Joe O’Toole: Senate about to make a mockery of itself once again

It would be more democratic to hold a public raffle than hold a byelection

Far from being the valued second house of parliament as contemplated in our Constitution, the Seanad is once again a creature of political intrigue and artifice. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

Far from being the valued second house of parliament as contemplated in our Constitution, the Seanad is once again a creature of political intrigue and artifice. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

 

Down in the basement casino of Irish politics they are rolling up to the roulette wheel with a few seats in parliament as winners’ prizes.

The word is that Government parties are gift-wrapping a brace of Seanad Éireann seats for a couple of lucky, loyal supporters.

Far from being the valued second house of parliament as contemplated in our Constitution, the Seanad is once again a creature of political intrigue and artifice, with seats bartered, traded or gifted as chattels by our political leadership.

These arrangements will be presented as byelections in what must be the most meaningless of pseudonyms to describe nothing less than a smash and grab of parliamentary democracy.

There are seven candidates for the two seats up for grabs in this week’s byelection. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have put forward one each, Gerry Horkan and Maria Byrne – former senators who lost their seats at the last election. Both are expected to be elected on April 21st.

Labour has put forward two candidates, Angela Feeney and Ciarán Ahern. The Green Party chair, Hazel Chu, is running, as is an Independent, Billy Lawless. Ian Marshall, a unionist from Co Down who was asked to stand by the then taoiseach Leo Varadkar in a 2018 byelection, but was not re-elected in 2020, is also running. None are expected to win.

In real time, democracy is being reduced to a few sinecures and the intentions of our Constitution are being rubbished and ridiculed.

In purely academic terms, it would probably be more democratic to give out free tickets to the population at large and install the two winners as senators.

Unfortunately, most folk won’t take a blind bit of notice. Sure it’s only the politicians – what would you expect?

Regret

A few will express regret that the opportunity of a confidence-boosting display of maturity in accommodating a willing and able Northern unionist voice is being lost. That would be a genuine nod to the Belfast Agreement that the opinion formers and pundits might applaud, but in the realpolitik of the committee rooms the party number-crunchers will demand that “we look after our own”. Time enough to be nice to unionists in a United Ireland but for now the Belfast Agreement serves as useful lever or reference frame for international negotiations and speeches.

Some citizens will be appalled at this and surely some well-meaning folk will call for a group to be established to reform the Seanad.

Oh God, no! Please don’t.

Those apparent frown lines on my forehead are actually 13 notches – one for each Seanad reform body I served on over the years. There were good people on those bodies and they produced simple and implementable reports loaded with actionable recommendations. In the main they were applauded, well received and cheered on and fed into a national conversation for a short time.

They had universal approval outside the political elite and, publicly, our parliamentarians looked pained and cried out, “yes, let us reform the Seanad,” and our political leaders loudly agreed but privately they said: “Yes, we must surely reform it, but not yet!”

So it goes and nothing happens and the undemocratic, unrepresentative and anachronistic version of the second house of parliament continues.

Until the next time and once again people are outraged and enraged and demand action and a committee is formed and reports issue and Governments promise and the groundhog replication of yesterday plays out all over again.

In the meantime those hefty reports have proven most effective in holding the fire doors in the Taoiseach’s department jammed open.

Episode of Blackadder

The whole thing is closer to an episode of Blackadder than to democracy in action.

The electorate for the Seanad byelections are the 220 members of the Dáil and Seanad and the election is by secret ballot. They are mainly solid and decent but low-profile backbenchers. They are the fuel of the political engines and though they resent being led by the nose, unfortunately they are programmed to obey.

Nonetheless, without them the political leadership cannot function and it is very likely that most of them have little appetite for this proposed stitch-up.

This is their chance to call the shots and make a real difference.

They are the fulcrum on which the balance rests.

Now is the backbenchers’ moment to step over and tip it from “stitch-up” to democracy.

They can ensure a fair and free election process by insisting on the secrecy and choice that are the quintessential elements of a democratic ballot.

As public trust in the political system continues to diminish, a backbenchers’ revolt would reflect respect for our Constitution and restore some confidence in the political process.

Political sleight of hand is the last thing this country needs.

Joe O’Toole served for 25 years in Seanad Éireann

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