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.