Abolition of the Seanad will weaken oversight over the Government

Opinion: Taoiseach and his ministers running a cynical and negative campaign

 Micheál Martin: The Seanad regularly spots flaws in legislation that have been missed by the Dáil. Photograph: Alan Betson

Micheál Martin: The Seanad regularly spots flaws in legislation that have been missed by the Dáil. Photograph: Alan Betson


Over the last five years there have been countless programmes, books, newspaper supplements and conferences on the theme of “what went wrong and how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again”?

An absolutely consistent point emerging from this, which stretched across all political lines, has been that we need to fundamentally reform the working of our political system.

Every party elected to this Dáil sought votes on the basis that they would give the people a chance to vote on such a reform.

The Seanad referendum to be held next week is a direct breaking of this promise.

If passed it will leave in place every significant element of the pre-crisis system and make matters worse by further weakening oversight of our government.

The Government is proposing to make over 40 changes to Bunreacht na hÉireann in this vote but it is not prepared to make a single change to the operation of government or its complete control of parliament. In fact, the Taoiseach explicitly wishes to retain a system where four men sitting as a cabinet sub-committee have the first and last word on what our laws, taxes and services will be. This is not a referendum to reform Irish politics, it is a referendum which will, if passed, end any chance of the reform of Irish politics. The Taoiseach regularly claims to be delivering a “democratic revolution”. The reality shows the exact opposite.

The way in which he and his Ministers have been promoting the referendum confirms this. Instead of offering a positive vision of a new politics they have delivered the most cynical and negative referendum campaign ever run by a government. They have adopted the tactics of exaggeration and invention normally the preserve of fringe elements.

Great pile of money
At a time of great financial pressures for every sector of society and fear about what the next budget might bring, they have decided to make people believe that there is a great pile of money awaiting them if they just vote Yes. The €20 million claim has been destroyed by all independent evidence, but they keep making it anyway.

The facts show that there is no possible scenario in which anywhere near the claimed amount can be saved. Pensions will still be paid and many of the Seanad’s costs relate to services shared with the Dáil. These will be left in place.

There is no scenario whatsoever in which the claimed €20 million a year can be saved and the fact that the Taoiseach and his Ministers keep peddling it is a powerful testament to the weakness of their case. It should also be noted that this is also an issue for well into the future. No saving of any type will be made during this Government’s life, and therefore the tax increases and spending cuts being planned at the moment will not be reduced. In fact, they have been increased by €14 million – the cost of holding the referendum.

If the issue is the cost of politics, then there are many ways of tackling this. A start could, for example, be made with reducing the number of Ministers of State in line with the Taoiseach’s 2011 promise. Overnight this would deliver saving to help Ministers Noonan and Howlin frame next year’s budget.

It has also been claimed that this referendum will bring us into line with other countries. The reality is that the Government’s proposal will leave Ireland with a unique political system in the democratic world. No other democratic country, of any size, has the combination of a single house of parliament, a dominant government and weak local government. The final part of the Government’s campaign has been what is now bordering on abuse directed towards both the Seanad and those who wish to retain it.

Ministers are claiming the Seanad has never done anything positive. They are doing this in spite of the fact that the Seanad has made thousands of amendments to legislation. These include hundreds of amendments to legislation introduced by Ministers in this Government. The Seanad regularly spots flaws in legislation which have been missed by the government and the Dáil. Further, it has been the only place in our political system where many diverse parts of society have had a voice. Key reforms implemented in recent decades would not have happened without the advocacy of senators such as Mary Robinson. The role played by Seamus Mallon, Gordon Wilson and Maurice Hayes as senators in building the consensus and understanding essential to the peace process has no equivalent in the Dáil. Not one person is arguing for the retention of the Seanad in its current form. What is being argued for is its retention as part of a wider political reform. This would see our parliament be more independent of government and more expert in dealing with public policy.

Dominant majority
It is the behaviour of this Government and its use of a dominant majority in the Dáil that has provided the biggest argument for retaining a reformed second chamber.

In 2011 my party explicitly and repeatedly stated that there should first be fundamental reform before considering the Seanad’s future. Our position today is that we believe that the Seanad should play a part in that reform because of developments in the Dáil which have seen it become more under the thumb of government than at any time in its history – a fact recognised by the majority of Fine Gael and Labour contributions to the debate on the referendum.

The decision to deny the people a reform option is perhaps the most cynical tactic of all. The Oireachtas and Constitutional Convention haven’t even been allowed discuss reform.

Instead we get what Enda Kenny has called his “personal leadership initiative” – one which he isn’t even willing to debate.

A Yes vote will not deliver better legislation, better policies or better government. It will not make the forthcoming budget easier by a single cent. What it will do is deepen a system which gives all power to government.

A No vote will tell the government that the people want real reform of our government and parliament.

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