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Published: Western People, 28 May 2013

Anyone who’s played Jenga knows that taking the right block from the right place is the only way to keep the tower standing as long as possible. Each block removed leaves the others bearing a greater weight. Take the wrong one, especially the one that’s in just too tight, and the whole edifice comes crashing down. In our Constitution, the tight blocks are Articles 18 and 19 on Seanad Éireann. If they’re pulled, all the others above them will come tumbling down. That’s what a yes vote in the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann will do.

If it were the case that the people were being asked to strike out Articles 18 and 19 only, it could be argued that the overall impact would be minimal. Except it isn’t just those two. Abolishing the Seanad would require no fewer than 75 separate constitutional amendments. And to what end? The only forum where the powers currently vested in the Seanad could go, is the Dáil. People should think long and hard before blindly handing over the responsibilities, powers and safeguards of the Seanad to an unruly, unreformed and dysfunctional Dáil. Where the whips are so powerful that individual TDs can’t even vote according to their conscience. Where legislation that isn’t railroaded through is guillotined instead. Where the rules are such that debate on the issues of the day is routinely ruled out of order and prepared speeches are all too often simply read into the record of the House.

But there is a better way to make our parliament responsible, responsive and respected. It doesn’t need a referendum costing €19 million. It can proceed with the enactment of a Bill that is currently before the Oireachtas. A Bill that would make the Seanad more active in scrutinising legislation and more assertive in holding government to account, as well as more representative of the nation.

Significantly, the reform option would ensure the €19 million that would be needed to run referendum could be spent instead filling potholes, buying new books for school libraries, are providing a new primary care centre. Any of those, or any cash-strapped public or social service, would make better use of such largesse. Why splurge it on a referendum offering a false choice?

The great problem with Mr Kenny’s proposal, aside from the mind-blowing cost of running a referendum, is that will be given only one choice: retain or abolish the Seanad. They won’t be asked if they would like to see it reformed, much less given the chance to vote on a package of reforms. And at a time of austerity, when the people have been laid low and the currency of politics and politicians laid even lower, sure, would it matter all that much if 60 senators wheeled to the guillotine?

Maybe it wouldn’t – if the government wasn’t so dominant, if the Dáil wasn’t so dysfunctional, and if the promised political reforms were giving us powerful, independent Parliamentary Committees that were capable holding ministers and civil and public servants responsible and accountable. Beyond a token cutting TDs from 166 to 158, there is precious little evidence of political reform.

Reform of the Seanad is the first step – and perhaps the last chance – to put our parliamentary democracy on a firmer footing and begin to restore the currency of politics and politicians.

Abolishing the Seanad will do nothing except to further concentrate political power and provide cover for a bureaucratic monster that would then only have the Dáil to treat with contempt.

After a dozen reports advocating reform, some people have come on the pitch, with the first-ever full legislative proposal to make the Upper House more representative, more active in scrutinising legislation, and more assertive in holding government and public administration to account.

Proposed by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn, the Seanad Reform Bill 2013 draws heavily on the ideas of a Consultation Paper published and put out for public comment in September 2012. Last week, through gritted teeth, Environment Minister Phil Hogan, allowed the Bill to go to Committee Stage, not because he’s reform-minded but because he had a mutiny on his hands in the Seanad.

So, what’s in the new Bill, what difference would it make, and how will it improve the Seanad?

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 entitled to 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 privileges 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 men and women, and where the nomination process is also opened up for nomination by popular support and by local authorities. Again, no special privileges given to TDs and Senators. Anyone nominated by 500 people registered to vote in a Seanad election would win a nomination and any candidate securing the support of four local authorities could also stand for election.

And it confers a range of additional powers on the Seanad in areas such as the scrutiny of legislation, examination of public appointments, and the holding of enquiries. The new powers include:

  • The power to scrutinise draft EU regulations and directives.
  • The power to scrutinise secondary legislation.
  • The power to scrutinise ministerial appointments to public bodies.
  • The power to hold limited forms of public inquiry where evidence is recorded and findings of fact are made only where the facts are uncontested.
  • The power to inquire into the need for new legislation.
  • The right of the people to force the Seanad to debate an issue of national importance when it receives a petition with 1,000 signatures.

In opening up the nomination and election process to the people, it removes an unconscionable privilege from the hands of incoming TDs, outgoing Senators, and City and County Councillors.

In making the powers of the Seanad clear and explicit, it charts a meaningful and valuable course for the Upper House without undermining the authority of the Dail provided in the Constitution.

And in providing for the election of equal numbers of men and women, and limiting the salary of a Senator to half that paid to a TD, it closes down the opportunities for career politicians while opening up the chance for expert, experienced, committed outsiders to make a positive, independent, valuable contribution to the great challenges facing our State.

Here’s a final thought, which Mr Kenny might take on board. The Seanad costs less than €10 million a year to run. Why not accept and enact the legislation proposed by Senators Zappone and Quinn, but add a two-year sunset clause, so that if the Seanad hasn’t been reformed as provided for in the law, the referendum would then be called?

What could be fairer than that?