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Published: Galway Independent, 19 June 2013

OOne of the most frustrating things about interrogating a politician is that they never give a straight answer to a straight question. Yet, in the referendum on the Seanad, the abolitionists are adamant that voters say yes or no, and they refuse point-blank to offer or accept a ‘yes, but reformed’ option.

The voters are intelligent enough to sift, weigh and measure the arguments, and make an informed choice about the future of the Upper House. However, they are being treated as gobdaws by the Government who, with customary arrogance, are presenting the ‘self-evident’ case that our parliamentary democracy will be better, stronger and cheaper – if we do it all in the Dáil.

Lavish promises are being made ahead of the referendum. A new, reformed Dáil will be in place, unrecognisable from the current dysfunctional wreck. A raft of strategic, sectoral and thematic committees, sub-committees of select committees, even an ‘expert’ committee handpicked by the Taoiseach, will hold the powerful accountable and save the taxpayer millions. If only!

Reform of the Dáil is long overdue, but it does not require abolition of the Seanad.

However, there is an alternative to the dog’s dinner served up last week.

The Seanad Bill published by Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, opens up the vote to every person who is 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 third-level colleges in the State. So, no special role for TDs and Senators and no exclusivity for certain university graduates.

It provides for a more open and inclusive Seanad whose elected membership would have equal numbers of men and women, and where the nomination process is also opened up for nominations through popular support and by local authorities. Again, no special privileges to TDs and Senators. Just 500 registered voters, or four local authorities, would be needed to secure a nomination.

The Bill also confers a range of extra powers on the Seanad, including the scrutiny of legislation and ministerial appointments and the power to hold public inquiries making uncontested findings of fact.

In changing the nomination and election process to the people, the Bill 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 Dáil as provided in the Constitution.

In providing for pay cuts, gender equality and a level playing field for new people not from a political background, it ensures the Seanad is neither a springboard to the Dáil nor a rest home for failed TDs.

Why can the Government not bring itself to put the ‘retain and reform’ option to the people?

Why is it splurging €19 million on a referendum offering a false choice, when it knows the result will be either an all-powerful, unchecked Dáil, or a dysfunctional Dáil and an unreformed Seanad?

And why is it secretly ditching Article 27 of the Constitution, which provides that the President may refuse to sign a Bill because it is of such importance that it should be put to the people first?

In opposition, Fine Gael and Labour promised new politics and open government. In government, they are secretive in their decisions and dismissive of all dissent. They’re now busily chipping away the checks and balances in our Constitution. If this referendum passes, any rights the Seanad has to hold the executive accountable will be swept up by the Dáil.

And the right of the people to be consulted directly on a Bill containing “a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained”, even though it has never had to be exercised, will be swept away.

Have we learned nothing, as a nation, from our failure to insist on the checks and balances that could have headed off the crisis that continues to blight the hopes and dreams of our people?