Seanad referendum - Taoiseach’s arrogant power grab

It is outrageous that, as people up and down the country prepare to cast their votes in tomorrow’s referenda on abolishing the Seanad and establishing a court of appeal, the electorate is in the dark on why Taoiseach Enda Kenny wants to get rid of the Upper House.

Amid claim and counter-claim, campaigners for its retention accuse Fine Gael of a naked power grab. The Government says it is saving money by ridding Irish politics of elite senators elected on an undemocratic ticket, but opponents claim the estimate of €20m is shot through with inaccuracies.

Of major concern is the lack of public insight as to why Mr Kenny wants to axe Seanad Éireann. By refusing to debate the issue, he is adopting a time-worn custom of mushroom cultivation — keep voters in the dark and cover them liberally with manure.

The electorate cannot be blamed for this blatant information void. The fault lies at the Taoiseach’s door. His refusal to take part in a television debate is a barefaced denial of democracy.

As coalition leader, he is entitled to ask citizens to scrap the Seanad, something the latest opinion polls predict they will now do. But originally, his preference was for its reform, a concept suddenly dropped in a solo run to shut it down, with no allowance for reform. If that proposition were to fall tomorrow, it would be a highly embarrassing own goal.

It has long been the policy of this newspaper not to favour either side of the argument in an election or referendum campaign. However, as witnessed daily in states where dictatorships flourish, democracy is the most fragile of flowers. Clearly, that puts an onus on us all to go out and vote on both questions tomorrow.

With the campaign coming to a close, it is important to analyse the Taoiseach’s inexplicable refusal to engage in open debate under the public gaze. His road to Damascus conversion on the fate of the Seanad has never been satisfactorily explained, prompting critics to ask if it was his own or somebody else’s idea, hinting that he could not defend it. Whatever the explanation, his refusal to engage in a television debate is unacceptable. Having made so dramatic a U-turn, no taoiseach should refuse point blank to justify his action in the arena of public debate. Nor is he entitled to dodge repeated calls for an explanation of his reasoning in a forum where his ideas could be challenged and subjected to the acid test of informed and robust discussion.

Given his stated conviction of the need for much greater transparency and accountability in politics, especially in a state where these qualities have been sadly lacking, logic demands an explanation for his move to make such a historic change to the Constitution. By snubbing the public, he reflects all the arrogance of a government which, after less than three years in power, is already becoming as autocratic as its predecessor, the discredited Fianna Fáil regime. In contrast, the Soldiers of Destiny lost the run of themselves having been kept in power for nearly two decades by a blind electorate.

The end result was an arrogance in the use of power as self-important ministers refused to heed advice or explain their actions. With Mr Kenny seemingly embarking on a similar path, the parallels between the attitude of the current administration and its predecessor are increasingly alarming.

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