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People vote to retain Seanad: Action on reform is warranted

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The people have spoken,as the old cliché goes. Of the 1,026,374 valid cotes in the Seanad Referendum, 591, 937 voted in favour of Seanad abolition, and 634, 437 voted against. Every constituency in Dublin voted against Enda Kenny’s personal crusade to abolish the Upper House, thereby concentrating more power in the Executive, with a flimsy promise to reform the Dail by way of compensation for driving a coach and four through our political institutions. The margin of defeat for Kenny’s personal demolition project was small – 51/7% against to 48.3% in favour – but the message to his government should be clear:  Either reform the system, as faithfully promised by the two government parties during Election 2011, and do so in a way that brings all other political factions on board with you, or squander the remainder of whatever political capital you have left in this vital area and reap the consequences of your negligence.

The  ‘no’ campaign did not have the same level of resources at its command as the established political parties campaigning for abolition, which included Sinn Fein as well as the government parties, Fine Gael and Labour. Apart from Fianna Fail, who alone among the established parties campaigned against abolition, and whatever resources it had to hand to expend on its own campaign, the main organisation opposing abolition, Democracy Matters, had about 30,000 euro in its fighting fund; less than one tenth of what Fine Gael had to spend. Yet they won. It can be argued that they won on the basis of argument, defeating the forces of  government ‘spin’ which, in the words of Senator John Crown, who campaigned independently,  is ‘the real loser’. That is those who absurdly imagined that, in a mature democracy like Ireland’s,  you can whittle a complex issue of major constitutional and political change down, as Senator Crown put it,  to “two stupid little arguments” about cost and the number of politicians we should have.

Crown went on to say that in the wake of this defeat for the government by popular vote : “ the moral pressure for reform is absolutely overwhelming.” In the euphoria of victory, he may be more than a little overoptimistic.

Judging by the comments from some media pundits on today’s TV coverage, the Government would do best to ‘shrug this one off” and ‘put political reform on the back burner’. In essence, they should get back to their knitting; which is about ‘strong government’ and repairing the economy, dealing with the issues about which people are concerned, jobs and unemployment, managing their debts, the housing crisis, the mortgage crisis and so on.

Such a narrow perspective is mistaken, I believe. Yes, all of us are primarily concerned with the economic issues that threaten to overwhelm us, individually and collectively. Yes, we are ‘economic voters’ and in a general election we pass judgement on government performance on the distribution of resources and the health of the overall economy and reward or punish accordingly. But it’s profoundly foolish to underestimate the commitment of Irish people to democracy, as it is patronising to suggest that where people are asked to buy a pig in a poke – a proposal that would reduce our democracy that’s dressed up as somehow, magically, going to enhance democracy – that they’ll buy into it.

There are lots of losers in the outcome to this referendum. Ironically, the real winner is the integrity of our political system and the implied demand for its meaningful reform to make it work efficiently and effectively in all of our interests. It’s up to the government to recognise their responsibility to carry out the mandate they have now been given. No time for recrimination, excuses, or petulance. It’s time to act responsibly. Meanwhile, forget following the nonsense spouted in focus groups , the cheap and politically vulgar sloganising of complex constitutional issues, and the denigration of politics itself that mired this referendum campaign: a renewal of faith in our political integrity is what is warranted now.

In a statement from the yard of Dublin Castle – a somewhat unfortunate location in symbolic terms – the Taoiseach promised to ‘reflect’ on the outcome of the referendum. The process of the referendum debate has already aired all the issues on which reflection is warranted. Action, not long drawn out reflection, is what’s required now.

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8 Responses to “People vote to retain Seanad: Action on reform is warranted”

  1. # Comment by Donal O\'Brolchain Oct 6th, 2013 09:10

    “Judging by the comments from some media pundits on today’s TV coverage, the Government would do best to ‘shrug this one off” and ‘put political reform on the back burner’. In essence, they should get back to their knitting; which is about ‘strong government’ and repairing the economy, dealing with the issues about which people are concerned, jobs and unemployment, managing their debts, the housing crisis, the mortgage crisis and so on.

