Proposed Seanad Abolition Masks True Problems


This Friday, you’ll be asked to take part in a referendum, voting for or against the abolishment of Seanad Éireann, Ireland’s second House of the Oireachtas. It’s an issue which has dulled some and bored others, and unsurprisingly split the country’s political parties once again. It’s hard to know what the right choice is. On the one hand you have an unelected body whose relevance is hard to ascertain, and on the other, a chance to save some money and rid Ireland of a few more politicians, one which undoubtedly appeals to many people.

Whatever anyone else may think, it’s clear that Enda Kenny is firmly against the body. “It costs € 20 million a year to run. It is undemocratic. It is minority representative. It is not possible to reform this body,” he said, speaking at a Fine Gael media event this week. Fine Gael’s posters have populated street lights and telephone polls of recent times, arguing against the Seanad’s continuation, reminding people that its abolishment would mean savings in the region of €20 million per annum and the more populist reason of ‘less politicians’. Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, advocate its continuation, seeking ‘real reform’, though it wouldn’t be hard to believe that a lot of their fervour in favour of the Seanad is a result of seeking to weaken their opposition. Where were these strenuous calls for reform  over the past few decades?

Twelve reports on the reform of the Seanad have been produced since 1928. Calls for reform have been accompanied by many suggestions – extending the vote to all third level institutions across Ireland, while others call for a portion of the body to be directly elected by the adult population. It’s certainly an odd system, and one which needs changing. It’s become increasingly irrelevant, removed from everyday life.

But if that’s the case, then the argument could be made that the Dáil is cut from the same cloth. Fintan O’Toole, writing in The Irish Times, made note of an interesting quote from 2011, following the general election: “An over-powerful executive has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player.” A quote which came from the Coalition in their programme for government that year. The call for reform of the Seanad seems like an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that Dáil Éireann is in need of just as much reform – since the inception of the Economic Management Council, responsible for fiscal and economical matters in the State, and whose existence as another level, unelected, above the Executive, has been questioned on a constitutional level, Dáil Éireann has become even more of a by-stander in matters of importance, and many promised reforms have not materialised.

Why does the Seanad have to be abolished? What about a partial, or even a fully elected body? Despite Kenny’s insistence, simple abolishment is not the answer to the problems in Irish politics and to the question of reform.

Nothing seems to have changed since 2011, in fact, things appear to be worse, and that’s why this sudden zeal for the Seanad’s removal, and the populist reasoning Fine Gael has been using, smacks of a muddying of the waters, sating the public’s desire for governmental reform without actually doing much of any real use, while power concentrates in the war cabinet-like Economic Management Council.

The powers of the Seanad are weak, there’s no doubt, and its faults are many, a body in which the Government generally enjoys a majority. Still, the existence of something of a check on those in power is something which shouldn’t be thrown away – the constitution does, for example, allow the Seanad to petition the President for a referendum should a bill be of potential national importance. And if the Seanad is removed, what then? Do we proceed to reform of the Dáil, the removal of some power from the hands of the Executive? Not likely. Since when has anyone in power chosen freely to give up that power?

In the end, the cost of savings to be made from the Seanad’s removal is estimated to be €20 million each year (though this may be a good deal less). But we still don’t know exactly what the price will be.

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