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Column This not the time for a cynical power grab – the Seanad must be retained

In pushing for Seanad abolition, the government is trying to strip a layer of democracy designed to give fundamental protections to citizens, writes Niall Collins TD.

IRELAND IS GOING through one of the toughest tests it has ever experienced. The problems of job losses, debt, emigration and the visible scars of empty shops on the streets continue to dominate daily life for people. We have to question the institutions that let us down. At the very heart of those questions is the political system and the way we organise our politics in this country. The challenge of this crisis is to learn the lessons of the past decade and build a new way of doing politics that will deliver for ordinary citizens.

Disappointingly all we have seen from this government is the behaviour of two political parties that said they wanted change, but in reality all they wanted was their turn. Voting No in the upcoming referendum is a chance for citizens to say that they expect far better.

Abolishing the Seanad is the latest part of the government agenda of stunts masquerading as real reform. Behind the spin and heavily financed campaign gimmickry is the dark reality of a government that has concentrated power into the hands of a four-man economic council, undermined the role of the Dáil and is now seeking to remove the constitutional checks and balances provided by the Seanad. It simply is a crude power grab based on the most cynical sort of politics.

Stripping away a layer of democracy

The government wants to make over 40 amendments to the constitution, the fundamental protection for our citizens. It wants to strip a layer of democracy designed to keep a close eye on the workings of the government. Further hidden in these changes is the removal of Article 27, the right of the President to refer controversial bills directly to the people for a referendum if petitioned by a majority of the Seanad and not less than a third of the Dáil.

Like all fire escapes, just because it is not used does not mean it is not needed. Yet this additional check on government power is also being removed. The government justifies taking an axe to the constitution by claiming it will save €20 million but the independent Houses of the Oireachtas Commission that actually runs the Dáil and Seanad has completely rejected the assertion.

These changes and cynical campaigning comes on the back on a series of failings by the government to address the shortcomings of the political system. Instead of reform all we have witnessed is guillotined bills and legislation rammed through the Dáil.

The facts are striking:

  • The government is systematically breaking its Programme for Government pledge not to guillotine bills with 63 per cent of all legislation being guillotined to date.
  • It has failed to implement its Programme for Government commitment to allow for two weeks between Bill stages in 78 per cent of bills.
  • The Topical Issues debate is being completely undermined by the failure of relevant Ministers to turn up in over 40 per cent of cases.
  • The Friday sitting farce is mere window dressing to bolster sitting days without any real debate. Sitting days have expanded by 23 per cent not 50 per cent as promised.
  • The Taoiseach is 40 per cent less accountable to the Dáil in question time than his predecessors and even refuses to debate the issue of Seanad abolition on national television.

This is a power grab

The latest raft of changes do not mark a “New Politics”; they are simply tinkering around the edges without addressing the fundamental issue of the complete and utter control exercised by the government over the parliament. Ultimately, abolishing the Seanad is a matter of whether or not you trust Ministers like James Reilly, Phil Hogan and Alan Shatter with even more power and even less accountability. Based on their record to date, I don’t.

Those who have seen the Government operating at close quarters agree with this analysis. Lucinda Creighton was as minister on Enda Kenny’s team before she was kicked out of the party and her offices for voicing dissent.  She, alongside other former Fine Gael colleagues, have expressed very eloquently her deep opposition to this power grab.

The real matter at stake is whether or not this country will get the real reform it needs. Fianna Fáil has outlined comprehensive proposals for overhauling the entire political system across both the Dáil and Seanad. We believe the Seanad should be elected by all citizens and have a broadened representation of Irish life. It must be empowered to keep a close eye on both government and EU legislation which shapes all of our lives. The lessons from the crisis are that we need more dissenting voices, deeper scrutiny of decisions and greater government accountability not less.

This is the real reform Ireland needs to build a new way of doing things that is fit for purpose, not a cynical power grab that will mutilate the constitution.  Only a No vote on Friday will send out the message loud and clear that what people want is real and meaningful reform.

Niall Collins TD is the Director of Elections for Fianna Fail

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