Evolving democracy - Seanad vote is important to everyone

Democracy and antibiotics may not seem likely bedfellows but, as concepts, they have a lot in common.

When they work they are wonderful and we need not fret unduly about the mechanics of how they achieve so much but rather bask in the security and health they confer and protect.

It is, however, an entirely different story when they do not function as we have come, in an entirely blasé, almost careless way, to expect. Social chaos — as in Syria today and possibly Turkey tomorrow — follows.

Health experts have warned for years that we are undermining the effectiveness of antibiotics by using them too liberally and by consuming, inadvertently, so many by eating meat already treated with the drugs. They have warned that flagrant overuse may turn the clock back to a grim time when diseases like TB, which are now manageable, may again become life-threatening. Historians may wonder at how we misused one of science’s great gifts but for those interested in how democracy evolves in a changing world they don’t have to wait for history’s judgement.

Speaking at Zagreb University yesterday President Michael D Higgins, in another of his welcome, refreshing, and challenging speeches, warned that some of the consequences of our economic crisis are undermining democracy across the EU.

Offering an analysis that points to the dangerous situation where market forces and even private rating agencies can be more influential in hugely important national decisions than parliaments, he highlighted a situation that has been festering for some time.

It seems that very few nation states, certainly not the smaller ones, are in a position to withstand the demands of international finance even if they enjoy the protection of a coalition of smaller states. This unhealthy and undemocratic situation demands an urgent and determined response if the spirit and core principles of democracy are to have any real meaning.

At home the Government has launched its campaign to eradicate the Seanad from the political landscape. Already this take-it-or-leave-it option has provoked strong opposition, some of it from within Government ranks despite Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s demand that both coalition parties throw their full support behind the October referendum on the amendment to abolish the Seanad. His remarks were seen a direct challenge to Labour chief whip Emmett Stagg who is not the only party figure to oppose the proposal.

This proposal has a certain populist appeal and is validated by the stasis that has gripped the Seanad for decades. Had its guardians reformed it and been more enthusiastic champions of political evolution and relevance, then its supporters might not face this day of reckoning. Nevertheless the idea of amputating a limb of our democracy, even if counterbalancing measures are proposed for the Dáil, seems a defeat for the idea of enrichment, reform, and possibility.

We must use the coming months to weigh the issues because, like antibiotics, we need our democracy to be as effective as it can be. We have until October to decide if the Seanad has a part to play in that process.

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