Government should capitalise on public appetite for reform

Mary C Murphy says while earlier Seanad reform proposals never saw the light of day. This Government has a chance to challenge that pattern of rejection.

For a small state, Ireland commands a degree of international recognition and attention which belies its size. The most recent example is Ireland’s yes vote for same-sex marriage which made front-page headlines around the world. Global reporting of the referendum result demonstrates how decisions made in Ireland can garner international attention, admiration, and perhaps even emulation.

Respect for Ireland and its people has traditionally been spread across all dimensions of public life from the artistic to the diplomatic, and from the cultural to the technological. To that list, we can now add rights for the LGBT community.

The Government has sought to capitalise and expand on this reputation for innovation and progress. In 2011, Taoiseach Enda Kenny advised: “I firmly believe that by 2016, Ireland can become the best small country in the world in which to do business, the best country in which to raise a family and the best country in which to grow old with dignity and respect.”

Given the profound difficulties of recent years, we may balk at such inferences. However, there are aspects of Irish life which suggest that Ireland is a modern and progressive state, open to self-reflection and capable of positive change.

Improving economic fortunes, the achievement of (relative) peace in Northern Ireland, and not least, the recent referendum on same-sex marriage — all of these developments, and many more, speak of a nation willing to take risks in the pursuit of a better Ireland.

In many ways, the Irish people have been enabled to consider and adopt change as a consequence of the actions and decisions of the political class.

However, there is one area, where politicians’ appetite for difficult choices has been wanting. Ireland’s political leaders have been slow to embrace political and institutional reform. Grand promises articulated during the 2011 election campaign have largely failed to materialise.

The report of the Seanad reform working group, published in April has enjoyed mainly positive press. Support has been forthcoming from across the political divide, and from advocates, academics and groups such as Second Republic.

In welcoming the report, the Taoiseach noted: “It is innovative and radical, and contains some far-reaching recommendations to the way members are elected to the Seanad, and on how the Seanad should perform its functions.” He followed this with a commitment to a “public and political discussion and consultation” on the report’s recommendations.

The report, however, is rendered meaningless in the absence of implementation. Earlier Seanad reform proposals never saw the light of day. This current Government has an opportunity to challenge that pattern of rejection. The working group advised that the Government immediately appoint an implementation body with responsibility for the development and implementation of the report.

This would lend momentum to the reform process and provide a means of ensuring that proposals are implemented. The Taoiseach has indicated that he intends to bring a bill before the House during the next session. However, as the Oireachtas summer recess looms, no concrete implementation plan has emerged.

Of course, even if implementation proceeds, the effectiveness of the changes is only guaranteed if there is real political buy-in. The report acknowledges this by noting that: “A changed mind-set (on the part of political parties and Seanad members themselves) has the potential to free the institution from some of the partisan, institutional and cultural binds within which it operates.”

This type of political investment in the institution comes with an element of risk. A modern, renewed and reformed Seanad Éireann will likely bring new faces and new voices, new dynamics and new ideas to the political table.

Their impact is not easy to determine. But it is clear that what these reform proposals offer is an opportunity for voters and politicians to leverage a range of new electoral and political tools in such a way that they produce an effective second chamber which enjoys strong legitimacy.

And importantly, these proposed opportunities are innovative – they offer a vote to citizens outside the state, they propose an engagement with online technologies, they advocate a more considered contribution by the Seanad to public and political life. They speak to a modern and progressive Ireland — a country which invests not just in economic and social change, but in political and institutional change too.

The Irish people chose to save Seanad Éireann because they believed it warranted an improved role in the Irish political system.

In 2011, Irish voters took a chance on this government. Maybe now in 2015, it’s time for those very same politicians to take a chance on themselves and the institutions they inhabit. In an election year, the risk may well be worth the reward.

Mary C Murphy is a lecturer in politics with the department of government, University College Cork. She is currently based at George Mason University, Virginia as a visiting Fulbright-Schuman fellow. She was a member of the Seanad reform working group.


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