Seanad reform - Democratic deficit damns upper house

The campaign in relation to the proposed abolition of the Seanad got underway in earnest yesterday, with the launching of the One House group calling on the electorate to ratify the 32nd amendment of the Constitution on Oct 4.

Chaired by Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Committee, the group includesformer ministers Alan Dukes of Fine Gael and Barry Desmond of the Labour Party.

While the rival group advocating the retention of the Seanad calls itself Democracy Now, Mr Mulvey called for the Seanad’s abolition in the interest of democracy, because it is elected by just over 1,000 politicians, and some 50,000 university graduates who have a vote in the election of the senators from the universities.

This is clearly not a case of universal suffrage or even one person, one vote. Some of the elite electorate have five votes and others have six votes, while the overwhelming majority of the Irish people — some 97% — have no vote at all.

Opinion polls on the issue seem to foreshadow an extremely tight contest. While less than 10% of the electorate wish to retain the Seanad in its current form, about a third of the people would like to see the Seanad reformed, and almost 40% have called for its abolition.

The referendum is likely to have serious political implications. There should be no suspicion that the No campaign is merely being used as a device to embarrass the Government.

Those who argue that the Seanad plays a significant oversight role in examining legislation should explain how members of the Seanad — while fighting for their very existence — failed to notice that the Personal Insolvency Arrangements being introduced next week actually extend over 20 years, not just the six-year period that was being highlighted.

Some people will undoubtedly question Fianna Fáil’s motives in calling for reform of the Seanad. It was a Fianna Fáil government that abolished the first Senate in 1936 and introduced the Seanad in its current form in 1938.

Over the weekend, Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, called for reform of the Seanad rather than abolition. Fianna Fáil was in power for more than 50 of the 75 years of the Seanad’s existence, but it made no significant effort to reform the House, despite the publication of 10 different reports recommending change. Hence, Mr Martin is going to have to be much more forthcoming with the kind of reforms he envisages if people are to take him seriously.

Of course, Fine Gael and Labour should also outline the kind of reforms that they propose to introduce to bring about much-needed Dáil reform, and the Government parties should be more specific about the amount of money that would be saved by abolishing the Seanad.

Government representatives say €20m would be saved, while opponents claim that the savings would be closer to €8m, which constitutes the salaries of senators and their staff. Surely, in these stringent times, nobody is suggesting than even an €8m saving would be insignificant.

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