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Column Politics in Ireland is eating itself

The Government has been burned twice in apparently straightforward attempts to reform the political system due to a misguided, blanket rejection of all politicians by the public, writes Colm Ó Broin.

FOR THE SECOND time in the short lifetime of the present government the people have rejected a seemingly nailed-on attempt at changing how the Oireachtas operates.

Popular votes to keep the Seanad and to prevent the Oireachtas from holding proper inquiries show the anti-politics mood in the country is eating itself.

Let us be clear on one point – whether the Seanad exists or not has no real impact on life in Ireland.

The actual purpose of the Seanad is twofold – to give a national platform to up-and-coming members of the political parties and to keep former TDs in the public spotlight as they plan their return to the Dáil. Ninety-seven per cent of the public can’t even vote in Seanad elections. It is the epitome of cynical party-politics in Ireland.

Following the economic collapse there has been much debate about the need for political reform to ensure that the disaster is not repeated and a desire that that political class share some of the pain of the austerity being inflicted on the country. Fine Gael responded to this pressure in part by proposing the abolition of the Seanad, despite the fact that it and the other parties have benefited from its existence.

Pandering to anti-political sentiments

Fine Gael even tried to pander to general anti-politics feeling by arguing that scrapping the Seanad would lead to fewer politicians – which was presented as good thing in of itself.

Opinion polls showed that the public apparently agreed – but last Friday’s shock vote proved otherwise.

It seems that a substantial part of the No vote was based on unhappiness with the present government and discontent with politics in general. This led to people expressing their anger at politicians and the political system by voting to retain a powerless, undemocratic, talking-shop for aspiring and failed politicians.

Concerns about the abolition of the Seanad being a ‘power grab’ by the Dáil seem odd too, seeing as the Seanad has no real power to begin with.

Many people also voted No in the belief that it might lead to some unspecified reform of the Seanad. Another referendum will be needed to democratise the institution and to give it the power to oversee the Dáil – but chances of the government doing that are close to zero.

They have already been burned twice with apparently straight-forward attempts to reform the political system; Friday’s vote and the referendum in 2011 to give Oireachtas committees the power to compel people to appear before them, a reform that was designed to give a Dáil inquiry into the bank and the economic collapse real teeth.

We may see some cosmetic changes

Any future proposals for major reform of the Seanad will generate controversy and opposition. The only reason Fine Gael and Labour held a vote to abolish the institution was the belief that it would be popular with a public clamouring for reform of the political system. They may well be asking themselves now why they should bother holding another referendum on the subject, with all the implications that would have for their parties’ finite resources, and the strong risk of a third defeat.

We may see some cosmetic changes to the Seanad, but proposals for real reform are likely to end up in the same filing cabinet as plans to build a tunnel under the Irish Sea or to drain the Shannon.

Blanket denunciation of politics and all politicians is a cop-out and a dead-end. It has given us a situation where people who are anti-politics voted against a plan to cut the number of politicians simply because it was proposed by politicians, as well as the rejection of a measure that would have allowed the Dáil to inquire into the economic disaster that has led to such fury among the public with politicians.

Of course given the mood in the country, if Enda Kenny did want to get a referendum on Seanad reform passed his best bet might be to propose the amendment and then to vigorously campaign against it.

Colm Ó Broin is a freelance journalist. He blogs at Middle Class Dub.

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