Abolition of Seanad would be significant loss to democracy


The appeal of cutting costs is clear. But losing dissident voices would damage our republic, writes PHILIP PETTIT

GOOD DEMOCRATIC politics – politics designed to win popular, short-term favour – rarely makes for good democratic government. The point is vividly illustrated in Hungary, where populism has motivated reforms that threaten standard constitutional protections and give those elected to power a chilling range of discretion.

But there are examples nearer home that also bring out the point. One is the plan of the Government to hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad.

The plan is a populist politician’s dream. It enables those in power to boast a determination to cut down on the numbers of elected representatives, and the costs of maintaining them, while actually doing little to disturb any party members in the Dáil or any party officials in the country.

But whatever its appeal in party ranks, the plan, I would like to suggest, is a democratic nightmare.

Three considerations argue for maintaining the Seanad, if not exactly in its current form. The need to put legislation through a second house ensures against the danger of fast-tracking inadequately considered laws.

The existence of a second house creates a base for dissident voices to be heard in the community, guarding against majority complacency.

And the requirement for the second house to agree on the dismissal of constitutionally established authorities like the Auditor General offers an important guarantee of their independence.

Fast-tracking is dangerous even at the individual level, where cognitive science has shown the benefits of “slow processing”, as it is now often called.

At the level of politics, fast-tracking can be disastrous, enabling a wilful administration to push laws through at a speed that undermines publicity, jeopardises scrutiny and pre-empts any possible improvement.

Closing down an important base for dissident voices, in particular voices that are not bound to party platforms, is a recipe for frustration and alienation among those out of the mainstream. And it promises to homogenise public debate, shutting down sources of diversity that can enliven exchange and give a voice to alternative, often-liberating perspectives.

Finally, putting any question mark over the independence of those who exercise functions like the auditor general’s jeopardises public confidence in the authorities whose job it is to keep tabs on government.

Only the posts of auditor general and comptroller are explicitly protected in the Constitution, with Seanad consent being required for dismissal. But a decline in public confidence about the independence of those officers is liable to affect the large range of posts, associated with appeal and inquiry and regulation, in which independence is vital; after all, the benchmark of independence is set by the offices that enjoy explicit protection.

I do not say that the current modes and terms of appointment to Seanad Éireann are not a problem. Clearly they are. But improvement is possible on this front, short of outright abolition.

A smaller Seanad might be elected in four nine-seat constituencies such as the four used for European elections and it might be elected on the same five-year pattern, and indeed on the same day, as the European Parliament.

Proportional voting in such multiseat constituencies would guard against dominance by the major parties, and periodic election would lessen the chances of excessive alignment with the Dáil. That would give the Seanad a distinctive complexion, ensuring that it was not just a rubber-stamping body.

The ideal forum for discussing such a possible reform, of course, would be in the constitutional convention that the Government plans. It beggars belief that the issue of the Seanad is not on the agenda for that body.

The Government’s ever-narrowing view on what the convention should discuss, in particular its recent focus on the President’s term in office and on the appropriate voting age, is disappointing. It reminds me of the once-eminent Irish theologian who allegedly opined that calling the Second Vatican Council was an inspired decision, since a council was badly needed to discuss two issues: the exact status of St Joseph and the precise definition of servile work.

One final, historical point. All parties are committed to the idea that Ireland is a republic, in the long and fine tradition of constitutional republicanism. A centrepiece of that tradition, which ultimately goes back to republican Rome, is that the people should rule themselves via the interaction of distinct assemblies and authorities, not via any single representative, individual or corporate.

In seeking the abolition of the Seanad, the Government is not only putting good politics before good government. It is failing to keep faith with the commitment to the multicentred form of popular sovereignty to which our republican tradition binds us.

Philip Pettit, a native of Ballygar, Co Galway, is LS Rockefeller University professor of politics and human values at Princeton University. He recently gave an opening address at a UCD conference on the Constitution


ORIGINATING IN republican Rome, and re-awakened in Renaissance Florence, Venice and other city-states, classical, Italian-Atlantic republicanism is a political philosophy that shaped modern regimes like the Dutch, the English and the American republics.

Championed in Ireland by Wolfe Tone, it argues constitutionally for a system of law that gives people a rich form of freedom. The law should empower and protect citizens against being dominated by others – against being able to act only by the grace and leave of others – in how they exercise personal choice.

And while providing this protection against private domination, it should also protect them against public domination; it should let them share equally in shaping the very law itself.

This role argues for organising popular power on the basis of universal electoral and contestatory rights and allowing that power to shape law via a “mixed constitution”: that is, an arrangement in which power is dispersed amongst interacting authorities, each with its own responsibility to the people.

The interaction derives from the independent powers conferred on distinct legislative chambers, on the courts and other tribunals, and on appointed officers like auditors and statisticians, regulators, ombudsmen and central bankers.

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