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Column Seanad abolition would widen the democratic deficit in Ireland and Europe

The Seanad shouldn’t be abolished but reformed; without it, we will have no institution capable of protecting us from the mistakes of unelected technocrats, writes Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh.

IF THERE IS one good thing that will arise from the referendum on abolishing the Seanad, it’s that it will add a few important words to the lexicon of Irish political commentary. Now for the first time, a well-trained ear can pick up tentative attempts to discuss arcane concepts such as the “yellow card system” and “the principle of subsidiarity”.

If these are meaningless to you, then you are not alone. Truth be told, we Irish – with very few exceptions – remain shockingly ignorant of European affairs, and this referendum is a sign that we need to wake up. Instead of reforming the Seanad to enhance Irish and European democracy, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

EU directives signed into law without Oireachtas approval

Under current constitutional arrangements, the Government signs EU directives into law via statutory instrument, without consulting the Oireachtas. Back in 1972, when we joined the European Communities, this undemocratic practice may have seemed relatively harmless, but since then European Law has grown immensely in its breath and importance – just like the EU itself. The result is that a huge body of Irish law currently exists over which the Oireachtas has never given its imprimatur, and likely never will.

The Government will argue that the Oireachtas has no power to reject EU directives, but that is only half the truth. The principle of subsidiarity – which essentially means that action should be taken at national level, unless the EU has compelling reasons to act – has been ingrained in the treaties since the 1993. The Lisbon Treaty gave this principle teeth through the “yellow card system”, a procedure by which the European Commission’s decision to legislate on any particular matter can be challenged. National parliaments can submit a ‘reasoned opinion’ to the Commission within eight weeks of the proposal of the relevant legislation, outlining why it falls foul of the principle of subsidiarity.

If a third or more of national parliaments challenge the Commission thus, it must reconsider the proposal. If half or more parliaments challenge it, it must explain its proposal to the European Parliament and Council, and the power rests with these institutions to accept or reject.

The undemocratic principles behind our “success”

Last February, the European Commission praised Ireland for eliminating its directive transposition deficit, asking us to share our “good practices” with our fellow member states. Given the undemocratic principles behind our “success”, we must hope for the sake of our European partners, that they never replicate our practices.

Indeed, the meekness of the Oireachtas lies in sharp contrast to the Bundestag’s insistence on scrutinising all EU legislative actions. The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is not afraid to upbraid the German Government if it shirks in its duty. Rather than telling the Germans how to behave, we should be humbled by their adherence to the spirit of democracy.

The party whip system discourages debate

Sadly, the Oireachtas cannot challenge legislation it is not presented with. It is also clear that we cannot rely on the Dáil to solve our problems, not only because of its focus on local issues, point scoring and soundbites, but also because the party whip system discourages debate.

Equally, the committee system is another non-solution. The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs is an utterly toothless body – so much so that cabinet ministers are not even obliged to consult with it before meeting with the Council of Ministers. The amount of attention they get from the Government depends upon the priorities of the ministers involved. While both Dermot Ahern and Micheál Martin regularly briefed the committee before attending Council meetings, Eamon Gilmore has given it his time on only three occasions. It is now, for all intents and purposes, the sole preserve of the Junior Minister for European Affairs.

A reformed Seanad would ideally scrutinise EU legislation

In an ideal scenario, a reformed Seanad would scrutinise EU legislation as a matter of course. Elected by the public on a non-geographic basis, it would debate national issues in a mature and considered fashion, free from the parochialism of Dáil Éireann. Given that the EU’s democratic deficit is such a cause for serious concern, the Government’s decision to pursue Seanad abolition, without even raising the possibility of reform, can only be seen as dangerous and short sighted.

Of equal concern is the fact that the Constitutional Convention was blocked from considering this issue. We must ask ourselves whether this Government is completely certain that the case between abolition and retention is so clearly cut, or whether it desperately fears contradiction.

Regardless of its motives, there are clear dangers in what our Government is doing. By manipulating populist anger against politicians to boost its own support, it risks irreparably harming our already-fragile democracy. In the face of this grave threat, it is the duty of journalists and commentators to clearly inform the public of the true costs and benefits of abolishing the Seanad.

For if we do not demand reform, we will have no institution capable of protecting us from the mistakes of a priesthood of well-intentioned but unelected technocrats.

Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh is a political activist and a member of Trinity Ogra Fianna Fáil. He campaigns for Future Matters and blogs at TheReillyWriter.

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