The Government has decided to hold three referendums before Christmas.
Two focus on housekeeping — reform of patent laws and changes to the courts system. The third element will deliver on an election promise to offer the electorate an opportunity to support or abolish the Seanad.
The upper house, in its present form, does not deserve the support such a pivotal institution in our democracy demands. It has reached this sorry point by ignoring report after report on how it might be made relevant. By resisting the changes that would have made it more valued in our democracy it may have signed its own death warrant. Its abolition, however, would seem reckless, especially as it would be impossible to re-establish a second tier, a system of checks and balances, in our system if we dispose of the one we have today.
That this opportunity is being facilitated by an institution — the Dáil — with a very poor record of reform should give those who would axe the upper house considerable pause for thought. That the Dáil has become little more than a rubber stamp for Government policies should add to that caution. That power in the Dáil seems to be ever more concentrated should deepen the caution further. This caution, or frustration if you prefer, has been voiced by cabinet members excluded from the all-powerful four-man economic planning committee. These moves should be considered too in the light of plans to slim down local government.
In many ways the Seanad is a microcosm of conservative Irish institutions. For too long it basked in the privilege and self-imagined grandeur its hubris encouraged. Eventually, when the outside world intruded, it was found unequal to the task of sustaining a viable relationship. It is not representative of modern Ireland and, like many of those other stuffy institutions, it may pay the ultimate price.
That, however, would not be the best conclusion. The Seanad should be radically reformed, not closed. Everyone entitled to vote in a Dáil election should be entitled to vote in Seanad elections as the criteria defining the Seanad electorate is an anachronism.
The Seanad referendum should not offer just two options — the issues are far too important for that black-or-white simplicity. It should offer three choices — close it, keep it or reform it. If the reform mandate was realised, and it is hard to think it would not, then that should automatically trigger another vote in, say, two years to pass judgement on how reforms have been implemented. If at that point the Seanad has not remade itself sufficiently to justify its existence then we will have to contemplate another blow to our democracy and another disheartening failure in public affairs.
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