Do not ditch Seanad but finesse it as a political dynamo

 

Any debate about the Seanad must focus on how it forged the original Republic. Revamped, it can be potent again, writes ELAINE BYRNE

‘I CONSIDER that a country which has reached that stage of degradation, not to speak of a party that is prepared to submit to be dragooned . . . which submits to the public humiliation of being dragooned by one individual who masquerades as a democratic leader, speaks ill of democratic institutions.” James Dillon, future leader of Fine Gael, never did mince his words.

In his response to Eamon de Valera’s proposals to abolish the Seanad, Dillon believed it smacked of a dangerous slide towards democratic centralism. In those 1936 Dáil debates on a new Constitution, Fine Gael was outraged that the institution of the Seanad, which profoundly contributed to the founding of the State, could be so whimsically dismissed.

The shoe is now on the other foot. Enda Kenny has proposed that if Fine Gael is returned to power, he will put the abolition of the Seanad to referendum. Kenny justified his decision not to consult his front bench, his parliamentary party or the wider Fine Gael membership, on this extraordinary shift in Fine Gael policy, because “leaders are elected to lead”.

Political leadership must also exhibit a capability for inner-party democracy, political imagination, a positive vision for the future and a clear definition of values rather than a hierarchical style of authority, also expressed by the Taoiseach earlier this year with the words, “I will run the Government as I see fit.”

Democracy is increasingly becoming the first casualty of this recession while in the past it was democracy that got Ireland out of crisis.

The first Senate met on December 11th, 1922, at the National Museum on Kildare Street. Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde, the great grandson of Henry Grattan, was the first to take his seat in this new Senate.

From 1922-1936, of the 489 Bills received, the Senate substantially amended 182 before they became law. The weight of the Senate’s authority was such that of their 1,831 amendments made to primary legislation, the Dáil agreed to 1,719. In 14 years, the Dáil accepted 95 per cent of all amendments and only rejected outright 86 Senate amendments.

These were no ordinary amendments.

Having studied the personal papers of Hugh Kennedy, (attorney general to WT Cosgrave’s 1920s government, and later chief justice of the Irish Free State), it is striking how much we have underestimated the role of the 1922-1936 Senates and the extent to which they fundamentally influenced the guiding principles, legislative foundations and institutional structures of the Irish State.

It was because of a Senate intervention, for example, that district judges were made full-time, paid and legally qualified, and therefore insulated against locally vested interests and financial pressures, which was in pointed disparity to the unprofessional nature of their corrupt Resident Magistrate predecessors.

We take many of these basic principles for granted today.

Yet, due to the direct contribution by Senators, institutions like the Civil Service Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Garda Síochána, the judicial system and the organisation and administration of central and local government were so robust.

Of course, those were different times. The remarkable independence of the then Senate, which in its early years was not divided on party lines, is not practical for a second house in a modern parliament. But it does serve as an example of how a second house can substantively contribute to the establishment of a new state. It is how we can potentially accomplish a second Republic.

The Seanad, as we know it today, has struggled to be credible when it lies so naked of substantive functions. Positive reform would provide the Seanad with additional powers to review proposed EU legislation, initiate constitutional referendums on matters of public importance, take presentations from the public on matters of national importance, have the power to ask the President to test the constitutionality of a Bill under Article 26 and interview applicants for various prescribed public positions such as the Comptroller and Auditor General and ombudsmen positions.

Fine Gael made these proposals in March this year. Within six months, Kenny has sought to demonstrate his “moral authority, the political credibility and the courage to change” by proposing to centralise the powers of legislative scrutiny to the Dáil.

Visionary political leadership would recognise that Irish politics desperately needs new blood and alternative voices.

The exceptional shortcomings of how we elect our Senators should be transformed into a virtue. The reorganisation of the Seanad appointment process would open up Irish politics to include the representation of those with international private sector experience, the diaspora, our ethnic and religious minorities and our Northern neighbours.

Can you imagine the possibilities of a reformed Seanad if it was composed of our innovators, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

Kenny has done debate on political reform a service. It is now on the agenda. History teaches us that it is only the accumulation of political crisis which forces reform while political will is the only thing that actually prevents it.

  • With regard to my last week’s column on the Tank Field in Cork, my response to the concerns raised by the board of management of Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn and the related freedom of information documents can be accessed from my website: www.elaine.ie