    Such a narrow perspective is mistaken, I believe. Yes, all of us are primarily concerned with the economic issues that threaten to overwhelm us, individually and collectively. ”

    I agree with your view that the Government’s real job is our common good – of which work, health, education, welfare and how to pay for it – are the most obvious issues.

    However, I suggest that we cannot really “fix the economy” without serious and deep political reform on how we govern ourselves. This needs far more than reforming the Seanad and the continued centralising of power, without checks and balances.

    I am wryly amused by the actual results of voting in the Dublin area.
    The existing Seanad was elected under a system which is skewed against Dublin, purely because of the number of County Councillors per capita grossly unbalanced.

    What are the reasons for the following distortions in democratic balance?
    Why should it take
    a. Seven times more people to elect a Councillor in South Dublin than it does in Leitrim;
    b. Almost four times more people to elect a Councillor in South Dublin than it does in Carlow;
    c. More than twice as many people to elect a Councillor in Dublin City than the average for the whole country?

    This is based on the 2006 Census population data, as that is what applied at the time this current Senate was formed in 2011.

    I am aware that the changes in the number of councillors brought in by Minister Phil Hogan has changed that imbalance.

    On the issue of the relative weight of each person’s vote, a comment by Richard Humphreys SC (a Labour Councillor) on one aspect of the Quinn Zappone bill struck a chord

    “There is another fundamental difficulty with the Bill, potentially striking at its constitutionality. The Bill purports to enshrine the principle of one person, one vote (section 30). However the Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed that this principle is severely compromised if the votes are not of equal value.

    But each citizen’s vote under this Bill will be of radically unequal value, because each panel will elect a different number of Senators and will have a radically different number of voters. The university graduates will almost certainly remain a privileged group as there will be fewer of them, and they elect 6 members. Their votes are therefore each worth more in terms of influence than those who have to pick one of the more populous vocational panels. The panels may range in size from 10,000s to millions of voters.”

    http://politicalreform.ie/2013/09/23/the-quinn-zappone-bill-a-fundamentally-flawed-measure/#more-4753

  2. # Comment by Veronica Oct 6th, 2013 13:10

    Hi Donal,

    No doubt there are problems with the Bill as proposed by Quinn-Zappone, or anything else that was put on the table, before this ill-advised referendum. But that’s where ‘political will’ comes into it: the government is in a position to put forward amendments, or a new proposal entirely, that will meet any constitutional test. Both Senators Crown and Zappone are on public record as saying that they will co-operate with, and support, the government in efforts to produce a meaningful reform package for the Seanad. Politically, it is not tenable that the Seanad, in its current unreformed state, should be dissolved and reconstituted under the old rules after the next general election. In the wake of the referendum result, ‘doing nothing’ is no longer an option for Enda Kenny and his Government.

  3. # Comment by Donal O\\\'Brolchain Oct 6th, 2013 15:10

    Will all the reform energy now go into the Seanad (which still can be overidden by the Dáil – Arts 23 and 24 remain as before) with little or no focus on the Dáil, despite all the hostages to fortune left by most participants during the campaigns of the last few weeks?

    As CoF put it – it was the Wrong Referendum.

  4. # Comment by Veronica Oct 7th, 2013 08:10

    Donal,

    Good question, to which there is no answer as yet.

    The comments on RTE by the Irish Times’ Michael O’Regan to the effect that this defeat will be forgotten by the public within a week and that the Government should put reform on the back burner and concentrate instead on its economic priorities are, I believe, a misreading of both the referendum result and its political effects. If the Government were to follow such advice they would, in my view, be compounding Enda Kenny’s mistake.

