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Defeat of Seanad Referendum may be only hope of achieving real political reform

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The  Seanad is a ‘luxury we can no longer afford’ and its abolition offers the Irish people an opportunity to ‘make a radical difference to our political system’.

So say, respectively, Minister Richard Bruton, Fine Gael’s Director of Elections for the forthcoming referendum and his Deputy Director of Elections, Meath TD, Regina Doherty. The great delight of such vacuous spin is that it’s so easily turned on its perpetrators. For example: this government is ‘luxury we can no longer afford’ and its removal would ‘make a radical difference to our political system.’ Or the Dail; or the Fine Gael Party; or even Mayo, God help us! – there’s no end to the uses to which such phraseology may be put.

Bruton’s rationale, according to the FG press statement, runs as follows:

‘· Reduce the number of national politicians by 30%

· Save €20 million per year which can be spent on other important services, and

· Bring Ireland in to line with nearly every other small progressive democracy like Sweden and Denmark’.

The choice facing the Irish people is a ‘simple one’, the Minister said as he launched Fine Gael’s campaign.

That ‘€20m in savings’  claim was torn to shreds in less than a week by just about anybody and everybody.  In the Sunday Independent, former Minister for Justice,  Michael McDowell, summed it up as a ‘monstrous lie’.

The more even-tempered political scientist folk over on  have also been dissecting Bruton’s various claims and finding them wanting: ( See this post, among others: )

Regina Doherty’s  suggestion that abolition is justified because the Seanad makes no  ‘meaningful contribution’ to our democracy and because she’d never heard of it herself before 2007,  was ably demolished by respected columnist, Michael Clifford, in the Irish Examiner. In terms of meaningful contributions to  democracy, the same (or worse) might be said of the Dail, Clifford suggests. Ms. Doherty had effectively made the case for abolishing the Dail.

Ms. Doherty is also on record during the recent abortion debate as claiming that the universally imposed ‘three line whip’ system provided a ‘protection’ and ‘comfort’ to backbenchers like herself when faced with difficult issues. (You really have to wonder what such people are doing in politics if they want to avoid making decisions and need protection of the ‘whip’ to save them from the wrath of those whom they were elected to represent in the first place?) It’s acknowledged as a political fact that the three line whip system lies at the root of many of the problems in the way in which successive Irish Governments preserve their immunity from being held to account in any way by Parliament. ‘The ‘three line whip’ is a sure-fire passage to enshrining bad policy in law. The universal use of the whip system by party leaders and by governments in Ireland  is out of line with any other comparable liberal democracy, and profoundly undemocratic. But reform of that element of the system would not require any referendum; just a simple change of procedure. Ms. Doherty obviously doesn’t ‘do’ irony.

The third leg of the Bruton stool – that we’re out of line with other small unicameral  liberal democracies in having an Upper House at all – is also a dubious proposition. What such unicameral states tend to have is a highly developed system of local government, in which the things that really matter to the quality of daily life of the normal citizen, and services such as health, education, social welfare and environment, are determined and delivered, and taxed, at local/regional level.  Funnily enough, we had traces of that in the local government system which we inherited from the British. But these were eradicated early on in the lifetime of our independent state.  As a result, we have one of the most atrociously inefficient, ineffective and powerless systems of local government to be found anywhere among western-style  liberal democracies. In the absence of effective local government, and excessive centrality of all policy decisions, an Upper House which at least provides some mechanism of ‘checks and balances’ on the proposals of government is essential to the democratic process.

None of this would matter very much if this referendum was the logical  end of a process of parliamentary (and local government) reform. Far from it. What the Referendum Bill proposes as a replacement to the constitutional functions of the Seanad is already sounding alarm bells. It’s all too vague, and where it’s specific it’s obvious that all the current worst aspects of executive dominance by the Cabinet of the parliamentary process will be augmented and enhanced. For instance, there will be no mechanism to ensure a second reading of Bills proposed by government; the concept of legislative ‘delay’, regarded as essential to properly functioning democracies, simply disappears. Further, the existing stranglehold of party leaders on membership of parliamentary committees – of which we have already witnessed some disgraceful  examples of chicanery and political partisanship in the course of this Dail – will become absolute. So much for the notion of parliamentary committees picking up and performing the legislative scrutiny function of the Seanad.

