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Column: Abolish the Seanad? Here's a better idea to fix our political system

Parish-pump politics is crippling our democracy – so Simon Tuohy offers a radical new proposal to fix the system.

Simon Tuohy

THIS TIME LAST year, Ireland was in the grip of electioneering, and one of the main topics under discussion was the reform of our political structures.

It is rare in the life time of a democratic nation that the fundamental operating principles of the democracy are discussed, but Election 2011 was one such occasion. The near-destruction of the nation and the epic failure of the government to manage the countries finances had made people question the very governing principles of the State.

Against this backdrop, Fine Gael came forth with their self proclaimed radical policy of abolishing the Seanad and reducing the size of the Dail to 150. Both simple ideas that sparked much discussion amongst pundits and the public. Was the Seanad a vital check on the executive or was it a talking shop for failed politicians and did we really need 166 TDs?

Although abolishing the Seanad and reducing the number of TDs slightly was Fine Gael’s solution to the problem, exactly what that problem was was never discussed. Perhaps the Seanad is a waste of money but did it really help cause the trouble that this country is enduring? Put another way, if these measures were enacted in 1996 would we be better off today? I am not convinced.

Basic logic dictates that when you are trying to find a solution to a problem, you identify the problem first and then solve that. I come from North Tipperary, Lowry country. For decades my local hinterland was beset by flooding of the Mulcair river with people living with flood waters coming into their houses and fields. I remember days when the flood waters coming up the back garden would flood the septic tank and send the water back up the toilet bowl from whence it had come.

‘Since that day, no flood water has burst the banks’

Finally, Michael Lowry, then Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, got approval for a drainage scheme and for four months in 1996 the OPW built sluice locks and cleaned and dredged rivers and streams. Since that day no flood water has burst the banks of the river.

For this the people of my local area are eternally grateful and No1s for Michael Lowry are not hard to find. Indeed there is a pseudo party in North Tipperary, Team Lowry, with 7 members ( including Michael Lowry Jr) on the county council and urban councils, all built on the reputation of Michael Lowry. While some of the electoral forgiveness Lowry receives from the people of North Tipperary comes from the Irish tendency to dismiss any suggestion of behind-the-scenes wrongdoing as “sure they are all at it”, the majority comes from the parallel tendency to place local issues above those of the national. Locally, with Lowry, the good out weighs the bad.

This is not just a North Tipperary issue, or indeed a rural issue either. Examples are found from Jackie Healy Rae in Kerry South to Tony Gregory in Dublin Central.

Additionally, this is not something that only happened in the 1990s. Take for example Peter Mathews, Fine Gael TD for Dublin South on September 22 2011 in the Dáil:

To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if a shop (details supplied) can have the lotto installed in view of its location and footfall; and if he will make a statement on the matter

When a member of the governing party believes it justified for a Minister of Public Expenditure to divert time from trying to save Ireland from bankruptcy, to ask if some corner shop can get a Lotto machine installed you know there is something seriously wrong. Essentially, a TD seems to put the concerns of a local shop at a par with that of the nations future. This is the calibre of the representation and discussion in our parliament.

In response to Peter Mathews Brenden Howlin said: “Retailers who wish to act as a Lottery agent are advised to contact the National Lottery Company directly.” It would seem highly unlikely that Mathews would not have known this, but he felt he needed to be seen to ask this question in the Dail. Rather than telling the shop keeper, “Phone them, the number is in the Golden Pages, this is not an issue of State,” he wastes Dáil time. Why? Because it is what we as an electorate expect.

‘The main problem with Irish democracy lies in the localisation of politics’

To put this into an international context, a few months ago I was listening while in the car to a comedy panel show on BBC radio. The guests were laughing at, and mocking, a politician for asking for a debate in Parliament on the extension of a motorway to Norwich. The crux of the hilarity of the story was the fact that a MP would consider the discussion of the extension of a minor motorway remotely relevant to the business of parliament which should be just discussing the great affairs of state not local issues. (I can’t imagine a motorway extension to, say, Sligo not being discussed in the Dail at length.)

To me the main problem with Irish democracy lies in the localisation of politics. Take the river mentioned above. Why did it take lobbying of a TD to get a drainage scheme done? Why was it his place to do such a thing when his Ministry, Transport, Energy and Communications, has nothing to do with river drainage?

Surely the reason we have the OPW and other such bodies is for them to access the need for such schemes and carry them out based on merit and need. Maybe there were rivers in greater need of dredging elsewhere, that were ignored due to Michael Lowry being a Minister from North Tipperary. Why do we, as a people need to lobby TD’s over local issues? Why should we expect a local politician to do something about a denied planning permission?

‘This requires civil servants to devote man-hours drafting replies to frivolous questions’

Civil service friends of mine have told me of having spent time drafting replies to Dáil questions, not on issues that are pertinent to the running of the State but in many cases, what some local constituent could have got by calling the department helpline themselves, or going to their website. This requires civil servants to devote man-hours drafting replies to frivolous questions. If a political party was really dedicated to increasing civil service efficiency they could propose a very quick and easy way to increase it by pledging to stop asking stupid questions.

As with all articles like this, the obvious response is ‘Well what would you do differently?’ Well, this is what I would do:

Change the Dáil to consist of 130 seats made up from 13 ten-seater constituencies. Unlike the present system that attempts to keep within county boundaries, I would use a system that does away with geographical boundaries, and instead base 12 of the constituencies on month of birth. So for instance being  born in March, I would vote in the March constituency along with everyone else who is of voting age and whose birthday falls in March. Birthdays are approximately evenly distributed across every month and, crucially, statistically all constituencies should be evenly spread across the  country, ensuring that local issues do not dominate voting trends.

The 13th Constituency would be voted for by ex-pats (The merits for ex-pat voting has been discussed on TheJournal.ie before so I will not rehash that debate). Finally, as constituencies are ten-seaters instead of three, four or five-seaters, the proportionality is a more accurate reflection of voting patterns.

As a politician’s constituents are scattered all over the country, he or she cannot try buying off the electorate with the offer of a ring road, a hospital or indeed a drainage scheme. Instead they have to offer them a better country. With policies that they think improve the entire nation, not their local fiefdom. In this modern era of communications, TD’s clinics do not need to be physical.

‘By giving more power at a local level, local issues can remain local’

Practically, polling would be quite easy. You still go to the same polling station and you show your ID, which has your birthday on it. You get a ballot paper that is a certain colour – say if you are born in January you get the blue ballot, February green ballot, March yellow ballot and so on. You fill it out in the normal fashion and put it into the ballot box. When the count begins the first task of the counters is to put yellow votes in the yellow pile, blue in the blue pile, etc. And then count as normal.

With the reform of the Dáil, I would also abolish county councils and replace them with regional assemblies (say Munster, Leinster, Dublin, Connaught-Ulster) with geographically-based constituencies with paid elected members. These would have tax raising and spending powers, mainly via a property tax, and would have responsibility over various areas of spending – non inter-provincial roads, drainage, school buildings, planning – the things that parish pump politicians do now.

As these assemblies have true tax raising powers, they will feel more legitimate to people compared to the present county councils and will gain more respect. People generally go to a TD to deal with a planning matter because they believe the councillor has no power. By giving more power at a local level, local issues can remain local.

I feel this voting system would seriously change the political landscape for the better -unlike the abolition of the Seanad, which would at best just make it cheaper to run. The Dáil would become the legislator that it should solely be. A place where the great decisions of State can be discussed without being interrupted for the trivial, and the parish pump can stay in the parish.

Simon Tuohy is a doctor of physics currently working at Oxford University. He is originally from Tipperary.

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Simon Tuohy

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