Referendum on the future of the Seanad

 

Sir, – It was with incredulity that I read the final sentences in Fintan O’Toole’s article (“Say No to Coalition’s reform charade”, Opinion, October 1st). He states he will be “putting an X beside the No box and writing the single word ‘Reform’ neatly on the bottom of the paper”. Any returning officer properly carrying out the instructions on spoiled votes will, of course, deem this to be a spoiled vote (and will not be influenced by whether the additional writing is written neatly or otherwise!).

It is irresponsible to suggest such self-indulgent nonsense should be engaged in by referendum voters. The only proper way to vote in a referendum is to make the, sometimes difficult, choice and place a single X on the ballot paper. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL O’KEEFFE,

Laurel Lodge, Dublin 15.

Sir, – I am appalled at the suggestion by Breda O’Brien (Opinion, September 28th) and Fintan O’Toole (Opinion, October 1st) that we should spoil our votes in the referendum to abolish the Seanad by writing ‘Reform’ on the ballot paper. There is no mechanism for recording such votes other than ‘Spoiled’.

I believe the margin in this referendum is likely to be slim. I also believe that the silent core of Fine Gael and Labour supporters have a strong attachment to and belief in strong democratic checks and balances and will not wish to see them diluted in any way.

Although the Seanad may have performed below its potential, to abandon it now, when the country is effectively dictated to by a gang of four and dissent is whipped into obsequious obedience or expulsion, would be to remove one of the few remaining levels of challenge to centralised authority. The No vote of every supporter of democracy will be needed to retain the Seanad. Spoiling any vote will lessen the chance of success.

As for Fine Gael’s vapid argument that the many reports calling for reform of the Seanad have not been implemented, a paraphrase of GK Chesterson is apposite – reform of the Seanad has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. – Yours, etc,

JACK MORRISSEY,

Acorn Road, Dublin 16.

Sir, – I read with some alarm and dismay the reports of the threat to the operation of a democratically elected government by members of the Seanad if the people of Ireland decide, as is their right, to vote to abolish the Seanad.

Are these Senators acting in accordance with democratic principles? Are they warning us, the electorate, that if we vote against their wishes we will suffer the consequences of a government so disrupted in its work that there will be an election before it is due?

Whatever doubts I might have had about the wisdom of abolishing the Seanad have now vanished as the true temper of these democrats in the Seanad has revealed itself. – Yours, etc,

SEAMUS HAYES,

Kilconnell,

Fethard, Co Tipperary.

Sir, – Surely the people will not vote to abolish a house which has been home to both the ineffable Donie Cassidy and the effable Ivor Callely. – Yours, etc,

PÁDRAIG Ó CUIMÍN,

Crosstown, Wexford.

Sir, – On re-reading old newspaper articles covering Seanad Éireann’s debates, it obliged me to question the wisdom of the current drive to abolish Ireland’s senate.

To cut it down in size and consider sensible re-modelling amendments to its functioning could be a wise decision to improve the quality of Irish political experience; to excise it as a single gesture to such improvement could well be a cause for regret, as afterwards it might be too late to make redress.

Few Irish citizens would regret Senate membership being reduced, yet those who are thoughtful about the Senate’s potential should demand it be more wisely processed. Its structure and purpose must be re-determined so it may enhance the overall political experience.

“Democracy” was described by Herodotus as “Taking the people into partnership”. It is therefore essential that a revamped Senate should have opportunity to select a cadre of persons known for their wisdom, knowledge, working and relevant living experience who would be responsible as “experts” drawn from significant fields of endeavour. Such experts would be selected by a joint group of Senators (equal representatives from each political party). These experts would then form a team of participating non-voting senators to give the debates extra relevant perspectives and information on the topics under open discussion and debate. The remainder of the House would have, as elected senators, voting rights as at present.

Finally, may I thank those citizens who have highlighted the role of the Senate in welcoming Northern contributions to the Senate debates in recent years. – Yours, etc,

JOHN ROBB,

Hopefield Avenue,

Portrush, Co Antrim.

A chara, – The “retentionists” for Seanad Éireann are being somewhat disingenuous. The vocational panels of the Seanad are a cod, as at the time of election, they are elected along party affiliations, without any consideration of expertise – this is a direct result of the electorate being councillors and Oireachtas members.

