SO, nine months after it was saved, the Seanad has nudged its way back on to the news agenda. While tales of senators complaining about the etiquette of Dublin seagulls had the chattering classes giggling as to these vital matters of public interest, something more important was taking place in our sleepy second house.
On foot of a proposal by Independent senator John Crown, the Seanad passed an amendment removing the restriction on GPs speaking out, the so-called “gagging clause”, in the legislation providing free GP care for children under six.
The new health minister, and star of this Government, Leo Varadkar, accepted this amendment, noting that while it was always the Government’s intention to ensure freedom of expression for GPs, Prof Crown’s amendment copper-fastened their freedom to voice opinion or concern about the health service.
For those who are often ask, and who equally often struggle, including myself, as to what important work the Seanad ever does, well, that’s a pretty substantive example. It’s in that context that the Government’s new proposals for the Seanad are so disappointing.
Notwithstanding the fact that it tried to butcher the Constitution with its proposals to abolish the Seanad, the Government now seems obsessed with how it can create pseudo reform it without engaging in constitutional reform. Proposals announced this week by the leader of the house, senator Maurice Cummins, require no amendment to the Constitution. Alas they also require very little thought and amount to very little in terms of real reform.
One of the main reforms is that adjournment debates are being replaced with commencement debates, before the daily order of business in the Seanad, thus allowing senators to raise questions with ministers earlier in the day. Moving the times of debates is hardly storming the Bastille stuff. The other major reforms are reviewing the work of the North/South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council, reviewing Oireachtas committee reports, debating the European Commission’s annual work programme, and to make recommendations to ministers.
We can surely hazard a guess that, with any government’s inbuilt majority in the Seanad courtesy of the taoiseach’s 11 nominees, none of this reviewing and debating is going to make too much difference to policy-making. And senators and the Seanad can make recommendations to ministers already. Slightly formalising it and dressing it up as a major reform seems like a supreme act of window dressing.
The so-called reforms also ignore the enormous elephant in the room: How it is elected. Not one advocate on the ‘no’ side of the debate during the Seanad abolition referendum argued to retain the Seanad in its current form. The Government, a month after the referendum defeat, belatedly decided to enforce the 1979 referendum, widening the franchise to include university graduates and other third-level institutions, dressing it up as a reform.
It is nothing of the sort. It only gives voice to a decision of the people taken 35 years ago and long since outmoded. Really, it is political tragedy dressed up as farce. Constitutions should mean something in democratic societies.
Real reform would mean introducing a universal franchise and giving votes to emigrants. It would potentially result in more senators such as Prof Crown, who would get things done.
Alas, the Government is continuing to gag the people with regards giving them a voice in electing the Seanad. As the UCC political scientist Theresa Reidy noted at the MacGill summer school this week, the Government did not even bother to find out why the campaign to abolish the Seanad failed. Maybe the Taoiseach, in a de Valerean moment, looked into his own heart and decided he knew the answer. If so, he hasn’t told us yet.
What his Government is now trumpeting is a mere tinkering of the way the Seanad does its business. Nine months after the Seanad referendum was defeated, it is not an appropriate response. It is, however, in keeping with this Government’s extraordinarily narrow approach to broader political reform issues — go for the easy option and tinker at the edges.
Like much else with this Government, its response to the Seanad referendum result has been an opportunity wasted.