Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics
 

Seanad Reform: I want to believe.

Posted by Jason O on May 14, 2013 in Irish Politics |

There is a sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” which could provide a wonderful metaphor for the future of Irish politics. In it, there is an astronaut in a spaceship, clean, modern, advanced, the very epitome of progress. Juxtaposed against that image is a group of prehistoric apemen, throwing shapes and grunting at each other, as they scrabble in the dirt.

A scene from a film. Or a reformed Seanad operating alongside an unreformed parish-pumping whip strait-jacketed Dail. A Seanad that looks like the modern Irish nation, with both sexes having at least 40% representation, peopled not by professional politicians but teachers, businesspeople, farmers, artists and trades unionists. A Seanad that the Irish in Sydney and Sydney Parade Avenue both vote for, approaching the nation’s business from one side as Mattie McGrath and Michael Healy Rae do their thing in the other house. If the Zappone/Quinn model is adopted, the serious discussion about the nation will happen in the Seanad. It will be where the grown ups will meet, and the Dail will suddenly find itself under scrutiny for its archaic practices and vast swathes of strutting chest-thrusting pointlessness like never before. This is all to the good.

That’s potentially what’s on offer, and it is the most exciting prospect not just in Irish politics, but as a fascinating model for other countries in a post-party political age. If we do this, other countries will point and say “we want one of those!”.

And yet… I’m a sceptic about Seanad reform. If the Zappone/Quinn  model is on offer, I will vote for that. It’s advocated by many people  whose judgement I trust and respect.

But the fear still remains, that reform is only being dangled now because those who have defended the status quo for so long are now staring into the abysss of abolition, begging and pleading with us for their institutional lives and offering us anything, anything to let them live.

But what if we do? What if we spare them? Will it bring the Zappone/Quinn Seanad, or instead be used as an excuse to say that the status quo has been given a democratic mandate, and radical, big reform of the Seanad vanishes back into the mists they have kept it shrouded in for so long?

I want to believe. I really do. I want to believe that the choice in September is not between retention or abolition but abolition or reform, and that a vote to retain will lead to the Zappone/Quinn bill. But I need to hear it from Enda.

1 Comment

Daniel Sullivan
May 15, 2013 at 9:07 am

I think we’ve gone beyond the point of tinkering with the Seanad within the constraints of the constitution. We should be looked at changes to the totality of the Oireachtas and local government and instead so much focus and energy is being expended on the Seanad, save it, open it or leave it to rot.

I attended the launch event and it was very disappointing how the issue was presented. There was even an initial pitch to the media that they would be suggesting for a No vote must to seen as an endorsement of this specific plan. I pointed out that this would be a perversion of democracy as a No vote is only a definite no to what is being proposed and not some round about yes to something not on the ballot.

The election system being suggested has some real oddities. Unless the Litir um Thoghchán system is radically overhauled (which the bill makes no mention of) any Seanad election under this new bill would cost the taxpayer millions more than any current Dail election.

Our former AG displayed a peculiar detachment from commercial reality when he tried to punt this away as a non-issue as it is something that An Post just has to do as part of its license. He seemed to ignore the fact that An Post is a wholly owned state company that is losing money already and that any accrued losses eventually have to be borne by the state and us as taxpayers. Not to mention the fact that the users of An Post are tax payers too, and that any revenue raising efforts it has to engage in so as to fund the Litir um Thoghchán system is passed onto us in increased rates for regular postage. It was as if he thought of state agencies as being there to do the bidding of the political class without any thought to their own day to day commercial realities.

Furthermore the ballots will need to be posted back using regular post which is to be paid for by the voter, I can see lots of the less well off rushing out to give their 60c over to voting for the Seanad. It is peculiar that the same folks who would be opposed to a prescription charge on ideological grounds find the idea of charging people to vote quite reasonable. And that is presuming that the weight of the combined ballots comes in under the weight limit for regular postage, the ballot for the NUI was about an A2 page, combine that with the ballot for TCD one and the witness letter and I can’t see any of the ballots coming under the 100g weight for regular postage. Then there is the basic reliability of the postal service and those in charge of sending the ballots to ensure that everyone who should get one does get one. It is very easy to see the error due to this being far higher than the supposed accidental spoilt vote that was part of the reasons for spending so much on e-voting machines.

Another rather strange aspect to all of this is the way in which it is being reported. I attended the event, asked some reasonable (I thought) practical questions, some of which I got answers to, and pointed out some difficulties with the bill such as the carrying forward the existing NUI and TCD registers which are inaccurate and wholly incomplete places the graduates of other colleges at a disadvantage, it should either be a clean slate or measures should be put in place immediately to get as complete a register as possible as soon as feasible. I also noted that while I didn’t agree with Enda Kenny’s stated logic or motivation for abolition of the Seanad that at least he had sought a direct endorsement of his view from the electorate and that the people would get to make the ultimate decision. This bill if enacted would have no such mandate from the public. And surely in a democracy a mandate should be sought for this sort of change, this isn’t some emergency measure to deal with an immediate crisis.

Yet nothing that was said either by me or by the proposers of the bill in response to those questions was reported in the media. I’m not looking for a name check here but rather that it would be noted that there are practical issues that haven’t been considered and that the bill had no tangible support from the public. Not a word. It’s as if the fix is in and the media have picked their side to support.


 

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