In Jul 1979, a referendum opening up the third-level graduate franchise for elections to Seanad Éireann was overwhelmingly passed by the Irish people.
Over 33 years later, that decision has never been legislated for. By ignoring this will of the people, governments of all hues since then have been guilty of treating the people not only with disrespect but with disdain and contempt.
That referendum is symptomatic of the problem with the Seanad as currently constituted.
Very few citizens really care about it because they don’t have a vote in it. Could one imagine a situation where the divorce referendum for instance, or any of the European treaty referendums, was never legislated for? For the Seanad the result has been its continued emasculation by government. It’s time not simply to open up the Seanad but to set it free and let it be a proper second house.
The Government’s proposal to abolish the Seanad is being presented as the centrepiece of their political reform endeavours. It is nothing of the sort. The abolition of the Seanad is not reform. Rather it is a cull to a vital aspect of our constitutional democracy.
But it is an arm of our democracy that is not working to its full potential. There is a crisis of legitimacy in the Seanad that can be swiftly resolved by extending the franchise to all the citizens of the State and our emigrants. That would be one way of showing that the State cherishes all its citizens equally.
As we face into the coming years of centenary anniversaries of the founding of this State, let us honour those who secured both its founding and its stability by opening up democracy, not closing it.
Let us have real reform not the chimera of parliamentary reform that the Government is promising through this attempt to abolish the Seanad.
Saving the Seanad through rejecting the referendum is the real voice for change. It is the voice to reform the Seanad, to make it a proper second house of government. To make it a house which is directly elected by all Ireland’s citizens. To make it a chamber which can reflect on Ireland’s values. To make it a chamber which can both consider, amend, and drive legislation.
Abolishing the Seanad will be the most dramatic and far reaching change to our parliamentary democracy since the foundation of the State.
If the people vote to get rid of it, no less than 75 amendments to the Constitution will then be required. And yet the other main plank of the Government’s reform agenda, the Constitutional Convention, will not even discuss whether abolishing the Seanad is a good idea.
While the convention discuss worthy initiatives such as lowering the voting age, same sex marriage, and amending the electoral system, the fact that it won’t discuss Seanad reform on the rather curious grounds that it should not get involved in current political debate, is the case of Hamlet without the Prince. Constitutions are not to be fooled around it.
They are in essence guiding compasses for democracies.
The Government is doing Irish democracy a disservice by putting this referendum to the people. It seems to be of the view that the only alternatives are abolish the Seanad or let it remain the same inert institution it has been since its establishment.
This is not the case. Democracy Matters, a non-partisan group of which I am part of, is not about saving the old Seanad. Rather it supports the general thrust of the recent bill put forward by Senators Feargal Quinn and Katharine Zappone.
A new Seanad which would not need any constitutional reform at all, which would entail all the citizens of Ireland having a voice, would properly reflect Ireland’s gender make up, would give emigrants a voice, and would provide a much- needed check on the Dáil.
All this is possible. All it takes is political will. Real political will. Not the easy sound bite of ‘abolish the Seanad’. And anyone who thinks significant Dáil reform will follow the abolition of the Seanad should not hold their breath too long.
By defeating this misguided referendum, Irish people will be sending a signal that they want real political reform. That they want a parliament that will fix the broken system of Government that caused the economic crisis and has brought so much misery to our people.
In that context, let our Constitution be the guiding compass for our constitutional democracy as we head towards our second century of self government.
* Prof Gary Murphy is head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and is the independent chair of Democracy Matters, a non-political organisation interested in retaining and reforming Seanad Éireann.
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