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Thursday 30 March 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Column Seanad abolition would see group-think prevail in our political system
Seanad abolition would exacerbate the problems of the state since the banking collapse in 2008 at a time when proper scrutiny, fresh ideas, and the potential for true political reform are most needed, writes Sean Barrett.

SEANAD EIREANN CURRENTLY faces an existential crisis. For most of its history it has been troubled by its role within the state. Previous public opinion seemed to vary from complete indifference to a belief that the Seanad is an elitist, old-fashioned talking shop.

Recent polls, however, have shown a positive increase in the numbers who wish to hold on to the second chamber. Has the Seanad’s time past? I would argue that the Seanad is all the more relevant and important as we face the challenges of exiting the Troika bailout.

Seanad abolition would exacerbate the problems of the state since the banking collapse in 2008 at a time when proper scrutiny, fresh ideas, and the potential for true political reform are most needed.

Group-think prevails in the upper echelons of the political system

There has developed what I believe to be a deeply unhealthy belief in the Irish political establishment that all wisdom is held by the Economic Management Council (EMC) and in particular by the Taoiseach and his department. This has allowed group-think to prevail within the upper echelons of the political system. Government and representative democracy requires scrutiny and debate.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, outlined this theory in Federalist Paper 10 as preventing “tyranny of the majority” a problem that he foresaw as potentially destructive to any government and that constitutionally needed to be addressed.

Our Seanad is designed to provide alternative voices and viewpoints, with an opportunity to give those with backgrounds in medicine, the arts, economics, and business not to mention those from Northern Ireland an opportunity to participate directly in the Oireachtas.

The majority may not always agree with those views and government may find them inconvenient but it is important that they have an airing within the corridors of power. The expanding role has seen the Chairman become Chief and that too has stymied the attempts by the Seanad to reform itself, that though the Seanad has proposed responses to the changing world but the executive responded with a resounding Níl!

A real debate

The frustration within the government and media at the recall of the Seanad a few weeks ago to debate an EU directive on the quality and safety of human organs intended for transplantation, highlighted the problems of a system where the desires of the Chief outweigh the willingness of parliament to have a real debate on the issues. Two of my Seanad colleagues faced sanctions for voting against the government during the recall but there is no reason why parliamentarians should be sanctioned for voting with their conscience or their intellect.

The Seanad is part of a parliamentary tradition, a tradition that has been and continues to be trodden upon by an all-encompassing whip system integrated with an executive that culminates in one person.

Parliament is important. Parliament provides voices for the majority, the minority and all in between. Parliament enables the business of government to happen. Parliament acts as a bridge between the civil and the people. Parliament enables accountability. This country needs checks and balances and fresh ideas in order to recover and regain its economic sovereignty.

Destroying the Seanad doesn’t help this process, nor does blind allegiance to the Economic Management Council. Ireland’s future requires an active and functional parliament. Keeping the Seanad will retain an important part of our democracy, and if we are serious about government reform and not just press releases we will need more parliamentary accountability not less.

That is why I know we need Seanad Éireann today and in the future.

Sean Barrett is an independent senator.

Senator Sean Barrett
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