    Unlike you – if I’m reading your comment correctly – I have no difficulty with the Seanad’s subsidiary role in the policy-making process. What can be changed, and relatively quickly within the existing constitutional definition of its role and functions, are the way in which its members are elected and an extension of that franchise; enhancement of its role to include scrutiny of implementation of EU legislation (it can’t overturn that either!) and inclusion of the Seanad in the process of pre-scrutiny of legislation, which the government had already planned to do via ‘expert’ witnesses to committees, as part of its Dail reform package. The result of the referendum means there really is no choice; ‘do nothing’ is not a politically sustainable position and would shorten the lifetime of this government.

    As for Dail reform; reform of the Seanad increases pressure for reform of the processes of the Dail. The obvious measure is for Government parties to relax the ‘universal three line whip’ rule in the case on non-money Bills and, as in Westminster, force Ministers to justify their proposals for legislative change to members of their own parties and the opposition in order to achieve assent. The general requirement is to loosen up the absolute control of the Dail by the Executive.

    Is this adminstration brave enough, or smart enough, to recognise the situation that they are now in and the necessity to respond in an open and transparent way to the verdict of the people? We’ll have to wait and see.

    There is a profoundly mistaken view, found within some political science literature as well as the views of many political pundits, that ordinary citizens are not concerned or interested in constitutional matters. Indeed yes, most of us may not wake up in the morning and start the day worrying about the Irish Constitution like we worry about the Bills coming in through the letterbox or other normal material concerns. But the fact that we take democracy and its institutions for granted on a day to day basis doesn’t mean there is any public appetite to lessen democracy or that there is no perception of how political power should be distributed, such that proposals that could amount to an abuse of executive power will not be resisted. That is why the referendums on more power for Dail Committees and abolition of the Seanad were greeted with a ‘wallop’ from the electorate. Other referendums in the lifetime of this administration, it should be noted, have passed easily enough.

  5. # Comment by A Humble Chestnut Roaster Oct 7th, 2013 08:10

    This ia all a beautiful distraction from the sidelining of the Dáil, to which the Government is constitutionally accountable. If the executive, and the junta within it, is minded to open up and listen, to colloborate and work with public representatives and Senators to form policy rather than rely almost entirely on marketers and civil service eejits, the Dail is the place to start. Make the Dail relevant and the Seanad too.

    The thing about good design is you notice it when you don’t have it. Clearly, DeValera was better at looking into his heart than Enda Kenny. The fact that the Seanad has not had to use many of its powers down the years proves that its very existence has operated as a check and balance. Now, imagine how some past governments might have behaved had they known no wiser heads were watching. How it’s elected is less important – it’s not meant to be representative – than that it exists and is not constantly obsessed with minding its constituency and seat.

    Kenny has unequivocally demonstrated his clear contempt for his party, for our Seanad, our Constitution, and us, the Irish people. Why the Labour party campaigned for Seanad abolition eludes me.

    The upshot of it all is that we now have the kind of leader we relish – weakened, tail docked, but capable of minding the shop til another promising pup comes along.

  6. # Comment by Colum McCaffery Oct 8th, 2013 00:10
  7. # Comment by Donal O\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'Brolchain Oct 8th, 2013 10:10

    @Veronica
    “But the fact that we take democracy and its institutions for granted on a day to day basis doesn’t mean there is any public appetite to lessen democracy or that there is no perception of how political power should be distributed, such that proposals that could amount to an abuse of executive power will not be resisted. That is why the referendums on more power for Dail Committees and abolition of the Seanad were greeted with a ‘wallop’ from the electorate.”

    I agree entirely that people do and will resist an abuse of power – provided they have the awareness that such abuse is taking place and they have the means to resist it. (As an aside, I do not believe that the proposal to abolish the Seanad was an abuse of power, or even a power-grab, given the limited power that our 1937 Constitution allocates to the Seanad. IMO, the proposed Freedom of Information Act is a much greater abuse of power.)

    For these reasons, I favour embedding
    1. Swedish style Freedom of Information in our 1937 constitution – so that bad management, incompetence, “systems failure”, cover-ups, inertia and possible corruption can be spotted much earlier.
    2. Swiss style citizens’ initiative so that we can exercise our power without waiting for elections. As the political class kept reminding us during the recent campaigns, it is our Constitution. I am awaiting to see if the political class will put their power and influence behind the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention to introduce Citizens’ initiative. Given “implementation deficit disorder”, I am not holding my breath.
    3. Stronger independent local government (with their own tax raising powers) so that feed-back loops between citizens who are governed and citizens who govern is shortened.

