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Richard Bruton: Scrap the political creche and convalescent home that is the Seanad

Fine Gael’s Director of Elections for the Seanad Referendum on why he believes “undemocratic institution” has no place in modern Ireland.

Richard Bruton

NEXT FRIDAY, THE Irish electorate will be faced with a very simple question; do you want to abolish the Seanad, yes or no?

A Yes vote will not only save €20 million a year and reduce the number of national politicians, it will represent the biggest shake-up of the Irish political system since the foundation of the State. Every other section of Irish society has been forced to undergo massive change in the last number of years; it is only right that politics changes too.

People on both sides of the debate agree that the Seanad is an undemocratic institution. Just 1 per cent of the population elected the current Seanad. The vast majority of senators are chosen by politicians, meaning the second house has always been dominated and manipulated by the main political parties.

“Deeply elitist election”

A minority of graduates elect just six senators, while the Taoiseach of the day gets to nominate 11 senators of his choosing. By any measure this is deeply elitist way of electing a chamber of national parliament.

It is facts like these that lead those opposing the Referendum to resort to that catch-all solution; ‘reform’. Reform the Seanad, they say, as if this is a new concept.

There are a number of significant problems posed by the suggestion of Seanad reform.

First of all, there is no reform option on the ballot paper. Furthermore, there’s no agreement among the No side, on what reform means. In the last 75 years, ten reports have been published on reforming the Seanad. None has been implemented. Of these, eight reports were published under Fianna Fáil governments, yet the party never found enough time during its decades in power to actually act on any of them.

“Mish-mash of reform plans”

The latest mish-mash of reform plans including varying proposals from the Greens, Fianna Fáil (the party which has embarked on a newl- rekindled love affair with the Seanad), John Crown, the senator who missed half of all votes in the second house in the last year, and a joint proposal from Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, which would safeguard the undemocratic nature of the Seanad. In my view, they are all missing the point. They are looking for a purpose for a second chamber of parliament that a country of our size simply does not need.

Ireland is almost alone in terms of political representation when compared to other small developed countries. Why? Because we have two chambers of parliament. There are six countries in Europe with populations of between 4 and 6 million. Ireland is the only one to have a second chamber of parliament. And, as a result, we have a third more national politicians than the average. Abolishing the Seanad and the planned reduction in the number of TDs by 8 will address this imbalance and bring us into line with European norms.

“Power grab?”

Perhaps the least credible argument being put forward by those trying to keep the Seanad is that abolition is a power grab by the Government. This just doesn’t stand up, because the Seanad has no power to grab. The Seanad cannot overturn legislation, it can only delay it. And the last time it actually did so was in 1964.

Consider also the fact that in the last week, a number of independent TDs, including former Labour Party members, have joined Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party in calling for a Yes vote. It is really credible to suggest that this group of politicians – arguably the Government’s harshest critics – would agree to something that would give us more power?

In tandem with the referendum on the future of the Seanad, the Government is presenting a series of measures to reform our national parliament to make it more transparent and accountable. This includes radically overhauling the committee system to make it more independent, and changes in the way draft laws are considered, to allow for closer scrutiny of key legislation. This builds on steps already taken steps to increase female representation in the Dáil, cut the overall number of TDs, eliminate corporate donations and make lobbying more transparent.

“A luxury we don’t need”

Other important changes have been made to increase the powers of the Ombudsman, strengthen the Freedom of Information system and new legislation that will give inquiry powers to the Dáil. This will result in far greater oversight than a costly second chamber with little real power.

The Seanad is a luxury we don’t need and can’t afford. Reforming it is neither required nor realistic. I believe we need fewer politicians and more effective parliament. If you agree that it’s time we finally scrapped the political crèche and convalescent home that is the Seanad, saving €20 million a year in the process, then I urge you to vote Yes on 4 October.

Richard Bruton is Fine Gael’s Director of Elections and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

Declan Ganley: “Fewer politicians” is not an argument for getting rid of the Seanad>

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