The argument ‘if we vote to retain the Seanad, nothing will change’ holds little water either. As the referendum debate unfolds, it is already clear that this Government proposal  to abolish the Seanad is fundamentally flawed and based on disingenuous and vacuous contentions. If the proposal is carried, our democracy will be the worse for it. If defeated, however, there will, at last, be real pressure on this government to fulfil the political promise of ‘radical reform’ on which it campaigned in the 2011 general election. Indeed, it may be our only hope of meaningful political reform.

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8 Responses to “Defeat of Seanad Referendum may be only hope of achieving real political reform”

  1. # Comment by A Humble Chestnut Roaster Jul 30th, 2013 20:07

    Hi Veronica,

    It was instructive to hear Richard Bruton citing two monarchies as examples of how we might do democracy better.

    There being no democratic in our Constitution, our elected representatives, local and national, find all manner of excuses to cast off our popular sovereignty and relegate authority (power) to anyone but themselves. Irish democracy has become a beauty parade of preening misfits.

  2. # Comment by A Humble Chestnut Roaster Jul 30th, 2013 20:07

    Second paragraph should read ‘There being no democratic deficit in our Constitution etc.’

  3. # Comment by Veronica Jul 31st, 2013 06:07

    Hi HCR,

    Listening to that exchange between Bruton and McDowell yesterday, it struck me that in arguing for a further consolidation of power in the hands of the Taoiseach, which is how FG’s Seanad abolition reform scheme will work in practice, Bruton is asking us to strengthen the ‘top-down’ exercise of power in this state – and we know just how well that has turned out! – rather than extending the decision-making process horizontally, which could be achieved through procedural reform of the existing institutions of Dail and Seanad to make them more accountable to, and democratically representative, of a broader range of voices in society. The latter only requires ‘political will’ and could be achieved without any referendum. Instead, we’re on course for ‘King Enda, Abu!’

  4. # Comment by Future Taoiseach Aug 1st, 2013 11:08

    I originally supported abolition owing to frustration with the sluggish progress on the Troika reforms such as an independent regulator for the legal profession, generic medicine in the health service etc. However the arrogance of the Government over the John Perry default-controversy and its autocratic tendencies as exposed by the fates of Lucinda Creighton and others for standing up for their consciences (despite my disagreement with those person’s stances), has changed my mind and I shall be voting no.

    Having said that the Seanad as presently constituted is elitist and undemocratic. Successive governments have failed to implement the reforms allowed for in the 1979 amendment to the Constitution, which provide for the expansion of the franchise to more universities. There may never be reform but giving an arrogant government more power is not the answer.

  5. # Comment by Veronica Aug 1st, 2013 15:08

    Hi FT,

    Long way to go yet, but you have to wonder how many more will change their voting intentions before the referendum date for similar reasons to the one which you have cited?

    The ‘autocratic tendency’ of this government is made immediately visible in the actions taken against those who opposed the Abortion Bill on grounds of personal conscience/moral belief (and like you, I don’t agree with their perspective either). But there’s been a spate of incidents of political sledgehammers being deployed to squash political fleas, whether ‘internal’ dissenters or direct critics of government policy, since this government came into office. Hence the emerging and increasingly vocalised concerns about the integrity of democratic values in the exercise of power by this government. There are also those parts of government which are shielded from public scrutiny, such as Cabinet decision-making, but within which it is apparent there may also be problems, as suggested by recent media coverage of some Ministers seemingly almost in revolt against the conduct and composition of the so-called ‘Economic Management Council’ and its effects on the ‘normal’ processes of Cabinet discussion of economic issues.

  6. # Comment by Donal O'Brolchain Sep 19th, 2013 15:09

    “The argument ‘if we vote to retain the Seanad, nothing will change’ holds little water either. As the referendum debate unfolds, it is already clear that this Government proposal to abolish the Seanad is fundamentally flawed and based on disingenuous and vacuous contentions. If the proposal is carried, our democracy will be the worse for it. If defeated, however, there will, at last, be real pressure on this government to fulfil the political promise of ‘radical reform’ on which it campaigned in the 2011 general election. Indeed, it may be our only hope of meaningful political reform.”

