Anyone who plays Jenga knows that pulling the right block from the right place is the only way to keep the tower standing as long as possible. Pull the wrong one and the whole edifice comes crashing down. In our Constitution, two of the key blocks are Articles 18 and 19 on the Seanad.
If they’re pulled, all others above them will come tumbling down. That’s what a yes vote in the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann would do. Why? Because mothballing the Seanad would require no fewer than 75 separate Constitutional amendments. And to what end? The only place the powers of the Seanad can go is the Dáil. Given the recent abuses of ministerial power, do people really want to hand all powers to a dysfunctional Dáil, where a majority can be whipped into turning a blind eye when the Government infringes the rights of the citizen?
And do people want a timid, toothless Dáil to have the power – as it will if the Government gets its way in the Bill to amend the Constitution to abolish the Seanad – to fire a President who says, or a judge who does, the ‘wrong’ thing?
Abolishing the Seanad will do nothing except concentrate power and throw a comfort blanket around ministers and civil servants, who would only then have the Dáil to treat with contempt.
The new Bill opens up the Seanad to a wider electorate, including every person entitled to vote in other elections, to people in Northern Ireland eligible for Irish citizenship, to Irish passport-holders living abroad, and to all graduates of all third-level colleges in the State. In other words, no special role for TDs and Senators in the nomination process, and no exclusivity for NUI and TCD graduates.
It provides for a more open and inclusive Seanad, whose elected membership could have an equal number of men and women, and where the nomination process is also opened up for nominations by popular support and by local authorities. Again, no special privileges given to TDs and Senators. Anyone nominated by 500 people entitled to vote in a Seanad election would win a nomination, and any candidate receiving the support of four local authorities could also stand for election.
And it confers a range of additional powers on the Seanad, including the scrutiny of legislation and ministerial appointments, and the power to hold public inquiries making uncontested findings of fact.