Pouring scorn on the Seanad

ON the anniversary of the people’s decision to save the Seanad, the second chamber has burst back into public consciousness with the bizarre nomination of John McNulty to contest a by-election on behalf of Fine Gael caused by the election of stalwart party grandee Deirdre Clune to the European Parliament.

We know the details, but a recap is in order. Six days prior to his nomination, Mr McNulty was appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, apparently in an attempt to burnish his credentials for membership of the Seanad.

Some people in Fine Gael got it into their heads that Mr McNulty’s CV needed a bit of a polish to be suitable for the cultural panel.

Why they thought this is certainly a bit of a mystery. From what we know of him, Mr McNulty seems eminently qualified for the panel. As pointed out by Irish Examiner political editor Mary Regan in this paper last week, the Seanad Act of 1947 sets out that panel candidates should have “knowledge and practical experience of the following interests and services, namely, the national language and culture, literature, art, education, and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel”.

Given what seems to be his lifelong interest in the State’s most cultural organisation, the GAA, a genuine commitment to promoting Irish, and significant business experience, why the geniuses in the Fine Gael backroom staff felt the need to burgeon Mr McNulty’s credentials is something only they can answer.

In an obscure decision from 1969, Ormonde v MacGabhann, which has gained much traction on Twitter due to the controversy, the High Court held that “mere membership” of a trade union would not qualify one for membership of the Labour panel.

Yet on last Friday’s Seán O’Rourke Show on RTÉ, Fianna Fáil TD Sean O’ Fearghail said his earlier Seanad membership on the agricultural panel was based on the fact that he was a farmer.

It seems highly unlikely any High Court judge could assess Mr McNulty not fit to serve on the cultural panel.

Yet where no vacancy existed, and running roughshod over the Government’s commitment on appointments to state boards being open and transparent, Arts Minister Heather Humphreys appointed Mr McNulty to the IMMA board. So much for such posts being advertised openly to, in Enda Kenny’s words, “help attract new talent and end cronyism”.

We now have the bizarre situation where a man clearly qualified to run for the Seanad withdraws, even though he remains on the ballot, as the Taoiseach says it was beneath the integrity with which Fine Gael run elections.

A less charitable explanation would be that it was a poor, ill thought-out stroke which sums up this Government’s contempt for the Seanad.

The scorn for the Seanad can be seen by the simple fact that Fine Gael thought it had to burnish Mr McNulty’s credentials. It is as if the Seanad is full of exotic creatures who discuss abstract theories of no consequence to how real people live their lives. Ergo, to be on the cultural panel, one better be on the board of a museum; better yet, a state museum, and better again a state museum of modern art. This does a grave disservice to Mr McNulty and his commitment to other cultural pursuits.

To make matters worse, Ms Humphreys, forced to show up in the Seanad to defend her actions, read her script automaton-like. In reply to a number of questions that could reasonably have been anticipated but that she was unable to answer, she then read her script again. In universities, we fail first-year students who repeat themselves like that.

SINCE the Seanad referendum defeat last October, the Government has made two commitments to reform. The first is to finally implement the seventh amendment to the Constitution, passed remember in a referendum in 1979, widening the franchise to include graduates of universities and other third-level institutions. This, however, is an anachronistic reform.

What Democracy Matters and other groups argued for in last year’s referendum was to fully open up the Seanad by introducing a universal franchise and giving votes to emigrants. That’s a reform that would be worthwhile but one the Government simply will not countenance.

The second reform announced last July by the leader of the Seanad, Senator Maurice Cummins, came in the form of an announcement that the Seanad would do a bit more debating and a bit more reviewing of Oireachtas committee reports, see ministers earlier in the day and make recommendations to them, all leading to a more effective and efficient Seanad. I am not making this up.

This is reform by rote. Neither goes any way to making the Seanad more relevant to the people who saved it. The Government still has not attempted to discover why its campaign to abolish the Seanad failed and it has failed to really do anything about the vote. By its antics in the McNulty affair, Fine Gael has damaged politics in this State. In its treatment of the Seanad and its failure to properly reform how it is elected and functions it does the same.

lGary Murphy is professor of politics and head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He is the independent chair of Democracy Matters, the non-political organisation which campaigned for a no vote in last year’s Seanad referendum


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