Seanad’s storied past ignored by Taoiseach

THE Taoiseach has given us his main reason for abolishing the Seanad — we have too many politicians.

This is populist nonsense, because Ireland has far fewer elected politicians per head of population compared to other countries when you take into account local as well as national politicians.

Finland, which Enda Kenny gave as an example to back up his assertion, has a similar population to Ireland at just over 5m and currently has five times the number of elected politicians that we have.

If the Government succeeds in its proposal to abolish the Seanad — having also cut the number of TDs and abolished town councils — it will then have an eighth of the number of elected politicians that Finland has.

However, Mr Kenny conceded in his recent speech in the Dáil on the Seanad bill that “no parliament would abolish a house of parliament simply to reduce the number of politicians”, adding that he was in favour of abolition because the Seanad “has not worked”.

He made no back-up to this assertion; there was no in-depth analysis. Unlike other proponents of abolition, such as Labour’s Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, Mr Kenny offered no analysis as to the benefits or otherwise of bicameralism versus unicameralism.

Mr Kenny does not appear to have any grasp of the purpose of the Seanad in our democracy and has been very flippant in the way he has spoken about it.

I believe the Taoiseach’s lack of grasp as to the purpose of the Seanad and his proposal to abolish it is because he’s caught up in a presidential style of leadership of his party and the country — a style that is destroying our parliament in terms of its accountability.

The media laps up this presentation of politics to the detriment of all the other members of the Oireachtas and the Seanad. I am not suggesting that Mr Kenny invented this style of leadership — politics has been moving in this direction for years.

Parliamentary elections are run as if the country was electing party leaders as presidents. Coverage of the Oireachtas by the media centres around leaders’ questions. Party policy is ultimately determined by party advisers.

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, was the model for this kind of leadership. He was studied by Irish spin doctors and, even though he is long gone and his legacy questioned, the model is predominant in our political system.

I believe this is why Mr Kenny does not rate the main purpose of the Seanad: Namely to slow down the passage of legislation and ensure the more controversial aspects of legislation have time to come into the public domain.

Every piece of legislation in the Oireachtas must go through a process of second to fifth stages in both houses. The mere existence of the Seanad is a deterrent to governments wishing to introduce draconian legislation. It acts as a deterrent against the Government overstepping the mark and giving too many powers to the State.

The other purpose of the Seanad is to improve legislation and allow time to spot flaws. Legislation has also been introduced by senators over the years.

In 1973 Mary Robinson introduced the first bill to make contraceptives available, a brave move at the time. She got a lot of abuse and flak, including hate mail, for this.

Mary Henry is another example. Her private members’ bill in respect of child sex tourism was incorporated into the Sexual Offences (Jurisdiction) Act 1996.

Many amendments made by senators to legislation introduced by governments have been accepted over the years. Many bills and debates initiated by senators have related to human rights. The Taoiseach does not seem to grasp that the nitty-gritty of working through legislation is what actually matters, not merely making soundbites or positioning oneself.

It might not be glamorous, but many senators have been effective in their role, ensuring, through amendments and debated, that legislation has been improved.

Bills have been rejected in the Seanad, too. As late as 2001, a bill on the publication of opinion polls was ended in the Seanad.

In 1959, a bill to put a referendum to the people to abolish proportional representation through the single transferable vote, or PR-STV, and bring in single-seat, first-past-the-post constituencies, was rejected by the Seanad.

Its initial delay by the Seanad contributed to the public being allowed more time to examine its implications, and eventually reject it. We can thank the Seanad to this day that we did not adopt a less democratic electoral system.

The Seanad has contributed to the peace process through legislation and debate. Gordon Wilson made a key speech in the Seanad about inviting the IRA to talk to him in the aftermath of three deaths that had just taken place in the Northern conflict.

We take for granted our democracy and our institutions at our peril. This matter should not be the subject of an after-dinner speech by a Taoiseach who needed a headline to grab in the run-up to a monthly opinion poll by a newspaper.

It is much more important than that. We have a stable democracy. We have never had a fascist party come to power. We have had a peace process to which many people in both houses of the Oireachtas have contributed. It is important that we remember this.

Mr Kenny has made brave decisions throughout his career, as do most politicians. However, brave men and women have served in the Seanad over the years, as well as in the Dáil.

When the Senate was first established, as part of the Free State, it helped to bring the State out of the Civil War. People put their lives at risk to do that. I hope it is to their spirit the electorate will look when voting in the referendum and not to the soundbites and the flippant way in which the abolition of the Seanad has been proposed by Mr Kenny.

* Joanna Tuffy is a Labour TD for Dublin Mid West

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