of politics that brought this State to its knees.
The Seanad has consistently promoted political cronies and allies rather than ideas or visions.
The system of the taoiseach’s nominees, in particular during the Fianna Fáil era, was used to promote close political associates rather than doing anything to bring diversity into the political system.
Those arguing for its retention have been unable to state a single significant contribution the Seanad has made to improve Irish society. The Seanad has always been an instrument of government power – not a check or balance to it.
It has been a rubber stamp for Government policy. In the last 2½ years the Seanad has supported the Government on every single occasion, including the introduction of the property tax, cuts to disability payments and the promissory note deal costing the taxpayer €30 billion.
The Seanad has not been used to increase the number of women in the Oireachtas or to ensure that minorities are represented. In the main it has been a fallback option for some careerists who failed to get elected to the Dáil.
Discrimination at core
However, the most damning feature of the Seanad is the elitism, inequality and discrimination that is at its core.
There can be no place in a real republic, based on equality, for an elected office on which only a tiny percentage of the population have the right to vote. By restricting votes to an elite of those educated in a number of select colleges and city and county councillors, the Seanad is an anomaly in a modern democracy.
The Seanad runs against the core principle of “one person, one vote”. In its current form it is an undemocratic and elitist institution. A successful Yes vote does not preclude any discussion in the future on a bicameral or unicameral political system elected by universal suffrage.
I note that Fianna Fáil is now cynically and hypocritically attempting to recast itself as the new-found champion of political reform. However, Micheál Martin’s party had three terms in government and decades to radically alter the shape of the Seanad but it chose time and again to use it as a prop for its own narrow party interests.
Martin was a key member of a government that refused to hold a byelection in Donegal South West for party-political reasons, with no consideration for voters left under-represented. His government only acted on this when it was forced by the courts to do so.
In Martin’s 14 years at the Cabinet table, nothing was done to reform the Seanad. In the last election Fianna Fáil sought and received a mandate for the abolition of the Seanad. It has reneged on the commitment.
While Sinn Féin is advocating and campaigning strongly for Seanad abolition, we are also seeking widespread, comprehensive and radical reform of the entire political system.
Sinn Féin is about real political reform.
Our reform proposals include reducing the voting age to 16 in general elections and the extension of voting rights in presidential elections to citizens in the North, citizens living abroad and non-citizens legally resident in the country for the last five years.
Sinn Féin welcomes the support for Northern representation that has been voiced during this referendum campaign but we are clear that this must be acted on whether the referendum is passed or defeated.
The Belfast Agreement is the most significant political development since partition. Its impact is most obvious in the North, but not so obvious in the South.
None of the reforms, safeguards or checks and balances of the agreement have been inculcated into southern State institutions.
This situation must be urgently addressed. The Irish Government must actively press ahead with the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement, including those aspects that directly involve this State.
Human rights protection
There is a need for the creation of more areas of co-operation, and implementation and greater harmonisation across the island; and for the strengthening of human rights protection, including an all-Ireland charter of rights and an all-Ireland forum for the consideration of human rights, as included in the agreement.
Many people will see this referendum as an opportunity to vote against the Government. This is understandable given the broken promises and failures, and the hardship caused by cuts to local services and increased taxes and charges.
However, I would ask people to consider this issue on its own merits.
Sinn Féin seeks to build a new republic on this island based on equality for all citizens. We want to see an end to privilege and elitism, and to the cronyism and influence of vested interests that have so damaged politics.
In the interest of fairness, in the interest of democracy and in the interest of equality of citizenship, the Seanad must be abolished.
I would appeal to all voters to get out and vote in this referendum on October 4th and to vote Yes.