Seanad abolition is far from reform

Whatever the merits of the Government’s prospectus for procedural reform of the Dáil, assuming it were fully implemented as promised, any of the individual measures could be dropped or changed in future, and many of them are clearly experimental.

They are a poor substitute for an institutional safeguard that is constitutionally entrenched and that can only be abolished by the people, which is Seanad Eireann.

Longer sitting hours are only meaningful, where in principle all deputies are required to be present. If only a handful of deputies need be present, and the rest only need be around from mid-afternoon on Tuesday to mid-morning or early afternoon on Thursday, that is no real change to the existing pattern, which gives priority to constituency work over the parliamentary role.

The chief whip releases the legislative programme each session. Having it announced with a fanfare by the Taoiseach will make little difference to the real world.

Involving outside experts or letter-writers to newspapers in consultations on draft legislation sounds good, but the individuals concerned can be ignored by the Government when it so chooses. It does not obviate the need for careful and formal scrutiny when the legislation has been finalised and is being passed.

When the Government claims that the Seanad provides no real check on it, voters need to remember that the Government is not a disinterested party. Currently, it has to provide answers in the Seanad to adjournment debates on local issues, positions and replies in more general policy debates, and, above all, steer and defend legislation through the second chamber. It would rather be relieved of all this, even if it involves throwing a few sops in the direction of Dáil reform.

The main rationale for the Seanad is that it makes for better laws, as Michael McDowell, justice minister 2002-7, eloquently testified. As a senator during that period, I support his claim. If some members of the public and the media don’t care about better laws, then they should. If as a result of continued heavy reliance on the guillotine and hastily passed legislation, the parliamentary process becomes discredited, this runs the risk of further diminishing public respect for our democracy and acceptance of the rule of law.

Any consistent and self-respecting programme for Dáil reform would not tolerate a removal of speaking rights and committee membership from deputies who lose the party whip for exercising, even once, the freedom to think and vote differently. This is tolerated to some degree in virtually every other democratic parliament. We have seen it make a huge difference over the proposed bombing of Syria in the House of Commons and in Congress, with the UK and US governments having to step back. That would be a real democratic revolution, and until we see it we should not throw away the Seanad.

Martin Mansergh

Friarsfield House

Co Tipperary

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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