    We can enhance our democracy. We need much more political discussion and action on options for our own governance. It does people having the means to be involved in considering options and making decisions on public matters, not necessarily more full or part-time paid politicians.

    The fact that the electorate has rejected the option of getting rid of one house of parliament does not lessen the imperative for considering other options for reforming our parliament – starting with the Dáil, which is our directly elected national legislative assembly.

    @AHRC
    “The fact that the Seanad has not had to use many of its powers down the years proves that its very existence has operated as a check and balance. Now, imagine how some past governments might have behaved had they known no wiser heads were watching.”

    I really do not know how you can maintain this view of the Senate as a check and a balance given the social, economic and fiscal crises into which our governing elites have led us twice during the past forty years ie.
    1. during the 1970s, the inappropriate response to economic crises arising from the oil-price increases;
    2. the same inability to respond appropriately to the decision to join the €urozone, as the powers that be have now admitted ie.
    “ In the past decade, Ireland’s approach to fiscal policy, prices, costs and financial regulation were not sufficiently adapted to the disciplines of a single currency.“ NESC Press Release August 2010.

    Where were what you call the wiser heads? (NESC is a government appointed body of the social partners – including the Secretaries Generals of a number of Government Departments during the period 1997-2007?
    The heads had lost their wisdom because they had all clearly forgotten the constraints of being a member of a currency union. This was inexcusable, as for much of our history since independence, we were in a currency union with Britain as is Northern Ireland still. This had pros and cons, as does being a €urozone member.

    The result of this lack of wisdom is a self-induced banking crisis which an IMF report described as
    “…. the costliest since the Great Depression in terms of the economic havoc it wreaked on the country,” according to the paper by International Monetary Fund researchers … Ireland is also the only country in the world currently suffering from a banking crisis that features among the world’s top 10 worst banking crises, the authors conclude, lending weight to the idea that our banking crisis is much worse than the problems in other countries…. The researchers study banking problems under three headings — fiscal cost, increased debt and loss of economic output. Ireland was in the top 10 in all three categories.” see

    Irish meltdown was world’s worst since 1930s — IMF report Irish Independent 28 June 2012 http://www.independent.ie/business/irish/irish-meltdown-was-worlds-worst-since-1930s-imf-report-26869930.html Report on IMF Research Department Working Paper WP/12/163 Systemic Banking Crises Database: An Update Luc Laeven and Fabián Valencia.
    http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2012/wp12163.pdf

  8. # Comment by A Humble Chestnut Roaster Oct 8th, 2013 17:10

    Donal, I’m sure the Greeks would love to be Ireland. But our Seanad’s day-to-day role is more on the side of legislative scrutiny rather than policy oversight. FG would have us believe they do nowt on that side, tho’ Eamon Ryan says differently. Indeed, I recall it was a humble Senator Shane Ross who pointed out s simple drafting error in one government Bill some years ago, on opinion polls, leading to its abandonment.

    FG must be rueing the huge Yes opinion poll result headlined on the Irish Times last week. And how they must have cringed when they saw the US bicameral political system being effective last week too.

    The UK in the 1980s and since is a good example for us to see the importance of having an upper house – remember Francis Pym’s warning about the danger of an elected dictatorship following Mgt Thatcher’s 1983 landslide, for example.

    The value of our Seanad, which Eamon Gilmore ignorantly thinks is a Parliament in itself (it’s not, it’s a component of the one Parliament, along with the President and the Dail) is its autonomy and its lesser electoral focus than Dail (House of Representatives) members.

    Kenny’s referendum (costing €20m we can ill afford) has done what folks with identity issues often do – it lashed out at a group with a more secure self-image. Most unwise.

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