The axe to the Seanad?


In their desire to make a case for saving the Seanad, its proponents have had to combine and reconcile two largely, though not entirely, incompatible cases – on the one hand, that the Seanad has been a home to original, invaluable representatives of minority or expert opinion, that it has been able to articulate unrepresented views, provide a skilled legislative eye on Bills, and hold governments to account.

On the other, that it is unrepresentative, elitist, largely a home for has-been or aspiring TDs, ineffectual, and needs profound reform to justify its continued existence. And, they say, here’s a multitude of options on how we would change it if you vote No and the Government agrees to accept our reform agenda.

It’s a sticky wicket. But the alliance of genuine political reformers , political independents and some old political hands has given credibility and weight to their case on behalf of a body that, in truth, has been little more over the years than an adornment to the body politic. The argument that the abolition of the Seanad represents what some have called a “power grab” by the Government would be slightly more convincing if the Seanad had substantial real powers, or more robustly used those it has.

For many the vote tomorrow also represents an irresistible opportunity to give this unpopular Government a kicking. And yet, as this paper has observed before on the occasion of previous referendums, it ill behoves defenders of this important constitutional prerogative for amending the Constitution to use it to other ends and it discredits the process. Elections are the occasion for kicking the government.

Yet if the Government has a fight on its hands tomorrow it is because it will have failed to convince voters that it yet really understands and is convinced by the irrefutable case at the heart of the No campaign – our political system is dysfunctional and concentrates far too much power in the hands of the executive without the sort of checks and balances a second house could (but doesn’t) provide.

The argument against bicameralism in a non-federal state is persuasively made by reference to single-chamber democracies like Denmark, with both more powerful parliamentary committees and developed local government. But commitment to and rapid reform of the Dail must be the corollary of such a case. Are voters really convinced by the Government’s promises on reform, halfhearted as they are? Hardly. Not least because Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s announcement that he would abolish the Seanad appeared almost whimsical.

The danger, many voters will be saying to themselves, is that, on Monday, having secured the abolition of the Seanad, a feather in the Taoiseach’s cap, that the reform agenda will again be put on the back burner. Mañana, mañana ... And not surprisingly some of them may, accordingly, unfortunately decide to vote No.

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