Seanad recall - Yet another argument for reform

The Seanad was a bit like one of Mozart’s great operas yesterday, one where pantomime is used to shield us from the darkest inevitabilities facing humanity.

Seanad recall - Yet another argument for reform

The summer demand performance epitomised so much of what is tragic and dysfunctional about our political life.

The members of the Upper House, at least the 45 who turned up, were summoned from their August idyll to consider an EU directive on organ donation which, without any parliamentary scrutiny, was to be enacted without anything more comforting than the endorsement of Health Minister James Reilly. This was only the third such recall in over 30 years.

That it afforded the two senators recently marooned by Fine Gael — Fidelma Healy-Eames and Paul Bradford — an opportunity to poke a stick in Enda Kenny’s eye by voting against the Government just strengthened the sense we were watching a summer camp melee.

Leave aside the specific issue for a moment and consider that this is the first time anyone has been moved to recall the Seanad in recent times despite myriad issues at least as important as the one decided by the casting vote of Cathaoirleach Paddy Burke yesterday.

Consider, too, that a minister is able to transform an EU directive into legislation binding on every one of us without referring it to our parliament. Not quiet una duce, una voce, but certainly one man, one decree.

This seems an onerous burden to place on any individual in what is supposed to be a democracy. It also seems to make irrelevant, to utterly sideline, the other 225 members of our Oireachtas who, even at this moment of real disenchantment with politics, must have a role in assessing legislation before it is given the full authority of law.

It is possible, of course, that a great majority of Dáil or Seanad members are already resigned to being marginalised mannequins nodding like toy dogs in back window of the careering car of state as it plunges ahead without their bye or leave. This affliction affects even some cabinet members as the discussion about the concentration of real power in the four-man Economic Management Council regularly highlights.

Whether or not the episode strengthens the case for the Seanad’s closure or retention is subjective, but it does shine a light on yet a questionable Dáil practice.

It also highlights the argument that will be used, with considerable justification, against Government figures who are bound by a Taoiseach-led policy decision to campaign for the abolishment of the Upper House. Why should an unreformed Seanad be abolished on foot of a campaign led from the Dáil, an entity that has steadfastly ignored the ageless and wise advice — “physician, heal thyself”.

In Mar 2011 the newly established Coalition promised a “democratic revolution” to facilitate the transfer of power from central government to parliament. Yesterday’s Seanad excitements, and the independence afforded to a single minister that provoked them, suggest that little has changed. What a tragedy it would be if the Government’s unprecedented mandate for reform was squandered or worse, exercised in the most piecemeal, token way. Mr Kenny needs to move urgently to convince the country that it has not been sidelined like so many of the Dáil’s backbenchers.

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