GUEST COLUMNIST: We need a reformed Seanad to be an independent voice in Irish politics

Abolition is about a politics fearful of other ideas. Abolition would stymie the challenge to the dominance every Irish government has had over a directly elected Dáil and an indirectly-elected Seanad

THE democratic revolution promised in return for the largest government majority in the history of the State is subsiding in the campaign to abolish Seanad Éireann. Abolishing the Seanad is an out-sized counter-insurgency movement, not a revolution. It is attacking Ballymagash urban district council from inside the bouncy castle; Tea Party politics in a dirty mug.

Worlds apart, there is an eerie echo between how Syria is playing out ‘in’ Britain and the US and the campaign to abolish the Seanad. The common theme is the revival of effective parliamentary oversight, over government, in London and Washington. In Dublin, no such revival is in sight.

That matters for two reasons. Firstly, the limited effectiveness of the Seanad will be lost, if abolished. It’s far greater potential as a reformed body of directly-elected, questioning and independent voices, as advocated by Senators Fergal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, will be forfeited. That is a harm Ireland cannot afford.

Abolition is about a politics fearful of other ideas. Abolition would stymie the challenge to the dominance every Irish government has had over a directly-elected Dáil and an indirectly-elected Seanad. Neither the fear of new ideas nor the nobbling of other voices — a reformed Seanad could be another voice — is new in Irish politics. But it is very old hat to be recycled as revolutionary. Anyone who has been on a committee in a golf club can understand the carry-on.

Much has been made of the House of Commons vote, on Aug 29, that upended David Cameron’s plans to strike Syria. It may have been a shambles in a Tory whips office once famous for its muscularity, but it was more.

President Barack Obama’s speech last night, appealing to the American people for support on Syria, while hoping not to need it, is ample proof of that. He had, last Saturday week, historically signalled an end to the imperial American presidency ushered in by Woodrow Wilson a century ago, by deciding to “seek authorisation for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” before striking at Syria.

To his credit, Obama, the professor of law, has placed a greater store on the checks and balances of the American constitution than on the inherited raiment of the modern American president as warlord.

Russian diplomacy may negate the need, but before the head-counting in Congress becomes feverish, in advance of a vote in Washington, we should remember that there are issues, greater that Syria and far greater than either Cameron or Obama, at stake.

Two intertwined issues in British and, specifically, English politics, for 500 years, are sovereignty and where it lies. In the history written from hindsight, the English reformation was primarily about religion. In the contemporary politics of the 1530s, worked through with only limited foresight, it was about power. The papacy was the supra-national institution of the West after the fall of the Roman Empire. Resented, and sometimes resisted, by kings, it met in Henry VIII a king determined to take onto himself the appellate powers vested in a pope outside his kingdom and beyond his control.

The Act of Supremacy, in 1534, making Henry head of the Church, was less a doctrinal break with Catholicism than the assertion of untrammelled political power. Thenceforth, there would be no appeal above his head or beyond his shores.

The problem for English kings was that their enhanced sovereignty had been legitimated in parliament. Within 100 years of Henry’s constitutional coup, bitter dispute had arisen over whether the king was above the law or subject to it. The outcome of that dispute, first in civil war and King Charles I’s execution in one generation, and the dethronement of his son, James II, in the next, was resolved militarily at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The political resolution was slower and more subtle. The person of the king was slowly separated from the actuality of his government. ‘The crown’ as a governmental institution, separate from the person of the king, exercised the ‘sovereignty’ once inseparable from the person of the sovereign. The king’s government exercised the king’s powers.

British and Irish governments shared a common constitutional genealogy until the adoption of Bunreacht na hÉireann, in 1937, which has given us the longest period of continuity under a written constitution of any European country, and strengthened the position of the citizen in relation to the State.

It did nothing, however, to strengthen the position of parliament in relation to government. The Irish government was no longer his majesty’s government, but, culturally, it replicated the exercise of royal prerogative, with only passing reference to a feeble legislature. Irish government owes more to the pretensions of the monarchy it supplanted than to the republic it established.

In Britain and America, the 20th century, dominated by great economic and military mobilisations for war, saw an insuperable ascent of the executive over the legislature, in essence of ‘king’ over parliament. Ministers, once the creatures of kings, became little kings themselves.

George W Bush was the furthest expression of this tendency. He articulated a doctrine of exception. In declaring an exceptional situation after 9/11, and governing as if beyond the restraints of the normal, he oversaw the rendition of people without charge or trial, the establishment of Guantanamo Bay, and the torture of people, via waterboarding.

The vote in the House of Commons, and the anticipated vote in the American Congress, are hugely significant shifts in power. They potentially establish, in the 21st century, a new normal. The 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, believed that the need to impose order justified the ruler being exceptional and above the law. Anarchy was to be feared above all. Charles I believed that. The neo-conservatives around George Bush and Dick Cheney believed it, too. To Barack Obama’s credit, he sees himself as president of a great democracy first, and a commander-in-chief second.

The scale of these issues in the sweep of history may make our Seanad seem comical. But whatever our concerns, in this generation or the next, the quality of the outcome will depend on the soundness of our institutions.

Kings were not accountable to parliament. They would not countenance any higher appeal. Little kings masquerading as ministers are little different. The local chieftains in the Irish multi-seat parliamentary system are Charles I and Dick Cheney in leprechaun costumes.

The campaign to close the Seanad, to foreclose debate and to continually define political success as the capacity to domineer rather than persuade, is a long continuum of Irish thought. It was supposed to be different here after the democratic revolution. It is in Westminster and on Capitol Hill.

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