FERGUS FINLAY: Enda could electrify the nation if the Seanad was just for starters

I WAS watching the news the other night and saw someone I’d never seen on television before.

Tom Boland was his name, and he was introduced as the chief executive officer of the Higher Education Authority (HEA). And what I saw convinced me that Enda Kenny is absolutely right about the reform measures he has announced – but also that he hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Tom Boland is a fine public servant, committed to the work and remit of the HEA. But he was on the news to defend a series of what are essentially political decisions. He was there to take the flak for government. And that has to stop. The central point of political reform has to be to strip away the buffers that governments are increasingly hiding behind. Abolishing the Seanad, in that sense, is only a first step on the road to real political reform.

But it’s an important first step – so good man Enda Kenny for catching us all on the hop. He started a debate about something that needs to be discussed and, in the process, created quite a furore, not least among his own people. In the process he has demonstrated that one of the arts of political leadership lies in launching an occasional surprise.

Some of the attacks on Kenny have been quite astonishing. He’s even been criticised for creating a distraction in politics by people who are faithfully reporting the row in Fianna Fáil over alcohol blood levels as if that was anything but a political distraction. In the first couple of days after Enda Kenny made his announcement about abolishing the Seanad, 90% of the coverage was about the fact that he hadn’t consulted within his own party before he announced it. Words like “dictatorship” and “Napoleonic tendencies” were bandied about as if he had announced the invasion of England.

What a load of nonsense. Every political leader in Leinster House knows that if you want to create a stir with an idea, you don’t consult in advance.

Eamon Gilmore didn’t consult anyone the previous week about his intention to put down a motion of no confidence in the Ceann Comhairle. And down through the years all the most effective party leaders have been those who consulted after the event. Every time I hear parliamentary party members muttering about not being consulted, I know the leader has probably done the right thing.

I’ve written here about the Seanad before. If it ever had any political purpose, it doesn’t any longer. It doesn’t add any democratic value whatever, and it is entirely incapable of the kind of reform that might just possibly give it a meaningful role. As an institution, it is well past its sell-by date. Enda Kenny is absolutely right to propose its abolition – and what’s more, when he does put a referendum in front of the people, a huge majority will vote yes with pleasure.

But I don’t want him to stop there. In nearly every speech and interview he has given since he made the announcement he has talked about the need for greater accountability, and he is absolutely right there too. But abolishing the Seanad will do nothing to bring greater accountability about. That will require a complete sea-change in government attitudes.

We seem to have arrived at a point now where ministers pick and choose the things they are prepared to take responsibility for. That’s why a completely unknown civil servant was put on the TV news to defend a political decision about significant cutbacks in third-level education.

If there are cutbacks in third-level education, and if they are having a serious impact on student welfare, then it is the Minister for Education who should be discussing and explaining those cutbacks on the news.

Or if he’s busy, perhaps one of his five junior ministers could be asked to explain the policy behind cuts in third-level education and the impact they have on students. I bet you didn’t know he had five junior ministers, did you? I was a bit surprised myself, and had to double-check.

But there they are – Barry Andrews, Conor Lenihan, Seán Haughey, John Moloney, and John Curran – every single one of them capable of mastering a brief on behalf of their minister.

I know they each have specific responsibilities assigned to them. But the five of them earn three-quarters of a million a year in salaries alone (let’s not mention expenses, cars, staff, drivers, etc, etc).

If a government department has a minister and five junior ministers, and still when there’s a controversial subject on the news they send out a civil servant, that tells you everything you need to know about attitudes to accountability.

And it’s not an isolated example by any means. If you saw The Frontline programme a couple of weeks ago about the National Children’s Hospital, you might have been struck, as I was, by the complete and total absence of any political representative of the Department of Health. Instead of the Minister for Health, Mary Harney, or any of her three junior ministers, a number of hapless HSE officials found themselves defending the indefensible. The Minister for Health has herself, of course, become almost a byword for unaccountability. It must surely be the first time in the history of parliamentary democracy that a politician with no mandate, no party, no one to account to (and quite possibly no constituency if, as is widely believed, she does not intend to contest the next election) holds a senior position in government – and without any challenge pursues a policy that no one ever voted for.

ALL of that unaccountability has to be ended. It’s fundamentally undemocratic, and it is entirely contrary to the interests of the people. So if Enda Kenny is interested in reform, as I believe he is, he has to go a lot further than abolishing the Seanad.

He has to restore the Freedom of Information Act. He has to eliminate the ability of politicians to hide behind quangos. But on the other hand, he has to restore some of the smaller bodies that help to prod government consciences from time to time – the Equality Authority, for example.

He has to give some real clout to the statutory agencies that are there to represent and advocate for minorities. He has to give Dáil committees the constitutional power to really get behind issues of public policy. He has to really open the place up to public scrutiny. He has to allow citizens a role in seeking change and accountability themselves – through a petitions system, for instance.

And of course he has to slim the whole thing down. I tend to agree with the proposition that the membership of Dáil Eireann could be reduced by 20 or so. But much more to the point, Dáil Eireann needs to be restored to the days when its members were seen as the holders of good and decent authority. It has got so fat and complacent in recent years that it is incapable of leading change any more than our bloated and self-satisfied government is. If Enda Kenny could change that, he’d really electrify us all.


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