Lincoln never shirked a debate — Taoiseach should follow his example

I was driving into town early this morning, and I saw the Fine Gael posters calling on us to abolish the Seanad.

Lincoln never shirked a debate — Taoiseach should follow his example

I’m sure they’ve been there for a while — they certainly seemed to have got a bit of a battering in the winds of the weekend. I probably wouldn’t have noticed them at all if my daughter hadn’t remarked about how weird they were.

They made me think of Abraham Lincoln. No, not because they were inspiring or touching or memorable, but because they are so cheap and nasty and awful. I don’t know what those posters are designed to achieve, but as someone who believes the Seanad has no future and no point, those Fine Gael posters would almost make me want to change my mind and vote against abolition.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean about Abraham Lincoln. No politician in history ever had a greater capacity to inspire, often with a single phrase, than he did. Those who have studied his life, or even just went to see the movie, have often puzzled at the apparent contradictions in the man. He was clumsy and awkward. He seemed at times to be incapable of any wisdom except the banal clichés of his childhood. He frequently exasperated his friends and was usually under-estimated by his enemies.

But when he rose to speak, especially on great and momentous occasions, his words had such resonance that they frequently, and effortlessly, passed into history. You couldn’t listen to Lincoln without knowing you were in the presence of a man of values. He never sought to impose his values on others, but he never backed away from a fight when his values were challenged.

When he made his first inaugural address, the American Civil War was imminent. The South had already elected its own President and its army was ready for battle. It was Lincoln’s task, in that speech, to set out the reasons why the Union must survive, and why secession had to be confronted. And he did that, cogently and forcefully. But he also argued passionately about how great America could become as a Union, and why it was important to go to any length, consistent with principle, to avoid war.

And he finished this way: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

That phrase, ‘the better angels of our nature’, might have encapsulated Lincoln’s leadership. It enabled him to win a bitter civil war, and then to begin the process of healing the scars and binding up the wounds it left. It was an appeal to something bigger and better in all of us.

In modern Irish politics, that appeal has been replaced by “Scrap the Seanad. Save €20 million. Fewer politicians.” Fine Gael is the party that frequently claims to have founded the state. Its published statement of values says, first and foremost, that “Fine Gael wants to create a fair and caring society where everybody is engaged in democracy, and where there are no barriers to equal opportunity.”

And now they’re engaged in a campaign based entirely on an appeal to our basest instincts. Save a few bob by getting rid of a few politicians. If you sat around a table with a group of people for a week, and tried to come up with the grubbiest possible messages you could, it would be hard to improve on the Fine Gael posters.

I will be voting for the abolition of the Seanad. I’ve written here before that I believe it adds no democratic value, and that the basis on which it is elected makes it impossible to serve any meaningful democratic reform. I don’t see the value of simply replacing the present election system with a wider basis, because that would simply set up a conflict between the two houses of the Oireachtas.

If I did believe that reform was possible, that it could happen in our political culture that we could create a place of analysis, of non-partisan enquiry, where good ideas could be advanced and explored, I’d vote for it in a heartbeat. But I’d be voting for what I want the Dáil to be, not what I believe the Seanad could become.

Throughout its long history, the Seanad has been a self-regarding and entirely ineffectual place. Sure, there are good senators, who use the public platform well to advocate for positions and to scrutinise what’s going on. Many of the people appointed by Enda Kenny to the Seanad in the current term are outstanding examples.

But for every one of them there are 10 whose names and faces you wouldn’t recognise if you saw them on the telly. The Oireachtas website, for example, helpfully sets out a full list of the names of the current Seanad. I’d be regarded by most people I know as a political anorak — a useful person to have on a table quiz team if the questions are going to be about the minutiae of politics — but I couldn’t recognise the majority of the names on the list, still less tell you what panel they’re on or what political party they’re a member of.

I know the same argument can be made, nationally anyway, about the Dáil. But at least most people can, if they scratch their heads long enough, figure out the names of the people who represent us at local level.

And it has always been thus. Everyone involved in the campaign to save the Seanad knows full well that it has never had more than a half-life. It was designed and written into the constitution as a place, essentially, of patronage. Eleven of its seats are in the gift of the Taoiseach, and the vast majority of the rest are the property of a thousand or so local councillors. The idea that it could be redesigned as a place where boats could be rocked (without massive constitutional change) is a joke. Alex White said somewhere last week that to describe the abolition of the Seanad as a power-grab was just silly. How do you grab power from an institution that has none?

Having said all that, I have to say that it wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising if the people of the country were entirely unimpressed by the campaign put forward so far. For example, I have yet to hear the Taoiseach give one single interview on the subject (and I presume there’s no chance of him deigning to take part in a debate about it).

Abraham Lincoln never shirked debate and argument about things that mattered. He would never have considered that you can win a campaign by sticking up a few grubby posters — if the issue was important, he threw himself into campaigning. Where’s honest Abe, I wonder, when you need him most?

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