The Government has recently signalled that it intends to hold a Referendum on abolishing Seanad Éireann in September. This will be a hugely important decision for the future of democracy. It is important that people now begin to acquaint themselves with the facts of what the closure of the Seanad would actually mean because, if this shocking eventuality comes to pass, it is highly unlikely that the people will ever again be given the opportunity to reverse that decision.
Some people might ask “why should we care?” But the lesson of the crisis in our public finances is that ill-considered measures and bad political choices can impinge on our national finances, affecting the prosperity and security of every family in our country. Of course, in the midst of a recession, it is always going to be a populist argument to say that we should just cut the number of politicians, but we need to avoid knee-jerk reactions that may damage our democracy.
Nobody is disputing the fact that our political system needs reform, but it has to be the right reform. The Seanad is not perfect and it needs to change, but it is not a credible argument to suggest that meaningful political reform amounts to consigning the Seanad to the dustbin of history while leaving all power in the hands of a dysfunctional and unreformed Dáil. What is needed is real change in the way both Houses of the Oireachtas does its business, not the rash closure of either democratic forum. This generation needs to be careful that we are not hoodwinked into getting rid of vital constitutional safeguards for which future generations may yet have a real democratic need.
This Government has already made one failed attempt at a power grab, but this was rejected by the people in the Oireachtas Inquiries Referendum. The proposed referendum on the Seanad must be viewed in the same context. If Enda Kenny gets his way and Seanad Éireann, which has been an integral part of our parliamentary democracy for over 75 years in Bunreacht na hÉireann, is shut down then this will make the current Government even more powerful and less accountable.
This Government’s huge majority in the Dáil means that the Seanad is now all the more crucial for other voices to be heard. But this Government does not want to listen. Shutting down the Seanad will intensify the Government’s control over political debate and reduce the level of scrutiny of ministers and legislation. This is not good for transparent politics.
Ireland’s problems will not be solved by handing absolute power to a single chamber, unreformed, dysfunctional Dáil, but that is the appalling vista this country faces if the Seanad is dissolved. It is hard to see any credible reason why the Government should be supported in rushing forward with a referendum on the future of the Seanad. This is a political case of putting the cart before the horse. The simple truth is there is a need for fundamental reform of the Dáil and the position of the Seanad can only be properly considered in that context. I strongly believe that the universal demand for political reform in Ireland can be best delivered if the Government shows the willingness and the flexibility to bring about a comprehensively reformed Seanad. This work could commence almost immediately.
While Irish politics would be diminished by chopping off one arm of the legislature, our democracy can be significantly enhanced by giving all citizens a stake in the Seanad’s future. At the moment, the Seanad’s electoral system is elitist with only politicians and graduates of a minority of third-level institutions having the right to vote. A directly elected Seanad would transform the Upper Chamber’s democratic credentials.
Giving every Citizen a vote in Seanad elections would make Senators more accountable to the public. A referendum to abolish the Seanad will cost the taxpayer up to €20 million, however, the Seanad could be reformed and made more representative without a costly referendum. It only requires an act of the Oireachtas to give all citizens ownership of Seanad Éireann on the basis of One Citizen, One Vote.
As well as making our politics more open and representative, a reformed Seanad Éireann can play a valuable democratic and constitutional role as a revising chamber, and as a potential check and balance on the powers of a transient Dáil majority.
In July 2009, Enda Kenny told the MacGill Summer School that there was “a future role for the Seanad with a changed remit and voting system.” He was right then. He is wrong now. Everyone who cares about Irish democracy should now make their voices heard in support of Seanad reform.
Feargal Quinn is a businessman, author and Independent member of Seanad Éireann