Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dail, heal thyself!

One of the big talking points in the last month, apart from the weather, the date of the election, Jean Byrne's outfits (that might be covered by the first topic), Santa and the IMF/EU has been the institution of the Seanad. About 18 months ago, Enda Kenny went on what was seen as a bit of a solo run when he announced that FG policy was to get rid of the second chamber. More recently the Seanad has had a rough time with the Callely shenanigans, not to mention the continued existence of Donie Cassidy's political career. Then over the festive period, Labour joined the ranks of the dissatisfied calling time on the Seanad followed up by Fianna Fáil's suggestion that a referendum to disband could be held at the same time as the General Election.

Personally, I am not in favour of the drastic step of turning Ireland into a unicameral state. I feel we would be better off reforming the Seanad into a modern, fit for purpose institution as part of a larger set of reforms of the entire political system. The Seanad, even with all its flaws, still produces more considered debate than the Dáil with all its political point scoring and restrictive standing orders ever could.

The composition of the Seanad is usually the first objection to its continued existance. The 6 university senators are seen as the representatives of an elite, the 43 senators elected by the city and county councillors are seen as wannabe or failed TDs and the less said about the 11 appointees the better. Instead I would propose a fixed term Seanad of 5 years with elections held the same time as the local and European elections. 48 senators would be elected on a nationwide poll with constituencies the same as the Europeans with 4 constituencies of 12 seats. The timing of this election would alleviate the problem of rejected TDs retiring to the Seanad for a term. You could also add rules that any candidate for the Seanad elections could not run for the Europeans to avoid the problem of some candidates having a much higher profile in the campaign and also forbid current Senators from running for the Dáil without resigning their seat first.

The remaining 12 would remain as appointees but only with the unanimous agreement of the leaders of the parties and technical groups in the Dáil. This would allow representation of minorities, immigrants and emigrants, the North and other groups like the current vocational panels are meant to. The unanimity would go a long way to avoid political appointees. This newly constituted Seanad would then have an extended remit to examine EU directives that require legislation here, be a driver for further political and social reform and act as a proper check on the power of the Government. To this end the restrictions in Article 21 on Money Bills would need to be removed.

One must also bear in mind what the abolition of the Seanad actually means in practice. Without a second chamber, due to the extremely strict whipping in the Dáil, the Government could effectively push through any legislation it wanted in any timeframe without needing to have an open debate. Through strict control on Dáil sessions, management of committees and judicious use of the guillotine, the government of the day would effectively have free reign apart from the constitutional role given to the President. It is interesting to note that a major revamping of Dáil procedures and standing orders has not accompanied any abolitionist's plan. The proposals from FG and now Labour are nothing more than a naked power grab by the lower chamber feeding on the public disgust with politics in general at the moment.

The other crazy part of this story is the proposed timetable being suggested by Fianna Fáil of holding the referendum on the same day as the General Election. The Seanad is one of the key institutions of the State and appears in many articles in the Constitution as well as numerous pieces of legislation. Considering how difficult it has been to come up with the wording for the Children's Rights amendment, not to mention how it seems impossible to get rid of the Blasphemy clause in the Constitution, it seems implausible that legislation could be prepared in the short timescale that would not end up making a mess of things, especially when the Government claim to be wholly focused on the Finance and Welfare bills.

Yes, the entire political system needs reform from accountable local government all the way up to the role of the President but we need to take a holistic approach. Piecemeal reform will get us nowhere and unilaterally dumping the Seanad as some sort of populist, opportunistic token at reform is one of the worst possible approaches to take.

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