A political Hobson’s choice

 

There is broad agreement that the Seanad, currently offers a recovery ward for defeated politicians; a well-paid sinecure for some long-term, cute hoor residents, and a springboard for Dáil wannabees. A handful of Senators – mostly university representatives – have made important contributions to public debate and the legislative process. But such exceptions can hardly justify the retention of a largely discredited, toothless Upper House.

Those opposed to abolition have suggested a challenging alternative. Independent senators have proposed the establishment of an extended Seanad franchise, involving emigrants and Northern residents, greater gender balance, a flexible nomination process and transfer of additional powers and responsibilities. In effect, some of the muscle now being demanded by the Dáil to hold the government to account.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is not interested. Nor is Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. For them, the choice is stark: abolition or a continuation of the status quo. Reform is not regarded as an option. They point to Nordic Europe where countries operate unicameral systems and insist this is best international practice, rather than an inherited, colonial-style structure.

As a sweetener for supporters, they are offering more Dáil reform and a streamlining of local government. So far, that offer has been extremely limited: more investigative powers for Dáil committees; greater legislative oversight; more opposition/independent chairmen; another weekly sitting day and more powerful county/city councils. It falls well short of what is required to rebalance Executive powers.

The referendum was just one of Mr Kenny’s pre-election commitments. More important was his undertaking to specify in law the separate responsibilities of ministers and senior civil servants, so that each could be held accountable for any failures or scandals that arose. Personal and corporate responsibility was absent during the economic collapse. Yet change remains a political aspiration. The same applies to the removal of a gagging clause that prevents civil servants from dealing with matters of policy before Dáil committees.

Passage of the Bill on abolition is pretty well certain when it goes before the Oireachtas in coming weeks. After that, the battle will intensify as opposition parties and some coalition politicians voice reservations. Government unpopularity, and its decision to withhold this matter from the Constitutional Convention mean the referendum could well be beaten. But defeat will not advance Seanad reform. Stalemate would, however, please those Fianna Fáil senators who put personal interest above party welfare when Micheál Martin came calling. In the absence of a convincing agenda for greater accountability and the empowerment of parliament, voters may opt for the worst of all worlds: an unreformed Seanad and a feeble Dáil.

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