Published: Tuam Herald, 3 July 2013
If you’ve ever played Jenga, you know that pulling the right block from the right place is the only way to keep the tower of wooden bricks standing for as long as possible. Pull the wrong one and the whole edifice comes crashing down. Great fun but very messy! In our Constitution, two of the key bricks 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 will require no fewer than 75 separate Constitutional amendments. And to what end? The only place where the powers of an unreformed Seanad can go is a dysfunctional Dáil. Given the latest abuse of ministerial power — Dr James Reilly spending the entire national fund for autism services in his own constituency — do people want to hand all parliamentary powers to a dysfunctional Dáil, where a majority can be whipped to turn a blind eye when the Government infringes the rights of the citizen?
And do people want the Dáil to have the power, which it would if the Seanad is abolished, to fire a President who says, or a Judge who does, the ‘wrong’ thing? Lavish promises are being made about Dáil reform. But you have to vote to abolish the Seanad first. Think about that. Mr Kenny is asking you to jump out of a plane with him. But he has the parachute and is asking you to take it on trust that you will land safely on a trampoline. Are you reassured?
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.
So, what’s in the new Bill, what difference will it make, and how will it improve the Seanad?
The new Bill opens up the Seanad to a wide 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 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 including the scrutiny of legislation and ministerial appointments and the power to hold public inquiries making uncontested findings of fact.
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 as provided in the Constitution.
And in providing for the election of equal numbers of men and women, and in limiting the salary of a Senator to half that paid to a TD, it closes down the opportunities for career politicians.
Here’s a final thought, which Mr Kenny might take on board. The Seanad costs less than €10m a year to run. Why not add a two-year sunset clause, such that if the Seanad hasn’t reformed as provided for in the law, a referendum to abolish it would then be called? What could be fairer than that?