Seanad abolition is not an entirely new concept in Ireland’s political history, given this House met this fate in 1936. Arguably a political decision at the time, almost 80 years later it is clear the reasons for proposed abolition are multi-fold and far more reasoned.
A chamber modeled on the British House of Lords, it is regarded as a place of sober second thought, which makes it sound like a nice, genteel rationale for retaining an upper chamber, but, when you think of what exactly the Seanad does, it’s clear its legislative teeth are pretty blunt in that it can only delay the passage of a bill and initiate a non-money bill once it does not propose to amend the constitution.
At a cost of €20 million to run, it would be an anathema to me if this was the totality of the force of the Government’s argument. It is not. The Senate lacks “input legitimacy” given the way Senators are elected. Even worse than not being elected by the people, senators are almost impossible to get rid of. If they vote against the interests of the people, if they misbehave, if they misuse their expense account, they have a job for life in the upper chamber once they keep 100 county councillors happy or a small percentage of students and alumni from their alma mater. Senators do not have any mandate from 99 per cent of the country and consequently this lack of legitimacy makes it the weakened vessel it is.
Furthermore, a lack of regional equilibrium means that some counties have numerous senators to represent their point of view. However, if you are unlucky enough to come from Offaly, you have no Seanad representative to do similarly. And, if you are a migrant, not one representative from your community have ever found themselves in Seanad Eireann, despite the fact a large number of immigrants ended up on these shores over the past decade.
Infantilism features strongly as an occupational hazard in our overtly political Seanad. We only have to look at July past when one senator used choice language to describe a parliamentary colleague’s utterances on this very topic. Overtly graphic language was utilised to describe an antiquated abortion procedure in front of children in the gallery and we spent two hours voting in order to try to agree the order of business for the day. Hardly a feature of mature debate! But this dichotomy of views only serves the senator and their particular interest groups not the public. We must be mindful; politics is not a game of definitive colour. Sometimes negotiation, bartering and other such concessions are required for the greater good.
Senators must be more outrageous in their propositions in order to get media attention, a fact fuelled by newspapers’ reluctance to appoint a journalist to report on it. Fillibustering continues to be the weapon of choice and has played its part in the destruction of the Government’s legislative agenda. We saw this with the bill to abolish the Seanad and indeed the abortion bill, where we spent two hours debating the title of the bill.
While the commentariat have expressed concerns that opening up the constitution is like opening up a can of worms and the abolition of the Seanad will lead to all sorts of constitutional grievances emerging, we must be mindful that constitutions are not meant to shackle a society indefinitely. Just because there are copious references to Seanad Eireann in Bunreacht na hEireann does not mean it is unalterable. Admittedly, changing a constitution should be difficult and should not be done on a whim; Constitutions are meant to reflect the societies that create them and evolve just as societies do. And, while I acknowledge change is difficult for people who form part of the establishment, we, as serving members of the Oireachtas, must look outside the box and look at the very best political structures to suit the greater good and not just for the small elite.
Ireland is out of kilter with OECD norms in that bicameralism is almost singularly confined to federalist systems and countries of large populations. Indeed, within the OECD, Ireland is one of two countries with a bicameral parliament where there is a population of less than ten million. Twentieth century trends indicate 30 countries abolished their second chamber during this period. Other progressive small countries like Denmark and Sweden have shown they can manage their affairs better, at less cost with single chamber government. But to retain the Senate – elected or unelected – as a high-paid debating society or research institution is ridiculous.
Yet, in spite of the contributions made by a number of good Senators over the years, I’ve concluded the right answer is “yes” to abolition. Senators have the power to introduce, amend and delay bills, but we are not accountable to the people and there is a need to make our politics more accountable and democratic. We shouldn’t let unelected people make laws because representation by popularity is the bedrock principle of democracy and this in essence is the problem with the Seanad. Senators are not elected by the wider electorate, which makes up 99 per cent of the population.
People of such calibre do not need to be Senators to exercise influence over Irish society; they did so before becoming Senators and could do so equally without a second chamber to be appointed or elected to. It is clear to me that if you feel you have something to contribute, contest a general election or join the public service but seeking suffrage in this undemocratic relic is not on. For the most part, the problem with the Senate is the Senate, not the senators and I have great respect for all members of our parliament and their enthusiasm to serve.
The reality is we have this anachronistic, completely unaccountable body that does not seem to make much sense in a democracy in 2013. A recent opinion poll demonstrates the people want this institution abolished. The Senate simply could not block its own abolition in defiance of public opinion; that would only prove how out of touch it really is.