University senators are also being economical with the truth, as graduates of NUI do not have an automatic vote, they have to apply to NUI to be included on the register. As many are abroad, or not aware of the structure, it reduces the active voting constituency. This is in the interest of sitting university senators.

The incentive for retaining a second chamber, notwithstanding any future reform, will also operate as a very useful platform from which individuals and others may build/rebuild their brands.

The role of journalists to interrogate existing Senators – apart from the Quinns, Crowns, Zappones – as to their daily work, their key achievements and contributions, is awaited. – Is mise,

CORMAC O’CULAIN,

Thomas Davis Street,

Christchurch,

Dublin 8.

Sir, – Encouraged to vote No by people such as Fintan O’Toole, Patricia McKenna, Shane Ross, John Waters and Richard Boyd Barrett leaves one with an inevitable and overwhelming responsibility.

I’m voting Yes. – Yours, etc,

GEOFF SCARGILL,

Loreto Grange, Bray,

Co Wicklow.

Sir, – Just one good decision a year pays for the retention of a reformed Senate many times over. Make your own list of all the short-sighted expedients that haunt us still: Closure of the railways; fishing concessions, property tax instead of land value taxation, etc. – Yours, etc,

PAT HENNESSY,

Balkill Park,

Howth, Dublin 13.

Sir, – The Dáil estimates that for 2013, an expenditure of €109 million has been made to fund the Oireachtas, of which, the Government asserts €20 million is allocated to the cost of the Seanad. Thus, a simple analysis of the costs reveals that each of our 60 Senators cost the State €333,333 per annum while each of our 166 TDs costs €536,145 per annum.

Yet how the Government arrived at this €20 million estimate is unclear. For instance, Kieran Coughlan, Clerk of the Dáil gave evidence stating the cost of the Seanad is €9 million, which calls into question the €20 million figure that is bandied about by those in power.

If we analyse the costs using this lower estimate, it reveals that each Senator costs the State €150,000 per annum whereas each TD costs us €602,409. Given that TDs quite obviously cost the State a great deal more, surely the thriftier option would be to retain the Seanad and reduce the number of TDs by 60? Depending on whether the Seanad costs €20 million or €9 million, a reduction in the number of TDs by 60 would save the State either €32.168 million or €36.145 million and we would still achieve the objective of fewer politicians. – Yours, etc,

PADDY HOOPER,

Greystones, Co Wicklow &

DAIRE HOOPER,

Linden Court Grove Avenue,

Blackrock, Co Dublin.

Sir, – Democratically, government ought to be government with the consent of the governed, not government by a passing popular majority. There will always, in every society, be those among “the governed” whose voice is not loud enough to be head in the universal clamour; and it behoves every modern civilised society to provide a forum for these minorities.

Historically, in presenting a draft Treaty for consideration by the Irish delegation, a letter from David Lloyd George to Arthur Griffith, dated December 1st, 1921, states:

“As we understand that you have agreed with representatives of the Southern Unionists to provide safeguards for the representation of minorities, especially in the Second chamber, not less effective than those afforded by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 . . . these matters have not been dealt with in the draft.”

The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, was given effect by the establishment of the Stormont parliament; the “understanding” as to what might happen in the South was given effect by the creation of Seanad Éireann and the provision that three of its members should be elected by the University of Dublin (Trinity College). History can judge which of these arrangements proved to be the “less effective”.

Constitutionally, aside from the university panels, Article 18.7 of the Constitution provides that members of Seanad Éireann should be elected from “persons having knowledge and practical experience” of, among other things, national language and culture, literature, art, education, agriculture, fisheries, labour, industry and commerce including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture, public administration and social services including voluntary social activities.

The idea of a parliamentary chamber representing this broad range of human and social activity was in 1937 – and sadly still is – visionary, if not revolutionary.

Politically, the fact that the vocational panels were never opened up to the universal vote of farmers, trade unionists, entrepreneurs, charities, etc, is not a reflection on that visionary ideal, but rather a reflection on the narrow self-interest of members of Dáil Éireann.