    The Dáil as the key organ of state should really be focus of discussion on reform, particularly following the Government announcement on the reforms it says it will undertake.

    I suggest that the mere fact of the Government announcing reforms to the Dáil (to which which it is supposedly accountable) points to much that lacks merit in our way of governing ourselves. For this reason alone, I believe that it is important that the Senate is abolished.

    That will then focus attention on both the Dáil and local government, in addition to trying to learn how other unicameral parliaments work.

    To continue the little discussion on Dáil reform, Claiming our Future hosts a public meeting on Dáil reform in the Wood Quay venue at 18.00 on Tuesday next, 24 September. All welcome to attend

    The Wrong Referendum?

    Interested in how we can make our parliament fit for purpose? This public discussion on Dáil reform is open to anyone who thinks our Dáil can do more for democracy.

    The debate in the run up to the Seanad referendum has not provided sufficient space for debate on wider reform of our parliamentary structures. Regardless of the outcome of the Seanad referendum the Dáil is the key democratic organ of the state and needs reform.

    Muiris MacCarthaigh, Queens University Belfast
    Shane Martin, University of Leicester

    Discussion: What should be the purpose of the Dáil?, Does the Dáil have sufficient power?, How would you change the Dáil to realise the five values?

    Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh is Lecturer in Irish Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has long-standing academic research and teaching interests in the origins, work and reform of the Irish parliament and is author of Accountability in Irish Parliamentary Politics (2005) and co-editor of The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland (2010). He has also conducted a number of commissioned research projects for the Houses of the Oireachtas. He is a member of a number of international academic networks concerned with the study of parliaments.

    Dr Shane Martin is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Leicester. Prior to joining Leicester, he taught at Dublin City University, the University of California, San Diego and the Pennsylvania State University and held a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin. He is an international recognised expert on parliaments and parliamentary behaviour, with a specific focus on the relationship between electoral systems and parliamentary organisation and behaviour. Recent research by him has appeared in Legislative Studies Quarterly, Party Politics, The Journal of Legislative Studies, Political Studies, West European Politics, Irish Political Studies, PS: Political Science and Politics, and Politics and Religion. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies and a member of the Editorial Board of Irish Political Studies (2011-) and Legislative Studies Quarterly (2012-15). He was Director of the European Summer School on Parliaments in 2010 and 2013.

    Further details here, including how to register

    The democracy group of Claiming our Future wants to promote debate on how Dáil reform can serve an Ireland based on our five core values of equality, environmental sustainability, accountability, participation and inclusion. These values were agreed by over 1,000 people at our event in October 2010. Claiming our Future aims to build support for these values and promote reforms which would make them real (

  7. # Comment by Veronica Sep 19th, 2013 18:09

    Hi Donal,

    Thanks for posting the notice of the meeting on next Tuesday night.

    ‘Claiming our Future’ sounds interesting!

  8. # Comment by Yesh Jan 16th, 2015 01:01

    that, If the government tells us what we must buy, then what stops them from teillng u what we can buy? . The government ALREADY tells us what we can and can not buy, it is illegal to buy cocaine, heroine, and even cuban cigars and other cuban products. To oppose the mandate of health insurance by any government is to oppose laws created by state, local and federal governments that limit our freedoms. Laws effectively limit our freedoms, but we relinquish those freedoms in order to benefit the society in which we live. To reject the health care bill is to be selfish and refuse to sacrifice a small part of your freedoms to establish a sustainable home for yourself and for your fellow man. Not only are the proponents of issue 3 swimming in the contradictory bathwater of an ideology based on the illusion of complete freedom of choice, but they are also stripping other citizens from (what i believe is) the given right to a certain standard of health care. Issue 3 is a bill that is not only shocking, but it robs individuals of a right that has recently been impounded by the despotic overseers of a broken and decrepit system of health care and should never have been passed.