There is a place for a second chamber of democracy


Democracy is increasingly becoming the first casualty of this recession, writes ELAINE BYRNE.

IN THOSE nerve-racking 90 seconds between the drop goal by Welsh fly-half Stephen Jones and Ronan O’Gara’s 77th minute match-winning response, the RTÉ commentator Ryle Nugent asked one simple compelling question.

“When all those around you are losing their heads, what have Ireland got to offer?” he asked.

Ireland’s first Grand Slam victory in 61 years with a nation-inspiring performance, as it turned out (Whooohooo!)

Ryle’s question, though, has a much bigger home than that of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Friday’s Late Late Showdiscussion on abolishing the Seanad was classic losing-the-head territory.

The mob-ocracy “debated” with the inherent-ocracy to produce a miserable offering of cynical, defensive and uninformed comment which was met by silence, laughter and jeers from the audience. Democracy is increasingly becoming the first casualty of this recession.

Yes, Fianna Fáil, the party of government for the last two decades, must apologise for its role in the incompetent mismanagement of the Irish economy, as George Lee’s RTÉ documentary on Sunday, How We Blew the Boom, underlined.

Yes, the system of political donations must be completely overhauled to address the perception of improper influence between property developers and decision-making. Or as Brian Lenihan so eloquently briefed the Financial Times last week, “there is a problem in all small countries with too many incestuous relationships”.

Yes, bankers found guilty of white-collar-crime must be jailed and not just slapped on the wrist for ethical impropriety with demands for resignation which translate into acquiescent retirement.

Yes, there must be fundamental institutional reform which tackles gross failures of light-touch regulation and corporate governance.

And yes, we the public must acknowledge our complicity. We agreed to dress in the emperor’s clothes and wear a mindset naked of intellectual responsibility.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Now, can we just get on with it?

Writing in these pages on Friday, Dan O’Brien, economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit, warned that “Ireland is rapidly moving towards the abyss of national bankruptcy . . . The wrong decisions will change the course of Irish history.”

This day three weeks the Government must make savings of €4.5-€6 billion in our fight for economic freedom. This is not the time to be losing the head.

“It’s how they handle that pressure that will count,” taunted Welsh coach Warren Gatland in advance of the Grand Slam showdown.

“Honesty, trust, hard work, willingness to go the extra little bit,” responded Declan Kidney. For good measure he added: “You cannot overestimate honesty.”

Well, now’s a good time to be honest with ourselves rather than the fear-mongering, scapegoating and obfuscation served up by recent public discourse.

Yes, there is a place for a second chamber of democracy in modern Ireland. But not in its current configuration and not with the current reforms on the table. Seanad representation must be extended to third-level graduates from all our educational institutions, the almost 500,000 unemployed, the diaspora, our ethnic and religious minorities and our Northern neighbours.

A Financial Times editorial last Tuesday criticised the “corporate cosiness” of Irish boardrooms and called for “diversity and a varied range of experiences. While groups of similar people are good at doing what they do, over time they become worse at considering other options.”

Well, that applies to politics too.

The register of interests released by the Standards in Public Office Commission each year demonstrates the predominance of teachers, farmers, publicans, accountants and barristers among our governing classes.

The reorganisation of the Seanad appointment process would open up Irish politics to include the representation of those with international private sector experience, hi-tech expertise, the knowledge economy and manufacturing know-how.

We could do with some innovators, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers while we’re at it. And maybe even the management style of a Grand Slam winning rugby manager and the courage of a super bantamweight world champion boxer.

Real reform would widen political horizons and restore the prestige enjoyed by the first Irish Seanad 1922-1936. The Irish Free State government had no practical experience of parliamentary life. The young ministers relied enormously on the intimate understanding of policy and draftmanship skills of the Seanad. The deliberate appointment process of senators by WT Cosgrave, president of the Executive Council, consolidated the Anglo-Irish and unionist traditions within the new Irish Free State.

The Seanad played a decisive role in establishing and legitimising many of the institutions of government such as the judicial reform which remains the basis for the judicial system. Their legislative amendments were profoundly influential in establishing the Civil Service Commission, the comptroller and auditor general, the Gárda Síochána and the organisation and administration of central and local government.

The quality of the Seanad’s membership enabled it to be particularly persuasive. Among its ranks in 1924 was WB Yeats, awarded his Noble prize for literature while a sitting senator.

Ireland has much to offer.

Is féidir linn!