The robust debate generated by this referendum campaign has provided an opportunity to correct this democratic deficit in legislation, rather than to copperfasten it in ignorance. – Yours, etc,

CIARAN J O’LOUGHLIN,

Fianna Fáil Ard Comhairle,

Dublin Bay South,

Newgrove Avenue,

Dublin 4.

Sir, – An interesting letter (October 1st), informed us that a group of people agree that the Seanad must not be abolished.

This group is made up of individuals who agree on very few other things (as they tell us) but on this one thing they are in unison. Who are they? Senators and TDs, of course. They say a No vote goes beyond politics. It does; it stretches as far as more money in their pockets at the expense of the “guy in the street”. Hopefully the rest of us will vote Yes. – Yours, etc,

ROBERT A SHARPE,

Cootehill, Co Cavan.

Sir, – The Government is using an axe rather than a scalpel in dealing with the changes to the Constitution that would be necessary if the Seanad referendum were passed.

I refer in particular to the killing-off of Article 27. Currently this article provides that a majority of members of the Seanad and not less than one-third of the members of the Dáil may by a petition addressed to the president request him to decline to sign a Bill on the grounds that the Bill is of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained. The president may agree to or refuse the request. If he agrees, the issue is then put to the people either by way of a referendum or by a resolution of Dáil Éireann passed after the dissolution and reassembly of the Dáil.

The Government’s approach to these provisions is to bin the lot of them. If the Seanad goes, so too do the views of a one-third dissenting Dáil minority. Then there is the loss of potential power on the part of the president. Finally and most importantly, there is the loss of the possibility of dealing with issues of great national importance via a referendum or via an election following the dissolution of the Dáil.

As the preceding paragraphs indicate, Article 27 involves a complex set of procedures and is likely to be used only in the case of major issues facing Irish society. This is all the more reason that they should be not disposed of in such a peremptory fashion. Voters should read Article 27 before they vote. – Yours, etc,

RICHARD SINNOTT,

Emeritus Professor,

School of Politics,

UCD, Dublin 4.

Sir, – An alarming threat to the very notion of democracy in Ireland is contained in the news that a majority may vote for the abolition of the Seanad. The keystone of a democracy rests on the basis of checks and balances on the exercise of political power. But it seems our people have a very short memory. Recently, under the guise of “Protection of Life” during pregnancy, our Taoiseach engineered the legitimisation of the deliberate destruction of the life of the unborn in specific circumstances with no time limit whatever. This, despite the absence of medical or psychological evidence in favour of the killing. And so Ireland is unique among developed nations in having no time limit to the procedure.

The destruction of any human life is a serious moral issue, but for Enda Kenny et al, party loyalty trumps individual conscience. And so Lucinda Creighton and her companions were expelled from the party while other members with a conscience chose to keep their heads below the parapet, ignore their conscience or suffer the same fate. What does the forgoing say about democracy, freedom, and the will of the people?

Conclusion: we desperately need a reformed, representative second body. Otherwise, if the Seanad is abolished, the march toward dictatorship and totalitarianism will be accelerated by another piece of Trojan horse legislation suitably entitled “Protection of Freedom, Democracy and the Will of the People”. – Yours, etc,

(Fr) JOHN MANNION,

Ballinasloe, Co Galway.

Sir, – The Seanad suffers criticism on the grounds it represents “elitism”. Could it be we may suffer in this country from a lack of this supposedly sinister quality? The Fianna Fáil-led government of the middle of the last decade was so free from its malign embrace there was not even one member of the cabinet who could have been considered economically literate. The results were altogether not encouraging.

Perhaps it might be better to keep the Seanad, reform it and give elitism its due. – Yours, etc,

TIM O’SULLIVAN,

Homefarm Park, Dublin 9.

Sir, – If we keep our dear Seanad, can I propose a simple and just reform? Considering the Seanad has been elected by a “top” 1 per cent elite of the population for 93 years since its inception, could the next 93 years be elected by the “bottom” 1 per cent of non-elite. Representatives from areas of deprivation, homeless people, Travellers, migrant groups, etc, could be a new electorate.

As well as being even-handed and fair, it would serve to enable those most disenfranchised and disempowered by our political system to have a real say in the country of which they are citizens. – Yours, etc,

Dr AUSTIN O CARROLL,

Mountjoy Street, Dublin 7.