Say No to Seanad abolition and the Coalition’s reform charade

Opinion: There is no intention to create a single-chamber parliament that will hold the executive to account

In 1923, the original Seanad of the Irish Free State sat in the Furniture Hall of the National Museum while Leinster House was being renovated. An even better home for the modern Seanad might have been in another part of the museum that adjoins Leinster House: the Dead Zoo, with its splendid collection of musty, exotic and vaguely creepy specimens.

If the referendum were simply a question of abolishing the second House or keeping it as it is, there could be only one rational answer. The Seanad is indefensible. But there is a second, unwritten question: do we want to play along with a parody of political reform? For let’s be clear: a Yes vote on Friday will be taken by the Government as consent to its cynical game of pseudo- reform. We will be saying Yes not just to the abandonment of all the promises of a “democratic revolution” but to a further concentration of unaccountable power.

We have to remember, firstly, that a huge change to the constitutional order has already happened under this Government – one not announced or debated, much less voted on by the people. Article 28 of the Constitution tells us that the “executive power of the State” can be exercised only by the Government, which consists of the Ministers appointed by the President. This body must “meet and act as a collective authority”.

But we know that in all economic and fiscal matters this authority has been taken over by the Economic Management Council, which includes unaccountable and unelected advisers. It is a new layer of governance, at the top of our system, yet we are not being asked to change the Constitution to give it a legal basis. It has simply been imposed from above. This is what lies behind all the blather about the people's ownership of the Constitution. It tells us how cynical is the exercise in which we are invited to partake.

The second bit of necessary context is provided by a question. Who said this: “An over-powerful executive has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player”? That’s a quote from the programme for government agreed by the Coalition parties after the 2011 election.

It is a stinging critique – the people’s parliament is a mere observer of the political process. It was made when all the main political parties thought they had to respond to a public demand for radical reform of a system that had so obviously failed. The Government has since made it abundantly clear the Dáil’s observer status is to be maintained.

What has been promised by way of Dáil reform if we abolish the Seanad is pitiful. This is the implicit opinion of the Government itself. If we use the programme for government as the measure of what Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore believed must be done, we can see how weak the "reforms" proposed are.

They promised to give key Dáil committees constitutional standing – not happening. They promised to make it a legal duty for all public bodies to provide written answers to Dáil questions in a specified time – not happening. They promised to end the guillotining of debate on routine legislation – they’ve actually increased it. They promised to give real investigative powers to Dáil committees – they screwed up the referendum.

Basic reforms
These are really basic and uncontroversial reforms that could have been introduced on a cross-party basis.

That they are not happening tells us there is no intention to create a single-chamber parliament capable of doing its basic job of holding the executive to account. That “the executive” now consists in effect of a gang of four elected politicians with an unspecified number of unelected officials and advisers makes this failure much, much more serious.

Put together the very weak proposed “reform” of local government, the abolition of the Seanad, the maintenance of the Dáil’s status as a mere observer and the weakening of Cabinet government and we have not a “democratic revolution” but an antidemocratic counter-revolution.

This, in effect, is what we are being asked to endorse. A Yes vote will be construed as popular consent not just to the Seanad’s abolition but to the charade of pseudo-reform.

In itself, the abolition of an absurd second chamber can be seen as an act of political slum clearance. But in the larger context we are being asked to agree that the space thus cleared – the space where real democratic renewal should be – should be left vacant.

For myself, I will be doing what Breda O’Brien has suggested: putting an X beside the No box and writing the single word “Reform” neatly on the bottom of the paper.

If a returning officer decides that this is a spoiled vote, so be it. That, in itself, would be an eloquent and honest statement: reform is an impermissible word.