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Myopic focus on Seanad costs does no service to democracy

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 Last evening I attended a public meeting on next Friday’s referendums, organised by our local Fine Gael TD, Leo Varadkar. The poster on the pole at the entrance to our housing estate advertised economist Colm McCarthy as the ‘guest speaker’. I went along, not out of any prospect of being enlightened about anything by the venerable Mr.McCarthy, but mainly because I felt ill-informed about the proposal to establish a new Court of Appeal and assumed there’d have to be something said about that.

On that score I wasn’t disappointed. Barrister John Healy, who specialises in medical negligence cases, made an excellent and informative presentation on why the new court structure is an urgent necessity to clean up the mess – and human misery – that’s being caused by the massive backlog of cases at the Supreme Court level, which means that people can be made to wait up to four to five years to have their cases from the High Court resolved. So now a plethora of new cases are beginning to pile up in the European Courts, as Irish citizens seek redress from their own state for the justice which they are being denied by its failure to provide a working court system. This could end up costing the Irish state a heap of money, Healy pointed out; our money. A ‘yes’ to the Court of Appeal referendum thus looks like a ‘no brainer’.

However, the most disquieting  aspect  of this part of the meeting was a demand from the floor  for a detailed breakdown of just how much this new Court of Appeal will cost, as if its prospective operational cost was the only issue at stake. What that revealed is a failure to recognise that the costs, both monetarily and  to our society, of doing nothing about a dysfunctional court system that’s creaking at the seams, ultimately may prove far greater over the long term.

That same short-sighted obsessing about costs – the disputed saving of 20 million euro per annum that will supposedly arise from abolishing the Seanad – dominated the Seanad Abolition part of the meeting as well. Then again, that’s the populist frame which Fine Gael selected to make their pitch to the public on this proposal. From their perspective, it appears to have worked a charm with a battered and bruised public, many of whom would happily take a torch to all our political institutions, preferably with all the current political class firmly locked inside.

But Fine Gael may yet live to rue the selection of costs – and a dubiously concocted figure – as their ‘winning formula’ to get Enda’s  abolition proposal over the line. In the process they have risked devaluing the currency of politics itself, and by extension, our democracy.  This ‘fumbling in the greasy till’ approach, does neither them , nor Irish politics in general, any service.

Democracy is expensive. That’s a fact, whether we like it or not. Several of those unicameral states, like Denmark and Finland, that pro-abolitionists point to as  polities we should  seek to emulate, have local government structures with three to five times the number of public representatives that Ireland has, and hence a much larger general political class. Their citizens cough up willingly for a local authority system in which they have a stake and that makes decisions – on health, education, local environment –  that are relevant to their quality of life. The problem with our politics has nothing to do with the number of politicians we support through our taxes – and politics in Ireland is increasingly solely dependent on the public purse –  it’s with the quality of our public representation and the institutional integrity of our system. It boils down to how power is exercised, specifically the concentration of political power within the Executive and the way in which Governments will not, and do not, allow parliament, which includes both the Dail and the Seanad, to operate any checks or effective oversight of even  its most anodyne proposals. It’s about the reluctance of successive Governments to reform our existing institutions to make them work effectively.

Taking Fine Gael’s argument to its logical conclusion, we may be about to abolish the wrong institution. If it’s all about costs then why aren’t we getting rid of the Dail as well? A ‘dear leader’ and his Cabinet could surely meet all our domestic requirements to issue new decrees and attend to our international obligations at the EU and elsewhere?

At the meeting, Leo Varadkar said that he hoped that abolition of the Seanad would act as a catalyst for genuine change in the way in which our parliament, and our politics, works. Leo has interesting ideas about how the process of legislation can be made more transparent and inclusive of a broader range of public opinion, by prior referral of Bills to Oireachtas Committees before they are formally drafted for example. He will no longer, in his capacity as Minister, sign Statutory Instruments – long notorious as a mechanism for making law by stealth –  before they have first been considered by the appropriate Oireachtas Committee, he said. Reform, he suggested, can be a political euphemism for avoiding change; and we shouldn’t be afraid of change because that is what is so urgently needed throughout our political system.

I respect his arguments and his obvious commitment to progressive change in the way our politics and political institutions work. But in his enthusiasm for change, I am concerned that he is underestimating the constitutional magnitude of what is being proposed here – incidentally, before any of his suggested procedural reforms have been set in place, and therefore at best, remain tenuous. Given the track record of his Government to date, and its disposition towards the exercise of its own power, Leo may well find that he can take his vision, and he can eat it.  

Then there are ‘unintended consequences’, as yet unimagined, that may follow from such a major constitutional change.

We have ‘previous’ on this. Back in 1983, then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald pleaded with the public to reject the ‘Right to Life’ Referendum on the basis that its wording was defective. Barry Desmond, then Minister for Health, said it would give rise to medical confusion, and possibly tragedy at some future time. A backbench government TD, now Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, warned of the endless legal complications to which it could give rise.

That Referendum was carried by a 67% vote in its favour. Thirty years on, we’re still dealing with its pernicious fallout. The point is that major constitutional change, whether it involves putting something in or taking something out –  like the Seanad –  needs to be very carefully planned for and thought through, and publicly debated, before it gets to the final stage of irreversible decision. Otherwise, the risk of a major  mistake, with unforeseen and possibly catastrophic consequences down the line,  is far too high to take.

The Seanad Referendum should have been a debate about our democracy. Instead, it has been a wasted opportunity as well as, at a running cost of 14 million euro, a gigantic waste of taxpayers’ money . What might have brought forward a constructive discussion about our democratic institutions, the ways in which they might be transformed to make our democracy more inclusive and deepen our commitment to the democratic process and end its remoteness and increasing irrelevance to the daily lives of most citizens, was cut off at the pass by the Taoiseach’s myopic ‘kill the Seanad’ proposal and his refusal to entertain any discussion of change other than its abolition. Small wonder that the public have turned their backs on what, to them, increasingly looks like nothing more than a spat between factions of our political elite, that has no relevance within their own life experiences.

I went to a public meeting. Most of the audience seemed to know one another. It was a small audience, mainly comprised, so far as I could judge, of Fine Gael party members and activists. The ‘public’,  by and large, just didn’t show up.

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3 Responses to “Myopic focus on Seanad costs does no service to democracy”

  1. # Comment by Colum McCaffery Oct 2nd, 2013 12:10

    The preoccupation with costs reflects what seems to me the rising support for an old and familiar political perspective. It is considerably to the right of the old PD position and I’ve tried to identify it as anti-state/anti-politics. The decision by the Taoiseach to abolish the senate and argue in this way is an attempt to woo this vote.

  2. # Comment by Veronica Oct 2nd, 2013 14:10


    Interesting idea. It fits. It goes some way towards explaining the puzzlement I experienced listening to Leo Varadkar’s introductory presentation at the public meeting, effectively denigrating his own profession and, by inference, also dissing on the whole concept of a vibrant and properly-functioning democracy and political and civic culture. I don’t believe for a minute that someone as intelligent and urbane as Varadkar can be taken in by this cant, but there are enough super-cute hooligans within the upper ranks of FG who, as you suggest, see it as a ticket to an historical second term for Enda and their party in government. Sad to see the leadership of the Labour Party rowing in behind this cynical exploitation of an anti-political popularism, and failing to stand up for democracy, but hardly surprising in the context of their general performance. Thanks for the link to your really good post, as well.

  3. # Comment by Medical Negligence Ireland Oct 7th, 2013 13:10

    Compensation claims for medical negligence are acknowledged to be the most complex of all personal injury claims in Ireland. Only experienced solicitors can handle such cases