THE FINE GAEL posters for the Seanad referendum promise the people that a Yes vote will result in “fewer politicians”. Does anything speak more to the abject failure of the Irish political class than that they are reduced to appealing to the public to fire some of their hapless colleagues in a transient bid for popularity?
Cynicism and loathing directed at individual politicians is nothing new – so long as people have chosen their own rulers, they have chosen in time to despise them. What makes this different, and troublesome, is that in Ireland our politicians have fermented such discontent that the public can – they believe – be induced not simply to take out a Government or an individual, but to dismantle some of the institutions of democracy itself.
This argument – “fewer politicians” – is not an argument for reasoned, effective, meaningful reform. It is an argument instead for a rage-fuelled kick at the institutions of state, and it is fundamentally mistaken and dangerous.
“A long-term act of folly”
Abolishing the Seanad may satisfy us as voters in the moment, but it would be a long-term act of folly. Concentrating yet more power in an already-overpowered Government with a weak and ineffective Dáil would fail every principle of republican governance and leave let less scrutiny over our over-centralised and under-resisted Government.
For all that, the argument for saving the Seanad in its current form is admittedly not very strong – but it should first be remembered that it has become what it is primarily because of the same people who now want to abolish it.
The constitution did not make it a retirement home for failed politicians and a crèche for aspiring ones – the political class did. The constitution did not deprive it of influence or the ability to be used effectively – the political class did. Blaming and scapegoating the architecture of democracy for your own decades of craven venality is a very “politician” thing to do – but it is not the right thing to do.
As Thomas Madison said in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
“Reform requires more than taking a sledgehammer to the constitution”
We already fail to oblige our Government to control itself – and giving it yet more power without scrutiny is reason enough in itself to vote No.
Reform of our political system is an absolutely essential task that requires more than taking a sledgehammer to the constitution, and it will not be accomplished by simply centralising more power when that centralisation is the primary problem in the first place.
We have a system where major decisions of local importance are exercised by departmental mandarins and incompetent ministers in Dublin, and where major decisions of national importance are exported to Brussels for a stamp of approval or rejection before being sent back to Enda Kenny for a the charade of Governmental approval. Meanwhile, local politicians are reduced to careers spent “calling” for action without ever having to deliver anything. Don’t believe me? Read a local paper this week – count the number of councillors “calling on” somebody to do something.
“Place power in the hands of the people at local level”
Real reform would address this. It would give people a real say. It would take the local issues out of the hands of the Dáil and place them in the hands of local people. It would remove power over your community or county from a Minister and place it in the hands of the people at local level.
Is your hospital in need of extra staff or services? Then instead of calling for action, why shouldn’t councillors be able to propose a local, dedicated levy to fund it? Wouldn’t you be happier to pay a €50 annual charge to provide a needed service in your local hospital or build new classrooms in a local school than pay a property tax into a general fund for politicians to waste?
Think about how this works outside of politics. Think about GAA clubs, or church halls, or other community groups. When they need new developments or funding, they fundraise locally, and sometimes levy extra monies from their membership, which people by and large are happy to pay. Now compare the respect for GAA clubs with the respect for the political system.
If politicians want people to trust them, then politicians need to start trusting people. At present we have a political system – both in Ireland and in Europe – that cannot solve the economic crisis, but can tell you if you may cut turf, or how you can serve olive oil in a restaurant. That is exactly backwards.
Recipe for real reform
Real reform in Ireland would have elected county mayors instead of unelected county managers. It would have local government that is able to tax and fund local services. It would have a Seanad made up of nominees from local councils who meet to discuss service provision nationally and exchange ideas about what works and what does not. It would have a Dáil focused on national policy and economic and social affairs and welfare. It would empower people to improve their communities and allow them to channel a portion of their taxes directly into their own neighbourhoods, allowing them to see and feel the benefits of the political system directly.
Our Seanad could become a voice not merely for local concerns, but for all of the global Irish family. Our political class has driven hundreds of thousands from our shores in the last decade and flung Irish people to the four corners of the earth. Why not give our emigrants a voice? Why not have the voice of Irish Australia, and Irish Canada, and Irish America in our Parliament, reminding us daily that while Ireland stops at the water’s edge, our Irish nation includes countless people beyond our shores – people with a distinct and valuable voice, and experiences, and ideas.
Instead, we are to suffer through a debate on abolishing a body that is alleged to be useless, conducted by those who have worked to make it useless, in order that we never focus on any reform that might be useful. We live in a Republic.
A government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The Senate is supposed to be a place where ideas are exchanged, assumptions are challenged, intellects are forged, and the vision for the future of our country evolves away from the pressures of day-to-day budgets and administrative pressures.
We are not being asked to just abolish the Senate. We are being asked to go along with a political class and a Government that substitute’s petty destructive action for vision or reform.
We’re being asked not to endorse a vision, but a void.
A yes vote to abolishing the Seanad is not a vote for action, but for the appearance of action where none exists. It won’t change our politics, it will just make our politics that bit smaller, and shabbier. We deserve better.