The abolition of the Seanad would improve the Irish political system as it would shift the full focus of politics to a chamber elected by all the citizens, Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton has said.
During a debate on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme, Mr Bruton said the Government was in the middle of introducing the most radical political reform ever seen in his time and that the Seanad was an “obsolete” institution.
He said the Seanad had failed to block or delay legislation for almost 50 years and was more focused on protecting politicians than citizens.
Responding, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Fine Gael and Labour had promised a "democratic revolution" on their election but that Seanad abolition would leave Ireland with a political system weaker than any other in the developed world.
He said the Dáil was under Government control and that the expulsion of several Fine Gael members from the party, their offices and Oireachtas committees for not voting with the Government on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill highlighted this.
Mr Bruton said the Government had a programme to implement and that TDs had signed up to this. Not following the programme had consequences, he said, and the deputies in question had forfeited their right to take the party’s seats on committees.
Mr Martin said abolition would remove the potential for contrarian voices to be heard in Irish politics at a time when more oversight was needed after the economic crisis. He said debate was one of the most fundamental aspects of democracy and that it was being shut down by the Government.
Mr Martin said it was the Seanad’s role was to make and change law rather than block it and that the Government was wrong to not ask the electorate if they wanted Seanad reform.
Mr Bruton accused Mr Martin of changing his party’s position on Seanad abolition in a case of “political opportunism” that would allow him to get on television.
Mr Martin said he had never had any problem getting on television and that his party’s earlier support for abolition was conditional on political reform.
Mr Bruton, Fine Gael’s referendum campaign director, was a late addition to the debate after Taoiseach Enda Kenny declined to participate.
Speaking from the audience, Independent senator John Crown criticised the Taoiseach for not participating, which drew loud applause from the crowd.
Asked by moderator Miriam O'Callaghan why Mr Kenny had not taken part, Mr Bruton replied "this is not a personality contest" or a case where two leaders were competing to be "leader of the country". "This a decision you the people have to make about how the country should be governed," he said.
Put to him that Fine Gael’s €20 million savings figure had been proven to be bogus, Mr Bruton replied that this was not the case and it would be the job of Government to ensure the saving was realised.
Responding, Mr Martin said the former Dáil clerk Kieran Coughlan had said savings would be less than €10 million and that the Oireachtas finance officer said the sum could not be estimated.
He said the €20 million saving was the “big lie of this campaign.”
“You decided to take the low road in this campaign and to denigrate politics and the democratic system,” he told Mr Bruton.
Speaking from the audience, Sinn Féin councillor Matt Carthy said he believed the big lie of the campaign was that a No vote will lead to reform. He said there was no prospect of reform as those advocating it most were those who had missed the greatest opportunity to deliver it.