Government must provide real reform

When the Taoiseach moved the 32nd Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013 on Friday, Jun 14, he stated that “we are in favour of abolition because the Seanad has not worked and cannot work”.

Government must provide real reform

He used the 10 reports on Seanad reform since the foundation of the house in 1938 as proof of how the Seanad could not be reformed and thus there was only one choice: Abolish it or leave it as it is.

Well, the people have spoken and they have given the Taoiseach a complex answer. They don’t want the Seanad abolished and theycertainly don’t want to keep it as it is. They clearly want reform.

Not one advocate on the no side of the debate, whether politically in the form of Fianna Fáil or the Greens, or non-politically in the case of Democracy Matters and Lawyers for Seanad Reform, argued for a retention of the Seanad in its current form.

To be fair to the Taoiseach, he did say in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of his own initiative that he would now reflect on the decision and consider the next step in what to do to the Seanad.

This Government considers itself a reforming one and its record is not inconsiderable. Initiatives on the Freedom of Information Act, banning corporate donations in politics and regulating lobbying have the potential to greatly strengthen our democracy. But it has not stepped up to the plate on political reform and how the Government and our parliament does its business.

The proposals on Dáil reform announced by the Government at the beginning of the campaign had all the appearances of being done on the hoof; a patch-up job to assure citizens that some political reform was happening. The people, however, were not fooled by the Government’s main proposal that an extra stage of debate consisting of parliamentarians from the same house was sufficient to ensure thorough oversight of legislation.

With its defeat in the Seanad referendum, the Government now has a great opportunity to fundamentally reform the way politics in this country operates. There is now no reason for this Government to wait in relation to Seanad reform.

At the beginning of the campaign Mr Kenny said supporters of Seanad retention were deeply divided about what kind of reformed Seanad they want. “Some want it to be an elected second Dáil; others a house of experts; yet others some form of citizens assembly,” he said.

The reality is that there is little disagreement among proponents of Seanad reform. Nobody wants a replica of the Dáil. A revised Seanad can be both a house of experts and a citizens assembly. After all, TDs and Senators are citizens. That’s exactly who fills the Houses of the Oireachtas. By remaining true to the vocationalism envisaged by the 1937 Constitution, there is every possibility that a revised Seanad can indeed be populated by experts or at the least by citizens with a specific interest in particular fields.

There is no question but that the Seanad, as it currently, exists is elitist. But all it would take is political will to resolve the elitist way in which the Seanad is elected and thus constituted. 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, those in the North who hold Irish passports, and our emigrants. That would be one way of showing that the Irish State cherishes all its citizens equally. It can also be done without recourse to referendum. All it needs is political will to enact legislation before the next Seanad election to ensure all Irish citizens have a say in their second house.

The bills drafted by Feargal Quinn and Katharine Zappone, John Crown, and the report on Seanad reform chaired by Mary O’Rourke in 2004, shamefully ignored by the political elite at the time and ever since, all advocating universal suffrage, would be good places to start.

When Democracy Matters began its campaign for a revised Seanad, I wrote in this newspaper that, by defeating this misguided referendum, Irish people will send a signal that they want real political reform, that they want a parliament that will fix the broken system of government. Well, the people have now made their voice heard. It is incumbent on the Government to act. But the Seanad can also act. It should immediately change its standing orders, allowing it to work longer and harder. After all, that is what the whole country is doing.

The decision by the people to reject the abolition of the Seanad is the clearest signal yet that the Irish citizenry remain of the view that democracy works and that politicians can make a difference. It is now time for the Government to act on that decision.

*Prof Gary Murphy is head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and the independent chair of Democracy Matters, the non-political organisation which campaigned for a no vote in the Seanad referendum.

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